A Short Story by Jack Armstrong
"That is not your concern. Nor, obviously, is it mine. I would be very grateful if you would send her quickly please."
Israel remained motionless.
"It's all right, Israel. Please. I need her right away."
Israel dropped the rake and hurried out. Jefferson made a distracted effort at arranging himself, then collapsed back into the chair.
Presently there was a knock.
"But rest is exactly what I must not do! It is the sleep that is sapping away my strength. But it's not the exhaustion, Sally. It's the dreams. From the moment I close my eyes, a cacophony of noises begins, rushing, whirring, hammering, buzzing. Then the images come crowding upon me, in bright, jarring colors. Images of people, to be sure, but in clothing like I have never imagined, engaged in inexplicable behaviors, which combine a sort of lasciviousness with violence in a way that has me entirely unhinged. My body is overwhelmed with an irresistible craving for sleep, but my mind recoils in horror. I am too tired to think what to do. I am at my wit's end."
He took her hand in his. "I want you to stay with me, Sally. I cannot face this alone."
Sally slipped out without being seen. Jefferson tidied himself, shuffled down and made it into the kitchen without having to encounter the cook and her brood, cut himself a bit of breakfast from a cold ham, then proceeded down to the stable. Sally had alerted her nephew Burwell, and he was already there cinching Peacemaker's saddle when Jefferson came in. Burwell helped the old man into the saddle, and Jefferson angled his mount down into the woods towards the creek.
While he was gone, the rest of the family rose and set about their day. The morning came and went, and still no master.
“Sally,” he said, “ I believe I know what is happening to me."
"With them dreams, you mean?"
"Yes, the dreams. I know this must sound strange coming from my lips, but I believe God is punishing me."
"I’ll say strange! When did you start believing in God?"
"God or my own tormented soul. It matters little which. The effect is the same. Last month, when we said goodbye to our Harriet and Beverly... When they set off down the hill, and I stood there waving goodbye to them, quite possibly never to see either again, I said a prayer."
"No. Not yet at least. But I believe I shall. I have become convinced that these dreams accurately portray some specific point in the future."
"I done dusted everything there is to dust. I think I best be going now."
"No, please. Dust again. Or change the sheets, perhaps. Je te prie. There is no one else I can confide in, Sally, and I must unpack my bursting heart."
"Enough said. I'll dust again."
"Watching my hands, I realize that I am now seeing the world through the eyes of some stranger, alive in some period so distant in the future that there remains scarcely a trace of familiarity. As this person, the identity of whom I haven't the slightest indication, goes about his day's affairs, I accompany him as a mute witness, seeing out of his eyes, as it were.
"Across the room is a cabinet, somewhat larger than my polygraph there, with a glass front. The contents of this cabinet burst into life, and present to my eyes and ears a pageant that is... at once irresistibly compelling yet utterly abhorrent. I see people, in clothing that I am at a loss to describe to you, in a rapid series of images so life-like, it is as if they are actually within the cabinet performing. As you can well imagine, knowing my abiding interest in mechanical invention, I am fascinated by this device, which is so far beyond my remotest imaginings. Yet at the same time the drama – or pageant or what you may call it – is again jarring and incomprehensible. I see, in rapid succession, a young woman almost naked, beckoning in the most lascivious manner, totally unashamed; a house engulfed in flames; a dozen men-at-arms engaged in an exchange of gunfire of the utmost violence; a crying child; a pair of lovers on a beach. The cumulative effect causes my insides to revolt, so that I am torn between an overwhelming revulsion and an equally powerful curiosity.
"Ah yes, the kitchen. My breakfast, as I said, has been prepared in my absence and left ready. I eat, wash, and leave the house without encountering a soul. By the way, I think perhaps I am in Philadelphia: there is a sink with water delivered through metal tubes, just as I have seen in descriptions of Latrobe's new water-delivery system in that city.
"I then enter a barn without the slightest sign or smell of livestock, enter a carriage with no horse nor even provision for one, and off I go! Suddenly I am hurtling along at a breakneck pace, certain my life will be ended at the next juncture. Again, the method of my propulsion is a total mystery. However, I discern that I seem to be communicating information about my desired trajectory by manipulating certain features of the interior of the carriage. Soon I am amid a tremendous traffic of carriages just like mine, all rushing about at the most furious rate. Each moment brings a fresh brush with eternity as these machines whisk past within inches of each other.
"You have lost your mind," Sally said.
Jefferson called out, "Patsy my dear, I am afraid I must ask that Sally be allowed to remain. She is engaged in administering laudanum to your decaying father."
"Are you unwell, Father?"
"I am wretched beyond all exaggeration, dearest. My head is exploding. I fear my humors are once again displaying their catastrophic sense of timing, and I must once again ask you to excuse me from the evening's festivities. Please convey my regret to the children."
"It is my punishment, Sally. This much is clear to me. For so many decades I have labored away, believing that I was sacrificing my own interests in service to this country, and now in my dotage I am informed that I was lost among distractions. The one true question, on which hinges the fate of this experiment we have called "democracy," I have neglected entirely. It is more than I can bear, Sally. The only thing remaining for me to wish for is to attain oblivion before reaching the conclusion of this dream."
"You trying to tell me you ain’t accomplished nothing all this time?"
"Less than nothing! That lunatic Randolph has less to answer for than myself!"
“What! That son of a bitch hit our boy with a fire iron! Like to cracked his head open!
"Done what? Washington at least freed his own slaves. Did I? Are you yet free? No! I chose rather to play the great man, hosting visiting dignitaries in style, while those for whose welfare I am personally responsible, who have sustained and supported me through all, have languished away in drudging servitude. It is monstrous! I enjoy being known all over the world as the father of liberty, but in my own house I am the father of slaves! I have literally mortgaged my own flesh and blood offspring to buy wine to serve to those who come to pay homage to me! I am the most hideous hypocrite who ever dared show his countenance in the eyes of God or man.
"And now in my last days, when I am in my weakness, beyond all hope of redemption, I am reaping my harvest. I can scarcely look you in the eye to beg forgiveness."
Now that Christmas Eve had finally arrived, the children had reached a state of anticipation so acute that they presented a real threat to the successful conclusion of dinner. Recognizing this, Sally stepped into the breach, adopted a suitably insane face, took up a large iron spoon from the fireplace and began swinging it wildly, walking slowly toward the children. "You better move or you going get hit!" They cleared out.
Sally spent the next several hours helping Edith and her troupe in preparing and ferrying wave after wave of platters, bowls and casseroles to the dining room: the ham of course, and mutton chops, beef steaks, roasted chickens, quail and rabbits stewed in gravy, broiled catfish from the pond; Brunswick stew; mashed potatoes and yams; preserves of English peas, squash, cucumbers, carrots, and corn. And of course the tomatoes (a rite of passage required by Jefferson of all his dinner guests as one of his infinitude of educational projects, and before which many a visitor had gone pale with fear of poisoning). They changed candles; fetched bottle after bottle of wine – French, German, Italian; and responded to the hundred requests written on little cards that came down the dumbwaiters like a waterfall from the dining room.
"You naughty thing!" Sally said. "You know Ms. Patsy going to be riding us all for a month."
"Yeah, but ain't it worth it?" Edith said.
"Lord but you love trouble.” Sally said. “All right then, Maddie. Go ahead. But wash your face and put your jacket on."
When Madison came in, Adams jumped to his feet and extended his hand. “Thomas Adams, sir. At your service. I wasn’t aware...” Madison, a master of self-control, did not betray himself in the slightest degree as he humbly offered the urn to Adams. As Adams accepted it, he slowly realized his mistake, but was so nonplussed that he could do no more than stand there staring, first at Madison, then at Jefferson, then back again. Madison slowly and calmly bowed and retired.
Later, back upstairs in the dining room, the conversation took a turn which proved unfortunate for the downstairs crowd. Jack Eppes was describing the plight of his neighbors down in Charlottesville. There had been a freak flood in September that wiped out the entire crop of many of the small farms along the Rivanna.
"We must do something for those poor people," Patsy said. "Well, I'm sure it's not much, but the least we can do is send something to eat. We’ll start with the ham. I don’t know why that Edith always makes five times more than we could possibly eat, but this year it’s going to a worthy cause.”
"Come to me."
"Not until you dressed proper."
"I'll do it. Come immediately."
Six minutes later Sally entered the great man's cabinet, with a duster in one hand and a bottle of laudanum in the other. Jefferson started right in, careless of who might hear.
He was still weeping. "Oh, Sally, I have lived a hundred years since I saw you last."
As I watch, the ship moves away from its pier, sailing not on water but on another of these roads made with impossibly huge stones, perfectly smooth and flat. Nowhere can I detect the means by which the ship is pulled, yet there is a terrific noise, so great I fear an imminent crash of some horrible kind, yet my fellows on either side seem scarcely to notice. We move at a livening pace, until without warning the entire ship lifts entirely free of the ground and flies into the air like a bird!"
"And I'm supposed to believe this is the real future?"
"If only you could see how real this dream is in every detail, how on all sides I am surrounded by contrivances beyond my wildest imaginings, you would understand this cannot possibly be the product of my fancy.
"Filled with sudden hope, I disembark and walk to a table, where two women sit. They seem to know me. They smile and greet me in a homely way that does much to dissolve the loneliness of this seeming endless day. I read a sign they have posted: "Descendants of Thomas Jefferson Annual Reunion." Apparently I am in the body of one of my own progeny, Sally! Walking over the grass of Monticello decades hence! And there are dozens of others, perhaps a hundred or more. I attempt a rudimentary calculation and figure that there must have elapsed at least four or five generations, to have produced so fair a crowd.
"I stroll among the group and sip from a cup of the most delicious claret. It is a beautiful day in what I estimate must be mid-May, for there are daffodils, and most of the trees are full, but the sycamores remain bare. We gather in ranks as though preparing for a parade. A gentleman comes before us with yet another mysterious contraption, and after only moments produces a group portrait so profound... well the likeness is simply beyond exaggeration. The greatest artists of our day, Watteau himself was but a crude amateur compared with this man, who paints not only with a stupefying precision, but so rapidly that it simply strains credulity. I cannot but believe that he has some mechanical aid, but the nature of it is, again, entirely beyond my compass.
Here Jefferson stifled a sob, then choked onward. "At first I don't understand, but finally it dawns on me: I am a Negress. I look down and see my hands for the first time. They are brown. I read the label on my jacket: "Descendant of Madison Hemings." At first I panic, expecting some horrific retribution for my importunity to come crashing down on my head instantly. But of course, the color of my skin is obvious to all; it is impossible that I may have passed in unnoticed. And then I see that, although my skin is brown and my hair curly, in all other details – in manner, in dress, in deportment, even in smell – I am indistinguishable from my white relations on either side. I am among my own; my equals. And I finally notice there are other Negroes in the party as well, which has as yet escaped my notice: a proof of the narrowness of our differences. The abyss of difference which in 1822 seems so utterly intractable, has in this future world been resolved and apparently forgotten. As the truth of this, not merely the hypothetical possibility but the actual incarnate fact, sinks in, all of the torments of this future world – the alien landscape, the noise, the loneliness and so forth – become as nothing.
Just before dawn, as he had done every winter morning since he was a small boy, Israel knocked softly at the door of Thomas Jefferson's private cabinet and entered to build the fire. He noticed right away that something was amiss. The bed was made. The master was slumped over his revolving writing desk, his clothes rumpled and all unfastened.
"Morning Mr. Jefferson," Israel said.
"What! Oh." Jefferson jumped up, disoriented. "Good morning. Israel. Forgive me, I was having a nasty dream."
Israel tried not to stare at the older man, but he was unable to restrain himself. It was his eyes. The astonishing fire that had blazed out of those blue eyes all of Israel’s life was missing. The giant master suddenly appeared as no more than a shrunken bag of bones.
by Jack Armstrong:
"You up mighty early, Mr. Jefferson."
"Not early. Late. I never went to bed."
"Hm. Yes sir."
"Israel, is Sally about the house?"
"Yes sir. She's down around the kitchen someplace."
"Will you ask her to come in here, please? I wish to speak with her."
Israel didn’t move.
The imperative secrecy of Jefferson’s private relationship with Sally Hemings was so deeply ingrained in Israel, from birth onwards, that it would be difficult to draw a modern parallel sufficient to convey his mortification at this suggestion. He was dumbstruck; frozen.
When his initial horror subsided enough for him to speak, Israel said, "Uh. It's almost daylight, Mr. Jefferson. Ms. Patsy and them will be up and about directly."
Sally Hemings came in. As happened every time she came into his presence, the mere sight of her was like a soothing rain pouring softly over him, quenching the riotous heat of his mind. He wondered again, as he had a thousand times before, what it was about her that insinuated itself so deeply into his insides? She was certainly beautiful to behold, with her enormous soft brown eyes, her creamy olive skin, her wavy black hair pulled back to reveal her high forehead, her strong, supple figure. But it was more than that. She had a calm about her, vast and irresistible like the ocean tide flooding into a cove on a calm day.
Once again Jefferson experienced the same feeling he had on that fateful day a quarter-century earlier when Sally had followed his daughter Patsy into his apartment in Paris. It seemed his dead wife was returned to him, only made whole. She resembled Martha so exactly (they shared a father) he had jumped from his seat in surprise. But how different! Where Martha’s face had been clouded and furrowed by years of illnesses, anxieties and jealousies, Sally was radiant with health, confidence, optimism, goodwill. Once again, he breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“Good gracious, look at the state of you,” she said.
“Sally I am in hell."
"Oh no. Not the migraines again?"
"No. Worse, if that is possible. Nightmares, Sally, of the most frightful, unimaginable kind, have tormented me every sleeping moment for... two days? Three days? I cannot even remember. I have deteriorated to the point that I dare not put down my head. I cannot sleep, but not having had the refreshment of sleep for so many days, I am exhausted beyond even the most humble useful enterprise."
"Sounds like you need some rest."
"But Mr. Jefferson! Ms. Patsy, the children, they all home, they'll be up any minute. And you half-dressed!"
"Since half the known world has been acquainted with our arrangement in lurid detail by the press, I think we can assume that my daughter has already formed her own opinions on the subject."
"Mr. Jefferson! I never thought to hear you talk like that."
"Je suis fatigué, cherie. And I claim the privilege of age to speak the unspeakable. Stay. Please."
"C'est ton droit."
"It most certainly is not my right. You are here of your own volition, and are free to leave at any time as you well know."
"As you wish."
"My God but you can be diabolical when you choose to."
"Why don't you take a turn around the place? You always come back happier after a long ride on horseback. Besides, Peacemaker been missing you."
"Ah. Of course! How did I not think of it myself? You see how entirely my reason has abandoned me. Thank you. Go with me?"
"You just now said...."
"I did. Forgive me. Do as you please."
Finally, about two o'clock, Patsy sent Burwell to search for her father. He found Peacemaker waiting patiently at the stable door, the older gentleman sound asleep on his back. Burwell approached him and gently tapped his leg. Jefferson started so suddenly that he would have fallen to the ground if Burwell had not caught him. Burwell asked if he was all right. "No, my friend. I am not," he said. He walked slowly to the house, knitting his brow and staring at the ground.
He found Sally in her own room in the lower gallery (where the slaves worked), sewing.
"May I come in?"
"Have you lost your mind! Get away from here this instant!"
"I must speak with you. Please. I am in a desperate state... The dreams again. Oh, Sally you cannot imagine..."
"Enough! I will meet you. Go on back up to your cabinet. I need to dust in there anyhow. You can talk then. Now move it before anybody see you!"
"Soon enough. You ain't exactly dying."
Reluctantly, he shuffled back up to his own chambers.
An hour later Sally found him at his polygraph (with which he made multiple copies of all his letters).
"Mr. Jefferson, ain’t no ink in that copying machine."
"Oh. I see. So there isn't. Haven't made much progress on this letter, have I?
"I did. Don't look so shocked. I consider myself agnostic, you know. Quite distinct from an atheist."
"So what about this prayer?"
"I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for a sign that our children would survive and somehow thrive. It is a bleak world we sent them into, Sally."
"This supposed to be news?"
"To be sent into the world with nothing but a pocketful of coins... no references, no introductions, no relations to draw on for moral strength, for guidance, even for a meal and a temporary roof.... there is so much I could do for them in this world, and all of it I must not do, on peril of the both of them being discovered as Negro and cast back into slavery. For all my wealth and influence, the most I can do is to turn my back on them, pretend they are nothing but runaway slaves. It is unbearable. But bear it I must. And so must they.”
"You just now noticing that?"
"Of course not, but when one actually lives it, such an event makes so much more poignant an impact on one's mind. So I prayed. I prayed a prayer as fervent and devout as any cloistered nun. I prayed for their safety, and I prayed for some sign from God.
"And it is my belief that these dreams, which have turned my life into a hell on earth, are the answer to my prayer. A bitter, mocking answer."
"You seen Beverly and Harriet in them dreams?"
"As you know, I went riding at your suggestion. I rode down along the branch, as always. An extraordinary thing occurred, by the way, which quite distracted my attentions. There was a partridge in the trail, leading a clutch of peeps to the water's edge. I was astonished to see hatchlings at this season, and at first felt sorry for their almost inevitable loss in the coming cold. But the hen seemed completely unconcerned. I stopped and watched as she guided her young along, with no sense of hurry. Then a raccoon came lumbering out from under the bramble. The raccoon came and sniffed and examined the chicks, as though he were some sort of physician performing a routine check-up. The partridge stood patiently by, entirely unafraid. She peeped and clucked, the raccoon snuffled and scratched, as though the two were engaged in a consultation regarding the children. Eventually they parted company. The coon returned to his bracken. The hen approached me and performed what appeared to all senses as a polite bow and chirp goodbye, and hopped off to the water with her chicks.
"At any rate, after witnessing this transaction, I found myself suddenly at ease. Something about that raccoon gave me a sense of safety about those quail peeps. It’s ridiculous I know, to suddenly be concerned for the welfare of wild creatures, but knowing me as you do, I doubt you are surprised. And my anxiety over the dreams was relaxed. I smelt the damp earth and felt the winter sun playing over my cheek, filtered through the dry rustling branches.
"Then somehow I was asleep again, and again came the images, roaring and rushing into my dreaming eyes and ears. But it was different this time. What had been a crashing chaos fell into order.
"I wake up to the sound of music of some kind. It is a rapid, grating sort of music, unlike anything I have ever heard. There is something deeply unsettling about this music, I feel an urgent need for it to stop immediately. It seems to have been created by some genius of discord, with the deliberate intention of being as far from the ideal harmonic proportions as possible. I see my hand reach down to a rectangular contrivance of some kind, about the size of a plough, touch a mark on it, and the music stops. Where the musicians might be or why they stopped is completely beyond my view. Perhaps this device conveys instructions in some way with musicians in another room? I cannot tell.
"Now I am on my feet, dressing myself without any assistance. I touch a mark on the wall and the room is instantly illuminated. I enter what appears to be a kitchen, except with no apparent hearth for cooking. I open another large cabinet, and remove my breakfast, already prepared. At this point in the dream I formulate the hypothesis that the servants are sequestered elsewhere in the house for some reason, and in only indirect communication with myself, through the medium of these contrivances I am describing to you.
"Forgive me dwelling on these details, Sally, but I must, as evidence to support my contention that this is no ordinary dream, but a prophetic revelation of the most acute character."
"You a strange man, Mr. Jefferson."
"But it's not me, you see. How could I possibly imagine such things? Many times I have dreamed of edifices and inventions, but always constructed through means – and toward ends – which are within my immediate grasp. In this dream world, I am surrounded by mysteries impenetrable to my eighteenth-century mind."
"That's very kind of you, Sally. But let us be realistic: my own thoughts spring from a well thoroughly rooted in the last century."
"So what happened in this kitchen?"
"And the roads, Sally, are like no road I have ever heard of. They are built of stones perfectly flat and polished, so huge that ten of these coaches can pass abreast on a single stone, and they are so much longer even than wide. I cannot imagine where they might have been quarried, so much less how moved to their present locations.
"The landscape, such as I am able to see, as it flashes past, fills me with fresh horror. You know from your own experience in France, Sally, how travel teaches one about one's own land. Well, I believe the same must now be said about one's own time, as well. So much of what is familiar to you and me is absent in this new age, that in the dream I am each moment caused to see features of my existence which I have always assumed without a thought.
"For example, I know you have heard me, more times than either of us could count, cursing the bad roads and the arduous week's journey between Monticello and Washington City. But Sally, I never before this day appreciated the splendorous beauty, the profound therapeutic effect of simply marching through a wood on horseback, hearing the birds sing, the occasional exciting encounter with badger or bear, negotiating streams and fallen trees. I learned in that moment, pelting along in that sealed missile, that I have lived like Antaeus in the ancient myth, continually rushing forward to do battle with the Hercules of political life, continually thrown to the ground, but at each throw revitalized by that contact with Mother Earth.
“And I could not even number the political conflicts that have been resolved thanks to finding myself trapped with an adversary, forced to share an inn during a storm, or fish for our supper together while becalmed at sea.
"In this new world all the obstacles and difficulties are swept away, and yet, with them are gone the myriad little joys of travel, so that, although I can now make in hours a journey that on horse would take days, I arrive feeling depleted, rather than buoyed. The irony of this... "
A voice from the hall called. "Sally, I am sure Father's room is as clean as a room can possibly be. Your assistance is required in the dining room." It was Patsy.
"No. Stay with me," Jefferson said.
"But Father, it is Christmas Eve! Young Mr. Adams has been patiently waiting to meet you for two days... The Eppeses are here, the neighbors... the tree has been brought up and is ready for trimming. You know we would all be so disappointed if you were to refuse us the joy of your company..."
"Perhaps I failed to make myself clear. I can not and will not come out."
Then to Sally, he said, "Where was I?"
"Mr. Jefferson, if they was whispering before, they'll be jabbering out loud after this."
"That cannot be helped. In fact, to face the truth of it, I lost that fight utterly. Years ago. But to return to my story. Where was I?"
"The irony of this."
"Yes of course. Surely you must see, Sally, that this is a direct punishment? The irony of having devoted so much of my life's energy to the removal of obstacles to transportation and commerce, and now to be faced with a future in which such efforts have entirely succeeded, to the unequivocal destruction of all possible pleasure in daily living, is simply beyond endurance.
"And on my own pitiful struggle with the question of servants it is perhaps worse. I have yet to encounter a single serving person of any degree in this dream travel, and I tremble to think what condition they may be in. It is beyond my feeble powers to imagine but that they are hidden away from view; that, judging from the ease and convenience of living there must be an enormous multitude, toiling away somewhere out of sight. It is for this that I dread more than ever the coming of sleep: I fear that in my next bout of dreaming the dreaded encounter will finally take place, and I will witness for myself some horrendous conclusion to this angry and irresistible tide of slavery.
"He has no more than one household's slaves to answer to; I have an entire nation of them. I was President! At that time, there was a real opportunity to change tack, to set the nation on a course away from this institution so abhorrent to God. And yet I did nothing."
"Are you talking about the Louisiana Purchase? Or the Ordinance of 1784?"
"Well, both. But particularly the Louisiana Purchase. My God what an opportunity. And I let it pass without a whimper."
"You need me to remind you what happened? Again? In case you forgot, you barely scraped the votes together to buy the place instead of starting a war. Jackson and Early come right out and said it: no slaves, no annexation. Between them two they controlled twelve votes in the Senate and twenty-two votes in the House. You won passage by three and seven votes. How many times I got to go over this?"
"But... but if only I had had the political skill I could have done it. I could have tied it to tariff relief, or relief for war veterans, or some kind of… assistance for cotton shipping..."
"You done more than could be expected of anybody."
"But... well, even before that… when I was Governor of Virginia, before this current generation of ingrates came into power... you know as well as I do that we were not nearly so passionately attached to the institution then as now. We were nothing but a handful of dirt farmers out in the wilderness. At that time, we could easily have foregone the conveniencies of slavery and got on with our business, with little real cost to ourselves. Yet I did nothing! I busied myself with transportation, finance, expansion, diplomacy, everything but the one thing which truly mattered. And now that the export of the progeny of slaves has built Virginia into a mighty empire, it is too late."
"You have done more for our people than any person living."
"Tu n’as rien à pardonner, Cher. I have a life most white women in Virginia would envy. And don't you try telling me it ain't so."
"You are too kind to me, Sally. I thank you for that, little as I deserve it."
Sally looked carefully around, then kissed the old man on the forehead. "You got to settle down, Mr. Jefferson. You know how you always get riled up about something, get all carried away, then later, after the migraines have come and gone – or the dreams – it turned out it wasn't all that important."
"Bless you child," he said. "If not for you, I would be dead already."
Sally rose to go, but he pulled her sleeve to stop her. "I am struck again," he said, "how a man can father two daughters, and the first receive all of life's rank, honors and privileges and have nothing to give but bitter recriminations; while the second pours blessings of love and understanding over all she encounters, and receives nothing in return but a feather duster and a sooty room in the basement."
"Hush you now. I won’t have you dishonoring your late missus."
“I believe I can face them now. If you would be so kind as to help me to dress.”
“I’ll send Burwell.” Sally kissed him again and hurried out the back way and slipped down the south stairs to the kitchen, where she found her cousin Edith defending a ham against a frantic army of children.
Here we must digress for a moment. Although Monticello’s table was renowned far and wide for its succession of chefs, trained by French masters, it was Edith's smoked ham that captivated the imagination of the Monticello slaves. There was a tradition in the household that the leftover Christmas ham – of which Edith made sure there would be several entire hams' worth – was distributed among the children of the field hands. The subject had been discussed with increasing frequency and anticipation over the preceding months. For some of the younger children present, it would be their first taste of meat.
Meanwhile, upstairs, the dinner party was underway. Charles Adams, age nineteen, grandson of John Adams the former President, had finally met Jefferson. During his entire long trip south from Massachusetts, the lad had been feverishly engaged in imaginary debates with Jefferson, alternately triumphing over and being skewered by “the greatest intellect in the New World.” But what he received instead was a complete surprise: there was no debate at all. Instead, for two hours Jefferson questioned him in minute detail about his family, his education, his opinions of the state of affairs in New England, manufacturing, taxation, and a hundred other topics. Jefferson’s method of questioning was so thorough and so skillful that Adams learned more in answering than Jefferson did by asking. Before the evening was over, there was rooted in young Adams a gratitude and love for the old man that would stay with him to the end of his days. In later years, he would often repeat that he had learned more on that single night than during any other ten years of his life.
There was one bump in this otherwise smooth road. Patsy had been vaunting her father’s innovations in the dining room (much to Jefferson’s embarrassment), and had sent downstairs for the coffee urn Jefferson had had made to his own design.
Downstairs, Edith got a twinkle in her eye and said, "Let's send Madison up with it. I want to see what this Adams fellow will say when he sees him." Of Sally Hemings’ six children, it was Madison who was most unmistakably Thomas Jefferson’s offspring. And his skin was so fair that it was not immediately obvious to which race he belonged. On several occasions, various guests had been struck by Madison’s resemblance to his father, with results ranging from awkward to mortifying.
Back in the kitchen, safely out of earshot, Madison and Edith were howling with laughter as he described the scene he had just left. "You should have seen all the blood run out of that man's face. And there’s folks looking at they feet, digging into they food, looking everywhere but at him. And Ms. Patsy, she's all of a sudden all fascinated with a little chip out of her cup, working at it with her napkin like there wasn't nothing else in the whole world but that cup."
"Lord I wished I'd have been there," Edith said. Then, in a devastatingly accurate imitation of Patsy, including her way of holding her wrists, "May I present my brother, Madison Hemings?"
This finally succeeded in overwhelming Sally’s sense of propriety, and she too burst out laughing. "Yeah, as though she even knew about it."
"About what?" Edith said.
"That Madison is her brother," Sally said.
"What!" Edith shouted. "You trying to tell me she got six brothers and sisters living in her own house, looking more like her than her own children, and she don't know? Impossible!"
"Not at all," Sally said. "If they was something you needed to not be true as bad as she needs us to not be true, I guarantee you wouldn't know nothing about it, not even if it was right in your face all day every day just like we in hers."
If anybody else had said this, Edith would have countered it with ridicule, but because it came from Sally – the undisputed sage of Mulberry Row (Monticello's slave quarters), who had travelled, could read books, and spoke French – Edith's mouth was entirely stopped.
“Patsy,” her father cut in, “If I am not mistaken, we have a tradition that the field hands’ children share that leftover ham. I think they would be sorely vexed to lose it.”
“But Father, our people are hardly starving. Surely you would not deny our neighbors a morsel to avoid disappointing slaves?”
“I think, my dear, that this is an issue with which we should not bore our guests further.”
The two met privately after dinner, and Jefferson finally secured his daughter’s assent to reserving half the ham for the slave children, in return for which he agreed to add to the relief effort a supply of cereals, preserves and tobacco (which he had planned to send anyway). In this way Patsy was placated. But far more relieved were Sally, Madison and Edith, who were spying on this transaction from different hiding places, on tenterhooks that they might in an hour’s time have to combat a children’s insurrection of unprecedented violence.
As it stood, they were able to parcel out the precious ham and supplement it with beans, rice, cornbread and molasses in such a way that the shortfall was scarcely noticed. And the raptures of the children were so joyful that Sally forgot all about this brush with disaster. When this second banquet was finally over, the women turned their hands to the dishes, which they worked on until past midnight. When Sally finally made it to her room to rest, she dropped instantly into a deep sleep.
She was awakened early the next morning by the master of the house himself, in his dressing gown, openly weeping.
"Mr Jefferson! You get out of here this instant!"
"No, Sally. I..." He broke off in sobs.
"You may have lost all sense of decorum, but someday you going to be dead and I'm going to be stuck with Ms. Patsy the rest of my life! Now move it! Get out!"
"Now Mr. Jefferson, it wasn't nothing but a dream."
"No, it is real. It is as real as you and I standing in this room."
"How come you torture yourself like that? I know you. About every two years you get like this, all knotted up and blaming yourself for everything in the wide world. I'm sick of it."
"No, you don't understand. I haven't told you, rather. Listen, please. I know now this dream was a true revelation of the future. It is beyond doubting."
"Tu ne sais pas cela."
"First listen. Then judge.
"My dream resumed at exactly the place the previous dream broke off — in the carriage. Once more the rushing forward, the endless buzzing, whirring noises that drown out all communication with the outside. Once again the momentary terrors as one after another of these engines hurtles past, within inches of certain annihilation.
"I arrive at a public place, leave my vehicle among countless others nearly identical with it, and enter a huge forum of some kind. But not a market, for there are no stalls, no vendors. As in all parts of this world, I am utterly alone, without traveling companion, without valet or groom of any kind, and among complete strangers. What is more, we walk along in silence, without exchange, more than an occasional meeting of eyes. The relief of having survived the journey is washed away by the utter sadness of this ocean of anonymous loneliness, walking past one another like the dead."
"Mr. Jefferson, I got to say, this is nothing but the regrets working on you again."
"No no. It's not like that at all. Please, you'll see. But you must let me tell you all.
"I enter what appears to be a ship, but there is no water to be seen. And it is like no ship I ever heard of. There is no deck, but only a smoothly polished surface of metal. I enter the hold of the ship along with perhaps a hundred strangers. I find a seat near a tiny porthole.
"We fly, as I said, high into the air. Once again, I am torn between two mighty sensations: on one hand the mind-shattering noise and the prospect of imminent destruction, and on the other, rapture at what I see unfolding below. As we fly higher and higher, the earth spreads before my eyes exactly like a map. I can see roads, houses, rivers, lakes, woods, farms. It is indescribably beautiful.
"Eventually we return to the ground, and disembark into a marketplace nearly identical to the first. I enter another carriage and depart. I am driving through what looks like the countryside of central Virginia. I begin to hope that it is, yet there is so much built everywhere that it is impossible to judge. All the familiar landmarks are gone.
"But then I enter a great city. And in among the towering buildings I see my Rotunda! And here is the Lawn and the Range of the University, not merely completed exactly as planned, but with beautifully maintained lawns and shrubberies, and the most exquisite, enormous stately maples, poplars, sycamores.
"I am delighted, by the way, to see that my one-brick-thick serpentine walls – which every mason in the state has refused to build, assuring me they cannot last overnight – are not only built, but are yet standing, in excellent condition. And as I said, Charlottesville has grown around it to an impossibly huge metropolis.
"Now I am outside town, climbing a winding road. And Sally, this is where my heart melts: I see a sign marked, "Monticello, 5 miles." And true to its word, in a few minutes – I know this sounds ridiculous to you, but in this conveyance such a distance can be traversed in such a time – I reach a gate and drive in. There are more signposts. I gather that Monticello – here, our home – has been preserved as a monument. It has the trappings of a religious shrine, but there is no mention of God, but only of Democracy. And Sally, you couldn't believe what they have done with this old place. Gone are the destroyed acres of my frenetic agricultural experiments; gone the peeling paint; gone the wreckage from so many failed attempts at establishing industry, the mud, the mountains of brush and trash. Instead, as I round a corner and the house comes into view, I see it exactly as I have always seen it in my fantasy: crisp lawns of lush grass sloping away from the house; enormous trees – maple, oak, poplar, and huge twisting beeches, like one of the grand parks of England.
"I maneuver my vehicle in amongst others. Now, Sally, the tide is really turning in this hellish nightmare. I touch a small knob and suddenly there is silence. The rushing noise has stopped. A feeling of calm floods through my being: now that it has stopped, I realize I have just been through an orgy of noise without a breath's cessation since early morning. I hear a mockingbird call. I hear the muffled threats of crows off in the forest.
"Then the second piece of good news strikes me: perhaps that noise was the sound of some sort of dynamo, devised in such a way as to propel my vehicle forward without the aid of animal power? And further, as I think back over all the little devices whose purpose I assumed was to communicate with hidden servants, it strikes me: does it not seem more likely that these objects are doing the actual work? That they contain other dynamos, contrived with infinite subtlety to perform so many of the tasks that in our day require the direct application of human hands? What if the absence of serving people means not that they are hidden, but that there is no longer need of servants, and instead they have been released to some happier place, to live as their own masters?
"Then Sally, comes the coup de grace. We are together, admiring this group portrait. And by the way, the social interaction is just charming: so simple, so straightforward. I realize how much of our current etiquette – I mean today, the eighteen-twenties – is formalized, how much we hold ourselves from one another in the name of propriety. In this future world, men and women address each other so simply, so naturally. It's absolutely refreshing.
"But I stray from my narrative. As I said, I am among this group of fellow descendants of the now-revered Thomas Jefferson, and we are each of us searching for our own likeness in this group portrait – for you must understand, this is a large group of people portrayed – and the woman by my side points out my own image."
“We form a queue at a long table and serve ourselves from the banquet that is laid there. In the center of the table is an enormous beautiful smoked Virginia ham, whose heavenly aroma is so exactly like Edith’s that it seems not a day has gone by. Standing shoulder to shoulder with my white cousins, I watch my graceful brown hands take a great helping of ham, evoking nothing but smiles.
“My only regret, Sally, is that you were not there by my side, to witness this holy event for yourself. And it shall come to pass. By a thousand proofs I know this. This Christmas day is the happiest day of my life, and this answer to my prayer is the greatest gift I could ever receive.”
"We'll see" was all Sally said, but the old man noticed she was humming brightly as she wiped away his grateful tears, brushed his white hair and helped him into his waistcoat and boots in preparation for the Christmas breakfast.
Jack Armstrong, 2000
(The Monticello Association is an organization of descendants of President Thomas Jefferson. In 1999, member Lucian Truscott invited, for the first time, several descendants of Sally Hemings to the Association's annual meeting at Monticello.)