Excerpts from "Mastery"
These are excerpts from my novel, Mastery, in which a contemporary white psychic living in New York City is suddenly beset with visions of slavery from 1859—visions that somehow correspond to the money he has inherited from his New England family. Characters emerge, among them Isabella, an enslaved woman whose death preoccupies a Boston abolitionist. Isabella’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Artémie. Her owner, Marlowe, a Creole slaveholder of color. And Jimmy Burns, an Irish immigrant who comes to New York in 1859 to seek his fortune. Here are a few disparate scenes from Jimmy’s story:
It’s grand to have finally found me place—a lowly clark, to be sure, and not in the main office, neither. But it’s in New York, the city of the future, and if New England Mariners & Seamen Insurance Company ain’t the firm to appreciate me, I’ll find the one that is.
Of course, me dad ain’t happy. “Jimmy,” says he, drawin on his pipe, “you best stay here in Hartford, where you got friends and relations can see you through. A fellow gets nowhere without he has connections.”
“That’s the old world, Dad,” says I, pickin up me suitcase. “This here’s the new. People gets furthest when they go it alone.”
“You ain’t never alone,” me dad says. And then he goes on about them ones starvin in Ireland or toilin away in the mills or workin as maids for them snooty masters—alla us wage-slaves ground underfoot—the same old song he’s been singin since birth (though he ain’t none too matey with the hands who work for him).
“Those men made you, Jimmy Burns,” he says yet again, “and don’t you owe them for it?” But now, instead of agreein, I says, “Sure, Dad, sure. But soon I’ll be a rich man and then I’ll’ve made meself.”
He looks like I’ve slapped him but I’m goin to miss my train. “I’ll take care a you, Dad,” I promise him. “You and Mam and—” But he’s already turned away, heartsick as usual, only this time I’m out the door, hurtlin down the rails at a terrific speed, trampin through the tangled city, askin me way down to Wall Street. Sure, he don’t understand—how can he? In Connecticut, it’s all things—bales of wheat, and stacks of timber, and horses packed into a ship’s hold, their hooves all smeared with shit. It’s me Dad’s barrel shop, hogsheads and firkins, or Uncle Peter’s grocery, calico and pickles, or that factory where they makes the knives and the axes and them long blades for cuttin sugar cane. It’s the pianna shop out in Deep River, carvin keys outta elephants’ teeth from Afriky, and the distillery down in Middlefield, makin good New England rum from Jamaican turbinado—all things, solid and sure, but I aint got time for em, no, sir, I don’t. Not things but money is the future, and New York is where the money is, flashin from here to there like light itself. It’s money itself that’ll make you rich, carry you through, light you up. It’s money itself that changes the world, over and over and over again. It’s money itself that’ll make you a man—and isn’t it money I’ve a gift for?
* * *
They puts me at a high desk in the middle of a big room, oh, there must be twenty clarks at least. How big is the Hartford office, do you suppose, or the one in Providence, where the company started? It’s all I can do to keep from twitchin, limb by limb, cause I can feel it sizzlin through me, the power of all that money, growin bigger with every tick of the clock. How much did the company earn just while I was standin here, do you suppose? Two hundred dollar? Five hundred? More? More? I’s waitin for the head clark to explain me duties but while I stands here, the money aint been idle, no sir, it’s workin and movin, in a bank, in a ship, in a cotton mill. I don’t know all the places yet, but I swear I’ll know the whole business, top to bottom, before the month is through.
Mr. Ransome tells me there’s two kinds of copyin needs doin. One kind pertains to investments—where the company puts the money they make, how they manage their profits so’s they grow and grow. I nod. That’s where my gift is, but I can’t tell him that, he’d think I was daft. They’ll see it for themselves quick enough.
But today, he goes on, it’s policies. What risks the company is underwritin. “We began as a marine company, of course,” he says in that snotty English way. I must learn to sound that way meself if I want to get on. “Ocean-going vessels, the China trade, Africa, the West Indies. Up and down the coast, of course, and Europe—”
“Cotton,” I says before I can stop meself. He looks surprised.
“Cotton represents a considerable portion of the outgoing cargo, yes,” he says. “Bound primarily for the mills of England—”
“—comin from Charleston, Savannah, Natchez, New Orleans...” Cotton, gins, riverboats—things. But New York is where the money is...
“Yes,” he says again. I tries to hear exactly how he says it, “yayss,” soft and crisp at the same time, like what he’s tastin is too sweet to let go of. I was born here, I wants to tell him, if it don’t sound like it.
“But cotton is only one of the commodities we insure,” he tells me, still with that
funny look. Well, are they on the lookout for bright fellas, then, or are they hopin their clarks do as instructed and no questions asked? “And we’ve branched out since those marine days into a number of different fields.” Or is it the brogue that put him off? Have I ruined all me chances, then, in a single day?
“So today, Burns,” he goes on, “you will be copying out the letters sent to those whose applications for policies we have accepted. You must pay particular attention to the figures, of course. Even the slightest error could cost us several hundred dollars.”
Just hearin the words is thrillin, but I tries to act as smooth and calm as they does. I’m smilin though, I can’t help it.
“You must begin with these,” he says, handin me a huge pile. “Mind you be careful. After today, I shan’t have time to read behind you.”
“You can count on me,” I says smartly, and he nods, and moves away. I picks up me pen and starts in.
Dear Mr. Marlowe, I writes, all slow and neat, though I can hear by the scratchin of the other ones’ pens that I must learn to work quicker.
We shall be most happy to underwrite the lives of the 200 (Two Hundred) slaves on your farm, to the average value of One Thousand Dollars per slave, in the amount of $11.50 per slave, for the term of one year (12 months).
You must refer to the policy itself for a listing of the contingencies about which you enquire, but I can tell you that the policy does not apply in the cases of death resulting from (a) owner neglect (to be determined by a physician of our employ), (b) owner punishment (likewise), (c) suicide or self-inflicted injury, (d) the Hand of Justice, or, of course, (e) insurrection, riot, or other rebellious action on the part of your property.
You are, of course, ensured against acts of the Almighty, including Death by Illness (except when resulting from neglect or punishment, as specified above). You are not, however, ensured against the loss entailed by a slave running away. To my knowledge, there is no policy you can purchase against such an eventuality.
I trust this response satisfies you, and I remain,
Very truly yours,
Selwyn Ames, Director, New York Office
New England Mariners & Seamen
As I’s writin these words, two curious things occur. First, I has the sensation of seein—not Mr. Marlowe’s fields, exactly, nor his workers neither, though perhaps you might say I sorta vaguely sense them, spiky green leaves and long dark arms, cuttin and slashin with them sharp steel blades... But what I sees is the money, do you understand, flowin up from him to us. The money don’t look like nothin, so I don’t see it exactly, but maybe like out of the corner of me eye. Dazzlin. Or maybe I feels it flowin into me, into this room, risin up amongst the rows of rickety stools, swirlin round the feet of these nervous young men, their pens all scratchin, their white hands tremblin, their pale faces covered in blotchy red pimples and scraggly brown whiskers, the money flowin through us with every scratch of me pen, makin us all work a little faster, a little harder, makin Mr. Ransome look a little sharper at the clark at the end of the row, makin Mr. Selwyn Ames a little bigger, a little surer, a little bolder, maybe, as well. And then the money flows right on through us and outta this buildin, on to the stockholders, alla them men in New York and Providence and Hartford and—Boston, is it? I can’t see them neither, but I feels them out there—I’m parta them, they’re parta me—and for a minute, the current is too strong, too much buzzin around me, inside me, I feels so dizzy, like as if I was goin to melt. The desk is disappearin, and the room itself, and alla us clarks, meltin right into the money, and I wants to go with it, I wants to let it take me, dazzlin, dissolvin—
And then, out of the corner of me other eye, a woman comes and stands behind me, readin the letter over me shoulder. Middlin tall she is, with a pale reddish-brown skin, wearin a torn white nightgown, damp and dirty from her sickbed, her dark hair fallin all wavy-like around her shoulders. She’s pregnant, I realize, her belly swollen and saggin, her breasts heavy and full. One of em keeps leakin, stainin the white cotton.
I sees this lady and bam!, I falls back onto me stool again, heavy and solid. Just one body, by meself.
Who are you? I wants to know, though of course I don’t speak it aloud. Ghosts don’t scare me, but you should know what you’re dealin with.
She puts a hand on me shoulder, calm like, and it’s a lovely feelin, like she’s there to help me. Me own personal guardian angel, like I never had before.
My name is Isabella, she lets me know, and then she’s gone.
* * *
Every day I goes off to work at New England Mariners & Seamen, and every night I comes back just in time for the dinner they serve at me boardin house, everythin covered in floury gravy, dabbed all over with yellow grease. It fills me up but it don’t stop the hunger. I can’t eat no more but I wants more, my stomach burstin and hungrier than ever.
I goes out walkin through the city after dinner, eatin up the sights and smells. People crowdin out of their houses, gaspin for some cool breath of air, or crowdin into the taverns, thirsty and desperate. I walks for miles in the blue nights, feelin their wants push through me like a million damp breezes, pay the rent, go back home, put somethin sweet into my mouth, get next to that boy, that girl. Her hip under my hand, his silky hair against my cheek. Forgiveness from the mother I left behind, namin the kid I ain’t had yet. Someday I’ll be rich, won’t I? Someday I’ll be safe. Someday I’ll be all full up, nothin more to want, remember, or regret. Like flies beatin their wings against a jar, they wants, they wants, and I wants, too, walkin amongst them, only what am I hungry for? Wantin itself, eatin me alive, till I’m too tired, finally, to walk no more, and then I goes to bed, wantin harder and faster, even in my sleep.
That head clerk Mr. Ransome aint too swift, I figured that out soon enough, but he’s got his eye on me, and it’s me hunger that’s tipped him off, I bet you anything. He sees the look in me eye as I swallow all them numbers—sixteen ton of rope from Danbury to Kingston. Twenty-nine barrels of kerosene from Providence to Charleston. Three crates of Venetian glassware from Bruges to Abidjane; six hundred bushels of Carolina rice from Nova Scotia to Hamburg. You add up one voyage and then another and then another; you watch the money flowin round the globe. Your eyes wear out with watchin it, your hands ache with copyin the numbers, your back groans from sittin on that high stool, but still it sizzles through me, faster and brighter with every transaction, till I’m so hungry I can’t hardly stand it. The more I gets, the more I wants, I tells Isabella, when she deigns to make an appearance, and she shakes her head and smiles.
That’s why you’ll go far, Jimmy Burns—does she really say that with her cool, sad smile, or is she tryin to tell me somethin else entirely, pullin a dark-brown robe to hide her torn nightdress, bindin up her long, wavy hair, matted and greasy like she aint never once been able to wash it? Never you mind, Jimmy, just keep at it—is that what she’s sayin? Sometimes her skin is all smeared with somethin to make it shiny; other times, she looks more natural, pale reddish-brown like a piece o’ wood bleached out by the sun. She stays too long, you can see the stain growin through her robe, dark patches over first her left breast, then her right. Stop a minute, Jimmy, take a look around you, pullin the robe closer with one hand and pointin with the other, don’t look at what you see, look at what you know, her robe damp and drippin now, but she acts like she don’t notice, only pulls it closer and watches. I works better when she’s by me, can’t say I don’t, like she wants me to see how it all fits together, numbers into ships, cargo into money, money into more money—and more, and more—
So Mr. Ransome has his eye on me, scared, because he knows: I takes one look at a page of numbers and I’m the one can tell you what it means, like as if I had a magic lantern. He’s asked me more than once, droppin a coin from his pocket onto the floor for Christ sake, or even his cotton handkerchief like a young lady at a dance, dippin down by me station and waitin for me to dip down beside him. “What do you think of the market in Portsmouth, then?” he says outta the corner of his mouth, or “What about the price of whale oil in Hartford?” Askin, “Is it worth shipping candles to Antigua this season, or are the premiums too low?” “Is the Bristol market all played out then, and what shall we do about Nantes?” He takes me answers in to Mr. Ames, and he knows he’s got to do somethin for me soon.
“Taint difficult, sir,” I tells him when he finally buys me a coffee after work, a ratty ol’ place near the wharves where he thinks no one from Mariners & Seamen won’t never find us. Their offices used to be down here, but they’ve moved uptown—away from the ships, nearer the banks. Why shouldn’t I tell him me secret? He won’t never be able to use it. “You can’t think of it one at a time, voyage by voyage, do you see? You got to think of the whole globe, one big ball of money, and then you just add on.” Taint Isabella who taught me that—I come from Hartford knowin it already. She reminds me, that’s all, standin by me desk in her stained robe.
“I don’t see,” Mr. Ransome says in his clipped little voice, soundin bored insteada scared. “You can hardly be speaking of a mastery of geography. Only yesterday you told me yourself you’d never heard of the city of Brest, nor of the Isle of Madagascar, nor even of the principality of Herzegovina.”
“No, sir, I haven’t,” I say, keepin meself from sayin aint, because ready or not, this here’s me chance. “It’s not the particulars I’m speakin of, sir, though I’d be pleased to learn more, if you’d care to teach me—”
“This is hardly the place for that.”
“No, sir. Only the more I knows—the more I know,” I correct meself carefully, but I see he aint so scared of me when I can’t get past the brogue. “The more I know,” I say anyway, “the more clearly I can see.” Then the brogue takes over anyway as the words come pourin out. “It’s just a gift, do you see, sir, that’s all it really is. Some men has a gift for speakin, and some for figurin, and some for bargainin—”
“And you have a gift for—”
“Seein past the numbers. Seein everythin at once.”
He still don’t understand, but I keeps talkin—why? Maybe I’m hungry for talk, too.
“It’s all happenin at once, sir—that’s my understandin. Not one voyage at a time, nor one market at a time, but all at once, like—like the body of the world, sir. And money is like the blood in that body, racin and flowin, it don’t never stop, eh, sir? And it’s everywhere, Chiny, Afriky, Europe, South Ameriky, blood racin everywheres at once, so you tries to get a picture of it that way, sir—one big body all flowin with money.
“Course, you can’t know everything—no man could—and it’s always changin, faster’n’ you can grasp it—but still, sir, if you tries—Start with the big round body o’ the globe all fulla ships and trades and money and men—and then keep filling it in. Don’t start with one little voyage, cause then you got nowhere to put the next voyage. You gotta see the whole thing at once.”
The barmaid brings us the coffee we ordered. I aint used to coffee, I’ll admit it. But I likes it better than tea though it is more expensive, specially lately. “Some trouble with the Kenya crop,” Mr. Ransome says, happy to find one more thing he knows that I don’t. Then he realizes he’s just give me somethin I didn’t have before, somethin I’ll store away and keep.
“Look here, Burns,” he says, but I don’t wait for him to finish, I has to put two spoonfuls of sugar into me coffee and drink it down, dark, sweet, tastin of Kenya, Jamaica, Colombia, Brasil. It races through me like the money, sizzlin, dazzlin, and suddenly, I feel at home. This is my world, I says to meself, watching Ransome swallow his coffee in meek little sips, t’won’t never be his. Over in the corner, Isabella smiles.
“You wants to tell Mr. Ames what I can do, you’ll get the credit,” I tells him, the words rushin out of me, swift an’ sure. “You wants to keep it from him, you’ll get the blame. You don’t haveta like me, Ransome, and I don’t haveta like you. It’s business.”
* * *
Ransome musta said somethin to Mr. Ames because the very next day, the big man himself calls me into his office. “Mind how you speak to him,” Ransome can’t help whisperin, and I know he don’t mean only the brogue.
“Mr. Ransome has told me you have—an unusually good head for business,” he begins, and I laugh. Irishmen is next to dogs, far as they’s concerned—but I can help em forget I’m Irish soon enough.
“He must’ve made it sound like witchcraft,” I says, and Mr. Ames laughs, too, surprisin himself. “‘Tisn’t witchcraft though,” I says as careful as I can. “‘Tis only paying attention. Not many men can pay attention to several things at once, do you see? But I can, sir; I can indeed.”
Mr. Ames nods, slowly, so I keeps talkin, ever so careful. ‘Tis when the words run away with me that the brogue comes back.
“Nowadays you need someone who can keep his eye on things, do you not? Nothing’s separate any more. The sugar market affects the price of coffee; a depression in Liverpool might be good news for Brest. And your balance sheet’s no longer just profit and loss—you need to know where to put your money, isn’t that right? Sir,” I adds quickly, my mouth suddenly dry, cause I almost slipped and said aint. Wishin I could get onto a swift ship meself and leave the brogue behind.
“Our tradition has been to invest in New England,” Mr. Ames says in his slow, considerin way. “Textiles, shipping, whale oil, trade. . . ”
“Your investors won’t thank you for that, sir, and you know it. New England money does as it’s always done. New York money wants—more.”
Have I gone too far? He’s still nodding. “In fact,” he says, “our shareholders have decided—or at least, shall we say, they have indicated—the need for new. . . areas of interest, shall we say. In fact, to speak quite plainly, the very survival of our company might depend upon—well, as you say.”
“In other words,” I says, “if you want the company to survive—” He winces. “If you want to satisfy your shareholders,” I correct meself, “you need at least one grand scheme—one—”
“One substantial new investment, yes. Something perceived to be—the wave of the future.”
“The future, yes,” I echo him, but he looks at me sharply, more doubtful than before.
“Mr. Ransome indicates that you have made some extraordinarily lucky guesses.”
“It’s not guessing, sir, not entirely. It’s seeing the connections, more like, how each thing flows into the next.” A twitch of distaste contorts his brow. “For example, sir, your desk.”
He looks at it unwillingly: gleaming red-brown wood and the leather desktop like chocolate. The girl oils it up every morning before he gets here, and Ransome rushes in every evening with fresh nibs for his pens. “Mahogany, sir,” I say as gently as I can. “From Africa. And the leather from Connecticut. Traders and sailors and cabinetmakers and tanners—a thousand opportunities, do you see, sir? For investment. Or trade. A thousand ways to profit all mixed in together—your money to Africa, their wood to Brooklyn, the cabinet-maker’s boy and the tanner’s wife’s hired girl—the letters o’ credit and the bills o’ exchange—” The desk is dissolvin right before his eyes and the big leather chair as well, melting into that web of light, and he blinks. He doesn’t want to know all this, but I know it, and what choice does he have, now, but to listen to me? “It’s only a matter of findin’ the right investment, isn’t it, sir? The place where money comes from.”
“All right then, Mr. Burns,” he says finally, and the Mister lights me up like a Christmas tree, I aint too proud to admit it. “I shall be interested to hear your thoughts on where our investments might most profitably be made. And if I see fit to follow your advice—well, let’s just take it one step at a time, shall we?” I shake the hand he offers me, his skin all clammy and tired. All his life, he’s known this world he made, him and others like him. Now, suddenly, he’s a stranger.