COLOR OF REVOLUTION
Hercules sat on the rock next to the field, his ass connecting to the Earth, his eyes fixed on the horizon. It was morning, his favorite time of day. The time when the birds were singing, the sky not yet daylight blue, the smell of ‘fresh’ everywhere. This morning it was the pines next to the East swamp that caught his nose. Hercules always saw the world most clearly through his nose. It was big, with large nostrils, and he couldn’t help but bring in lots of air every time he breathed in, even when he was sleeping.
Hercules let the eyes imagine what his nose smelt beyond the East swamp. He had never been East of the swamp, but he smelt its every mood. On some days it was sweet, on some days a little sour, and on some days, like this one where the morning fog gave way to blue sky real early, it smelled salty. Hercules had heard about the ocean, a swamp bigger than the eyes can see where all the water was salty, all the time. He had heard about places on the other side of the ocean too. Europe, where his Master’s father was from. Ireland, where his Master’s mother was from. And Africa, where he was told he had come from. Though not by Master Johnson or Mistress Sally.
A gator swam by Hercules as he looked down at the smooth, reflective surface of the pond. “Hey there, gator,” he said to the ferocious creature with the sharp teeth opening its mouth, grabbing some baby carp, hoping for something more filling. “You look like me, or does I look like you today?” Hercules smiled. “Ya knows, that is you imagines yerself ta be somethin else, ya might become somethin else,” he continued, dreaming about seeing on the outside what only he knew, or hoped, he was on the inside.
Like every other morning, the gator got its fish, and went on its way, leaving Hercules with the truth. He had a big smile, a black as spades face, arms that were more bone than muscle, but legs that just kept goin, every morning, of every day, for so many years that he lost count. Unlike the gator, he hadn’t ever caught a fish, hadn’t ever hunted anything that wasn’t dead already, and hadn’t snarled his teeth at anyone or anything. No need to. He was Hercules, scrawniest Nigger on the Johnson plantation, who never had, or had to have, a heroic idea in his life. Didn’t need to. It sat good like that with Master Johnson. Mistress Sally. All the other Niggers on the Plantation. And himself. There was always cornbread on the table, a piece of ham in the soup every Sunday, and a dance every full moon or so where Master Johnson and Miss Sally let everyone have an extra day off after workin full time during the full moon.
He wore what he picked, too. Good Southern cotton. In a good year. A year which was like any others in South Carolina. The year of 1776, to those who was taking count, or needed to. No, nothing in Hercules’ world would change. And even though he hoped it would, he prayed it wouldn’t. Little did he know that the Good Lord had something else in mind, for him, the other Niggers, the Johnsons and even the gator.
Hector hated his name, almost as much as he hated his life. Though many envied it. Some said he had a strong head, or a pig head. But he was smart enough to not let folks really know what he was thinking, of feeling. Particularly the horses he trained for Master Johnson. “Break up gentle enough for me to gallop two miles but gentle enough for Miss Sally to ride sidesaddle even on those days when she’s having female problems,” was his assignment.
Most horses took to ‘Submaster Hector’s’ command when they came of age to be useful adults rather than spirited colts or fillies. Hector never told anyone what kind of voice he used in the ‘private conversations’ with the animals the Slave was assigned to break. He kept the secrets about the ‘touch points’ to himself too. Some said that those touch points were inside the manure-making hole, or lower in the mares, but as long as Hector made the horses do what Master Johnson and Mistress Sally wanted them to do, he had most of the day to himself.
On some days, he looked at the books from which his name was picked. Greek literature mostly, readable enough if you understood most of the words. Homer, the half-blind Plantation carpenter, taught Hector about letters, and words, with the secret blessing of Miss Sally, some of the field hands rumored. Putting the words into sentences was up to Hector, a slow task he had to master by himself once Homer was found out, and sold to another Plantation, ‘for his health’, the Overseer McGilvrey said.
McGilvrey was not a true Scotsman of course, his face being half Injun, something that made him almost as ugly as the half-Nigger faces that were everywhere on the Plantation. Half Nigger and half…’somethin else, child’, their mothers would say to them with a tear in their eye, and sometimes a spark in their smile.
But Hector learned to relate to horses more than people. Some more than others. Some he kept wild, for as long as he could. One of them was ‘Ebony’, a black colt who was an Arab from the neck up, a quarter horse from the fetlocks down, with a trunk shaped like one of the ‘wildies’ that roamed in from Shawnee country West of the Alleganies. Though Ebony’s family jewels were taken out whole and intact, he was still very proud cut, his defiant manhood coming from someplace inside his mis-shapen body.
“He’s better off as meat than for saddle, or even harness,” McGivrey slurred out to Hector on the eight straight day of ‘lessons’ in the round pen. “Neither you nor anyone else has been able to take him around the pasture without eating dirt. Or maybe that freak you call a horse tossed you on yer head and you enjoy eatin’ dirt now,” he laughed.
Hector took a deep breath as he put the saddle on Ebony, sensing that on THIS ride, he would break a bone instead of just bruise a muscle. Considering all the options, for himself, and the animal, the thinking Nigger who never let the Whites know what he was really thinking opened his teeth in a wide smile, showing off his off-white teeth. “What would you say if I liked ridin this horse, and eatin dirt after he tosses me off, Masser?”
“Would save on a whole bunch of troubles with runaways if we can get ALL you Niggers to enjoy eating dirt,” McGilvrey smiled back.
Hector kept his faced fixed in that ‘no expression’ smile.
“That was a joke, Hector,” the Overseer who was enough White and not enough Injun boasted. “A smart man knows humor when he hears it. And knows when to laugh.”
Hector faked a chuckle. The best he could do for the Overseer who disposed of laborers who didn’t appreciate Master Johnson’s generosity in the dead of night. And to be fair, the Johnson plantation was a Nigger’s Paradise. No one went hungry, and when anyone got sick, the Doctor came by and gave you something for the pain. And when babies were born, the mothers would be allowed to give them names of their own choosing. And as long as those babies made money for the Johnson ‘family’, which McGilvry said included the Niggers too, they weren’t sold. Unless, of course the price was right, the opportunities elsewhere were better for them, or they violated the rules. And if they tried to run away…there was no return to any garden.
On most Plantations, the first runaway was punished by a lashing. The second by branding. The third with removal of a limb valued by the ‘family member’ in question in keeping with making that ‘child’ useful to the Plantation owner. But what was an offense? Master Johnson saw his Plantation through the eyes and ears of McGilvry, and the Scot-Injun-something didn’t like the way Hector was laughing at his joke. Perhaps the punch line needed clarification.
“I said, Hector, maybe if more of you Niggers liked getting on wild horses that threw you off and made you eat dirt, you’d enjoy eating dirt and it would solve our runaway problem.”
The field hand atop the still-semi-wild horse nodded. But still it wasn’t enough. McGilvry pulled out his whip, snapping it in front of the horse’s feet. It was all Hector could do to not get reared up and tossed on his arm, or back, landing with a snapped neck.
“I said!!! You Niggers should learn to enjoy eating dirt, and it would solve the runaway problem for all of us!!! That’s a joke, you stupid, dim-witted, high-steppin’, son of a—-“
Before McGilvry could finish the accusation, or historical account, of Hector’s REAL birth, Ebony entered into the conversation, kicking the Scotsman on his thick head, knocking him to the ground.
“Easy son, easy,” Hector said to the horse, trying to calm it enough to dismount. But before he could give aid, comfort or even a look at the Overseer lying on the ground, a carriage full of visitors, the Jacksons, had driven up to the house, their son, Master Edward pointing at the event. “That Nigger killed the Overseer. With his horse!” the seven-year-old model citizen said in a crisp English accent.
Master Edward’s parents and escorts whipped out their guns, shooting at Hector. The White formen , one of which was rumored to be McGivlry’s son, ran out with pitchforks and ropes.
Hector had no time to think of anything except the obvious. These were armed White men on foot, with weapons. He was an unarmed Nigger on a horse. In a split second he gave thanks to God, the one who looked after Niggers and Injuns. Finally, he was being pushed off a rotting cliff into flight. Hopefully, Ebony understood that he was in the same situation. They would both be meat for the hogs, or worse, if they didn’t find their way to ‘someplace else’ and fast.
Finding brains in his feet and courage in his hands, Hector led the colt into a flat out gallop, through the woods, over the swamp trail, and deep into a field of fog. He thought it led West. He hoped it would. Maybe Injun territory, West of the Alliganies. He only hoped that the stories about them taking in runaways on their own terms were true. He dared not consider anything otherwise. He dared not think about the Johnson family, and the members of it which were, by birth and heart, very much his own family.
Athena was no raving beauty by standards of the field house, but as for the big house, she was perfect. Small nose, narrow face, chicken hips barely big enough to give birth to a chicklet, and arms better suited to lifting a tea-cup than a bail of cotton or a pile of lumber. Nothing from the field fit Athena very well, even the songs, but a corset did. Mistress Sally’s daughter Pamela had chosen her as a playmate, something which Master Johnson, her father, appreciated very much as he felt some kind of special responsibility for the Nigger girl who popped out of the womb of her mother more White than Black. It was something that Athena never talked about to anyone, but always wondered about.
Athena poured the hot water from the wood stove in the kitchen in the big house. She looked out the window at the horse in the field, being their own masters now that their trainer was absent. She wondered about what happened to Hector, the smelly and loud-mouthed ‘horse Nigger’ who repulsed her sensibilities and continuously had eyed her womanhood with delight even as a child, constantly tipping his hat with the intention of courting her one day. Hercules did a ‘sort of’ courting as well, with a gentle kind of pursuation more in keeping with Athena’s temperament and Big House training. “You never mind them Niggers, those two ain’t for you, child,” her mother kept telling her. “It be against God’s own laws.” Athena never asked why ‘against God’s laws’ never applied to any other Black, or even off-White, suitor she had in mind, but she figured that it had something to do with ‘biology’. It was a word her Mama picked up from Miss Pamela, or someone else, in places she never talked about.
With Miss Pamela in finishing school in Charleston, Master Johnson and Mistress Sally saw fit to keep Athena up in the house as a servant. The visitors seemed to like her and she was pleasant enough company, the kind who could be anything to anyone. Serving tea at social functions was what she was best at. As for what the tea was from that day, that was another matter.
Isaac Williams tasted the tea, let it swirl around in his mouth, then spit it out. “Who made this tea?” he demanded to know of his host.
“Athena, just as always,” Master Horatio Johnson responded.
“Your slave?” Williams replied. “Who should be out in the field picking cotton.”
Athena shuttered, as Williams was the unofficial ‘boss’ of all the bosses in the township. What he suggested usually became an order, which was obeyed. As the main buyer for European markets who set prices as he saw fit, there was no one higher than him on ANYone’s mountain, or molehill.
“Where did you get this slave, anyway? Under a pile of mating roaches?” Williams demanded to know. The rest of the guests in the room, businessmen who were about to become political men one way or another, chuckled, some as they wanted to, some as they felt they had to.
“She is my Ward, Sir,” Johnson protested, still maintaining the Southern gentleman’s smile offered to all enemies and superiors.
“Ward my ass,” Marcus McMann replied, smacking the behind of the property in question, wondering about what kind of arrangement could be made to get a Nigger who was so non-Black in HIS own bedroom.
Johnson stood up, his back arched, the 50 year old white whiskers on the side of his face standing straight up on end, ready to do battle with McMann or any other 26 year old brat from England who inherited his father’s estate. “Sir! I must ask you to treat my Wards with respect.”
Williams intervened. “Because they are your property, or your—-“
“—-Responsibility.” Johnson asserted, before Williams could say ‘children’, or ‘mistresses’, another one of those facts that everyone knew but no one talked about.
It was like that a lot at Johnson Manor. There were things men talked about in front of women. Like how they carved gardens and plantations out of swamps and pine forests, stump by stump. How they fought off Injuns, French soldiers and Spanish river pirates to keep what they got once they got it. How the Colonies would deal with England’s new rules about how they were supposed to be run.
Athena bowed her head. “I’ll go into the kitchen and make some more tea, Sirs,” she said.
“No need,” McMann said,tasting his brew, “This is fine. Exceptional actually.”
“It was probably pissed on by the Yankees up in Boston after their tea party in ‘73”, Elias Klause said, his German accent muttering up the Carolina English manner of speech he so desperately was trying to talk with. “Boston Revolutionaries relate their grievances to the King by dressing up like Indians, getting drunk, throwing the tea off the ships, then pissing on it. Of course, Ben Franklin doesn’t report in his newspapers how many of them fell in the water drunk.”
The gentleman laughed. Athena found herself chuckling, allowed to do so, even courage to do so. Particularly by Elias, the man who told the joke.
“And his paper will report how us Southerners who are still loyal to the Crown, are drinking tea that the Boston Yankees pissed on,” Williams asserted.
Silence fell upon the room. Whether the tea was indeed recycled by Patriots in New England to Loyalists in South Carolina after Yankee urine tainted its flavor was not the issue. It was something deeper than that. Everyone in the room had some kind of view on the matter of King George or General George Washington. And sometimes that view was the same as what that man would do. But who would win? All the men in the room were winners because they never backed a loser.
Athena didn’t know very much about the Revolution. It was a word that never made any sense to her. Some folks said it was about freedom, but for who? Master Johnson had read Tom Pane’s Common Sense to her, along with some stuff by Rousseau, a French philosopher, and even some of Ben Franklin’s newspaper articles as ‘bedtime reading’ during those nights when all the other Niggers were in the field, and she was in the big house being treated like a daughter, long as she acted as a ‘ward’.
Athena looked to Master Johnson for instructions. “I’ll be getting some more tea, Sir?” she asked.
“No,” he replied firmly, staring firmly into William’s stone cold face. “This Yankee outhouse brew we bought in Charleston is fine.”
Master Johnson drank the tea, pursing his lips the way he did that time Athena accidently put salt in the sugar shaker and ate a large spoonful of porridge, or when she put broccolli into the venison stew, the only vegetable than made Master Johnson gag. No, whatever was in ‘Yankee tea’ and the Revolution imported down to the Carolinas, Master Johnson was determined to like it, or make others like it. Even if he didn’t like it himself.
One in three men drank the tea. Another one in three threw it out the window. Another one in three let it sit there, and walked out of the room. They said goodbye to Master Johnson in the kind of way that McGilvry said goodbye to Niggers who would never be seen at Johnson Manor again.
Athena picked up her tray and gathered the tea cups left by those who summoned their carriages and hightailed back home. It was her place and pleasure to clean up after Master Johnson’s guests. But this time, that pleasure would be ended in a way she never anticipated.
“I’ll do that, Athena.” Master Johnson said as he gently took the tray from her, bowing his own head as a servant, and doing the ‘servantly’ duties of gathering the china. It seemed like the men in the room were impressed. A White Master doing a Servant’s work, and giving Athena the rest of the day off for whatever she wanted to do? It was a scary question. Most particularly….the part where she had to figure out what she wanted to do.
MJ Politis, Ph.D., D.V.M., H.B.A.R.P. (human being, aspiring Rennaisance person)