Bright grasps the morning’s sun. Light drifts through the slats of the stable walls, nestling on my bed of hay, illuminating golden. My eyes adjust to the brilliant beam, the play of dust motes float languidly in its stream. The stable slowly wakes with muffled energy. One colt. One filly. Two mares. A stallion, a gelding, four mules, and Old Boone, my elder, crippled as a young boy: mute and aloof, my only companion.
Boone slumps along in an awkward waltz of marked time. Dragging his left leg behind him, he lurches it forward, left toe pointed outwards, his arch and instep facing the direction he walks, sliding it forward as a child would tow a large potato sack. He shuns a cane, relying instead on his overwrought right leg, his broad, barrel chest, and sinewy arms. He is surprisingly spry and the initial meek impression he gives with his shifting gait belies the strength of an ox. It is rumored, as a child, his leg was crushed by the weight of a hogshead barrel while taking tobacco to market. The white children call him ‘Ole' Boot’. I, too, would taunt Boone when I was younger. But as I aged, and as the white children discerned differences in us due to their growing ignorance, they began their gravitational pull towards ‘status’ and ‘position’, distancing themselves from me, away from the innocence of childhood; we played less and less, and I cleaved toward the comfort of my kind, preferring Boone. Normally, a lame slave such as Boone would have been sold at a loss. The only reason the master keeps him around is because of his affinity with horses, an affectation he transports to me.
I live with beasts, and Boone, whose silence and keenness for animals is beast-like. For as long as I could remember, to that day of my sixteenth year, the barn had been my home. Among animals I’ve ranged: feeding, curry-combing, shoeing, cleaning, and picking hooves. This barn, the smell of manure and hay, the noises of creatures and creaking, is the only place I have ever known, its patterns and purpose mine.
Most mornings, before the fields began to boil with labor, the woods would spring to life with the frenetic flits of birds. I would race to the edge of the field to welcome the morning witness, observing the spectacle of flight but also anticipating: Would this be the day I spy my winter Vermillion?
There are hundreds, if not thousands of birds that dot the countryside around the plantation, mostly dull and drab starlings, their swarthy migration ascending and descending in great sweeps windward, flocks disappearing into the horizon or dissipating across the fields like scattered shot to the sky. The pond nearby attracts an occasional, rare, winter vermillion, the presence of water its magnetism. The vermillion flycatcher is the brightest of all the flycatchers. I would later learn, in my travels, it is also a migratory bird and one whose illusive identity is confounded by its brilliant hues. My mother told me its name. As a house slave, she learned it from the master’s wife who loved to sit and listen to the sounds of birds in season. This solitary flycatcher possessed an unusual secret of mutable wonder, a changeable miracle, a reflection of its ability to fly free - it changed colors.
When I was a child, I captured a wounded vermillion, stumbling upon it near the hedgerow by the master’s house, its pale silver accordion wing splayed out helpless, broken. Crafting a crude makeshift cage from dried tobacco vines, I kept it in the corner of the barn, feeding it insects and nightcrawlers. Within days, its bright crimson chest and plumage fainted to a dull varnish of russet red, fading until the color drifted entirely to dusky black like that of its wings.
If I am remembering correctly and not embroidering my thoughts upon an ordinary event for dramatic effect, I’ll recall rightly that my mother was the one who informed me, with no grave earnestness: the vermillion was losing its color because it was held in captivity. She spoke it as ordinary, as unmiraculous as one would declare the fowl a simple bird but her words lodged dormant seeds in me, accompanying the many metaphors in my life that would arise as epiphanies.
Whereas color defined our captivity, the flycatcher’s color defined its freedom. ‘A bird is no longer a bird without flight,’ she said. ‘You have a choice. Keep it locked. Under restraint it will do itself no harm. If you contain it, it will eventually die in its cage. Or, set it free. Even with broken wing it might find its way and return to the sky. If you set it free, it will likely die but will at least have a chance to come unto its own. Only the bird knows its limits, no one else.’ To put to rest any remaining doubts I had about keeping it, she quoted from Blake (mother invoked poets as though summoning prophets from the dead) a poem she memorized in the freedom school, ‘A robin red breast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage.’
Reluctantly, I released it into the barn where it nested temporarily until it sought sunlight and finally fled. My mother gently squeezed my shoulder. My heart leapt a faint flutter mirroring the felicity of freedom.
Touch translates mountains.
I both loved and envied that vermillion. More than color, I coveted its wings. Seeing one broken before me, one who once soared freely, I marveled at its potential. Black wings could carry further than black legs. I never learned if my captured vermillion’s color returned to its brilliant hue. Once, my mother and I glimpsed the exiguous flight of a solitary vermillion, its cherry-red plumage proclaiming singularity among the black flutters dotting the sky. I followed the bird’s flight as far as my eye could carry, then stretched my body upwards upon my toes, climbing the nearest tree to see if I, too, could wing myself away. If I could exert my will toward the skies, I could float above this bondage.
I envied everything that loomed above and grew beyond. I envied the everlasting evergreens. I envied stars. Envy and covetedness, an insatiable greed, did not destroy me, they sustained me. Envy fed my ravenous appetite, bleeding its green impress beyond the boundaries where a man’s life would not be set by another. A negroe wanted the simple pleasures the master had: a wife, a family, children, the ability to create sustenance from one’s own hands, to earn an honest wage and produce something of the earth for one’s own benefit, not for the consumption of another. Perhaps, in great generosity, even the mutual benefit of a select, free society. But I was far from thinking this at that moment. In that moment, I simply ached and yearned to be my own master.
But that morning, the morning before my dark night, I lay silently on my belly in the thick underbrush. I feel the imaginary impress of my mothers slim fingers on my shoulder. Watch breathlessly as a small red speck slowly grows larger. It alights on a nearby branch. My eyes lock onto its carefree, sprightly dance. I hold every twitch in my burning, unblinking sight. It pops from limb to limb, hovers briefly above the earth, lands on the ground occasionally to ferret worms, then springs back to a low lying branch. For a moment, following this sole aviator's awkward, fitful flightpath, I think, that is my vermillion.
My vermillion. I once possessed the power to keep it, but possession did not make it mine. No one can own another living being. They might tame as one would a dog, control as unto a mule, manipulate or dominate, support or sustain, and even rule as in a monarch, but they can never truly own. The vermillion’s presence and my haunting thought is an augury, an omen.
The slaves pour from their shacks, flooding the fields. I watch the flycatcher soar above them toward the horizon, seeking peace in limitless boundaries.
It disappears into the azure blanket and scattered clouds.