Wednesday, June 16, 1858
From her shrine honoring beloved GrandMama, Twilight Adams lifted a book of poetry by Phillis Wheatley, pressed it to her chest, and whispered, “It’s time.” Gingerly, she opened it and removed her patient gift: a letter GrandMama, four years ago and near death, had tucked inside. This was Twilight’s birthday—another one her mother and sisters celebrated by ignoring it. “By the full moon, I wish they cared.” She sighed, then kissed the letter. “Doesn’t matter. All that matters is this gift, full of love, waiting for me.”
Gently placing the book back on the side table shrine, she traced with her forefinger, as she had countless times, the swooping blue inscription on the back of the folded paper: Open On Your Sixteenth, Not Before, My Darling Twilight. She took a breath, turned over the tidy dense package of overlapping pages, then gently slid a letter opener under the rose wax seal embossed with the image of a doe under the sweeping branches of a tree.
Carefully unfolding the letter, she was surprised to see small gifts inside: three tiny stones--rose quartz, black obsidian, lapiz lazuli. And a thin gold ring. The stones, she recognized as GrandMama’s. The ring, she did not. Placing them atop the shrine, next to GrandMama’s Bible, she, excited, began reading the long-awaited words.
As she read, she could feel GrandMama’s maternal caress. She could hear her soothing voice. But the words jarred her to her very core. After reading twice to be sure, she pressed the letter to her heart, then, sank to the floor. If another planet like Earth existed, Twilight felt certain she had left the place she knew and had entered that new world.
Burn this letter so that no one finds it.
Those were GrandMama’s final words to her.
Instead, she buried it in her hidden left pocket, patted another secret in her hidden right pocket, and strode from her bedroom to the yard. Her electrified mind worked to untangle the letter’s words and how they stitched together her identity. In one swift move, she leaped onto her palomino mare, Spirit. With gliding strides, they nearly flew through the streets of 1858 Memphis—expertly weaving through the relentless march of wagons, gigs, pedestrians and riders—to the place Twilight had always avoided.
On the block, muscles taut, a young man stood. In agony and fear for him, Twilight sensed his quiet defiance, the restraint of his fever to break free, to know for once his life, unowned. Though it was a stifling Southern afternoon, she shuddered from waves of cold fury. Raised until she was twelve by her abolitionist GrandMama, Twilight wondered how could it be that in America people were sold, bought, owned, enslaved. She had always hated slavery. Now, ignited by her birthday secrets, she hated it to the Gates of Hell.
She’d been ignoring a man yelling abuse first at the enslaved man and now yapping at her. Relentlessly he spewed his wretched breath and words through his missing front teeth. She reached inside the pocket where, waiting and loaded, a pistol hid. She’d never shot any living thing, not even a heckler. And she didn’t plan to. But if her life, or her virginity, depended on it, she could. Gallatin had taught her well. A sharp shooter, she’d aim to wound. Regardless, being female, she’d probably be noosed for shooting any man, even a predatory breathing manure heap like this one.
“I said, Missy, slide on down from that glittery horse into my manly arms; I know how to make you glitter," he repeated, then looked at his stinky buddy. "Isn’t that right, Cyrus?”
“Do as Rufus says,” said Cyrus, whose putrid odor wafted up to her. As Spirit shifted her imposing self toward him, he chuckled nervously, then said, “We’re just funnin’ with you, Missy.”
“Come on, Spirit, let’s leave,” she said, circling away from the harassing predators and around the malignant crowd of bidders.
“As you can see, Gentlemen and Ladies, he’s young and strong! For the field, he’s a solid work horse!” the auctioneer called, pointing a cane at the silently courageous young man. In the surrounding crowd, all the pale men, except one, were eagerly bidding.
Seeing those in line next to be sold, she clenched her teeth, seething, feeling hot and dirty upon realizing she didn’t know what to do about scared children clutching their mama’s legs and the violation of men and women who couldn’t save their families or even themselves. Coming forward, the young man’s new owner was wearing a ditto suit in deep grey, just like the other well-dressed bidders, all exploiting the strength of nearly-naked silent men, women and children to create their prosperity.
She hated the ditto man.
Do the enslaved feel what I feel, she wondered, that I am in a hostile land I do not understand, that I belong in a world that certainly is not this one? She took a deep breath. Free as I am, I cannot even imagine what they must feel. But it’s time I learn.
Sunlight pierced her view of the injustice. She cupped her hand above her eyes, which framed, in the distance, the one man who didn’t bid. Twilight studied him. He was older than she, but not by much. His wavy hair shined black in the June sun. Twilight approved of his tanned shaven face that looked clean and fresh without the fashionable sideburns that clung like huge hairy triangles on the faces, necks and chins of most men, even many of the younger ones. Maneuvering through the crowd in his well-tailored bright blue ditto suit, he stopped and gazed at the block, curious but unengaged.
Maybe he was different from the Southern gentlemen she had met before, for his manner certainly set him apart. He turned and moved away from the block, which lessened the distance between them and put himself in her line of sight. She lowered her head in realization of how forward she appeared by watching him. Then, dismissing her training that a lady must never initiate conversation, she looked directly at him, and smiled. He smiled. He approached her. Bowing deeply, he said, “Good day, Miss…or Mrs.?”
“Miss Adams. Twilight Adams.”
His eyebrows lifted slightly, revealing eyes with a hue of earthy blue, rather like the Mississippi River at sunset. “Jackson Petigru Canon at your service, Miss Adams,” he said. “Twilight. The name becomes you, with your eyes blue as day and your hair black as night.”
The caller’s voice rose and fell.
“My GrandMama told me that is one reason she chose my name.”
“And you are looking for a fine slave today, Miss?”
“I most certainly am not! I hate this place, this Atrocity Square."
"Atrocity Square. Clever," Canon said.
"I avoid this place," Twilight said.
“And yet today, here you are.”
She, of course, would not tell him the real reason she rode here as her GrandMama’s letter wisely directed her to keep the contents secret. So she gave a related truth. “Today is different. I was preoccupied after volunteering at the makeshift hospital at Exchange Hall to do what I can for the Pennsylvania victims. All I’ve had are snippets of rest by leaning against any wall that had an open space.”
Her mind glanced back to the early morning hours on Monday, when she had braced the elbows of limping people, guiding them to awaiting mattresses at Exchange Hall, trying to give support without inflicting more pain by touching a tender or shattered place. Amid the sight of the mangled and scalded, what she noticed most were eyes of suffering. “By the full moon and its mysterious shadows,” she had whispered as she gazed into the eyes of a young man being carried past her—dark eyes deep, imploring, intense, and yet, their expression of agony held a soft and twinkling brightness. She had worked into the soon-dawning day, the next and the next with dozens of other Memphis residents to dress burns and wounds, to provide water and food, to talk if the injured want them to talk, to listen if the injured want them to listen, and to, without ceasing, whisper prayers. With the rhythm of her breath, she had been sending blessings of life, blessings of healing to each person and their families—and blessings of safety to every person aboard Pharaoh’s Run, wherever on the Mississippi it might be.
Canon spoke, bringing her thoughts back to him. “Yes, the downriver Sunday morning explosion of the Pennsylvania.” Shaking his head, he said, “A terrible tragedy.”
“Hundreds died. About sixty of the scalded, wounded survivors who’d been hanging onto pieces of ship for nearly a day were brought to Memphis early morning Monday by the passing steamers Diana and Kate Frisbee. Three years ago, when the fire in the Memphis harbor burned four steamships, my parents wouldn’t let me help. But today I am sixteen, and no one will stop me from helping ever again,” she stated.
Canon smiled, then said, “Thank you for caring for the poor victims. On a happier note, Miss, I was wondering, why were you staring at me with your blue-as-day eyes?”
“Sir, you are mistaken.”
“Oh?” Canon said, smiling mischievously and again raising his eyebrows.
“I was merely observing the crowd,” Twilight said, “of which you, Sir, were a member.”
“You may have been observing the crowd, but you, without a doubt, were staring at me.”
Turning her face from him, she said, “Sir, you are bold.”
Canon stepped closer to Spirit. A quiet moment passed. Softly, he said, “Miss, you are bold.”
Twilight said, “Let’s go, Spirit.” With an uncanny reflex, Canon grabbed the reins in front of Twilight’s hands and pulled back. Spirit reared slightly, then halted. Twilight leaned on Spirit’s neck and whispered in her golden ear. It flicked. Straightening, Twilight said sternly to Canon, “You’ve made a scene.”
Canon nodded toward the block. The crowd was intently vying for a maturing girl. “They are busy,” he said. “No one cares about us.”
“No one cares about her,” she said, nodding toward the girl on the block. “Let go of my reins. I need to leave this wretched place.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” Canon said. “And I don’t want you to tease.”
Twilight observed the young man. “What is it you do want, Mr. Canon?”
Canon smiled boyishly, disarming her with his charm.
“I wasn’t staring, Mr. Canon, though I did notice you. However, if you must know, it was not your appearance that drew my attention. It was the fact that you are the only gentleman here who did not bid for the last human being. I have the distinct feeling that you are not here to bid at all. I was wondering, why?”
“What would you like the answer to be?”
“Ah. The truth. I have a feeling you wouldn’t like the truth, and our relationship will end before it can begin. Couldn’t you retain your fantasy answer at least until we become better acquainted?”
“No,” she said. “My time is too precious to waste on giddy flirtations. I find such games insulting. For that, you should banter with my sister Rachel. As to why you did not bid, tell me or do not tell me, as I must return to Exchange Hall.”
“The truth is, Miss, I never bid.”
“Oh?” she said, thinking his answer meant that he did not own people.
“I come to learn how much the competition is getting for their Rich-tones.”
“Yes. I do, shall we say, reconnaissance, for Bedford Forrest.”
“You work for a leech.”
“As I am sure you know, Miss Adams, Bedford Forrest is most likely the city’s largest dealer of Rich-tones. From humble beginnings and in a mere few years since his arrival in our fair city, he has elevated himself to be one of the most respected and wealthiest gentlemen in Memphis, maybe in all of the South. His devotion to Memphis, to the South, and to law and order is exemplary. I think he will rise even further in status, to help govern this fine city. You should take care in what you say about him.”
“He lives off tears, and not his own. This is the last thing I wish to say to you, Mr. Canon. Memphis brims with kind, generous and caring people. However, that does not change the fact that, overall, our society is ill, and it is people such as you and Forrest who are the disease. I suggest that tonight you and Mr. Forrest dine on nothing but a thin pork rind. Now, release my reins. You are taking advantage of an unescorted lady.”
“Unescorted lady? There is no such person.”
“Maybe not in the South,” Twilight answered. “But I have news for you, Mr. Canon--the South is not the world.”
“Memphis lies in the South,” Canon said.
“What an awful shame for Memphis,” Twilight said. “Mr. Canon, we’ve met, spoken, argued. Our meeting has run its course.”
“May I call on you tonight?”
Stunned, Twilight was curious, silent.
“Yes?” Canon persisted.
“I dislike you. In fact, I disdain you and your life.”
“I wish to call on you.”
The sun shifted. The bidding ceased.
“Why would you wish to call on someone you do not consider a lady?”
“Somehow, Miss Adams, you are successful in avoiding many of our fine Southern customs, such as your manner of sitting your horse, and yet you retain your social standing. Your father is Harley Adams, am I correct? Your family is one of the finest in Memphis. That, my dear woman, may be your redemption.”
Twilight was thinking of how he called her “woman.” It was not just the word, but the way he said it.
“Also, there is a quality about you. I suspect that you will never play by the rules, and yet, you’ll not be labeled a cheater. Regardless of your actions, you are lovely and feminine. And yes, you are bold. While the rest of the South might dictate that a lady can never be bold, I, in fact, find the combination compelling.”
In spite of herself, Twilight was attracted to his words.
“I wish to call on you. May I see you tonight?”
The moment lingered. She didn’t want to leave. She hated herself.
“I offer you an exchange,” Canon said.
Squinting her eyes, Twilight said, “An exchange?”
“One hour of your time, with me tonight, in your parlor, for my career.”
Is this just another man’s lying game?
“I speak the truth, Miss Adams. I will end my business with Forrest if you will, in return, spend one hour with me tonight.”
“Mr. Canon, I would gladly give one hour of my life to end your barbaric business. But I am no fool. What is your proof?”
“If you allow me to escort you home, you can accompany me as I resign my services. I would imagine that you live on Adams Street, near Bedford Forrest.”
Twilight considered his proposition as Canon’s eyes journeyed into her own. Neither soul smiled, and, for a moment, even the air between them vanished.
“You will accept my proposal then,” Canon said.
She felt as if his eyes had probed all the way into her heart. She wasn’t ready for this, not with this young man. Still, the intrigue of his offer, and of his manner, transformed the static places of her life. Standing in front of her was adventure. And something more.
“I will accept…except,” she said, “you will not escort me. I will meet you at Forrest’s.” Barely had these words entered the air, breaking the trance between them, when Twilight was gone, Spirit moving her away from him.
Canon smiled and began the walk to Forrest’s Slave Mart.