Devil's dream - By Madison Smartt Bell


July 1861

HHE PASSED THE NIGHT in a canebrake a little way south of the Ohio River, still in earshot of the river’s sluggish flow. Amid the cane he found a raised flat shelf of limestone, harder than sleeping on the ground would have been, but apt to give him some relief from ticks and chiggers or so he hoped. Before he lay down he splashed a little water on the four directions at the edges of the oblong stone—not too much water, for there was a moon, and he didn’t want to leave the cover of the cane to fill his canteen from the water’s edge.

When he stretched out, the walls of his empty stomach shrunk together, contracting like wet leather as it dried and cracked. Shadows of the slender cane leaves danced over the moonscape of the stone, and the pocks in the surface griped his back and shoulders, or his hip and elbow if he tried to settle on his side, so that he thought he would not sleep, most likely. He heard the crying of a screech owl and watched a bat wing flick across the curved edge of the moon—his eyes as hard and parched as the moon itself—but then the ancestors were sitting round him in a circle, one plucking slowly on a gut spun and strung across a gourd and another clicking time with two hollow bones against each other. The faces of the Old Ones were hidden from him in shadow, but what came toward him was the face of a white man, hard-favored with his dark eyes bored deep, dark caverns carved away under his high cheekbones and just above the bristly black of the beard that hid his mouth. This white man had the air of a slave-catcher, he thought, and he didn’t like the penetration of his look, and yet when the big pale hand spread across his forehead it was a gentle, almost a healing touch.

So he woke up shivering, with no coverlet, only his loose-yoked linsey shirt and nankeen britches. Surprised at his movement, a copperhead poured itself over the edge of the stone and slipped away, rustling the bed of dry cane leaves. The reddish brown braid of it was out of sight before he thought to draw his knife. A bright burst of saliva stung the inside of his mouth. That snake had been big around as his arm …

He poured water, pissed off the edge of the rock, took a sip from the canteen, and with the long knife back in the twist of cloth that served him as a belt he stepped down and moved toward the edge of the canebrake, watching closely for the copperhead or his brothers and setting his bare feet down carefully to avoid cane stobs buried in the leaves. He’d had a better kit when he left Louisiana—a pack with a spare shirt and pants and a little money rolled up in it, a hat and socks and a pair of stout shoes. All gone somehow along the way. He’d stowed away on a steamboat headed up the Mississippi River, then made the trip across to Louisville, hanging between two boxcars in the dark. In Louisville things had gone against him and he had come away in a great hurry, following the bends of the river but none too closely—maybe as far as Brandenburg, he thought.

At the edge of the woods he found a cluster of new white mushrooms and ate them raw. There were shoots of poke sallet too, which ought to be boiled to drain their poison. They might have been small and new enough to be safe, but he wouldn’t risk it. Yesterday he had happened into blackberry brambles and found a few, still reddish, underripe and sour on his tongue and afterward in his stomach. He was still considering the poke weed when a plump rustle in the leaves behind him made him turn, and there was a young blue jay, downed from his nest—a windfall the Old Ones must have laid before him. With one movement he’d wrung off its head and was catching the first warm jet of blood in the back of his throat. That alone was enough to strengthen him. He still had flint and steel in his pocket but he was wary of smoke from a cook fire, however small. He carried the bird back to the limestone shelf to pluck it, and then ate it raw, all but the