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The Blessings of Churchwarden Gaines
Sold: Chapter 1

Jeffy hugged Elizabeth and Thomas around the great central leg of the table, a hard claw of old oak, hewed long ago from a tree the likes of which he was yet to see. Jeffy’s dreams had when waking centered either upon emerging into manhood as resilient and strong as this claw, around which they huddled, or of getting forever lost in a forest—like a forest in a tale—where such trees blotted out the sky and their roots tripped the grown and evil persons who ruled his world, and their wide trunks prevented the passage of their carts and carriages, the shadows of the wood frightening the big shitting brutes they rode from making their wicked way.

The biting winds battered the house, causing the mason’s sign to clatter harshly against the inner eve, the two windows of the main room—Mistress Ann’s pride, those windows—shivering as shrilly as their owner. The world drew cold in winter as the lantern on the table above flickered, casting the dark walls in menacing outlines—at least in the minds of these three huddled children.

Should he take the two little ones to the loft to sleep, he wondered. For they were past bedtime, but Master had bid him stay awake and wait his return. These things he considered as he absently gazed at the smoldering coal in the fireplace, smoldering low, awaiting the sack of coal Master William had promised, a sack which would become Jeffy’s burden as he banked and tended the coals and now cooked, come morning, in Mistress Ann’s stead. [1]

“Jeffy,” whispered Elizabeth, “tell us a story of the wood. I’m so afraid Father ‘ill return with more rum.”

Jeffy held her more tightly as little Thomas clutched his arm and they both rested their little brown-haired heads on his shoulders. At eleven he was becoming something of an apprentice grownup, what with the sickness afflicting Mistress Ann and the consequent increased drunkenness of Master William.

He began to gather his thoughts for a fox and dog telling when he heard the dry creak of the gate, heard it twice, above the moaning wind come down off the moors. He held them more tightly—a sign to be still and quiet and to listen for danger. Master William’s brothers were not to be trusted or let in lest the Master be home. The three of them—those big beastly men—had drunk to the wee hours on this New Year’s morn and had all staggered off, Master William saying behind him, “Tend to the children, Jeffy—wait by the door for to help wit’ the coal.”

That had been at one hour past midnight—so the men had said, for there was no clock—and it was now the middle dark of night, that time hours after midnight and hours before dawn which Jeffy had always savored, as a time free of doings, bossings, shoutings, cuffings, beatings and the curses that attended all these and had set his ear afire for these past three years.

The clunking step and reverberant creak of four giant feet sounded on the porch boards without, causing them all to shiver as one, sensing that Master William’s vile brothers had returned to do some mischief.

Should he leap out from under the table and take up the coal rod? No, he was but a flea beneath the downward stooping shoulders of those bullies of men, men who abused men with curses and round blows, looming without as veritable bugger-bears [2] in the night.

Then the door latch lifted, the door creaked open and Master William commanded, “Jeffy, take the coal, boy [3] and return Churchwarden Gaines his sack.”

Jeffy rose quickly from under the table, cast his look down as appropriate, walked to his Master, who stood legs wide braced, a large sack of coal—weighing a good bit more than Jeffy—at his feet. Bending knee, dropping butt, and heaving brought the sack off the floor so that he would not suffer the ten stripes per scratch that had early on been his plight before reaching full boyhood. His eleventh year had seen its first winter, in December, the very month of his birth, though he knew not the date, only the day, Thursday, an unlucky day.

The great coal sack was upended over the coal half-barrel and no dust of cheap coal billowed up as he emptied it, only the rumbling of clean coal upon the barrel bottom. The sound of the door shutting was drowned out by the thudding rumble. Jeffy then folded the sack neat-like, walked up to the two towering men, eyes on Master’s unbuckled shoes and the guest’s boots, holding the sack out in both hands, eyes down—the safest way this was—to keep from running afoul of men by them mistaking your inner thoughts as an affront.

Long cold hands took that sack in theirs. “A fair bargain, William,” voiced the man of the long hands as his long fingers entwined Master William’s thick stubs in the pact-making way.

Not wanting to be cuffed for interrupting or striped for dallying, and knowing the children cold—so cold they remained huddled beneath the table—Jeffy darted to the coal half-barrel, took the scoop from its hangnail on the rim and got to work, expertly so as to reflect good on his Master—

“Jeffy,” roared Master William, and Jeffy stood stark and stiff awaiting the curses and blows…but these did not rain down. Instead, the voice which had ruled him since whelphood, when Father had failed to return from his seafaring and Mother had given him up to Mistress Ann in return for whatever considerations caused grown people to barter their children like so many linens, came an even voice, bordering on kindness despite the rum, “Jeffy, I shall tend the coals. Churchwarden Gains has some way to walk and will not be held back on your account.”

Jeffy just then experienced that which he would have never guessed, a missing of his Master’s house and kin—if not the Master—and staggered toward the men dumbly, his mouth agape.

Churchwarden Gaines was a tall man with long nose and horse face, stern and well-dressed, a shining buckle upon his coat belt. He looked up at the men in a state of incomprehension. How was he—

“Don’t be a fool, boy. Take up your jacket and cap and put on your shoes, they go with you as agreed.”

Jeffy went to the door rack and slipped his bare feet into the hard leather shoes, slid on his coat and donned his cap, holding the coat together with one hand and reaching out with his other hand for the neatly folded coal sack, which he supposed his new master should not be troubled with carrying.

Taking the sack under one arm, he turned to look under the table as the Mason named William pulled open the door. There, under the table, in the half dark that warmly clung, two sets of wide pearly eyes, one squinting with tears, peered out after him.

The door slammed shut behind and the darkness engulfed him as he followed the deeper shadow of his new Master—the cold witch hands of the whispering night finding every hole in jacket and shirt, every threadbare patch and tear in his trousers. Jeffy could not, as he walked behind Churchwarden Gains, overcome the feeling that his friend, the deep night, had turned on him. That settled it then, it was a certainty that the Night was not a child, but a grownup. [4]


2. A person who sodomizes others, often boys

3. Boy meant “servant” and was not to be confused with lad, laddie or son.

4. The mid to late 1600s saw the peak of the Little Ice Age.

Stillbirth of a Nation: Caucasian Slavery in Plantation America: Part One

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