Prentice Alvin: The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume III

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For all my good teachers, especially:
 
Fran Schroeder,
fourth grade, Millikin Elementary, Santa Clara, California,
for whom I wrote my first poems.
 
Ida Huber,
tenth-grade English, Mesa High School, Arizona,
who believed in my future more than I did.
 
Charles Whitman,
playwriting, Brigham Young University,
who made my scripts look better than they deserved.
 
Norman Council,
literature, University of Utah,
for Spenser and Milton, alive.
 
Edward Vasta,
literature, University of Notre Dame,
for Chaucer and for friendship.
 
And always François.
IN THE PREPARATION of this volume of the Tales of Alvin Maker I have, as always, depended on others for help. For immeasurable help on the opening chapters of this book, my thanks go to the gentlefolk of the second Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop, to wit: Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, Gregg Keizer, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Nancy Kress, Shariann Lewitt, Jack Massa, Rebecca Brown Ore, Susan Palwick, Bruce Sterling, Mark L. Van Name, Connie Willis, and Allen Wold.
Thanks also to the Utah State Institute of Fine Arts for awarding a prize to my narrative poem “Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow.” That encouragement led to my developing the story in prose and at greater length; this is the first volume to include part of the story recounted in that poem.
For details of frontier life and crafts, I have used John Seymour’s wonderful book
The
Forgotten Crafts
(New York City: Knopf, 1984) and Douglass L. Brownstone’s
A Field Guide to America’s History
(New York City: Facts On File, Inc., 1984).
I’m grateful that Gardner Dozois has kindly allowed pieces of the Tales of Alvin Maker to appear in the pages of Isaac
Asimov’s
Science Fiction Magazine,
allowing it to find an audience before the books appeared.
Beth Meacham at Tor is one of that vanishing breed of editors with a golden touch; her advice is never intrusive, always wise; and (rarest editorial trait of all) she returns my telephone calls. For that alone she may be sainted.
Thanks to my writing class in Greensboro in the winter and spring of 1988 for suggestions that led to important improvements in the book; and to my sister, friend, and editorial assistant, Janice, for her work on keeping story details fresh in mind.
Thanks most of all to Kristine A. Card, who listens to me ramble through the many versions of each as-yet-unwritten book, reads the dot-matrix printouts of the early drafts, and is my second self through every page of everything I write.
The Overseer
LET ME START my history of Alvin’s prenticeship where things first began to go wrong. It was a long way south, a man that Alvin had never met nor never would meet in all his life. Yet he it was who started things moving down the path that would lead to Alvin doing what the law called murder—on the very day that his prenticeship ended and he rightly became a man.
It was a place in Appalachee, in 1811, before Appalachee signed the Fugitive Slave Treaty and joined the United States. It was near the borders where Appalachee and the Crown Colonies meet, so there wasn’t a White man but aspired to own a passel of Black slaves to do his work for him.
Slavery, that was a kind of alchemy for such White folk, or so they reckoned. They calculated a way of turning each bead of a Black man’s sweat into gold and each moan of despair from a Black woman’s throat into the sweet clear sound of a silver coin ringing on the money-changer’s table. There was buying and selling of souls in that place. Yet there was nary a one of them who understood the whole price they paid for owning other folk.
Listen tight, and I’ll tell you how the world looked from inside Cavil Planter’s heart. But make sure the children are asleep, for this is a part of my tale that children ought not to hear, for it deals with hungers they don’t understand too well, and I don’t aim for this story to teach them.
 
Cavil Planter was a godly man, a church-going man, a tithepayer. All his slaves were baptized and given Christian names as soon as they understood enough English to be taught the gospel. He forbade them to practice their dark arts—he never allowed them to slaughter so much as a chicken themselves, lest they convert such an innocent act into a sacrifice to some hideous god. In all ways Cavil Planter served the Lord as best he could.
So, how was the poor man rewarded for his righteousness? His wife, Dolores, she was beset with terrible aches and pains, her wrists and fingers twisting like an old woman’s. By the time she was twenty-five she went to sleep most nights crying, so that Cavil could not bear to share the room with her.
He tried to help her. Packs of cold water, soaks of hot water, powders and potions, spending more than he could afford on those charlatan doctors with their degrees from the University of Camelot, and bringing in an endless parade of preachers with their eternal prayers and priests with their hocum pocus incantations. All of it accomplished nigh onto nothing. Every night he had to lie there listening to her cry until she whimpered, whimper until her breath became a steady in and out, whining just a little on the out-breath, a faint little wisp of pain.
It like to drove Cavil mad with pity and rage and despair. For months on end it seemed to him that he never slept at all. Work all day, then at night lie there praying for relief. If not for her, then for him.
It was Dolores herself who gave him peace at night. “You have work to do each day, Cavil, and can’t do it unless you sleep. I can’t keep silent, and you can’t bear to hear me. Please—sleep in another room.”
Cavil offered to stay anyway. “I’m your husband, I belong here”—he said it, but she knew better.
“Go,” she said. She even raised her voice. “Go!”
So he went, feeling ashamed of how relieved he felt. He slept that night without interruption, a whole five hours until dawn, slept well for the first time in months, perhaps years—and arose in the morning consumed with guilt for not keeping his proper place beside his wife.
In due time, though, Cavil Planter became accustomed to sleeping alone. He visited his wife often, morning and night. They took meals together. Cavil sitting on a chair in her room, his food on a small side table, Dolores lying in bed as a Black woman carefully spooned food into her mouth while her hands sprawled on the bedsheets like dead crabs.
Even sleeping in another room, Cavil wasn’t free of torment. There would be no babies. There would be no sons to raise up to inherit Cavil’s fine plantation. There would be no daughters to give away in magnificent weddings. The ballroom downstairs—when he brought Dolores into the fine new house he had built for her, he had said, “Our daughters will meet their beaux in this ballroom, and first touch their hands, the way our hands first touched in your father’s house.” Now Dolores never saw the ballroom. She came downstairs only on Sundays to go to church and on those rare days when new slaves were purchased, so she could see to their baptism.
Everyone saw her on such occasions, and admired them both for their courage and faith in adversity. But the admiration of his neighbors was scant comfort when Cavil surveyed the ruins of his dreams. All that he prayed for—it’s as if the Lord wrote down the list and then in the margin noted “no, no, no” on every line.
The disappointments might have embittered a man of weaker faith. But Cavil Planter was a godly, upright man, and whenever he had the faintest thought that God might have treated him badly, he stopped whatever he was doing and pulled the small psaltery from his pocket and whispered aloud the words of the wise man.
In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust;
Bow down thine ear to me;
Be thou my strong rock.
He concentrated his mind firmly, and the doubts and resentments quickly fled. The Lord was with Cavil Planter, even in his tribulations.
Until the morning he was reading in Genesis and he came upon the first two verses of chapter 16.
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from hearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid: it may be that I may obtain children by her.
At that moment the thought came into his mind, Abraham was a righteous man, and so am I. Abraham’s wife bore him no children, and mine likewise has no hope. There was an African slavewoman in their household, as there are such women in mine. Why shouldn’t I do as Abraham did, and father children by one of these?
The moment the thought came into his head, he shuddered in horror. He’d heard gossip of White Spaniards and French and Portuguese in the jungle islands to the south who lived openly with Black women—truly they were the lowest kind of creature, like men who do with beasts. Besides, how could a child of a Black woman ever be an heir to him? A mix-up boy could no more take possession of an Appalachee plantation than fly. Cavil just put the thought right out of his mind.
But as he sat at breakfast with his wife, the thought came back. He found himself watching the Black woman who fed his wife. Like Hagar, this woman is Egyptian, isn’t she? He noticed how her body twisted lithely at the waist as she bore the spoon from tray to mouth. Noticed how as she leaned forward to hold the cup to the frail woman’s lips, the servant’s breasts swung down to press against her blouse. Noticed how her gentle fingers brushed crumbs and
drops from Dolores’s lips. He thought of those fingers touching
him,
and trembled slightly. Yet it felt like an earthquake inside him.
He rushed from the room with hardly a word. Outside the house, he clutched his psaltery.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions:
And my sin is ever before me.
Yet even as he whispered these words, he looked up and saw the field women washing themselves at the trough. There was the young girl he had bought only a few days before, six hundred dollars even though she was small, since she was probably breeding stock. So fresh from the boat she was that she hadn’t learned a speck of Christian modesty. She stood there naked as a snake, leaning over the trough, pouring cups of water over her head and down her back.
Cavil stood transfixed, watching her. What had only been a brief thought of evil in his wife’s bedroom now became a trance of lust. He had never seen anything so graceful as her blue-black thighs sliding against each other, so inviting as her shiver when the water ran down her body.
Was this the answer to his fervent psalm? Was the Lord telling him that it was indeed with him as it had been with Abraham?
Just as likely it was witchery. Who knew what knacks these fresh-from-Africa Blacks might have? She knows I’m here a-watching, and she’s tempting me. These Blacks are truly the devil’s own children, to excite such evil thoughts in me.
He tore his gaze from the new girl and turned away, hiding his burning eyes in the words of the book. Only somehow the page had turned—when did he turn it?—and he found himself reading in the Song of Solomon.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes
That are twins, which feed among the lilies.
“God help me,” he whispered. “Take this spell from me.”
Day after day he whispered the same prayer, yet day after day he found himself watching his slavewomen with desire, particularly that newbought girl. Why was it God seemed to be paying him no mind? Hadn’t he always been a righteous man? Wasn’t he good to his wife? Wasn’t he honest in business? Didn’t he pay tithes and offerings? Didn’t he treat his slaves and horses well? Why didn’t the Lord God of Heaven protect him and take this Black spell from him?
Yet even when he prayed, his very confessions became evil imaginings. O Lord, forgive me for thinking of my newbought girl standing in the door of my bedroom, weeping at the caning she got from the overseer. Forgive me for imagining myself laying her on my own bed and lifting her skirts to anoint them with a balm so powerful the welts on her thighs and buttocks disappear before my eyes and she begins to giggle softly and writhe slowly on the sheets and look over her shoulder at me, smiling, and then she turns over and reaches out to me and—O Lord, forgive me, save me!
Whenever this happened, though, he couldn’t help but wonder—why do such thoughts come to me even when I pray? Maybe I’m as righteous as Abraham; maybe it’s the Lord who sent these desires to me. Didn’t I first think of this while I was reading scripture? The Lord can work miracles—what if I went in unto the newbought girl and she conceived, and the Lord worked a miracle and the baby was born White? All things are possible to God.
This thought was both wonderful and terrible. If only it were true! Yet Abraham heard the voice of God, so he never had to wonder about what God might want of him. God never said a word to Cavil Planter.
And why not? Why didn’t God just tell him right out? Take the girl, she’s yours! Or, Touch her not, she is forbidden! Just let me hear your voice, Lord, so I’ll know what to do!
O Lord my rock;
Unto thee will I cry,
Be not silent to me:
Lest, if thou be silent to me,
I become like them
That go down into the pit.
On a certain day in 1810 that prayer was answered.
Cavil was kneeling in the curing shed, which was mostly empty, seeing how last year’s burly crop was long since sold and this year’s was still a-greening in the field. He’d been wrestling in prayer and confession and dark imaginings until at last he cried out, “Is there no one to hear my prayer?”
“Oh, I hear you right enough,” said a stern voice.
Cavil was terrified at first, fearing that some stranger—his overseer, or a neighbor—had overheard some terrible confession. But when he looked, he saw that it wasn’t anyone he knew. Still, he knew at once
what
the man was. From the strength in his arms, his sun-browned face, and his open shirt—no jacket at all—he knew the man was no gentleman. But he was no White trash, either, nor a tradesman. The stern look in his face, the coldness of his eye, the tension in his muscles like a spring tight-bound in a steel trap: He was plainly one of those men whose whip and iron will keep discipline among the Black fieldworkers. An overseer. Only he was stronger and more dangerous than any overseer Cavil had ever seen. He knew at once that
this
overseer would get every ounce of work from the lazy apes who tried to avoid work in the fields. He knew that whoever’s plantation was run by
this
overseer would surely prosper. But Cavil also knew that he would never dare to hire such a man, for this overseer was so strong that Cavil would soon forget who was man and who was master.
“Many have called me their master,” said the stranger. “I knew that you would recognize me at once for what I am.”
How had the man known the words that Cavil thought in the hidden reaches of his mind? “Then you
are
an overseer?”
“Just as there was one who was once called, not a master, but simply Master, so am I not
an
overseer, but
the
Overseer.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Because you called for me.”
“How could I call for you, when I never saw you before in my life?”
“If you call for the unseen, Cavil Planter, then of course you will see what you never saw before.”
Only now did Cavil fully understand what sort of vision it was he saw, there in his own burly curing shed. A man whom many called their master, come in answer to his prayer.
“Lord Jesus!” cried Cavil.

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