Excerpt from A Fugitive in Walden Woods
To be published in June 2017, by Bellevue Literary Press
I lifted the string out of the water and saw a hook naked of any worm, and so did Henry Thoreau, whose eyes glinted wickedly.
“You’ve been woolgathering!” he chided.
“Let the man alone,” said Hawthorne. “He’s not your–––”
The word slave or nigger hung in the air like a ghost that cannot be exorcised.
Henry cleared his throat with that ahem he was liable to in times of discomfiture.
At that moment, standing foolishly on the shore of Fairhaven Bay, I did not know how to be. It is a simple sentence whose words are quickly, even carelessly said. But it is, perhaps, the most important admission to pass one’s lips or through one’s mind during a lifetime of utterance. The world may turn on it, I think; it may be the pivot and the fulcrum by which all things move. The answer – for it begs a question – determines the direction of the great moral tide that is in ceaseless motion within us and also without us. Jeroboam did not know how to be. Emerson and Garrison knew how to be – Hawthorne, too, I think. Henry was still finding his way. His nature was rougher.
Today, I can admire Henry, but in 1846, he often confused me. I was too habituated by my past to entertain thoughts that were not smoothed by the iron of conformity. Emerson said famously, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What are the mass of men and women, whose minds are small, to do? How are we to be when great minds bid us act this way or that, think one way or another, according to their lights? In our fear and littleness, we cling to our hobgoblins.
Ahem . . .
Having cleared his throat, Henry said, “Samuel, why not explore the cliffs on your own? The view is magnificent: You can see Mount Washusett forty miles off. It will do you good to get off on your own and away from all this talk.”
Talk – miasma of the intellect, a pastime as useless as a child’s game of hide the slipper or snap the whip.
Hawthorne had already taken the pole from me and was striding amid cardinal flowers growing near the shore.
“Give me a fat worm, and I guarantee to raise Leviathan.”
I left them to their comedy and walked across a bog meadow of English grass toward the uplands, feeling – I am almost embarrassed to admit – an expectation akin to the lustfulness that sometimes comes over every man and beast.
Perusing an atlas belonging to Waldo Emerson, I had seen the Congo River winding like a snake across the page. I had been fascinated by it and had felt an inexplicable satisfaction.
“Only the Amazon is mightier,” said Emerson then.
I had just carried an armful of wood into his study for the fireplace, and I did not know what he meant by this lesson in geography.
“The name Congo derives from Kikongo, the language spoken by the Bantu people, who live in the vast forests of West-Central Africa,” he said thoughtfully. “Kikongo was spoken by many of the slaves brought to the Americas.”
Emerson smiled almost beatifically before closing the atlas. I laid the wood on the grate and left him to his thoughts.
With the Sudbury at my feet, I thought that I understood the meaning of his lesson and of my own satisfaction in seeing his finger trace the course of the great river. The Sudbury and the Concord, what were they next to the Congo? What were the Penobscot, Hudson, or Ohio rivers next to it? In America, only the Mississippi was lengthier. And what of the Bantu people who dwelled on the Congo’s shore and within its immense basin? If, in his imagination, Hawthorne could walk from Fairhaven Bay to Germania, could I not travel from the bay to the Congo in mine? The thought was more breathtaking than the view from Fairhaven Hill, which Henry had recommended as an antidote to my sullen discontent.
I watched the two of them in the distance: Hawthorne fiddling with the cane pole, raising Leviathan in his head, while Henry skipped stones. I saw myself commandeering the boat and pressing them into a gang of two to row me across the Middle Passage in reverse. I imagined a clockwork adjusted by the hand of God or the Great Artificer so that time flowed backward, and, as it did, the present shed its hours like rain from a wet dog, until the past became contemporary. There, on the banks of the Congo, beneath African oak, red cedar, and mahogany trees, I spoke Kikongo with a Bantu woman, whose skin was black and soft like night, ate the fish of the river where, at evening, white rhinoceros and buffalo bathed. My hand grown back, I caressed her and fathered children who would never know the fear of the auction block or lash. I sent Henry and Hawthorne home to wintry and austere New England, to their books and their talk of books and to the tea parties of the Transcendentalists, and I was myself at last. At last, I knew how to be.
Is that what you want, Samuel? That fatuous dream of Charles Mercer and his American Colonization Society. To go back to Africa and take up the old life again?
But it was not my old life; it was that of some progenitor laid down in the hold of a ship like firewood or fish to be burned and eaten in the New World. What was Africa to me? Who was I to take satisfaction in its ancient rivers? Who was I to speak Kikongo to the Bantu? For the first time, I thought about my relation to the country in which I had been born and raised, albeit a slave.
Did I hate America? Did I love it? One loves an organ in his body that behaves sweetly and detests it if it should become diseased. Regardless, the organ is his; it belongs to him. Just so does America belong to me in spite of its sickness. Do you think that the parrot in a cage or with a shackle on its leg dreams of the Amazon? I think it dreams of the sky just outside the window, and, if only the cage door or the shackle would open, it would be content to live in the nearest tree, no matter if it grew in Adam’s Woods, Boston Common, or the Bowery.
I saw that my bed had been made, though not by me. Like it or not, I was – Well, I would not have said an American. A slave – a person “indentured or apprenticed for life,” as our duress was sometimes quaintly called – was not one of the people. A slave was counted as three-fifths human for the purpose of taxation and representation in Congress. I was not an American, but America was the place where my life was being lived. Once, I had looked out from my prison and yearned to be in the stand of trees between Jeroboam’s plantation and the river – dreamed even more keenly of being on the river, heading north. Now I was north, standing on a cliff above Fairhaven Bay, fed by the genteel Sudbury, looking down at what might be two lights of the age, or two lunatics, wading in the shallows with their trouser legs rolled up, while the boat, tied to a sunken dwarf willow, sat on the gravel beach like a child’s rendering of Leviathan – or what a fanciful imagination such as Hawthorne’s would have raised into sunlight.
I left the cliff to the birds and the wind; I left Henry and Hawthorne to their prattle and play. I walked through alders and maples and into the chestnut, hickory, and pines of Adam’s Woods. The way darkened beneath the sylvan canopy. I felt alone and happily so, although a part of me hoped to find there a woman who would fulfill Fenda Freeman’s prophecy. I walked with increasing expectations for an hour or more, tripping on sumac bushes and creeper vines in my distraction. But I met no one – not a man, woman, child, or dog – during my aimless ramble.
My expectations defeated, I sat beneath a juniper tree, enjoying its spicy odor. The woods were lively with the movements of birds and small animals that, finding in my life no threat to theirs, went about the business of foraging, nattering, and choiring. I wondered if they entertained ideas of happiness and usefulness, or if those were beside the point of their existence. If they were beside it, what, then, was the point? Unlike the industrious citizens of Concord, be they endowed with superior or ordinary minds, my own existence seemed to have no point at all. I could see little hope for the titmouse or the rabbit.
At another time, I would meet a woman and lie with her – not in Adam’s Woods, but in the old Lincoln graveyard, near the unmarked graves of British grenadiers cut down by Yankee musket balls during the famous retreat. She was named Zilpha, the linen spinner and “Black Circe” of Concord. She acknowledged neither future nor past time, but relished, with avidity, the present hour, which she undertook to fill with pleasures that would have shocked the good ladies of the village. Zilpha was too joyous to condemn, and her pleasures were hardly vices, except in the jaundiced eyes of the pious. There was no love between us – Fenda foresaw that aright in the barley grains and candle wax. We came together only twice, but I glimpsed qualities in the depths of her soul such as might have belonged to a trout: quick-wittedness, grace, a kind of majesty, and a pretty shimmer.
I wish that our congress – to be nice – had not been in a graveyard. I worry that my story will be disbelieved, its truth dismissed as the fantasy of yet another literary striver hoping to turn inauspicious ground into a symbol and his life into a fable. If I had been born someone else – a white man of means and a formal education, a person not necessarily of any distinction, but one rooted in the earth on which he treads, as I had never been – if I had not been born a slave, I, too, would be suspicious of this reminiscence.
Being with Zilpha had not been the revelation I had wished. I might have been a fly lighting on a piece of meat for all the joy I took in her. She took the matter lightly, as she did most things the world treats with solemnity. When we had finished our coupling, she laughed good-naturedly. I felt insulted and turned away from her.
“You’re too serious!” she scolded. “If you didn’t have fun, it’s your own doing.”
I had known no more of desire than a gelding does. Sadder still, I knew next to nothing about love. Whom, in my twenty-three or twenty-four years, had there been to love? I could not recall a mother, father, or any other close relation. I had had no Jonathan or Patroclus and had never touched a woman before Zilpha took me in her dusky arms. Not that I was innocent, as children often are, of amorous scenes. I had never been a child, any more than I had been a man. I had always been a boy. But I had seen a man turn to a woman to ease himself, and I had seen a woman take comfort from a man. Their union had not been like that of animals, nor had it been like that of lovers. Unblessed, they lay on the damp ground, inside a hut worse than any stable, silent and fearful, like thieves breaking into a house.
“You’re an old stick, Samuel,” she said, smoothing the skirt of her dress.
What kind of stick? Soft like pine or hard like hickory? Had it been blackened by Henry’s match, or had it fallen from an ancient oak in the aboriginal forest? Had Alaric used it to sketch a daydream in the dirt outside the walls of Rome? Or was it a stick such as slaves put between their teeth to keep from crying out while they cleaved to each other on the dirt floor where they lay, beside themselves with hopeless, helpless passion?
In Adam’s Woods, I closed my eyes and tried to refuse the questions that were thrown at me – by whom, I could not have said, unless I was my own interrogator. I fell asleep and woke, to find Henry standing over me. He had been careless with his razor. Henry was not vain except of his thoughts and cared nothing for property except for the movable sort that belongs to the mind. The only mirror he owned was three inches in diameter – enough to satisfy himself of his own existence, if not of the symmetry of his beard.
“We thought you’d been taken,” he said lightly.
A tremor passed through me. The fear of being repossessed was never allayed, although I did my best to ignore it. I took comfort in living obscurely, far from the slave states and the great cities of the North, where the hunters searched for fugitives. I had my forged papers, but they would not have fooled a slave catcher. I never felt secure and would not until Emerson and his friends bought me my freedom. But even now, sometimes . . .
“I fell asleep,” I said to Henry as I sat up, half in wonder, half in a stupor.
He gave me a bite of his Saint Michael’s pear, as a priest might when offering the Host.
“We saved your lunch, although I regret there will be no fish supper tonight. Nathaniel caught only a tiny perch that Christ Himself could not multiple into dinner. I’ve little hope for our friend. I left him sulking like Achilles in his tent.”
I laughed, feeling unaccountably relieved. I have in this account of my year in Walden Woods presented Henry in an unattractive light. At times, he could be overbearing, but I have wronged him if the reader thinks he was always so. Just as one could never be quite certain of the color of his eyes, his mood was also variable. The weathercock is sensitive to changes in the air, while the clock at rest on the mantel tends always in a single direction, which is death. It is better, then, to be fickle and absurd than dogmatic and fussily correct.
We walked to the cliff edge and stood there admiring the scenery.
“Sunsets are common as dirt,” said Henry thoughtfully. I feared an aphorism was in the making, and, in the next instant, he delivered it: “But the most glorious emotions grow in them. Only barren hearts are unmoved by twilight.”
Norman Lock has written stage and radio plays, as well as short fiction, poetry, and novels. His most recent productions include a lengthy run of The House of Correction in Istanbul and Ankara and performances in Warsaw and Athens, a staged reading of The Book of Stains in Essen, Germany, and a broadcast by WDR Germany of Mounting Panic. Mounting Panic is presently being translated into Russian. Recent novels include American Meteor and The Boy in His Winter. He is also a regular contributor of scenarios for video-art installations to Visual ArtBeat Magazine, Austria (www.visualartbeat.com). He has won The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities Literary Fiction Award, and writing fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Norman lives outside New York City, in Aberdeen, New Jersey, with his wife, Helen.
To find out more on the “American” novels, visit http://blpress.org/authors/norman-lock/