The following is from Kai Thomas' debut novel In the Upper Country. Thomas is a writer, carpenter, and land steward. He is Afro-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, descended from Trinidad and the British Isles.
It was not my first time at the Chatham courthouse, though it was my first time there alone. The courthouse doubled as the county jail, of course, and so coloured men were no strangers to the insides of its thick limestone walls. I was no stranger to them either. Before I had managed to convince Arabella that my time was best served in the study, she would insist that I join her on her interviews. So I knew the turnkey, a discontented man from Lincolnshire. I knew also the visiting hours, and timed my arrival so as not to suffer his talk of missing the ocean. I should never have told him that my mother was from the fenlands; perhaps then he would have respected the stony silence of the interior court.
The night before, two constables rode in around midnight, led by Jim. I hadn’t even the time to meet the old woman before she was taken away. We heard their horses coming down the savannah path, and we went out to meet them. I had seen the two before in Chatham, and I gave the details of what had come to pass, whispering, while we all stood in the backyard. The constables, having failed to bring cloaks, swatted away bugs in the starlit dark, and cussed quietly. Once I had done with my summary of events, we went together to the cabin above the root cellar, and one constable, the elder, knocked, with his body turned sideways, hand on the pistol at his belt. The younger constable held a lantern that lit up the grooves of the door. After a few moments the seamstress, Emma, peeked out. Her face was long and eerily beautiful in the light from below.
“She waits for you out by the swamp,” said Emma simply, shielding her eyes from the lantern light. She pointed out to the green lane.
We led the constables through the fields until we came to the lane. Cassi saw the old woman first, and pointed wordlessly to the small form, standing on a wide, flat stone girded by the softly flowing water in the lane. The old woman was draped in cloth and stood looking out at the moon. The younger constable went to her, fumbling with the irons, but he looked back at the other, who shook his head.
“Cumon, ma’am,” said the younger.
The old woman nodded and went willingly with them. I could not see her eyes under her hood.
“You might as well take the body and his carriage; all your evidence will be in there,” I said to them as they loaded the woman in their coach.
“Of course,” said the elder constable, quickly, as if he were planning for that.
In short enough order they had loaded everything up into both coaches and were on their way. I think they were expecting something more thrilling.
Jim rode the roan horse back to the livery and I went with him. It had been some time since I had been out so late. The rush of cool night air, the respite it brought from the flies, and the blue-green twinkle of stars invigourated me. Jim and I parted ways at the village lane—he was anxious to get home, as his mother was no doubt awake, fretting over him.
When I got in, I couldn’t sleep. I turned on my mattress. I was too hot with a blanket and too cool without it and my mind was whirling. Then, just when it seemed I might doze, the Tattons’ cock crowed like a jubilant madman, though it was still hours before daybreak, and I was vexed. So very vexed. First at the temperature and the rooster, and then at my own tumbling spirit. Damn Simeon for bringing me into this confounded mess. To hell with telling stories. I’d had enough of stories. No—I’d had enough of people’s hunger for stories. Is life itself not enough without stories? I could have had those women halfway to Spancel by now—if the constables hadn’t been called. The slave catcher could have been well underneath the roots of some old swamp tree, and no one the wiser.
But people wanted a story. And I was the one to tell it. Damn him. I could do nothing for them now.
Girl, the most that you ever could do for them is now.
I groaned to drone out the voice in my head. I wished Arabella was back. This was her purview. I was not the one to speak to an old slave woman. And yet, as I finally fell asleep, I could not help thinking of her. Of how lonesome it must be in the jail-bound carriage with a hardy sheath of wood between one and the fresh air of the marsh. And then I was lonesome. For the first time in a long time, I longed for Spancel. I was sick of this southern flat marshland, and I missed the escarpment and the eastern slope, from which one could see light on the tops of clouds at dusk.
In the morning I rose with the sun, prepared porridge for the household, and went out to the main road to catch the omnibus to Chatham.
A couple of hours later, I found myself out of the morning sun and in the strange dark and cool of the jail.
The thick smell of hay gave the jail cells the feel of stables. Fittingly, perhaps, the only seat in the hall was an old milking stool. When I took it, and blinked in the half-light cast by the high, barred window, I saw the old woman rise from her corner and regard me closely. She approached in a prowling way that threw me; for a moment I was unsure of where, or rather, on which side of the bars I had moored. I was still tired from the lack of sleep, and my head ached.
She was small, and older than I had thought; the skin of her face seemed as grooved as the folds of the head wrap she wore. Her eyes, deep set beneath her brow, shimmered as she walked through the shaft of window light to come as near as she could. She shifted the thick throw blanket that she wore as a shawl, and rested her hand on an iron bar between us.
“What’s your name, girl?”
Her voice sounded like the wind, a drum.
“Lensinda,” I told her. “Pleased to meet you. And your name, ma’am?”
I reached into my sack to retrieve my pen and ink. “Your other name,” she said sharply.
I hesitated, my hand pausing, clasping the ink bottle. “Martin,” I said. “And may I ask yours?”
She turned her back to me and made a cooing sound, one hand against her mouth, the other moving in a pinching motion, sprinkling what looked like dust, which fell slowly to the hay-strewn ground. She bent and touched the ground directly after. She was a strange bird indeed, and spry despite her age.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said, turning to face me again. “And another thing,” she went on, raising a finger at me.
“Don’t ever come empty-handed again. I crave a soft pear. It’s a bit early for pear, yes, but see what you can do.”
I sat for a moment, dumbly, my hand still in my bag. I felt confusion for the briefest of moments before annoyance took over, prickling at my temples. It was no small voyage from Dunmore to Chatham (and back again), and I was not eager to have made it for these few moments.
“You know,” I said, summoning every bit of warmth I could muster. “You know, there are many folk, black and white, who will be aching to hear your story.”
She stood still, looking at me with the utmost boredom, and did not move for a good long moment. Believe me, I have been known to hold a gaze, but when she started to sniff, snort, cackle, and finally hoot, all the while staring at me, I let my eyes wander over the cold stone walls of her enclosure and felt a whit of contentment at her condition.
“Girl!” she said in the most dissatisfied tone. “The day will not come—” she whispered, interrupting herself with a cough and another cackle. “The day will not come when I care what folk ache to hear of me!”
And she devolved into snorts and laughter again.
“I may be down here,” she said, breaking her jest to breathe, and pointing at the hay beneath her. “But I ain’t down there.” And she pointed past me. Due south.
I was beginning to hate every moment of this.
“And even if I was—ho! My story!” she blurted, and I feared she would devolve yet again. Instead she coughed tentatively and sobered. Thank God.
“No,” she said finally. “Folk may want to hear about how an old woman shot a man down in a cornfield.”
She paused a moment, staring lazily at the iron bars before her.
“Folk may want to hear about how the woman mad, or how terrible it is south of the border.” Here, she looked at me with something resembling fury, and I could not abide it.
“You are not the only fugitive to cut down a slave hunter!” I snapped at her.
Her lip curled at my remark, making her countenance more disdainful than angered.
“Though you may be the only one stupid enough to get caught,” I said.
I might have regretted that taunt immediately if her face had not deepened in contempt. So I continued: “You may not have known when you shot the man, but your case will go to court. This means there is an opportunity to set a precedent that affirms that actions such as yours—stupid as they are—are justified. Such a precedent would stoke a very necessary dread in the souls of all those who would hold coloured men captive.”
She looked on me, unmoved.
“Don’t you see?” I implored. “This is a chance to make folk recognize, or rather to make them realize . . .” I wavered, unsure of what, exactly, I meant to say. I cursed myself for speaking at all. “How gruesome the life under the whip,” she said, as if that settled some great thing. She half turned away from me and began to walk as if she had somewhere to go.
I simmered on my stool.
“My story,” she mumbled, placing a hand on the stone wall of her enclosure. “Where would you have me begin?” she said, as if entreating the wall itself.
I fumbled for my pen in my sack. I hadn’t expected this turn—I had been fit to give up, in fact.
“Well,” I began, “how . . . how came you to slavery?”
She huffed and I saw the back of her head wrap bow as she lifted her face to the wall.
“Same as everyone, I reckon,” she said. “I was born Negro in this world. So it is we come to slavery, no?”
I rolled my eyes. I had so little energy for riddles and wordplay. “It is not the world but the southern planters that bring coloured men to bondage,” I said. “Were you born to them, or taken from some other land?”
She gave a grumbling chuckle and turned until I could see a pale glimmer in her right eye.
“Not some other land,” she said, “but here.”
I scanned the side of the old woman’s face I could see. She was looking up the stone wall, as if into the heavens. A howl from down the hall caused my neck to twitch. It sounded strangely like the Tattons’ rooster—the brittle pitch of either mirth or madness; I could not tell which. When I looked back at the old woman she had turned toward me and was grinning.
“There is much you will never believe,” she continued, and her smile grew deeper, more wrinkled and ominous. “Best to begin with a tale that is not meant to be believed,” she said. “Tell me, Lensinda Martin, do you know of any old tales of this land?”
“Old tales of this land . . .” I repeated as I quelled my frustration—just as I thought we might get somewhere, she slithered away. But no matter; there were tales I could summon.
“It is said you are a woman of letters,” she prompted.
“Is it?” I asked, warily intrigued at how she might have learned that.
She nodded, and hummed as though she was about to laugh. “Very well,” I said, “I can think of one or two. And will you barter with me? A tale for a tale?”
She smiled slowly, revealing a good set of teeth, worn but white.
“Ah!” she exclaimed. “Someone has taught you. Very good, then. A tale for a tale you shall have. I am listening.”
And she sat, nimble as a girl, on the hay.
“There is one the folk of Dunmore tell to scare one another around the lane fires, when the wind howls in from the lake,” I said.
She hummed knowingly, and I began.
From In the Upper Country: A Novel by Kai Thomas, Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Kai Thomas.