“History should not be ancestor worship,” Sarey Rose told them as she brought in the last of the time-viewer components and began to calculate how to form the microgates big enough for past light. Her hair was bound up for work. Whether or not she approved of the target, she was working.
“We need to see our ancestors as people,” Peter said. Wearing his family reunion T-shirt, he sat down in one of the reproduction chairs in the plantation house. Mulatto wasn’t a word that was used much these days, but Peter was significantly mulatto. His great-grandfather had owned his great-grandmother. The modern day family reunions included both sets of kin. So liberal, Sarey Rose thought, and such a neat way to avoid poor white trash. Now, he and his white half-kin had finagled use of the time-viewer to get back to the primal event. “After all, we’re all from here. And we’re pretty typical.”
“Who is this us?” Sarey Rose said. “I’m one of those people whose promised land was always the future. When the old regime fell, we rose like rockets. Typical wasn’t planters and their children.”
“But you are in on this project.”
“I would have rather taken a look at Tom Paine or Heisenberg.”
Sarey Rose thought that using the time-viewer for Deep River wasted both her time and the money invested in the equipment. But the engineering department needed the history department to get funding, so here it was. Sarey thought that the history department, along with all other liberal arts departments, provided a refuge for upper-class twits who couldn’t master calculus and feared computers.
Peter said, “The only way we can really escape the past is to understand it.”
Martha, a brown-haired woman who always wore either suits or paint-stained jeans, came in and scowled. Probably she hated the two of them talking about “her” project when she wasn’t around. Martha also seemed surprised each time she saw Sarey Rose, the way a cat periodically seems surprised to realize that its human companion is a very large animal. Sarey Rose knew that if she’d been homely, in glasses, Martha would have been happier. Her image of Sarey didn’t fit the unruly reality. Scary Rose, the boys in high school used to call her, the girl who should have left the technology to them. Only ugly girls needed high-tech skills to compensate, the son of the high school science teacher told her. Two weeks later, Sarey blew up the toilets in the teachers’ bathroom. The principal couldn’t believe that a girl did it. Sarey’s classmates knew better.
About three decades earlier, Martha’s father finished his Ph.D. in classics on the last money from plantation acreage and never came back. Martha said, “Rose, are we ready?”
“Tractor beams holding the past, ready to beam up March 12, 1853, Captain.”
“Rose, I know that tractor beams are physically impossible.”
“Last week, then, were you being awful polite about my techno-babble?” But now Martha pretended she’d never fallen for the gobbledygook explanation. Sarey thought she’d omit asking Martha if she’d known better when she’d nodded sagely last week. No point in goading a High Wasp Queen. Oh, plenty of point, but after a while, the glaze of politeness and double-speak made a woman feel like she was walking in molasses.
Peter said, “We’re going to focus on the main bedroom, my great-grand-mother’s cabin, and the front parlor. We all know what went on.”
Sarey Rose said, “I doubt it was all as neat as the family legends say. I’d like another two sites.”
Martha said, “You’re not an historian.”
“My people have their traditions, too.”
Peter said, “I thought you didn’t care about your own past?”
“I don’t care, personally, but if you are trying to get a picture of this time, we need other sites besides two plantation rooms and a slave cabin. I know enough history to know that!”
Peter said, “Wouldn’t it be okay to start with these, then find two more sites based on what we hear from our first three sites?”
Martha looked like she wanted to argue, but her white liberalness forced her to nod to her second-half-cousin-several-times-removed. Sarey wondered if Peter’s great-grandmother got fucked by her owner because she was equally too diplomatic.
Individual glass fibers penetrated to three spaces in March 12, 1853. Screen one in the parlor cleared, showing a black woman dusting the mantel with a feather duster. On screen two, Sarey saw the newer version of one of the big beds in the present-day restored plantation house. Then the slave hut appeared. It looked rather good for a slave hut, containing a wooden dresser with a tortoise shell brush and a necklace of turquoise beads on it. Martha said, “He gave her my great-grandmother’s beads, but we must have gotten them back.”
Peter didn’t speak, just moved closer to the screen, looking at the cabin’s wood floor, two silk dresses, one purple, the other bright yellow, hanging from wall pegs, the bedstead with a feather bed and woven rope mattress support. “Bed cords! We’d always heard she tried to put him off. That he forced her.”
Sarey Rose sighed. “Now, we need a fourth site.”
“Do you have the capacity?” Martha asked.
“We can go in next door for a quick look around, then re-site to one of the main targets. Another slave cabin would give us a comparison.”
“If you can do it quickly,” Martha said.
Sarey Rose pulled from the master bedroom into another slave cabin. The floor there was dirt, the bed a lumpy mattress like a giant pillow on a rough wicker frame, rather like Iroquois beds.
Peter said, “Shit! She sure did have it better.”
Sarey Rose said, “Maybe he was bribing her not to poison him in his sleep?” She looked back at Peter’s ancestral cabin.
Martha said again, “She’s got my great-grandmother’s beads.”
Sarey Rose leaned back and said, “Do you want to know all the way, or should I find us other places that would be less emotionally stressful to view?” Knowing the high WASPs and their kin as she did, Sarey figured that saying that would lock them here. She hoped their eyeballs would blister. In a metaphorical way.
On the parlor screen, the woman dusting looked up as a white woman in her forties came into the room. The picture was somewhat grainy. Sarey Rose wanted to reach in and touch the feathers, the ashes, the crocheted bedcover — linen, cotton? Inquiring primate fingers wanted to know.
“What would it look like without the computer enhancement?” Martha asked.
Sarey said, “We have a tiny fan of optic fibers that moves. We’re copying the raw data stream, but the computer is enhancing the screens. If we saw a zebra, we might get a horse, but then we never see completely what’s out there, anyway. The brain always interprets. The resolution should pick up as the program picks up new data.” She put the master bedroom back on the third screen.
In 1853, the white woman spoke to the black woman. The computer threw up a small window in clearer pixels of Martha’s great-great-grandmother.
“Could she be anyone else?” Martha asked.
“She’s acting like she owns the other woman,” Sarey Rose said. She keyed the computer to provisionally accept the earlier scan of a photo of the white woman. The image sharpened.
Then the black woman became clearer.
“What happened?” Martha asked.
“The machine learned how to see them,” Sarey said.
“She looks like an aunt of mine,” Peter said.
Sarey Rose leaned back, wishing they could hear back to 1853, but sound waves were too big to pass though the tiny gates. The white woman left the room. The black woman crossed her eyes, shook the duster hard, really banging it against the hearth. She seemed to be giggling. Then she brushed her face with the feather duster, leaving nothing on the skin, then there was a faint whitening as the computer figured out that the data the quivering glass fibers fed it wasn’t noise.
“So she looks like she’s been working,” Peter explained.
In the master bedroom, the white woman lay across her bed, one hand over her eyes. The black woman disappeared from the downstairs parlor, reappeared at the bedroom door. The computer sharpened the images as Sarey keyed in that the women in this scene were the same as the women in the parlor screen.
Martha said, “We’ll have a lip reader check this, but I think that the black woman . . .”
“Alice,” Peter said.
“. . . is asking the white woman, my ancestor Ann, if she’d free her.”
Sarey Rose said, “Will she free her?”
“Well, the war . . .”
“No, Alice is asking if Ann will free her. Did your ancestor leave a will freeing his slaves?”
Martha said, “No.”
Sarey Rose said, “So he lied.”
Martha said, “How can you infer that from such a tentative question?”
Peter said, “We always heard that the master promised to free Alice and his children with her, but the mistress crossed him.”
Martha said, “My family knew that manumitted slaves had terrible lives, so we kept them, never sold them, buried them in the family cemetery.”
“Your people sold one,” Peter said, before Sarey could.
“Your people hated him. We sold him to make your people happy.”
“I’d like to remind everyone that family traditions are unreliable historical sources unless verified by corroborating evidence, like a manuscript will, court records, letters with good provenance . . .”
“Thank you, Sarey Rose,” Martha said. “I know that. That’s why we’re looking.”
A man came in to the parlor downstairs. The computer sketched him in. Sarey Rose thought that he must be the master of the house. He wore riding boots, and gloves that the computer, after some dithering, painted with marks made by reins. Sarey Rose called up a photo of the house’s founder. The computer tried those features, but threw a query: IS TINT ABSOLUTE?
Sarey typed: NO.
The computer jiggled the man’s features and came up with slightly wider cheekbones and nose than the photo showed, darker skin. Sarey said, “We always said the old man didn’t look pure white. What were your family traditions on that, Martha?”
“We’re not racist,” Martha said.
“Hey, I’m not either,” Sarey Rose said. “But I always wondered why your people just showed up about 1809 without any big lies about your Tidewater kin and their English lord kin.”
Martha said, “If you’re having trouble with that, it’s your own bigotry that’s showing.”
Peter didn’t answer. He was staring at the man who disappeared. Then, in the time it took to walk the hall and go up the staircase to the big upstairs room, he came into the bedroom. The two women froze, cringing, Sarey Rose would guess. Ann spoke. The angle of her face made lip reading impossible. Did you really promise to free this bitch? Can we sell her? If you can have a slave lover, can you buy me a nice white-looking likely boy? Was she saying something like that? They could never know for sure. Sarey Rose said, “Even if we could get something as big as a sound wave through a micro wormhole, we’d still never know what they were thinking.”
“Flint could have been a Cherokee name,” Martha said. “We thought it was just his nickname.”
Flint seemed amused. He spoke. The black woman left the room. The white woman sat on the bed, not looking at him. He took her by the chin. Again, no way to tell what he said. You’re the mother of my children, but she is, too, so try to get along? You’re my white bride who’ll make our children look even more proper? Without you and your family connections, someone might wonder about me? Men prosper the more they get laid, so get over it, bitch?
Ann turned her face. The lips seemed to say, So, you just tell her that to keep her happy.
Men, Ann’s lips said.
He must have asked her what she wanted, because Ann seemed to say, a diamond brooch.
Flint grunted and sat down. The black woman came back with a glass full of clear liquid. Flint sat down in a chair and let the black woman pull his boots off. Ann sat on the bed staring out the window.
Flint smiled at both of them.
Peter said, “Her name was Alice. He lied to her, didn’t he? Son-of-a bitch wasn’t even pure white.”
Martha said, “Cherokee women wouldn’t have let one of their men get away with adultery without him getting mobbed by his wife’s clanswomen. If he were part Cherokee, having access to more than one woman must have been male heaven.”
Sarey Rose said, “You’re not surprised that he looks like this?”
“We’ve wondered. One of the photos we have of him looks like it was re-touched. A tintype. When we did a book on the family, we reproduced a copy of the tintype. But, no, I’m not real surprised. Again, I’m not bigoted, am I, Cousin Peter.”
Peter said, “Could this be a history that doesn’t lead to ours?”
“We can theorize alternative histories. We can’t theorize a way to get to them,” Sarey Rose said. She wondered if she was a bigot. So some nonAnglo — octoroon, mestizo — slipped across the Virginia color bar before it became so rigid. Did it matter? Even in the most moralistic of times, the 1950s, ten percent of all married women gave their husbands other men’s children.
“Just leave it on to record,” Martha said. “Or do you have to constantly monitor it?”
Sarey Rose wondered if Martha thought that she massaged the data to get images she liked. “I can leave it on. The computer has samples of the family photographs.”
“Was your kinsman working for us at this time?” Martha asked.
Sarey Rose said, “All we know is, your kin tried to pay him in slaves and he refused.”
Martha said, “We don’t know what that meant.”
“In 1853, it could have meant anything,” Peter said.
“What did they do with the children?” Sarey Rose asked.
“Half of them died before ten,” Martha said.
Sarey Rose thought about all the dead children on all the sides. She sighed, and set up the machine to continue recording. When she moved to turn off the display terminals, Martha reached for her hand.
“No,” Peter said. “We want to watch it.”
Martha said, “You can go now, Sarey Rose.” High WASP whip in the voice, now.
• • • •
Sarey Rose knew what they’d ask her: Was the machine interpreting correctly, was she interfering with the images? The machine wouldn’t make chimpanzees when the shapes were closer to people, had fifteen gradations of skin color to work with, and with only five minutes of scan at ten feet would be within one-sixteenth of an inch of true facial contours. Would use the reconstructed house to model the past light streams.
The man in the house last night looked mulatto to her. If a man were rich enough, did his face look whiter to his neighbors?
Neither Martha nor Peter looked at her as she came into the office. The master slept with his slave on her special bed. The mistress of the house faced a black man in the parlor who lacked the owned deference Sarey would have expected.
“Rose, we can’t identify this man.”
“I don’t know your slaves,” Sarey Rose said.
“He’s not acting like a slave,” Peter said.
“Maybe your ancestor wasn’t interested in taking unruly slaves?” Martha said.
“Did you watch last night?” Sarey Rose said.
“We did,” Peter said. “We’d appreciate it if you didn’t review the recordings.”
Sarey Rose looked at them both. Whatever the sex had been like, both of these people couldn’t get to sleep after what they saw. She decided to leave them and the recordings alone for a while. “So what did you learn?”
Peter said, “He sure didn’t force her.”
Martha said, “I think he loves her.”
“Then, who is the guy in the parlor?” Sarey Rose asked. “Her dad?”
“We didn’t sell anyone after we sold Esau,” Martha said. “Ann brought the slaves to the marriage, but they like Flint better than they like her.”
Sarey Rose realized that they’d been slipping into talking about the ancestors in contemporary terms: your people, we, you. “Esau got sold over 180 years ago. Don’t you think we ought to have gotten over it by now?”
Peter said, “I always wondered how he felt about being sold, rejected by his own people.”
“Hell, Peter, if he got lucky, he ended up owned by a guy in Tennessee who collected rascally niggers. He’d buy rascally ones because they were bright, let them teach each other how to read because he thought blacks were apter than whites at that, and then turn them loose to run his farm while he took a percentage.”
Martha said, “I’ve read that passage in Frederick Law Olmsted, too. It’s unlikely a slave sold in this part of Virginia would end up in Tennessee.”
“I said if he got lucky.” Sarey Rose found Olmsted’s account fascinating. She’d rather be investigating that farm than this one. What was it like to have been a bright slave with such a master? You take what you can get, her grandfather said from his cane rocking chair back in her memories. Psychologically, the South trapped one in a Klein bottle, some topological psychological distortion that flung everyone, including those who’d merely moved South, back into the past just when they felt they’d finally moved into the future.
Was the South still looking, as Olmsted had described it over a hundred years ago, for the right highway, the newest relocated factory with imported management? Bring in outsiders rather than surrender power to the uppity white trash or the blacks.
In 1853, the black man left Ann in the parlor, went out, came back with a white man who took off his hat and looked at Ann. You okay? I’m sorry you’ve got such a sorry husband. Sarey Rose said, “My ancestor. Old Joe. We didn’t get any photos of him until the 1870s, but it looks pretty much like him.”
The black man looked from Ann to Joe, said, perhaps, I’ll tell the master the overseer is here. Can’t do to stay in here with the lady, Mr. Overseer.
Joe bobbed his head and stayed, holding his hat in both hands in front of him, covering his groin. Sarey wondered if the pose was arbitrary or by design, to hide an erection.
Ann got up from the sofa. Joe spoke, You’ve been crying, Miss Ann.
He can fuck her, but if I even speak to a man, the slaves tattle on me.
Was that really what she said? Sarey Rose looked at Martha and Peter.
Joe put his right hand on her shoulder. She flinched, turned her head toward the door.
The black man showed Flint in. Flint spoke. The overseer cringed, looked at the black man. The black man seemed unusually calm and didn’t lower his eyes to the overseer.
The overseer might have said, Who were your people back to the east? Who were your people before you came here?
Then they turned slightly, nodding at each other, Joe nodding at the black man, who nodded back, just not as deep a nod as Joe’d given him.
Ann went to the bedroom, crawled back into the bed, and began to masturbate under the covers, her face muscles clenched in a grimace. “Can you blank the screen, for God’s sake!” Martha said.
Sarey Rose said, “Didn’t know those lily-white slaver women did such things.” But she blanked the screen.
Peter said, “Always heard that the mistress made old Flint mean. Shit.”
Sarey Rose said, “She seems fond of the overseer.”
“At the end of the year, she dies, you know. Brain congestion.”
Sarey Rose said, “After she had your great-grandfather, right?”
Martha said, “He was raised on a black woman’s tit. Took care of her after the war.”
Peter said, “We don’t recall that. After the war, Flint’s son sold us land enough to farm. We paid him for it in work and cash. Maybe that was ‘doing for us,’ but the deal cost us same as he charged other folks. Man needed help, niggers needed land.”
Sarey Rose said, “We can skip forward in time, unless you want to watch the whole fucking year.”
“It’s the story of us all,” Martha said.
“Not my story,” Sarey Rose told her. “I didn’t have a history before 1937, when my daddy got to go to college thanks to Mr. Roosevelt.”
• • • •
Two months later in 1853, and a day later in the present, Sarey Rose watched her ancestor on a poster bed with Ann. Daytime — all the blacks should be in the fields or working in the kitchen.
“Well, who said they didn’t lie?” Sarey Rose said. Martha and Peter walked out of the room. Sarey sat watching the now-dead woman sobbing in the overseer’s arms. He doesn’t understand me. He loves that bitch he owns, not me.
The overseer seemed nervous. Sarey knew he didn’t get killed for this. He ran off, joined some rag-tail deserters’ camp in Floyd County, came slinking back after Flint was dead and his son in charge of things. “Are they quite through?” Martha asked from the other room.
“Jeez, he’s my ancestor. Is getting fucked by the overseer so shameful? After all, your great-whatever-removed-granddaddy liked black meat.”
Peter said, “Are they dressed yet?”
“No, she’s having a hissy fit in his arms. Those times weren’t fair for white women and black men.”
“White women like Ann didn’t have to lift a finger.”
“Dumber than their cooks and weavers, the poor stupid bitches,” Sarey said. “Taught, maybe, how to play the piano and draw some, but never well enough to work.” Her ancestresses back in 1853 worked on looms and sewed, just as her cousins did these days, only these days, they programmed computers to lift the threads and cut the cloth.
“Look, just tell me when they’re dressed,” Martha said.
The black slave woman wasn’t in her gaudy cabin, gone with the master on business, but the old male slave came in with another young black woman, carrying cooked food from the outdoor kitchen to Miz Ann at dinner time. The old slave looked at Ann and the unmade bed, turned and went away. The second young black woman put a tray on Ann’s bedside table, sniffed the air, and stood waiting.
“Could you add the dining room?” Peter asked.
“Yes, they’ll be eating in the dining room when Flint comes back,” Martha said. “The interactions would be interesting.”
Sarey Rose wondered if they’d decided to forget what had just happened, what had happened in 1853. The two families, owners and owned, had managed to forget it the first time, why not the second time? Southern women never minded that their menfolk kept black mistresses, because those women weren’t a real threat to the marriage. Southern men did this because they lived in a matriarchal society. Right? As though any matriarchal society let its men believe that not having orgasms would make males sick.
“I can get the dining room online sometime next week if the engineering department has more glass fiber the right size,” Sarey Rose said.
• • • •
Dining room, bedroom, parlor, slave cabin. A quartet in two centuries, Sarey Rose thought as she brought up the screens on July 31, 1853.
How long could Ann and Joe meet without Flint killing one or the other of them? Sarey Rose decided Flint had killed Ann. She was pregnant, nervous.
In the slave concubine’s cabin, Flint met with his slaves. Mistress ain’t faithful. She’s gonna bring you a poor white-trash baby.
Joe disappeared, a man who knew when to run. Sarey Rose taped the next several weeks, running the tapes fast to see if Joe reappeared.
Ann swelled. The black mistress swelled. At dinner, September 14, 1853, Flint looked from the black woman’s belly to his wife’s, his fingers moving to the count of nine.
Martha said, “Oh, shit.” Sarey had forgotten she was there. Peter left them alone most of the time now, wondering perhaps if he was the true heir to the estate, not Martha, the descendant of a poor white-trash overseer who helped run a pro-Union deserters’ camp, and who came back only when the man he’d cuckolded was dead.
Sarey remembered her great-grandfather saying, “The Southern men died in the War for pure meanness.”
And the local black schoolmaster, a former slave, chose Sarey’s grandfather to be his lord back in the 1920s. Every black man needed a lord in those Klan-addled days, and what better choice than a Lincoln Republican?
Ann twisted her wedding band, ate, twisted her wedding band, ate.
The concubine spoke to Flint, saying, perhaps, I’m a truer woman than she is. Now you gonna let me free?
Perhaps Flint didn’t quite believe that Ann carried another man’s baby. White women didn’t like sex. All men needed it to prevent illness. That white man’s burden, sperm. Old Flint purged his system every chance he got, stayed healthy.
Sarey Rose wondered if Martha believed that herself, if that’s what made her so tolerant of Peter, or if, as a historian, she accepted the foibles of study cultures.
Ann said something that might have been, But I loved you. You could have loved me.
Flint looked up at her sharply and spoke. I married you, provided for you. Even if you brought slaves to the marriage as a dowry, you needed me more than I needed you. Slaves don’t work for women the way they work for a man.
The slave concubine must have spoken. Her back was to the optical pick-ups. Flint seemed contrite. He might have said, Sorry. The pregnant slave woman left the room. Ann picked at her food. Flint shoved his into his mouth, cutting his meat with a clasp knife he pulled from his pocket.
Sarey Rose said, out loud, “We never owned slaves. Never.”
Martha said, “But they wouldn’t work for women.”
“You read that the same way I did?” Sarey asked.
“Yeah. I talked to someone in linguistics. We could do a program that would give us best approximation, see the several choices.”
“But . . .”
“We’re only getting an approximation of the light patterns as is. I don’t know if a lip-reading program operating on real time would help the visual recognition program or cause feedback distortions.”
“But we both read that.”
“We’ve got more context than a lip-reading program would have, too. If we’d decided that Flint was perfectly white, he’d be looking perfectly white on the screen now. I’d have corrected once, the computer would have assumed it was in error if it came up with darker than white values for his skin.”
Martha said, “I want to hear them.”
“You can’t. Soundwaves are too big.”
“We’re not even really seeing them.”
“Close enough. Maybe she’s smiling, not grimacing.”
Martha said, “And your ancestor disappeared like a coward.”
“Should he have died for her? The law then was on Flint’s side.”
“Couldn’t he have taken her away?”
“We don’t know that Joe didn’t ask. We don’t know . . .”
Martha interrupted. “Was he married?”
“I never heard of a wife before the war,” Sarey Rose said, resenting the interrogation. “But maybe Ann was too big a snob to marry him, even though she would sleep with him.”
“She cared for him more than that,” Martha said.
“Only definite ancestor in the mix you’ve got left, isn’t she?” Sarey Rose said. Lip-reading program, shit, she realized she didn’t want to install it now, coordinate it with the visual recognition program. Bitch of time to do it.
At the table in the past, the two people ate in silence. Flint’s mistress left the room and a second female slave brought in a dish of stewed apples.
Sarey Rose said, “At least, he’s considerate of one of them.”
• • • •
Brain congestion — Sarey Rose remembered brain swelling was often a side effect of a failed strangulation.
• • • •
In one month, the half-white baby was born from a squatting woman, caught by an older black woman. In the next month, the white baby came down onto boiled and dried scrap sheets on the bed in the master bedroom. The same black woman caught the baby. In the future, the observers came in, stared, left, came back, stared, went without talking. Flint came in to see both sons, held both of them. Peter said, “There have been worse fathers.”
Sarey Rose heard that as a rebuke to her ancestor.
Martha spent less time on site, took recordings of the raw data as though a different computer and screens might show her a past she approved of more. She wore jeans more often, seemed more casual about her hair.
Perhaps, Sarey Rose thought, Martha has decided to succumb to her technologically discovered white-trash roots. Sarey took a day off and bought a suit. When she came back, Peter said, “Joe’s back.” Martha was watching the screen in the master bedroom as though she wanted to turn into photons heading pastward.
“Back?” Sarey Rose wondered if the people in the rooms they watched ever noticed the future light — too small to be more than sparkles in a black room, something that could be explained away as an eye twitch. But the human eye could catch a photon.
Joe sat on the bed, talking desperately to Ann, leaning on one arm. His body bobbed closer, then moved back, over and over, like a rocking toy. The baby lay in her arms, looking at the stranger.
Ann’s lips moved. No, he’s being decent about it. But then he’s got another son down in the quarters.
“We haven’t picked up Flint all day. I scanned today’s tapes when I came in and saw this,” Martha said.
The overseer bent over Ann then, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. The baby began squalling. Joe picked up the baby. According to the lip-reading program, he said, I’m taking my son then.
“It was his first child,” Sarey Rose said. She expected that Flint would burst into the room at any second, but he didn’t, wasn’t around to hear the baby squalling. His black mistress and the man who appeared to be her father came into the room and took the baby from Joe. Ann must have said, Get out, because they left then.
Ann argued with Joe. Joe grabbed her. By the neck. The two past people writhed on the screen, Ann’s legs flailing out from her bedclothes.
Sarey Rose wanted to run, but she watched on, aware of the others breathing in a rhythm different from her own shallow breaths. They looked at her once, quick stab of eyes. My white-trash ancestor.
Then the older black man came back, stood in the doorway. Spoke. You’ve done her enough damage.
Joe loosened his hands, said something that seemed like, You gonna tell your owner? Ann lolled back on the bed, gasping. “She’s still alive,” Martha said.
Sarey Rose knew that strangling didn’t kill necessarily at once. The violent fluctuation in brain blood pressure did damage.
Then the slave concubine came up without the baby, with towels and water. She and her father let Joe go.
Martha said, “So are they going to kill her?”
“She dies in a day or two,” Peter said.
“Aftermath of his choking her, throwing her about,” Sarey Rose said.
The slaves seemed familiar with the concept. The woman looked at Ann, who was still gasping as though the air had clotted in her windpipe. Her father spoke. She left and came back with wet towels and rice powder.
Ann tried to fight the black woman as she washed Ann’s throat bruises and lay down a dusting of powder over Joe’s nail marks. Martha said, “I’ve got to consult a physician.”
Peter said, “She’s not hurting Ann further. She’s just trying to disguise what happened.”
Sarey Rose said, “Maybe Joe was fucking all Flint’s women.”
“God, that’s ugly,” Martha said.
Sarey had known how ugly she’d been before the sentence left the air. But then maybe the slave woman thought it’d have a better chance of getting freed if Miz Ann was dead. How many slave concubines had the hope that the master would free them for bearing his children? What proportion of slaves who bore their masters’ children did get freed? It must have happened just enough to make the dream a common hope. Or maybe just being treated better was enough.
Whatever, Miz Ann wouldn’t run off to the mountains with her white-trash lover. And, like so many contemporary uneducated white-trash men, Joe killed his lover when he couldn’t have her the way he wanted to have her. “Uneducated,” Sarey said out loud.
“What?” Peter said.
“I’ve got a distant kinsman who killed his ex. White trash still do that when they’re dumb and uneducated.”
“Kill their lovers?” Martha said.
“So now we know about the past,” Sarey Rose said. “It was stupid.”
“We weren’t just malleable work folk,” Peter said. “We had our own agendas.”
“Bunch of uneducated wishful thinkers, all of them,” Sarey Rose said.
Martha said, “So Flint came home just in time to bury her. Her mother comes tomorrow to see her, but everyone wants to cover up why the overseer was in her bedroom. Her people were better than Flint, even.”
“But you’re half my kin,” Sarey said. “Do we need to watch through the end?”
Martha looked at Peter. He said, “We’d prefer that you don’t.”
Sarey Rose walked out. She’d been excluded again. Not by blood links this time, but by her own rudeness. She put her hands in the pockets of her new jacket, feeling overdressed and lumpish.
She sat down under the ancient catalpa tree and leaned her head back against it and told herself she was good at what she did. Told herself over and over.
And the Civil War came, and Joe hid out in a deserters’ camp and came back when it was over, and the ex-slaves wouldn’t let him on the property, and Ann’s son went away forever and Joe married, and the lineage spread up to Sarey Rose and Martha, and the past twisted them in knots. How many layers of ancestor, of family lies?
Sarey Rose thought, Someday, we’ve got to forget it all. Because we can’t really know.
In the parking lot of the restored plantation house, two kids traded off on a portable computer linked to the rest of the modern world by modem, sending, reading, giggling, pushing the laptop at each other. Sarey Rose wondered if anyone in the future cared enough about the dead to watch them.