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."
The town proved to be only a mile away, on the eastern shore of the island. He followed the shoreline as it curved around the northeast end of the island, passing houses along the way. The sight of each one brought shivers to him, but when he peered cautiously inside, all the houses were empty. Many had water lapping at their porches. Hannibal considered his own house, built by his father before he was born. It was set well back into the woods, far from the water.
Finally, he found a cottage that appeared to be in use, but its inhabitants were gone for the day. The cottage held a single room with three beds, a long bench with padding upon it, several trunks, a meal table and chairs, a stove, a washstand, and shelves on the wall. There were no decorations, only a tattered rug. Servants must live here, he supposed, and that thought made him shiver too.
Located near a wharf filled with boats, the town consisted of half a dozen buildings set around a circular lawn covered with gravestones. In the middle of the lawn stood the circular chapel; Hannibal recognized it from the circle of rebirth at the tip of its bell-tower. Hearing voices inside the nearby grocer's, he hurried to the chapel and opened the door.
Inside, curving rows of pews encircled a raised platform; on top of the platform stood a pulpit. Hannibal looked around, trying to decide where to place the message.
"May I help you, young man?"
He jumped, startled. In the doorway to a side room stood a cleric, unmistakable in his white suit. He was holding a feather duster.
"I—" Instinct was pulling him back, warning him of danger – danger if he should speak to yet another stranger. "I was leaving this—"
The cleric came forward and took the envelope from his hand. Seeing the name upon it, the cleric opened the envelope and read the letter silently.
Hannibal knew what the letter said:
I live at the northwestern end of the island. My parents have died. Will you see that they are buried with sacred rites?
Hannibal S. Mercer
The cleric raised his eyebrows and looked at Hannibal.
Hannibal said breathlessly, "I . . . I was just delivering the note. I must go back—"
The cleric took him by the arm before he could reach the door. "I'm glad to see you. I was about to do a bit of dusting. Will you keep me company?"
There seemed no polite way to refuse the request. Hannibal followed the cleric up the aisle toward the pulpit.
"Master and Mastress Mercer were never members of this chapel," said the cleric as he led the way. "I knew their servants, though. Servant Albert attends chapel on Hoopers Island, but Servant Clarence and Servant Clara came here every week's end. A good lad and lass, very quiet and obedient, and very much in love with each other. When they drowned during a boat trip to the mainland, everyone on the island grieved greatly. Especially Master and Mastress Mercer, I was told."
Hannibal had stopped halfway down the aisle, pinned in place by the cleric's words. The cleric appeared to take no notice. He climbed the steps to the platform, saying, "I heard a few months later that the Mercers were caring for their servants' young son, who had recently been weaned. Their charity was much praised at first. Then, as time passed, rumors arose that the boy had not been given his childhood rank-mark at the proper age. People began to say that the Mercers, who had been unable to beget their own children, were raising the boy as though he were a master. —Do you know anything about cleaning?"
The words compelled Hannibal forward. He took the duster from the cleric's hand and began dusting the pulpit. Standing aside, the cleric said, "At that point, of course, the mainland police became involved. There was talk of arresting the Mercers. . . . Thank you. Do you know how these pulpit platforms work?"
Handing back the duster, Hannibal shook his head.
"It's quite clever, really. There is a winding mechanism, very much like a watch or like the winding mechanisms that control automatic fog-bells on lamphouses. This platform is wound up beforehand, and at the proper time, that lever is released, and the platform begins to revolve slowly. Thus, everyone in the congregation receives the opportunity to watch my face as I preach. Do you see where that crank is? The platform needs to be wound so that it's ready for the week's-end service."
Hannibal had already sighted the crank on the side of the platform. He climbed off the platform and examined the crank. With a grunt of effort, he began pushing the crank around. Above him, the cleric said, "Fortunately, Captain Pembroke intervened. He's the highest-ranked master on this island, you know. He went to see the Mercers and afterwards reported that he himself had marked the boy's rank. He urged us to allow the Mercers their privacy, in order to give the boy time to adjust from his natural confusion over his proper place in life. . . . I did suspect that Captain Pembroke was being less than honest with us. He is notorious for questioning sacred traditions concerning service and mastery. But nobody wanted to see the Mercers committed to prison for what was clearly nothing more than misguided love. So we all stayed away. . . . How is that going? Do you need to rest?"
Hannibal shook his head. He was used to heavy labor at home, such as log-chopping, though this was harder work than he'd ever undertaken for his parents. He thought it would have been easier to crank if the cleric weren't standing on the platform. . . .
"A few sun-circuits ago, one of my young congregants came to me in great trouble of spirit." The cleric crossed his forearms upon the pulpit as he watched Hannibal. "Servant Ray. His parents had recently died, and since there were no other island households in need of a servant, he had sought work with the Mercers. He told me that he was worried because the Mercers had ordered him to call their servant-boy 'sir' and to obey the boy's orders. He knew that he should be obedient to his master and mastress, but he was afraid that, if he obeyed those particular orders, he would be sent to prison for breaking the high law on mastery and service."
Hannibal paused to look up. He was shaking now, with sweat pouring over his body. The cleric met his gaze steadily. "I told him that he was in no danger. You had served your master and mastress for many sun-circuits; therefore, you were higher-ranked within the household than Servant Ray. It was suitable for him to address you with due deference, since your master and mastress desired this. Of course," the cleric added, straightening up, "if Servant Albert had sought my guidance, I would have told him he must not call you 'sir,' since he was the highest-ranked servant."
Hannibal traced the smooth handle of the crank with his finger, keeping his eyes lowered toward it. "He never called me anything. He scarcely spoke to me. I thought he was deaf."
"Of course." The cleric's voice was gentle. "You were never told the truth, and so you acted in the manner you believed was proper for your rank. Your soul remains unstained . . . for now."
Hannibal raised his head quickly, but all that the cleric said was, "I prayed for you after my conversation with Servant Ray. For many a night, I prayed for guidance on whether I should approach you and tell you the truth. And now here you are. You already knew what I've told you?"
Hannibal nodded. "I learned the truth a few hours ago. My servant, Ray—" He stopped abruptly.
"Your fellow servant," the cleric corrected, as gently as before.
Hannibal swallowed hard. "I don't want to break the law. Or – or endanger my soul. But it just seems . . . It seems like, if I'm given no choice whether to be a servant, then that's not service – that's slavery."
"Of course you have a choice." The cleric's response was prompt. Where he stood, at the center of the platform, light bathed him from the chapel's high windows. "Every man does. All of us are granted the opportunity to rise in rank, through our good deeds and our obedience to authorities. I was once a servant, and so was Captain Pembroke and every other master and mastress in the entire world. We received our ranks, not through chance, but through dedication and loyalty to our previous masters."
Hannibal hesitated, then said in a rush, "Ray told me there's a law that allows servants to petition to be masters, but that the petitioning servants have to be at least journeyman-aged. He said my parents were hiding me until I became a journeyman. Then they were going to help me apply to rise in official rank—"
"Your master and mastress loved you very much." The cleric's voice was soft. "They wanted the best for you. But who do you think is the best judge of when a servant is ready to rise to the rank of master? Some clerk sitting in his office, signing paperwork? Is that the man to whom you wish to entrust your soul?"
Hannibal stared up at him, blinking at the bright light falling upon the white suit. "Who, then? You?"
"Certainly not I." The cleric spoke firmly. "I do not possess such power; nor does any man, I believe. The only power I would trust to decide such matters is the power of fate that created us: the fate that decides, at the time of our rebirth, whether we are born into the body of a master or of a servant. If we are born as a servant, then we may rise to masterhood in a later life, if we are obedient to our masters in this life. If not . . . We fall back, become more and more beastly in nature, until our soul is born into the body of a beast. Out there in the Bay are fish and crabs and oysters, all waiting to be harvested by watermen's dredges and trotlines and tongs. These beasts were servants once, until they disobeyed their masters and lost the right to be reborn as men."
Hannibal stared into the light, his eyes blinking back tears. A bell began to ring above them. The cleric glanced up. "I must ready myself for my noonday prayers. Thank you for your service, young man."
Hannibal looked down at the crank, recognizing for the first time what he had done. He whispered, "My parents . . ."
"I sent the undertaker to fetch your master and mastress's bodies an hour ago," the cleric assured him. "I will bury them with sacred rites, in hopes that fate will forgive them for their misguided disobedience to the high law. Would you like to return here for the week's-end service tomorrow? Afterwards, I could show you the grave of your parents, Servant Clarence and Servant Clara."
Hannibal took a step backwards. His heart was thundering. The cleric smiled at him, offering the duster. "Just take this back to the supply room, please. The door is over there."
He turned and fled. When he reached the outside, Hannibal paused, half expecting the cleric to follow. But there was no sound except for the chapel bell, ringing over and over.
The jingle of a harness caught his ear. He turned his head, just in time to witness Master Jinkinson and Master Belmore loading his tennis set onto their boat.
"Do you think it's true, what he said? Or does he just want me as his servant?"
Ray tilted his head as he appeared to consider the question. They were standing in the ruins of what had been the parlor. During the time Hannibal was away, the debt collectors had removed everything from the house except the piano. No doubt they would return for that later.
Bert had left without a word of farewell.
Reaching down for the torn remains of the lace tablecloth, Ray said, "I think he believes what he said. He's preached that in chapel, many a day. But just 'cause he done said it . . . Some other clerics think different, I know."
Hannibal sighed as he watched Ray gather the broken pieces of a china dog. "Ray, why did you stay with our family? Was it because you needed a job so badly?"
"Partly." Ray crawled under the piano to retrieve a tennis ball. "Partly it was 'cause I felt sorry for you. Master and Mastress were lying to you. I figured, once you knowed the truth, you'd need a pal."
Hannibal said nothing. Still on his hands and knees, Ray raised his head, then quickly lowered his eyes. "Didn't mean to offend you, sir."
"It's all right," said Hannibal heavily. "It's not the worst that's been said to me today. What will you do now?"
Ray shrugged as he crawled out from the piano's shadow, a cobweb in his hair. "Go seeking a new master on the mainland, I figure. Every time Master sent me to Hoopers Island to get supplies, I got sick on the boat. I want firm ground beneath my feet."
"Yes." Hannibal bowed his head, contemplating the watch in his hand as he wondered whether to wind it.
"What's that?" asked Ray, walking over to look.
Hannibal showed him. "My mother gave it to my father when they were married. I suppose it's no longer mine, but . . ." He opened the watch. Inside the lid, his parents smiled up at him.
"Oh," said Ray in an understanding voice.
Hannibal managed to tear his gaze away from the miniature painting. "Ray . . . if I asked you to be my servant, would you do it?"
Ray bit his lip and stared at the floor. "Sir, I wouldn't mind. Truly. But to serve you without orders from a master . . . That's against the law, I think. I ain't wanting to go to prison."
Hannibal snapped the watch shut and dropped it into his pocket. He was about to turn away when he saw Ray's face. Hannibal reached over and wiped the cobweb off Ray's hair. "It's all right. I'm not angry. I just need to get away and think alone."
Ray stared toward the attic. "The debt collectors didn't touch nothing in the servants' quarters. I was going to sleep here before starting out in the morning. Want me to make up Bert's bed, so you got a place to sleep? Just for now?"
Hannibal shrugged and turned away. The question encompassed so much more than he could decide.
He walked southward beside the marshland near the shore, turning his path to avoid crunching seashells. His shoes were soon brown with mud and Bay-water.
He barely noticed the seabirds swooping toward fish. He was remembering, for the first time in many sun-circuits, the words that Captain Pembroke had spoken at his parents' table, the last time Hannibal had seen him.
"You know I agree that a man should be able to choose how to live his own life," the captain had said. "But that means you can't force him to be what he doesn't want to be. Let me mark his wrist, as the law requires, and then you leave him alone, my dears. Let him grow and find his own path in life. By the time he becomes a man, he'll know what he wants to be." He turned to Hannibal and smiled. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I don't know," he replied, bewildered by the conversation.
"Well, then," said the captain, "I'll give you a tattoo that can be changed when you grow older, if you wish. Shall I show you how it's applied?"
Hannibal couldn't remember the rest, except that the marking had hurt, and he hadn't minded, because the captain told him stories about what it was like to be a waterman on the Bay. He'd looked forward to more stories like that, but his parents had been angry at the captain for some reason. They'd never invited him back to dinner.
The call of a gull, sharp on his ear, pulled him out of his memories. He stood still, heart beating wildly as he realized he'd walked far enough to reach the next wharf. A boat was docked there, its sails furled, but with men working on its deck. He took a step backwards to flee.
He recognized the boat in a brief instant. Then he ran.
Most of the men appeared to be servant watermen, although one young man at the bow of the boat was so well dressed that he must be a journeyman master in training. Neither he nor the crewmen paid any attention to Hannibal as he awkwardly halted on the wharf, near the boat's stern.
The culling boys looked up, though. There were three of them: two boys about a tri-year older than Hannibal, who were sitting on the deck playing dice, and a younger boy, barely apprentice-aged, who was on his hands and knees, scooping up small oyster-shells and throwing them into the water.
"What do you want?" demanded one of the older boys, whose cap had a rakish tilt to it.
He hadn't thought to rehearse what words he would say. He cleared his throat. "I ain't wanting to bother you," he said, feeling the servants' dialect as a lie upon his tongue. "I am— I mean, I are— Is your master hiring?" he finished in a rush.
"'I am, I are,'" mocked the boy who had spoken before. He looked over at the other older boy. "Think he's a domestic, Billy?"
"Got to be," replied the other. "Look at the suit. Bet he's hoity-toity; domestic servants usually are. Throw the dice, Theo."
Desperately, Hannibal tried again. "Is he hiring?"
Theo snorted. "He got three of us. Ain't needing no more boys. Bet you don't know nothing about following the water anyways."
"You ever culled?" Billy demanded.
"I could learn," Hannibal replied weakly.
This caused the older boys to howl with laughter. "'I could learn,'" said Theo. "You hear that, Billy?"
It was the younger boy, speaking sharply. The older boys abruptly stopped laughing and stared at him.
"Ain't you louts got eyes in your head?" asked the younger boy furiously. "Can't you see he's in some sort of trouble?" He turned his attention to Hannibal. "What happened? Did you lose your job, right sudden?"
Hannibal was thinking that this was an apt way of summarizing his situation; then he felt the boards of the wharf vibrate under his feet, and a man's voice said, "What's going on here?"
He whirled around. Before him stood Captain Pembroke.
Hannibal recognized him at once, although six sun-circuits had passed since he had last seen the master of the Elsie Pembroke. The captain was younger than Hannibal had remembered; he couldn't be much more than a tri-decade old.
Hannibal knew he should lower his eyes to the master; servants did that. Instead, he said simply, "I need a job."
The captain, whose face was as weather-beaten as that of his servant crewmen, looked at Hannibal for a long moment. Finally he said, "Let's see what you're made of, then. Hop aboard. —Men, we're going out."
The crewmen, who had paused to listen to the conversation, leapt to their various tasks. Billy groaned, and Theo grumbled, "Not again."
Captain Pembroke jumped onto the deck. Hannibal stiffened, wondering whether the captain would beat the boys. But Captain Pembroke merely reached down and ruffled Theo's hair. "You rapscallions," he said, chuckling. "You know quite well that we only worked two hours today, because we had to bring the news back to town. Stop lollygagging and get to work."
Grinning, the older boys scrambled to their places. With a shy smile, the younger boy offered his hand to Hannibal. Hannibal carefully scrambled onto the boat.
"All right, Jimmy, back to work," said the captain and turned to Hannibal. "Have you been in a boat before?"
Hannibal shook his head.
The captain pointed. "Watch that you don't hit your head on the boom. Keep your feet steady, and don't be afraid to hold the rail if you need to." He put his arm around Hannibal's shoulders and said softly into his ear, "Your parents' souls would come back to haunt me if I let you fall overboard."
"So you're going to work for Captain Pembroke?" Ray said.
Hannibal nodded. They were sitting together on the wharf, close to the house where Hannibal had lived all his life. The setting sun spread its colors across the Bay as fishing boats crossed the waves.
Only three hours had passed since Hannibal had left Ray, but it seemed like forever. Bits and pieces of the past hours came, as though he were exchanging dead memories for living ones: Theo and Billy swapping jests with him as Jimmy showed him how to decide which of the harvested oysters should be kept. The servant crewmen, smiling as they taught him the lessons the other boys had already learned on how to be a crewman someday. The captain, chatting with him about how he planned to replace the boat's dredge with tongs, because tongs were less likely to tear up the oyster bars. The journeyman master, who treated him kindly and who, at Captain Pembroke's urging, explained to Hannibal the duties he was learning on how to be a boat-master. After a while, Hannibal had thanked him and had gone back to the crewmen, to check whether he was strong enough yet to turn the dredging crank.
"The captain remembered me," Hannibal said now. "He was glad to see me again. He said—"
The words were imprinted on his mind, like letters on a mason's stone: "Boy, if you're not sure what your place is in life, the best way to learn is to follow the water. The difference between master and servant isn't so great, out here on the Bay. All of us fight against storms and ice and other dangers; all of us must work together to keep alive. If the crewmen don't follow my orders, they'd likely sink this boat. And if I bully my crewmen . . . Well, they'd likely throw me overboard some dark night. The only difference between me and my servant men and boys is that I give the orders, and they tell me, quick as can be, if I've given the wrong ones." He smiled as he laid his hand on Hannibal's shoulder.
"He said that, if I still wanted to be a master when I reached journeyman age, he'd sponsor me," Hannibal explained to Ray. "He'd help me fill out the paperwork and even train me to be a boat-master, if I wanted."
Ray tossed a clamshell into the water. "That's what you'll do, then?"
Hannibal looked back at the memory. Jimmy sat nearby, his mouth open as he listened to the captain's offer. Theo and Billy had begun to edge back from Hannibal. The crewmen no longer smiled at him. The journeyman simply looked confused.
Hannibal said slowly to Ray, "All these tri-years . . . They tried to teach me to be a master. And what did I do? I never questioned their ways. I never disobeyed them. I cooked and cleaned and did heavy work, and not because they wanted me to. Because that's how I was drawn." He turned to look at Ray, who was frowning. "Don't you see? They tried to turn me into a master, and they failed. They failed because I was a servant all along, like the cleric said. That's what I was meant to be. And now I've found the work I'm meant to do."
With doubt clear in his voice, Ray said, "Sir, maybe they just weren't sure how to properly learn you to be a master—"
Ray stared at him. "What?"
"That's my name now. Not 'sir.' Not Hannibal Solomon Mercer. The boys call me Sol. Captain Pembroke calls me Servant Solomon, now that I know what I am." Then, as Ray appeared ready to protest, he added, "Ray, I don't want to be a boat-master. I want to be a crewman. Can't you see?"
"But being a servant ain't just about doing work you like. It's about following orders, all the time, for the rest of your life, even if those orders put you in danger—"
"Captain Pembroke will take care of me," he replied firmly. "He'll take care of me for the rest of my life." He swung himself to his feet and tossed the pocket-watch into Ray's hand. "Here. You can sell this. It will give you money to live on till you find your new master."
Ray looked down at the watch. "But don't you want to keep this? It's got a picture of your parents—"
"They ain't my parents." The words came easily to him, after three hours of practicing servant dialect. "They were my master and mastress, and they lied to me. I got a master now who won't lie to me." He reached down and clapped the back of his fellow servant. "I got to go now. You take care of yourself, hear?"
He left Ray staring at the gift. As he left, Sol began to whistle, thinking of the cottage where Theo, Billy, and Jimmy waited to welcome him to his new home.
Ray watched Sol leave, confident in his stride, now that he had discovered his place in life. Ray was thinking that Captain Pembroke was a good man. He had lured Sol into service with good intentions: he wanted to help the young man who had been Hannibal Solomon Mercer.
But Master and Mastress Mercer had been good people too. Good intentions didn't guarantee good guidance. It was a thought that had never occurred to Ray before, during his incurious life, but now a question was forming in his mind. He longed to call Sol back so that he could ask the question: "Captain Pembroke is a good man – but what if he dies?"
Ray rose to his feet, dusting off his trousers. Sol had decided his path in life; he would have to discover for himself whether he had made the right decision. As for Ray, his path had taken an unexpected detour since this morning, and not just because of the death of his master and mastress. Sol's dilemma had become his own, but Ray's decision was different from Sol's.
Ray started forward on his long journey to find other servants who wanted to raise a rebellion against the masters and mastresses.
Chapter 4: Historical Note
This story is set on an alternate-universe version of Barren Island on the Chesapeake Bay of the State of Maryland, halfway down the Atlantic coast of the United States of America. Due to shoreline erosion, Barren Island was abandoned by humans around the time that I show it beginning to be abandoned in this story, in the 1910s. I haven't had the opportunity to visit Barren Island, so my reconstruction of its appearance has been based on historic maps, modern photographs, a handful of references by modern writers, and visits to nearby Hoopers Island.
The master/servant society I've created in this story is entirely imaginary, although African-American slavery and service did play a role in Chesapeake Bay life. Moreover, in the early twentieth century, newly arrived immigrants were sometimes lured or kidnapped onto oyster boats and held in slavery by captains who were eager for crew.
The dialect in this novelette is inspired by the modern-day dialect of watermen (the name for commercial fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay). Each region of the Chesapeake has had its own version of that dialect, but current versions of those dialects share certain characteristics. I was unable to locate any turn-of-the-century accounts of watermen's speech, but mid-twentieth-century written transcriptions of watermen who had been "following the water" since the turn of the century show these men speaking in the same manner as many of today's watermen.
Watermen have scarcely changed their way of harvesting seafood during the past century, but the Bay's ecology has changed considerably. Readers who are interested in seeing how that change has affected watermen's lives may wish to seek out these books:
William T. Hooper's My Years Before the Mast – online at freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~fassitt/hooper
– which was written by a Hoopers Island waterman about his sailing experiences
between the 1890s and the Storm of 1933. (The memoir portion of the book
starts at Chapter VI.)
Randall S. Peffer's Watermen, a narrative of a year in the lives of watermen on Tilghman Island during the 1970s.
Christopher White's Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen, another narrative of a year in the lives of watermen on Tilghman Island, set twenty years after Randall Peffer's narrative.
Other compelling accounts of watermen's lives include Mark E. Jacoby's Working the Chesapeake: Watermen on the Bay, Tom Horton's An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, and William W. Warner's Pulitzer-prize-winning book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, William B. Cronin's The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake includes a short chapter about Barren Island.
Additional resources are linked from my Chesapeake Bay bibliography: