Hollyhocks and pinks, nasturtiums, chamomile and thyme, my mother planted them all at Monticello, and they grew and prospered, because she had what they call a green thumb in France. "Ceres," TJ would call her sometimes, or "Demeter", which were two names for the goddess of plenty, one in Latin, one in Greek. Of course my mother did not know that, and thought he was renaming her, as white folk sometimes do with their property. It distressed her greatly; names are powerful, and hers was the one thing that remained with her through several owners and fourteen children. Betty Hemings, her name was, and as soon as we could understand, she told us that Hemings was what we were called. Not Eppes, not Wayles, not Jefferson: Hemings. A name of our own.
My mother still nourishes the plants of Monticello, what's left of her. She grew to be more than seventy years, another rare thing for a slave, and died with many of her children beside her. Not me. I was already part of that same earth you're standing on now. They buried me here, though I was a free man by the time I died, and had been for years. Maybe that's why I'm still here, talking to you; it caught me at last, Monticello, that velvet trap. There are plants my mother never knew, beautiful to look at, with colours so bright they burn your eyes, sweet of smell, but if a fly or bee sits on their leaves, they eat that creature whole. Monticello was like that to me, only I always was a stubborn bastard, and so part of me remains unconsumed, still.
But I came back on my own, did I not? Again and again? I came back.
"Jimmy is a boy's name," I said, nineteen years old, feeling bold. We were on a ship together, he and I, on our way to France where he would be the ambassador, and I was to be trained by the finest cooks to become a chef, that's what he had said. The ocean around us, and for the first time in my life there was no land in sight, nothing but the sea, but I was not scared. "I want to be James now, Sir."
I want to be a man was what I meant, I think, and yet more. He smiled at me. The wind whipped his red hair around, and he looked younger than he had for a while, ever since his wife died. His wife who was also my half sister, though she would never have called herself thus. As I said: there is power in a name. The same man had sired her and me, but John Wayles would never have called himself my father, either. While he lived, he was my owner, and my mother's, and her other children's, who were the children of no one by the law of Virginia, which says a child is what their mother is, and no negro may ever make claims about what a white man has done.
"James it shall be," the widower who owned me but never was, nor ever could be my brother-in-law said. He always called me James from that day on, though not many other people did. Like a bad penny, Jimmy stuck with me wherever I went. It is a boy's name, but "boy" is what they called us anyway, all the time. Come here, boy. Go fetch, boy. What are you looking at, boy? Show me your papers, boy.
They asked me for my papers and called me boy the last time I came back to Monticello. I was near forty then, a free man, and he was president. I looked at these men, who'd never left Albemarle County, and thought: I crossed the sea. I saw the last queen of France. I earned my freedom with my body's work, my mind's work, my soul. But if I refused to show you my papers, you could still kill me on this road, and you wouldn't even have to pay a fine, because I'm no one's property anymore, and thus my death is no white man's loss.
You know what they said when I killed myself not a week later? That it proved a man of mixed blood cannot handle freedom, and thus we were all better off in slavery, clearly. It was freedom that drove me mad, they said: or maybe just drink. Either way, my death was a lesson.
If names are power, language is more. My thoughts never had the same shape again after I started to learn French. There were things I had not understood because they had not given us the words to understand them, back in Virginia, not in the English we used in the slave quarters.
Gens de couleur; they called us in France, and with that came that tiny word that changed everything: gens de couleur libre. It took me a while to find out, though. You see, he did not tell me that if he wanted to keep me as a slave in France, he would have had to register me as such with the authorities. He did not tell me that even if he had done so, I could go to the Admiralty Court and sue for my freedom. No such suit had ever been decided against the slave, which was why by the time we got to France, he and I, most owners freed their slaves voluntarily if their slaves asked, or else they would have had to bear the cost of the law suit. No, he did not ever tell me this. What he did tell me was that he would pay me a salary while we were in Paris, just as his white servants earned, and I felt lucky and blessed.
In truth and fairness, he paid me better than most white servants were, which was something else I found out later. Most male servants were paid 100 livres a year, 150 if they were lucky, and they received their wages only half a year or just once a year. A cook in a noble household, which was what I was trained to be, earned up to 250 livres, and also was paid only at the end of each year. I was paid once a month, and earned 288 livres a year. He also paid for my tutor, for I wanted to learn proper French: the language their books were written in , not just the language of the kitchens. He gave me that, perhaps because, loving words as he did, he knew there was no greater gift.
But he never told me that I was a free man, and after I had found out I was, and told him just that, he acted as if I had betrayed him.
He was so easy to love, and so easy to hate. In France, I started to do both, and it ate at me throughout my life. It still does.
I had two languages, and at times it made me feel as if they were spoken by two different people, for surely, James in France was not the same as Jimmy in Virginia. He spoke five. Once I said to Sally that maybe he was five different people, at least, because of that, and you never could be sure which one you were talking to, and she laughed, but she did not say that I was wrong. We often talked in French, Sally and I, at first because it helped her learning it, and later so neither of us would forget, the way our mother had forgotten what African words her own mother had taught her because no one else had ever known what they meant.
In French or English, though, we had no name for him. I refused to call him Master. It was "Sir" to his face, and when I spoke of him, "Mr. Jefferson", or, after hearing some of his white friends use his initials when exasparated with him, TJ. She may have called him Tom when they were alone; I would not know. In public, it was "Master", though not in France, where she was no more known to be a slave than I was: Monsieur le Ambassadeur, which sounded distant and respectful enough but not servile. When we were among ourselves, in France or Virginia, we simply referred to him as lui. There was no other "he" for both of us.
Sally came to France three years after we had arrived there, as a companion for his younger daughter, little Polly, who could not travel on her own, and whom he wanted to live with him. She was fifteen years then, my little sister, wide-eyed, cheerful, and brave enough to go where our older sister Isabel, who was originally supposed to take care of Polly, had begged not to. She needed her courage, too; no sooner had Sally arrived that he wanted her to get inoculated.
This was another of his acts that made me love and hate him at the same time. The smallpox took so many victims then, and free and magical Paris was also dirty Paris, packed with beggars and disease. Some white people were brave enough to dare inoculation, but most were too afraid. "Superstition" he said, as he'd done in Virginia when he had my brothers, Robert, Martin and myself inoculated. But we were together then. Sally was alone when sent her to Dr. Sutton's retreat. Now Dr. Sutton was the most famous doctor in France in those days. He had treated the king himself, and he demanded royal fees, too. But his patients survived where many other doctors only managed to give the smallpox to those poor folk they were supposed to save from it. "You can't argue with success," TJ said, and paid for Sally to get inoculated, as well as for her staying forty days, the prescribed time of isolation. It may have saved her life. But she had only started to learn French, couldn't say more than thank you and no, sir, or ask for the way, and there wasn't anyone there she knew.
He was so curious about the so-called Suttonian method afterwards. He was curious about everything, granted, from the mating habits of birds to how strings for the violins he loved to play were made, but this was more. When Sally told him she had not been cut deeply, but that it had only been a little prick, he was intrigued, because he as well as I and my brothers had been inoculated with a deep incision that thrust what the doctors called "the virus" directly into our blood. Then Sally said she'd been inoculated with an inoculum taken from a patient that already had been treated successfully, not from one suffering from a full-blown case of smallpox, and his eyes lit up.
"Of course," he said. "It makes sense. But how did you find out, my dear?"
Dr. Sutton, a member of a medical family who guarded their method jealously , was not known for freely given explanations. There were some exciting though gruesome tales making the rounds among the servants of various households I knew, and those had not made me feel any better about my little sister being left alone in his retreat.
"Because I don't have much French," Sally replied, "he thought I was dumb and deaf in English as well, Sir."
He laughed, but his eyes kept following her afterwards. I didn't think it meant anything, then. He was still writing to his English lady-love, was he not? A beautiful woman, if married, white, and of his own station. And he was not like John Wayles, whom I had called Master because John Wayles, who took my mother to his bed and had five children by her, was never anything else. He was not like that Peter Carr, his nephew, who'd started to sniff around my sister Critta when we had left Virginia and had not cared one bit that Critta did not fancy him. No, Mr. Jefferson was different.
I had already found out I was a free man in France, but I still thought he was different.
I had found out other things, too. They told us in Virginia that our white owners were beings far superior to us, in everything. Now I didn't need to travel across the sea to have my doubts about the likes of Peter Carr or the late John Wayles, but I could believe it of TJ. He knew so much more than anyone else; ask him about anything, from the way the Indians catch their fish to why the months were called what they were called (those old Romans, again), and he'd tell you. He thought up things that didn't exist before and made them real, like a chair he invented, which you could swivel around in, or a machine that copied his letters as he wrote them. Or the Declaration, the famous Declaration, which even people on the streets could recite. I could well believe he was made off better stuff than the likes of me.
But in Paris, there were many who spoke more than one language, or two, or even three. In Paris, the servants of French households where the American Ambassador visited told me they thought he and his older daughter were poorly dressed, with "quite provincial taste", they said, and his French was old fashioned and not fluent at all, typical for someone who'd learned it from a book. In Paris, houses that were considered huge mansions in Virginia would have been regarded as barely fit for a well to do bookseller. And though many of the French liked the new Ambassador as they had not liked his friend, Mr. Adams before him, and though they were our allies and enemies of the British, they still quoted, with amusement, a remark by that same Dr. Johnson whose dictionary of the English language always travelled with us and which I had to pack and unpack so often. This same Dr. Johnson had asked: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"
I tried not to think about it too often. Then my French grammar teacher, Monsieur Perrault, called me garcon and before I knew it, I was at his throat. For some reason, it enraged me to hear this word in French when I had until that day always accepted it in English. Perrault was surprised and furious and threatened to refuse to teach me any longer. That was more shocking to me than anything else. Because, you see, if a man of colour had attacked a white man in Virginia, he would have been beaten, locked up and hanged, more likely than not. No matter the cause. The only exception would be if the black man was defending his white master or mistress, as my brother Martin had done when the British had come to Monticello. But here I was, beating up a white man for no other reason than that I had felt insulted by what he chose to call me, and it hadn't been an intentional insult on his part. And it never even occurred to him to demand I should be beaten in return.
A black man could beat a white man, and there was no lightning from the sky.
There were other things a black man could do. When we first came to Paris, Mr. Adams and his wife were still there. They and TJ saw each other almost daily; it was the height of their friendship, and when I wasn't learning French or French cuisine, I was waiting on them as they dined or walked together. Now Mr. Adams had been a lawyer once, and so had TJ, but, as he freely admitted, not nearly as successful. They both compared their most difficult cases.
"I once served pro bono," said Mr. Jefferson, "for a man who brought suit to be freed from indentured servitude. His grandmother had been a white woman who had borne a child to a black man."
Mrs. Adams gasped. Now I had overheard her state, more than once, that she thought slavery was wrong. And yet she gasped and said that it had been bad enough for her to watch the play Othello acted on stage in London, with the actor playing the Moor putting "his sooty hand" on the lovely Desdemona, and to imagine that a real white woman accepted such degradation was beyond horrible.
I thought of my mother, and her mother, the black woman from Africa whose language had been forgotten. I thought of the white and the black in me, which anyone looking at me was able to see, and no longer was surprised that Mrs. Adams who thought slavery was wrong did not look at me at all. Maybe she thought my sooty hand would want to touch her.
There were at least a thousand gens de couleur in Paris at that time, many, like me, looking like they had ancestors both white and black, but they did not stick solely to themselves when it came to taking lovers, and there was no reason for me, either. But something else I found out in Paris was that I didn't want a white woman, or for that matter a black one. No, I found out I didn't want any woman at all. My best friend at the American Embassy was Adrien Petit who once took me to a tavern where several men were being overly friendly to each other, even for the French who thought nothing of greeting each other with kisses, and that was how I discovered what we don't have proper words for in English, still. I didn't do anything in that tavern, and I didn't go back there for a while, but I kept thinking about it. And then I found out about Sally.
Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise. She was a pretty thing, Sally was, and she did look a bit like the dead woman he'd buried before we left Virginia. Whatever he had or hadn't done with his Englishwoman, Mrs. Cosway, she was gone back to Britain now, and he made no attempt to see her again. And he was never made to be a monk. His late wife been pregnant six times during the ten years of their marriage, something my mother, who'd raised her, had been angry about, because she'd been fragile, my dead white half sister, and closer to death each time she gave birth.
But I still felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I told myself this was on Sally's behalf, because shouldn't she have been under his protection? She'd been born just before John Wayles died and had never known another owner but him. He'd been all she looked up to and venerated her entire life, and now this?
How could you, I thought, how could you, and that was real enough, but it wasn't all. Because next I imagined what it would feel like to attack him, lunge at him the way I had at Monsieur Perrault. He was a tall man, granted, and quite strong, despite being lean. Like a racehorse, my brother Robert once said about him, not an ounce of fat on him. But still. I had been in several brawls, some of them with field hands who worked all day and were far stronger than him. I imagined that lean body under mine, and that was when I realised half of my sick rage wasn't because he'd chosen my little sister as his bedmate. It was because he hadn't chosen me.
I went out and got drunk until I fell down unconscious, but the headache the next morning didn't let me forget any of it.
The French have a saying: No man is a hero to his valet. By which they mean that once you've helped a man get in and out of his breeches, seen him exhausted, sleeping, belching or farting, you know he's just like you, only richer and more respected. "Created equal", some people would say. But even Adrien Petit, who knew a lot of gentlemen in his time and who had the French wit and disdain about them in full, ended up starry-eyed about TJ, enough so to come to America years later when Mr. Jefferson invited him to serve him there.
So you see why the whole serving thing hadn't saved me, though my service, as opposed to Petit's, had not started by my free will but by him inheriting me when his father-in-law died. And he made it easy for us, my siblings and my mother, to forget at times just what we were to him. Martin, Robert and myself could come and go as we pleased as long as we were at hand when he needed us. (With signed papers; always with signed papers, to show to anyone suspecting us of being runaway slaves.) We didn't have to tell him anything about where we'd been in the meantime, though I found myself doing so anyway, for as I said: he was curious about everything, and he had a gift for making you feel clever yourself when talking about things you'd seen.
And seeing him weak wasn't much of a deterrent, actually. It took his wife three long months to die, and one reason why my mother and sisters loved him then instead of blaming him for her death was that he was right beside them, day and night, nursing her. There was much disapproving talk in Philadelphia about how selfish he was, putting his wife ahead of public service. The pleasures of family life, people said, should not come before serving one's country. Well, TJ thought otherwise, and since "the pleasures of family life" meant being with a sick and then dying woman, he was a hero for that to me and my own family.
But in France, where me coming and going as I pleased when not serving him wasn't a gift from him but my right as a man, in France, where we all learned new things daily, him as well as me, in France, where the sister he was with wasn't white and dying but my own colour and so very much alive, in France where people claimed on the streets that the Queen herself had lovers of either sex, in France everything changed.
"Don't be angry with me," Sally said, who noticed at once when I knew, though she herself never told me.
"I'm not. It's him I'm mad at, sis."
"But you still look at him," she said, my too smart little sister, "and you don't look at me anymore."
So I tried to change that, and ended up looking at them both. If he'd abused her, if I could have believed she only was in his bed because she'd grown up being told his word was law, I could have given myself wholly to righteous fury and run away with her then and there. But she was happy in that final year in Paris, Sally was. She walked through the Hotel de Langeac where our embassy was humming with joy. She had that glow on her people do when they're in love, and so had he. I grew more heart sick every day till I couldn't bear it anymore.
"I want to stay in France," I told him, when talk began his time there was drawing to a close. "It's my right, as a free man."
I'd said it, and I was damn near trembling, but I managed to stand rigid before him.
"I see," he said after a pause. He'd been lounging on a chair, but now he was sitting upright and quite rigidly himself. His eyes had narrowed, and his mouth was pressed together. For the first time in my life, I had managed to make him furious. It felt very satisfying.
"You would rather," he said slowly, "stay among strangers than be with your family?"
As I said: it was as easy to hate him as to love him.
"I would stay where I'm no one's slave, and my family isn't anyone's slave, either."
He stood up at started to pace. "Well, James," he said, each word clipped and sharp, "as one free man to another, then, I'm sure you'll agree theft is unworthy behaviour."
"I'm no thief!" I said, outraged, and thought: you're the thief. You stole our freedom, you and every white man. You're worse than a thief, because you made us love you for it.
"You've become a fine master chef here," he said, the compliment devastating in the way he used it. "Due to the training I paid for, as I paid for your further linguistic education, while also paying for your services at the same time. At the very least, you therefore owe me the expenses for your training and education. Do you want to know how high that sum is?"
Words were his craft, I'd always known that, but this was the first time he'd used them against me.
"If you train a successor with the skills you've learned," he added, his sharp tone growing a bit softer, "then we're even, and if that is still your desire, I shall set you free."
It had taken me years in France to become a master chef. Training someone else would take years as well. Years in Virginia, because we both knew he was about to return there. Years as a slave.
He stepped towards me, and put his hands on my shoulders. "James," he said softly, "France has started to throw off its chains, and it is a glorious time to be here, but also very dangerous. If you were to stay, you might never be able to come home again. Your family would miss you terribly and fear for your life. If you come home with me, you will still have your freedom, but their hearts will be at ease, and you'll be able to visit them often."
The worst thing was that I couldn't even call him a liar. Every word he said was true, and I knew it. But he still was asking me to be a slave again, if I ever stopped being one in the first place, and to receive my freedom from him as a gift instead of taking what was mine by right. I looked at him, in that familiar face I knew every line of, felt his hands on me, those hands that could give shape to dreams and make them real and were now destroying mine.
"If the English king," I said, because I wanted him to understand at least what he was doing to me, "had spoken to you as you do to me now, Sir, would you have agreed to let the Colonies remain his for a few years more?"
His hands fell off me, but he did not step back or turn away.
"There is no comparison," he said quietly. Because he and all those other fine gentlemen who assembled in Philadelphia were white, I thought, and I could have killed him then. Because when he wrote "all men are created equal," what he meant was that all white men born in the Colonies were the equal to all white Englishmen, and no more than that.
"The king," he said, "the king and his parliament were tyrants who used what they had never seen for their own gain. We were no more than money in their pockets to them. They did not love us. And therein lies the difference."
Sally, too, ended up making a bargain with him. Not for her own freedom, no. But she had become pregnant, and however bedazzled by him she was, she'd grown up, as I did, with a mother who'd been the master's concubine and had seen this had not made a whit of difference to that mother's children, who were still slaves.
"My children will not be slaves," she said.
Understand that we could easily have found service elsewhere. Maybe not for as good a salary - as I said, the French lords and ladies were paying their servants once a year, and less than we received - but they regarded having gens de coleur at their service as fashionable. There was a pianist in Paris then, a man with black and white blood in his veins, as we had, one Georges de Boulogne, and his concerts were packed. Now as TJ had said, there were also riots in the streets, and before we left, the French stormed their old prison, the Bastille. But nobody could have known then those lords and ladies would not be in need of the service of master chefs or lady's maids for much longer and would lose their heads, one by one. And the law was on our side, which he knew very well.
You may ask why he bothered to bargain at all. Why he did not simply leave us to our own devices. After all, he'd lived without a master chef trained in French cuisine before, and there were no lack of slave girls available to him back in Virginia.
But that was the core of it, the worst thing, the reason, in the end, why I gambled my freedom on his word, and Sally gambled her children's freedom and lives: he did not lie when he said he loved us. He truly believed he did. And he made us believe it as well.
So he promised Sally he'd set their children free as they came of age. And he did, though I did not live to see it. He kept his promise to me as well. But you see, if he had not been a man of his word, if he had been a cruel and distant tyrant whom we had no reason to believe in, why, then we would have taken our rights just as he and those men in Philadelphia had done, and we'd have been free, not just in word but in spirit.
Maybe we'd have perished in the French Revolution, I don't know about that. I do know they wrote "Liberty or Death" on those flags and banners the white ladies stitched when I was a child and our lords and masters had their own revolution.
But as he said: their king had never mastered that most binding and terrible of skills, that skill called love.
I never knew Monticello as a finished house, the way it is now. He kept building and tearing parts of it down throughout his life, ordering this change and that. It was another of his dreams turned reality, but a reality he was never quite satisfied with, maybe because the dream was so strong. Every time I came back, it was different again. And I did come back.
"Monticello will always be your home," he said when my brother Peter had finished his training and he finally set me free, "I want you to know that. Your life may take you to some dark and lonely places, James, so think of it as a lantern providing warmth and light whenever you require it."
He believed that, too.
I travelled a lot in the first years. Being able to go wherever you please without owing that right to anyone is heady wine. And there were many places I was quite happy, for a time. Then, inevitably, it got to me. The way even people in the Northern States, where most of them were against slavery like Mrs. Adams, were also like her in that their flesh shuddered at the thought of being touched by the likes of me. The way they thought they needed to speak slower and use simple words for me to understand, even though I'd seen more than they ever did, and had two languages at my command. And the damnable way in which I missed not just my mother, my brothers, my sisters, my little nieces and nephews, but him.
Which is why I visited not just Monticello, but Philadelphia where he was, serving as secretary of state to our first President, General Washington. He wasn't very happy there and delighted to see me, eagerly asking for descriptions of the places I'd visited, some of which, like Canada or the deep South, New Orleans where I'd gone because it was French and I missed France as well, he'd never been to.
"You'll travel to the moon next," he said with a smile. "And you must promise to tell me all about it when you come back." When, not if. In his mind, he'd forgiven me for leaving him. I hadn't forgiven him for having owned me, for still owning my family, and I never could decide whether it was worse that he loved me at all, thus ensuring I'd never be truly free of him, or that he didn't love me in the way I wanted.
"They say you'll be the next president, Sir," I said. He grimaced and shook his head. As it turned out, he was right about that; it was Mr. Adams, and by that time, they were not friends anymore. I thought about how intimate they'd been in Paris, and I wondered. Wondered what was better: open argument and a clean cut, or my simmering resentment and the fact I could return.
Sometimes I wished I could ask Mr. Adams whether he'd change places with me if he could. But that was a foolish question, and besides, not one asked by a black man of a white man, not even when both were free. For all men may have been created equal, but they did not stay this way.
It was good to see Adrien Petit again. He'd come to be maitre d'hotel to TJ once more, shortly before I got my freedom, and promptly ran into trouble with some of the other white servants, especially the coachman, Mr. Seche, and his wife. This ended in Mrs. Seche accusing him openly of being a lover of men and the whole affair coming before Mr. Jefferson, who fired the Seches.
"No person shall stay about the house who treats you ill, my friend," he told Petit, who invited me to a celebratory dinner.
"The best man I ever served," he said, satisfied, and was confused that I did not immediately agree. "Let me tell you, no other would have cared how I felt at being insulted for... well, for this."
"Yes," I said. "How is your English, my friend? Good enough to read books now?"
"If I must," he replied, confused at my seeming change of topic.
"You should read a book he published, years ago," I said. "It' s called Notes on the State of Virginia. He writes Africans are a childlike race there, not capable of the same reason or judgment as white people are. He wrote that for all the world to read. Now I don't know what you regard worse, being called a sodomite by a fellow servant or a child without reason by him."
"But," he said, uneasily, "surely he thinks differently of you. You are not truly African, are you? You and your charming sister. Your grandfather and father were white, weren't they?"
Then I knew that even with a man like Petit, true friendship was impossible.
I had never any trouble finding work, but I never agreed to an engagement that I could not leave whenever I wanted. The reason was simple: I did not want any more ties, never again. TJ, being himself, thought I had quite another reason for this.
"Mr. Evans," he told me during one of my visits, referring to an innkeeper we both knew at Baltimore where I was staying at the time, "mentioned that you make your engagements such as to keep yourself always free to come to me. Well, James, if I do win the next election, I shall be in need of a cook worthy of serving a president's table, and I can think of none better than you."
I could have laughed out loud. I could have simply said no. But I did none of those things. For practical reasons, I told myself. No matter our past: no white cook in the entire country could hope for a better position than to serve in the new residence they had built in the new capital they were still building. For a free black man to serve there would be unprecedented. I could return to him under those terms and not feel like I was returning to slavery, like I was going back instead of forward.
"Write to me and I'll come, Sir", I said, perhaps a little too eagerly, for he replied: "I will let you know."
Which was a different thing. Back when I had been his slave, and my liberty of movement had been a gift from him instead of my natural right, that was how he had summoned me. By telling friends, family or aquaintances who were wherever I happened to be at the time to tell me I should come to Monticello, or Philadelphia, wherever he needed me.
This was how he summoned me after he did, indeed, become elected as the third president of the republic he'd helped to create. He told Mr. Evans the innkeeper to tell "my former servant James" he would be glad to receive me as soon as I could come to him.
So this is how he sees it, I thought. How he sees me, still. That I would race towards him by word of mouth, at a message through some white man, just as I had done before.
"I will come as soon as he writes to me," I told Mr. Evans.
This was not Paris. I was no longer a young man in his early twenties. And he was so good at writing; he could damn well do it for me. He could at least give me this. A letter, a letter of my own, from Thomas Jefferson to James Hemings, from the future President to a citizen of his country, offering employment. Not a message to summon a former slave.
There was no letter.
There were a few more messages, but there was no letter from him. He would not let me get the better of him that way, that was the only reason I could think of.
"For God's sake, man," Mr. Evans said exasparatedly, "he is the future leader of this country, there are a million things to prepare, and you expect him to take the time to write to you?"
"Yes," I said.
It had become a symbol to me, that letter: of what he owed me. Of what he hadn't given me. And he never gave it.
Then came a message that he was tired of waiting for me to make up my mind and wrap up my business in Baltimore; he had settled on Honoré Julien, General Washington's old chef. He wrote to Mr. Evans, because, you see, Mr. Evans was a white man who did receive letters, even from the very busy future leader of the country: I would wish James to understand that it was in acquiescance to what I supposed his own wish that I did not repeat my application, after having so long rested on the expectation of having him.
In other words, it was entirely my fault that we would not be together again, he and I. What I should have done was to laugh bitterly and go on living my life, even if it wasn't as the President's cook. But something in me shattered and gave in. I went to the new capital named after the general then, to Washington. When he received me, I saw there were streaks of grey through his red hair. But even though he was old enough to be my father, barely, if he'd sired me as a boy, his movements were those of a young man still, firm and sure. I wanted to shake him and ask whether one single letter had really been too much to demand. I wanted to apologize for making such an issue out of this, because he really had asked for me repeatedly, and that meant something, didn't it?
"I'm here," I said, unable to say more.
He looked at me silently, and in that silence, I heard all I never told him, down to my most shameful secret, that awful envy of my sister Sally, who still was his slave and still shared his bed and still kept bearing him children.
"James," he said, at least not pretending he didn't know what I meant by my arrival, "I can't tell Monsieur Julien that he will not serve here after all. He has family, and he readily agreed as soon as I asked, ending his former engagement."
I could not breathe.
"But," he continued, still looking at me with those familiar eyes, "I would offer you to become my chef de cuisine at Monticello. For a salary of twenty dollars a month, if that is to your satisfaction."
It was twice of what I was earning in Baltimore. But that had never been the issue. He already had a chef at Monticello, my brother Peter, whom he didn't pay anything at all, and we both knew it.
"I missed you," he said.
The last time I saw him was during his August holidays at Monticello. Where we were together again, on his terms, not mine. Did he love me? Did he love my sister? I suppose he did. On his terms, always on his terms, and never ours.
"But those are the only terms anyone ever knows, mon frère," Sally said to me. "Their own."
He was back in the capital, busy being the President, when one of the papers called Virginia Federalist published an article, on September 14th. Yes, I read the journals at Monticello. What else was there to do once he was gone, but wait for his return?
The article claimed to have sources saying that a "Mr. J., a man very high in office" had "a number of yellow children and that he is addicted to golden affections".
I tried to hide it from Sally, who read as avidly as me. Her older children, too, who had their father's curiosity in all things. But I knew that was a fruitless endeavour. There would be more. In Paris, those French journals had called their own Queen a whore, and printed every vile rumour about her you could think of, and some you couldn't. We'd talked about some of the gossip then, Sally and I, with the wide eyed curiosity of foreigners to whom it did not really matter one way or the other whether what the journals were saying was true.
"But it must be horrible for her to read those things," Sally had concluded. Well, she would now read similar things about herself, because it wouldn't remain one lone article, this I knew, and as in Paris, for every article read there would be a hundred people repeating what it said to other people who couldn't read and adding their own spice.
I thought of this. I thought of the patrol I had encountered, demanding my papers, not believing my word when I said I was a free man.
I thought of what my life would be, now that I had given in, now that I was back where I had started, still loving and hating him as fiercely as ever, and without the confidence of my youth that things would become better and I could achieve anything I wanted if I only tried hard enough.
There was a way to leave, I thought. Leave him, leave it all behind, and be free at last. Really free, no more second thoughts, no more being torn apart. Free at last, free for good, free forever.
Four days later, I took that way.
It's not brick, glass, or architected wood that binds me to this place, the house he finally finished, preserved as a monument to him in eternity. Nor is it his tombstone, that obelisk they gave him after he died.
It is the earth, the earth my mother, my mother's earth, still giving life. Hollyhocks and pinks, nasturtiums, chamomile and thyme, sea-kale and spinach, green and new and surprising. We're part of it now, my mother, my siblings, he and I. And if my bitterness and anger endures along with my love, you won't be able to taste it through the plants. Nature is kind this way.
His words keep bringing people back to this place, and as they walk, they touch the wood my brother John carved into exquisite shapes, they walk through the rooms my sister Sally made a home for him, they enter the kitchen where I taught Peter my arts so he could remain a slave and I would be free. And once they leave the house again, the most beautiful of traps, once they breathe the air full of fragrances from the plants we nourish, my family, he and I, that's where they find me as well, if they have ears to listen.
A legacy. A life.