There was a full moon, or at least there was supposed to be. A storm stalked the low country and the oldest slaves claimed that it would be one to remember, or it would be one that might leave this part of the world forgotten. I often wondered why they kept living, why the slaves didn’t just die of despair or sorrow. They were from a country they would never see again, some were born into chains and would never know anything else, yet still they hung on. The horses, the cows, the chickens that slept in the coop at night, none of these animals knew of any life that might be better than the one they owned, and indeed, would never survive any other life. I used to wonder if in a thousand years, or even in ten thousand years, if the slaves would become truly domesticated, dependent entirely upon the overseers and drivers to goal them into actions that would become automatic as they aged. I knew wild horses would not accept a stallion that had lived with humans. Chickens that left the yard would be eaten before the sun went down. A cow lost in this wet environment would stand in the water and at the top of its voice beseech its succor from freedom.
My overseer, a cruel and compassionless man sent from Baton Rouge by Robert Roundtree, my father-in-law to help me, nay, to take over for me, this plantation, kept the slaves in a constant state of fear and exhaustion. Pierre Lambert, was his name and he would announce himself in the morning by telling them, “Pierre Lambert is here.” And none of them did anything but what he demanded and never did any of them brain him with a shovel, or hack him to death with a machete. It worked them in the cane fields until at least one of them died of heat exhaustion, by being bitten by one of the venomous serpents, or being beaten to death by the drivers. The drivers were the handpicked slaves that beat them others to get them to work harder and longer, or they themselves would be beaten.
Yet some still sought to escape. Why? To where? What life might an escaped slave find in the swamps of Louisiana? Every once in a while one would leap into the fetid water and splash towards…what? The swamps were endless and life inside the dark waters wore scales and teeth and claws. The locals that dwelled there would bind slaves and return them to Lambert for whiskey or tobacco. How cheap their lives were! For the price of a bottle of whiskey one could be bought back out of the wild. They would always scream and thrash to escape once they realize what was happening to them but there was no escape. Lambert kept a wooden box on top of a huge cypress stump at the edge of the plantation and any slave that tried to escape would die in that box. His legs and arms would extend out of the box while his head was at the lower end of in, enclosed. Fell creatures of the night would come, they had learned to come, and they would pull on the meat off the limbs, and gnaw the bones of the still living slave.
Worse, as if there could be anything more ghastly, the slaves that lived in the hovel with the would be escapee, would be chained to the stump of the man until the body rotted and fell apart. While they worked in the cane they would be forced to carry and drag the body until Lambert was convinced they were terrified past the point of humanity.
And I? I sat in my chair and closed my mind to it all. For seven years I heard the screams, listened to the whips, stepped over the blood, and never once spoke one word against Pierre Lambert. When he brought the production numbers to me and accepted them and he would stand there, smiling as if he loved this part of the job nearly as much as the torture, and I would sit at my desk, filling in the lines of the ledger with black ink that was bought with blood. I think he knew my aversion to slavery. I think he knew that I would have never lived in The South had not my father-in-law sent me here. I think he knew I would leave, and leave in haste, were my wife, Carah, not entombed here, killed in childbirth by my firstborn son, Lankford Waterford Holley who drew no breath of his own, and took the last of the only woman I had ever loved. Where would I go? What would I do? Where else would I find a life where all I had to do was fill in the ledger, listen to the screams of the slaves, and drink the rum we made with the cane.
For six of those seven years my Carah, lay inside of a stone crypt in a cemetery created by slaves dragging woven straw baskets from miles and miles away. Endless lines of slaves had created the foundation of the house where we lived. Endless lines of slaves hauled in the fill dirt and then the wood and the stone. None of these materials were found in the swamp, except the woods we used for boards, and they hacked at trees as big around as a small crowd to clear the land for cane. The plot of land that was to become the hallowed ground for me, my wife, our children, the descendants of generations of our family was bought with the blood and bones of many men.
The war was coming. Robert Roundtree was squeezing the Union of its treasure by making cannons, and I was left to produce as much rum as the South could drink or trade. I sent all my money up the Mississippi, and then overland to Robert, and there it would stay until the war was over, and we would start over again, rich landowners in a broken land. The Union was spreading out, defeating the Southern army in all places, and those who lived near me either went to fight or they escaped as they could. Houses were being burned, plantations were put to the torch, and the slaves were being freed. Not twenty miles away was the nearest burning plantation when I took to drink as if it would be my last. Perhaps I hoped it was.
I awoke to the smell of smoke and the sound of screaming. There was a vision, a dream, a memory that I had gone to the hovels where the slaves were kept, and one by one, I unlocked the chains that had bound them. I counted them, each one of them, as if they were going to be taken out of the ledger, and one by one I freed one hundred and seventy-five men, fifty-two women, and their children, which we never counted until they were old enough to work. I returned to my house and I knew they would first seek out the living quarters of Pierre Lambert, and that is what they did. It was his home that was burning, fiercely, and the slaves had crucified the slave girl he kept as a pet. Lambert screamed as they stripped him naked, poured boiling hot rum into his throat, and then dragged him to the box.
I expected them to come for me. I knew they knew who I was, and it was my pockets they filled with their agony and enslavement. I staggered to the stairs and nearly fell. I heard the sound of foot fall on the veranda and if they came for me, I knew whatever they chose to do they would do. But at the door stood an old man, not a slave at all, but one of the locals. Then, as the slaves came up behind him, I realized that it was not an old man at all, but a very old woman.
“You must come with me” she said and it seemed as if the words were difficult, as if spoken by someone unaccustomed to speech.
She led me, and through the slaves that crowded around, and I knew whatever was to happen I would be helpless against it. Lambert’s screams seemed less powerful now. The woman hobbled and used a stick as a cane, and the slaves helped her as if they had known her for a very long time.
“You haven’t laid a hand on anyone here, ever.” The woman spoken suddenly and with more clarity. “Yet in your grief for your wife and son you allowed much evil to befall those who never did you harm. You were the vessel that carried the poison that others had to drink and until this night you never thought to do anything else.”
Lambert moaned anew. His voice rose as he begged to die, for a death he never allowed for others.
“For longer than you or that man you collared these people with, I have helped those who I could, and kept them close to me for this day. Only one in ten have I been able to rescue, no more than that, and we have lay hidden, waiting, and now, by your hand, you have hastened this day.” I then noticed that some of the slaves were dressed as locals, and at night might pass as such.
“Yet, you are not absolved.” The woman croaked as she tried to raise her voice. “I cannot condemn you for the good you did, even if a small act done overlate, but these people must have answer, and those who died before this night will have a reckoning. This is what will befall you tonight; a Reckoning.
They dragged me, and I offered no resistance, for what might I have done, or said? If this was a trial, then it was one a long time in the coming. Fires were set in the house and I knew any army that was near would see it. The fire from Lambert’s house was still burning and his pet was still alive, but now trying to get away from the heat. As the fire from my home rose the mob dragged me into the cemetery and what sort of desecration they planned I feared more than anything I knew.
They pushed the granite lid aside with great effort and I thought they would toss me inside, and it seemed they planned to do so. But the evil I had done to these people lived more strongly than simple murder, or even execution.
“For years these people have been made slaves, made homeless, used as chattel, and their misery had made many a man like you, without trade or skill or sweat, rich beyond your own ability. Tonight, we will give you the task of becoming what you never have been; a human being with a soul. But for the misery you have heaped upon those you have never known, we will cruse you, and this curse will be carried by those you once loved, and this curse will endure until you have might right all you have done.” They took the bones of my wife, still dressed in her finery, and that of my son, still bundled in the blanket in which he died out of the crypt, and then they placed me inside, almost gently.
“Your wife’s spirit and that of your son will go forth and invade those whose nature is most evil. You will follow them and if you can, kill them, but you will never know where they are, and they will never know who you are, only to avoid you. If you kill them both, on the same night, you will all be allowed to return to the earth as it is supposed to be. But as long as those two live they will create harm for those who kept slaves and descendants of those who profited from slaves. Your wife will haunt them, your son will drink their blood, and you will not die, but be born into another generation as they will be. Until you kill them both they will sow sorrow as you have allowed. Until they die they will generate misery as you have allowed.
Your man in the box will be part of this curse. For his soul is to be tormented as if on fire as long as he lives. His only rest will come in killing you, and he will hunt you for each life you both live, until your wife and your son both die.
They closed the lid upon me and a blackness descended upon me.
How does a man gauge his own good? It’s optimistic for most to consider the wealth they give to the church, the poor, to a relative who cannot do business, a friend who needs a hand, perhaps, but it is much harder for a man to face his own evil. The lives that slavery shattered extended well beyond the edges of the swamp. The corrupt ways of Robert Roundtree damaged lives well past the range of his weaponry. And even though I never lifted a hand to a slave or poured molten iron to make a cannon, I felt the evilness of my life filling the crypt. It filled the crypt and suffocated me. I tried to shout but when I opened my mouth more evil poured out, like the fountain that ran in my front yard. Everything I had done since the first day I arrived, or had not done, seemed to wash the entire world in a darkness that burned like the sun but cast only shadows.
“Robert?” it was the quite voice of my wife, Carah. She was speaking to me from outside the tomb, as if she were standing where I had stood so many times, and spoke to her. “Robert, did you know that I am not my father’s daughter? Even he does not know. I was switched with his daughter at birth and since then I have done naught but suffer. This is a curse to you and it is a curse upon the head of our innocent Lankford, but for me, I will enjoy what I am set to do. I have sent Lankford to be raised by the people of the swamp. I will head to New York and kill Robert Roundtree. The Union troops will be here soon, and they will release you, perhaps, and maybe they will kill you. I’m unsure how this will work, but I hope they bury you deep, or burn you where you lie. I would like to think it would be hard to find a woman among the ruins of this nation you helped create, but it is there I will hunt. Good bye, Robert, and good luck in ever finding the two of us together, or unawares.”
And she was gone.
But the Union troops did arrive, and they sought to despoil the grave of a rich plantation owner and found me quite alive inside the tomb. They did torment me and they did beat me, strip me naked, and they set me along the road with others like me, who had lost everything. But I had lost my soul. I would spend decades, and this thought stopped me, maybe longer, trying to reclaim it. In front of me was the woman I loved and my son, who I had to kill. Behind me, somewhere, was the soulless form of Lambert, who hunted me as I hunted them.
I looked up at the full moon and realized that just two days had passed. Eternity was going to last a very long time.