Last Supper at Brown's: A short story by Emma Donoghue

Last Supper at Brown's: A short story by Emma Donoghue

Before the War there’s two women in the house but last year Marse done took them to auction. Now’s just me, the cook and all-round boy. My name Nigger Brown, I don’t got no other, I was born here.

Missus done came in the kitchen this morning, unlock the butter barrel. Law, she say, that’ll be gone in a week.

She don’t call me boy, like Marse do. She don’t call me nothing. She only marry Brown a couple years back, too late for chillun. Some say hims took her for the money from her laundry but she ain’t ugly, I done seen worse. I say, Maybe I make you some ash cakes?

Ash cakes, are they colored fixings?

I tells her, Taste real fine. All’s I need is meal, water, pinch of lard.

Missus smile, almost. Very good. How much flour’s left?

Less ’n a barrel.

She jangling her keys like a rattle. She know she ain’t quality, she still got laundress hands. She come down to lock and unlock her stores before most every meal, sometime I reckon she come to the kitchen just so’s not to be upstairs with Marse. Same thing, she work the garden with her India rubber gloves on, I’s a-digging and a-toting and a-watering, days pass. We’uns don’t talk much, we’uns know what we doing.

She open the sugar cupboard, now, there ain’t so much as a hogshead full.

Can’t you order some more, ma’am? I says.

Her breath hiss. I’m afraid the store won’t allow us another thing, with times as they are.

Since the blockade, no cotton’s getting shipped out, port’s quiet like a cemetery. I hear Marse at dinner sometime boasting the damn Yankees ain’t got into none of Texas yet and never will. 
He sing out, This here’s the last frontier. Planters coming down from Georgia and Virginia with all thems darkies to make a stand.

How much coffee’s left? ask Missus now.

Half a sack.

She give a long sigh.

In these parts four out of five is colored. The buckras, they’s always sniffing out plots among their blacks but there ain’t no trouble in this part of Texas. We’uns just waiting the War out. Passing on what stories we hear tell, sitting tight.

For dinner I roast the last of the gobblers, with ash cakes and corn and the end of the catsup.

Afterwards I’s eating leftovers in the kitchen. Missus come in and start counting the reserves. He means to ride to town with you tomorrow.

That so?

You know why?

No, Ma’am.

Guess, she say, like playing with a chile. I can see her teeth but she ain’t smiling. I shake my head. Guess, she say again.

My collar feel real tight. I been in this house since I was born. Marse won’t do that.

Some might call that back talk but Missus like a straight answer. She come up close, her fingers all tangled. I tell you, I’ve been married to Brown five years come June, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do.

He mean to sell me?

The man said to me just now, That nigger buck’s worth a thousand dollars. She lean on the table. Don’t you see? You’re all he’s got left.

I think I might fall down.

He intends to leave you with a dealer in town tomorrow, 
buy some calves instead.

That ain’t gone happen.
I says it real quiet but I know she 
hear me.

Missus nod.

Mary? That’s Marse a-shouting for her. She shoot off like a rabbit.

I got a lot to do. I find some old bags in the larder, start filling them. Cornmeal, flour, salt pork mostly. A couple handful of coffee for when I need to stay wake. The littlest pot for boiling.

Missus come back in so quiet I don’t hear her till she touch my elbow, and I jump. She don’t wear no clickety-clackety heels like other missuses. Too late to hide what I’m doing. She could call in Marse and have me whupped for thieving right this minute.

Take this, she whisper, holding up a jar of peaches.

I shake my head. It get broke, I tell her.

She set it down, unlock the sugar cupboard, start a scooping.

Where do you plan to run?

Now here’s where I reckon I should seal up my mouth, but Missus, she already done got the noose round my neck. Mexico, I reckon, I says, real soft, or the Arizona Territory.

I’m coming, she say. Like she was talking about a party.

My face is stony. Missus Brown—

That’s not my real name, she remark. I’m only called Brown the same way you are, because of him. She jerk her head upstairs, where Marse’s lying on his’n couch with his’n bottle.

Missus, you talking crazy. You can’t come nowhere along 
of me.

Well I can’t stay with him, she mutter, still a-scooping the sugar. If I stay in this house another month—

Listen, I start.

I’ll pick up this knife and put an end to it, she say. Her hand be on the handle, skin on bone.

What this man done to her? I look in her brown eyes. You slow me down, I says, I gotta move fast. I be a stray buck, contraband.

She smiling now, strange. But I know how to sign for him, you see, I’ve practiced. I can sign a travel pass for you with my husband’s name! We’ll go in the carriage, and if patrollers stop us, I’ll say I’m going to visit my family.

I wants to shake her real hard. You think Marse won’t lep up, soon’s he find his bed empty, ride over to Stern’s plantation and put the alarm out?

She chewing on her lip.

They come for us with dogs. They come with irons.

Damn you, she say, eyes shining wet, I can’t— She turn round, she gone into the house.

On my own in the kitchen I gets a-thinking. She ain’t bad, for a white woman. I wouldn’t much mind her coming along. Like she say, take the carriage, show a pass, get farther faster that way. If it wasn’t impossible, it be a good plan.

My mind a-hopping about like a fly. If she could sneak out in the night without Marse knowing. If he sleep long, sleep all night and all day—but no, we’uns need more of a head start than that.

Halfway through the afternoon Missus come in again. Her eyes red but she got a hold of herself.

About supper, I says, before she speak a word.

I don’t give a damn about supper.

I takes a breath, I says, You don’t care for okra, do you? I don’t say Missus.

She shrug.

Okra. It not your favorite.

Well, no. My favorite would be sweet potato, she say, the way you fix it with molasses.

I be sure to fix some sweet potato tonight, just for you.

Do, if you like, say Missus, like some girl.

You be eating that sweet potato instead of that okra.

She look at me again, hard.

Since you don’t care for okra. Specially not the way I’s fixing 
it tonight.

She don’t say nothing.

I can’t be sure. I don’t know how much to tell her.  Marse gonna like it, though. Eat hims fill, bet you he does.

She take a step over to me. What’s in the okra?

Never you mind, I tell her. I’s the cook. Yeah?

I suppose.

So leave the cooking to me.

When she gone I get the rest of supper all fixed and then I make the okra. My heart a going boom-boom. I’s never made it till now but I know how, my pappy teach me. I done pick the stuff in the woods months back, it be always in my charm bag round my neck. There come a moment I feel bad, but I says to myself, Marse mean to leave you with this dealer tomorrow, buy some calves. I taste the okra, just touch it to my tongue to be sure, then stir in more sugar. Marse, he like hims fixings sweet.

I bring in the supper like always. While they eating I wait outside. I think I hear talking, dishes and lids, plates and glasses. After while I don’t hear nothing. Not a word, not a holler. That’s worse. I wait.

This the moment. This’s it. I feels like some blind man. This the time my life split like a peach, and there’s a rotten side and a sweet yellow side, and which it gonna be?

Missus come out. Mary, that her name. I think maybe she gonna scream murder after all. Did we’uns understand each our selves? Did she think hims only going sleep? Or maybe she scared, now it come to it, maybe she say Go.

Instead she put her hand in mine, real cool, smooth. 
No speaking.

I follow her into the room where Marse lie facedown in the okra. We stand for a little, make sure he not moving none.

Should I clear away? I ask, not sure what I mean, except to get him out of sight.

Missus shake her head. Never mind that.

It should be three, four day before any neighbor think to ride over to Brown’s. Maybe a week. He not a social man.

She turn, look in my face, she say I packed my bag. Her hand like a knot in mine.

Last Supper at Brown’s
A clipping from the Tucson Star, pasted in Scrapbook No. 1 at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona, records that Negro Brown, aka Nigger Brown, killed his master in Texas in 1864 and “throughout all his wanderings… he was accompanied by his slain master’s wife.” Susan Johnson in ‘Sharing Bed and Board: Cohabitation and Cultural Difference in Central Arizona Mining Towns, 1863–1873’ (in The Women’s West, Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson, eds.) rounds up various accounts that suggest the wife in question was Mary Brown, aka Mary DeCrow. The romance seems to have lasted no longer than the journey to Arizona. That state’s 1864 census lists “Negro Brown” as living with “Santa Lopez” and a baby, and “Mary Brown,” a 42-year-old laundress from Texas, as living with a 29-year-old Mexican blacksmith called Cornelius Ramos. She married Ramos the following year; they ran a boarding house, then worked mining claims and set up a goat ranch.

Extracted from Astray by Emma Donoghue to be published by Picador in October