by Stephen Wechselblatt
Rivers, the old auctioneer, sauntered past the slave pens and whipping posts in what whites called Lumpkin’s Alley and blacks called the Devil’s Half-Acre. He entered the auction house, a low, white-washed room with worn, dusty flooring. He walked on past a dirty lithograph of two horsemen galloping upon sorry nags. One of horses had cast its shoe; his companion had a bandaged, greasy fetlock. On the lithograph’s crude frame were inscribed the words “Beware of what you are about.” Rivers’ stone gray eyes took them in. As his thin lips curved down, a snicker burst forth. That raised a few eyebrows from middle-aged buyers who’d done business with Rivers in the past. They made eye contact with each other, incredulous. Rivers was usually dead serious, and it was the closest approximation to humor he’d ever displayed at a public event.
The room buzzed with mostly white voices. By the open door hung a wooden pole with a large red and white poster that provided information on the lot to be sold. “Fifteen likely negroes to be disposed of between half-past nine and twelve—five men, six women, two boys, and two girls.” An enormous, sweaty man in a tweed suit called out, “Rivers, you can read, can’t ya? It’s nearly 10 o’clock already. We’re not going to wait all day for you to decide when to start.”
Eyes turned his way. He was six foot tall and three feet wide and must have weighed well-nigh 500 pounds. Britches cut so wide the tailor could hardly make a suit from them; even so, they never met halfway around his body.
Rivers didn’t move a mite faster. He just looked up and down at the man. “I’ve been an auctioneer since before you were born. I know my business. We’ve got to walk them up from Shockoe Creek and get them cleaned up. They smell like shit from those chicken coops they’re held in.”
“I get it,” Big-tweed said. “You’re oiling them down. Shaving whiskers off the faces of old men and coloring their hair with a blacking brush, so they’ll look younger and fetch more money. You can’t fool us. We know your tricks.”
“Don’t need tricks to fool a fool, even a fool of truly vast and prodigious proportions. And, by the bye, you can stop flapping your tongue now. We’re ready to start.”
The buyers moved in a single body to cluster like bees around the auction block, leaving only a self-contained passage by the rough wooden planks. Here a dignified white-haired slave was made to pace up and down for buyers to note his movements, as they’d do with a horse. This proved satisfactory. So did an examination of his teeth. The bidding started low. One of his eyes had a cloudy white cast and some doubt was expressed as to his ocular soundness. A gentleman unceremoniously fixed his thumb into the socket of the supposed good eye. It must have stung; tears started flowing from it. The gent lifted a single hair in his other hand and asked the slave to state the object in front of his face, but the operation must’ve pained him. He couldn’t make it out even way up close.
The bids dropped at once.
“Fool a fool? Who’s the fool now Mr. Rivers,” Big-tweed chortled. “Good slave that. Good for nothing. Come to think of it, maybe he’d make a good fart-catcher.”
The cloudy-eyed soul cost almost nothing. He stepped off the block and departed with his new owner. Lucky for him, the man owned a tobacco-pressing factory in Richmond.
The Negroes not immediately being sold gathered into an anxious little group to watch the proceedings and wait their turn. Meanwhile, the buyers lit fresh cigars and fiddled with their catalogues, marking with pencils the slaves they might purchase. They huddled in tiny, diligent colonies like ants seeking nectar.
Outside the wind howled. It’d started to rain and the room grew close with heat and the smell of cigars and human sweat. Now a young girl sweet as buckwheat honey was to be auctioned off. Rivers started the bidding with a little patter. “I want to sell this girl if anybody will bid anything like a fair price. I wish particularly to draw your attention to this girl, gentlemen: she is young, very pretty, and has beautiful teeth.” She walked back and forth. Men stopped her occasionally to examine her teeth. As they made to take off her shoes and stockings, she wiggled her bare feet, laughed and, acted very merry during the proceedings. Bidding was brisk. The buyers showed her none of the harshness they’d displayed with the old man. A smart girl, she knew house slaves had it easier than field hands.
When the bidding ended, a second male slave stood up. His black head stood out well against the whitewashed interior of the room. He was a remarkably good-looking man, with a finely-formed head; his forehead was broad and upright, and his features utterly flawless. The bidding started at 800 dollars.
Rivers repeated the number over and over, as fast as humanly possible, until a higher bid was made. He started again with the fresh bid, gesturing wildly until his face reddened and his breathing quickened. A higher bid not forthcoming despite his exertions, he told the Negro to sit down.
Rivers smiled, if you could call narrowing your lips and spreading them across your face a smile. His small hard eyes, with flabby pouches beneath them, appraised the men in the hall. He didn’t give them a simple once-over, oh no. He gave them a considered examination, especially Big-tweed.
“Let me tell you about this fella. When I first saw him I thought to buy him myself. Mate him with one of my Negro girls. A pretty girl like that filly I just sold. But he said he wouldn’t give life to a jailed infant. I said ‘why are you talking so crazy. No one puts a little baby in jail.’
“He just looked at me. ‘I see you don’t understan’. Say you and I was sitting in a bar. On the bar-counter in front of us were some slops – wine, beer and biscuit crumbs. A couple of flies were feeding upon them when you said what you just said, that babies don’ live in jails. This’d be how I’d answer you. I’d instantly turn a tumbler glass down on the counter. Two or three of the flies’d be imprisoned under it. I’d point with my finger to the glass in which the captured flies were buzzing about.
‘Why don’ those flies continue to eat and drink as before? There’s plenty of food. Enough to last ‘em a week, but they won’t eat or drink. Why? Cause they’ve lost their liberty And without that nothing’s of value. You remember what Jesus said about little children? He said let them come to me in Heaven. For it belongs only to people who are free as children.’
‘You think I let a child be imprisoned like those bugs? And do you know what’d happen if I lifted the glass? Sure you do. They’d up and fly away.
‘But you, old man, wear traces of brimstone.’
“Well, let me tell you, that raised my bristles but good.” ‘You want to wear the prints of my knuckles on your face, keep talking to me like that.
“The fella nodded. ‘You’re right. I oughta follow the example of my heavenly father. He makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust alike, without distinguishing betwixt them.
‘Boy, them’s pretty big words. Where’d you learn to talk like that?’
“Then he smiled at me, a wide open grin. Never saw the like from a slave. ‘You think that’s unusual? Give me a cup of water and I’ll show you something that’ll make your eyes pop out of your head.’ So I gave him the water and he looked down into it for a minute or so. Then he handed it right back to me, and I’ll be damned if it hadn’t turned it into wine! And not bad tasting wine, either. How many slaves you know who can do that?”
“Balderdash,” Big-tweed shouted, red-faced like a baby about to cry.
“We don’t believe you. Show us,” shouted a man with a shrike’s nose and crazy-wild hair. If you happened to be a bird, his head would’ve made a great place to nest.
Rivers nodded to the slave, who’d been handed a tray of glasses filled with water. About thirty glasses in all, and he handed them to the nearest bidders, including Big-tweed and Crazy Hair. As the slave went around the room the sun came out. Tiny, almost microscopic particles of light struggled in, trying like the dickens to coalesce into visible beams. The sound of humming became audible as the buyers looked up and around, sensing a new tension in the room. When they looked back down at their cups, the water had been changed, just as advertised.
A prudent man might have dropped the cup and ran out then and there. But these weren’t prudent men, so they took a sniff, decided it smelled like wine. They drained the cups in a single gulp. A couple of the men made faces, but most seemed to think it tasted all right. Big-tweed especially. He licked his lips and asked for another cup; it seemed like he thought it was the best wine he’d ever tasted.
“This nigger must be Jesus Christ hisself,” said Crazy Hair in a voice richly marinated in sarcasm, or perhaps bourbon.
“Oh sure, it’s nothing special. “Anyone can do it.” Rivers’ kept his tone calm and even. But his eyes told a different story. They kicked up such a powerfully poisonous look of disdain Crazy-hair might just as well keeled over on the spot.
Big-tweed didn’t listen to any of this. Something danced in his eyes, whole lot of thirst and a right big bushel of greed to match. So it wasn’t remarkable that Big-tweed tripled the bidding price. He looked around, practically daring anyone to try outbidding him.
No one did.
Big-tweed bought the slave, a beatific smile on his face. He didn’t notice Rivers whispering to a shadowy figure.
“Follow the fat man. He’s not from around here. Never saw him before. Find out where he’s staying, and the slave. We’ll want to pay them a visit.”
The figure winked. A lot of people in Richmond, white and black, liked to earn a little extra cash.
The rest of the bidding followed, Rivers mechanically reciting bids until, one after another, he’d disposed of the slaves. His mind was far away, thinking. Not many places to stay good enough for a man with that kind of money. He’s probably at the Exchange Hotel. A new moon tonight, it’ll be a cinch. Before the final bidding ended, his hired man’d confirmed their location.
Late that August night the heat remained extreme, the night a black, dull void. Rivers walked over to 14th and Franklin, the Southeast corner. His confederate met him there with two other men. Rivers paid them and they walked into the hotel. It could’ve been a dangerous job, but Rivers knew the rat-faced night clerk. The clerk gave him an intense look. He knew something bad was about to happen and he knew he couldn’t stop it from happening and that it’d be stupid to try. He simply handed Rivers an extra key to Big-tweed’s room and told him where the slave slept shackled to a cot.
They walked up the steps to Big-tweed’s room. The large man slept lightly. He popped out of bed and asked in a trembling voice, “Who is it?”
He never found out. The men did their work quickly and without malice. Rivers stood gazed down at the blood pooling around Big-tweed’s head and stepped back. One of the men knelt and tied his shoes. As they turned to leave, Rivers stopped for a moment. “Sometimes it requires more than a bit of sagacity to fool a feather-brain. But it’s only worthwhile when there’s a lot of money to be made.”
The men freed the negro Jesus, or whoever he was. Rivers took his arm and they walked out together. The night clerk pretended not to see them.
Once outside, the slave stopped, hesitated. “The fat man…”
“Not to worry, just gentle persuasion.
“You know, maybe we should take a vacation. Go to Natchez. We could do this again there. But you never told me how you pull it off. That water/wine thing.”
“To free you?” Rivers cackled. “You’re way too valuable.”
As the sun rose, filaments of light circled the head of the slave. They grew dense as beaten gold, brightening in the blemished sky.
River’s feet stopped; his breath, suddenly ungovernable, caught in his throat.
His smile vanished so completely it might have been swiped right off his face. A shocked look replaced it.
Horror or liberation, who can tell?
Born on Long Island, Steve Wechselblatt received a BA in English from Binghamton University before heading out to Iowa to study language and literature further. He retired after a moderately satisfying career in strategic communications and moved to the creative mountain community of Asheville, North Carolina, where he started writing fiction about a year and a half ago. Currently, he’s taking a well-earned rest from his first novel.