—When puss catch bird. Think ’bout that for a while, Homer say and go upstairs.
EVERY NEGRO WALK IN A CIRCLE. TAKE THAT AND MAKE OF it what you will. A circle like the sun, a circle like the moon, a circle like bad tidings that seem gone but always, always come back. Woman work round the sun and sleep round the moon and sometimes work round both, especially if it be crop time. Other times woman wait on the moon, especially if it fat with blood and rise low over the Blue Mountain. That be the season of the Sasa, the Asaase Yaa or the Ogun and the other forgotten gods.
Truth be told, slaves in Jamaica have more ranking among themself than massa. In this place two thing matter more than most, how dark a nigger you be and where the white man choose to put you. One have all to do with the other. From highest to lowest, this be how things go. The number one prime nigger who would never get sell is the head of the house slaves. That position so hoity-toity that in some house is a white woman who be that nigger. The head house nigger get charge with so much that she downright run the house, and everybody including the massa do what she say. Homer careful not to cross the line, though. Position can make a negro girl forget herself and there is always the cowhide, the cat-o’-nine and the buckshot to remind her of her place. After she, there be the house slaves who work the rooms and the grounds and the gardens. Sometimes is the prime pretty niggers or the mulatto, quadroon or mustee that work there. Then you have the cooks who the backra trust the most, because the cook know that if the mistress get sick after a meal there goin’ be a whipping or a hanging before the cock even crow. Other house slaves be cleaning and dusting and shining and manservanting and womanservanting and taking care of backra pickneys.
After the house slaves come the artisan niggermens, like the blacksmith, the bricklayer, the tanner, the silversmith, niggers who skilled with they hands, followed by the stable boys, coachmen and carters. Next is the field niggers, headed by the Johnny-jumpers who be the right hand and left hand of the slave-drivers. They do most of the whipping and kicking but when the estate running right they have nothing to do, so they whip and kick harder. After Johnny-jumper come the Great Slave Gang, the most expensive slaves, the one who they buy for the long years of hard work. The mens and the womens strapping and handsome like a prime horse. Most be Ashanti, what the white man call Coromantee, but they not easy to control so they get punish plenty for they spiritedness. But a dead Coromantee man can set an estate back up to three hundred pounds so they careful not to kill too much. After that is the Petit Gang, the makeup of plain common nigger. Some cost less than one hundred pounds and they work the other fields, like the ratoon or the tobacco that some planters grown on the side. Other nigger look down ’pon them mens as worthless and them womens as good for rutting, not breeding. On some estate even the pickneys work, mostly in the trash gang to pick up rubbish on the estate or to carry water for the field slaves to drink, or to get firewood. That be the negroes.
Now while the overseer Jack Wilkins plough through so much nigger bush that some start to wonder what exactly the estate sowing, the old massa Patrick Wilson forgo woman flesh from the day he come back from the war, when less than a fortnight after, house nigger make two breakfast tray for two different room. All people know is that in 1779, a year after he marry and come to Jamaica, old massa was still young and he get all caught up in rule Britannia! Because it seem the whole world was trying to take what England got. The day he hear that even Spain join France to help the rebellious thirteen colonies fight war ’gainst England he get into quite the conniption, as the mistress say, and declare that a gentleman must answer the clarion call to serve king and country. So he leave him wife at the estate that he just inherit and set out for glory all the way in Gibraltar. By the end of 1779, the mistress belly did big with a coming young’un. Massa Patrick Edward St. Michael Wilson go all the way ’cross the sea to fight war when Jamaica itself did needed defending when the French try to take the colony in early 1782 and the negroes try to rebel in St. Mary, not far from Montpelier Estate.
The massa didn’t return until June 1782 and all Jamaica was celebrating but he. Some of him planter friend joke that Massa Wilson go all the way to Gibraltar to fight the enemy when the enemy was tiptoeing to him own doorstep. But as the massa step through him own door and look around like he never see the estate before, people know that not all of him come back. Something happen, something that show in him limping, that trade part of him for a part of the war and that is the part he bring back to Montpelier. In 1782 he still young but him hair gallop down in age quick and was near full white. Massa Patrick was a tall man, but him body slump and turn him into question sign. There be no scar in him face but the few who see, say he have a long scar that go from him shoulder all the way to him navel and another one that run all the way down the back of him left thigh. Him eye circle with dark even in the day for the enemy shoot the daylights out of him. More night than less, Homer need two strong negro to catch the massa when he have night terrors and run naked right through the front door and down by the bird bath and screaming and bayoneting with him finger at the Frenchies and the Iberians and whoever running him down with four feather. Not even Homer tea could fix whatever wrong with the massa. The mistress have to make do with her own quarters after one night when the massa wake up, find him sword and start chop up the whole room to pieces, telling the chair, A cowpox on you, you goddamned Gallic bastard! The mistress get very melancholy and have nobody to tell her story to. From that time on nobody could speak anything ’bout the French or the Spanish in her house. For Montpelier become her house. The mistress take over with the estate running and the head butting with Jack Wilkins ’cause the massa did all but useless. As soon as the young son Massa Humphrey could read Mother Goose, the mistress ship him off to school in England.
Three year shy of a score, the night come when Massa Wilson put on him military fatigue and mount him white horse and charge down the cane piece. But the horse see the big cotton tree ahead even though the massa was charging same way and whipping for speed. Before he ram into the tree, the horse halt and fling the massa off. The old massa land headfirst in a branch and him neck snap like a twig. The branch hold him there while he swing like a nigger. The young son Massa Humphrey who was getting learning in England receive order to come back to the plantation directly to take up him station in life. When Humphrey Wilson reach Jamaica, the year was 1800 and he be twenty-one years of age.
The Montpelier Estate be the biggest in east Jamaica so niggers was expecting a big gathering of white people to pay them respects, but plenty didn’t come. So things go on a Tuesday afternoon that a swarm of slave and the backra gather at the family plot on a hill with no tree about a mile from the great house and watch as the fat preacherman talk. He say some word and the mistress, who standing regal in black dress and black veil, start to cry and shout until she keening. The overseer Jack Wilkins nod to a white slave-driver and the man take the mistress hand and hold her up. Homer in a black dress and veil that look near exact like the mistress except her dress wash out till it grey. Homer take Lilith with her even though she didn’t have no dress except the white one she always wear and her feet bare. Lilith stay close and look around for Johnny-jumpers. She didn’t see any, but she see Circe, scowling in a newer dress than Homer.
Some negroes wonder how come a man of the old massa’s standing and breeding and moneying have a funeral so empty of backra. They come to understand that this was nobody fault but the mistress, who didn’t want nobody see her making a spectacle of herself. Others mumble more than once that they can’t remember what the massa look like. When nigger think of the law on the estate they think of Jack Wilkins.
Jack Wilkins use the old massa death to push himself into the great house. The lanky man act like he be the massa from before the old massa come back from war, but now he and him wife start to invite themself to the table for supper like they be massa and mistress, even though the real mistress didn’t eat in the dining room no more. Soon the two have breakfast and supper sent to they quarters and they didn’t once ask if the mistress get fed.
Now, the time from when the old massa Wilson die till the young massa Humphrey come back to Jamaica was no quick thing. It be 1800 and they say the fastest ships, as soon as they done fight the Spanish and the French in West Indies, had to set sail to the Gold Coast to get more negro. So be that as it was, near four month pass between the old massa death and the new massa arrival.
The mistress prepare for her son arrival so often and get disappoint that she soon stop. She didn’t take to the old massa death well at all. Many time she be found talking to him like he still there, about him giving her problems and forcing her to ask questions that nobody can answer. Sometimes she walk up and down the house and talk ’bout snow which cold, cold, cold and colder than that. Or she would talk ’bout Bond Street and Regent Street and spring and summer and the season that is neither spring nor summer but the time when gentlemens and ladies go courting. The mistress bawl out, Why oh why did she forsake Mayfair for this penal colony, and what sort of gentleman takes his wife and moves her to a place with no foxes! She and the other wives was never friend. She cuss that they talk like negro folk and have poor breeding and smell bad. House niggers in the kitchen laugh ’cause they used to think only negro woman could smell bad.
Friday, February 7, 1800, at around the one o’clock hour a big black carriage with two door on each side, four big wheel and four black horse come to a halt at the great house step. Two house negro was outside and the four black horse frighten them something dreadful. Nobody ever see carriage like this before and even a few slave-driver and slave come up to look. A negro with a white wig and red blouson and white breeches sit up front with a long whip in hand. The road from Montpelier gate to the great house was over eight mile long and the house was on a hill, so Jack Wilkins had time to see the carriage coming. But he didn’t see no call to act all proper-like, so he sit there on the terrace getting drunk from lime and sugar-water and rum. By now more slave gather, including house slave who hear the commotion. Homer, coming from the great house, pass the kitchen and see Lilith watching from the window. Homer don’t say nothing but stare at Lilith long and hard. Lilith stay by the window and watch.
A slave-driver go up to the terrace and ask Jack Wilkins ’bout the carriage but he just nod and take another draw of the pipe. Another nigger with a white wig on jump down from the back of the carriage and open the door. The first to step out was a man. Him skin dark like a quadroon but him hair black and straight and so long that it flow right down him shoulder. He look ’bout five foot nine or ten and build strong, even though him belly was sticking out a little. Nobody know who this man be. He wearing white breeches and brown boots and him blue jacket have tails and tassels on the shoulder like an infantryman. A thick cravat wrap round him neck and he don’t waste no time to pull it off. He sigh like a thirsty man who get a drink of water, which he then ask for. Homer send one of the women back for a pitcher. As he step down and look around, Homer start to approach but then right behind him another man step out.
At first the man seem like him head on fire. But that be him hair, light and red and with curls flying all over in the breeze. The fire hair burn all over the top of him head that have a little bald spot and run down him sideburn and stop, leaving him chin and face clean-shaven.
This man tall like a tree. He have to bow him head low just to get out of the carriage. People so used to lazy colonial dress that the moment this man step out everybody know that he be foreigner traveling from far. The man in a long grey coat that look like wool, a white shirt and cravat, black breeches that hem below the knee and shiny black boots. The man was sweating so bad that he near melt. He wipe him face and neck with a kerchief. Then he look all over the estate and scowl. He turn to the other man who was wrapping up the cravat in him hand and the man smile. The tall man frown even more. Homer push past both slave-driver and negro until she right before him. Then she bow two time and curtsy.
—Nobody send word that you be coming today, nobody at all, Massa Humphrey, she say.
—I had grown rather fond of surprises, but it seems that the surprise is on me. And how are you . . . Homer? You haven’t aged a day.
—As good as the lord allow, massa.
—Then God help you then, he say.
When Jack Wilkins see the man who dress most uncommon coming up the steps he jump up and nearly topple the pitcher and glass beside him. The slave-driver beside him jump up too.
—Good heavens! Master Humphrey! Good lord. This
a surprise. But a wonderful . . . yes . . . surprise. . . . Lookit you, young master.
—I’m hardly young, sir, whoever you are.
—Of course. ’Tis Jack Wilkins, my boy. I daresay you used to call me Uncle Jack when you were a wee lad. But you’re quite the gentleman now, anybody can see that.
—Can they, sir, can they indeed?
—Nobody seems to have seen a gentleman among you but Homer. I had sent word on Monday that we had docked in Kingston. Four days ago! Good heavens, man, I’ve had to charter that carriage myself.
—My apologies, good, good sir. Things have been a wee bit busy, lordship, what with crop time.
—Don’t take me for a fool, Wilkins. Crop time is not for another eight months.
The slave-driver grin but then Massa Humphrey scowl and he shut up real quick. Wilkins watch him step in the house and then regard the black-hair man following him.