Fairest

By Brian Attebery

Slim bare feet in the dust: that's all Abel could see in the dazzle of sunlight, through half-closed eyes. But the ragged clearing became a circle, and the feet were at the center.

"What you boys doing here?"

The boys scrambled out from the shade under the cart. Abel's throat closed up and he couldn't speak. Daniel was quicker with an answer, as usual. "We have this chest-a-draws. From the Master. For you, ma'am."

"Well that don't give you the right to take a nap on my step."

"We wasn't napping, ma'am. Just waiting for you to get back."

But that wasn't true, Abel thought. The heat and the heavy pulse of locust song had put him right to sleep, soon as they sat down to wait for her. Her Highness, the others called her, living in the cabin that was hers all alone, except when the Master came to call.

"Let me see this here chest." The draped thing in the cart was a heavy, awkward piece of furniture, a low dresser with a mirror fixed on top. Not new—something the Master's wife had cast off maybe. Abel wondered if she knew where it would end up. It didn't belong out of doors, with the sun striking beams off the mirror. It didn't belong here at all.

"So," she said. "He putting his eye on me while he's away. Well I ain't going to have it in my house with me, but I guess it can't stay out here in the middle of the dust. Move it over next to the wall."

The boys wrestled it up to the cabin, under the overhanging roof. Abel was holding the front, so he could look in the mirror at Her Highness behind him. She looked pale in the reflection, even lighter than in her own self. Her hair was loose, curly, dark but catching red glints from the sun. She looked like a queen in the Bible. Abel wasn't sure which one: not the one King Solomon sang about that was black and beautiful, but not Queen Esther, fair as the moon either. No wonder the others resented her, though no one envied her the Master's visits. Even the Master's wife sometimes showed bruises, half hidden by powder, on her face or arms.

Later that night, Abel sneaked out of the cabin he shared with Daniel, Daniel's mam, and four other slaves. Daniel didn't rouse, just flopped over to take the whole cot. He always took most of it anyway. Abel tripped on a hoe and cursed it. Now it gonna plague him all day and all night. No one woke.

He made his way to the road and found that track that led back to the clearing. He peered through the bushes, hoping to get a glimpse of her through the unshuttered window. Inside, he could see the big frame of the loom where she sat most of the day, but she wasn't there now. Instead, as he edged toward the clearing and pushed aside a spray of blossoms, he suddenly saw her, just a few feet away, sitting outside in front of the mirror. The moon was low enough to shine in under the roof. She held a piece of cloth, lace like froth on a pail of milk: held it high to catch the cascade of light. Then she draped the lace over the mirror and started speaking softly, so Abel could only hear the sound and not the words. At the end, she said, louder, "Let it be as he wants, for now," and pulled the cloth off the mirror.

And as Abel looked at the lace, he thought a cloud had passed over the moon, but there was no cloud. It was the cloth itself that darkened, from milk white to a shade like the foam below the millpond. Her Highness straightened up and brushed her hair back, and in the mirror Abel saw the brightness that had passed from the cloth, now lighting and lightening her face.

"Boy, I see you. Come out here." Abel froze. "Yes, you. Come help me." He pushed a branch aside and reluctantly stepped out into the light.

"Get me water. Just inside the door, on the left." She sounded tired. Abel went past her to find a jug of water on a shelf. "There's a cup. Pour me some." He brought it out and held it to her. Instead of drinking, she poured a little onto the lace, which he now saw had a small dark stain on it. She rubbed at it, but it didn't wash out. She sighed. "So that's the price. Boy—what's your name, boy?"

He cleared his throat. "Abel. Ma'am."

"Abel, would you feel of the top of this mirror? There may be a nail or something sticking out. You see I nicked my finger."

Abel touched the frame, ran his hand back and forth along the top. "No, ma'am, not nothing I can feel."

"A splinter, then. Just for me." Abel wanted to go, but she took his hand. "So you like to spy on me."

"No, ma'am, just was going to the creek to . . ."

"To look at me then. It's all right. You can look, but not when I'm inside. But you have to do something for me in trade. I'm going to need some better food for a while. Can you hunt?"

"I don't have no gun. And we're not allowed to take no deer anyways."

"But how about squirrels, possums, smaller birds, things like that?"

"I can trap. I'm good at making a net."

"Good, then I want you to be my hunter. When you got something in your traps, bring it to me. It don't have to be every day, but as much as you can. I'll give you some of what I cook, and you can come talk to me and look at me. That's your reward. But don't come here if you see the Master's horse."

So Abel became a hunter, late at night after his work was done. It wasn't always so easy to get away. Daniel noticed that he was gone and had to be bribed with a water moccasin skin, Abel's prized possession. Twice Abel was caught sleeping in the fields and beaten.

He wasn't as good a hunter as he had said. He made a trap out of twigs but it didn't catch anything. He sharpened a stick and tried to throw it at a rabbit but it twisted to the side. The rabbit didn't even jump, just stared at him. Finally, he was able to spear a catfish, which he brought to Her Highness.

"This ain't no good to me. Can't you get anything that runs or flies?" She looked over to him. "Don't be shamed. It's good food. I'll cook it up and you can have some."

But Abel decided he needed help, from the only place he could think of. That meant fading away from a work band, on a rainy day when most of the work consisted of huddling under trees and complaining about the weather. After running through dripping woods to the swamp, he picked his way among high tufts of grass and already-swollen channels till he came to a spot he had only seen once before. When he was very young and his mother was still alive, she had brought him to be looked over by the secret side of her family. White people called them Creeks and thought they had all been driven out. Slaves called them the Little Men because they were mostly short-legged, like Abel. Only a handful, all stocky deep-chested men, were left.

Suddenly one of them appeared, standing silently right in front of Abel. A bone-handled knife hung from his belt. Another was there now, or maybe the rains had lightened enough to show where he stood. Abel turned, and there was someone behind him, and another now in front. They didn't say anything, just looked at him. Then the first man turned briefly toward his neighbor and Abel could see his profile, falcon-nosed and fierce. It was his mother's profile. And suddenly Abel remembered a word:

"Where is Ilnepape?" Where is Grandfather?

The man in front of him smiled and pointed. Now the rain was just a mist, and through it Abel saw a cluster of barrel-roofed huts. "I came here once. My mother was . . ."

"We remember. Was not sure you do."

"What if I didn't remember?"

The man touched his knife, still smiling. That's how secrets are kept, such as stories of men who come in the night to wives in the slave compound. "You got free blood," was one of the first things he remembered his mother telling him.

From one of the huts stepped an old man, the Eldest. The Eldest was older than anyone Abel had ever seen, with a face that was deeply carved and hard like wood. Abel thought each line could just about mark a year of age, like a tree's rings.

Now Abel could see that the huts formed a square around a central clearing, where other men had gone back to what they had been doing before he came. Two were sharpening arrows, one was scraping an animal skin next to the steaming fire, two younger-looking ones were playing some sort of game with sticks, and the smiling man went to join them.

The Eldest spoke. "Eh, nephew, is it?"

"Yes," said Abel. Maybe everybody was a nephew to the Eldest, the way Auntie Hannah was everybody's aunt whether they were kin to her or not.

"You want something?"

"I want you to learn me how to hunt. I need to bring extra food to . . . to the women."

"To the woman."

"Well, yes."

"That one thinks she will make a new path but she cannot. She has given away too much . . ." He held out his hand, cupped, as if he were weighing something. "She is too much ghost already to push on the world. The child she will bear may be one who opens paths. I must ask."

Asking meant dancing. The Eldest closed his eyes and began to sway. Abel heard a humming but he couldn't tell whether it was the Eldest humming or one of the other men. It didn't really have a direction. When the Eldest finally moved a foot it was like the wind shifting, a small difference that changed everything: the light, the smells, the weight of the air.

Abel couldn't see a pattern in the steps; they were so slow and deliberate. After just a few moments, the Eldest stopped and nodded.

"We will teach you to take game, but you got to learn laws first."

There were many laws. Some animals Abel was forbidden to hunt, because of the clan his grandfather belonged to. Some he could hunt for others but not eat himself. Still others he was forbidden to take at all: the red fox, for instance. The thought of even trying to catch a fox made him laugh. But as he learned, night after night, to strip bark and weave it into snares, to twist nooses out of sedge fibers, to walk more lightly through the woods, and to listen for the smallest stirrings in the leaves, he was finally able to catch a squirrel, a woodchuck, a white-faced mudhen. He dressed them out as the small men taught him, and, as they insisted, saved the hearts to give to the fire.

When he brought them to her, she was delighted. "You are my great hunter. I knew it. And you even cleaned them for me. You go now; I got to cook these. Come back tomorrow and I'll give you some."

He walked away, but later circled back to the clearing, and this time she didn't know he was there. She brought out a plate with something on it—he thought it was the bird. It smelled like the swamp when fires came through in autumn: smoky, earthy, a little rank. As she swept back her skirts to sit on the stump in front of the mirror, he thought to himself, "The Eldest was right. That's why she needs the extra food." He had seen women who were going to have babies, seen his mother when she was pregnant with the sister who never breathed. He could sense changes in their bodies even before they started to show round bellies.

But then he wondered whether that was the whole reason. She had her piece of lace out again, her conjure cloth. This time she arranged it around the edges of the mirror, carefully, as if she were tucking a blanket around a baby. She studied her reflection as she picked a sliver of meat from the hen and put it in her mouth. The mirror image was dark to Abel—he could see only the outline of her head against the night. He waited a long time and wondered if she had fallen asleep. Then he noticed fireflies gathering, flying their fishhook patterns over the mirror. Other lights moved inside the reflection, which wavered like water instead of glass. The scene cleared and Abel saw that it was water and the lights were pieces of moonlight that broke and re-gathered far below. He moved closer, hoping she wouldn't notice. The scene swept across acres of still water, stands of cane, knobby cypress trees: it was the swamp. Abel was carried along like a snake in a hawk's claws; she was the hawk, darting this way and that, searching. There was no sign of whatever she was looking for. An intense light suddenly filled the mirror, as the moon came up through the trees and moonlight washed the pictures away.

Her Highness stirred. She took a small gasp, the way you do when you've forgotten to breathe for a few moments, and looked up at Abel's face in the mirror. "I told you to go."

He said, "You was outside yourself. I was afraid for you."

"I'm back. You can see I'm fine."

"Those things you do? With your mirror?"

She said, sharply, "It's not my mirror."

"Is it, does it . . ." He didn't know what to ask.

"You think I'm calling up the Devil?"

"No, I think you're . . . it's like you're bleeding away." He held up his hand next to her face. Her skin was paler than before, not like white people's skin, quite, but like old cloth out of a trunk.

She held her hand next to his and studied the contrast. "Well, that will please him," she said. "He always do look for the fairest one. But he don't know what I'm getting back."

"What you doing just then?

"Looking for a way out. I ain't found it yet, but you keep bringing me things you catch. One of them might show me where to go."

Over the next weeks he brought her squirrels, pigeons, even a small darting lizard. She let him watch sometimes as she sent herself out through the mirror, searching through the eyes of the things he hunted. The flying things were best. During the daytime, Abel looked for birds that flew faster or higher and tried to catch them for her so that she could go farther in her mirror. The overseer caught him staring into the sky once, and he was beaten. But he had seen where a hawk settled into a big tree, and a few days later, he caught it in his noose. He was sorry to wring its neck, but when she tasted its flesh and cast her mind out, the flying was like falling into the sky. He thought maybe the hawk had given her what she wanted, but she shook her head.

"I can't go that way. Maybe you could," she said. He didn't know what she meant and she wouldn't explain. She was more tired than usual afterward, and he had to help her into the cabin. She was getting awkward, too, as her belly grew and threw her off balance.

As the weather grew cooler and the leaves started to grow pale, she faded too. Her belly grew rounder, but she hardly put on any weight. She was still beautiful, Abel thought, but you could almost see through her. Abel tried harder to bring her meat. It was more than she could eat, and she sent some back with him to give to Daniel and the other field hands. They were always hungry. The Master hardly ever came now: through that fall Abel only saw the big sorrel mare once, and he quickly ducked back into the bushes with his illicit armload of ducks.

Winter came with a dusting of snow, something Abel had hardly ever seen. It lay melting in the cabin yard, darkening like her lace, before it vanished into mud. As he approached the door, he heard a sharp cry, and he turned without pausing to go get Aunt Hannah, who helped women bring their babies into the light. Hannah grumbled about Her Highness, "too good to work like the rest of us." She didn't know about the loom in the cabin, where Her Highness spent her days, might not have even considered that real work. But she wasn't going to leave any slave woman to go through childbirth alone.

Abel left her and went to the swamp, where the little men were taking their huts apart. "It's time for the fire," they said. "We have to make it all new again."

He asked for help. "I got to kill a deer," he said. "It's not for me. She's going to need something bigger, stronger, with more blood." If the bleeding came after the baby, she could die, they way Abel's mother had died along with his sister. She would need to replace the blood she lost.

The Eldest didn't want to allow it, but a couple of the youngest men had seen her and knew why Abel had to help. They volunteered to go with Abel to hunt for deer among the cane brakes. At first all he did was to follow along, while the two of them harried a deer like a pair of young wolves. When the animal began to tire, he pushed ahead. The kill had to be his, partly because he had already begun to feel guilty. She was a small doe, but the others made Abel carry her by himself, and by the time he reached the camp he was staggering under the weight. He dressed the animal and gave the skin to the little men. He pretended to place the heart in their fire but he had already decided that that was where the deer's strength lay, and he wanted to give Her Highness all the strength he could gather.

At the cabin, Aunt Hannah was just cleaning up to leave. When he saw blood on strips of cloth, Abel's legs started to shake, but then he saw her lying on the cot, pale in the dark room. She was holding the baby against her chest. It was trying to nurse, still figuring out how. Against her light skin the baby was even fairer, with a rosy flush that she didn't have. Its downy hair was sand-colored. Abel said, "I brung you something to strengthen you up. It's a deer; I tied it up in the tree outside. But here's the heart. You want me to cook it for you?"

Hannah scolded him. "You get that bloody thing outta here. Give it to me, I'll put it in the pot to cook."

But Her Highness said, "Come to me, Abel. Lean over here." She kissed his cheek, and it burned. He touched the baby's tiny hand, and it closed around his finger.

"She's beautiful," he said.

"Yes she is." She sounded like that was a sad thing. "He is going to want her something fierce. His wife don't have any young ones. We have to figure to keep her away from them."

Abel came back the next night to see how she was doing, but the big sorrel mare was hobbled in front of the cabin. He looked up and saw that the doe's carcass was only partly hidden behind the trunk of the tree. He hoped the Master wouldn't notice. Even if no one named Abel, all the slaves would be beaten for stealing venison from the Master's supply. He could hear the Master's voice but he couldn't hear what he was saying. There was no mistaking his laugh, though, the sound of someone who has just won a big pot in a card game. Abel backed away and got caught in the rhododendron thicket. A wiry twig tore his sleeve. He didn't go back for several days, until Hannah brought him word that Her Highness wanted to see him.

She was up and about, walking back and forth in front of the mirrored chest. The baby was fretting in her arms.

"You got to take her away for me," she said. "He's fixing to come back tomorrow to get her. He come with his wife. It was like they was shopping for a new hat. She held my baby up and I swear she was looking to see if it matched her dress."

"I don't know where . . ."

"Take her to your swamp men. They can hide her."

"I have to ask first. And there ain't no women there. They might not know how to take care of a baby."

"They'll know what to do. They'll find milk for her. I know them, even if they don't know me. I seen in the mirror."

"What will you tell the Master?"

"That she died. Slave babies die all the time."

"He might hurt you."

"I can live with hurt."

"I'll come back after I find out."

"No, take her now. If the Little Men won't take her, go farther. Get her away. He won't get her. Better that she . . . you just go quick. Here, I've made a bundle of things. You can carry her in this."

She held up the lace. It was long enough she could tie it around Abel's neck and waist in a sling. The small bloodstain was still there. She nursed her baby one more time before tucking it into the sling. The baby had gotten a lot stronger, and better at nursing, since the first time Abel saw it.

With the baby in its sling in front, and a bundle on his back, Abel headed for the swamp. The whole way there, he fretted. He should have brought her something stronger, something that could have helped her get away from the Master. A wolf, a panther. Then the thought struck him, he had brought the Master in by not giving the doe's heart to the fire, the way he should have. He groaned, and the baby started to cry, but he shushed it. Now, if he could give his own heart to the fire, cut it right out of himself, he would do it, to undo the harm he had done.

The Little Men were all there in the settlement, as if they knew he was coming. And maybe they did, for they had a nanny goat tethered amid the newly framed huts. The youngest men held cypress boughs and were sweeping the blackened space where they had held the annual burning. The Eldest called Abel over and Abel handed him the child. "Not yours," he said. "I thought it was your baby. You take it back."

"But I owe her," said Abel, meaning both mother and child. The Eldest hadn't handed the child back. He was jigging her up and down gently. Abel was pretty sure they would take care of the baby, even if it wasn't his, but he had something else to ask as well. "Can I stay here? I want to join you. I got stuff to learn."

But the Eldest wouldn't let him stay. What would the Master do if one of his slaves vanished at the same time the baby supposedly died? That was no way to keep hidden. All they would promise Abel was that he could come around at night. They would teach him more. He would be one of them, a seventh member of the band, but he could not live with them.

And so it was, for a span of months. Abel began to feel as if there were two of him: the black Abel who labored all day and kept silent under the overseer's lash and the red Abel who knew the swamp and the forest as well as he knew Her Highness's face. The nighttime Abel knew not only what grew and crept in the woods but also how to listen for spirits, how to sing creeping things out of hiding. While he learned, the baby grew and thrived. You could see her mother in her now, but painted over in cream and sunrise pinks. She was a little Queen in the making, ruling over a band of seven followers.

Abel didn't visit Her Highness as often now. He felt guilty but he didn't have time, between work in the fields and his apprenticeship in the forest. One evening, though, some feeling made him turn toward her cabin. He entered the clearing and saw that everything was ripped apart as if a twister had come through. The house was half tumbled down, the chest of drawers in splinters, the mirror in shards. And then he saw her, lying against the broken chest like a heap of bloody rags. She didn't stir as he knelt beside her. A jagged piece of glass was embedded in her neck. Her hand lay upon it, but he couldn't tell if she had been trying to pull it out or push it in. Her face was not just pale but ghostly gray, except where the blood was smeared.

Abel let out a single gasping sob, and then turned and ran toward the swamp. He heard the commotion before he reached the huts: horses stamping and hound dogs baying and men shouting. Moving more silently than he ever managed when hunting, he circled around the settlement to where a stand of cypress trees made a screen, and climbed to a vantage point, scraping his skin against the bark.

He saw only three of the Little Men: two lying on the ground and the Eldest standing with the child in his arms. Before him were three white men on horseback and two black men on foot. The horses were caked with mud up to their withers; the mounted men mudded to their hips. The Master held a rifle aimed at the Eldest.

"Run," thought Abel. "As long as you hold the baby he won't shoot you." But the Eldest gently set the child down, and one of the black overseers ran forward to take her. As soon as he was back with the horses and men, the Master pulled the trigger. The Eldest jerked with the impact, then, without a sound, slumped to the ground. The baby wailed. The Master handed his rifle to one of the other men and took the child, setting her on the saddle in front of him. He looked around, and his gaze seemed to rest for a long time on the tree where Abel hid, but then he clucked to his horse and moved away from the circle of huts. The others followed without looking around.

Abel didn't come down from the tree for a long time, not till the remaining members of the band crept out from among the trees. They knew he was there: signaled for him to come down and help. He worked with them to take the newly constructed huts apart. It was time for a fire again, even though the annual busk had just taken place. This time it was both a purifying blaze and a funeral pyre for the Eldest. Everything went on the pile, including things that wouldn't burn: tools, shells, beads. They built the pyre but didn't put the body on it yet. They laid the Eldest in a cool, shallow, shady pool and began a chant that continued for four full days, all of the men including Abel taking turns. He didn't know all the words he was saying, but it didn't matter; they flowed out of him almost on their own.

In four days, the body of the Eldest did not change. He was waiting for the completion of the ceremony. When all was finally ready, Abel and the others carried the body to the pyre in silence. The others looked Abel expectantly. What was he supposed to do?

"He needs the dance to send him on. You are kin, of the right line."

"I don't know your dances," he said, but they shook their heads.

"Not an old dance. Make one for him. Listen to the heart."

Abel didn't know whether they meant his own heart or something else, but he closed his eyes and listened. His heart was pounding, but as he listened it slowed and steadied. He reached out to take hold of the rhythm. He thought about the Eldest dancing, but also about the solemn shuffle of a congregation when the preacher sang, and the close, simmering courtship dances of summer nights. Almost of its own accord, his foot moved, not a high step, just a little shift. To the left, then the right. And each step fell like a hand on a drumhead, echoed like distant thunder on the stretched earth.

When he opened his eyes, the others were joining in, and the dancing was a lifetime, and then the life was over. The dancers stopped, but the drumbeats went on. As the wood took fire, the flames crackled and beat in time with the sound. They grew higher, wrapped the Eldest in fire, and took him away.

When the burning died down, Abel asked the men what they were going to do. "Go south," they said, to where there were bands of surviving People gathering, along with escaped slaves. "Come to the great swamp," they said. "We will fight there, where the white men can't ride their horses, where their guns rust away." But Abel said no.

"I'm still her hunter," he said. "I've got to stay with the little queen. Somebody got to tell her who she is, what they done."

Abel waited in the swamp for a handful of days, venturing out only to check his traps and, once, to visit Her Majesty's cabin. She was gone. The chest of drawers with the broken mirror was gone. The cabin was empty except for the big loom.

When Abel made his way back to the plantation, instead of turning toward the slave quarters, he found himself walking up the road to the Big House, with no plan of what he was going to do when he got there. Nobody was in sight in the front yard or on the veranda, but he could hear voices in the back. He walked around. The white paint gave out halfway back.

The back of the house looked like a different building, with an untidy ell and a lean-to porch that was trying to lean away. There were dogs and chickens and a pen with a half-grown pig. A man was chopping wood for the kitchen fire; this time of year they were using the outdoor kitchen. Two women were fixing to wash clothes in a big kettle. Another was plucking a chicken. She looked up and saw Abel. He waited.

"Here, boy. Why you just standing around? You Daniel? We been waiting for you since yesterday."

He mumbled an apology. She started to grab his arm and then looked down at her bloody hands. She jerked her head toward the back porch: "You supposed to be in there already. No, wait. You look a right mess. Wash up first, n' there's a clean shirt might fit you. You ain't a field hand now; gotta look nice for the ladies."

So Abel became Daniel, and a house slave. Daniel, he found out, had run away two nights before. Nobody had dared tell the overseer, which was unusual. Stranger still, nobody called him out. Auntie Hannah came to the house once, and she never let on she knew he wasn't Daniel. She even brought him some of his own things—Abel's, not Daniel's—but only said they belonged to another boy who had gotten himself drowned in the swamp. She looked right at Abel as she said that. He shifted his feet nervously, a tiny dance. Hannah didn't blink an eye.

That was when Abel figured out that he could hide in plain sight. More than just pretending to be someone else—did anyone care, after all, about the difference between a short mumbling slave boy and a tall surly one?—he was able to divert the gaze of anyone who looked too close. The Mistress could be looking for someone to hitch up her cart, and if Abel was busy with something else and didn't want to leave off, she would walk right past him in the yard. Sometimes it worked the other way too. He could make himself be seen: be the one they needed when it suited him. That's how he became the chief child-tender for the Mistress's new girl-child.

Whoever notices the soft-spoken slave taking care of a curly-headed girl, making her laugh (but never cracking a smile himself), dancing with her up and down the big front stairs? Who pays attention to the steps he is teaching her?

He has a particular kind of dance in mind, and a special occasion for it. Another purifying fire is coming, not soon but sooner than they think, flames from the north. He can smell it.

What can a young girl do? What can a girl and a slave do together? Someone inside the house can open doors and gates, hide the guns, blow the flames up high. A young woman can charm the men, waltz with them, and learn their secrets. An old slave can carry messages, and knives.

Nobody thinks about those things. They just think, What a pretty little girl! Don't she favor her mother, though? And she will, yes. She'll take after her mama.


Brian Attebery is a longtime fan and scholar of fantasy and the co-editor of The Norton Book of Science Fiction. This is his first published work of fiction. He lives in Idaho, where he teaches both literature and music.