Summoned to the docks by a tugboat’s hoarse shouts, Hill Briscoe closed Briscoe’s Cabinet and Glass in the middle of the workday and left with his sketch pad. He hurried away from awning-shaded businesses with family names cemented in white cornerstones toward plain-faced and scarred buildings where no one hung shingles, where you had to know what you were seeking to find it, and further, to where the air became industrial with its smells of salt and rust, damp wood, fish and diesel. The retaining walls were stained with mildew as permanent as fingerprints. Beneath the pier, autumn's scarlet leaves bobbed in a float of castoff bottles and paper trash.
The blue-hulled tug boat that bid Hill huffed toward the horizon as vendors of metal scraps, wood, cloth, fresh fish and vegetables called their wares from mule drawn carts. Hill stood, glad in the center of that chaos, and watched until blue hull lost to blue sky as a lone baritone ranged: Ole Roustabout ain’t got no home! Makes his livin’ on his shoulder bone! All around the docks, stevedores hoisted barrels and heaved sacks. They grunted and pitched and sang back. Raucous gulls with mercury eyes in black-gray faces winged above the men like billows of smoke.
Hill drew the pad and pen from his jacket. Excitement lapped at his dry heart like waves against the pier. Propped against a warehouse wall, intoxicated by the sweet and acrid smell of bundled tobacco, he sketched until the gulls nested, until evening began to fill the columns of sky and the roustabouts knocked off work.
He had just stowed his pen when a white man, solid and squat like a chimney, approached. Dressed like the other working men, in a henley, dungarees, and newsboy cap but cleaner, and idle enough to tolerate his wool work jacket, he was clearly a supervisor. He stepped close to Hill, squinting. In the blaze of sunset, he may have been unsure if the trespasser was white or colored.
“The boys say you been here before,” he said to Hill. “Watchin’em.”
Hill shook his head. “Drawing,” he said.
“You ain’t ask nobody.”
“I didn’t think -”
“I just thought-”
He nodded toward Hill’s sketchbook. “Who sent you?”
“No one -”
He snatched the book and flipped through pages of colored men, working or briefly at rest, the calm in their eyes as ephemeral as the smoke from their cigarettes. One man was drawn several times. He was dark, wooly headed, jaundiced-eyed, with a snuff-dipper’s stained, decaying teeth. The sleeves of his green work shirt were rolled to the elbows. The muscles of his forearms, shoulders, and thighs bulged, abnormally large, from ripping and healing, years of brutish work. Hill had drawn him straining like an overburdened mule.
The manager gripped the sketchpad. “You communist? Union?”
“What you gon’ do with these?”
“Nothing,” Hill said.
The man scowled and held tight to the book. With a snap of the wrist, he could have flung the drawings into the greedy river.
“I swear,” Hill promised.
“Don’t come back.” Like a ramrod, he shoved the sketch pad against Hill’s chest.
Hill grasped his sketches. He should have been relieved to have them, grateful the small hulk of a man believed him and was satisfied with intimidation. But he wasn’t relieved. A blow, a kick, even watching his drawings swallowed by the river would not have been as punishing as one swift, bleak realization. Nothing. He planned to do nothing with the work.
Ellie unveiled the painting. The frame was a disreputable old window casing, splintered and flecked with paint and varnish, bound with rusted nails. It could have come from the house in the portrait, where an open door revealed the meager inside: a plain table with a kerosene lamp, a hand pump, a chipped robin’s egg blue enamel pan in the sink. The sitter was timeworn like the frame. In a man-sized corduroy shirt and layers of mismatched skirts, she filled the rocker. She wore her hair in plaits, long and so utterly silver the color looked born in. Her face had the aspect of an old tree, wrinkles overlapping like pine bark, spots of age and disease. Her hands were knuckle, vein, loose skin, yet the hoe leaning against the wall just behind her head signified another day of work. But caught as she inhaled deeply of May honeysuckle or October wood-smoke, her brown eyes were luminous.
“She was a slave,” Ellie said. “As a child, she worked in the kitchen garden shooing birds. She sharecropped most of her life.”
The women surrounding Ellie traded glances. Some straightened their lace collars and fidgeted with the pearl buttons on their gloves.
“She bought that house and land herself.” Ellie explained, “I’m painting a series on Negro life. I’ll travel all over the state painting people like Miss Lily.”
“Folk art!” Charlotte Briscoe, the hostess, said. “It is folk art.”
The phrase passed from woman to woman, “Oh! It’s folk art!”
Ellie shook her head. “Miss Lily is one of the few living freed slaves - ”
“Slavery was abysmal,” one of the women whispered. “Do we need drawings of it?”
“Eleanor,” Charlotte Briscoe said, “surely you have more interest in painting our possibilities and excellence,” she waved her hand about the room, encompassing the tea-sipping women, the china, the chandelier that dripped light like rainwater, “rather than the average conditions of our people?”
Ellie opened her mouth to object, but Charlotte Briscoe silenced her. “I’m sure this is only part of your project. I’m sure you are open to painting more suitable subjects.”
She moved the portrait aside. “It is lovely,” she said with a pat to Ellie’s trembling hand.
“Well, ladies! One of our charity children has returned to us an artist. Give yourselves a hand!” The roomed filled with rapid applause.
The artist, Eleanor Pearl, Ellie, she preferred, endured their approval in stunned and awkward agony. She felt completely out of her element.
Eleanor was taller than the average woman, and darker than any other at the tea, a slim pencil drawing of a woman with hair as short as a boy’s and thick as lichen. In a plain belted dress that brushed her calves, being a woman was the most Ellie had in common with anyone else in the room.
The ladies of the Negro Women’s Charity Guild were modish. They wore dresses cut on the bias with blousy sleeves that gathered at the wrist and sleek, skull-hugging hats. With their skins of almond paste and heavy cream, hair of goldenrod and bittersweet, there were few who would not find them beautiful.
Ellie felt much like her ill-favored painting, unfit for this rarefied gallery. Where she came from, people still drank daily of their own sweat. Generations free, Charlotte Briscoe and her companions had become all of the things coloreds could be: dressmakers, milliners, barbers, bakers, undertakers, teachers, lawyers and doctors. They’d had no need of Lincoln. Out of their own pockets, they funded day schools, hot meals, and scholarships. They built houses of sand-scoured brick, sober houses with pristine gardens filled with fading pastels - no blossoms with lewd stamen, no pistils of flaming red.
The guild women milled about trays of walnut and gruyere tea sandwiches and Ellie. She dutifully recited her course of study. As she did, Ellie noticed her painting being carried away in the firm grasp of a rotund black housemaid. She swung around to face Charlotte Briscoe, “Please, let me paint something else for you.”
“Nonsense,” Charlotte said. “Ruth will find the right place for it.”
Just inside the front door, Hill heard the reserved laughter of his aunt and her friends. He backed out, softly shutting the door. He rounded the house and took the stone path through the garden. The yard man had carted away the drifting gold and ruby leaves. The grass stood unbending and green. Gray stone pots of yellow mums were the only heralds of fall.
Hill smelled Ruth’s sweet potato fritters before he crossed the threshold. She stood at the stove garbed in a nurse-white dress and beige stockings. As always, he was struck by the incongruity of her black arms and pale legs.
With one hand on her hip and the other ferrying the last fritters from the spitting oil to cheesecloth, Ruth barely glanced over her shoulder, “Figured on seeing you back here today.”
Hill tossed his satchel on the table and pulled out a chair. “You could’ve warned me before I left this morning,” he said.
“Wit’ your aunt running ‘round hollering cook this, polish that, you think you the onliest thing on my mind?” Ruth motioned toward the trash can with the plateful of fritters. She watched Hill balefully, “Hmm? That’s what you think?”
“No, ma’am,” Hill said.
Mollified, Ruth set the plate in front of him. “What you wanna drink?” she asked.
Moments of bliss seldom collide, but the instant a warm, sweet fritter went soft on his tongue, Hill noticed the painting — silver hair, blazing eye, skin the hearty brown of good bread — half shoved behind the door.
“Where did that come from?” he demanded, already up from the table.
“A girl brung it.”
“What is it doing in here?”
“Your aunt say get rid of it.”
Hill held the painting. “Throw it away?”
Ruth answered defensively, “It ain’t like what you do.”
Hill thought not of his sketches but of the work for which he was paid, still life and seascapes, nothing human. “It’s better than what I do.”
Wiping her grease-spotted hands on a towel, Ruth came close. She gingerly touched the splintering frame. “For all them rusty nails,” Ruth said, “I do kinda like it. I never seen a painting like this, you know, of a colored woman.”
“Nor have I,” Hill said.
Side by side, they studied it in the wash of evening light.
The skeleton key that unlocked the door to Briscoe's Cabinet and Glass had passed through three generations. It was a familiar weight in Hill Briscoe's hand. A business, a craft, a legacy, had been handed to him. Charlotte and her own father patiently taught Hill all they knew, from calculating profit margins to coloring glass. They taught him to notice and translate the framework of leaf or feather, the curves that create both eye and foot, the wrinkled charm in the just born and exceedingly old. They knew art to be salvation. At thirty-five, Charlotte Briscoe’s grandfather bought himself free with skills as a cabinetmaker and stained-glass artist. All over eastern Virginia and North Carolina, white parishioners closed themselves into oaken pews carved by his hands or lit candles beneath the compassionate blue gaze of Briscoe-crafted Madonna.
Once free, the grandfather, himself dark, married the white-looking illegitimate daughter of a pious banker and soon financed a warehouse turned glass studio. He confined his gift to sanctioned beauty - blue-eyed Christs, flaxen-haired apostles, the milk-skinned wives and children of his richest clients - and taught his child-apprentices to do the same. He counseled them to replicate him in life as well as art. They married the children of like families. They became whiter. They set themselves apart, closed their small, suspended circle, became second-tier aristocrats. And after a time, no one worried about dark recessive genes or the insidious hunger of art.
Each piece Hill Briscoe made was lovely. Each piece he made would sell. Years had passed since he hesitated over a cut or broke a sheet of glass. But though his works were exquisite, rarely did he create the kind of unexpected beauty that made breath stopper his throat and blood stutter his heart.
Like the moment a sojourner recognizes his mother tongue murmured in a strange accent, the foundling painting sparked that unanticipated joy.
Hill walked to the rear of the shop. He hid the painting in a glass bin between sheets of opalescent cathedral. The old woman's face blazed through like balefire.
Ellie waited while Ruth went to find her coat and Charlotte Briscoe saw off her guests. Ellie planned to offer a last, sincere thanks for all the guild had done for her and bid them goodbye forever.
She wished Charlotte Briscoe would return soon so that they could part all the sooner, but alone she had opportunity to do something there had been no time for during the tea: to study the beautiful stained-glass windows, to wonder at the way light responded to the texture of each pane.
The windows began just above the wide baseboard and crescendoed near the ceiling. There were two scenes: one a pearl-sheened dawn of pink, yellow and orange bursting from a field of wisteria blue, the second a melting sunset. The artist had used the same colors yet changed their intensity and order, and, therefore, their meaning. There was no way to confuse the beginning with the end.
When the door opened behind her, though she knew it was rude, Ellie kept gazing.
“The style,” she pondered aloud, “is more Bolton than Tiffany.” She turned, expecting to see Charlotte Briscoe frowning at the impropriety of being ignored.
“Neither. My great-grandfather. He was self-taught.”
Though stylishly dressed, he brought plebeian odors: the river so heavy upon him, it called up images of just-caught perch glinting on the ice beds of the wharf; he smelled not of the imported liquor, but of the oaken casks, of the diesel exhaust from the tugboats and the sweat of mules, all nested in his hair, in the folds of his overcoat and smuggled in the cuffs of his pants - the smells of a working man - yet he clutched a sketchbook and gripped a leather satchel.
“The glass is mouth blown,” he said, striding forward. He had noted her whole-body watchfulness, that she seemed to absorb the work through senses over and above sight.
Hill lifted his hand to point, to show how the glass was cut to bevel or, beacon-like, reflect the light. He fumbled the book and it fell open at their feet. Both stooped to it, but instead of handing over the book, Ellie studied a likeness of the dockworker.
“You capture the light in the eyes exquisitely. But here,” she said pointing to the lower portion of the face where the nose joined lip and became mouth, “the shadowing seems wrong.”
Crouched face to face, Hill noticed stubborn blotches on her cheek, neck and hands, the after-stains of paint. She smelled of turpentine, not perfume.
He held out his hand, not for the drawing but in welcome. “I’m Hill Briscoe,” he said, a bit breathless.
The dining room stretched between a marble-cast fireplace and bay windows that that revealed Charlotte’s immaculate garden. The ceiling soared fourteen feet, and two chandeliers dangled like diamonds. Six sat to dine, with ample room for more. The mahogany table, crafted by Charlotte Briscoe’s father, separated into three pieces to be pushed against the wall should guests want to dance. Now set with glinting silver and Spode, candles and chrysanthemums, the wood took on depth and motion like light traveling through waves. The guests were as lovely as their surroundings, with expertly trimmed beards, lacquered hair, silk dresses and the subtle luster of jeweled bracelets and tie pins.
Propriety and obligation brought Hill to this opulence. Given a choice, he would have been at the studio studying the young woman’s painting, or better still, sitting across from her, interrogating her brush strokes, how she had accomplished that shade of raw umber, and what rash and reckless spirit spurred her to bring such a painting into Charlotte Briscoe’s home. But she had hurried away as soon as Ruth appeared carrying her rag picker’s coat.
The dinner talk was of "Silent Cal," his hands off approach to the booming economy, and, eternally, the race problem. Mael, a young beautiful favorite of Charlotte's, leaned so close to Hill that her scent became a flavor, and took up an old complaint, “And the way they live! Daddy took me with him to collect the rents on Friday, and you should see what they’ve done to our house on Bond street! Holes in the floor. Tin and baubles hanging from the trees like carnival trash!”
“They send their children to the door,” Mr. Johnny Hoffler, Mael’s father, joined in, “She ain’t here!” he mimicked. “You are so blessed that your business draws a different clientele,” he said.
“I would never say this in mixed company,” Mael said, “but I sometimes understand why whites don’t want to bring us in.”
Charlotte spoke from the head of the table. “We mustn’t lose patience. Who will lead them if we do not? Remember, we only rise as high as the lowest among us.”
Nods and murmurs of resigned agreement circled the table, but Hill had long lost the thread of the conversation. He watched Ruth move around, pouring coffee, poised as a ballerina’s shadow. Her face remained expressionless, black and blank. Only a small thing gave her away - the stream of coffee trembled. She lived, Hill knew, on Bond Street.
Hill stilled the urge to rise and stand beside her, his hand steadying hers.
Days after her first visit to the Briscoe home, Ellie found herself waiting in the parlor for Charlotte Briscoe to appear. Eleanor, the charity child, had been summoned, along with her painting supplies, back to a house where she promised herself never to return. Her duty had been done. She had returned, degree in hand, to thank the women who’d paid for her education. She had paid tribute, despised though it was. Now Ellie was eager to be about her own business. She felt a hunger - the same appetite that drives men to sea - to set down the faces and stories of the old people who were dying away, the only ones who could tell her what it was like to be enslaved.
“She getting ready,” Ruth entered and spoke brusquely.
“Thank you,” Ellie answered.
Ruth turned to leave, but then she stopped to smooth a doily on the back of the settee. “I saw that picture.”
“You carried it away.”
“I never seen one’a us drawed like that.”
Ellie nodded. Neither had she; that was the spur and the spark.
“You young,” Ruth said.
“Got gumption. Educated.”
Ellie was unsure of what to say. She said nothing, but nodded.
“What I mean to say, you young, you educated and you taking up time with us. You drawing, you listening, you understanding, ain’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I think I am. I’m trying.”
“Well,” Ruth said, “then I ain’t worried.”
Ruth lifted her chin to indicate their surroundings. “Bout none a this,” Ruth said, and she left Ellie to wait.
“I’m so glad you could come today,” Charlotte said as she removed a royal blue cozy from the teapot and offered a plate of scones. “You must be wondering why I have called you back so soon.”
“Well, the women of the guild have been talking, and, well - we’ve decided to employ you!”
“Em- employ me?”
“As I said before Eleanor -”
“Ellie, please call me Ellie.”
“As I said before Eleanor, your work must take on a broader scope. How else are we to show the world, especially our own people, our possibilities? You are being commissioned to paint a portrait for every women in the guild. I’m to be your first!”
“You may call me Miss Charlotte-”
“Miss Briscoe, I have a project, an obligation.”
“Indeed you do, Eleanor. The Negro Women’s Guild recognized your talent and helped you further it.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” She began again, “Miss Briscoe, Miss Charlotte, you could hire almost anyone-”
“We want you.”
“The people I’m going to paint have no one -”
“Nonsense! They have me and the other women-”
“To bring boxes of shoes to the schoolhouse and a donation if they can’t bury their own. But you don’t sit at their tables -”
“The people we help would hardly take our interest in their welfare as an invitation to socialize!”
Charlotte inhaled as if the air around her were an abundant source of patience and strength. “You are young, dear. You have yet to learn. We cannot better our condition through association with the various classes of Negroes. We are obliged to maintain a degree of exclusivity, to give them a goal to which to aspire, not to reenter the muck! They must pull themselves out. We must provide an example. You’ve proven yourself extraordinary, Eleanor dear. You have responsibilities-”
“I’m trying to fulfill-”
“That are not to be fulfilled by romanticizing the lives of our lowest class!”
“Miss Briscoe, I have a calling-”
“As do we. You will paint the portraits or you will repay the money that we invested in your education.”
“You know I don’t have - right now I don’t have-”
“It’s settled then.” Charlotte stood, a signal that matters had been concluded to her satisfaction. She looked down at Ellie, determination giving lie to her conciliatory words. “I do understand your impulse, Eleanor. I’ve been working to better the conditions of our people for most of my adult life, and do you know what I’ve learned? Do you know what the very people you are trying to serve will tell you?”
Ellie looked up from the delicate china and the wasted, fragrant scones into Charlotte’s impeccable, unyielding countenance.
“Anyone,” Charlotte said, “who can escape the life of a nigger and does not, is a fool.”
Ellie pushed her whole body against the Briscoe’s wrought iron gate. In her rush to leave, she knocked hard against Hill as he entered on the other side. He caught her by the shoulders to save them both from tumbling, but he could not save her supplies; brushes and rags fell at their feet.
“Will we always meet like this?” Hill joked as he knelt to gather Ellie’s things.
“Is she really like that?” Ellie demanded.
Hill stood and held out her bag, his decision made in the time it took to perform the motions, “Will you accept a ride home?” he asked.
The gaslights were high as Hill and Ellie drove away from his aunt’s house and out of town. The globes hung like daffodils overwrought with spring, the green posts streaked with street dust and horse droppings. The windows were dark in the courthouse. The lights were off in the one-teller bank, the post office and the attorney’s office, but the un-curtained mansions on the banks of the river Cashie were bright. White families sat at supper, a tableau of their enviable lives on display.
Ellie watched the scenes slide past. “I don’t want to paint a colored folks imitation of that,” she said.
As if his tongue were learning to shape the words, Hill said, "I don't either."
Gaslight and pageantry fell behind. Ellie strained to see him through bending shadows.
Charlotte entered the front hall where Ruth was buttoning her coat.
“Where is Hill?”
“Mr. Hill ain’t come yet, Ma’am.”
“I thought I heard his car.”
“He’s late. Oh, well, never mind. Supper?”
“In the parlor, Ma’am.”
“Have a good evening, Ruth.”
“You do the same, Ma’am.”
Charlotte turned toward the receiving room where Ruth had left a simple fare for two.
Ruth centered a bowl of sasanquas on the entryway table and surveyed the hall for anything left undone. She straightened the lace curtains, displaced by her own hand as, earlier, she’d watched until the lights of Hill's Model-A pinched into darkness.
A two-lane bridge carried them over bottomless black water. In a few miles, they came to a turn off, and the paved and painted road became unmarked asphalt, then rocks and ruts. Fields filled either side. On the car’s left, ankle-high thatches of rye grass, on the right the cold-dried fleur de lis phantoms of tobacco. Moonlight pooled in weedy rows. Lamp light flickered dimly in the matchstick dwellings that were sharecroppers shacks.
Hill cut the motor. He reached into the back seat.
“Here,” he said, offering his book to Ellie.
Ellie lifted the cover. The sketches had multiplied since she last held the little book: an emaciated Cherokee, a family of itinerant whites, dock workers, scrap vendors, prostitutes.
She looked toward her little house. “Come in.”
Ellie led the way into the old plantation kitchen - some dead slave woman’s only monument and marker - turned studio: Ballast stone floor running to wall of blackened hearth, broken earthenware jugs and jars, tallow-dipped reeds used for candles, a clam rake - all that was left behind when freedom raptured the slaves away. Ellie stored her paints and materials on the rough-made table, the wood iron-burned and knife-gashed, pocked from the wear of elbows. She lifted a portrait from where is leaned, drying, against the wall. They sat together at the table, close to the lamp. Hill leaned in. “This is Bill,” Ellie said.
He was the color of old cedar mulch. His skin fit like borrowed clothes, the plates of his skull as prominent as a baby’s fontella, the fat in his cheeks long melted to reveal the shapely bone. As a slave, Bill had piloted boats and ferries, sometimes smuggling runaways to freedom, navigating the sounds and shoals with the deftness of a seabass.
Though he was too frail to walk the porch length, Ellie told Hill, it was easy to imagine him daring the pitch and roll of a ship. There was still something of the sailor about him: waterways permanently mapped in the rucks of his face, sunbursts of sea-glare fashioned around his eyes. “I could steer by compass,” Bill had remembered, “or by any star. Out there it were different. The water say who a man.”
Ellie watched Hill as he lifted and studied her portraits. She realized that she should warn him. “Your aunt’s not wrong about me,” she said. “This is all I want.”
Ellie canceled a portrait sitting. Hill closed the shop. In this way, they stole November. In a very few weeks, they had taught each other many things: to make pots of homemade paint and brushes of frayed reeds, to create a cutting pattern and a scoreline, to solder lines with lead. They embezzled whole days to roam farms and collect the scattered stories of used-to-be slaves. They pilfered hours to sketch the masses that wandered from river to shore and back again. When they needed to make sense of being born free, they repeated and drew the stories of Miss Lily, of Bill, of Irene and George, tales from childhoods and lifetimes looted by slavery.
The old market had a steeple and a spire. An open pavilion, it sat on the banks of the Cashie among piers of salt and sun-grayed wood. Ellie and Hill arrived on a gladdening day: Sky blue, sun riding the waves like skipped stones.
Ellie tried to tell the public sale just as Bill the sea-farer had told it: Slaves forming a dancing circle; a Negro fiddler with a violin tucked beneath his chin like the tender head of a child. Men and women spurred to clap and tap in time as their children aped on the block: a boy flipped, his body a downward bow, belly bare, a flash of white palms and soles - then gone.
Hill moved to the center of the pavilion. He sketched and imagined as he walked: Beams, cement floor, a crowd of men, their faces indistinct, surrounding slaves spiffed for auction. The colored men and boys wore new shirts and pants; the women and girls clothed in calico dresses with matching kerchiefs to cover their hair.
Hill drew frantically. He filled page after page, while fiddle tunes and fathers’ cries sparred in his head.
Hill and Ellie walked from the old market in silence, sketches tucked away, their hands blackened with charcoal, their spirits trekking back from long and separate distances. They returned to the external world one element at a time - the western sky a wall of graying blue, the river mocking the heavens, foam riding the waves, the incoming tide sucking and popping against the pilings, high up, flagpole rigging chiming like harness bells, and higher still, black-faced gulls yawping as they flung themselves into the updraft - a careful reawakening, like the gentle rousing of a sleepwalker, abruptly shattered by the booming voice of Mr. Johnny Hoffler.
“Hill Briscoe! What are you doing down here?”
Hill had not seen Hoffler or Mael for weeks, since the night of his aunt’s dinner party when they mocked the Bond street tenants as Ruth served their coffee.
Hoffler was attired, as always, for business. He wore a gray bowler to match his suit and spats. He was visiting the dockside office where, once a month, he made and collected on loans. He was late getting home to his lunch. “Is something wrong? Did your aunt send you to find me?”
“No, sir,” Hill answered.
Hoffler took out his pocket watch and gave it a puzzled glance. “A bit early, isn't it, for you to be away from the shop?”
It was then that Hoffler took note of Ellie, examining her the way he examined his spats after a walk through the filth-strewn streets of his tenants. “I’m surprised at you, Hill.”
Hill took his meaning . “We were drawing, sir. Ellie, this is Mr. Hoffler. Mr. Hoffler, this is Ellie."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Ellie said.
"Ah, the drawing girl. You are coming to paint my Mael, I hear. But what do you find worth drawing down here?”
“The old pavilion,” Ellie said before Hill could caution her.
Hoffler's gaze probed Hill's. “Why would you want to draw that place?”
“Why not, sir?” Ellie asked.
Hoffler’s gaze scrubbed over her once more, this time erasing as it went. He spoke to Hill, hedging, "It’s some rundown,” he said.
“Enough remains,” Hill finally answered for himself.
“Do you know,” Hoffler asked, “what that place used to be?”
Hill looked to Ellie who looked calmly back. The choice was his. She would not judge. “Now,” he said. “I know now.”
“May I see?” Mr. Hoffler asked, his hand already thrust forward.
Hill held the sketch book. He considered the cost of compliance, and the greater cost, to himself, of refusal. He put the book in Hoffler’s hands.
Slowly at first, shocked and deliberative, then angrily snapping the pages between his fingertips, Hoffler flipped through sketches. “Has your aunt seen these?”
Hoffler held the book in a grip tight enough to bend the stiff leather cover. “What do you plan to do with them?”
Hill reached for his book. He pulled it from his elder's grasp. He revealed what he himself did not know until that moment, “I-I-I plan to put them in stained glass, sir.”
“That in stained glass?” Hoffler said, as he looked toward the old slave pavilion, then at Ellie, his face folding into even greater loathing. He snatched a kerchief from his breast pocket and scrubbed the charcoal smudged on his fingers. "No matter what this girl tells you, you cannot make art out of humiliation."
“A series,” Hill said slowly. “I’ll use pale amber and opals like chestnut and terra cotta for skin, even marigold and black. Streaky glass for sweat!” He was overwhelmed, elated. He turned to Ellie. “Imagine them illuminated by sunlight!”
Ellie’s glee rivaled the crazed seagulls. She grabbed Hill’s sleeve and they held onto each other as, caught between joy and breathlessness, they were overtaken by the possibilities.
Fed by and feeding the hunger, the wonder of art, they hardly noticed when Mr. Hoffler stormed away.
In the parlor, a fire blazed behind a leaded, ebony-framed screen of glass jewels in spheres of blue, of emerald globes and chocolate glass with black smoke suspended inside amber orbs. Created when he was sixteen, it was the first truly beautiful thing Hill’s two hands ever made, a foretoken of things to come.
“Have I missed supper?” Hill asked. The table where Charlotte sat waiting was bare of their usual fare for two. There were no sounds from the kitchen. “Where is Ruth?”
“I sent her home.”
“Oh,” he said. Hill crossed the room. He sat like a visitor on the settee across from his aunt, the sketchbook on his knees, instead of taking his seat at the table. Hill gazed at the fire, watched the light dodge among the colors.
“Mr. Hoffler has been by,” he said at last.
“You will destroy our reputation.”
“You haven’t even seen-”
“Your work must benefit the community.”
"How do you know it won't?" Hill rose. He rounded the small table. He dropped onto his heels in front of his aunt and placed the book on her lap.
Charlotte did not open the book immediately. She studied Hill for a long, quiet time. He did not shift, or fidget or grow impatient. He waited, and as she had since he was a child, Charlotte gave in to the boy she loved as her own.
She opened the book and began to turn the pages, and the chance to let things be, to remain as they were, was lost to them.
Charlotte returned to one drawing over and over again. It was a sketch of Ruth, in her uniform, with pitch-shaded arms and legs the hue of a white woman. She stood with fists on her broad hips, an unmasked, insurgent anger glittering in her eyes.
"I never meant for you to learn this,” Charlotte said, heartache in her tone.
Hill contemplated his aunt. Her expression reminded him of those he had drawn - the dockworker's, Ruth's, the slaves' he'd imagined on the block - agony mixed with resolve, the age-old, ageless expression worn by hewers of wood. The countenance of survival. Hill squeezed Charlotte's knee, a strong, brief, holding meant to give courage, however she should decide.
Empty-handed, he stood.“I know, Aunt Charlotte.” Hill said.
Charlotte held the pages. She held them the way she held china or chisel, any lovely thing, any capable tool.
Then, Charlotte Briscoe tore out the first drawing. She dropped it behind the screen, into the ruddy fire.
The greedy flames raged with burning. Hill was gone before the portrait turned to ash.
* * *
Except where indicated, the lines below were taken from or inspired by Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 by Willard B. Gatewood.
“... you have more interest in painting our possibilities and excellence,” she waved her hand about the room, encompassing the tea-sipping women, the china, the chandelier that dripped light like rainwater, “rather than the average conditions of our people?”
Ole Roustabout ain’t got no home! Makes his livin’ on his shoulder bone! “Negro Folk Expressions: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs” by Sterling Brown
I sometimes understand why whites don’t want to bring us in.”
How else are we to show the world, and especially our own people, our possibilities?
“The people I help would hardly mistake my interest in their welfare as an invitation to socialize. Plain people have wonderfully keen instincts about such things.”
“Nothing by way of betterment of our condition can possibly come of a promiscuous association with the various classes of the Negro.”
We are obliged to maintain a degree of exclusivity, to give the ‘submerged masses’ a goal to which they should aspire, not to reenter the muck.
Princess Perry was born in Newport News, Virginia. She is a past winner of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award and a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant. Her short stories have appeared in African- American Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia.