He was raised in the home of Master Baker Boswell DeGraffenried and only knew himself as Hank. His mother was a housemaid to Mrs. DeGraffenried, and she went by Ginnie. It wasn’t until he was nearly ten that he heard a field hand call her “Virginia,” and he said, “Why does he call you that, Mama?” and she said, “That’s my name, boy. Named after where I was born.” He did not know who his father was; he never asked, and his mother never spoke of him. But he was hardly the only servant child on the DeGraffenried plantation who did not know his father, and in some cases, the others didn’t know their mothers either.
He was raised properly. “With manners,” his mother said, “like the white folk.” He was never to go near the overseer–whoever that might be in any given season, his mother always ensured Hank knew who it was and how to stay clear of him. He could respond to the driver if the driver addressed him first, but Hank was not to become friendly with him. He was not to join in the games of the other field hand boys after chores were over. He was to stay nearby and out of trouble, and he was never, ever to talk back to any of the white folk no matter how old they were and no matter how he felt inside.
He was an expert at polishing shoes and silverware, cleaning dust in hard-to-reach places, carrying trays of food properly, pouring tea, and appearing invisible when in the presence of the white folk. From an early age, he learned to dress the young Master DeGraffenried. Henry was the young master’s name. They were both about the same height for most of their growing up years. Hank had no idea that it was funny for most of the house to tell Hank to help Henry. On Sundays, Hank helped Henry put on his Sunday best including cuff links. At his mother’s direction, Hank would pad quietly down the hall and tap softly on Henry’s door to which Henry would say, “Ah, Hank. Why they always gotta send you down for church?”
“If I don’t come down, Master Henry, I’ll get a whipping.”
The door would open, and Henry would stand in the door frame in his night shirt and say, “No one whips you without my permission, Hank. And so no one will whip you.”
Then, he would let Hank into the room, and they would get to work on his white shirt, slacks, polished shoes, cuff links, and Sunday jacket.
“Always so hot here,” Henry would say, “and ma and pa make me wear a coat to church. Does your ma make you wear a coat, Hank?”
“No, sir,” Hank would say softly. “Just my shirt, pants, and shoes.”
“That’s how it ought to be,” Henry might say. Once, he looked at Hank and said, “Do you believe that stuff they teach in church?”
Hank might have been eleven or twelve. In his mind’s eye, he could see his mother’s face pressed close to his. “When the white folk ask you somethin, you give em the answer they want to hear not the answer you think.”
Hank shrugged. “I reckon most folks do.”
“Yeah, but do you?” Henry asked.
Hank looked at him blankly. “I don’t see why not.”
Henry smiled. “Really? You don’t?”
“No, sir,” said Hank.
Henry shook his head. “So let’s pretend I steal from my father’s liquor cabinet. That’s a sin, right?”
“Well, now, they have to nail a guy to a tree because I did that.”
“I guess so,” said Hank.
“I mean, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Hank looked at him with his coat in hand. Henry waved and said, “Fine, put on the coat.”
Another day later that year, during the height of summer, Hank was in the middle of helping his mother beat the dust out of curtains when Henry dashed in. “Hank, are you almost done with your chores? I cannot study my French book another minute in this heat.”
Hank looked at his mother. She nodded and said, “He is available, Master Henry.”
“Ah, Ginnie,” said Henry. “You know to call me Henry.”
Ginnie smiled at him. “You are the young master.”
Henry screwed his face up and said with a deep voice, “Yes, Miss Ginnie. Yes, I am.” Then he laughed and dashed from the room yelling, “Ma! I wanna take Hank down to the creek.”
She called back, “Is that how you address me, Henry Edward?”
“Ah come on, Ma!”
He sighed. “Fine. Mother, I have completed my French studies for today. May I please take Hank to the rivulet to frolic and gambol about?”
Sarah Noel DeGraffenried stepped from around a corner. “That sass will get you into trouble with important people.”
“May I please, Mother?”
“Off with you then,” she said. “Be home before dark.”
Henry liked to fish. Hank liked to be out of the house, but he did not love walking through the fields to get to the creek. When he saw the field hands his age, they would stand up from the cotton briars and glare at him. One of them spit in his direction once, and one of the older hands had snapped, “Samuel! You wanna whippin, boy? Ain’t no good spitin Massa’s favorite.”
Later, Hank had asked his mother what it all meant. “Don’t you pay those boys any heed. Ole Joe knows you haven’t done anything wrong.”
Of course, that hadn’t answered his question.
Henry liked to fish, but he wasn’t very good at it. Ole Joe had shown Hank how to fish properly in Tennessee, how to spy the deep holes where the catfish lay, where to dig the fat worms out of cool, wet soil–the kind of worms that bring the catfish out of the holes.
“Always make the white folk look good,” his mother had told him one morning before one of these jaunts out.
So on this day, when Hank felt the distinct tug, he said to Henry, “Hey, could you feel the pole? I can’t tell if I got something,” and he handed the pole to Henry.
The pole bent toward earth, and Henry strained. “Lord, Hank, how could you not know that fellow’s on there?” And Henry started reeling in the line.
When they brought it on shore, Henry exclaimed, “Look what I got there!”
The fish was as long as Hank’s forearm and bicep, as thick as his upper calf.
“Woo whee, Hank! Your ma makes great breaded catfish. This will be great eating!”
On the walk back to the house, Hank listened quietly as Henry told and retold the tale of bringing in the fish. The sun was low in the sky, a breeze rustled the cotton plants, and the boys’ sweat was beginning to cool. As they were passing the servant quarters, they saw a group of the field hands gathered around and heard the white man in the midst of them cursing. He and another white man were wrangling one of the field hands who was thrashing against a neck collar and chains.
“Against the wall!” the bigger white man said. Kenneth. He was the overseer. David, the man helping him, was a hired hand.
They wrangled the thrashing man until they had him pinned against the side wall of one of the servant houses.
Kenneth handed his chain to Ole Joe and said, “Hold that for me.”
Then he nodded toward David and said, “The whip.”
David let go of his chain with one hand, detached the whip from his hip, and tossed it to Kenneth.
Kenneth stood for several moments taking deep breaths, then said at last, “I know y’all know the good book. That’s why I don’t understand why any of y’all put up with this.”
Ole Joe stared at the ground, the man in the collar looked around wildly despite his head being against the wall.
“The Lord said, ‘And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.’ Y’all must know the word of God!” And he let the whip fly with a crack, which flayed flesh and blood and jolted the man against the wall.
Hank and Henry stood in silence, the catfish having gone still and dead in Henry’s hands. Before Kenneth could finish, Henry said quietly, “Come on, Hank. Let’s get home.”
Hank lingered for several more moments then followed. They walked in silence for several more minutes before Henry said, “That will never happen to you, Hank.”
It was Hank’s one unguarded moment. “How do you know that? No difference between James and me.”
“The man they were whipping. No difference between us.”
Henry turned suddenly. “That’s not true. There are two big differences.”
Hank cocked his head. “What’s that?”
“You are a house servant and not a field servant. That’s one. And two? You belong to me.”
Henry turned back and kept walking. Hank followed slowly. He wanted to say, but didn’t, “Ain’t right. James was born out here and I was born in the big house. Can’t help where a man is born. Otherwise, there ain’t no difference.”
Henry was true to his word. Through his teen years and early adulthood, he kept Hank with him and never whipped him. Not that Hank ever resisted anything outwardly. When Henry reached his early twenties, he became the overseer and offered Hank the driver position.
“If it’s okay with you, Master Henry, I would prefer to keep to my work at the house,” Hank had told him.
“Suit yourself,” Henry had said.
How could he have taken that spot when he knew almost nothing of the fields and some other more deserving man could get it? So of course, he had passed.
Then came the War, and Henry took Hank and a field hand, Marcus, to enlist with him. Of course, Henry was quickly made an officer (a captain, in his case), as were most of the landed planters. Marcus and Hank were never to be in combat and never to be armed; Marcus was young, powerfully built, good at managing wagons and horses, great at digging trenches or making earthworks, and great at heavy-duty hauling. Hank got food for the captain, cleaned his clothes when possible, polished his boots, carried messages, helped set up and take down tents and beds, dealt with any other personal errands that came up.
When they were in camp, Hank worked among the cooks and supply servants but otherwise stayed close to Henry; Marcus was often elsewhere–with similar servants, he supposed, but Hank was never entirely sure.
In November 1861, the unit had its first conflict in a minor engagement at the Battle of Belmont along the Mississippi. Hank and Marcus, of course, stayed behind the lines and heard the firing in the distance. The captain had returned after a day flush with the thrill of the fight and pursuit. The 154th Tennessee had had one man killed and a handful wounded. Captain Henry had found the Yankees to be weak-willed and timid–hardly the mettle of the Southern man defending his home.
From there through the Spring, most of their efforts went to marching and moving around. Hank learned quickly that most of war was boredom–men playing cards and dominoes, singing, drinking liquor, struggling with camp illnesses, writing letters home and sending orders.
Marcus was quiet and had dark eyes that darted quickly as he sized up situations. But somehow, Marcus was plugged in. They shared a tent, and near Christmas, Hank was nearly asleep one night when Marcus suddenly whispered, “Psst, House Boy.”
Hank rolled over. “What do you need, Marcus?”
“When Uncle Abe’s boys get close again, what you gonna do?”
Hank yawned. “What do you mean? Just do the work Cap’n Henry give me.”
Marcus sighed and propped himself up on his right elbow. “Is all house boys as ignorant as you?”
“Why are you calling me ignorant, Field Hand?”
“Ain’t you heard? Any black man the Union captures is contraband. They property of the Union. Ain’t a slave no more. And if you work for em, Uncle Abe’s army or navy will pay you.”
Hank was quiet for several moments. “They pay you? In greenbacks?”
“Course they pay you in greenbacks. What else they got?”
“I don’t know,” said Hank, his eyes wide open and fixed on the white canvas tent above his head.
“Some of the fellas talkin about how to get away if the Yanks get close again.”
“The Grays will shoot you if they catch you.”
“So yo life so good in this tent and in that house back in Tennessee that you don’t want freedom?”
A chill in the air gave him a shiver. “Never said I didn’t wanna be free. I don’t wanna be shot.”
Marcus flopped down on the ground. “And they say the field hands is the ignorant folk.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, there’s worse things than bein shot on the way to freedom.”
“What good is freedom if you dead?”
“How bad is death if you ain’t free?”
Hank closed his eyes, tried to see past the small world he traveled in of tents, meals, clothes, and chores. His mother had been gone for a few years now, and her role in the house hadn’t been replaced. Master Boswell had relinquished control of the house to Master Henry, and Hank had had the most important house servant role in the house until the War.
“Supposing you are free,” Hank whispered. “Where you plan to go?”
“Wherever I want,” said Marcus quickly.
“Come on now,” said Hank. “Be real. You got any money? You got any kin with land? How you gonna eat? Where you gonna lay your head at night?”
“House Boy, what do it matter? Maybe I go north and work in one of them big cities. Maybe I stay south and work and try to find me a small piece of land. Maybe I find a girl. Maybe I don’t. What do it matter? You figure it out if you free.”
Hank breathed steadily and brought up a memory he had stored for years . . . a moment he had never discussed with anyone, not even his mother. He had been in his late teens, doing his normal dusting and cleaning chores. He always worked quietly so as to never give a cause for attention. He had come around a corner, passed through a swinging door in silence, and into the library where Master Boswell often spent hours reading. At first, he hadn’t noticed because he always started by straightening any books and furniture to the left of the door before working around the room to Master’s desk on the right. But then movement had caught his eye. He had glanced and seen Master Boswell’s hand falling away from his mother’s waist and back.
He had not reacted, had simply adjusted a statuette on an end table, then passed a duster over it. He had then heard his mother’s voice: “Yes, sir. Tea, sir. Back in just a moment.”
His mother had then breezed through the room, the door swinging behind him. Hank had moved to a mirror on the wall, straightened it slightly, then run the duster over it. He had paused for several moments, his own face framed in the foreground of the view, Master Boswell’s in the background, his head tilted down over a book, reading spectacles at the end of his nose. He had stared at the older man’s cheekbones, then his own, then the older man’s nose, then his own, then the man’s hairline, then his own. He had thought of Henry’s own features–features that Hank knew intimately from years of dressing him in close proximity. Were they . . . ? Could they actually be . . . ?
“I don’t think making it on your own is gonna be as easy as all that,” Hank whispered at last.
“Maybe house boys don’t know no different, but it cain’t be worse than how it’s been my whole life in the fields.”
“I guess not,” said Hank. And he took a deep breath and tried to go to sleep.
This was how their days and nights often went–work in their own areas, then be rejoined at night with Marcus passing along the latest scuttlebutt from other black servants serving in different units.
Mid-spring the pace and the energy grew. They joined other units assembling around Corinth, and the word around camp was that a Union general had swallowed up two forts along the Mississippi and was marching toward their position. General Johnston was planning to defend Corinth–that’s what Marcus’s contacts were saying.
There had been the movement out of Corinth at the end of March as rains and cold poured on them. As they got closer to wherever they were heading, marching security orders were issued to keep the men quiet. Captain Henry had given the two of them instructions on what to tend to, then promised to be back with them once they had delivered the blow.
Hank was always up well before dawn. Normally, he would be gathering wood for a fire to prepare tea or coffee, but they had been restricted from fires. So out of habit, he was up, and just a mile or so away, he heard the opening of the musketry followed by the booming of cannons. This was not Belmont–this was far more intense. And Hank knew that Captain Henry would be in the middle of it. Probably at the front of it.
Marcus joined him after several minutes, stood quietly next to him, and listened to the thunderous guns.
“What happens to you if he don’t come back?” said Marcus.
“What happens to you?” said Hank.
“Ain’t goin back to them cotton fields, Hank. Of course, you got a nice house to go back to.”
“I wanna be free, same as you,” said Hank.
“Of course, do you actually have a nice house to go back to?” Marcus said.
“How do you mean?” said Hank.
“Well, lookie here. Suppose’n Cap’n Henry dead. Then who own you?”
Hank folded his arms against the morning chill. “I guess whoever his will say.”
“His father? His brother? His cousin? See, y’all don’t even know. You might still be in the house. You might get kicked out to the fields. You might move to one of the captain’s brothers’ houses. Or maybe his daughter who married. You might go to her.”
Hank sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”
“If they ain’t got money because of this here war, they could sell you up or down the river.”
“What? You think you special cuz you been the house boy?”
Hank shook his head. “No, it’s just that Master Boswell . . . I mean . . . and Master Henry . . .”
Marcus whistled. “You don’t think that just cuz you the massa’s son you gonna get some special treatment, do you?”
Hank snapped his head toward Marcus. “What did you say?”
“House Boy, what you think? You think a field hand don’t know what happens when a ladies’ maid stay all day up at the house and turn up pregnant one day? You think we’s all blind?”
A new round of musketry rippled over the horizon. “So everyone knows.”
“Everyone who was around when you born.”
“I see,” said Hank quietly.
“And she practically tole everyone by namin you Henry. Same as the massa’s boy.”
“My name’s Hank.”
Marcus hooted. “You a damn fool, House Boy. ‘My name’s Hank.'”
“No one ever called me different.”
Marcus punched Hank’s shoulder. “Hank is a nickname, fool. Nickname for Henry. Ain’t no one named Hank at birth.” Marcus laughed and shook his head. “Let’s just pretend you knew that all along.”
“Ok,” said Hank, and he winced as he heard another round of cannon fire.
“Now, what you gots to aks yourself is, If Cap’n Henry gets hisself killed, is there anyone at that house that just takin you back and puttin you back where you was? Or you gonna wind up in the fields? Or you gonna wind up down or up river?”
“What happen if the Yanks win?” said Hank.
“House Boy, if you go free, then what? The family gonna give you a job? Pay you in greenbacks? You think you just goin back and doin the same ole thing?”
“I dunno,” said Hank.
“Well, I don’t know neither,” said Marcus, “but I wouldn’t be plannin on no one that don’t wanna pay you nothin right now neither.” Marcus nudged him. “I know I ain’t plannin on no white man to take care of me or help me out if Cap’n Henry get killed or the Yanks win. I’m gettin myself to freedom and figurin it out.”
“You made that clear,” said Hank.
“Ain’t we got work to do?” said Marcus.
Hank nodded. “I’m sure we can find something.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for the walking wounded to come streaming back, and before long, Hank and Marcus were heating water to help treat the men, making coffee and corn meal, and running wagons to get men to hospitals. Even as they worked on that, the firing became more distant, which suggested to Hank that the Gray were driving back the Blue.
All day he worked in the mild sun, the sodden earth between his feet, Marcus’s questions on his mind. If Captain Henry were killed, he wouldn’t know it today most likely, unless all the men came running back. And the sounds suggested they weren’t headed back. What should he do? Did it even matter whether Captain Henry was killed? Should he be looking to get away? Become a contraband?
He had never been whipped, molested, raped, tied up, or hit. No one had ever suggested that they would sell him. If Master Boswell’s family ever said much to him beyond a command, it was complimentary. They liked his work, liked how he perceived their needs and wants before they expressed them, appreciated how he faded from situations by instinct.
And yet. He heard the whispers of things that had been done. Apparently, everyone believed already what he himself had only considered in his late teen years. He had seen farm hands die of exhaustion in the fields, women worn out in their forties or fifties, children disappear who had been running around the fields. There was no difference–dressed in nice clothes and holding a silver tray didn’t mean much. It could still happen to him. No, he did not want to go back. But what to do instead?
That night, he slept fitfully, the questions running through his mind. Several times, he held his hand in front of his face, turned it over several times, and whispered, “Henry.” But he was not Henry–Henry was the captain, and he was out in the field somewhere fighting what he said were invaders. At moments like these, he ached to talk with his mother again, but then, he wasn’t sure what she would actually tell him. He had lived his whole life and never heard from her about his father. He had asked her once in his teen years, and she had smiled weakly at him and said, “It doesn’t matter now, does it? Because I have you, you have me, and we have each other. And we are all we need.” What he wanted to say but did not was, “How does that answer my question?” Even so, he believed her to be the most honest of all people he had dealt with. So he wanted to ask her about his father, about his name, about where she had come from and who her people were, and especially, should he run? Should he wait? Should he follow the Yankees? What should he do if the captain were killed?
He passed in and out of sleep, never quite sure whether or if he was awake. And then at 5 am, he heard the roar of distant cannon, which was then answered by cannon closer to them. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. More wounded would be headed toward them soon, and more men would need to be fed and given water. He smacked his cold arms to shake himself further awake, and then, he crawled out of the bed roll and stood up.
Captain Henry returned that day, leading his beaten and retreating men. Hank and Marcus helped load up the provisions and wagons so they could fall back with the army. When night fell, they were well on their way to Corinth. Hank stayed near the captain as he circulated among the men who were left from the 154th. The unit had taken thirty percent casualties, and Captain Henry’s face betrayed a grim, angry hardness Hank had not seen before. It was a look and darkness of mind that Hank would become accustomed to.
In the days that followed, they fell back to Corinth and put up a defense. Eventually, they faded from that city and gave it up to the enemy. The next several months involved moving and marching, merging with another unit, and bringing in new recruits to replace the fallen. For Hank, it meant daily duties close to Henry, long conversations with Marcus about what he was hearing in the rest of the country, and lots of time to think about what freedom might look like, where he might want to wind up, how he might get to freedom, and whether it was worth risking his life. He had only a vague idea of how the war was progressing, and most of what he got was from Marcus picking up scraps of information from other cooks and laborers.
Then, in the fall, there was Sharpsburg–a cataclysm that echoed across the land and where both sides claimed victory. The North drove the South from its land. The South stared down a much larger force and fought them to a bloody standstill. In all, the single day of fighting was the bloodiest in American history. And on its heels came the Emancipation Proclamation, which provoked outrage in both North and South. Hank heard officers muse that it might doom the Northern cause: “Now they aren’t fighting to keep the Union–they’re fighting to free the negroes, and those Ohio farm boys aren’t interested in doing that.” Of course, others wisely noted that European powers would not come in on the side of the South with the North seeking to eradicate slavery.
Marcus said to him one night, “We free in January, House Boy.”
“Doesn’t seem that way,” Hank said.
“But it is so. Massa Lincoln said so. All coloreds in the rebel states is free in January.”
Hank propped himself up on his left elbow. “So you think you’re just gonna walk out of this camp on January 1, Field Hand?”
“I ain’t that ignorant. But if I get out, I free. And so is you. Ain’t no contraband. Just free.”
“You figure out where you’re gonna go?”
“Any place there ain’t no cotton fields.”
Thereafter, Marcus picked up news anywhere he could on where the Yanks were and what direction they were headed. He told Hank one night, “You can come with me when I go.”
Hank told him, “I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do.”
Marcus snorted. “I figured as much. Offer stands, but if you don’t tell me soon, I may not tell you when I’m goin.”
“I understand,” Hank told him.
Night after night, he stared at the canvas above him, pondering what to do until he fell asleep. It was hard to imagine himself disconnected from his master’s family not because he didn’t want it but because he had known nothing else. Traveling with the army, he saw other parts of the South, but his view was still limited to what he had to do for the Captain. He knew little about farming, had never worked any machines, couldn’t imagine being in a factory. How would he catch on at anything where he knew no one?
Then, in late December, as the day of official emancipation approached and as the weather turned frigid, the army turned north, and the talk of battle flowed throughout the camp. On December 30, Captain Henry gave Hank instructions on tending to his duties while he was to be away to fight, then headed out with his regiment. They had marched back to Murfreesboro to open the corridor through Tennessee to Kentucky. The Yankees were in front of them, and within two days, Hank was free if he was in Union hands. Marcus said nothing to him, but Hank knew the looks, knew that he had never said whether he would go, knew that Marcus’s day was at hand.
On a frigid morning the day before New Year’s, the fighting opened. Marcus headed out that morning to tend horses that were being held in reserve for those that would die in the fighting. That was the last Hank ever saw of him–never heard even whether Marcus made it to the other side.
Late that afternoon, a man approached on a horse, his blood-covered arms wrapped around a slumped Captain Henry. The man pointed at Hank.
“Boy! Your master has been gravely wounded. See to it that he gets the attention of the surgeons.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hank.
He helped get Captain Henry down from the horse and moved over to a wagon. Henry was pale, and he held his blood-soaked right hand over a wound in his lower stomach. Hank piled blankets on and around him, then drove the wagon to the middle of town.
A day later, he helped get the captain on a train bound for a hospital in Chattanooga, and he accompanied Henry on the ride. When they arrived in Chattanooga, surgeons examined him and said, “It is not safe to operate. He is not likely to survive.”
“He’s gonna die?” said Hank. Of course, logically, he knew that was going to happen. But to have anyone say it was jarring.
“More than likely,” said one of the surgeons.
Now, Hank began a vigil. He sat at the captain’s side all day, fetching water when asked, and seeking out the nurses if Henry had too much pain. Hank studied Henry’s breathing and watched the pallor of his face closely, always looking for the time when he would slip away and leave Hank in limbo. Nurse Kate Cumming stopped by a day or two into his vigil. She took away bloody bandages and applied new dressings, then looked at Hank.
“You are devoted to your master.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Hank. “Been at his side as far back as I can remember.”
“You come from a good situation, then,” she said. “He is one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee.”
“I was raised right, ma’am,” said Hank, lowering his eyes, then looking over at Henry.
“A man as wealthy as that, and he has given his life for his country and his people. He could have stayed home, you know.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Hank.
“When he goes, I imagine you will want to return to your home and your people. Fayette?”
“Yes, ma’am. Plantation in Fayette. I am the house man.”
“Indeed you are,” said Kate. She stood and scooped up the bloody bandages. “God bless Captain DeGraffenried, and God bless you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Hank.
That night, Hank slept on the floor next to the captain, his head resting on his left arm. He drifted in and out of sleep, taking care to listen for Henry’s breathing. And then, in the dead of night, he heard Henry say firmly, “Hank? You are here?”
Hank popped his head up. “Yes, sir.”
“Oh. I thought you were gone. Or maybe that I was gone.”
“No, sir,” said Hank. “We’re both here.”
“But I will not be for long, will I?” said Henry.
“Only the Lord knows, sir.”
“You always were a kidder,” said Henry. “This ball clipped my insides. If I don’t have it yet, I will soon have a sickness, and that will be the end of me.”
“Only the Lord knows our time, sir,” said Hank.
Henry chuckled. “You keep thinking that.”
They fell into silence, and Hank listened to the night sounds of the wounded–the gurgles, heavy breathing, occasional cry, and whispered curses and prayers.
“What will you do when I am gone?” Henry said.
“Sir?” said Hank.
“When I am gone,” said Henry. “Where will you go? Do you plan to take up farming?”
“I don’t rightly know, sir.”
Hank saw the wounded man nod slightly.
“When I am gone, you are free, Hank.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“It’s in my will, Hank. When I am gone, you are free. The papers are all back at the house.”
“I see, sir,” said Hank, his voice flat.
They were quiet again for several long moments. Then Henry said, “Does that please you?”
“Oh yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Henry laughed. “Never can tell with you exactly.”
“I never thought about it,” Hank lied. “You and the family and the house are all I ever knew.”
“You would be welcome back there,” said Henry. “Agnes will always need help. And if we don’t win this war, I don’t know what will be left of the home.”
Hank nodded. “I guess things could get even worse.”
“Yes, they could, old friend,” said Henry.
Old friend. Hank turned those words over in his mind. Were they friends? He wasn’t sure he had ever confided anything in Henry his entire life.
“Of course, I suppose you could go wherever you want with your papers.”
“I suppose,” said Hank.
“What name will you go by?” Henry struggled through a deep breath, then coughed up a spot of blood. Hank wiped his mouth and cheeks.
“Only ever had one name.”
“You have to have a surname. A legal surname. And of course, you know your real first name.”
Hank was quiet, and he looked over Henry’s face, studying his features, as he had for years. He studied Henry’s forehead creases, the precise light weave of his hair, the small crook in his nose.
“I never thought about a surname.”
Henry laughed. “You were born with a surname. Surely, you must know that.”
“No one ever called me anything but Hank.”
Henry laughed again to the point of coughing up more blood. “Come on, Hank. I am near death. You are a free man. Let’s not pretend anymore.”
“Okay,” said Hank. But of course, what could he say? What could he ask? Why did we pretend our whole lives?
Henry extended his hand and patted Hank’s elbow. “I have no wife, no children.”
“You gotta get better and get you a wife,” said Hank.
Henry shook his head. “I can feel it, Hank. That’s why I want you to hear me.”
“Okay,” said Hank.
“You have the family name, Hank. You have my first name. We both know the truth. The whole family knows the truth. You are my only legacy.”
“I understand,” said Hank. But of course, he didn’t. What was he supposed to do with that?
“Get you a wife. Have some children. Pass on the family name. And tell them that I died fighting for our family, our land, our country.”
Hank looked at Henry for several long moments. “Okay,” he said at last.
Henry nodded, then shut his eyes. Hank watched as Henry drifted to sleep.
Henry did not die that night nor that week and not even that month. But that was the last they ever talked of the captain’s legacy or Hank’s freedom.
Then, in February, in the middle of the afternoon, just as Hank was coming back to the captain’s side with a sniffer of whiskey, Henry bolted up suddenly in bed and screamed. He clutched his head with both hands, blood poured from one of his nostrils, and then he dropped back onto his pillow. Hank hurried over to him, as did a nearby doctor, but Henry was gone before they reached him.
The next hour was a blur for Hank. Captain Henry was not just any enlisted man–he was an officer and a planter. The nurses hurried to find others from his unit who might help to bury him properly and who might wish to memorialize him. When a group finally arrived with sheets and a litter to take the captain away, they found Hank sitting at his side, tears pouring down his face.
They all fell to silence, and then Kate Cumming exclaimed, “How his servant loved him!”
Hank looked at her through his tears, but said nothing. What could he say? How could he express any of it? His mother was gone, Marcus was gone, he had no idea what awaited him at home or even how he would get there. He was a man stripped of all he had known, alone in the world with nothing but his clothes and the name of a white man who had never publicly acknowledged him.
Just after sunrise, the old man lowered himself into his rocking chair on the front porch of the old wooden house. The house was a former slave dwelling; he had added the porch a few years after the war because he wanted a place to look over the modest field and to see the sun rise and because he knew that he would never leave this land, that he would grow old and wish to have some place to rock, to watch nature turn from season to season.
By this stage of life, the sun was more of a warm blur, and the fields were shades of amber with little contrast or definition. The old man’s hands were gnarled–both from arthritis and from years of picking cotton. He rubbed his left hand’s swollen knuckles with the calloused fingers of his right hand.
The screen door suddenly swung open and clattered shut, followed by the patter of small, bare feet. The youngest grandson, age six, was always up at dawn, always ready to get into something.
“What you doin, Papa?” the boy said.
“Same as every morning, Clay,” said the old man.
“You just rockin in that chair,” said Clay.
“That’s what it looks like, yes. But I’m doin more than that.”
“I don’t see you doin nothing else, Papa,” said the boy.
“I’m thinking,” said the old man. “That’s what old men do. They think.”
“Uh huh. Thinking. That’s all we can do.”
“What you thinkin about?” The boy came over and patted the old man’s knees with his palms.
The man gazed at the golden shades in front of him. “What month is it, boy?”
“April. Almost Easter.”
“Yes, April,” said the old man. “Don’t you know about April?”
“What about April?”
The old man reached down and pulled the boy up to his lap. “See here. Now rock with me. What you see in the fields?”
The boy was quiet for a moment, then said, “I sees little green plants.”
“Uh huh, that’s right. And what kind of plant is that?”
“Cotton plant,” said Clay. “The cotton that mama, daddy, me, and the others planted.”
“That’s right. Same as I used to do when I was younger.”
“What’s that gotta do with April, Papa?” Clay said, and he wiggled around the old man’s lap.
“See, boy, April is the cruelest month.”
“Before you were born, April was planting season for the slaves–the time when the days got long, when our people worked till their backs gave out with the white man moving among them with his whip and his chains and his gun, and our people just hoped they could make it through. Then came the war, and April was campaign season–the time when the armies woke up from winter and went out in search of each other where they could slaughter each other, and all the mothers back home got ready to mourn while all the men hoped they would win and end the war. And then there was after the war when the black man was free and he started sharing the land with the white folk. And in April, black folk put the cotton in the ground, and those green shoots made him think, ‘Maybe this year the crop will be good and the price will be up and I can put away a bit more money to get my own land.'”
Clay turned on the old man’s lap and patted the man’s cheeks. “This yo land now, Papa?”
The old man smiled wryly and said, “I told you, boy. April is the cruelest month.”
“What’s that mean?”
The old man ran his hand over the boy’s short hair. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“Did you get whipped in the slave times, Papa?”
The old man shook his head. “No, boy. Never had anyone take a whip to me. All I got is the scars from picking cotton on this land after the war. Your grandma had worse than me.”
The boy wiggled down from his grandfather’s lap. “When I grows up, Imma be a soldier and have a gun and a horse.”
The old man laughed. “You do that, boy.”
Clay hopped off the porch and began to run around the house.
Clay was Liza’s son. She had married a Jones and the DeGraffenried name was gone from her and her line. Hank’s one son, Mack, had died before age ten. Hank’s five daughters had married, and Hank was up to fifteen grandkids now. None were named Henry. None were named DeGraffenried. The DeGraffenrieds had sold the land a few years after the war, and Hank had been sharecropping with the Stuart family ever since.
Hank could only make out shades now–shades of light and darkness. His time was short, which was all for the best. When his children and grandchildren asked about his family, he told them only of his mother. When they asked about his masters, he said only that there were worse. His children and grandchildren did not know, could not know, that he never could untangle himself from his owners, that he never left their land after the war, that he carried both their first and last names, that his family history was their family history, that they had owned him and freed him and always kept him captive, that, in his freedom, he had become their field hand after all before becoming the field hand of a new family, that he wanted nothing more than to never hear their names or think of them while doing both every time someone called to him or he gave his full name at the post office. Every year, he planted cotton or sweet potatoes or corn and hoped that this year would get him closer to going elsewhere; every year, he sliced his fingers on the dry cotton plants or cut his fingers pounding nails or sawing boards. And each time, he looked at his blood and remembered that he had their names and he bled their blood. And some time in his older years, he decided that the worst, the cruelest part of April was the hope–the hope that it would all be different one day, that he might find his own promised land, that he might have or know his own separate history, that he would walk into that burning sunlight in the twilight of life and discover that white God who had bled because of the kids who stole the liquor from their fathers’ cabinets.