In one of Ben's earliest memories of his mother, it's dark and she holds his small arm in a bruising grip. He thinks they are probably in the slave cabin on Bellefleur plantation, but he's not entirely sure. For all that he still remembers it vividly, he remembers nothing of their surroundings. Everything of that memory is tied up in his fear and his mother's painful grip and the scorching stink of the iron poker she just heated in the coals of the cookfire.
"It will only hurt for a minute," she tells him, and she turns his arm over so she can see what she's doing. Maybe they're outside, then. He doesn't remember. All he remembers is trying to pull away. He can't scream; she stuffed a rag into his mouth to keep him quiet.
He will always remember the way his burning flesh smells when she sears him with the iron.
After, she doctors the burn with brisk, efficient hands. There is no tenderness in his mother, at least not for him, but she is not intentionally cruel -- not in that way, at least. She smears it with salve and wraps it with the same cloth that she used earlier for a gag.
He still has a scar there, a pale twist of flesh on the inside of his arm. He doesn't remember what the mark looked like before Livia burned it off. He only knows that she has a similar scar; hers is on her upper arm, made by a mother or grandmother or auntie in that long-ago, hard-to-imagine time when she, too, was a child.
It is something that was done for every child on the plantation -- for every child on most plantations, as far as Ben knows. He has only rarely met a slave or former slave who still has their mark. Any parent would do anything to spare their child future pain.
Rose has hers, of course, and it is (unsurprisingly) a rose, or at least a delicate pattern that could be taken for one, pale against the brown skin of her ankle. Ben will never know if his would have matched, any more than he knows if it would have matched the neat stitching on Ayasha's thigh.
This is one gift, at least, he can give his children. Whether their marks come in early or late, no child of his will ever lose theirs, not if Ben has anything to say about it.
It's not something he ever means to look at -- but he can't help it; his eyes travel over other people's skin (half-clothed patients, shirtless dock workers, a woman's exposed hand or cheek), catching a twisting pattern here, a delicate rosette there. Most of the libres have them, although some don't. It's harder to see them on white skin, because he almost never sees more of white men (let alone white women) than their hands and faces. (The only white person whose mark he knows well is Hannibal's; it looks a lot like Rose's, though not precisely the same -- it could be read as something more like a violin -- and it's on Hannibal's neck, just above his collarbone.)
But he is well aware that the marks are there. No white woman or man ever had theirs burned off in childhood. He has never met a white person, American or French or Creole, who wears the kind of scar that Ben does.
... Except for one.
And it takes him a long time, maybe longer than it should have, to figure it out. It's not like Shaw's entire body isn't a map of scars anyway. The trip to the mountains is what does it -- all those months of living in close proximity, seeing each other in all states of undress. It makes him realize that while most of Shaw's scars are obvious in origin (a knife here, a bullet there, parallel scratches across his ribs that look like they were left by an animal's claws) there's one that's different, and it's on his forearm, not actually that far from the place where January bears his own knot of scar tissue. It looks like something was gouged out with a knife. There is no soulmark anywhere else on Shaw's body that Ben has ever seen, and he's certainly seen enough of Shaw by now to have a pretty good idea that there probably isn't one.
And he knows just enough about Shaw's past by now -- the wife spoken of only once, the trip down the river to the city that became permanent -- to guess whose hand had gouged that mark out. But he doesn't know for sure. Will never know for sure, because he doesn't intend to ask. He's picked up on enough of Shaw's childhood to know that it's also possible that this kind of home surgery was done for children in Shaw's house too, as it was for January and his sister. They might do that, up in those Kentucky woods.
He'll never know whose mark his would have matched. But it does intrigue him to think that (through what Rose would probably call chance, Hannibal would call fate, and Ben prefers to think of as the hand of God) the person among those close to him who in fact comes closest to sharing his mark is Shaw -- through shared tragedy if nothing else.
"Somethin' I can do for you, Maestro?" Shaw asks dryly as he pulls on a shirt that's marginally less dirty than the one he just took off.
Ben bends to lace up his boots in the shared tent. Hannibal is already outside. "No, nothing," he says, but he can't help thinking that it's actually everything.