Excerpt

Ours

Phillip B. Williams

February 20, 2024 
The following is from Phillip B. Williams' Ours. Williams is the author of two collections of poetry: Thief in the Interior, which was the winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a Lambda Literary Award, and Mutiny, which was a finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection and the winner of a 2022 American Book Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and currently teaches in the MFA in creative writing program at New York University.

Ours was founded by a single incident. Several white families established themselves in what was then called Graysville. The entire town relied on Graysville-Flint Bank, headed by a Mr. George Flint, who had already made hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate somewhere in Maine, as rumors had it. He founded Graysville on a whim. With a sudden need for adventure, he packed up all he owned and sent for the rest once he made it across the Mississippi River and found himself in St. Louis, Missouri.

Banking there became a hassle; already-established branches offered little to no room for a new executive and showed no interest in his cutthroat procedure of lending to those most in need who also carried the smallest possibility of paying anything back, taking from them their very bed if debts weren’t paid on time.

Word of his arrival preceded him with the force of a plague and the entire banking community refused to have anything to do with him. With no other choice, Mr. Flint headed just a few miles north of St. Louis, discovering a nothing place burdened by woods and orioles. He used his fortune to tear down every piece of nature that challenged his financial vision.

He bought up the land and divided it into plots he sold to anyone able to pay between $130 and $200. Word got around in 1832 that a new development had started just north of St. Louis with cheap prices for large plots of land. Mr. Flint made a name for himself and his business, calling it the Oriole Street Realty Corporation. Between 1833 and 1834, more than 120 people moved into Graysville, bringing with them over three dozen businesses.

In the summer of 1834, a dark-skinned woman and man appeared on the outskirts of town. They were watched from the moment they arrived to the moment they reached the newly built branch of the GraysvilleFlint Bank. It hadn’t been open for a full two years before the two opened the door and the woman asked to speak with “the superior of this bank.” Everyone working stared at her, one man so anxious he sweated the pen from behind his ear till it slid to the floor, the clink across the wood making him jump. She cleared her throat and repeated her request. Someone stood and ran to the back.

Moments later, Mr. Flint approached, a gun in his holster. People ducked beneath desks. Some of his bankers left the establishment to wait for shots to go off and for two bodies to be dragged out. He glared at the woman and then spoke to the towering, broad man who came with her. “Your business here?” Mr. Flint said.

“I caught word that you have a few plots of land left for purchasing. I’m looking to buy one. Build myself a home,” the woman said. The man who accompanied her stood a couple of feet off to the side and behind her, meaning Mr. Flint had to turn around to see the woman he had briskly passed.

He didn’t like the height difference between the woman and man, she of average height but her head top reaching just under his chin. Mr. Flint stood about three inches shorter than the man, and the man’s silence paired with his daunting size and intense stare toward nothing felt deliberately hostile.

“Is this man your husband?” Mr. Flint said. “If so, he should have told you that we do not sell to coloreds here. It is illegal. There is a sign out front. If he is not your husband, then he should have told you anyway. Much time would have been saved for the both of us if you two would have”—he paused—“could have read the sign.”

“But, sir, I have money for—”

“It is impossible,” he said, and headed back to his office. “Please, let yourselves out.”

“Even with this?” The woman reached into a large mismatch pocket sewn into her dress and pulled out $1,500 in cash tied in a tight bundle with sprigs of jasmine. Mr. Flint laughed uncontrollably, and seemingly out of his mind with humor, he smiled broad as a dog’s mouth. With a “Follow me” he led her into his office.

It was true that selling to her as a realtor carried legal repercussions, but with the amount of money she carried, Mr. Flint couldn’t let her leave unattended. He was jovial, almost feeling accountable to find room for this woman and her silent companion. He decided that she would purchase her plot from an independent seller, someone who would purchase the land in their own name and legally sell it to her without any ties to a realtor. Mr. Flint said the land cost more because it came with a house already built, though that was untrue. She agreed to the price of $1,500 for 2,500 square feet and moved in right away. In less than three months the entire town evacuated, the white residents moving south to St. Louis or, in much smaller numbers, north to Delacroix. The fleeing white residents sold their properties, houses and furniture included, to Negroes for triple the price they had purchased them. They gave a third of the profits to Mr. Flint and used the rest of their earnings elsewhere. Graysville became Ours and its new citizens were thereafter called the Ouhmey.

After the woman and man arrived and settled, more and more Negroes from all over the south came to Ours led by hearsay, both freedmen and soon-to-be freedmen, around forty in total. Many found themselves running away from undesirable pasts, including slave work that had killed everyone they loved and surely would kill them next if they stayed.

Negroes occupied the houses abandoned by their once-ago residents. Mr. Flint, though no longer a part of the community, visited from time to time to mark which houses had new occupants. He took copious notes of faces and names, the day they said they arrived, and where they came from. Once a week he visited Ours to collect money owed. Those who had moved in during his absence were told to buy the house immediately for $250 or pay Mr. Flint $35 a week for two months straight. Whoever couldn’t pay him what he requested within a month’s time were to be forced from the houses at gunpoint by St. Louis officers, but of course this never happened.

Mr. Flint died of a stroke one month after Ours had been named. No one bothered charging them anything thereafter, not even the government that took over all property in Mr. Flint’s name, as he had no children and left no will. Mysteriously, no evidence existed that either Graysville or Ours was ever affiliated with Mr. Flint. Allegedly, the room he died in smelled like jasmine for months after they removed his body.

*

The woman who pioneered the migration called herself Eleanor to Mr. Flint, no surname, and this not her actual name at all. To the no-longer-slaves she called herself Saint. The man that traveled with her was nameless and speechless.

When they reached town, Saint told those who followed her, “Wait somewhere in the wilderness until you hear word from me that you can come. When you come, bring the amount of money I gave you before we left. Keep yourselves covered in jasmine. Keep it in your pockets and rub it on your skin. We gambling here and need all the luck we can get.”

The newly freed had traveled with her from plantations all around Arkansas, plantations that she single-handedly ruined without any bloodshed but plenty of death, so most of them trusted her without question after having seen her power to liberate them.

It began on the Ross plantation in Hinton, Arkansas. One night, Saint seemed to appear out of their combined suffering taking shape in the form of a woman dressed just like they were. In one of the slave quarters, she whispered something that made everyone wake up at the same time. They all thought she was a spirit. Some hid their faces from her while others sat in awe and listened: “In three days, your self-proclaimed master will be dead, and you will follow me to freedom.” Then she walked out the door, reappearing at each place the enslaved slept.

The second night at the plantation, Saint and her companion tore down white fists of cotton and destroyed a garden reserved for the socalled master and his family. They trampled a pattern into the land that if seen from above resembled a pitchfork. Sunrise, and the mistress of the house broke into a violent fever. Every doctor that visited, three in nine hours, failed to relieve her, and everything they tried seemed to worsen her illness. It wasn’t until the mistress threatened to kill herself and everyone in the house if one more doctor tended to her that the requests for doctors ceased.

On the third night, Saint carved symbols into flat stones. When she finished carving, her companion took the stones to four different locations around the plantation and hid them beneath bushes. That following morning, the so-called master discovered every crop had withered overnight or sat soft and blackened on the ground.

Ross, the so-called master, took his rifle and, out of anger, shot at the nearest black face he saw. When he missed, his angry expression became mournful. Defeated, he grumbled as he returned to his sick wife.

On the fourth and final night, Saint and her companion rotated the location of each stone clockwise so that the southern stone became the western stone, the western the north, and so forth. That morning Ross, the so-called master, and his wife died in their sleep, both discovered in their bedroom by Ren, an enslaved cook, when neither showed up for breakfast. The three overseers were all dead, too, mouth-gaped and blank-staring at the ceiling of their cabin. Slobber slid down the sides of their cheeks like translucent worms.

Ren stumbled backward as though resisting the inward pull of the open mouths before her. She deserted the stiff corpses, running to her quarters to share the news with thirty-one enslaved Africans suddenly without a master. However, whatever joy Ren expected to feel crumbled before her because the so-called master’s son and the son’s wife appeared up the lane, their surrey growing larger over the horizon.

Saint stood on the steps of the house and watched the couple approach, led by two horses guided by a young Negro man. The so-called master’s son, enraged to see her standing on the steps of the mansion, wearing his mother’s emerald dress that he had purchased for her only months ago, rushed out of the surrey, and dropped dead the moment his feet touched ground. Panicked to see her husband fall and not get up, the wife demanded the Negro driver to help her get out of the surrey.

“Paton, open this door this instant, since you do not have sense enough to assist your master.” Paton opened the door and the woman slapped him hard, then reached for Paton’s hand. Her gloved hand in his, she stepped onto the ground and dropped dead. Paton leaned down to see her more closely.

“You touch them, and you die,” Saint said without anger. Her stolen elegant dress swiped the steps behind her like a receding wave as she made her way toward Paton. What a beautiful day: clouds, puffed up like bloated bodies, slipped between the old trees—the sight made Saint tear up, all that amorphous white, midair and aimless. When she got close enough, she touched Paton’s face with a gentleness he had never felt before and said, “This way.” She turned and walked to the field, speaking to Paton as he followed her. “Don’t ever try to touch your chains again. You might get rust on your priceless skin.”

She did this on five more plantations, emptying the houses of anything valuable she found, including money and food, clothes and tools, books and legal documents, animals, ledgers, and deeds. They took everything except the receipts of payment for the purchased slaves. Those were burned immediately, unfortunate only because they documented what may have been correct birthdays for the soon-to-be-freed, many of whom wanted to know if they were lied to about their births, forced to believe in whatever myth about themselves they were given. Saint knew, however, that those dates were mostly false and the new selves the just-freed obtained through fire was a new birth. She gathered herself a parade of ex-slaves and guided them north to Missouri. That they were never caught by or even saw a living thing—not even a bird—throughout their entire journey proved to them that Saint was their savior, though some never fully trusted her and considered her with suspicion because they feared both her and the man who said nothing and always smelled like the earth.

__________________________________

From Ours by Phillip B. Williams, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Phillip B. Williams.




More Story
Leslie Jamison! Michiko Kakutani! The wildness of Old English! 23 new books out today. It's another Tuesday, and that means that a bevy of beautiful new books are out. And it's a brilliant bevy indeed: below,...