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Authors: Charles Johnson

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Sorcerer's Apprentice

BOOK: Sorcerer's Apprentice
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The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Tales and Conjurations

Charles Johnson













It is with fiction as with religion; it should present
another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.

—Herman Melville,
The Confidence Man
, Chapter


Once, when Moses Green took his one-horse rig into town on auction day, he returned to his farm with a bondsman named Mingo. He came early in a homespun suit, stayed through the sale of fifteen slaves, and paid for Mingo in Mexican coin. A monkeylike old man, never married, with tangled hair, ginger-colored whiskers like broomstraw, and a narrow knot of a face, Moses, without children, without kinfolk, who seldom washed because he lived alone on sixty acres in southern Illinois, felt the need for a field hand and helpmate—a friend, to speak the truth plainly.

Riding home over sumps and mudholes into backcountry imprecise yet startlingly vivid in spots as though he were hurtling headlong into a rigid New Testament parable, Moses chewed tobacco on that side of his mouth that still had good teeth and kept his eyes on the road and ears of the Appaloosa in front of his rig; he chattered mechanically to the boy, who wore tow-linen trousers a size too small, a straw hat, no shirt, and shoes repaired with wire. Moses judged him to be twenty. He was the youngest son of the reigning king of the Allmuseri, a tribe of wizards, according to the auctioneer, but they lied anyways, or so thought Moses, like abolitionists and Red Indians; in fact, for Moses Green's money nearly everybody in the New World from Anabaptists to Whigs was an outrageous liar and twisted the truth (as Moses saw it) until nothing was clear anymore. He was a dark boy. A wild, marshy-looking boy. His breastbone was broad as a barrel; he had thick hands that fell away from his wrists like weights and, on his sharp cheeks, a crescent motif. “Mingo,” Moses said in a voice like gravel scrunching under a shoe, “you like rabbit? That's what I fixed for tonight. Fresh rabbit, sweet taters, and cornbread. Got hominy made from Indian corn on the fire, too. Good eatings, eh?” Then he remembered that Mingo spoke no English, and he gave the boy a friendly thump on his thigh. “‘S all right. I'm going to school you myself. Teach you everything I know, son, which ain't so joe-fired much—just common sense—but it's better'n not knowing nothing, ain't it?” Moses laughed till he shook; he liked to laugh and let his hair down whenever he could. Mingo, seeing his strangely unfiled teeth, laughed, too, but his sounded like barking. It made Moses jump a foot. He swung 'round his head and squinted. “Reckon I'd better teach you how to laugh, too. That half grunt, half whinny you just made'll give a body heart failure, son.” He screwed up his lips. “You sure got a lot to learn.”

Now Moses Green was not a man for doing things halfway. Education, as he dimly understood it, was as serious as a heart attack. You had to have a model, a good Christian gentleman like Moses himself, to wash a Moor white in a single generation. As he taught Mingo farming and table etiquette, ciphering with knotted string, and how to cook ashcakes, Moses constantly revised himself. He tried not to cuss, although any mention of Martin Van Buren or Free-Soilers made his stomach chew itself; or sop cornbread in his coffee; or pick his nose at public market. Moses, policing all his gestures, standing the boy behind his eyes, even took to drinking gin from a paper sack so Mingo couldn't see it. He felt, late at night when he looked down at Mingo snoring loudly on his corn-shuck mattress, now like a father, now like an artist fingering something fine and noble from a rude chump of foreign clay. It was like aiming a shotgun at the whole world through the African, blasting away all that Moses, according to his lights, tagged evil, and cultivating the good; like standing, you might say, on the sixth day, feet planted wide, trousers hitched, and remaking the world so it looked more familiar. But sometimes it scared him. He had to make sense of things for Mingo's sake. Suppose there was lightning dithering in dark clouds overhead? Did that mean rain? Or the Devil whaling his wife? Or—you couldn't waffle on a thing like that. “Rain,” said Moses, solemn, scratching his neck. “For sure, it's a storm. Electricity, Mingo.” He made it a point to despoil meanings with care, chosing the ones that made the most common sense.

Slowly, Mingo got the hang of farm life, as Moses saw it—patience, grit, hard work, and prayerful silence, which wasn't easy, Moses knew, because
about him and the African was as different as night and day, even what idealistic philosophers of his time called structures of intentional consciousness (not that Moses Green called it that, being a man for whom nothing was more absolute than an ax handle, or the weight of a plow in his hands, but he knew sure enough they didn't see things quite the same way). Mingo's education, to put it plainly, involved the evaporation of one coherent, consistent, complete universe and the embracing of another one alien, contradictory, strange.

Slowly, Mingo conquered knife and spoon, then language. He picked up the old man's family name. Gradually, he learned—soaking them up like a sponge—Moses's gestures and idiosyncratic body language. (Maybe too well, for Moses Green had a milk leg that needed lancing and hobbled, favoring his right knee; so did Mingo, though he was strong as an ox. His t's had a reedy twang like the quiver of a ukulele string; so did Mingo's.) That African, Moses saw inside a year, was exactly the product of his own way of seeing, as much one of his products and judgments as his choice of tobacco; was, in a sense that both pleased and bum-squabbled the crusty old man, himself: a homunculus, or a distorted shadow, or—as Moses put it to his lady friend Harriet Bridgewater—his own spitting image.

“How you talk, Moses Green!” Harriet sat in a Sleepy Hollow chair on the Sunday afternoons Moses, in his one-button sack coat and Mackinaw hat, visited her after church services. She had two chins, wore a blue dress with a flounce of gauze and an apron of buff satin, above which her bosom slogged back and forth as she chattered and knitted. There were cracks in old Harriet Bridge-water's once well-stocked mind (she had been a teacher, had traveled to places Moses knew he'd never see), into which she fell during conversations, and from which she crawled with memories and facts that, Moses suspected, Harriet had spun from thin air. She was the sort of woman who, if you told her of a beautiful sunset you'd just seen, would, like as not, laugh—a squashing sound in her nose—and say, “Why, Moses, that's not beautiful at all!” And then she'd sing a sunset more beautiful—like the good Lord coming in a cloud—in some faraway place like Crete or Brazil, which you'd probably never see. That sort of woman: haughty, worldly, so clever at times he couldn't stand it. Why Moses Green visited her…

Even he didn't rightly know why. She wasn't exactly pretty, what with her gull's nose, great heaps of red-gold hair, and frizzy down on her arms, but she had a certain silvery beauty intangible, elusive, inside. It was comforting after Reverend Raleigh Liverspoon's orbicular sermons to sit a spell with Harriet in her religiously quiet, plank-roofed common room. He put one hand in his pocket and scratched. She knew things, that shrewd Harriet Bridgewater, like the meaning of Liverspoon's gnomic sermon on property, which Moses couldn't untangle to save his life until Harriet spelled out how being and having were sorta the same thing: “You kick a man's mule, for example, and isn't it just like ramming a boot heel in that man's belly? Or suppose,” she said, wagging a knitting needle at him, “you don't fix those chancy steps of yours and somebody breaks his head—his relatives have a right to sue you into the poor-house, Moses Green.” This was said in a speech he understood, but usually she spoke properly in a light, musical voice, such that her language, as Moses listened, was like song. Her dog, Ruben—a dog so small he couldn't mount the bitches during rutting season and, crazed, jumped Harriet's chickens instead—ran like a fleck of light around her chair. Then there was Harriet's three-decked stove, its sheet-iron stovepipe turned at a right angle, and her large wooden cupboard—all this, in comparison to his own rude, whitewashed cabin, and Harriet's endless chatter, now that her husband, Henry, was dead (when eating fish, he had breathed when he should have swallowed, then swallowed when he should have breathed), gave Moses, as he sat in his Go-to-meeting clothes nibbling egg bread (his palm under his chin to catch crumbs), a lazy feeling of warmth, well-being, and wonder. Was he sweet on Harriet Bridgewater? His mind weather-vaned—yes, no; yes, no—when he thought about it. She was awesome to him. But he didn't exactly like her opinions about his education of young Mingo. Example: “There's only
much he can learn, being a salt-water African and all, don't-chooknow?”


“You know he'll never completely adjust.”

“So?” he said.

“You know everything here's strange to him.”

“So?” he said again.

“And it'll
be a little strange—like seeing the world through a fun house mirror?”

Moses knocked dottle from his churchwarden pipe, banging the bowl on the hard wooden arm of his chair until Harriet, annoyed, gave him a tight look. “You oughta see him, though. I mean, he's right smart—r'ally. It's like I just shot out another arm and that's Mingo. Can do anything I do, like today—he's gonna he'p Isaiah Jenson fix some windows and watchermercallems”—he scratched his head—“fences, over at his place.” Chuckling, Moses struck a friction match on his boot heel. “Only thing Mingo won't do is kill chicken hawks; he feeds 'em like they was his best friends, even calls 'em Sir.” Lightly, the old man laughed again. He put his left ankle on his right knee and cradled it. “But otherwise, Mingo says just what I says. Feels what I feels.”

“Well!” Harriet said with violence. Her nose wrinkled—she rather hated his raw-smelling pipe tobacco—and testily laid down a general principle. “Slaves are tools with life in them, Moses, and tools are lifeless slaves.”

The old man asked, “Says who?”

“Says Aristotle.” She said this arrogantly, the way some people quote Scripture. “He owned thirteen slaves (they were then called
), sage Plato, fifteen, and neither felt the need to elevate their bondsmen. The institution is old, Moses, old, and you're asking for a peck of trouble if you keep playing God and get too close to that wild African. If he turns turtle on you, what then?” Quotations followed from David Hume, who, Harriet said, once called a preposterous liar one New World friend who informed him of a bondsman who could play any piece on the piano after hearing it only once.

“P'raps,” hemmed Moses, rocking his head. “I reckon you're right.”

“I know I'm right, Moses Green.” She smiled.


The old woman answered, “Yes?”

“You gets me confused sometimes. Abaht my feelings. Half the time I can't rightly hear what you say, 'cause I'm all taken in by the way you say it.” He struggled, shaking saliva from the stem of his pipe. “Harriet, your Henry, d'ya miss him much? I mean, abaht now you should be getting married again, don't you think? You get along okay by yourself, but I been thinking I…Sometimes you make me feel—”

BOOK: Sorcerer's Apprentice
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