Issue 36, Winter 1966
The following is an excerpt from a novel entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on the life of the leader of the only effective, sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro slavery.
Hark always declared that he could distinguish between good white people and bad white people-and even white people who lay between good and bad-by their smell alone. He was very solemn about all this; over the years he had worked out many subtleties and refinements upon his original philosophy, and he could talk endlessly as we worked along side each other-advising me at the top of his voice, assigning exact, marvelous odors to white people like Moses handing down the law. About much of this he was deadly serious, and as he jabbered away Ills broad, bold face would become furrowed in the most worrisome thought; but Hark’s nature was basically humorous, outward going, beneficent, serene, and he could not long sustain a somber mood, even though many horrible things had happened to him.
Finally something connected with a white person and a certain smell would tickle some interior nerve: against all restraint the giggles would begin to well up from his belly and in an instant he would have broken down clutching himself in helpless, wheezing, rich, delirious laughter, “Now Nat, maybe it jes’ me” he would begin seriously, “but dis yere nose of mine she jes’ get better ev’y day. Like I was comin’ roun’ side of de barn yestiddy evenin’ and dere’s ole Miss Maria a-feedin’ the chickens. She seed me afore I could take off. ’Hark!’ say she. ’Hark! Come right here!’ So I come, an’ already my nose begin twitchin’ like a mushrat pokin’ up out’n de swamp. ’Hark!’ say she. ’Whar de com?’ ’Why, what com. Miss Maria?’ say I, de ole smell gittin’ strong now. ’De com in de shed for the chickens!’ de ole bitch say. ’You suppose’ to have a couple bushels shelled fo’ my chickens and there ain’t a cupful lef’! Dis de fourth time in a month! You a shiftless black nigger scoundrel and I pray to sec dc day my brother sells you off to Georgia! Git dat com shelled right now, you shiftless nigger!’Jesus jumpin’Judas, de smell, Nat, comin’ out dat woman, if it was water ’twould have drown’ me in my shoes. What it like? ’Twas like an ole catfish somebody lef’three days up on a stump in July.” And he would begin to softly giggle, already clutching at his midriff. “Stink! Even de buzzards fly away from ole pussy like dat!” And glorious laughter.
But they not all had smells like this, according to Hark. Mr. Joseph Travis, our master, had “a right honest stench about him,” said Hark, “like a good horse what worked him up a sweat.” Joel West brook, the boy whom Travis employed as an apprentice, was an uncertain, gawky lad, given to temper fits but amiable, even generous when in the mood; hence to Hark his smell had a changing, fitful quality: “Sometime dat boy smell right pretty, like hay or somethin’, other time he smell up a storm.” This offensive Miss Maria Pope was to Hark, however, in every way consistent in her smell. She was Travis’ half-sister, who had come down from Petersburg to live with Travis and his family after her mother’s death. A bony, angular woman, she suffered from blocked sinuses which caused her to breathe through her mouth; as a result her lips were always peeling to the quick and sometimes bled, which necessitated a poultice of lard, and this gave her ever-parted mouth a blanched appearance altogether ghostly and strange. Her eyes wandered distantly, and she was given to stroking her wrists. She hated us Negroes, who were at her beck and call, with a kind of profound and pointless hatred which was all the more burdensome to us because she was not really of the family, and therefore her attitude had a harsh,remote, despotic quality. On summer nights, from the windows of the upstairs room where she slept, I could hear her sobbing hysterically and crying out for her departed mother. She was about forty, I suspect a virgin, and she read aloud from the Bible incessantly with a kind of hollow-eyed, mesmeric urgency, her favorite passages being John 13 which deals with humility and charity, and the sixth chapter of I Timothy, beginning: Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all , that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. Indeed, according to Hark, she once flattened him up against the porch wall and made him repeat this homily until he had committed it to memory. I have no doubt that she was more than a little cracked, but this did not diminish my intense dislike of Miss Maria Pope, though occasionally I felt myself feeling sorry for her against my better nature.
But Miss Maria is, in a manner of speaking, only incidental to a man I am trying to get at in roundabout fashion-namely, Mr. Jeremiah Cobb, the judge who was about to sentence me to death, and into whose earlier acquaintance I was led by a complicated series of transactions which I must here try briefly to describe.
I was born the property of Benjamin Turner, about whom I remember very little. Upon his abrupt death when I was around eight or nine (a miller and dealer in timber, he was killed while felling a cypress tree, having turned his back on the monster at an improvident moment), I passed by bequest into the possession of his brother, Samuel Turner, whose property I remained for ten or eleven years. These years, and those preceding them, I shall return to in due course. Eventually Samuel Turner’s health declined, and there were other problems; he was unable to continue to operate the sawmill he inherited, along with me, from his brother, and so for the first time I was sold, to Mr. Thomas Moore-a sale which a weakness for irony impels me to remark was effected at the instant I reached my manhood, on the very day I became twenty-one. I was the property of Mr. Moore, who was a small farmer, for nine years until his death. (Another bizarre misadventure: Moore broke his skull while presiding at the birth of a calf. It had been a balky delivery, and he had wrapped a cord around the calf’s protruding hooves in order to yank it out; as he sweated and tugged and as the calf mused at him soulfully from the damp membranes of its afterbirth, the cord snapped, catapulting him backwards and fatally against a gatepost. I had very little use for Moore, and my grief was meager, yet at the time I could not but help begin to wonder if ownership of me did not presage a diminution of fortune, as does the possession, I am told, of a certain kind of elephant in India.) Upon Mr. Moore’s demise I became the property of his son, Putnam, who was then fifteen. The following year (that is to say, the year before now, or 1830) Mr. Moore’s widow. Miss Sarah, married Joseph Travis, a childless widower of fifty-five desirous of offspring who lived in this same country region of Cross Keys, an expert wheelwright by trade and the last person so luckless as to enjoy me in the pride of ownership. For although under law I was Putnam’s by title, I belonged also to Travis, who had the right to exercise full control over me until Putnam reached his majority. Thus when Miss Sarah wed Joseph Travis and became domiciled beneath his roof, I turned into a kind of twofold property-not an unheard-of arrangement but additionally unsatisfying to property already half-deranged at being owned even once.
Travis was moderately prosperous, which is to say that like a few of the other inhabitants of this backwater, he managed to eke out slightly more than a living. Unlike the hapless Moore, he was adept at that which the Lord had him cut out to do, and it was a great relief for me to be able to help him at his trade, usually warm indoors, after the long years at Moore’s and the monotony of toting his water and slopping his feverish, languishing pigs and alternately baking and freezing in his cornfield and his cotton patch. In fact, because of the circumstances of my new employment-which was to act as a general handyman around the wheel shop-I had a sense of well-being, physical at least, such as I had not felt since leaving Samuel Turner’s nearly ten years before. Like most of the other property owners of the region, Travis was also a small farmer, with fifteen acres or so in com, cotton, and hay, plus an apple grove whose principal function it was to produce cider and brandy. Since the relative success of the wheel shop, however, Travis had cut back on his farm holdings, leasing out his acreage to others, and retaining just the apple orchard, and a small produce garden and patch of cotton for his own use. Besides myself, Travis owned only two Negroes-a number, however, not unusual in its smallness, inasmuch as few white people in the region could any longer afford to support more than five or six slaves, and it was rare indeed to find a citizen prosperous enough to own as many as a dozen. Travis himself had recently owned seven or eight, not counting several unserviceable children, but as his acreage diminished and his solitary craft flourished, he had no need for this obstreperous pack, indeed found so many fat mouths to feed a burden on his capital, and thus, three years before, with great moral misgivings (or so I heard) sold off the whole lot-all but one-to a trader specializing in labor for the Savannah River plantations in Carolina. The one left was Hark, who was my age lacking a year. Born on a vast tobacco plantation in Pittsylvania County, he had been sold to Travis at the age of fifteen after the tobacco sucked the soil dry and the land went to wrack and ruin. I had known him for years and had come to love him like a brother. The other Negro, acquired subsequent to the Savannah sale, was Moses, a husky, tar-black, wild-eyed boy of twelve or thereabouts whom Travis, finding himself belatedly short-handed, had bought at the Richmond market several months before my arrival. He was strong and strapping for his age, and bright enough, I think; but he never quite got over the separation from his mammy; it left him bereft, stuporous, and he cried a lot and peed in his pants, sometimes even when he was at work, and all in all was a nuisance, becoming a great trial to Hark especially, who had a mother’s soul in the body of a bull, and felt compelled to soothe and nurse the foundling.
This then was the population of our household at the time when I first encountered Jeremiah Cobb, almost one year to the day before he sentenced me to death: three Negroes-Hark, Moses, myself and six white people-Mr. and Mrs. Travis and Putnam, Miss Maria Pope and two more besides. The last were the previously mentioned Joel West brook, fifteen years old, a budding wheelwright whom Travis had apprenticed to himself; and Travis’ child by Miss Sarah, an infant boy of two months born with a purple blemish spreading across the center of his tiny face like the single shriveling petal of a blighted gentian. The white people, of course, lived in the main house, a modest, plain but comfortable two-storied structure of six rooms which Travis had built twenty years before. He had hewn the beams himself, planed the timbers, made it all weather-tight with pine gum and mortar, and had been wise enough to leave standing round it several enormous beech trees which offered shade from any angle against the summer sun. Adjacent to the house, separated from it only by the pig pen and a short path through the vegetable garden, was the wheel shop, converted from a onetime barn: here was the center of activity on the farm, here were the stores of oak and ash wood and iron, the forge and anvils, the bending frames, the modeling hammers and tongs and vises and the rows of chisels and punches and all the other equipment which Travis employed in his demanding craft. Doubtless at least in part because of my repute (decent albeit somewhat ambiguous and suspect in a way that I will soon explain) as a kind of harmless, runabout, comic nigger minister of the gospel, I was made custodian of the shop; in fact, prompted by Miss Sarah’s avowal of my integrity, Travis gave into my keeping one of two sets of keys. I had plenty enough to do, but I cannot honestly say that my work here was toilsome; unlike Moore, Travis was no taskmaster, being by nature unable, I think, to drive his servants unreasonably and already having been well provided with willing help in the person of his stepson and the West brook boy, who was an eager apprentice if there ever was one.
Thus my duties, compared to what I had been used to, were light and fairly free of strain: I kept the place clean and added my shoulder to a job when extra strength was needed, such as bending a wheel rim, and frequently I spelled Hark as he pumped at the bellows of the forge, but generally speaking (and for the first time in years) the tasks I encountered were those calculated to tax not my muscles but my ingenuity. (For instance, the loft of the shop since its conversion from the status of a barn had still been infested by bats, tolerable enough when the place was the abode of cattle but an insufferable plague of drizzling bat shit to humans laboring daily below. Travis had tried half a dozen futile measures to rid himself of the pests, including fire and smoke, which nearly burned the place down; whereupon at this point I went out into the woods to a certain nest I knew of and plucked a blacksnake out of hibernation, wrenching it from the tail-end of its winter’s sleep and installing it in the eaves. When spring came a week later the bats quickly vanished, and the blacksnake continued in friendly, satisfied residence, slithering benevolently around the circumference of the shop as it gobbled up rats and field mice, its presence earning me, I know, quiet admiration in Travis’ regard.) So, all things being equal, from the beginning of my stay with Travis I was in as palmy and benign a state as I could remember in many years. Miss Maria’s demands were annoying, but she was a small thorn. Instead of the nigger food I was accustomed to at Moore’s, fat pork and corn pone, I got house food like the white people-a lot of lean bacon and red meat, occasionally even the leavings from a roast of beef, and often white bread made of wheat. And the lean-to shed adjoining the wheel shop where Hark and I shared housekeeping was roomy enough, with the first bed elevated above the ground that I had slept on since the old days with Samuel Turner; and I constructed, with my owner’s blessing, an ingenious wooden vent leading through the wall from the forge, which was always banked with charcoal: the vent could be shut off in the summer, but in the winter its constant warmth made Hark and me (the poor boy Moses slept in the house, in a damp kitchen closet, where be could be available for errands night and day) as snug as two grubs beneath a log.
Above all, I had quite a bit of time on my hands. I could fish and trap and do considerable scriptural reading. I had forgoing on to several years now considered the necessity of exterminating all the white people in Southampton and as far beyond as destiny carried me, and there was thus available to me more time than I had ever had before to ponder the Bible and its exhortations, and to think over the complexities of the bloody mission that was set out before me.