PRENTICE ALVIN (Chapter 1:The over seer)
LET ME START my history of Alvin’s prenticeship where things first began to go wrong. It was a long way south, a man that Alvin had never met nor never would meet in all his life. Yet he it was who started things moving down the path that would lead to Alvin doing what the law called murder—on the very day that his prenticeship ended and he rightly became a man.It was a place in Appalachee, in 1811, before Appalachee signed the Fugitive Slave Treaty and joined the United States. It was near the borders where Appalachee and the Crown Colonies meet, so there wasn’t a White man but aspired to own a passel of Black slaves to do his work for him.
Slavery, that was a kind of alchemy for such White folk, or so they reckoned. They calculated a way of turning each bead of a Black man’s sweat into gold and each moan of despair from a Black woman’s throat into the sweet clear sound of a silver coin ringing on the money-changer’s table. There was buying and selling of souls in that place. Yet there was nary a one of them who understood the whole price they paid for owning other folk.
Listen tight, and I’ll tell you how the world looked from inside Cavil Planter’s heart. But make sure the children are asleep, for this is a part of my tale that children ought not to hear, for it deals with hungers they don’t understand too well, and I don’t aim for this story to teach them.
Cavil Planter was a godly man, a church-going man, a tithepayer. All his slaves were baptized and given Christian names as soon as they understood enough English to be taught the gospel. He forbade them to practice their dark arts—he never allowed them to slaughter so much as a chicken themselves, lest they convert such an innocent act into a sacrifice to some hideous god. In all ways Cavil Planter served the Lord as best he could.
So, how was the poor man rewarded for his righteousness? His wife, Dolores, she was beset with terrible aches and pains, her wrists and fingers twisting like an old woman’s. By the time she was twenty-five she went to sleep most nights crying, so that Cavil could not bear to share the room with her.
He tried to help her. Packs of cold water, soaks of hot water, powders and potions, spending more than he could afford on those charlatan doctors with their degrees from the University of Camelot, and bringing in an endless parade of preachers with their eternal prayers and priests with their hocum pocus incantations. All of it accomplished nigh onto nothing. Every night he had to lie there listening to her cry until she whimpered, whimper until her breath became a steady in and out, whining just a little on the out-breath, a faint little wisp of pain.
It like to drove Cavil mad with pity and rage and despair. For months on end it seemed to him that he never slept at all. Work all day, then at night lie there praying for relief. If not for her, then for him.
It was Dolores herself who gave him peace at night. “You have work to do each day, Cavil, and can’t do it unless you sleep. I can’t keep silent, and you can’t bear to hear me. Please—sleep in another room.”
Cavil offered to stay anyway. “I’m your husband, I belong here”—he said it, but she knew better.
“Go,” she said. She even raised her voice. “Go!”
So he went, feeling ashamed of how relieved he felt. He slept that night without interruption, a whole five hours until dawn, slept well for the first time in months, perhaps years—and arose in the morning consumed with guilt for not keeping his proper place beside his wife.
In due time, though, Cavil Planter became accustomed to sleeping alone. He visited his wife often, morning and night. They took meals together. Cavil sitting on a chair in her room, his food on a small side table, Dolores lying in bed as a Black woman carefully spooned food into her mouth while her hands sprawled on the bedsheets like dead crabs.
Even sleeping in another room, Cavil wasn’t free of torment. There would be no babies. There would be no sons to raise up to inherit Cavil’s fine plantation. There would be no daughters to give away in magnificent weddings. The ballroom downstairs—when he brought Dolores into the fine new house he had built for her, he had said, “Our daughters will meet their beaux in this ballroom, and first touch their hands, the way our hands first touched in your father’s house.” Now Dolores never saw the ballroom. She came downstairs only on Sundays to go to church and on those rare days when new slaves were purchased, so she could see to their baptism.
Everyone saw her on such occasions, and admired them both for their courage and faith in adversity. But the admiration of his neighbors was scant comfort when Cavil surveyed the ruins of his dreams. All that he prayed for—it’s as if the Lord wrote down the list and then in the margin noted “no, no, no” on every line.
The disappointments might have embittered a man of weaker faith. But Cavil Planter was a godly, upright man, and whenever he had the faintest thought that God might have treated him badly, he stopped whatever he was doing and pulled the small psaltery from his pocket and whispered aloud the words of the wise man.
i In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; i Bow down thine ear to me; i Be thou my strong rock.
He concentrated his mind firmly, and the doubts and resentments quickly fled. The Lord was with Cavil Planter, even in his tribulations.
Until the morning he was reading in Genesis and he came upon the first two verses of chapter 16.
i Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from hearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid: it may be that I may obtain children by her.
At that moment the thought came into his mind, Abraham was a righteous man, and so am I. Abraham’s wife bore him no children, and mine likewise has no hope. There was an African slavewoman in their household, as there are such women in mine. Why shouldn’t I do as Abraham did, and father children by one of these?
The moment the thought came into his head, he shuddered in horror. He’d heard gossip of White Spaniards and French and Portuguese in the jungle islands to the south who lived openly with Black women—truly they were the lowest kind of creature, like men who do with beasts. Besides, how could a child of a Black woman ever be an heir to him? A mix-up boy could no more take possession of an Appalachee plantation than fly. Cavil just put the thought right out of his mind.
But as he sat at breakfast with his wife, the thought came back. He found himself watching the Black woman who fed his wife. Like Hagar, this woman is Egyptian, isn’t she? He noticed how her body twisted lithely at the waist as she bore the spoon from tray to mouth. Noticed how as she leaned forward to hold the cup to the frail woman’s lips, the servant’s breasts swung down to press against her blouse. Noticed how her gentle fingers brushed crumbs anddrops from Dolores’s lips. He thought of those fingers touching i him, and trembled slightly. Yet it felt like an earthquake inside him.
He rushed from the room with hardly a word. Outside the house, he clutched his psaltery.
i Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, i And cleanse me from my sin. iFor I acknowledge my transgressions: i And my sin is ever before me.
i Foras he whispered these words, he looked up and saw the field women washing themselves at the trough. There was the young girl he had bought only a few days before, six hundred dollars even though she was small, since she was probably breeding stock. So fresh from the boat she was that she hadn’t learned a speck of Christian modesty. She stood there naked as a snake, leaning over the trough, pouring cups of water over her head and down her back.
Cavil stood transfixed, watching her. What had only been a brief thought of evil in his wife’s bedroom now became a trance of lust. He had never seen anything so graceful as her blue-black thighs sliding against each other, so inviting as her shiver when the water ran down her body.
Was this the answer to his fervent psalm? Was the Lord telling him that it was indeed with him as it had been with Abraham?
Just as likely it was witchery. Who knew what knacks these fresh-from-Africa Blacks might have? She knows I’m here a-watching, and she’s tempting me. These Blacks are truly the devil’s own children, to excite such evil thoughts in me.
He tore his gaze from the new girl and turned away, hiding his burning eyes in the words of the book. Only somehow the page had turned—when did he turn it?—and he found himself reading in the Song of Solomon.
i Thy two breasts are like two young roes i That are twins, which feed among the lilies.
“God help me,” he whispered. “Take this spell from me.”
Day after day he whispered the same prayer, yet day after day he found himself watching his slavewomen with desire, particularly that newbought girl. Why was it God seemed to be paying him no mind? Hadn’t he always been a righteous man? Wasn’t he good to his wife? Wasn’t he honest in business? Didn’t he pay tithes and offerings? Didn’t he treat his slaves and horses well? Why didn’t the Lord God of Heaven protect him and take this Black spell from him?
Yet even when he prayed, his very confessions became evil imaginings. O Lord, forgive me for thinking of my newbought girl standing in the door of my bedroom, weeping at the caning she got from the overseer. Forgive me for imagining myself laying her on my own bed and lifting her skirts to anoint them with a balm so powerful the welts on her thighs and buttocks disappear before my eyes and she begins to giggle softly and writhe slowly on the sheets and look over her shoulder at me, smiling, and then she turns over and reaches out to me and—O Lord, forgive me, save me!
Whenever this happened, though, he couldn’t help but wonder—why do such thoughts come to me even when I pray? Maybe I’m as righteous as Abraham; maybe it’s the Lord who sent these desires to me. Didn’t I first think of this while I was reading scripture? The Lord can work miracles—what if I went in unto the newbought girl and she conceived, and the Lord worked a miracle and the baby was born White? All things are possible to God.
This thought was both wonderful and terrible. If only it were true! Yet Abraham heard the voice of God, so he never had to wonder about what God might want of him. God never said a word to Cavil Planter.
And why not? Why didn’t God just tell him right out? Take the girl, she’s yours! Or, Touch her not, she is forbidden! Just let me hear your voice, Lord, so I’ll know what to do!
i O Lord my rock; i Unto thee will I cry,i Be not silent to me: i Lest, if thou be silent to me, i I become like them i That go down into the pit.
On a certain day in 1810 that prayer was answered.
Cavil was kneeling in the curing shed, which was mostly empty, seeing how last year’s burly crop was long since sold and this year’s was still a-greening in the field. He’d been wrestling in prayer and confession and dark imaginings until at last he cried out, “Is there no one to hear my prayer?”
“Oh, I hear you right enough,” said a stern voice.
Cavil was terrified at first, fearing that some stranger—his overseer, or a neighbor—had overheard some terrible confession. But when he looked, he saw that it wasn’t anyone he knew. Still, he knew at once i what the man was. From the strength in his arms, his sun-browned face, and his open shirt—no jacket at all—he knew the man was no gentleman. But he was no White trash, either, nor a tradesman. The stern look in his face, the coldness of his eye, the tension in his muscles like a spring tight-bound in a steel trap: He was plainly one of those men whose whip and iron will keep discipline among the Black fieldworkers. An overseer. Only he was stronger and more dangerous than any overseer Cavil had ever seen. He knew at once that i this overseer would get every ounce of work from the lazy apes who tried to avoid work in the fields. He knew that whoever’s plantation was run by i this overseer would surely prosper. But Cavil also knew that he would never dare to hire such a man, for this overseer was so strong that Cavil would soon forget who was man and who was master.
“Many have called me their master,” said the stranger. “I knew that you would recognize me at once for what I am.”
How had the man known the words that Cavil thought in the hidden reaches of his mind? “Then you i are an overseer?”
“Just as there was one who was once called, not a master, but simply Master, so am I not i an overseer, but i the Overseer.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Because you called for me.”
“How could I call for you, when I never saw you before in my life?”
“If you call for the unseen, Cavil Planter, then of course you will see what you never saw before.”
Only now did Cavil fully understand what sort of vision it was he saw, there in his own burly curing shed. A man whom many called their master, come in answer to his prayer.
“Lord Jesus!” cried Cavil.
At once the Overseer recoiled, putting up his hand as if to fend off Cavil’s words. “It is forbidden for any man to call me by that name!” he cried.
In terror, Cavil bowed his head to the dirt. “Forgive me, Overseer! But if I am unworthy to say your name, how is it I can look upon your face? Or am I doomed to die today, unforgiven for my sins?”
“Woe unto you, fool,” said the Overseer. “Do you really believe that you have looked upon my i face?”
Cavil lifted his head and looked at the man. “I see your eyes even now, looking down at me.”
“You see the face that you invented for me in your own mind, the body conjured out of your own imagination. Your feeble wits could never comprehend what you saw, if you saw what I truly am. So your sanity protects itself by devising its own mask to put upon me. If you see me as an Overseer, it is because that is the guise you recognize as having the greatness and power I possess. It is the form that you at once love and fear, the shape that makes you worship and recoil. I have been called by many names. Angel of Light and Walking Man, Sudden Stranger and Bright Visitor, Hidden One and Lion of War, Unmaker of Iron and Water-bearer. Today you have called me Overseer, and so, to you, that is my name.”
“Can I ever know your true name, or see your true face, Overseer?”
The Overseer’s face became dark and terrible, and he opened his mouth as if to howl. “Only one soul alive in all the world has ever seen my true shape, and that one will surely die!”
The mighty words came like dry thunder and shook Cavil Planter to his very root, so that he gripped the dirt of the shed floor lest he fly off into the air like dust whipped away in the wind before the storm. “Do not strike me dead for my impertinence!” cried Cavil.
The Overseer’s answer came gentle as morning sunlight. “Strike you dead? How could I, when you are a man I have chosen to receive my most secret teachings, a gospel unknown to priest or minister.”
“Already I have been teaching you, and you understood. I know you desire to do as I command. But you lack faith. You are not yet completely mine.”
Cavil’s heart leapt within him. Could it be that the Overseer meant to give him what he gave to Abraham? “Overseer, I am unworthy.”
“Of course you are unworthy. None is worthy of me, no, not one soul upon this earth. But still, if you obey, you may find favor in my eyes.”
Oh, he will! cried Cavil in his heart, yes, he will give me the woman! “Whatever you command, Overseer.”
“Do you think I would give you Hagar because of your foolish lust and your hunger for a child? There is a greater purpose. These Black people are surely the sons and daughters of God, but in Africa they lived under the power of the devil. That terrible destroyer has polluted their Mood—why else do you think they are Black? I can never save them as long as each generation is born pure Black, for then the devil owns them. How can I reclaim them as my own, unless you help me?”
“Will my child be born White then, if I take the girl?”
“What matters to me is that the child will not be born pure Black. Do you understand what I desire of you? Not one Ishmael, but many children; not one Hagar, but many women.”
Cavil hardly dared to name the secretest desire of his heart. “All of them?”
“I give them to you, Cavil Planter. This evil generation is your property. With diligence. you can prepare another generation that will belong to me.”
“I will, Overseer!”
“You must tell no one that you saw me. I speak only to those whose desires already turn toward me and my works, the ones who already thirst for the water I bring.”
“I’ll speak no word to any man, Overseer!”
“Obey me, Cavil Planter, and I promise that at the end of your life you will meet me again and know me for what I truly am. In that moment I will say to you, You are mine, Cavil Planter. Come and be my true slave forever.”
“Gladly!” cried Cavil. “Gladly! Gladly!”
He flung out his arms and embraced the Overseer’s legs. But where he should have touched the visitor, there was nothing. He had vanished.
From that night on. Cavil Planter’s slavewomen had no peace. As Cavil had them brought to him by night, he tried to treat them with the strength and mastery he had seen in the face of the fearful Overseer. They must look at me and see His face, thought Cavil, and it’s sure they did.
The first one he took unto himself was a certain newbought slavegirl who had scarce a word of English. She cried out in terror until he raised the welts upon her that he had seen in his dreams. Then, whimpering, she permitted him to do as the Overseer had commanded. For a moment, that first time, he thought her whimpering was like Dolores’s voice when she wept so quietly in bed, and he felt the same deep pity that he had felt for his beloved wife. Almost he reached out tenderly to the girl as he had once reached out to comfort Dolores. But then he remembered the face of the Overseer and thought, this Black girl is His enemy; she is my property. As surely as a man must plow and plant the land God gave to him, I must not let this Black womb lie fallow.
Hagar, he called her that first night. You do not understand how I am blessing you.
In the morning he looked in the mirror and saw something newin his face. A kind of fierceness. A kind of terrible hidden strength. Ah, thought Cavil, no one ever saw what I truly am, not even me. Only now do I discover that what the Overseer is, I also am.
He never felt another moment’s pity as he went about his nightly work. Ashen cane in hand, he went to the women’s cabin and pointed at the one who was to come with him. If any hung back, she learned from the cane how much reluctance cost. If any other Black, man or woman, spoke in protest, the next day Cavil saw to it that the Overseer took it out of them in blood. No White guessed and no Black dared accuse him.
The newbought girl, his Hagar, was first to conceive. He watched her with pride as her belly began to grow. Cavil knew then that the Overseer had truly chosen him, and he took fierce joy in having such mastery. There would be a child, i his child. And already the next step was clear to him. If his White blood was to save as many Black souls as possible, then he could not keep his mix-up babes at home, could he? He would sell them south, each to a different buyer, to a different city, and then trust the Overseer to see that they in turn grew up and spread his seed throughout all the unfortunate Black race.
And each morning he watched his wife eat her breakfast. “Cavil, my love,” she said one day, “is something wrong? There’s something darker in your face, a look of—rage, perhaps, or cruelty. Have you quarreled with someone? I would not speak except you —you frighten me.”
Tenderly he patted his wife’s twisted hand as the Black woman watched him under heavy-lidded eyes. “I have no anger against any man or woman,” said Cavil gently. “And what you call cruelty is nothing more than mastery. Ah, Dolores, how can you look in my face and call me cruel?”
She wept. “Forgive me,” she cried. “I imagined it. You, the kindest man I’ve ever heard of—the devil put such a vision in my mind, I know it. The devil can give false visions, you know, but only the wicked are deceived. Forgive me for my wickedness, Husband!”
He forgave her, but she wouldn’t stop her weeping until he hadsent for the priest. No wonder the Lord chose only men to be his prophets. Women were too weak and compassionate to do the work of the Overseer.
That’s how it began. That was the first footfall on this dark and terrible path. Nor Alvin nor Peggy ever knew this tale until I found it out and told them both long after, and they recognized at once that it was the start of all.
But I don’t want you to think this was the whole cause of all the evil that befell, for it wasn’t. There were other choices made, other mistakes, other lies and other willing cruelties done. A man might have plenty of help finding the short path to hell, but no one else can make him set foot upon it.
PRENTICE ALVIN Copyright © 1989 by Orson Scott Card