The year 579, the ninth month. (The year 1954 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
Hannibal S. Mercer spent the night beside a secluded creek in the northwestern woods of Barren Island, trying to choose a proper fishing lure. Nothing he tried worked, so he decided to camp out; though it was early autumn, nighttime remained warm. In the morning, he might find the lure he sought.
Bert discovered him there next morning, sleeping peacefully. After that, of course, there was no question of Hannibal staying to lure the fish.
He outraced Bert home, pausing as he reached the clearing between loblolly pines where his parents' house lay. The clearing was well hidden from the shore, but the training he had received since his marking held true. He made sure that his long sleeves fell over his wrists, as his parents had long ago taught him, for reasons he still did not know.
Through a gap in the woods, he glimpsed the double-masted Elsie Pembroke sailing by, its crewmen and culling boys busy at work on the deck. He usually waved to the culling boys when the Elsie Pembroke passed, merely for the fun of knowing that the boys there didn't realize he was a young master; they thought he was a servant like themselves.
Besides, they were the only boys he ever saw. Even Captain Pembroke had stopped coming to dinner, long ago.
Turning his thoughts from the fishing boat, he hurried inside. As he closed the door to the single-floor house, he saw that Ray, dressed in the uniform he never seemed to take off, was pacing outside the bedroom of Hannibal's parents. Then the young servant sighted Hannibal.
"Sir!" Ray's voice soared high. He was apprentice-aged also, two sun-circuits older than Hannibal, who had just finished his twelfth sun-circuit. Ray had served Hannibal's family since well before apprentice age, for he was an orphan, with no close relations to care for him.
"You must treat him kindly, son," Hannibal's father had said. "He will make a good valet for you when you're older, if you treat him well. In the meantime" – he glanced at Hannibal's mother, with one of those odd looks they exchanged from time to time – "he can be an occasional playmate, since you don't know any other young masters."
Now Ray hurried over to him, anxiousness clear upon his face. "Sir, Bert went for you—"
"He found me." As he spoke, Hannibal heard the squeak of hinges on the back door that led to the kitchen. Quite properly, Bert had entered the house by way of the servants' entrance. Hannibal impatiently began to shrug his way out of his overcoat. "How are they?"
Ray's silence was the answer he had dreaded. Hannibal stood rooted, coldness spreading through his body. Finally he croaked out: "When?"
"Mastress died at dawn, sir. Master died an hour ago." Then, seeing the shock in Hannibal's face, Ray added hurriedly, "Sir, I wanted to fetch you right quick! But I'd got to stay here while Bert fetched the doctor. Then Doctor said we might be needed if he sent for the ambulance boat. . . . They died faster than Doctor expected."
Hannibal continued to stand motionless, though Ray was now helping him out of his overcoat. "It was food poisoning, Bert said."
"Yes, sir. From last night's dessert. They both ate it."
Something beyond his parent's deaths penetrated Hannibal then. He looked over his shoulder at Ray, who was carefully hanging the overcoat on the rack. "Did you and Bert eat the leftovers?"
"No, sir. Mastress Mercer ordered us to put aside the rest of the dessert for you. They were expecting you back yesterday evening."
"I couldn't find the right lure," he said helplessly. He looked at the bedroom door. He would have to go in. And after that . . .
What lay after that he had no idea. He knew no one in the world except his parents and their servants. His parents had made sure of that.
Bert entered the parlor. He was old and deaf; he'd spoken maybe a dozen sentences to Hannibal during Hannibal's life, the last one being, "Master and Mastress are food-poisoned." He had served Hannibal's father since before Hannibal was born. Hannibal's mother had made do without a servant for as long as Hannibal could remember. She said she enjoyed doing women's work, although Hannibal suspected otherwise and had taken over the work of cooking and cleaning as soon as he was old enough. His parents, naturally, were troubled by his easy adoption of servants' work, but they made no efforts to hire a third servant. They valued their privacy to a high degree.
Hannibal took hold of the latch to his parents' bedroom door. Behind him, Ray and Bert seemed to be in some furious debate; he heard Ray say, "You tell him." Hannibal took no notice; he was bracing himself for what he would see.
They looked as though they were sleeping. They lay on the double bed together, side by side, with the blankets pulled up to their chests. Their eyes were closed. His mother was in the gown she wore at night; his father was in a nightshirt. On the dresser lay their day clothes in a neat pile. His father's pocket-watch lay silent; it had not been wound for the day.
Sitting with his back to the scene, scribbling into a book he had laid upon Master Mercer's desk, was a man whom Hannibal supposed must be the doctor, for a medical bag rested on the floor beside him. Hannibal went over to stand by the bed. He touched his mother's cheek; it was cold and stiff. The dead watch bothered him. He picked it up, intending to wind it.
At that moment, the doctor turned in his chair. He said abruptly, "Are you the other servant?"
Evidently, the doctor was the sort of man who couldn't keep track of how many servants were around him. "No, sir," replied Hannibal politely. "I'm their son."
"Oh, dear." The doctor's voice changed. "I'm sorry; I didn't realize . . . Well, you'd better come here. I'm preparing the official notice of death. I'll need information from you."
Hannibal went over to the desk, which was bright with sunlight. He was used to seeing the room dimly lit; his parents preferred to keep the house's shades closed, day or night. Now the window was up and the open shades stirred as the moist smell of marshland entered the house.
"Name of closest kin?" asked the doctor, his gaze directed to the book before him.
Hannibal gave his full name and then spelled it at the doctor's urging.
"Any other living siblings?"
"Are their parents and siblings living?"
He stopped himself just in time from saying, "I don't know." Instead, he replied, "My parents were born on the mainland, sir. None of my other relatives have visited here. I'm not sure of their names or where they live."
"Hmm." The doctor took this news in stride, leaving that line blank. "Faith?"
"Ah . . . yes?" Then, as the doctor turned a fretful eye toward him, Hannibal added lamely, "We pray every day for rebirth into a better life, sir. I mean, we prayed."
The doctor wrote down, "Denomination unknown." Aloud, he said, "Since there's only one cleric on this island, you'd best notify him. Cleric Courtman; he cares for the chapel in town."
"Thank you, sir." He knew where the town stood, more or less. The houses on Barren Island were spaced widely apart, but his parents had told him of a place where the community buildings were gathered: a chapel, a school, a grocer's store. He'd never seen the town, but Ray went there weekly to buy groceries for their family.
"You'll need to sign this." The doctor offered his pen to Hannibal. Hannibal leaned forward to take it; as he did so, his shirt tightened and his sleeves rode up, exposing his wrists.
"What?" The doctor snatched back the pen. "How dare you engage in such a masquerade! And at a time like this!"
Hannibal stepped back, confused and frightened, not so much because of the doctor's words as because he was aware that he had violated his parents' strict orders concerning his clothing. He had always assumed that a boy showing off his wrists was as shameless as a woman showing off her knees. From the doctor's outraged reaction, it seemed this was true.
Behind him, the door opened. Before Hannibal could see which of the servants had entered, the doctor rose and grabbed his shirt-front, shaking him. "That is a very, very poor way to show respect for the dead!" he shouted as Hannibal, astonished, tried to decide what he should do. "Shameful! Shameful!"
"Sir!" It was Ray; he managed to insert himself in front of Hannibal, so that the doctor was forced to release his grasp. "Sir, he don't know! He don't know!"
He was speaking to the doctor, rather than to Hannibal. The doctor frowned. "That is absurd."
Ray glanced at Hannibal and then leaned forward and whispered in the doctor's ear. All that Hannibal could hear were the words master and mastress.
"This is shocking," declared the doctor, but he seemed to have lost his fire, for he gathered up his book and bag. "You will have to deal with this. It is not my job. One of you must notify the cleric, since there is no one else to do so." He swept out of the room before Hannibal could ask him what he meant.
The parlor had been lovingly decorated by Hannibal's mother, partly from family heirlooms, partly from trinkets that Hannibal's father brought home from his occasional trips to the mainland. Though only a third-ranked master, his father received investment money from which he supported the family; he rarely left home, but when he returned, he always brought gifts for his wife and son. The table was covered with a lace cloth; the rug was an expensive import; a piano stood in the corner of the parlor, which his mother would play during the evenings while all three of them sang. Sometimes Ray sang too, though he was shy about joining his voice with that of his master and mastress. Bert merely worked steadily in the background, shining his master's shoes.
There was a glass cabinet too, filled with fine china pieces in the shape of little animals. Hannibal had always loved them, though even as a young boy he had obeyed his mother's instructions not to touch the delicate pieces. Instead, he had played with the toys his father brought home: stuffed animals, model boats, and a board game called the Cyclical Game of Life. Recently, his father had brought balls and racquets so that Hannibal could play lawn tennis with Ray.
Now, gazing around the room filled with his mother's inheritance and his father's gifts, Hannibal wondered what he would do with it all. He could continue to keep the house going with the help of Ray and Bert, he supposed, but would his father's investments be enough to last him to adulthood?
"I need a job." He spoke the words aloud, in wonder. He had never contemplated such a course of action, for his twenty-first birthday was far away. At most, he had wondered whether he should enter training when he reached journeyman age at seventeen. Apprentice-aged masters, such as himself, usually attended school, but his mother had taught him at home.
"Do you suppose I could work as a clerk in an office?" he asked Ray, who had been standing beside him all this time.
"Sir," Ray began uncertainly, but whatever he had intended to say was interrupted as the front door banged open.
They both jumped, turning to look. Two strangers entered the room. One was a bushy-bearded fellow about the age of Hannibal's father; he was chomping on a cigar. Beside him, clean-shaven and neatly dressed, another man scanned the room. His gaze slid over Hannibal and Ray as though they didn't exist.
"We should get a fair amount for this," said the bearded fellow with evident satisfaction.
"Not enough," replied the clean-shaven man. "Perhaps he kept savings in a lockbox. Let's check the bedroom."
Hannibal managed to find his tongue. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The bearded fellow glanced at him and then turned his eyes toward the china figures. "Debt collectors, sonny. We're here to collect what's due."
Hannibal looked over at Ray. Ray looked back. He appeared as mystified as Hannibal was.
Glancing their way again, the bearded fellow emitted a low chuckle. "Servants are always the last to know. Your master was up to his hat in debt, youngster. Began borrowing money ages ago; kept saying he'd pay it back but never did." As Hannibal stiffened with horror, the bearded fellow added, "That cabinet should be worth something, anyway. Youngster, I need that carried away. Our cart is outside."
Furious at being ignored during this shattering conversation, Hannibal spoke up before Ray could reply. "How did you know they were entered into rebirth?"
"The doctor raised red and green banners at your wharf, to signal the undertaker that a man and woman had died." It was the clean-shaven man, who seemed more considerate; he looked at Hannibal as he spoke. "The Elsie Pembroke brought news of the banners a short time ago. Everyone in town is discussing the deaths."
The bearded fellow snorted as he opened the piano lid to look inside. "They talk about this place all the time. No one's seen Mercer and his wife for tri-years. Say, do you suppose we'd get anything for those, or should we sell them to the junk-man?" He gestured toward the toys with his cigar.
"Leave those alone!" As he spoke, Hannibal stepped forward. "Those are mine!"
The clean-shaven man appeared startled. The bearded man dropped the piano lid with a thump and inserted the cigar between his lips. "Keep a civil tongue in your mouth, sonny."
"Stop calling me sonny!" Hannibal shook off Ray, who was trying to catch hold of him. "I'm Hannibal S. Mercer, and this house belongs to me!"
Something travelled over the clean-shaven man's face then. The bearded man merely laughed as he turned to scoop up a handful of china pieces in a careless manner. Hannibal rushed over to him. "Leave those alone, you – you black-hearted thief!"
The bearded fellow slapped Hannibal to the ground.
Shocked, Hannibal stared up at him. It was the first time in his life that anyone had ever hit him. From storybooks his father had bought him, Hannibal had gathered that some fathers beat their disobedient sons, but he had never given his father any reason to beat him. He always obeyed his parents, and they responded to his obedience with gentle kindness.
The bearded fellow stood over Hannibal with his legs planted apart and with fists on his hips. He said, "Youngster, I'm Master Jinkinson, and this is Master Belmore. You don't talk like that to your betters."
"Sir, please!" Ray knelt by Hannibal, trying to help him up. "He don't understand!"
"Understand what?" Furious now, Hannibal turned his wrath upon Ray.
"Best take him outside, boy," said the clean-shaven man, kindly enough. "Get his manners under control. Jinkinson, leave the youngster alone. He's obviously grieving for his master and mastress."
"They're my parents!" cried Hannibal, but Ray was pulling him outside, and Hannibal allowed the servant to do so.
There was a mystery here, a growing mystery, and he very much feared it was the culmination of the mystery of his life.
Ray took him past the debt collectors' wagon, whose horse was tied to a loblolly pine. They travelled down the path next to the marsh, toward the beach. Even before they arrived, Hannibal could see the two banners, signalling his parents' deaths.
He pulled back when they reached the edge of the woods, reluctant to go further. He was never allowed to travel beyond the woods. He was permitted to explore all the wooded area at the northwestern end of Barren Island; no houses stood there except his family's. But the beach was forbidden to him, as was the rest of the island.
Ray urged him on, though. With panic rising in his throat, Hannibal let himself be led forward. The wharf he had often glimpsed through the trees was bare of all boats. How his father reached the mainland, Hannibal had never known; perhaps Captain Pembroke offered him rides. It was one of many things Hannibal had never known.
The panic was stronger, now that they had reached the wharf. It was his parents' mightiest rule: Never allow himself to be seen. If, by terrible chance, he met someone in the woods, he must run away immediately. He must never talk to anyone unless his parents introduced them.
But he had already broken that rule twice today, he realized as he followed Ray onto the wharf. He had talked to the doctor, and he had talked to the debt collectors. Both times, as his parents had warned, terrible things had happened.
Now shaking with reaction to those episodes, he sat down heavily on the far end of the wharf, staring at the Bay. On a few occasions when the dusk-light was dim enough to hide him, he had stood at the edge of the woods, straining to see the Bay. All his life, he'd been able to smell the Bay and hear its waves, especially in autumn, when the northwest blow battered Barren Island. The eastern side of the island, he knew, faced toward Hoopers Island, and beyond that lay the mainland. But he had never seen any of that. Only glimpses of the Bay, and the occasional crab that entered the woods, seeking marshland.
Ray had seated himself beside Hannibal, swinging his legs as he stared toward the thin, dark line at the horizon which must be the Western Shore of the Bay. He was a plain-faced boy with freckles and red hair, good-natured and adaptable to changing circumstances. He never seemed to mind spending his days in a house where the only inhabitants were his master and mastress and their son, and the master's valet. He went to town on week's-end mornings, presumably to attend chapel. If he did anything else there – met with other servant boys, played with them – he never mentioned it to Hannibal.
More mysteries. Hannibal's life seemed full of them. Mysteries and rules, and on the few occasions when Hannibal had found the courage to ask why, his parents' reply had always been the same: "You must obey us, son. Your life depends on it. So do our lives. Terrible things will happen if you disobey us."
He had never wanted to disobey them; he only wanted to know why he should obey. "You'll understand when you grow older," his parents had said. "It will be clear to you then."
Ray was still silent, his eye following a bugeye as it sailed by. Hannibal knew all the types of boats on the Bay; his father had taught him that and had told him about the watermen who caught oysters and other sea harvests. Hannibal had the vague impression that his father's investments were in shipping, and that this was how his father had met Captain Pembroke.
The investments. They would go to the debt collectors, if any money was left. If the money hadn't been depleted long ago. Why had his father continued to bring home gifts, even when he was in debt? If his father needed to pay back his debts, why hadn't they moved somewhere in which his father could take a job?
Because of Hannibal. That could be the only reason.
"Why?" he whispered. "Why has my life been this way? What is it that nobody is telling me?"
He looked over at Ray. The servant-boy seemed determined not to meet his eyes. Finally Ray said quietly, "Did you ever ask Master and Mastress why they got the letter M tattooed on their wrists?"
"Of course," Hannibal said, bewildered now. "Father told me that they had it tattooed when they married, to show they were joined in wedlock. The M stood for their names: Master and Mastress Mercer."
Ray remained voiceless a moment, swinging his legs. Then he seemed to make up his mind, for he reached over and touched Hannibal's bare wrist lightly. "And this? Did you ever ask them about this?"
Hannibal looked down at the tattoo on his right wrist, the first cold wave of fear touching him lightly. "I thought they gave it to me because I was their son. S for Son."
Ray issued a deep sigh. Shrugging himself out of his uniform jacket, he unfastened the right cuff of his shirt and pulled his sleeve back. There on his wrist was tattooed a single letter: S.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly as Hannibal stared, trying to grasp the meaning of this. "They should have told you. You weren't their son. You were their servant."