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Authors: Katy Simpson Smith

Free Men


For my own brother


About this time, a bloody transaction occurred in the territory of the present county of Conecuh. . . . The party consisted of a Hillabee Indian, who had murdered so many men, that he was called Istillicha, the Man-slayer—a desperate white man, who had fled from the States for the crime of murder, and whom, on account of his activity and ferocity, the Indians called the Cat—and a blood-thirsty negro, named Bob.

History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period

March 9, 1788
Le Clerc

that order had slipped its axis was that the slave who came to tell us of the murders was riding a horse.

I was reclining on a mat this morning next to a chief of the Creeks, cleaning my pipe while his wife tended to his hair, and I was in the midst of reminding myself to make a note of this habit, the way she greased her fingers before the ritual untangling, when he snapped his head away from her and shouted at one of his lieutenants to get that man off the good horse. The Indians let their slaves ride mules and are generally rather lax with regard to discipline, but this steed was evidently of superior breeding, which detail briefly obscured the greater fact that the slave was alone and was clearly distraught.

I traveled down to the southern hunting grounds yesterday with my chief and his attendants and various wives, including my own, and I was expecting a reprieve from the recent flurry of negotiations and skirmishes that now color the post-revolutionary landscape of the inner American wilds. I am
grateful for the role that I, an outsider and a Frenchman, have been given in such proceedings, but I have long preferred to take an observational seat. Though I can see how my intellect and experience are useful to these Creeks—or Muskogee, as they call themselves—I pursued this circuitous path to America in order to catalog the divergences of man. I left friends behind in Paris who dissect amphibians and sketch leaves, but I hope to earn my place in the burgeoning science by classifying human action, to construct not a hierarchy but rather a forecast for future generations. While history may be used to explain the present, I believe that the present may also offer prophecies.

So when he dismounted and brought us his story—that the trading party consisting of four American loyalists en route to Pensacola, who traveled south with our protection and with Creek slaves as guides, were brutally attacked and slaughtered in the dark of night by a band of ruthless highway robbers who stole their bags of silver and slit their throats, and that this band comprised a white man, a negro, and an Indian who appeared in the dark to be a member of the Creek nation—well, I saw this to be a rare encapsulation of the types of man, a scale model of American brutality and independence, and I volunteered to hunt them down.

Because I have yet to fail him, my chief Seloatka agreed, and I retired to my tent to prepare my belongings and inform my wife. She is a decent woman, and did not protest when she was matched to me in one of the early ceremonies of my attendance in this nation. I came from France via the Arctic and the northern American cities, but I have not been more pleasantly welcomed than in the towns of the Upper Creek. A marriage is seen as an act of trust and an invitation into their elaborate kinships,
which remind me of the royal houses of Europe with their dueling clans and irrepressible gossip. The Indians, however, are far less savage and their hospitality unparalleled. I informed my wife that her paramount duty, besides the daily labor in the field that occupies these women, is to provide me with a steady supply of paper and ink. These commodities here are rare, but she must have a well-developed relationship with traders, for whenever I run out, there she is with a new sheaf bound and tied with twine. If my researches earn any audience among the European journals, I will credit her as my assistant.

Seloatka afforded me three Creeks and the original slave to guide me to the site of the outrage, which fortunately lies closer to these hunting grounds than our town of Hillaubee, so that my pursuit will be abbreviated. I am accustomed to such missions; when I first arrived in this riverine country in what are known as the Yazoo lands of West Georgia, I began earning my keep as a tracker and a deputy of justice. My singular obsession with the anthropology of men, my ability to predict their movements with ease, led me to the enemy, the errant wife, the fugitive slave. The tracking itself was simple; men left all manner of signs behind, and I had merely to trail in their path with my eyes attentive and lo, I’d find a broken branch at five feet high, or a print in the mud longer than a paw, or a spray of urine that had no musk to it, or ashes. Even rivers did a poor job of masking, for there was no invisible way to emerge from one. When I found the culprits, I’d rope them up and bring them back to my employer, or just their scalps, whichever he preferred. This put my interests to use, but there was little challenge: all the subjects I encountered were guilty, and each proclaimed his innocence. Only in later years have I taken on the heavier duties of war
chief, but I am not sorry to return to this early occupation, testing as it does the strength of my scrutiny.

“I’ll come with you?” my wife asked. It is true that she’s accompanied me on similar excursions, but mostly because Indian women are difficult to dissuade, and she is certainly more help than hindrance. It was she, in fact, who found the Spanish drunkard last spring who set a Creek barn on fire.

“No, this needs somewhat more focus,” I said, “and your charms, I fear, would distract me.” She does have charms, though she tends to use them for her own amusement. It is curious that she has never attempted to grease my hair. She can seem more like a hired companion, albeit playful and generally attentive, than a wife, but I am aware that my expectations regarding female behavior are colored by my French upbringing; I cannot expect her to order my household in silence, for no other women here do.

She was not the least put out. She gathered up our pile of skins from the tent and carried them to a nearby dwelling, which I assume belonged to her sister. I never ask what she gets up to when I am traveling, but I believe in the visible thumbprint of guilt, and after years of leaving, returning, and scanning her face for signs of mischief, I have determined that, as far as I can tell, my wife has never felt the smallest breeze across her conscience. This, of course, is foreign to me, and not a little bewitching.

“Will you miss me?” I asked, per usual.

“Not until you return,” she said with a smile.

We set out before the midday meal, packs filled with the stiff bread and dried meats customary on journeys, and now that we are an hour south of our camp, I begin to think not of my wife and her oddities or my compact with the chief, but of the green trail before us: the first warm gusts of March, the energy of the
horses, the common exchanges between men of the same clan, and the prospect of something unusual on the horizon. Once my busy mind’s been freed from thoughts of the future—where I plan to go after the Creeks lose their particularity, and what the Royal Society might think of my scribblings—I can more thoroughly consider the fruits of this expedition.

At thirty-six years of age, having ended the lives of many men and adventured from my native France to these lands where they say only savages reside, I believe I have some grasp on the enthusiasms of men, what spurs them to love, to kill, to congregate. This understanding brings me serenity, and I consider myself a man of pristine health and placid heart.

But I yearn to be surprised. It is perhaps the sole reason I’m pursuing these uncommon bandits, for I cannot make sense of their acting in concert. My notebooks are swollen with sketches of Indian life, descriptions of council meetings, meetings with foreign emissaries, meetings between lovers, but this country, like the countries I’ve known before, has its patterns; after a while, they can be summarized with some ease. What has been reinforced to me is that human existence is both practical and predictable. There are those who find themselves sunk in the little vicissitudes of life, who feel brought low by fortune, but I am skeptical of Fate, of anything imperceptible. What happens to us can be easily mapped by what has come before, this being a decidedly functional world, one of cause and effect. Men pursue their own interests and stick to their kind, simply. We grow walls and hide behind them. I knew this even as a boy.

if my mother were at her sewing or scolding the maids, I would creep out to her garden, kneel before a bud, and
wait through the slow hours until it began to split. The flowers in that hedged garden in Thin-le-Moutier were each a promise of some other world, God-wrought and composite, which I dreamed about as one might dream of women one hasn’t met. A single bursting stamen could remind me that there was life independent of my mother, that intricacy existed equally in man, and that I was merely observing the palest version of both in those tended beds. The more my mother complained of my dirtied knees, the more I saw the space beyond our house as splendidly transgressive. Disorder was intoxicating.

On the lowest shelf in the library, we had a few volumes of philosophy and a Dutch atlas, and though I couldn’t make sense of Cicero, I found a match for my flowers in the maps of distant lands. The Orient, the New World,
Nouvelle Hollande
floating half drawn above the white blank of
Terres Australes
. I knew boys lived there; I knew there were mothers and perhaps fathers and certainly rivers winding through woods. What a glory to travel the world, cataloging every variance. I tore out the broad page with the Antilles, rough crumbs of islands, and folded it beneath my pillow so that I might sleep on its expanse.

It was a serving girl who found it and reported my crime. I only regret that I don’t know her name to curse it; I was never taught their names. My mother did not believe in beating me, as a father might have done, but understood discipline to be a foundation for a righteous life, and so at every misdeed she locked me in an empty room at the end of a hallway on the third floor. She wore her wedding rings on a chain around her neck, and they chimed as she shut the door behind her. Boards had been nailed where the window once was, so that there was nothing for a child to gaze upon: none of the rich accoutrements of the other
rooms, the gilt mirrors or glowering portraits, but also nothing of the world beyond. No sky, no distant green. I came to despise the bare floors and bare walls, for the emptiness forced my gaze within, where there was nothing I wished to consider. I did not admire myself then. She took her time; two or three hours always brought me to tears and back again, so that when she came to fetch me I seemed calm and penitent. I thought my mother must have hated me, and I could not discover why.

My father, who might have been a different breed of parent, was a soldier, and I was told by a sympathetic cook that one day when I was a baby he marched away from the house as if a battle were calling him, and he never marched back. If there was a pattern of men leaving my mother, I took pleasure in the thought of joining them.

The only joy was in my mother’s garden. I don’t know why I call it hers; I rarely saw her there, and certainly she never dug holes or hoisted around a watering can, though when young men would visit she sometimes took it upon herself to wear an apron and hold a trowel daintily. She did enjoy the sight of cut flowers inside. The garden was larger than the house and more elaborate, with rooms and knotted hedges and a canal that ran through the roses, the earth between each plant covered in a cold snow of stones. Beyond the regimented grounds was an actual river, which a boy could hear gurgling if he put his ear to the yew wall, and near it was a spread of lawn where she experimented with a
that eventually grew too wild, the sloping grasses and artfully scattered rocks returned, by a patient servant, to herb beds. My mother was not quite romantic enough to abide a winding path. But these flashes of the undomesticated soothed me, almost made up for the hours in the bare room, the lack of any friend.

When I felt lonely, which was certainly not all the time, I was imaginative enough to find my own company. We had a kitten once who was afraid of its tail, who would skulk among the vegetable rows and try to burrow in the dirt whenever a sparrow twittered by. I adored this cat, I wanted it to sleep in my bed with me and learn tricks, like shaking hands. Mother said it was no use, the creature was feral and should be left in peace, but I saw it wasn’t wild at all, only deathly afraid of the natural world. It needed rescue. So for a summer I stalked the gardens. Between the box hedges there were countless places to hide; I walked slowly, and later crawled, along the borders of yew, through the delphiniums and love-in-a-mist, behind the stone pools where the lilies grew. Sometimes all I’d gain for my troubles was the end of a tail, slippering through a hedge, or the sound of its paws on the gravel path behind me. It could move beyond the borders of the garden, as I could not. But as the summer waned, I think it grew more accustomed, or I less obvious, and we would sit in the same leafy room for an afternoon, it dozing at the base of a rose while I chased away the lizards. When it first offered its back to be touched, I did so with one finger only, and watched with joy as it ran away bewildered and then returned a few moments later, standoffish and intrigued. I have had to work for few things in life, and nothing has been sweeter than this first struggle. I never touched its belly, or rubbed its ear between my fingers, or twirled its tail with affection, and I certainly never coaxed it into my bedchamber, but my stealth improved so that I could always find it, wherever in the garden it was cowering, and I suppose my temperament was quiet enough that it allowed me to coexist. I had told no one about my pursuits by the time I was sent to school at the end of the summer, and when I returned home that winter for a holiday, the kitten
was gone, and there was no one to whom I could have conveyed my grief. My mother died a few years later, and so I began my acquaintance with the world. I have grown past this artlessness because men always move beyond such gardens.

behind me chatter, knowing that I will stop them when I spot the first sign of our fugitives. They are secondaries, not cousins to our chief but at one remove, men trusted with the smaller tasks of running a town’s politics. For my purpose, they are merely extra arms to use for apprehending, but I enjoy listening to their little scandals. One of them seems to have met a woman on a recent trip to the Iroquois and is plotting their reunion.

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