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Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Manly Wade Wellman: The Song of the Slaves

Manly Wade Wellman

 Gender paused at the top of the bald rise, mopped his streaming red forehead beneath the wide hat-brim, and gazed backward at his forty-nine captives. Naked and black, they shuffled upward from the narrow, ancient slave trail through the jungle. Forty-nine men, seized by Gender's own hand and collared to a single long chain, destined for his own plantation across the sea… Gender grinned in his lean, drooping moustache, a mirthless grin of greedy triumph.
    For years he had dreamed and planned for this adventure, as other men dream and plan for European tours, holy pilgrimages, or returns to beloved birthplaces. He had told himself that it was intensely practical and profitable. Slaves passed through so many hands - the raider, the caravaner, the seashore factor, the slaver captain, the dealer in New Orleans or Havana or at home in Charleston. Each greedy hand clutched a rich profit, and all profits must come eventually from the price paid by the planter. But he, Gender, had come to Africa himself, in his own ship; with a dozen staunch ruffians from Benguela he had penetrated the Bihe-Bailundu country, had sacked a village and taken these forty-nine upstanding natives between dark and dawn. A single neck-shackle on his long chain remained empty, and he might fill even that before he came to his ship. By the Lord, he was making money this way, fairly coining it - and money was worth the making, to a Charleston planter in 1853.
    So he reasoned, and so he actually believed, but the real joy to him was hidden in the darkest nook of his heart. He had conceived the raider-plan because of a nature that fed on savagery and mastery. A man less fierce and cruel might have been satisfied with hunting lions or elephants, but Gender must hunt men. As a matter of fact, the money made or saved by the journey would be little, if it was anything. The satisfaction would be tremendous. He would broaden his thick chest each day as he gazed out over his lands and saw there his slaves hoeing seashore cotton or pruning indigo; his forty-nine slaves, caught and shipped and trained by his own big, hard hands, more indicative of assured conquest than all the horned or fanged heads that ever passed through the shops of all the taxidermists.

    Something hummed in his ears, like a rhythmic swarm of bees. Men were murmuring a song under their breath. It was the long string of pinch-faced slaves. Gender stared at them, and mouthed one of the curses he always kept at tongue's end.
    "Silva!" he called.
    The lanky Portuguese who strode free at the head of the file turned aside and stood before Gender. "Patrao?" he inquired respectfully, smiling teeth gleaming in his walnut face.
    "What are those men singing?" demanded Gender. "I didn't think they had anything to sing about."
    "A slave song, patrao." Silva's tapering hand, with the silver bracelet at its wrist, made a graceful gesture of dismissal. "It is nothing. One of the things that natives make up and sing as they go."
    Gender struck his boot with his coiled whip of hippopotamus hide. The afternoon sun, sliding down toward the shaggy jungle-tops, kindled harsh pale lights in his narrow blue eyes. "How does the song go?" he persisted.
    The two fell into step beside the caravan as, urged by a dozen red-capped drivers, it shambled along the trail. "It is only a slave song, patrao," said Silva once again. "It means something like this: 'Though you carry me away in chains, I am free when I die. Back will I come to bewitch and kill you.'"
    Gender's heavy body seemed to swell, and his eyes grew narrower and paler. "So they sing that, hmm?" He swore again. "Listen to that!"
    The unhappy procession had taken up a brief, staccato refrain:
    "Hailowa - Gendal Haipana - Gendal"
    "Genda, that's my name," snarled the planter. "They're singing about me, aren't they?"
    Silva made another fluid gesture, but Gender flourished his whip under the nose of the Portuguese. "Don't you try to shrug me off. I'm not a child, to be talked around like this. What are they singing about me?"
    "Nothing of consequence, patrao" Silva made haste to reassure him. "It might be to say: 'I will bewitch Gender, I will kill Gender.'"
    "They threaten me, do they?" Gender's broad face took on a deeper flush. He ran at the line of chained black men. With all the strength of his arm he slashed and swung with the whip. The song broke up into wretched howls of pain.
    "I'll give you a music lesson!" he raged, and flogged his way up and down the procession until he swayed and dripped sweat with the exertion.
    But as he turned away, it struck up again:
    "Hailowa - Gendal Haipana - Gendal"
    Whirling back, he resumed the rain of blows. Silva, rushing up to second him, also whipped the slaves and execrated them in their own tongue. But when both were tired, the flayed captives began to sing once more, softly but stubbornly, the same chant.
    "Let them whine," panted Gender at last. "A song never killed anybody."
    Silva grinned nervously. "Of course not, patrao. That is only an idiotic native belief."
    "You mean, they think that a song will kill?"
    "That, and more. They say that if they sing together, think together of one hate, all their thoughts and hates will become a solid strength - will strike and punish for them."
    "Nonsense!" exploded Gender.
    But when they made camp that night, Gender slept only in troubled snatches, and his dreams were of a song that grew deeper, heavier, until it became visible as a dark, dense cloud that overwhelmed him.
    The ship that Gender had engaged for the expedition lay in a swampy estuary, far from any coastal town, and the dawn by which he loaded his goods aboard was strangely fiery and forbidding. Dunlapp, the old slaver-captain that commanded for him, met him in the cabin.
    "All ready, sir?" he asked Gender. "We can sail with the tide. Plenty of room in the hold for that handful you brought. I'll tell the men to strike off those irons."
    "On the contrary," said Gender, "tell the men to put manacles on the hands of each slave."
    Dunlapp gazed in astonishment at his employer. "But that's bad for blacks, Mr Gender. They get sick in chains, won't eat their food. Sometimes they die."
    "I pay you well, Captain," Gender rumbled, "but not to advise me. Listen to those heathen."
    Dunlapp listened. A moan of music wafted in to them.
    "They've sung that cursed song about me all the way to the coast," Gender told him. "They know I hate it - I've whipped them day after day - but they keep it up. No chains come off until they hush their noise."
    Dunlapp bowed acquiescence and walked out to give orders. Later, as they put out to sea, he rejoined Gender on the after deck.
    "They do seem stubborn about their singing," he observed.
    "I've heard it said," Gender replied, "that they sing together because they think many voices and hearts give power to hate, or to other feelings." He scowled. "Pagan fantasy!"
    Dunlapp stared overside, at white gulls just above the wave tips. "There may be a tithe of truth in that belief, Mr Gender; sometimes there is in the faith of wild people. Hark, I've seen a good fifteen hundred Mohammedans praying at once, in the Barbary countries. When they bowed down, the touch of all those heads to the ground banged like the fall of a heavy rock. And when they straightened, the motion of their garments made a swish like the gust of a gale. I couldn't help but think that their prayer had force."
    "More heathen foolishness," snapped Gender, and his lips drew tight.
    "Well, in Christian lands we have examples, sir," Dunlapp pursued. "For instance, a mob will grow angry and burn or hang someone. Would a single man do that? Would any single man of the mob do it? No, but together their hate and resolution becomes - "
    "Not the same thing at all," ruled Gender harshly. "Suppose we change the subject."
    On the following afternoon, a white sail crept above the horizon behind them. At the masthead gleamed a little blotch of colour. Captain Dunlapp squinted through a telescope, and barked a sailorly oath.
    "A British ship-of-war," he announced, "and coming after us."
    "Well?" said Gender.
    "Don't you understand, sir? England is sworn to stamp out the slave trade. If they catch us with this cargo, it'll be the end of us." A little later, he groaned apprehensively. "They're overtaking us. There's their signal, for us to lay to and wait for them. Shall we do it, sir?"
    Gender shook his head violently. "Not we! Show them our heels, Captain."
    "They'll catch us. They are sailing three feet to our two."
    "Not before dark," said Gender. "When dark comes, we'll contrive to lessen our embarrassment."
    And so the slaver fled, with the Britisher in pursuit. Within an hour, the sun was at the horizon, and Gender smiled grimly in his moustache.
    "It'll be dark within minutes," he said to Dunlapp. "As soon as you feel they can't make out our actions by glass, get those slaves on deck."
    In the dusk the forty-nine naked prisoners stood in a line along the bulwark. For all their chained necks and wrists, they neither stood nor gazed in a servile manner. One of them began to sing and the others joined, in the song of the slave trail:
    "Hailowa - Genda! Haipana - Genda!"
    "Sing on," Gender snapped briefly, and moved to the end of the line that was near the bow. Here dangled the one empty collar, and he seized it in his hand. Bending over the bulwark, he clamped it shut upon something - the ring of a heavy spare anchor, that swung there upon a swivel-hook. Again he turned, and eyed the line of dark singers.
    "Have a bath to cool your spirits," he jeered, and spun the handle of the swivel-hook.
    
    The anchor fell. The nearest slave jerked over with it, and the next and the next. Others saw, screamed, and tried to brace themselves against doom; but their comrades that had already gone over side were too much weight for them. Quickly, one after another, the captives whipped from the deck and splashed into the sea. Gender leaned over and watched the last of them as he sank.
    "Gad, sir!" exclaimed Dunlapp hoarsely.
    Gender faced him almost threateningly.
    "What else to do, hmm? You yourself said that we could hope for no mercy from the British."
    The night passed by, and by the first grey light the British ship was revealed almost upon them. A megaphoned voice hailed them; then a shot hurtled across their bows. At Gender's smug nod, Dunlapp ordered his men to lay to. A boat put out from the pursuer, and shortly a British officer and four marines swung themselves aboard.
    Bowing in mock reverence, Gender bade the party search. They did so, and remounted the deck crestfallen.
    "Now, sir," Gender addressed the officer, "don't you think that you owe me an apology?"
    The Englishman turned pale. He was a lean, sharp-featured man with strong, white teeth. "I can't pay what I owe you," he said with deadly softness. "I find no slaves, but I smell them. They were aboard this vessel within the past twelve hours."
    "And where are they now?" teased Gender.
    "We both know where they are," was the reply. "If I could prove in a court of law what I know in my heart, you would sail back to England with me. Most of the way you would hang from my yards by your thumbs."
    "You wear out your welcome, sir," Gender told him.
    "I am going. But I have provided myself with your name and that of your home city. From here I go to Madeira, where I will cross a packet bound west for Savannah. That packet will bear with it a letter to a friend of mine in Charleston, and your neighbours shall hear what happened on this ship of yours."
    "You will stun slave-owners with a story of slaves?" inquired Gender, with what he considered silky good-humour.
    "It is one thing to put men to work in cotton fields, another to tear them from their homes, crowd them chained aboard a stinking ship, and drown them to escape merited punishment." The officer spat on the deck. "Good day, butcher. I say, all Charleston shall hear of you."
    Gender's plantation occupied a great, bluff-rimmed island at the mouth of a river, looking out toward the Atlantic. Ordinarily that island would be called beautiful, even by those most exacting followers of Chateaubriand and Rousseau; but, on his first night at home again, Gender hated the fields, the house, the environs of fresh and salt water.
    His home, on a seaward jut, resounded to his grumbled curses as he called for supper and ate heavily but without relish. Once he vowed, in a voice that quivered with rage, never to go to Charleston again.
    At that, he would do well to stay away for a time. The British officer had been as good at his promise, and all the town had heard of Gender's journey to Africa and what he had done there. With a perverse squeamishness beyond Gender's understanding, the hearers were filled with disgust instead of admiration. Captain Hogue had refused to drink with him at the Jefferson House. His oldest friend, Mr Lloyd Davis of Davis Township, had crossed the street to avoid meeting him. Even the Reverend Doctor Lockin had turned coldly away as he passed, and it was said that a sermon was forthcoming at Doctor Lockin's church attacking despoilers and abductors of defenceless people.
    What was the matter with everybody? savagely demanded Gender of himself; these men who snubbed and avoided him were slaveholders. Some of them, it was quite possible, even held slaves fresh from raided villages under the Equator. Unfair!… Yet he could not but feel the animosity of many hearts, chafing and weighing upon his spirit.
    "Brutus," he addressed the slave that cleared the table, "do you believe that hate can take form?"
    "Hate, Marsa?" The sooty face was solemnly respectful.
    "Yes. Hate, of many people together." Gender knew he should not confide too much in a slave, and chose his words carefully. "Suppose a lot of people hated the same thing, maybe they sang a song about it - "
    "Oh, yes, Marsa," Brutus nodded. "I heah 'bout dat, from ole gran-pappy when I was little. He bin in Affiky, he says many times dey sing somebody to deff."
    "Sing somebody to death?" repeated Gender. "How?"
    "Dey sing dat dey kill him. Afta while, maybe plenty days, he die - ".
    "Shut up, you black rascal" Gender sprang from his chair and clutched at a bottle. "You've heard about this somewhere, and you dare to taunt me!"
    Brutus darted from the room, mortally frightened. Gender almost pursued, but thought better and tramped into his parlour. The big, brown-panelled room seemed to give back a heavier echo of his feet.
    
    The windows were filled with the early darkness, and a hanging lamp threw rays into the corners.
    On the centre table lay some mail, a folded newspaper and a letter. Gender poured whisky from a decanter, stirred in spring water, and dropped into a chair. First he opened the letter.
    "Stirling Manor," said the return address at the top of the page. Gender's heart twitched. Evelyn Stirling, he had hopes of her… but this was written in a masculine hand, strong and hasty.
    
    Sir:
    Circumstances that have come to my knowledge compel me, as a matter of duty, to command that you discontinue your attention to my daughter.
    Gender's eyes took on the pale tint of rage. One more result of the Britisher's letter, he made no doubt.
    I have desired her to hold no further communication with you, and I have been sufficiently explicit to convince her how unworthy you are of her esteem and attention. It is hardly necessary for me to give you the reasons which have induced me to form this judgement, and I add only that nothing you can say or do will alter it.
    Your obedient servant,
    Judge Forrester Stirling.
    
    Gender hastily swigged a portion of his drink, and crushed the paper in his hand. So that was the judge's interfering way - it sounded as though he had copied it from a complete letter-writer for heavy fathers. He, Gender, began to form a reply in his mind:
    
    Sir:
    Your unfeeling and arbitrary letter admits of but one response. As a gentleman grossly misused, I demand satisfaction on the field of honour. Arrangements I place in the hands of…
    By what friend should he forward that challenge? It seemed that he was mighty short of friends just now.
    
    He sipped more whisky and water, and tore the wrappings of the newspaper.
    It was a Massachusetts publication, and toward the bottom of the first page was a heavy cross of ink, to call attention to one item.
    
    A poem, evidently, in four line stanzas. Its title signified nothing -The Witnesses. Author, Henry W. Longfellow; Gender identified him vaguely as a scrawler of Abolitionist doggerel. Why was this poem recommended to a southern planter?
    
    In Ocean's wide domains,
    Half buried in the sands,
    Lie skeletons in chains,
    With shackled feet and hands.
    
    Once again the reader swore, but the oath quavered on his lips. His eye moved to a stanza farther down the column:
    
    These are the bones of Slaves;
    They gleam from the abyss;
    They cry, from yawning waves
    
    But it seemed to Gender that he heard, rather than read, what that cry was.
    He sprang to his feet, paper and glass falling from his hands. His thin lips drew apart, his ears strained. The sound was faint, but unmistakable - many voices singing.
    The Negroes in his cabins? But no Negro on his plantation would know that song. The chanting refrain began:
    "Hailowa - Genda! Haipana - Genda!"
    The planter's lean mustaches bristled tigerishly. This would surely be the refined extremity of his persecution, this chanting of a weird song under his window-sill. It was louder now. I will bewitch, I will kill - but who would know that fierce mockery of him?
    The crew of his ship, of course; they had heard it on the writhing lips of the captives, at the very moment of their destruction. And when the ship docked in Charleston, with no profit to show, Gender had been none too kindly in paying them off.
    Those unsavory mariners must have been piqued. They had followed him, then, were setting up this vicious serenade.
    Gender stepped quickly around the table and toward the window. He flung up the sash with a violence that almost shattered the glass, and leaned savagely out.
    On that instant the song stopped, and Gender could see only the seaward slope of his land, down to the lip of the bluff that overhung the water. Beyond that stretched an expanse of waves, patchily agleam under a great buckskin-coloured moon, that even now stirred the murmurous tide at the foot of the bluff. Here were no trees, no brush even, to hide pranksters. The singers, now silent, must be in a boat under the shelter of the bluff.
    Gender strode from the room, fairly tore open a door, and made heavy haste toward the sea. He paused, on the lip of the bluff. Nothing was to be seen, beneath him or farther out. The mockers, if they had been here, had already fled. He growled, glared, and tramped back to his house. He entered the parlour once more, drew down the sash, and sought his chair again. Choosing another glass, he began once more to mix whisky and water. But he stopped in the middle of his pouring.
    There it was again, the song he knew; and closer.
    He rose, took a step in the direction of the window, then thought better of it. He had warned his visitors by one sortie, and they had hidden. Why not let them come close, and suffer the violence he ached to pour out on some living thing?
    He moved, not to the window, but to a mantelpiece opposite. From a box of dark, polished wood he lifted a pistol, then another. They were duelling weapons, handsomely made, with hair-triggers; and Gender was a dead shot. With orderly swiftness he poured in glazed powder from a flask, rammed down two leaden bullets, and laid percussion caps upon the touchholes. Returning, he placed the weapons on his centre table, then stood on tiptoe to extinguish the hanging lamp. A single light remained in the room, a candle by the door, and this he carried to the window, placing it on a bracket there. Moving into the gloomy centre of the parlour, he sat in his chair and took a pistol in either hand.
    The song was louder now, lifted by many voices:
    "Hailowa - Genda! Haipana - Genda!"
    Undoubtedly the choristers had come to land by now, had gained the top of the bluff. They could be seen, Gender was sure, from the window. He felt perspiration on his jowl, and lifted a sleeve to blot it. Trying to scare him, hmm? Singing about witchcraft and killing? Well, he'd show them who was the killer.
    The singing had drawn close, was just outside. Odd how the sailors, or whoever they were, had learned that chant so well! It recalled to his mind the slave trail, the jungle, the long procession of crooning prisoners. But here was no time for idle revery on vanished scenes. Silence had fallen again, and he could only divine the presence, just outside, of many creatures.
    Scratch-scratch-scratch; it sounded like the stealthy creeping of a snake over rough lumber. That scratching resounded from the window where something stole into view in the candlelight. Gender fixed his eyes there, and his pistols lifted their muzzles.
    
    The palm of a hand, as grey as a fish, laid itself on the glass. It was wet; Gender could see the trickle of water descending along the pane. Something clinked, almost musically. Another hand moved into position beside it, and between the two swung links of chain.
    This was an elaborately devilish joke, thought Gender, in an ecstasy of rage. Even the chains, to lend reality… and as he stared he knew, in a split moment of terror that stirred his flesh on his bones, that it was no joke after all.
    A face had moved into the range of the candlelight, pressing close to the pane between the two palms.
    It was darker than those palms, of a dirty, slaty deadness of colour. But it was not dead, not with those dull, intent eyes that moved slowly in their blistery sockets… not dead, though it was foully wet, and its thick lips hung slackly open, and seaweed lay plastered upon the cheeks, even though the flat nostrils showed crumbled and gnawed away, as if by fish. The eyes quested here and there across the floor and walls of the parlour. They came to rest, gazing full into the face of Gender.
    He felt as though stale sea-water had trickled upon him, but his right hand abode steady as a gun-rest. He took aim and fired.
    The glass crashed loudly, and fell in shattering flakes to the floor beneath the sill.
    Gender was on his feet, moving forward, dropping the empty pistol on the table and whipping the loaded one into his right hand. Two leaping strides took him almost to the window, before he reeled backward.
    The face had not fallen. It stared at him, a scant yard away. Between the dull, living eyes showed a round black hole, where the bullet had gone in. But the thing stood unflinchingly, somehow serenely. Its two wet hands moved slowly, methodically, to pluck away the jagged remains of the glass.
    Gender rocked where he stood, unable for the moment to command his body to retreat. The shoulders beneath the face heightened. They were bare and wet and deadly dusky, and they clinked the collar-shackle beneath the lax chin. Two hands stole into the room, their fish-coloured palms opening toward Gender.
    He screamed, and at last he ran. As he turned his back, the singing began yet again, loud and horribly jaunty - not at all as the miserable slaves had sung it. He gained the seaward door, drew it open, and looked full into a gathering of black, wet figures, with chains festooned among them, awaiting him. Again he screamed, and tried to push the door shut.
    He could not. A hand was braced against the edge of the panel - many hands. The wood fringed itself with gleaming black fingers. Gender let go the knob, whirled to flee into the house. Something caught the back of his coat, something he dared not identify. In struggling loose, he spun through the doorway and into the moonlit open.
    Figures surrounded him, black, naked, wet figures; dead as to sunken faces and flaccid muscles, but horribly alive as to eyes and trembling hands and slack mouths that formed the strange primitive words of the song; separate, yet strung together with a great chain and collar-shackles, like an awful fish on the gigantic line of some demon-angler. All this Gender saw in a rocking, moon-washed moment, while he choked and retched at a dreadful odour of death, thick as fog.
    Still he tried to run, but they were moving around him in a weaving crescent, cutting off his retreat toward the plantation. Hands extended toward him, manacled and dripping. His only will was to escape the touch of those sodden fingers, and one way was open - the way to the sea.
    He ran toward the brink of the bluff. From its top he would leap, dive and swim away. But they pursued, overtook, surrounded him. He remembered that he held a loaded pistol, and fired into their black midst. It had no effect. He might have known that it would have no effect.
    Something was clutching for him. A great, inhuman talon? No, it was an open collar of metal, with a length of chain to it, a collar that had once clamped to an anchor, dragging down to ocean's depths a line of shackled men. It gaped at him, held forth by many dripping hands. He tried to dodge, but it darted around his throat, shut with a ringing snap. Was it cold… or scalding hot? He knew, with horror vividly etching the knowledge into his heart, that he was one at last with the great chained procession.
    "Hailowa - Genda! Haipana - Genda!"
    He found his voice. "No, no!" he pleaded. "No, in the name of-"
    But he could not say the name of God. And the throng suddenly moved explosively, concertedly, to the edge of the bluff.
    A single wailing cry from all those dead throats, and they dived into the waves below.
    Gender did not feel the clutch and jerk of the chain that dragged him alone. He did not even feel the water as it closed over his head.

1 comment:

Thomas DiMaggio said...

As scarily good as this story is on its own, it just gained a whole new layer of meaning (May 2019 speaking). The wreck of the last ship to bring slaves to America, the "Clotilda", was just located in a river in Alabama. It was sailed to Benin in 1860 by a planter who, like Gender in Wellman's story, was morally depraved enough to want to abduct and enslave Africans himself, without buying them retail. Fortunately, these people survived into the era of freedom, and ended up founding their own town in Alabama, where some of their descendants still live. The last person to have actually sailed to America as a prisoner on the "Clotilda" died in 1938. (To put that date in perspective: Betty White and Angela Lansbury, both of whom are still alive, were 16 and 13 respectively in 1938). That's how close in time to us these horrors are.

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