The perpetual fear of every slave owner, spanning not only these years, but of slavery as an institution, is that of rebellion. African slaves were frequently taken from warring tribes, speaking different languages, and with known grudges, so cooperation might be mitigated. In some circumstances, males of fighting age were killed or mutilated.
On the plantations, rules created for the safety of slave owners were paramount. Farmers prudently forbid materials that could be turned to weapons in or near slave quarters. A slave master was often employed for their brutality in enforcement.
The hells of life on a sugar plantation are not known widely, but the danger is implied. A worker's life-expectancy is six-months, and the best death to be had is that of exhaustion. Many more will lose limbs to the machines than their breath to the soil. It is for this reason that an exception in general policy is made in these places.
On a sugar plantation, it is custom to keep a machete on the wall, so that the expense of a new slave could, hopefully, be avoided completely.
The Island of Antigua; English West Indies
Darke Sugar Plantation
A scream in the processing room had stopped signaling curiosity. It inspired slaves and servants to act, because there was an unspoken — and perhaps not fully comprehended — agreement adhered to among the workers. All of them would do what they could to help the one caught in the red and orange folds of iron, because they could need the same help before the end of the season, and the difference of two seconds could mean losing not just a hand but an arm.
But The Tarp stood in the room, and before any of them had fallen in their first steps to keep from getting closer to it, it had pulled the machete from its hook on the wall and kicked out the feet of the negro screaming by the furnace. With a twist, The Tarp brought one elbow down on another, and a crack resounded. The arm broken between the wrist and the captured hand, The Tarp had a clean cut with the edge, and the negro's pain became much more acute.
Bending over, it ripped a strip of burlap from a dirty bag, and padded the wound. Another strip, and with the iron stake hanging from its belt it twisted the cloth around the stump until the spurts turned to a trickle. No words were spoken while it worked with its strange diligence, except the sickly half-syllable of the mutilated slave's word for 'no'.
The Tarp picked up the limp body, a few shades greyer than a moment earlier, and handed it to the manservant Brick, drawn to the shed by the initial panic. A neutral pat on Brick's head and The Tarp was gone, not a sliver of skin seen beneath its rough-hewn cloak.
Brick, stout but not particularly muscular, started to labor down the dirt road and called back for help. When two of the larger slaves had taken the body from him, he held his knees and ordered them forward.
“Bring him to one of the house girls! They'll… they'll.” He made to look like he hadn't tried to say anything else when they looked back, and waved them forward. When they had rounded the short dirt path and were behind the palmetto bushes that lined the right of the walkway, Brick bent over and retched, his elbows on his knees. His eyes started to cloud over and he fell to his hip, and then contented himself to lie down for a moment and let the faintness pass.
When Brick had first enlisted as a servant for his trip to the Caribbean, he had been twenty-five, and bold in his strength as a man. Eager to prove his merit as a strongman, while earning what he believed to be an investment in his own plantation, he signed his service to work in the fields, and promptly died as one of the first indentured servants in the Caribbean.
In truth, he had lapsed into a deep unconscious state from exhaustion, and his body was stolen by a medicine man. It was through this that Brick met Mr. Darke.
The medicine man took Brick into his hut, where he was given a paste of food and water, and his blood was let as needed. He remained comatose for nearly three weeks, and by then his old master had assumed he had run out on his contract. Just as well, he would say, as there was no way I or anyone else could serve in such a capacity.
As it was, there was a people who could serve in the fields, but they came not from the metropolises of Europe, but the grasslands of Africa. Certainly not after Brick and his circumstantial peers had written with word of the work. In this fractional way, Brick had helped changed the world. Of course, his campaign to make wary his friends and family of the sugar plantations was secondary, his work for Mr. Darke taking up most of his time.
Mr. T. Darke was a frequent visitor of the medicine man. The story as he told it was not unlike Brick's, although his rescue by the island priest was from Oriental merchants and their 'tactical spices'.
“Since then, I've had tea with the old niggah at least once a month, and he's shown me a whole 'nother side of magic I couldn't of fathomed. Wouldn't recommend voodoo to men who haven't had their feet wetted in the waters, though.” During dinner one evening, Darke leaned forward and muttered through his grin “I've heard, their women can't forgive. I daresay they let the grudge ferment and try to poison your grandchildren with it!” Of no incident, Brick's employment had never been strictly addressed in conversational tones. His best guess was the medicine man's boredom, who had become increasingly disinterested in Brick the longer he stayed with him past his conscious return. This is debatably supported by Brick's initial acquaintance with Darke, when he woke up one morning on his plantation, and told that he was employed.
Anecdotes did abound at the table of Darke, and all of them, outlandish or close to home, would ring with an energetic truth that it made his various circles (very few of which overlapped at all) curious as to how a man as young as he could be so cleverly, damnably, experienced. Even after a pint or three, Darke would give the same answer to anyone who brought up his age. A furrowed brow, and then he would look into a polished mug, or spoon, or serving plate. After checking both sides of his face, he gave a tentative estimate. “A fortnight past thirty, I should think.” And that was that.
Brick's employment on Darke's plantation was humbling, but comforting. “A boy's chores for a man's meal.” His only bane was The Tarp, who both terrified and infuriated him. There were no assumptions that could be made about The Tarp, as Darke would say nothing on the subject, and the information gleaned from his actions only supported the conclusion that The Tarp was either insane or well past human. Brick opted to the latter.
Standing somewhere between six and seven feet, it towered over Brick's stout figure. There was little else to be discerned. Its cloak it wore in layers, the outermost tied with a belt, from which hung a few pouches, and one side an iron barb that was rarely touched. It smelled of leather and earth. Its gloves went past the cuff of its sleeve, and the top of its boots had never been seen. Both were a deep brown hide that looked comfortably worn. All of this, in any weather. Even the summers, when humidity was heavier than anywhere, and it was not uncommon to reach a point beyond a hundred and twenty degrees.
Its face had never been seen. Two white circles on a deep leather mask, wide that would cover its cheeks, on top of a small circular screen that, for whatever function, covered its mouth. Not much else was defined by anyone about The Tarp, because it was impossible to search for the details in its mask when its eyes had been caught. The only part of The Tarp that wasn't mechanical was the look it gave, striking an ice into the chords of a person's heart, and still this wasn't human. It surpassed any human capacity into the realm of devilry. Brick was sure that Hell was the only place The Tarp would call home.
Darke said that it was employed for the purpose of slave management. Its presence could accomplish this a dozen times over, and yet Brick had to know it was around every damned day. Its obviously inhuman strength further humiliated Brick, who once believed himself to be a demigod, although that had always had a youthful context. This constant reminder (if irregularly reinforced one), served to aggravate Brick, always and forever, although never to a degree that exceeded the amount of fear that he held for The Tarp, and consequently, never to a degree that would bring him to actually do anything about the creature.
And it had the habit of arriving at the most off-putting moments. Brick would go days without seeing it, but when it resurfaced, it was always sudden. I've never seen him from across a field, no. Always bloody behind me. Once, after a week without any such incidents, Brick had tentatively concluded that The Tarp had somehow come to understand the particular effect it had on him, and that they would stay away from each other from then out. That evening, he had opened a guest bedroom to begin cleaning, and struck a match to light a candle. The flare of sulfur illuminated the orbs of The Tarp's eyes a foot away from Brick, who alerted the entire household to the circumstances, and also broke Mr. Darke's cow-lamp.
Brick was hardly one to conspire. Getting rid of The Tarp was not an aspiration, but a pipe-dream to be nurtured spitefully until Brick became jaded and unfeeling enough to be legitimately apathetic, and probably die.
Any day now…
A night later, Darke sat across from a bleary eyed, dark looking young fellow, sitting in a tavern nursing a very dirty pint of beer, staring anxiously into his drink, in the way that only a man who owed somebody else more money than they themselves personally owned can. With a keen eye and a small smile, Darke engaged him in conversation, opening with a joke.
“BLLAAAARRRRR, YE BLIMEY FUCKIN' ARSE, STAND THE FUCK UP AND BE A MAN BEFORE SOME FUCKARD CUTS YER BALLS OFF.” When the younger man didn't laugh Darke clapped a hand down on his neck and giggled for several seconds.
“Nah, nah! I'm fine, I swear I SWEAR,” he teetered on one foot for a moment. “Now, listen up, because I can tell you right now that you don't solver any o' those problems by pissin' around with your drinks. Now listen up, because I'm eight, HUN- no, wait, wait,” He bent over the counter and stared at his candlelit reflection in a bottle. The publican looked down at him from three yards away, decidedly nonbemused.
“I'm… THIRTY… years. Give or take. Old. See? You don't, you don't know. I don't know. Bu' tha's alright. Here, have a drink.” Before the fellow had said a word, his new friend had spilled half a glass of whiskey on his lap, and was whispering 'eight hundred' into his ear incessantly. As he drank, the younger man grew bolder, and explained his situation to Darke, and anyone else who was listening. It was a crowded tavern full of bawlers and drunks, and Darke bought a few rounds to create a sympathetic ring of listeners.
His name was Percival Cretum, and when he had driven his father's business into the ground (for business reasons, presumably; this was not addressed), he had found promise in the heralded western colonies. With no direction or any desire to continue his life in Britain, he got involved with a small company of merchants, and within four months was aboard an argosy to Antigua. His hopes to travel to the New England colonies, where he might start a new, profitable life, were suspended so that he could break away from the men whose ultimate goal was to create a stranglehold on slaving within the Windward Islands (so name for their position relative to the Caribbean trade winds) by laying a foundation in the surrounding islands, until such a time as the Windward Islands were available to be colonized. Percival Cretum had little faith in this plan of action, and certainly wasn't about to take an arduous path of growth and return, so he bid his compatriots farewell and relieved them of enough resources to carry himself to Boston by way of Nevis.
“Where I'd really like to be now, because they're probably going to kill me.” At this point everyone, including Percival, laughed heartily, because most of them hadn't been listening and laughing seemed appropriate. He wasn't entirely sure why, but at one point he knew that he hadn't wanted to share the information he had just given to a public house filled with people he didn't know. Figuring that any damage was done, he decided to enjoy the rest of his evening, and promptly blacked out.
The drinking continued, and soon the tavern emptied out, with Darke cradling his new friend in his arms and up a dirt road, only dropping him six times before falling asleep on top of him, a mile from his home.
The next morning was an alarming one for Percival, who awoke to Brick lightly shaking him.
“Mister Darke cares to speak with you as soon as you're able. He also suggests you rub some of the brown paste in your washroom along your gums, and that it ought to help bring you out of any stupor.”
When the stout man had left, Percival stumbled out of the very tightly tucked sheet, nearly falling on his face, and into the first private washroom he had ever been inside. Footsteps from the floor below resounded in his skull like gunshots. He saw a small green bowl filled with a substance that looked thoroughly whipped, evenly light brown and smooth as an eggshell. Another time, he might have hesitated to put it into his mouth, but without skipping a beat, he curled his finger into the cream-like mush and stuck it into his cheek.
Before he had started to spread it along the inside of his lip, his body slipped into a euphoric sense of acuity. His pupils dilated, and the deathly headache evaporated with an inaudible sigh.
Feeling very sharp and prepared to fight his way through any consequences of whatever he might have done the night before, he strode out of the bedroom and observed his surroundings.
Ornate woodwork, oil paintings, and down the hall, a pedestal holding two massive barbs of ivory intersecting each other. It was a testament to affluence, and Percival had only seen the portion of the house outside of his bedroom. As he made his way down the staircase, envy and admiration upon him, and knowing nothing else about Darke, he knew he wanted to be him.
After making several aimless rounds and seeing nobody, he caught a glimpse of a tall figure's coat and called out to him for directions. A masked head and the shoulder it belonged to slid out behind a doorway and nodded in the opposite direction. Feeling as though he should have been taken aback, but not actually having the sentiment by whatever magic was in the bowl upstairs, he followed the nod to a brightly lit dinner room, and the back of his comrade's head.
Darke twisted around in his seat. “Percy! Join me. Eggs?”
“Gladly, sir. Thank you.” Darke scraped a pair of the bright and flattened orbs onto a dish he had prepared, and began pouring himself a glass of rum.
“Made, of sugar from this plantation, on this plantation, about four summers ago; I have since had a few other distilleries built around the side of the house, and am learning to create rum as a little side project of mine. Appreciate the taste of wine, but use rum, for the real drinking.” Percival noted how he would hesitate between words as he spoke, drawing emphasis to some of his absent-minded actions between clauses.
“On my first batch, I offered the first glass to one of the niggers who helped me move some supplies. Didn't know what I was doing. He's blind now. Step out on the porch with me.” Percival began to pick up his plate, but a bustling house servant took it out of his hands and carried it to a table on the sundeck. Overlooking the orchard in front of them, and to his left, the noon sun shown down on the tall fields of sugar cane.
“So, Percy, my new friend. How much of last night do you remember? Because as much as I put down, I do recall your very interesting story.” He pulled a pouch of tobacco out of his shirt. “And you,” he gestured with a pipe, also from his shirt, “have piqued my interest. No fear, no fear!” In response to Percival's fearfully crooked eyebrows.
“You made it very clear to me, and everybody else, that your greatest interest is money. And that you have the utmost faith in your own abilities. As do I.” He lit a matched and drew.
“Mr. Darke, I don't know what I said, but I hope you'll pardon me,” Darke stopped him with a thoughtful wave of his hand.
“Darke. I've been going by that name for a long time, Percy. And I think I'm about done with it. So here are my thoughts. Not many people can leave their mark on the world. And I believe that if you chase after luxury by money you've only made by using others, you won't care to have it in the end. I can promise you that wealth has never been a goal to strive for. It's truly secondary, and by the time you've created it for yourself, it will be too late to realize that you really wanted everything but.
“You have your gifts, Percy. Intellect and education, ambition. A hundred hells, you have youth. Real youth, not my youth. Forget I said that. Actually don’t, I’ll circle around. And I don’t know if you noticed, but before you vomited a barrel and a half, there was a tavern full of women looking you over. All of this, and you want money. I blame society.” He drew again, and took a swig of rum.
“My point is, Percy, you have potential. There’s very little legitimate potential in anyone, and you have mounds of it. Having seen the world change a few times over — no really, I’ll get to that — I’ve earned the right to say it’s people like you who make the difference. And here you are, no small thief, crooking over men who put faith in you to get to the mainland and make money?” He spat the word, and shot through Percy with a look of more paternalism than the young man had ever been shown. Shame was a foreign construct for him. It hurt.
“So if you’d like, I’d like to see to it you don’t waste yourself.
“There's magic in this world, son. It lives behind a veil, and it'll give itself up to people who go looking for it. I found it, and in my time I've done a great deal to make a difference by it. And then I got wealthy.” He gestured across the grounds. “Worst thing that could have happened to me.” He drew from the pipe again, and began to tell a story.
It was a fascinating story. Darke had had his fingers in nearly every European conquest in the last millennium. He had loved, and lost, and fought in countless wars. He had nearly died at the hands of Francois Ravaillac, during his mission to kill Henry IV, King of France. He had advised the English crown and manipulated the Church of Rome, always for the greater good, always by a code. He had lived. When he drew his story to a close, how he had come to own his plantation and some of his lesser misadventures with the island's witch doctor, he seemed to expect something from Percival. If not belief, then perhaps acknowledgment. He got neither.
“Mister Darke, I must be on my way. Thank you for your hospitality,” “You can reject what you've heard today, Percy,” “Percival. My name is Percival Cretum, thank you.” Darke's sigh was not one of frustration, nor disappointment, but of understanding. A father watching his son make the mistakes that he couldn't warn him against.
“I'm afraid you're Darke, now. You can go if you like. But magic is upon you, and I only want to see you use it the right way. Admittedly probably a faux pas to make you magic without telling you, but there’s really no standard, so there you go.”
“What? What magic, would you say that you're magic, that-” “Not anymore, but I certainly was.” “that your eight hundred years old-” “I might be a little magic, still.” “and that paste upstairs, that was magic?” “Coca leaves, which I can't believe there's not a market for.” “You're insane.” “More for me, I suppose.”
“I need to leave. Thank you. Thank you very much, for everything, for your time, for breakfast, for the COCA LEAVES, thank you, and thank you again. Good bye!”
Percival Cretum Darke strode down the path he assumed was to the city, came back when it wasn't, and looked around the grounds, trying and failing to maintain the sarcastic indifference in his step. The man who wasn't Darke anymore pointed to the West, and with a parting, “Right. Thanks!” Percival Cretum Darke walked off the No-Longer-Darke Plantation.
The Tarp stood behind the man smoking a pipe. In a voice like velvet gravel he spoke. “Do you try again?”
A moment passed. “I’ve been at this game a while. Nine years, six months, between two or four weeks, depending on that Autumn’s tobacco harvest. He’ll be back. See to it he gets to Boston, will you?” And The Tarp was gone.