JOHN THE CONQUER AND THE DEVILíS DAUGHTER: RHEA, BORN 1778
My man used to have a real name and a title, too. His name used to be John and his title used to be Conquer because he killed more drivers than any other man in the Quarters.
Maybe I sound proud of my man. He was a good man, while he was alive. Now that heís dead, he still tries.
I canít fault him. John never went out to stud even when Mr. Dennis offered him money. Mr. Dennis said, "John, look here. You go do up these young women for me, get them big with babies all strong-armed like yourself, and I might just give you something for it."
But my John said, "No, sir," because we made promises to one another.
Promises in the dark. Folks talk down about promises between people who ainít even free. They say what kind of fool takes a notion in your head to break your own heart, swearing to be true? "You are both a fool to believe in anything your owner never signed his name to."
But my John said, "If we canít have each other, we donít want nobody." And we promised to live together till we die.
And we did, too. I have gone beyond our promise and been with John long after heís dead. And I never held it against him, either.
That is, not until the devilís daughter showed her face around here.
That Mr. Dennis is the very devil. Folks on his farm had no religion, no knowledge of good and evil between the earth and sky and us trapped, running scared, in the middle.
But I come from a maíam who taught me how to pray. Canít say my prayers turn out much like I want them to, though.
Like how I prayed to get rid of that Mr. Peter, the meanest overseer who ever clapped eyes on a woman.
I told you my John has killed many a driver. But I was scared to think what might happen if John up and killed this overseer, Mr. Peter. Because an overseer ainít no driver. And Mr. Dennis might not take it kindly if his overseer turned up a mass of rot and moss in the woods, like his drivers steady be doing.
But that Mr. Peter had his eye on me like I ainít never seen no man do no woman. Nasty man, that Mr. Peter. Brought disease and pestilence to the plantation and went around killing folks like a walking plague till we feared to farm the land for digging up dead bodies. The burying pit wasnít so far off that we didnít have to worry about where the wild animals dragged the body parts off to.
So I ainít told John nothing about this Mr. Peter and his mean old nasty eye on me. I figured, if Mr. Peter is so deadly he ainít even got to lay a finger on folks to kill them, I sure didnít want him to lay hands on my John.
But neither did I want his hands on me. So I up and said my prayers. "Powers that be, get this nasty Mr. Peter away from me," because spirits like it if you kind of sing to them.
And I said, "Powers in the sky, donít let my John the Conquer die," because what if Mr. Peter dragged my man off to the grave with him some way I didnít figure out when I said that first prayer?
The spirits must have been listening good. But sometimes what you fear is goín creep up on you, no matter what prayers you say.
So that devilís daughter came on out from the spirit world, where she must have been hiding. She came out of the woods where her and her brother grew up wild as beasts and bloodthirsty as the bogeyman.
They wasnít free for one day before her brother committed to murder the man who stole them from their devil daddy. And only once he had blood on his hands rich and thick did the devilís boy come back on home.
But now that wild devil boy had got him a taste for murder. Couldnít stop killing up on folks. Wasnít home a minute, standing to wed one of the prettiest gals from out the cotton fields, and the devilís boy jumps up and blasts a hole straight through that walking disease, Mr. Peter.
His devil daddy donít say nothing but, "If you have finished with that business, son, letís get on with this wedding."
And Mr. Peter feeds the vultures.
So Iím watching the wedding and say to myself, "Ainít half bad, them prayers I done said." But still. Something just ainít right around here. I can feel it.
And sure enough. Three days. The devilís boy and his brand-new bride have hightailed it to the woods to honeymoon up and get acquainted with each other. Either they liked each other something fierce or ainít had much taste for each otherís company because theyíre already making their way back to the plantation.
And here she comes, holding hands and skipping through the forest with them. The devilís daughter. On her way to rend my life and take my John from me.
Her first evil sign: her devil pap comes up to my shack and says, "Whereís John?"
John hoists his big self off our pallet and comes out the rag door, squinting. He canít half see because the sun ainít even up yet.
I got a bad feeling.
Mr. Dennis says, "John, I need me a new overseer. My boy done killed the last one, and Iím tired of hunting up stray wight mens to do this job. Besides, I got a notion they keep secrets. Scares me when I sleep."
My John says, "Mr. Dennis, I know just how you feel, sir. Lot of folks canít sleep when itís overseers prowling the Quarters."
Mr. Dennis says, "So, John, guess what? Itís you I done picked to be my new overseer. Driver, too. Everything. Youíre big enough. Here. Take this whip I brought you."
John says, "Sir, no disrespect. But I canít do no such thing."
Mr. Dennis blinked. Stepped back like he needed to think about this a little minute. Said, "Say what, John?"
My John didnít miss a beat. "I done spent my whole life, sir, keeping your drivers and your overseers off my peopleís back. How can I take that whip in my hand and turn driver my own self? Itíd be like I turned traitor."
Mr. Dennis reared back and peered at John like maybe heíd never got a good look at him before.
Then Mr. Dennis shook his head like he must not have heard right. Tilted his head to one side and kind of studied up on John.
I held my breath, thinking fast of what to say before Mr. Dennis decided to ply that whip his own self.
But then Mr. Dennis looked like he made up his mind to laugh it off. He said, "John," chuckle, chuckle, "boy, Iíd best give you a minute to wake up. We ainít out here before sunup playing no games, now."
John didnít take that minute Mr. Dennis gave him. "Sir, I been sitting up here wide awake since sundown, waiting on you. I already knew what you was coming here to ask me."
Mr. Dennis bust right on out and laughed. "John, John. You know me better than that! Donít you? I didnít come here to ask you nothing."
John looked confused. "But, sir-"
Mr. Dennis clicked his tongue like a woman who ainít got no more time for nonsense. "Iíve done my asking, John. I have dragged around these Quarters for two or three days now asking who the men respect and the women trust. And I ainít got but one name. Yours." Mr. Dennis squared his shoulders back. "So I have done my asking. I ainít standing here asking you nothing. Iím telling you, John. Take this here now whip in your hand. And put a gag in your sass." Mr. Dennis held out his own hand to show John a whip looped around the palm like a snake coiled to strike.
John didnít flinch. And he didnít say nothing more but, "Sir, I canít do no such craven thing."
Mr. Dennis lost what patience he never had. "Oh yes, John. You most certainly can do what I say. And more to the point, you better. You are going to take this whip in your hand or on your back. Itís all the same to me."
"Sir, it ainít the same to me. I ainít never goín take that whip in my hand."
I said, "John. Please."
John said, "Woman. Hush."
And Mr. Devil Dennis speaks up. "John, you best listen to that big-belly woman of yours." Because I was carrying our first child. Soon turned out to be our only child, too.
John shook his head. "I done listened to both of you all, sir. And I done said my say. Which one of you all donít know that no means no?"
I ainít never seen quiet like the quiet that came over Mr. Dennis, at that. He looked like a man struck by a revelation.
Iím whispering, "John, say ísorry, sir.í Say you didnít mean it, John. Please, John," but John ainít letting on that he hears me.
Mr. Dennis heard me though. And heís twice as mad when my John doesnít say another word.