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The year is 1860, in the months before the start of the American Civil War. The industrial revolution has brought railroads for fast transportation. Steamships and riverboats sail the seas and ply the nation's waterways. Telegraph provides instant communication. Machines are beginning to replace much dreary human labor... though mostly in the Northern states.
But, thirteen-year-old Skyler Knight returns from a year at a New Orleans school to the tiny Louisiana bayou town of Knights Crossing -- named after his family -- to find that nothing seems to have changed. This is mostly a relief: there were too many new ideas in New Orleans; too much change happening too fast for his liking. For the first time in his life Skyler had to deal with free black people... blacks who behaved as if they were equal to whites! Skyler, raised on his family's huge plantation of Diligence, was brought up to believe that black people were animals. Intelligent animals, yes, but certainly not human beings.
Yet, Skyler is beginning to wonder about that -- thanks to some "bad ideas" overheard in Bohemian cafes -- to at least subconsciously question the morality of slavery. These are dangerous ideas for a boy who will inherit a hundred slaves.
Still, it's good to be home where things never change. Skyler is looking forward to losing his sissified city clothes and going bare-chested in buckskin trousers; to riding his horse and fishing; to hunting with his big Smith rifle and swimming with the slave kids again.
But, something new has come to Knight's Crossing. After getting off the train, Skyler encounters two black boys of around his own age. One is Cartwright, a handsome, muscular boy who was purchased to be a companion for a wealthy plantation-owner's son. The other is an enormously fat boy named Loki -- called Lucky -- who belongs to Seth Franklin, a little-known and reclusive man who owns the small plantation of Content deep in the bayou. There are rumors that Franklin is far too kind to his slaves; that he's allowed them to get fat and lazy. ...And worse, "uppity." Lucky seems to confirm all these rumors. Besides being barely able to waddle, he sasses Skyler to distraction until Skyler wants to whip him, though he's never whipped a slave before.
Skyler's buggy arrives, driven by Jupiter, a wise old slave who has probably had more to do with raising Skyler than Skyler's own parents. A storm is brewing, and despite Lucky's sass, Skyler and Jupiter take him to Content. As if Lucky himself hasn't been enough proof that there's something strange about the place, spending a stormy night at Content only adds to the mystery.
But Skyler's curiosity about Franklin's "system" -- how Franklin can be so kind to his slaves and still make a profit -- is sidetracked when Skyler meets Lucky's fraternal twin, Lucinda, who seems to run the Big House. Lucinda arouses feelings in Skyler that are totally improper for a young white southern gentleman... at least toward a slave girl. If Skyler wasn't confused enough, he is flabbergasted when Lucky asks Skyler to buy him and his sister! Although amazed by this request, Skyler is also puzzled... why would Lucky want to leave a place where he seems to do nothing but eat and sleep? And, what use could he possibly be to Skyler, disregarding the fact that he seems very smart... and he can read!
With a head full of confusion, as well as thoughts of Lucinda, Skyler comes home the next day to find that his father has a gift for him... Cartwright.
Cartwright has never been "housebroken," working all his life in his former owner's blacksmith shop. Unlike Lucky, Cartwright is eager to please his new master, though Skyler will have to polish him up and teach him to be a gentleman's servant -- a squire to a knight -- but Skyler begins to wonder if it's Cartwright not himself who is really worthy of knighthood.
Although at thirteen Skyler has supposedly learned just about all he is really expected to know about life, it is during the months ahead that his real education begins.
A Few Notes
Like many of my novels, Knight's Crossing began as a short story. In this case it was a story I wrote for kids at a youth center. It seemed funny that while all the kids knew that slavery had existed, they didn't actually know much about it... except that slaves had picked cotton and been whipped. They couldn't seem to grasp the concept that human beings could be owned by other human beings as if they were only animals, and most seemed to equate slavery with being in prison. A few described slavery as if it was serving a sentence on a southern chain-gang... probably from seeing such things in movies.
Speaking of movies, one has only to watch films such as The Undefeated (starring John Wayne), as well as many other classics from the 1930s up into the early 1960s to find that the general feeling toward the Old South in the U.S. in those times was mostly sympathy that the South had lost the Civil War because so much "greatness and nobility" had passed away. If actual slavery was portrayed (or even mentioned) in these films, it was usually in the light that the noble plantation owners had treated their slaves as trusted servants with honor, dignity and kindness.
And the unspoken message seemed to be that black people had been better off as slaves, and the fact that they had been freed was a rather unfortunate consequence of the North winning the Civil War.
These feelings were also made felt, if not always openly expressed, in much U.S. literature dating from the Reconstruction period up into the late 1950s. The works of O. Henry, for example -- hundreds of stories -- are filled with references to the noble Old South, while "darkies" (as well as most other non-white people) were invariably treated as jokes. ...At best.
Even Upton Sinclair, a noted crusader for human rights, seemed to despise black people in his novel The Jungle.
The legacy of freeing the slaves in the U.S. basically seemed to be resentment that they hadn't all gone back to Africa and been grateful for being allowed to.
Of course, thousands of books, both fiction and supposedly non-fictional, have been written about slavery in the United States, and hundreds of films have been made with varying degrees of accuracy. I'm only someone who writes for kids, and my simplistic portrayal of slavery in Knight's Crossing is only a story for kids.
In trying to write for young people about complex and/or serious subjects, an author is often criticized in the same way some adults criticize Disneyland -- for being "childish" -- forgetting or ignoring the fact that Disneyland was made for children.
If one is looking for depth and complexity, don't go to Disneyland... or expect to find them in books for kids.
What were the kids' reactions to the story? They laughed in the right places and looked thoughtful or angry in the other right places. That's enough praise for me.
As far as the "plantation language," no doubt the usual people will be offended; those who seem to feel they're the self-appointed spokespersons for everyone of color (see the Ghost Train page) and often whether or not they have any color themselves. But I learned a long time ago that anything one does in life -- and sometimes simply being alive -- is going to offend someone, so I make no apologies.
Besides -- duh! -- there's a reason it's called "plantation language."
© 2010 Jess Mowry
The conductor's voice sounded strangely muffled, as if he were calling through layers of cotton instead of the hot steamy air. The engine hooted its whistle twice then started chugging slowly away as if tired of working so hard in this heat but trapped on its tracks with no way to escape.
Skyler remained on the station platform, his new carpet-bag at his feet. He watched the train puffing and panting away until it was hidden by vine-tangled trees, leaving only wood smoke and sweltering silence in memory of its three-minute stop. Skyler had almost forgotten this heat after spending a year in New Orleans, where he'd celebrated his thirteenth birthday only a few weeks ago. His white linen shirt clung uncomfortably tight to the rolly-round shapes of his chest, while sweat trickled down the sides of his face from under his curly blond shoulder-length hair. Nothing moved in this sun-haunted place, where even the trees seemed to droop wearily beneath their long burdens of gray Spanish moss.
In fact, it was eerily hot and still, like the ominous feeling in hurricane season before the attack of a storm.
Skyler sucked air as thick as molasses, wiped sweat from his face and looked around. An old man dozed on a wooden bench, his battered slouch hat pulled over his face... the same old man who'd been dozing there when Skyler had left a year ago. An equally ancient and dusty brown dog lay asleep at one end of the station platform -- probably also the very same dog -- and a pair of black boys were sprawled in the shade beneath the mossy water tank across the tracks from the station. A telegraph clattered inside the office, making a drowsy insect sound.
Skyler struggled to pull out his watch, which wasn't the easiest thing to do because his belly had prospered this year and hung down over his brown canvas trousers... he'd left his suits in New Orleans because they were now too small. His belly was mostly contained by his shirt, though trying its best to escape; and the cave of his navel was deeply peeking where once a button had been. Skyler had always been chubby, but his aunt in ‘Orleans owned an excellent cook and Skyler had gained about thirty pounds.
Skyler finally extracted his watch, silver and heavy, made for a boy, designed for a rough-and-tumble life, and a parting gift from his father last year... a reminder that “gentlemen were punctual.” Flipping open its sturdy cover, he saw it was 12:46. The train had arrived on time, yet there was no one but the dozing old man, the slumbering dog, and the sleepy black boys. No buggy stood waiting to take him home.
"Well, damn!" he muttered, wiping more sweat from a chipmunk-cheeked face that boasted the hint of a small second chin. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised; it was just like lazy old Jupiter to fall asleep at the reins. Although it was 1860, nothing seemed to have changed around here, and probably never would.
The little town of Knight's Crossing, a dozen buildings surrounded by trees, was only a few minutes walk from the station. But Skyler didn't feel like walking, especially toting his heavy bag through all the dust and heat. He supposed he could sit by the man on the bench, or go inside the waiting room, where at least it was shady if not any cooler, but he wanted something to eat.
He stuffed the watch back in his pocket and glanced at the rusty bucket and dipper that hung by the waiting room door. A sign above it said WHITE ONLY -- as if any nigger could read -- but the trickling leaks from the water tank would probably taste a lot better. What would really taste good was a big mug of beer, nice and cool from the cellar at home. ...Where the devil was Jupiter?
The two black boys had noticed him. They seemed to be around his age, but both were shirtless, barefoot and dusty. One wore only the shreds of trousers, though the other boy’s were in better shape. The boy in rags was beautifully muscled and rather handsomely dark chocolate-brown. His chest jutted out like a pair of bricks, while his biceps looked like river rocks.
The other boy was as black as coal and almost impossibly fat. His canvas trousers -- similar to Skyler's but three times the size -- were strained to the point of bursting their seams on legs that looked like oak tree trunks, while his belly both filled and spilled over his lap. The spherical shapes of his chest were enormous, and his massive body displayed more rolls than one might find in a French bakery. He was surely an astonishing sight, and Skyler found himself wondering how a slave boy could have had gotten so fat.
The muscular youth almost sprang to his feet and trotted up to Skyler, bringing the smells of boy-sweat and dust. "Carry your bag, suh?" he asked.
Skyler considered the offer, which he could have made a command: there was no way of knowing when Jupiter would get here. The town had a reasonably decent tavern which naturally featured an ample free lunch, and Jupiter would guess he had gone there. But, Skyler shook his head.
"No thanks," he said, though not sure why. He automatically dug in a pocket -- again with a struggle -- and handed the boy a penny. Then he picked up his bag and crossed the tracks, feeling new sweat soaking into his shirt from the effort it took to move in this heat. He stopped in front of the mammoth fat boy, who looked up from under a thick bush of hair, his eyes as black as onyx and the hint of a smile on his full pouty lips. His behind was so big and his trousers so small that he really sat on them instead of in them.
"Boy," said Skyler. "Y'all want to carry my bag to town?"
The enormous boy only widened his smile, a lazy, slow, and foxy expression... maybe how a fox would smile if it had free run of a henhouse. "I’d really rather not."
Skyler felt his cheeks flush pink. He couldn't believe what he'd heard! There were many freed slaves in New Orleans, while mulatto children were always free no matter how dark they were; and Skyler had learned to be tolerant when Negroes addressed him as if they were equals... gentlemanly Negroes, of course. But, that had been in a modern city where one had to make allowances for changing times and new ideas, not right here in his own home town!
Skyler fought to control his anger, which made him sweat all the more. “That wasn't a question, boy," he said in a warning tone.
The gargantuan youth only heaved a huge sigh. "I s'pose not.” He then took a minute to yawn and stretch, his abundance of rolls rearranging themselves. "How much you pay me, young massa?"
“I might give you a penny. If you don’t give me any more sass.”
The boy raised a soot-colored eyebrow. "Sorry, young suh. I just couldn't do it for less than a nickel." Then he grinned with startling teeth, like the oversize chompers of some mighty beast. "Why, other niggers would talk!”
Skyler’s cheeks flashed like a railroad warning. "Who you belong to, boy?" he demanded.
The fat boy looked oddly amused. "Massa Franklin out at Content."
"Then why aren't you out there working?" snapped Skyler.
"Massa Franklin give me this day, an' a nickel to buy me some candy. ...Suh."
Skyler glanced toward the town, hoping to see the dust of a buggy rising above the treetops, but nothing moved in the devilish heat. The muscular boy had followed him and now stood submissively near.
"I carries your bag for that penny, suh." He patted his paving stone chest. "I's fairly strong."
"Then why aren't you working?" growled Skyler.
"I's been sold to a white boy, suh. I's gonna be his companion. But they sent me a day early, an' I don't have the slightest of money."
Skyler frowned. "Who you say you been sold to, boy?"
"...I means a young massa, suh."
"That's better," said Skyler. "I assume you have papers to prove that?"
"Sho' does, suh. Gots ‘em right here in my pocket, along with my bill of sale."
"I don't need to see them," said Skyler. "Y'all don't look like a fool to me, so I know you wouldn't be lyin'." He studied the boy for a moment; a very handsome muscular buck with somewhat startling bright amber eyes and a cheerful intelligent face. He didn’t have a lot of mass, but every young muscle was starkly defined like an artist’s anatomy model. He was also more than a little smelly, though Skyler wasn’t bothered by that, having grown up playing with slaves; and he probably smelled a little himself from sweating for hours on the train.
The young buck’s trousers were slightly too large -- what little of them remained, anyhow -- clinging comically low on his narrow hips and revealing a few sooty curls. Skyler had never had a companion, at least not a boy of his very own, but some young gentleman was going to be lucky to get such a handsome young buck.
"I don't want your help," said Skyler. That sounded ungentlemanly so he added, "But, thanks just the same. I hope y'all like your new master." That wasn’t a proper thing to say: of course it was good if a slave liked his Master but what really mattered was that they obeyed him.
He struggled to dig in his pocket again. "Here's a dime for something to eat." He glanced at the sky overhead, as empty and blue as a porcelain bowl, though darker off to the south. "Y'all best find you a dry place to sleep 'cause it look like to storm before mornin’." He considered, then added: "Go see the blacksmith in town. Tell him Skyler Knight sent you. I 'spect he'll let you sleep in his shop."
"Thank you, suh!" said the boy with a smile, flashing white teeth as bright as his eyes and taking the dime like a diamond. "But, don't y'all want me to carry your bag?"
"No," said Skyler, though again not sure why. This boy could have probably carried him along with his bulky bag. "Y'all best be goin’,” he added. “Folks 'round here don't like seein' niggers with nothin’ to do. ...An' I wouldn't advise bein' out after dark."
"Thank you, suh," the boy said again, then trotted away toward town.
"That was very kind of you, suh," the huge fat boy remarked.
"I just didn't want him gettin' in trouble. ...Or swingin' from a tree tonight." Skyler realized he’d been dropping his “g’s” despite a year of being told not to, and dropped his bag on the ground. "All right. I’ll pay you a nickel. But, you’re trying my patience, boy."
"You just gave him a dime for nothin'."
"Shut up an' get up!" roared Skyler. "Or I’ll give you somethin' you won't soon forget!”
The fat boy only smiled again and struggled to get to his feet. After several rather ridiculous tries he collapsed in a quivering heap. “Can y’all give me a hand, young suh?”
"Well, damn!" Skyler grabbed the boy's hand and tried pulling, but that accomplished nothing except making him sweat all the more. Finally, he knelt and shoved a shoulder beneath an enormous blubber-bulked arm. After several minutes of struggle he got the huge boy on his feet.
The fat boy's trousers almost fell off, but he reached down over the rolls at his sides and tugged them halfway up his bottom, which looked like two ebony planets colliding. He wasn't any taller than Skyler, but seemed at least four times as wide. His trouser cuffs puddled over his feet, and his wobbly mass of belly blubber hung all the way to his knees while his navel resembled a deep, dark cave that tunneled into unguessable depths.
"Let's go," said Skyler, whose white linen shirt was now brown with dust and even more soaked with the other boy’s sweat. "What's your name?"
"Loki, suh, but I goes by Lucky."
"Well, hurry up, Lucky, I don't have all day."
But, Lucky didn't hurry. It seemed to take every ounce of his strength to pick up Skyler's bag, and he waddled along at the pace of a snail, his huge belly rolling against his legs while he dragged the bag behind in the dust instead of properly carrying it. His thighs seemed to get in each other's way, making each step a major event, and he dropped the bag about every ten feet to tug up his trousers again. Skyler had to wait when this happened, and was getting hotter and angrier with every passing minute.
Lucky was puffing like a steam locomotive by the time they were halfway to town. He dropped Skyler’s bag in the dirt once more as his trousers slid down to his ankles, and wiped the sweat from his triple-chinned face. "I's sorry, young massa," he wheezed as if dying. "I's just too fat for this kind of work."
"Damn you, boy!" bellowed Skyler. "Pick up that bag and come on!"
"I can't, suh," Lucky panted. “An’ I can’t reach my trousers.”
Skyler muttered another curse, tugged Lucky’s trousers halfway up his bottom then snatched up the bag himself. He turned to stalk away, but then hesitated and turned back around. “Come on, boy! At least you can watch my bag for me. You can do that, can't you?"
"Sho', young massa, I can watch real good. But I wants me another nickel."
"What!" cried Skyler. "You didn't earn your first nickel dammit! I wouldn't give you a tin picayune for all you've done so far!"
"But I tried to please you, massa. Ain’t that my purpose on earth?”
"You’re not pleasin’ me!” Skyler almost howled. “What do you do out at Franklin's?"
"I thinks a lot. An' I tell my thinkins to Massa Franklin who sets a great store by ‘em... suh.”
“Don’t mess with me, boy!” Skyler yelled. “Nobody owns a thinkin’ nigger!”
The fat boy smiled again. "Y'all might be right about that. But I helps my mammy in the cook house... when I ain't doin' my thinkin'. She be the best cook in the world."
"As if you knew anything about the world!" Skyler poked Lucky's gigantic belly, his finger sinking out of sight. "It's obvious you work around food. Likely as not you steal it, too.”
"Oh no, suh! I whistle all the way up the walk."
"Don't lie to me, boy! Ain't no way an honest nigger could get as fat as you!" Skyler's own trousers slipped low on his hips as his roll of tummy spilled out of his shirt.
Lucky laughed. "But honest white folks can?"
"I'm a human being!" snapped Skyler. "You're just an intelligent animal.”
Lucky cocked his head. “What’s the difference... suh?”
“The difference is you’re a slave an’ I’m not. Now, c'mon, dammit!"
"What about my nickel?"
"Here!" yelled Skyler, hurling a coin at the smiling boy, who caught it easily. "Now, COME ON!"
Skyler was puffing and panting himself by the time they reached the tavern with Lucky waddling slowly behind. Though too fat to carry Skyler's bag, Lucky seemed to have plenty of breath to whistle a cheerful tune as he walked.
The tavern was brick with a wide front porch, and was shaded by massive oak trees. The scents of good food and fresh foamy beer drifted out through the open front doors. Skyler paused at the steps to study the sky.
"I feels it, too," said Lucky. "There be a big storm comin' on."
"Animals can always sense trouble," Skyler muttered sarcastically. He mounted the steps and dropped his bag. There were tables and chairs on the shady pouch, but it would be cooler inside. "Here, boy," he said. "Sit yourself down an' watch my bag. ...Good god, boy, not in a chair! Y'all taken leave of your senses?"
Lucky smiled. “You’re perfectly right, I'd likely bust it.” He plopped heavily down on the boards of porch and the whole building seemed to shake. "I guards your bag with my life, young suh."
"You damn well better! It's worth a lot more!" Skyler tucked in his shirt, hoisted his trousers and started to enter the doorway, but Lucky gave him a wistful look.
"I sho' is hungry, young massa. An' awful thirsty, too."
Skyler sighed. "I'll bring you somethin'... something."
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.