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The Forgetting Tree

By
June 17, 2013

for Trayvon Martin

”Slaves were branded according to the mark of the purchaser at the Tree of Forgetting. The name of the place, however, stems from the ritual of turning slaves around the tree to reinforce forgetfulness of their homes. Men were walked around the tree nine times, and women seven times.” — “Visiting Ouidah,” The Ouidah Museum of History

Meet me on the plantation steps. It’s okay. Baggy jeans. A hoodie. Wear whatever you want. I’ll open the door. I will let you in.

Welcome to Smithfield.

You can request the slave tour.
This is not the slave tour.
This is not the regular tour.
I don’t know what this is.

The foyer, just a fancy word for entry hall—you know how people do. These floors and walls, tenant farmers let the chickens in.

She is the great, great, gran-something of someone who matters, a niece, I think.
She willed us this house. She’s very important. She saved us from chickens.

And him. This wood-framed mirror from Ireland or Scotland, or somewhere else, is a surviving piece. See the carved heart and arrow at top. The mirror is part of a pair, the other lost, maybe to tenant farmers, maybe to chickens. But him, his name, the one who brought the mirror from Ireland, or Scotland, or somewhere else, he is very important, like the heart and arrow whose story I also can’t remember. I’m sorry.

You should know from the jump: I’m not a very good tour guide. I mean, Interpreter. That’s what they call us.

This is the sitting room. Important people sat here, drank tea, read books. These are surviving books. None of these chairs are surviving. In the next room, the bedroom, we’ll see a surviving chair, a rocking chair made by a slave, a surviving bed, a surviving fireplace, and upstairs a surviving doll bed made by a slave of this man for this man’s child. The doll in the doll bed might be surviving, but probably not. These glass windows—all surviving. The doll baby is White. The fruit is fake.

Each time/the bowl of strawberries/red and wet/to put one on my tongue.

I admire the strawberries. I appreciate their role on this tour. Let’s be honest, I’m someone who lusts after fake fruit, as long as it looks real.

This painting. We believe he resembles the father, or maybe it’s the one in the dining room. It doesn’t matter. They’re all hanging miscreants, just another word for asshole. Let’s switch the paintings. Let’s get at them with black Sharpies. Let’s make maps of their faces, faces of their maps. The maps are downstairs in the museum store.

Here is the wife. Her slob of a husband died first. She never remarried. At least
thirty years without sex. This may explain the look of disappointment, but we can’t forget the twelve or thirteen children, the two or three children dead, the dead husband, a plantation to run, all those slaves, living inside the gnawing of knowing none of this is hers. It’s not in the diaries, or any papers, but we can make guesses. We can interpret.

The rocking chair made by the slave I already mentioned—we’ll take it with us. I’m sure it will fit through the surviving front doors. Notice the surviving bed and the surviving fireplace. The paint is a special blue, maybe Prussian, maybe something else. I can’t remember. The truth: I don’t care about paint. The architecture makes me nauseous, the balustrade gives me panic attacks, and the window casings give me hives. I threw up in the kitchen room downstairs, in the surviving fireplace, in the cast iron pot, which is not surviving.

Let me tell you a story:

Othello and Thomas Fraction are two whole men, brothers and slaves. They join the Union army, the 40th U.S. Colored Troops.
You can leave, but don’t you ever return, says their owner.
Their mother remains in Virginia. Their mother remains three fifths of a person. The Fractions are good whole sons. The war is over. They return to their mother, in uniform. They laugh and tell jokes. They hug and kiss their sister, Virginia.
Someone runs and tells the owner who is praying in church: your ex-slaves, come quick. The owner stops praying. A gunfight ensues. I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you: in this story, no one is shot.
A Fraction breaks his ankle, Othello or Thomas. Someone calls for police. You know this story. They throw the Fractions in jail. Wait, there’s more.
A White man who is also a Quaker helps the Fractions sue. They win what they can—lost wages, defamation of character. No, I don’t know how long they were in jail. One of them leaves Virginia, the state. They both leave their mother and sister. Trust me, this is a happy story.
I don’t know what happened to Virginia, their sister, not the state. One is a body of a land, the other a body. The distinction matters.

This is the dining room. I don’t care about the china either, although it is pretty. It might be surviving. It might not. The china cabinet was probably made by a slave. It’s more than likely. It will be more difficult to carry, but we’ll do what we can to get it through the surviving front doors. Remind me not to forget the surviving doll bed, the one upstairs, the one made by a slave.

And this is a painting of William, one of the hanging miscreants. I don’t want to tell you this story, but here it is:

The slave trade has been outlawed since 1811. This rule doesn’t apply to William, a man who breaks arms and legs if you don’t vote for his uncle.
It’s after the war. William, who prefers strong drink, is done with soldiering. He buys a ship, imports slaves, makes lots of money.
William has been dirtying his hands in the islands. He sails home to Virginia. On his ship, 300 seasoned slaves. William is feeling lucky, but there’s a blockade—nowhere to dock his illegal ship. The ship sits for a month off the coast of Norfolk. No harbor. No rest. Nowhere to go.
300 slaves.
Some jumped overboard. Some ate their tongues. Some hung onto lovers, their desire, broken. We don’t know this for sure. We can imagine. We can interpret. In the end, only thirty. Out of 300, only thirty.
If we subtract thirty from 300, divide that by three fifths, and/or divide 300 by three fifths, and/or divide 30 by three fifths what remains?
Sometime before, or after, or during, or between the ship with the 300 now thirty slaves, William decides no more. William, the miscreant, the reluctant soldier, the boozer, the breaker of arms and legs, the slaver has seen enough swallowed tongues. He moves to Louisville. He sells thoroughbreds instead. One is a horse, the other is not. Still, you can bridle both.

This is the kitchen: baskets, dried herbs, cast iron pots, pans, and Sucky. Sucky is a mannequin, her stocking-ed face, faceless. This is the metal rod used to beat bread. It was not used to beat Sucky. We get this question a lot, mostly from boys, but also from girls. We have no idea where Sucky came from. We imagine someone picked her up at Sears, or perhaps she was donated. See her name on the slave registry. The registry lives in the office upstairs. We’re not allowed to hang it next to the miscreants. It’ll be easy to carry through the surviving front doors.

Wait. Here it is:

Because New Smyrna Beach is 91 percent White.
Because I’m only forty minutes from where he shot you.
Because on your day I ate fried scallops, drank wine, tucked your name under my greasy napkin, explained to my job how productive I was this year. This year, every day you were dead.
Because I didn’t want to know how close you were until after February 26th.
Because New Orleans, New York, Blacksburg, L.A., Detroit, Oakland.
Because Sanford is just another city, and Florida, just another state sitting on a giant sinkhole.
Because I’ll drive two hours to Fort Pierce just to kneel on Zora’s grave.
Because old death is easier than new death.
Because your year old death hangs fresh with other deaths I know, old and new: my father, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis. Two died violent, one didn’t. All died Black. I could go on, and on.
Because I want to walk into the Atlantic in a white dress, my face painted funereal white, drag your body back to sea.
Because your death won’t let me sleep.

So I’ve brought you here, to this plantation. Crazy, right?

What kind of person walks over the bones of slaves?
What kind of person is a slave to bones?

I know a poet, who calls it weird, this slaving of bones. This woman opens the legs of the dead, eats bread with severed ears, sometimes lives in the kitchen rooms at Monticello. We’ll visit her later.

If you could follow me out the front door, down the steps, to the tree-framed path. The trees, I don’t know, maybe willow. Their beauty sickens me. Past the sign to Smithfield Cemetery. I’m sorry. We have to do this.

This is the barren field. We believe slave cabins once stood here. As you can see, nothing now. Notice the alternate view of the plantation house on the rise above us. We can imagine. We can interpret.

The oak tree, over 500 years old. We know this almost for sure. We screwed in the borer, pulled out the core, sanded it down, and counted the rings. The tree is a window, a broken aria of fire. The tree is a ship of smoke, a river, a wedding. Its winter branches twist inside the sky.

This snow is not part of the tour.

If I open my arms and wrap them around the trunk, let’s pretend I can reach your cold hands. Let’s pretend this sudden snow doesn’t feel like sudden death. Let’s make snow slaves and call them angels. Look: if you stand here, behind the oak, the house disappears. I haven’t told this to anyone. We’re hidden, safe. Let’s stay here, hold hands, say thank you to the barren field. Let’s say nothing. I’m sorry.

Where do you want to go? I’ll take you anywhere. To your mother? Your father? Their bent faces at your memorial in New York. To the sweet, new candy you bought on your way home. To the girl on the phone right before he shot you. Let’s go there, to a moment of your breath. Let’s stay here. If we could, just tell me, please. Let’s never move again.

G

Author Image

Rae Paris is from Carson, California. Her work has been supported by the NEA, the Hambidge Center, ACA, Hedgebrook, and VONA. Her fiction appears in So to Speak, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. “The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin” was a recommended story in the 2009 O. Henry Prize Stories, and her collection was a finalist for the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award. She recently completed a novel, You. She’s Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Michigan State University.

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