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I know exactly when I got tossed into a whole new life: on a rainy night, standing in the stable on the Cobb place. It was there that Tolin Cobb asked me the Freedom question, and I can pluck that moment up from my thoughts like it was yesterday. "Jason! What would you do if you were free?" had come his words. "If you were free and had no ties or bonds. You could do anything! What would you do?"
Sometimes I wonder how things would have gone if I had stared into my shoes and mumbled something stupid. I'd been taught to do that. Had it drummed into me over and over since I was little. But with Tolin, my bobbing and grinning just seemed to get him riled; that was why some of those slave restraints weren't as tight on me. Not saying I was some free-talking, impudent nigger. No, no. I was cautious. Plenty cautious. But there had been times when I glimpsed another way of doing things, which kept me wondering and looking and hoping.
Certain events had set up for that night; set me up for what was to come. One time was when Tolin's mama died. He was three months into thirteen; I was midway ten years. He had made the long ride to fetch the doctor for his ma, but by the time he got back, Miz Nancy Cobb, had passed from us. Mistuh Willis Cobb was crying. Most of us bondsmen, too, even some of the menfolk, and naturally so, since anybody over fourteen had been brought to that Alabama land with the Cobbs, the rest of us was born there; and Miz Nancy Cobb had set a firm rule that nobody was to be sold-not for any reason. Mistuh Cobb, hard as he seemed, held to that. Anyway, we was all grieving for the loss of that kind lady, and worrying that now that Miz Nancy wasn't around would we still get protected from usual slave problems. It wasn't 'til late evening anybody noticed Tolin wasn't around.
"Tolin!" Mistuh Cobb's voice had sounded like a cannon shot, and he asked me where his son was. I only shook my head and hoped I wouldn't get the blame for his being gone. "You find him, boy," Mistuh Cobb ordered me. "You find Tolin and bring him home!"
"Yes, suh." And I took off right quick, knowing my duty. I was, after all, Mistuh Tolin's boy, the one always to be on hand and do for him, the way Jake was for Mistuh Cobb. So I hustled hard down toward the gristmill where Tolin would have me fish with him in the fall. We always did boy things like fishing and tracking game and trying to spear frogs. I also listened to him grumble about his pa's demands and fuss that there wasn't a proper school for him to go to; or he'd talk on and on about his dreams of being a teacher and doing scholarly stuff. He'd been trying to get me to tell him things about me--personal things--but I'd been warned not to get too friendly, no matter how he seemed.
"Mistuh Tolin!" I called. "Your pa wants you home. Mistuh Tolin!" I knew he didn't like to cross his pa. But his ma had held his heart, and I knew Miz Nancy's dying had hurt him bad.
Well, I found him straightway, right where we had been when he last had me go out with him. "Your pa's worrying for you, Mistuh Tolin." I puffed to a stop and looked around, shocked by what I saw. He had taken an axe and felled the little trees and girdled the big ones, and he stood there with that axe in his hand, staring at me such that I wasn't sure if I'd be the next thing whacked.
"Jason." His voice was a gritty whisper and he let go the axe. Then he slumped to the ground with sobs that nearly shook the earth. "She's dead, Jason. My mama's dead."
His pain seemed to fill up the whole little glen, and it rolled into me, reminding me of two years back when my mama had died. I sat down beside him and when his tears was gone, we talked. Not regular master/slave talk, with him making statements and me agreeing; we really talked. Talked about our mamas and how good they'd been. We both told what in this world we liked and didn't like, and we talked about the times when little joys was with us and no one would listen....
Another landmark: that next harvest time when Tolin went against his pa and Jake and all convention, and gave me some schooling. It was after an argument with his pa. Tolin wanted to set us all free and hire us for wages, "It's not right owning people!" he had declared.
"You're sounding more like your mother every day, Tolin. I loved her dearly, but she never understood economics," Mistuh Cobb said.
Tolin stomped out of the stable, grabbed my arm, and tromped us up the hill to the woods behind the graveyard, arguing about his pa all the way. He showed me this newspaper he had got hold of on a trip to Huntsville. The Appeal, he said it was, and then got furious because I couldn't read it. When his rage calmed, he said, "I'm always talking about being a teacher. I might as well start right now."
And he did. He made me read most of the things his ma had taught him. One I really liked was Jason and the Golden Fleece. Mistuh Tolin started me out on that so I'd know right off how to read and print my name. Parts of that story I still know by heart: "...and Jason reliant on God, threw down his saffron mantle and stepped to work. Flame by craft of strange witch maiden, harmed him not..."
Not only was the character named Jason, but that part about flames reckoned to me, too. In the cane fire the summer of 1827, while pulling Mistuh Tolin to safety after his horse threw him, I got burned bad. I still have the scars and was abed for a long while from that. Miz Nancy Cobb had wanted to set me free for saving her boy (manumit was the word she used; I never forgot that once Mattie told me what it meant), but Mistuh Cobb would have none of that. He didn't see me a nine year old, he saw me full grown and working his fields twice as hard. But he did take me out of the fields and named me Mistuh Tolin's boy-servant. I was given over to Jake to learn the blacksmith trade. More fire there.
Anyway, before I was twelve, I could read and write, and do sums. I didn't tell a soul, though. "Readin' is a fool's dream," Jake had declared after a secret visit from a black preacher who wanted to teach Bible reading. "And readin' niggers don't stay with any one masta too long." Jake was Mistuh Cobb's man-servant who had served Mistuh Cobb's daddy before him, carrying powder and shot at the battle of King's Mountain during the war. The oldest on the place, Jake was daddy of Seth and Skalley, who was like a mama to me. So I knew how Jake would have felt about my new skill.
But Tolin only got mad if I didn't seem interested, and he brought books and magazines from town for the times when we'd go away from the farm and could do what we wanted. He knew I especially like the magazines that told about the Great American Desert, or had tales of men trapping beaver and trekking through mountains and snow.
All that was after the cane fire, or maybe because of the cane fire, after I got moved into the cabin by the stable with Jake and his woman, Bitty, where I could look out onto the big frame house on its rock foundation where the Cobb's lived. My pa had built that house, and although I never knew him, he was another tiny break that kept slavery from binding me tight.
My ma loved the Tait's Marcus something fierce! Ma had been brought from North Carolina with the others especially to be mate for Bitty's oldest boy, Geminie. But Geminie got killed in '14 in the first Creek War. Geminie got killed and so did August and Tante. So Ma was unclaimed—'til Marcus showed up. After his owners sold him off to Mississippi, she wouldn't take up with no other man. Nearly got sold off herself because of that. Miz Nancy Cobb saved her, though. Well my pa, along with being one of the best carpenters around, had some real different ideas about things. While he was building the Cobb house and making my ma real happy, he also set seeds that was to sprout in ways no one could know. He taught my ma how to say Mistuh, and not Masta. Taught her how to say it so it didn't sound disrespectful, and she taught me. And he made my ma promise to get me to hold my head up. She said he said that a man's eyes should be looking out, not down, otherwise he'd always be walking in circles.
I sometimes wonder who or what got my pa thinking different to be like he was and pass that little bit on to me. I wonder if he ever got his Freedom. As I was to learn, Freedom was more than not being scared of a whip, or having to do some white man's bidding. You could have it legal and not be free at all. There are lots of folks that way, black and white.
But back to when Tolin asked me the Freedom question. I'd have to say the lead up started in winter of 1836....