“Cotton, how come you’re so pale?”
The older man said, “Shit!”, and grinned. He wouldn’t have answered anyone else, but he had known Titus all the boy’s life, and had known his parents before that.
“It’s a long story, passed down,” he said. “My mother’s mother’s mother was a pale, good lookin’ woman. I suppose she had some white in her, I don’t know how much. Her master caught her one day in the fields and that’s how my granny came about. She was half white plus whatever her mother already was.
“My granny got sold to her master’s cousin, and he caught her out when she was washin’ clothes in the creek. That’s how my mother got to be three-quarters white, and then some.
“She got sold too, when she was still young. She grew up to be a rare, beautiful woman, so they made her a house slave and she had six of us. She never got married, but the boss’s son spent a lot of time in her room, so we all came out pale as cotton. That’s how I got my name.
“He kept my sisters and sold me to Bullfrog.”
Titus said, “I always wondered.”
Cotton shook his head, not so much angry as bemused. He said, “Hell, I’m whiter than half the so-called white people in Tennessee, for all the good it does me.”
Titus was quiet for a while, then he asked, “So you’re going north to freedom. How far are you going to go?”
“How far would you go?”
Titus chuckled. “Cotton, if you want my advice, keep walking north ’til your feet freeze to the ground. Then thaw them out and go further.”
“You going to stay black, or pass for white?”
“What do you think? If I say I’m a free negro, what’ll that get me? If I say I’m white, they’ll treat me like a man.
“I’m going to find me a poor, good-lookin’ white woman, and we’re going to have a batch of pale colored kids. And I’m never going to tell her. And I’m never going to let my kids know that their daddy started out life as a nigger.”
The night wore on. There were worse things than bogles in the night around the two of them.
For Titus, there were soldiers; men, true enough, but full of evil intent. They were of his own people, his own race, his own nation, but they had come for the Cherokees that his parents had devoted their lives to, and that he had lived his life among. They had come for them and had carried them away, out of a country which had been theirs since before the white men ever came, and toward a land none of them had ever seen.
And for Cotton, there were men who looked like Titus — looked like Cotton, near enough, though they would ever acknowledge it — men who would take him into captivity and sell his body as if it had no soul. As if he were not almost entirely white. As if some of those soldiers were not at least as black as he was, but don’t say it! They would kill you if you said it.
And what if Cotton had been all black, not mostly white. And what if Titus were a Cherokee, instead of Scots and German. And what if those soldiers were as white as they claimed to be. What then? Would it matter? Really matter?
So the wind made its noises in the canebrake, and the trees moaned. So Titus’s eyes were wide in a white face and Cotton’s eyes were wide in an almost-white face. So the waterhorses frolicked in the swamp, and the moccasins slithered through the stagnant water, and the frogs croaked like the toads of Armageddon.
So the darkness was filled with all the fearful creatures out of Scotland — and out of Africa as well, for that matter. Cotton too would have his own demons, brought with his people from their old home across the ocean, and now hiding in the canebrake with the bogles, and the soldiers, and the rattlesnakes.
Even if it weren’t All Hallow’s Eve — even if the barriers between Earth and Hell had not thinned and broken — they might as well have.
Cotton raised his cup and drank the tea made of herbs he had found in the swamp. He handed it across the fire, and Titus’s lips touched the same cup as he drank the same liquid. Cotton said, “In the morning I go north.”
Titus replied, “In the morning I go west.”
They would not meet again. They both knew it, but neither said so.
Fire and death and the hangman. The slave catchers and the block. They are all real, but a man goes on.
Still, it had been good to see Cotton one more time.
Not a Halloween story, you say? No ghosts? I disagree.
These wraiths of fiction never lived, and the men of that era who did live are long gone to wherever souls go. But they still haunt us today, and they will probably haunt our children as well.