Hello. Can you give me anything to think about right now?
Hopeful in Charlottesville
Yes, I can. I have myself thought much of late upon a certain incident from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson that — for reasons I cannot readily imagine — is generally omitted from most primary and secondary textbooks on the topic of National Americanism, despite its import to the ultimate development of Our Fair Nation. Recall:
Late in the Summer of 1804
In the reception hall of Monticello, slaves labored long in to the night, disassembling rough spruce crates. An ancient Negress, draped in white, squatted by a brazier and burned all of the straw and twine as it was carefully removed from each crate so that none should be lost, none should touch the floor.
The house girls in their servants dresses, their white gloves against their coal skin, all hid at the archways that led from every room of the house. A young girl, her hair unkinked and long, leaned her cheek against the cool plaster wall and wondered at the mamman who had the smoke of Afrique about her. She tallied the bottles of wine in the cellar, and the silver that she had polished for tea time, and the books that her master had asked be left strewn across his desk, though he would be gone from the house for a month.
She held her sums in her head and watched the black smoke pillar upward into the domed ceiling of the entryway.
The men pulled the straw and the cotton from each crate. And then, from each crate, came a bone.
The Negress directed assistants to lay out a pale white goat hide, and for the men to collect the bones therein.
The bones piled high, and the men pulled the square, iron nails from the crates, collected them in a porcelain bowl, and set this next to their pyre of rough pine planks.
The white-shrouded Negress nodded, and the men silently gathered the planks to their shoulders. A thin boy, still a year from his man's growth, lifted the porcelain bowl. With the sun long set, the Negress led the procession from the hall out and down the hillside to the center of the slave village in the shadow of the great manor.
The girl with the sums considers the pile of bone, and then passed through the back of the house, past the pool, down the hill, to an oak by the edge of the garden. From there, she watched the crate planks burn, the men standing solemnly by.
The woman in white, the fire illuminating her ancient body — now, clearly naked beneath the thin white robes — cast the ashes from the brazier into the fire, and then the iron nails, and the fire drew into itself, casting a sick green light up to the big house, to where the girl with the sums stood.
She retreated to the master's small study and sat in his chair.
In the Morning
At the base of the mountain Jefferson could still see a sickly serpentine coil of smoke marking the fields on the terrace beneath Monticello. He leaned out of the window of the carriage as it swayed up the road and he wondered.
On his lap rested a cube of oiled cherry wood, corners bracketed with silver and brass, the faces inlaid with a precise, if arcane, Cartesian pattern. The swoops and pot hooks of Hermetic Hebraic inscriptions were seared within each square. The inscriptions were worked carefully with what must have been a slender iron rod or nail, and so were black and severe against the rosy wood. The ivory, by contrast, was fresh and white without any hint of patina, and so kept each inscribe character sternly apart from any of the eight which surrounded it.
In the slave village, he had the overseer call out the woman purchased from Santo Domingo in the spring. The overseer had thought Jefferson mad to have paid such a sum for an elderly, slat-sided, worked-out nanny — "She'll not see another four reapings!" he exclaimed to his wife — but he stopped short of sharing his council with "Mad Long Tom."
She was led out of the small cabin that she shared with a man, woman, and five children. They were all out to field when Jefferson arrived for the woman. Although her white gown was gray in the diffuse and hazy mountain morning light, she held her ancient frame with dignity and authority. Her pedigree was obscure on many points, but Jefferson's agent had assured him that she came from a regal background and had been negotiated for by Napoleon's own man in Ghana.
She took him directly into her own eyes, and the conviction of her gaze convinced him of all the tales he had heard of her. At the very least he could see that until very recently, she had not been owned by any man.
The overseer took her abruptly by the upper arm, his meaty hand wrapped about her limb as though it were a twig. But she did not wince. She merely drew into herself.
Jefferson stepped forward and did something he rarely did publicly: He laid a hand on a slave. He slipped his palm behind the woman's back and lead her forward, up the hill. The overseer simply released her and stepped away; Jefferson did no see the man's pop-eyed gaze, and would not have cared to hear the heated hypotheticals he and his wife crafted that evening.
"Are you well?" Jefferson asked of the woman as they climbed the incline up toward the house.
She pursed her lips.
He repeated the question in French.
She breathed through her nose crisply, and then nodded, and let her head bow.
"Bon," he replied, nodding back.
They made a quiet pair as they ascended the mountain path.
At the front door his man approached to take his coat, but paused. Jefferson stood at the threshold, his hand still on the ancient woman's back. No negro had ever passed through that grand door. Because he was a good servant, Jefferson's man only paused on his heel for a fraction of a second, and then continued forward to guide the President and his companion into the entrance way.
"Good man," Jefferson whispered.
Jefferson's man took his coat, his hat, his gloves, and his satchel. The girl came out to take the items away from the man and into Jefferson's study, but as she briskly folded the bundle up, the satchel at the bottom, the hat on top, Jefferson reached out.
They did not make eye contact. They did not touch.
But he smiled, his eyes on her chin, her neck, her hands, as she passed him the satchel.
Jefferson then turned from all of them to make a point of inspecting his new clock. The mechanism sat below a high window, and the chain for the ticking weight ran through it, coming out of each side parallel to the floor, passing through a bracket, and descending down the length of each corner of the foyer. Upon installation this past winter, he had discovered that the weights, when fully extended, would need to hang lower than the floor of the Entrance Hall . Loathe to send back the clock or have the weights recast, pragmatic Jefferson had ordered holes cut into the floor in each corner so that each ball weight could sink from the ceiling to the floor, and beyond into the basement, unmolested. He also had painted the names of the days of the week along the path of one of the weights. As it was Friday, the weight was just descending down the hole.
He admired the chain, the work, the perfectly measured hole in the floor. All things are made as they are designed, until, that is, the real world intercedes and has its say. At this thought he looked from the weight which descended to its appointed subterranean repose up to the bust of Alexander Hamilton, perched on a marble pillar by the front window just to the left of the weight.
A month before, on a wooded dueling ground overlooking the Hudson River, Secretary Hamilton had been shot and killed by Vice President Burr. Jefferson disliked both men intensely — though Burr more, for his intrinsic iniquity, than Hamilton, who he merely opposed politically — but he still mourned the loss of such a man.
"As in life, so in death, Alexander," Jefferson whispered, holding up his satchel, hefting its contents. "Again we two stand opposed." He gave the statue a curt bow.
Pleased, he turned back to his man, and to the ancient Negress in her white gown. She stood gazing at the bust of Hamilton. "I knew a man once," she said in her pidgin French, "One time, he come upon a king. The king thought he had a knot no man could undo."
Jefferson looked at her, supercilious, a smile playing at the edges of his lips. "You expect me to believe you are that old?"
The Negress did not smile. Jefferson forced his smile to be broad enough for them both. "How did your friend solve his problem?"
"The same way your Alexander solved his."
Jefferson puckered, swallowing his scowl. "Mr. Hamilton lost his duel, madame."
Now she smiled genuinely, "Did he, Long Devil? Pardon an old pack mule for being such a fool."
Jefferson stepped past her, toward the goatskin at the center of the Entrance Hall. From his back, her voice came in a song, "Of course, see if you do not see it a different way when all of your countrymen are city-men carrying portraits of Hamilton in their pockets."
Jefferson stopped and turned back, intending to correct her. When their eyes met the chill of the grave squeezed his heart and he said nothing. He turned away. There, upon the fresh white hide, stood piled a great quantity of pristine white bones, jumbled joint over joint, smooth and fresh and clean. Innocent of flesh, ligament, gristle, humour.
Jefferson crouched before the pile, the woman standing to his left at a moderate distance. He kept his eyes upon the bones, and carefully unfolded the satchel. From therein he withdrew the cube of cherry wood, and several manuscripts which his agents had assembled for him.
One, a small tome bound in pig-skin, had come from Santo Domingo along with the Negress. She had been sent ahead to receive the shipment, but the book had been routed further north a week ago to find its way into the office of the Presidential Estate. The book was badly scarred along the spine because it, like the Negress, had suffered through Haitian revolution that was draining Napoleon's coffers and his strategic interest in the Novus Ordum of America.
The larger manuscript was really just a cloth folio tied around a bundle of papyrus sheafs. Under the cover of the failed Tripolitan invasion off the Barbary Coast, a smaller cadre of Marines had been sent into the Maltese stronghold which had only a few years before fallen out of Napoleon's grasp and into the hands of the British. One of Lafayette's lieutenants, who had stayed with the American army after the War, had offered invaluable guidance for the marines tasked with navigating the esoteric tangle of passages leading into the heart of the island. It was deep inside the vaults of the medieval fortress, where the Hospitallers had first cached much of their treasury, that the Frenchmen and the few Marines did slip into corridors unwalked and unknown by the British above.
These papers were all they took.
Finally, there was a new book. Franklin himself had carefully set the type and printed five copies, based upon a translation of the original text which he then destroyed. The type was then cast, still locked in the forms, directly into the smelting fire, so that no echo, however eldritch or faint, could be discerned. The molten lead was cast into musket balls, and the bullets were then collected in a case and reserved in a special armoury positioned far into Virginia, in the foothills approaching the Northern Neck.
Jefferson set the three manuscripts down in front of the bones. And then, the cube, the damned cube.
The room vacated, except for Napoleon's witch, Hamilton's curse, three corrupt tomes, and a pile of bones. Jefferson felt ready to begin.
All the servants had cleared the home when they heard that the Negress had returned. Most had little to say to the slaves in the village, but on this evening the suited servants did pass down the hill from the manor. Even the overseer was nervous. He would not tell his wife of any of this business. All of the Jefferson clan, and the bulk of the other folk who came and went from Monticello, were still in Washington City, and so they had all been left atop the mountain alone for ten days with the woman.
The overseer turned a blind eye when the young sculleries had take a middling bottle of wine from the cellar to share with some of the boys who worked the fields. No one did anything that day but sit around the village, drink, and whisper dark rumors as they occurred. Everyone huddled down there beneath the manor.
Except for the girl.
She sat by in the tea room, far away from the Entrance Hall, and she listened. She had her legs drawn up beneath her. Busts of Franklin and Washington stared blindly back toward the closed Entrance Hall.
For a half an hour or more, she heard humming from the witch, and the rustling of paper, and the soft sound of her master cursing. Then there was a hiss, like sand being poured from a bag, and the scritching of a pen nib against paper, and then against something softer and more muffled.
Finally, there was the sound of bone against bone, which she found unmistakable amidst all of the other rumblings and swishings. The bones knocked and clattered against one another, slowly picking out an obstinate but erratic rhythm for the next quarter hour.
The Silence and the Door
And then, the last bone clattered to the floor.
The sun was high in the sky, but there were high hazy clouds, and the light was diffuse, the air tense and pale gray.
Then there was a pounding. First it was faint, but sharp, and the girl turned from the window and look back through the dining room to the closed Entrance Hall.
But the door was strange. It hummed and seemed to shimmer.
The pounding grew louder, more affirmative. Carefully, the girl stood.
She made her way around the tea tables.
The pounding was quick now, a flat hand slapping the thin door, the door rattling.
It occurred to her finally to consider the door. As she passed slowly through the dining room, fixed by a rushing sound as though warm wind were drawing from every corner of the house, focused now and only on the point immediately in front of her, she saw that the door to the Entrance Hall was not the door to the Entrance Hall.
The door to the Entrance Hall was painted white, paneled, and altogether ordinary.
The door in front of her was cherry wood, freshly oiled, and bright with energy. It had a silver latch, a filigreed key hole.
And it rattled and creaked, and the pounding was now so fast as to be inhuman.
And finally she heard him.
"Sally! Sally! SallySallySally!"
And despite herself, she rushed to the door finally free of the enchanted air, "Thomas! Thomas!"
She flung open the door.
In the Entrance Hall of Monticello, Late Summer, 1804
At the precipice of the gaping door, the girl found that the floor very naturally slipped downward, a grassy hill, and somehow framed by the elegant classical and rectilinear frame of the Entrance Hall, there was the entirety of a vast and unrestrained western sky domed up over an ancient wooded river valley. The high ceilings of the hall blended with the clouds, and that great clock above the door was palimpsested against the burning golden sun, a chain snaking out in each direction, the black iron weights dangling over each curved horizon. She thought of the Serpent chained beneath Mary's feet, but could not say why. Tribes of men in skin huts clustered along the oxbows of the river, and deer herded beyond their sight in the understory of the primeval forest. A small band of white men slipped up the river through the trees in sturdy canoes.
Beyond the river there was a vast complex of mounds, plateaus, half-completed pyramids of sod and turf, and the architecture implied by those overgrown structures also mingled carefully with the lines of the Entrance Hall, such that as Sally gazed out upon the scene, she could focus on each scene in its turn and bring it more crisply to the fore.
First she could see the little red men in their furs and hides and beads, the high crests of their sharp hair.
Then she could see the mounds in the distance, and the grass fading away in favor of gravel, and the complex intercut with clean straight streets of cobblestones, and there were people on those streets, peddlers at the foundations of the largest plateau, a festival of dancing warriors.
And above was the sun, and it was the clock, and she could see the blue of the sky fade into the white of the plaster ceiling.
And as her eyes passed through these focal points, there was a muddle, a haze, between each vision, and she could hear heavy breathing, and the pounding of mighty wings. There was screeching, and the rumbling as of a great storm gathering on the horizon of all of the different scenes, and even in the Entrance Hall itself.
And then she could see a thousand wooden cubes, and on each face was a black design, some of them letters, some of them no better than scrawls carved into the wood with a hot iron, and around the cubes their spun two different pairs of concentric circles etched in fire, wheels within wheels.
Beneath the fiery wheels was the butchered body of the Negress, and she lay on the floor of the Entrance Hall, and she was a shadowy cloud over the white men as they slipped up the river toward a restless tribal village, and she was the dome of night over an ancient temple complex, and over an evolving warrior ceremony.
And above the wheels of fire, their hung Thomas Jefferson, his throat clutched by the talons of a great and fierce-some bird that beat its wings, filling the air with hot angry wind.
Jefferson was pale, his eyes glassy.
Sally Hemmings stood at the door, at the precipice, looking down on many unfolding scenes, and up, upon a singular event.
The stars and the moon and the sun wheeled across the sky for an unending series of revolutions. Dry, brittle paper flapped in the breeze, scattering into the many scenes, the changing scenes, the unfolding scenes.
Wheels and wheels and wheels, above and below.
She focused on the floor of the Entrance Hall, and though the wind whipped through the entire house, and the river valley sunk far and away below her, and though the ungutted witch spread a black pool of blood out before her like the rotten hide of a corrupt and diseased goat, Sally stepped through the door, out into the maelstrom.
Thomas hung above her, his head twisted to the side with a sickening kink in his neck.
She stared at the bird, whose breast was broad like a man's, and whose legs were thick like a man's, and she saw through him, shifting through the layers past feathers, past red flesh, through organs and blood, to white, dry bones.
And clenched in his teeth were four cubes, four letters, tied up with string to form some unholy word.
She reached out and touched Thomas' boot, and as she did that he came more clearly into focus and the whole room came sharply into focus, but the bird remained foggy, and the wind increased in pressure, and the rain tore at her dress and at her flesh, and she took his ankle as much out of fear as out of love, and she pulled.
Her arm passed through the outer corona of the wheels of fire, and she broke one of the lines, and her flesh hissed, shriveled, and was instantly scarred, but the bird loosened its grip.
Thomas fell with a sodden thump.
And that was the end of that day.
The hall was bare of everything, the bones, the hide, the witch, the manuscripts, the cube.
She knelt and pulled his long form up to her small body.
He breathed. But only barely.
Though she paid it no heed, the bust of Hamilton leered.
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