Henry Ponders While Nightwalking
Hanover County, Virginia
Henry had noticed that unlike most children, Abby didn’t say much. She didn’t ask more questions than there were stars in the sky or whine about being too hot or cold or hungry (thank the Lord!). When she spoke to him, it was usually to inquire as to whether he was tired or hungry, or to instruct him to leave the road and hide in the woods because someone who might be trouble was coming.
More often than speaking to him he would hear her murmuring to herself—at least he thought she was talking to herself. Her whispered dialog was too hushed for him to make out. During those occurrences he was afraid to ask her what she was saying. He was afraid that she might tell him that she wasn’t talking to herself, and then she’d tell him who or what she was talking to.
Sometimes he would hear her softly humming or singing, songs he recognized like Jim Crack Corn, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Farmer in the Dell, or when she seemed to be in a somber mood, field songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Hoe, Emma, Hoe. Once she’d sang a song with funny sounding words that he didn’t understand. He’d been curious enough to ask her about the song because he thought she might be speaking in tongues. She’d told him that it was a song of the Meherrin River people, who had been on this land long before white or black folks got here. She’d said, “They made the song up to keep me away, but I go to them anyway on occasion.” Henry thought about what the child had done to the folks back at Johnson’s plantation. He remembered the wounds in Wilma Johnson’s neck. He didn’t ask Abby any more about the funny song.
Usually as they walked the night the child’s attitude was somber, even brooding sometimes. It seemed to be her way, to be constantly deep in thought with her little brow furrowed as if she were trying to figure something out.
The only times she was different was when they encountered folks who were safe—usually other colored folk. When they were around those people she came right to life and put on the airs of shy ten or twelve year-old girl. She enchanted those people, and they loved her without knowing her; the men making faces to draw her giggles and the women hugging her to their breasts and telling her what a sweet child she was. The children of some size would gather around her, seeming to not want her out of their sight. It was only the younger children—the infants and knee babies—who seemed to sense something not right about Abby, and they would huddle against their mothers legs or go into wailing fits when she drew near. But the others all loved her.
For Henry it was a horrifying thing to watch, they way she enchanted those folks, because he knew that what they thought they saw was a lie. Abigail had been a child when he was a child, and now he was a grown man and she was still a child. She was no child of this earth, and as they walked the night he wondered how old she might really be, and how she could be.
Abby had been quiet as Henry pondered, and so she surprised him when she said, “You seem about fit to burst, Henry. Are you troubled?”
“How old are you?” There, he’d gone and done it. He’d asked the question and stepped into the darkness he feared.
“For the sake of your nerves it’s best that you don’t know.”
“I remember you when I won’t as big as you are now. That night—”
“You look the same, Abby. I’m a grown man but you’s still a child. But you ain’t really a child, is you?”
“I don’t know what I am.”
“But how long you been this way? Where you come from, Abby?”
“I come from the same place as you, Henry—from Johnson’s plantation. I was born there when it was owned by a family named McClintock. I believe the year of my birth was sixteen forty-three, or thereabouts.”
Henry could do a little figuring, but what Abby’s words suggested befuddled him as much as the great number and left him speechless.
Abby said, “Something over two hundred years.”
“What in the world are you, child?”
Abby sighed into the night. “As I said, I don’t know.”
Coming December 2013