Not in My Father’s House
There was a hock swimming in the black-eyed peas, another in the pot with the greens, and bacon grease sizzled as the corn pone rose in the pan. His name was Luke, like the apostle, and hers was Soofa, though even her husband called her Mamie. We had met on the road that Sunday morning, and they fetched me up on their way to church, for I had been out of the sight of God for a long time, and brought me back to their house when the minister had thumped his Bible down ‘til I thought the good book or the pulpit would crack. We had met all their children, save one, and they sat me down to an honest dinner.
Luke had bought their freedom with his toil—not a farmer or a sharecropper, though he had picked his share of cotton in his younger days, and had the hands to show for it—and this house and land. There was only one picture in that house, a faded daguerreotype over the doorway, framed in a horseshoe, which showed a much younger Luke and Mamie, with a gangly boy that must have been a man by now.
“Who is that?” I asked, and all eyes fell south, save Luke, who stared straight ahead, and Mamie, who looked at that dark face.
“We do not talk of him in this house.” From the tone of Luke’s answer I knew the dinner had ended, and I knew better than to apologize.
Luke offered me the night in the house, but I had already felt my welcome worn, and the night was fine and dry, so I said as I should put a few miles down before the stars came out. The freeman offered to walk with me as far as the crossroads, and so we set off as Mamie commanded her kitchen once again. Luke did not speak ‘til we were down the road a piece, and the trees along the crick shielded us from the gaze from the little kitchen window.
“His name was Christopher, and he was my son.” Luke began, and I brought forth my tobacco and cob, and he his, and said nothing more as we filled our pipes and sparked them. “Our eldest, the first to survive the crib, the last to feel the manacle and the lash. I thought the devil was in him as a boy, but how wrong I was.”
We smoked and walked, and the sky was streaks of crème and rose as the burning circle hung above fast brown waters and hid itself behind the tops of trees.
“I had given him the money to buy his freedom. But there was a place and time for forbidden things, and he had all the sin and pride of youth, so he sat down at that table, elbow to elbow with white men and black who should have known better, and he cut the deck as Mephistopheles himself dealt the cards.” He puffed on the cob, and the coal burned in the twilight. “One by one they lost, and died, but the boy had some skill and some luck and arrogance to match the devil, and as the dawn came on it was just him and Satan playing one last hand of stud. I don’t know what stakes my boy put down—he must have won a good bit, to still be playing—but when the time came he bet it all, and to match him Old Nick brought forth the deed to a plot in Hell, and dropped it in the kitty.”
We were at the crossroads, and the moon had risen, but it was still light, and the starbugs were out among the tall grass.
“The rest, I think you know.” I nodded at that. There was hardly a man or woman north or south that had not heard of the great Freetown, where any slave was welcome, on the outskirts of Hell—and how the demons carried them thither, hiding them from the gaze of masters and angels, leaving empty, bloodless plantations and hollow quarters. Compared to such conditions, who would not gamble on the pleasures of Hell?
“He did a great thing,” I said at last. “Given ten thousand years, I don’t know that all the slaves could have bought their freedom. Sometimes it has to be won, or given, all at a go.”
“I am not wise enough to weigh such things,” Luke said. “But I saw him that morning when he came home, the wrong paper clenched in his hand, and I knew what he had done, and become. I barred the door and forbid him from my house. I didn’t want Mamie to see him that way, eaten all up by his sins.”
I gave him my hand then, and he took it in his own, old calluses worn soft at the edges, puckered with small scars. We parted at the crossroads and I walked until Sunday night became Monday morning, and thought long on fathers and sons and sins and the lonely beauty of the night. Then I crossed a rickety log bridge, and saw the rotted hemp hanging from the old tree, and I was in Alabama once again.