II. Books and Bones
Morning came, bright and early, and David woke. He had a hearty breakfast in the kitchens fixed by Miram, one of the older slaves. She sang a wordless song as she cooked the bacon and fresh eggs over the stove. It was a melody both cheerful and sad, and David found his thoughts wandering back to Ezra.
“Eat your breakfast quickly,” Charles said, coming in taking another plate from Miram. “We have a lot to do today.”
“Where’s Michael?” David said.
“I woke him up. He’ll be down in a minute,” Charles said.
David focused again on his food, stuffing in a few more mouthfuls. After a time, he said, “I get the impression that Father doesn’t like Doctor Corning.”
Charles shrugged and said. “Maybe, maybe not. The doctor’s as good a man as God could ask for, but he’s nutty when it comes to Negroes.”
“He thinks we should free the slaves. Thinks they’re fine without white people.”
“Are they fine without whites?” David said. He looked to Miram, but she cast him a neutral sidelong glance and continued cutting bacon from the salted pork slab.
“Don’t tell Pa I said, but I think some are. There are Negroes that can read and write, wear suits and hold jobs. I think that most of them still don’t have the sense to be civilized, but I reckon there are some that do. Not around here though. Up north maybe, but Pa thinks it’s all a bunch of hooey.”
David nodded. Michael came in, looking tired. He stood to eat.
“Why don’t we go to Laughlin for school? It’s not very far.”
“Egad!” Michael said. “Why on earth would you want to go there? They make you sit in rows and work on books the whole time. And you can’t talk.”
“That’s exactly what I do here,” David said. He smiled, seeing his that his father’s mode of discipline had not squelched his brother’s ever-energetic mannerisms.
“It’s so much worse at the school though!” Michael said.
“We can afford a tutor, and otherwise Mother is a fine teacher for you two,” Charles said. “That’s why, and that’s end of it.”
“Did you ever go?” David said, signaling that for him, it was clearly not the end of it.
“Yeah, I went for a few years with Charlie,” Michael said. “It was awful. Pretty much as bad as a whipping every day of the year.”
“You’re a louse, Mikey,” Charles said. “It wasn’t torture at all. You’re just too much of a dunce.”
“Why did you stop?” David said. “It’s not far. Maybe a half-hour ride, if that, and I can walk as far in a little bit more than hour.”
“I told you, it isn’t because it’s far,” Charles said. He sighed. “The teacher there-”
“Misses Corning?” David said.
“Christ damn her,” Michael said.
Charles reached around and smacked Michael below the buttocks. Michael winced and nearly dropped his plate. Charles said, “Don’t you go taking the Lord’s name like that.” He looked back to David and said, “It’s because Father knows she’ll fill your head with bad ideas. Mother knows best anyway. Now, let’s get on you two, I need to show you the seed work in the barn before I can turn you loose to Mother and your lessons.”
The younger boys followed Charles out to one of the barns, where an overseer watched a group of male slaves stuff burlap sacks with seeds from a barrel. The eldest brother went through the ins-and-outs of seed germination, how they would have to be hand-sewn by the slaves, and how they would go about re-seeding the resting field and clearing one of their old plots for rest. Both boys listened as best as they could, but found their thoughts wandering.
As they stood in the sun, watching plowmen and sowers working, Michael whispered to David, “Did you see her?”
“I rode back with her,” David said.
“What? No, the ghost!”
“There wasn’t any ghost,” David said. “Just the doctor and his daughter. Ezra.”
“You didn’t hear no whispers? No singing?”
“None. Well, Ezra was singing.”
“She pretty?” Michael said.
David paused at that and thought about the girl. “Yeah, she is.”
“Ha!” Michael said. Charles shot a glance back at both of them and they closed their mouths.
On the way back to the big house Michael said, “I know where she lives. I could show you.”
“I’m never letting you take me anywhere again,” David said.
“What? Why?” Michael said, cracking a wide grin. “You said yourself that there was no ghost. And I was the one who got whooped, not you.”
“Still,” David said. “It wouldn’t be hard to find out. She lives in Laughlin, and her father’s the doctor. Besides, why would I care about where she lives?”
“So you could see her again, of course.”
“Wouldn’t be able to get out there anyways.”
“Sure you could. We go down there every week for this and that. You could go with Charlie, or get Pa to lend you a horse.”
“What makes you think Father would lend me a horse when he doesn’t let you near the stables?”
Michael laughed. “Because I’m the trouble maker. You’re the goody-goody.”
“I am not.”
“Of course you are, which is why you’re so lucky to have me around.”
“I’m not getting lent any horse,” David said.
“Well, you could walk there. You said yourself it probably isn’t more than an hour. I bet it’s less.”
“Just shut up about it,” David said, knowing expressing such a feeling would only make Michael prod him more about it. To his surprise, Michael changed the subject and started talking about hunting, and they carried that conversation into the school room, where their mother Julia was already busy stacking up new books.
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