By Gregory Frost
Plateye: A ghost or spirit that can assume many shapes from animal to human to monster. Believed by some Gullah people to be the incarnation of spirits of dead pirates, killed to protect the location of buried treasure, the plateye is retributive and mischievous. It is particularly fond of whiskey.
Sure, I know what you want to hear about. You want to hear about the Civil War. I’ve already been interviewed, and that’s all anybody wants recollected. Yes, I know, I do look too young to have seen it. I suppose now that there’s been this so-called “Great War,” people think they need to hear about others, to acquire some perspective. Me, I’ve seen enough to tell you there’s no such thing as a great war. They’re all ugly, stupid things, and I could relate far more interesting stories on other topics if you cared to listen.
You want to know what? How I learned to speak so eloquently? Hunh. You expected something a little less educated from an ex-slave, is that it? Well, as it happens, my speech is one of those more interesting stories — part of the best story of all, if I may?
Young man, do you know what a haant is? Well, it’s a Gullah word. They’re my people, the Gullah, live on the coast down south below Charleston. No, I don’t mean I was born in South Carolina. I wasn’t. I was born in Africa. And I was a free man until… Tell me, what are you? Maybe twenty-two, twenty-three? Unh-huh. Try to imagine that, at twenty-three, you’d been robbed of your future.
I was sixteen when they captured me. No, not whites. Not my own people, either, but other black men, who swept down upon us. They took me and some of my friends. They set fire to my village, and I don’t know who lived or died that day. Those of us they kept were put in chains and marched to the coast and sold to the white men with ships. I didn’t know the name of my country then — it was just home. I know now that the world calls it Angola.
The blacks who sold us got a pittance for us compared to what we were worth at this end of the journey. They sold us for silver, for guns, for rum, for beads, and even for pots and pans. While they negotiated with the ships, they locked us up in big cages on the shore called barracoons. People were jammed up together, pushed against each other’s stink, but it was heaven compared with what awaited us. There were people from all over, and half of ’em spoke languages I didn’t know. Almost everybody was naked. The slavers preferred us that way. We were nothing but beasts to them, and you don’t put clothes on a mule, do you? We were there not even a full day before we were purchased and dragged up on a ship.
The captain, he barked at us like a hyena. None among us knew his language, but we understood him well enough, since failing to do so meant you got beat with a rope end till you figured it out. People wonder why we didn’t do anything, why we didn’t fight. After all, there were hundreds of us and hardly anything at all of them. But they had us terrified. We didn’t know where we were. We were hungry and exhausted. I think we all believed that if we were just good and quiet, we wouldn’t be harmed. If we’d known the truth… There were some ships where the slaves mutinied, but not many.
Crewmen came along and pulled some of us out of the crowd and stood us in a line. There was a redheaded fellow who, if anybody was too slow to move, lashed them across the face, and he was smirking all the time and shouting at us. He liked for us to be too slow.
The tall ones like me, we were all lined up together. Then the middle heights and the shortest. Men and women were separated, too.
Then they drove us down into the belly of that ship. They’d fixed it up special for their cargo. Made three tiers of what could be called pigeon holes, but what were more like coffins stacked on top of each other. You climbed in at the foot and dragged yourself up inside it, trying not to lie on the chains that shackled you there, ’cause you were going to lie on them for a long time if you did. The bottom tier was the biggest, which is to say, the longest, for the tallest of us. The first man in line, he didn’t want to go in, and that red-headed bastard beat him unconscious with the rope. The man had to be picked up and shoved into his hole. He became the first to die on the voyage, but not the last. The rest of us saw how it was, and most crawled into their coffins willingly. We had no more than fifteen inches across in those holes. There was hardly room above to lie on your side. If you could turn over. Take you half an hour to turn over in that space, and you had to hunch your shoulders and wriggle like a tadpole. You’d end up with splinters in the meat of your arm, and if you weren’t careful you could strangle in your chains.
It stank like no pigstye you’ve ever known, too. But we were property, and worth a good deal, and they didn’t want us getting sick. They could lose thousands of dollars if some fever swept through their cargo, so they hosed us down regularly.
I had big wrists then, too big for the shackles they supplied, so that the skin was rubbed raw on me in no time. To either side there were uprights, supporting the second and third tiers, which was all that kept us from being squished. During the day enough light got in that we could see the fear in one another’s eyes. They wanted us to see that. They wanted us to pass our fear around. I guess you boys who fought in the ‘Great War,’ you had it bad in the trenches, with mud and mustard gas and all. But you haven’t been anywhere as near hell as I have. You never lived three weeks in a coffin narrower than your shoulders. If the person on the upper tier above you got scared and pissed himself, it dripped down on you and there was nothing you could do about it till they next hosed you off with sea water, and then a soup of human waste from above came raining down between the boards.
They stuffed in a man beside me who had been beaten all over. His eye was swelled up, and his head was bloody, crusted. The flies were at him, but he was smiling, like he felt nothing at all, and even over the stench of that place I smelled him, smelled the booze on him, for he was drunker than a man can get. I think they could have beaten him to death and he wouldn’t have noticed for a week.
They locked us all in, then hoisted their sails. People soon started to moaning, some grew seasick and threw up — yet another stench in which to lie. A couple of people went crazy the first days in those tiny stinking holes. I expect I should have. I’d never been confined in my life till then.
That evening they fed us. We could smell the cooking and most of us hadn’t eaten in days. It was gruel, thick and nasty, but it was enough to keep a body alive. Of course, when you eat, you shit, and some there were couldn’t help themselves, couldn’t wait till the next time they were danced up on deck.
That’s what they called it when they let us walk around — dancing us. One group at a time, they led us up on the deck, letting us wander about, tasting fresh air and exercise, every day, for maybe an hour before they put us back down in those coffin holes. Dancing, I guess, ’cause some began to sing and some swayed to the singing, their bodies taking them home. It was the only means they had to escape. Then and after.
The second night aboard, the thing happened that changed my life. That beat-up drunk beside me, he made this quiet sound, like a gas jet. It wouldn’t have wakened me, but I was lying on my back and barely asleep. I was looking at the boards above my nose, so close that my breath came back on me. I turned my head to see, but it was black as a coal mine.
I heard a slithery sound, like a big snake twisting, and more hissing. The chain rattled just the tiniest bit. My hair started creeping up on my head. Bristling like a dog. After a time there was only the absence of sound. I knew that hole beside me was empty and that man had gotten free somehow.
I couldn’t see as far as my feet even. Couldn’t turn my head to know where he’d gone or what he purposed to do. There was no escape from that place for anyone.
An hour maybe went by like that before he came back. There wasn’t a sound until he was slithering into that hole again. I stared so hard into that dark that it burned, but all I could make out was a general shape, twisted up like something made of molasses. Then of a sudden two eyes glistened there, looking right back at me, and a voice said, “Best git ta sleep now, friend.” Then he gave this big sigh and his eyes closed into the darkness. He fell asleep, which was more than I did the rest of the night.
Next day they hauled us out for our dance on the deck, and I had a good look at him in the light. All his contusions were gone like they never had been, and he looked like he’d eaten about forty bowls of gruel, instead of the one. The crew hardly paid us any mind. Something had happened but I couldn’t tell what because I couldn’t understand what they said. That strange fella was kind of tilting his head as if listening, and damn me if he wasn’t smiling to himself like he knew a big secret. He noticed me looking and gave me a wink and talked to me, as a Gullah would say, all sweetmout. “They lost that red-head lasher,” he said. “He just up and disappeared last night and nobody kin find him.” I asked myself how he knew their language. Right then I almost guessed the truth about him. But I kept my own counsel on it, as he’d only have to slide over a foot or two in the night to silence me for good.
What was the truth about him? Just wait a bit and you’ll see.
After that, he would talk to me while we lay side by side. Most everyone else was wailing or moaning, but he hardly seemed bothered by the inconvenience of being chained up. He told me things I couldn’t figure how he knew ’em. Said some of the women were being led off by crewmen, to be used, and then locked back up at night. Some of the small boys, too. “We lucky we’s so tall,” he said. “They’s afraid of us, don’t think they’re not. They keep you skayred so’s you won’t git a notion of fighting back. Don’t give you ’nuf food to do much more than lie here in your own stink.”
I asked how he knew so much, and he replied, “I listen to ’em talk.” So I asked how he’d come to know their speech. He chuckled and answered that he knew everybody’s speech. He asked if I wanted to know their speech, too. I said I did, and he just nodded, then seemed to doze off.
I guess it must have been a week later that fella got into trouble. The ship was riding calm. He’d slipped out again without waking me, and for all I know he did that every night. Anyway, I woke to shouting and feet thundering across the decks. I heard him beside me, scrambling into place. His chains rattled and he grunted and cursed under his breath — nothing quiet and careful this time.
They came down with torches, shouting at all of us, screaming, and I still didn’t know a word of it but I knew what it meant same as I knew what it meant when they raised a whip.
Next thing we were dragged out of our holes, kicked and flogged with ropes and pushed up the steps to the deck. It was a perfect night and I stared at the clear sky, the stars strung up there, the moon off the horizon, the breeze so cool and salty-sweet. They lined us up as on that first day, and I glanced at that fella’ — his mouth was all sticky dark. He wiped his hands over his face, and his eyes stared at me above them. He said, “You want to know? This is as good a time as any.” And he reached over with one of his bloody hands and grabbed my shoulder.
It was as if lightning struck me from all directions. The deck lit up bright white for an instant. I could still see everybody but they were hollow, just outlines against the whiteness. He let go, saying, “There,” and went back to wiping his hands down his thighs.
They got us all out finally. Then I saw the body. It lay in the middle of the deck, and it was something to see. The head had been almost chewed right off at the throat, and hung sideways. It was a white man, too, one of them.
The captain marched back and forth in front of us, with a long leather cat that he thrashed in the air. He bellowed, “You foul black beasts, I’m gonna whip each ’n’ ever’ one of you till I find out who did this! Who got free! Mr. Johnson?” he screamed to one of the others.
“All present, sir. No one’s missing.”
“Damn me, sir, that means one of these vermin is getting’ loose and then back again.”
“Well, dammit, man, get a torch and inspect them. Whoever did that, he gonna have blood all over hisself.”
That Mr. Johnson picked up a torch and come over and began to inspect us, holding the torch close in one hand, keeping a wood truncheon in the other. I hardly noticed, for all at once I realized that I’d understood every word they spoke, and I stared at the fella next to me, and he just made a face that told me to keep quiet.
When Mr. Johnson come to him, he says, “Captain, this one’s got blood on him.” He grabbed the fella’s arm and held it up, seeing the blood on the hand.
“Let me see that,” the captain answered and started over.
I did something then I can’t account for. I stepped in between the two men. I shook my head. I tried to say to Johnson that this man hadn’t done anything. But even though I could understand his speech, I couldn’t talk it. So I held up my own hands, and pointed at my wrists where I’d worked the skin raw on their too-small shackles. There were plenty of us had done that.
Johnson looked at me, then with a snarl raised up that truncheon, and I slunk back out of the way before he could hit me. Of course, the fella had no torn wrists, and in a moment they would have known that. But providence saved him — probably saved us both.
One of the shortest men, on the far side of the deck, suddenly cried out, “No more, I can’t go down there no more! You can’t put me back. Let me go!” He knocked down two of the crew and ran right up and sprang over the rail, and dropped into the night sea.
It wasn’t long before we heard his screams. They only lasted a moment.
You see, sharks followed the slave ships. When one of us died, they just pitched the body overboard, and the sharks found out about this and took to trailing slave ships all the way across the Atlantic.
None of the crew understood what the man had shouted. The captain said, “Well, sir, I guess we found our villain. Mr. Johnson, get ’em all stowed again.”
“Yessir!” Johnson snapped. He gave me a funny, suspicious look and muttered, “Stupid nigra.” Of course, he didn’t know I understood him. I was just a dumb beast that had risked my life over nothing.
They herded us back into the belly of that ship. Had to hose us down again, so many had thought they were going to die.
In the darkness, the fella said, “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Then he said my name, which I was sure I hadn’t told him.
That’s how I met the palatyi.
I’d heard of him — the old people around my home used to tell us stories about him, stories to scare us children. He was a shape-changer, could turn into anything he liked, which seems a mighty powerful skill to have. His only problem was he liked his drink too much, and when he was drunk, he lost his skill. And, son, the palatyi liked to drink more than you like to breathe.
The ship arrived in Charles Town — it’s called Charleston nowadays. Back then it was a center for slaving. Ships that didn’t go to the Caribbean sailed into the bay there direct. Charles Town had a big market square for slave auctions, and people gathered from all over. We were sold off almost the moment we arrived.
They drug us up on a platform a dozen at a time, almost all of us stark naked. The men who bid would climb up and pull back our lips, look at our teeth like we were horses, squeeze our muscles.
Most of us men were bought for field work. Some of the bigger women, too. The lighter-skinned girls, though, got bought up by madams, to work in whorehouses all over.
Me and the palatyi got bought by a plantation owner named McTeer. He grew rice down on St. Helena Island. The cypress swamps and the marsh lands there were fertile ground for rice, but you had to dig canals and grub out the stumps and build little dikes to control the water so’s you could flood things when you wanted. They grew cotton elsewhere, too, but we worked the rice.
Bunch of slaves he had already came from Madagascar, and they knew how to cultivate rice. Since I could understand what they said, I picked up their skills fast, same as the palatyi.
We were branded with an “M” and they gave us all new names. I got called “John Brown,” just like the abolitionist. They named the palatyi George Wellington.
McTeer called his place Hampton House. The whites around there, you see, had decided they were some kind of aristocracy. Like McTeer, they’d arrived from England with indentured servants already — mostly poor Irish who’d gotten arrested for stealing bread or something else innocuous, and who’d chosen to be slaves rather than get hanged back home. These Irish were mostly house servants, a few were slave drivers. Their masters — our masters — believed themselves to be the swells of the world; here, whatever they’d been back home didn’t matter. They put on grand airs. George Wellington relished every opportunity to play on their snobbery.
At first, I couldn’t figure him out. He could have escaped anytime, I thought, but he stayed and worked. One reason, I found out, was that he was sneaking out of the shack at night and into McTeer’s storehouse, where there were kegs of liquor. He got into the whiskey pretty good; after a month or so they discovered that their supply was disappearing and put a guard named Landis on it. That didn’t suit George Wellington at all. One night, I woke up to a gunshot and a lot of yelling, and everybody came stumbling out from Hampton House. We all ran outside, too. I knew it was the palatyi, ’cause he was missing in the crowd.
Landis came running past us, two or three other men on his heels, the bunch of them with rifles. He was shouting, “It had to come this way, boys! Wait till you see it!”
When I turned around, George Wellington was standing right behind me, just grinning.
“I s’posed they’d shot you sure,” I told him. Back then, I spoke like everybody else round that place, and so did he.
“Those fellers is dainjus,” he answered, chuckling. “But mos’ly to demself.” Then he rubbed his belly and said, “I jis’ had me some buckruhbittle, an’ it was mighty good. I b’leew I’m developin’ a taste for it.”
Buckruhbittle was the word Gullah slaves used to distinguish white man’s food from what they fed us. When they’d locked him out of the whiskey supply, George had switched to the kitchen in the bighouse. Tonight Landis had caught him leaving, and George, quick as a wink, had transformed. Landis had seen a monstrous baylynx, a wildcat. He’d shot at it, but missed. I’m not sure it was possible to hit it.
The next day Landis showed everyone the cat’s prints in the dirt. Otherwise, I think they would have adjudged he’d been into the whiskey himself. The cat, though, didn’t explain the disappearing food. McTeer blamed the Irish house-slaves, but just to be thorough they chained us up at night, too. It didn’t bother George, of course, as it didn’t bother him what happened to us. He just liked his mischief.
He might have kept stealing their food, but he was bored with that jape already. After awhile, things went back to normal. George snuck off at night and I didn’t know where he went now. But I found out. One night he woke me and said, “John, you come wid me, we going to have some fun.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but he insisted it would be good for my education: “Gib’ you a chance to sample the pledjuhs of life.”
Now, they didn’t guard us much, ’cause there was nowhere to run to. It was an island, so they didn’t need to keep an eye on us. George and me walked right to the road and inland. I’m not really certain how we got to Beaufort, but we did. Seems like one minute we were on the road with the lights of Jack Mullaters bobbing in the swamps, and the next we were coming up on the lights of a town. In my astonishment, I looked to George, and my heart nearly jumped out of my breast. I was walking along beside a white gentleman wearing a fine coat. He had a grand ginger mustache. He gave me a slantendicular glance, then smiled that wide grin, and I knew it was still George. I started to babble, but he shushed me and took my hand and held it up for me to see. My hand was white, too, and there was brocade at my wrist. I could even feel it. He’d changed us both. I still don’t know how. He told me, “Now, you let me do the talking, ’cause no matter how you look, you gwine talk the same’s you always do. You hab no skill yet.”
And I thought, well, neither did he, seeing as how he talked like any Gullah, but I was happy to keep quiet — I was too scared to do anything else.
He led us right down the main street of that town. People nodded to us, said, “’evenin’, gen’mun,” and didn’t give us a second glance. My terror turned to sly relish.
So we arrived in front of this house with balconies and open windows and lights burning bright. He knocked on the door and this big woman opened it. She smiled, then went all quizzical. “Why, sir,” she said, “do I know you?” George, he took her hand and kissed it.
“Not yet,” he told her, and she giggled like a child half her age and moved aside to let us in.
Then I swear he talked to her just like any white man would, without a trace of the Gullah he talked to me and others. He sounded every note. Reached into his coat and took out a handful of gold coins and closed her hand around them. She giggled some more and led us into a parlor. George whispered to me, “Remember, you say as little as you can. Don’t speak to your girl, and keep the lights off once you’re in her room. Let her think it’s some kind of ritual.”
That was what I did. A black-haired girl took me by the hand and led me into a private room. She’d disrobed down to her corset before I blew out the candles. “Shy, are you?” she said, her voice full of laughter.
“Yess’m,” I answered, softly. Carefully. She didn’t seem to mind.
I guess I tumbled her a couple of times before George knocked at the door and stuck his head in to say, “John, it’s time to go.”
I dressed hastily, pulling on my work clothes in the dark. He gave me some coins and I set them beside the bed. The girl said, “You pass this way again, John, you look me up,” and I answered, “Ma’am, I surely will.”
We returned to the shack before daylight. I can’t even tell you what moment I changed back again to myself. George, he just thought it was the funniest thing in the world, but I was too exhausted to laugh.
I guess I went with him two or three more times. The money, he was stealing from the bighouse, but he couldn’t do that too often.
I stopped accompanying him, though, after awhile, ’cause I fell in love with a girl named Alike. That means “the girl who drives away beautiful women.” They didn’t call her that, though, here. They called her Annie. She was an Ibo woman, tall and sharp-boned and beautiful, and we kind of took up together. You have to understand, in that shack, you had no privacy. You had sex with everybody watching, everybody knowing.
The palatyi took me aside and told me not to fall in love with her. He said, “No good gwine come of it. In this here land there’s no room for love. Them Hampton House people will see it and use that love as a weapon ’gense you.” I didn’t listen to that talk. Alike gave me a son, and she named him Orji, a name from her people that meant “great tree.” He was a big child. For two years we were as happy as you could be, living like that.
Then one night the palatyi came lurching into the shack, falling down, laughing and snorting. Everyone woke up. Outside there were dogs barking and lots of yelling. He crawled into his bed and flopped down drunk. I didn’t have to smell him to know it. What had happened was that he’d gotten liquored up in town and forgotten his shape. He said later that he’d been with two whores and all of a sudden they’d begun screaming, because the man entertaining them had turned into something else.
He’d escaped, but with a makeshift posse on his tail, that followed him back to the plantation. The damned fool led them right to our shack. Men with torches burst in. Everybody was screeching, wailing. Alike cringed on our bed with Orji, and I shielded her from whatever was coming. The men knocked people aside. They had no idea who they were looking for, however. George was too drunk to stand. They might have figured him out, I suppose, but they were hungry to punish someone quick.
They grabbed hold of one of the men nearest and hauled him outside, tied him up and whipped him near to death. We stood and watched, not daring to intercede for fear of being whipped to death ourselves. McTeer, when he got there, was none too happy and he made them stop. They were killing his property and they didn’t have a story that made a lick of sense to anybody.
Landis came forward with his gun and drove them off. But the next night, we were all shackled again.
When George sobered up, I cussed him a blue streak. He’d inflicted harm on someone else for his amusement. It wasn’t funny anymore, his mischief.
He got all peculiar then and withdrew from everybody. They knew he was strange, but they didn’t know what he was. That poor other fella suffered awfully. They’d about stripped the skin from his back. He couldn’t work, and he rocked on his belly, delirious.
The second morning he was dead. It looked as if the blood had leaked right out of him. The women wailed like Sirens. Landis and the drivers came, carried him off and buried him.
We went back to work, went out to thresh the rice. George walked beside me and after a time he said, “I couldn’t help him. He was sufferin’, gwine to die. Alls I could do was make it quick for him.”
Afterward, he seemed to be more cautious about what he did. He didn’t talk to any of us much, even me, and I wondered again why he stayed on.
Maybe two weeks after that incident, with the rice harvested, another group of whites showed up at Hampton House. They were traders. McTeer had us all line up outside the shack. We could see that he was edgy and unhappy about something, but we couldn’t imagine what he was about to do. He’d decided he had too many slaves, and was determined to sell some of us off.
The traders wandered back and forth, looking us over. They preferred to acquire slaves who’d been born into slavery, as such slaves wouldn’t know anything else and would be easy to handle. They liked in particular to buy children. I didn’t appreciate what that meant until one of them grabbed Alike and Orji and pulled them out of line. I jumped after them, got one hand on the man’s shoulder, and then something smashed into the side of my head. I stumbled, fell. I could hear Alike crying my name, but when I tried to get up, something hit me again. I didn’t pass out exactly, but the whole world spun ’round my head, and somewhere my baby was crying, far away.
When I came to my senses it was night, and George Wellington was sitting beside me. He looked into my eyes and said, “I tol’ you not to fall in love. It only sump’n’ they kin tek away from you.” I understood then that I would never see my wife and son again. I started to cry. George leaned down and shushed me. “Listen up. I’m gwine go now. You wunt see me again. I got no ansuhs for you, but I do owe you sump’n.” He touched me, and the world lit up all white as it had on board ship. When it turned dark again, he was gone.
Before the sun came up the next morning, there was a great alarm from the bighouse. We got up, huddling, clutching at each other. We’d already seen loved ones dragged off, and we were sure now it was our turn coming. People began to pray to Jesus, some who’d never been Christians till then. But it wasn’t anything to do with us.
Someone had broken into the bighouse and killed McTeer’s wife and children. Torn them to shreds. Landis had heard a terrible wail and come out in time to see a white man run off into the woods. He’d recognized the man, too, as one of the slave traders from the day before. The man had stolen McTeer’s money, Landis said. Mrs. McTeer must have caught him in the act.
They left us — the entire pack of white drivers and servants. They set off after that group of slavers. We could have fled, but we didn’t. Some of us did enter the house, though. We found the family. It was horrible to see, but I’d seen that kind of slashing before, and I knew who’d killed them. I knew he’d done it for me, out of revenge. McTeer had robbed me of my family. And so the palatyi had robbed him of his. We didn’t expect McTeer to be alive, but he was. The palatyi had slashed his hamstrings so that he couldn’t walk, but had left him alive, if demented beyond words. I was cold then. I didn’t mind what had been done to him.
They caught up with the slavers in Beaufort, Landis and his men. They hung the lot of them for the crime they hadn’t committed, but that was good enough justice and all we could hope for, who’d watched our loved ones legally taken away.
The plantation went up for sale, but it was a tainted place. I think people believed it was haunted, which might have been George’s doing. None of us saw him, though. We were all auctioned off, separated.
I ended up on a big spread outside Charles Town, met a woman there named Kaya and married her. Her name meant “stay here and don’t die.” But after our third child, she did die, of a fever. Me, I never got sick at all. Other women ’round the place took care of my babies and helped raise them up. By the time they were young men, I was past fifty, but I didn’t look a day older than them. I knew the palatyi had done something new to me. Folks pretended I was just aging gracefully.
I developed my gift for language, and learned to speak as well as my masters, better in fact, although I was careful not to let on how well. I taught my sons how to speak proper English, too. I gained a position in the house, put in charge of other house-slaves, and I did what I could for them. Our owners were decent enough people, I suppose, if you didn’t mind that you belonged to them. I kept expecting George to turn up again, but he didn’t. Eventually, I’d worked and saved enough to buy my freedom and that of my boys, and I took ’em north to Boston. I enrolled in a university there, and put the boys in, too. We caused something of a stir, the four of us like four brothers. Nobody believed I was their father. The boys almost didn’t believe it, either.
I took a law degree and set up practice there. I met your Mr. Lincoln once, some years before the war.
Eventually, though, I had to go back to South Carolina. A newspaper article was what finally drew me. From the city of Charleston. People told of being haunted and stalked by a spirit — a haant, you see, which they called the Plateye, or sometimes the Plateye Prowl, ’cause of the way the thing seemed to select people to terrify. It would come to the back door of white people’s houses and scratch like some pet to be let in. If they were fool enough to let it in, they didn’t live to tell about it. It seemed to appear in various shapes, and I suspected it had to be George. I didn’t go right away. None of my sons was still in Boston. One moved to Chicago. Another had gone off to France, and the third had made his way to San Francisco. They were in their thirties, one of them turned forty, and it had become increasingly difficult for me to pretend to be their elder. In fact, I’m sure they put distance between us because of it.
I saw to my affairs, settled some things. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do afterward, you see — just that I was going to vanish.
After the war, I took a train south. I made sure I had papers defining who I was. Reconstruction was under way, for the few years that it was allowed to work.
I kicked around that town a bit, asking people about the Plateye. Everybody had a story about it, and a couple people claimed they’d heard it scratching at their door but they’d had the sense not to let it in.
Finally, I found one old Gullah fellow, who talked just like George, and put me onto him, although he did ask, “Whyfore you wanna go and meet the Plateye? He jist tear you open if he don’ tek a likin’ to you. You go, jist be sutt’n you armed with w’iskey.” He told me there was a peach grove the Plateye supposedly frequented, on the edge of the town. I purchased a bottle of bourbon and carried it with me. I set it under one of the bigger trees, then I sat down a ways off and waited.
Sometime around midnight, a big baylynx came slinking across the road and into the grove. Even though I knew what it was, I found the hair standing up on the back of my neck just like when I was in that coffin hole the first time I’d met him. The cat looked around suspiciously, sniffing the bottle. Then he took it and clambered up the tree. No cat ever moved like that. But that was the restraint on the palatyi. He could look like an animal, but he was still him — whatever he was. Humanlike, but not human.
The cat sat on a low limb, dangling his legs like a kid fishin’ off a dock. I got up and walked out into view. He kept right on drinking while I approached.
“Evening,” I said.
The cat licked his lips awhile. Then he answered me. “You lookin’ purdy good, John.”
“You never came back.”
“Didn’t I? Well, shuh! It’s early still. There plenny more time.”
“Not for me. I’m more than eighty years old now, George.”
The cat shrugged. “You don’ look a day over twenty.” He took another pull from the bottle.
“And how is that?”
He didn’t answer directly, but when he did, he’d dropped the Gullah façade in his speech. “George,” he mused, “nobody’s called me that in a very long time. Guess it has been awhile, hasn’t it?” He set down the bottle. “You stuck up for me once. You shielded me when there was nowhere for me to go but into the belly of a shark. And all my shape-changing wouldn’t have meant a thing to a shark — dinner is dinner for all God’s creatures. You risked your life. You forced me to recognize something decent in a human being. Something worth saving, and something I don’t have in me at all.” He tilted his head a bit. “About the only real power I have is to protect myself so’s no one’ll know me as different. I blend. You know. But I got a little bit to spare, and so I gave that to you. Might be a blessing, might be a curse. I can’t say. Ain’t gonna make you last forever. But you’ll sure last a sight more than eighty.”
I said, “What about you? You could find a ship, go home now, back to where we came from.”
He chuckled. “I got dropped here against my will, and I have to say, I’m not much persuaded to board another ship with these people. Besides, there’s just a whole lotta folk in Charles Town I ain’t scared yet.” That cat face split as wide as a barn with the biggest grin you ever saw. Then he disappeared out of that tree just like that. The bottle came rolling down the trunk, empty. He’d drunk a fifth of bourbon in as many minutes.
I never saw George Wellington again. I suppose he’s still there, having his mischief. I came up here to Canada and started over, but someone spoke erroneously of the Civil War and I corrected him, and had to admit to having lived through it, and the next thing I know, you journalists show up to write your articles. It’s hard to stay anonymous.
Anyway, that’s the story of how the Plateye Prowl of Carolina came to be, and how I learned to speak — as you say — so graciously.
You’re confused as to the time frame of these events? I’m not surprised. Near as I can figure, it was 1783 the year I was captured and brought to this continent.
That’s right, that does make me a hundred and thirty eight years old. But between you and me, I don’t feel a day over sixty.
This story originally appeared in MOJO: CONJURE STORIES, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Aspect, 2003
More from Gregory Frost:
Gregory Frost is a writer of best-selling fantasy (Lyrec), science fiction, and historical thrillers. He has been a finalist for every major SF, fantasy, and horror fiction award. His latest novel-length work is the YA-crossover duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, which was voted “one of the four best fantasy novels of the year” by the American Library Association; it was also a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2009, receiving starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. His previous novel, the historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, was a finalist for both the World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel. Along with author Jonathan Maberry, he’s a founding member of the Philadelphia Liars Club.
His latest short story, “The Dingus” leads off Ellen Datlow’s highly regarded anthology Supernatural Noir (Dark Horse Books). He is the current fiction workshop director at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA.