An Unconsummated Violation

John’s father, Doctor Pelham, takes him along to the slave market in New Orleans:

Once all the field hands had been sold, the first group of house servants, noticeably unchained, was led onto the platform, each dressed appropriately to perform his or her appointed tasks in a master’s household. One by one, the auctioneer told delightful little stories about where they came from and who they had worked for. He spoke of the culinary expertise of a woman dressed as a cook, a supposed mammy’s extraordinary way with children, and the gentlemanly ways of a man dressed as a butler. Very few of his stories rang true, but it didn’t seem to matter to the eager buyers, who snatched them up for prices well above those paid for the field hands.

Suddenly John did a double take; was that Mammy Katie up on the platform? It took him a moment to realize that it was only a heavy-set Negro woman who looked like Mammy, someone else dressed up to play the same part. Maybe Mammy Katie, the person he thought he knew ever since he was a baby, was only an illusion, nothing more than someone in chattel bondage dressed up and playing the role of Mammy in order to survive.

“Look at the fancy girls!” a man sitting directly behind John exclaimed.

John looked over to see several lovely-looking mulatto girls about to make their way up onto the platform, as finely dressed as any of the ladies he’d seen in New Orleans, perfectly coifed as if on their way to a ball. It was hard to imagine them being suited for any sort of work.

“What’s a fancy girl?” he asked Ned, hoping he didn’t sound ignorant.

“A fancy girl is for the master’s personal pleasure,” Ned responded, an insidious grin coming across his face. “They’re not meant for field work or housework. But just look at them; they’re certainly good for labor of a different sort.”

John was incredulous; maybe his brothers’ sexual escapades weren’t an ugly anomaly, but the way of things. No wonder Doctor Pelham hadn’t been surprised to learn what went on in the stable!

“Every gentlemen wants the best one for himself,” Ned added, gesturing with his cigar. “Once the bidding starts, I promise, it’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“You mean they pay a lot for them?” John asked, still trying to make sense of it all.

“They sure as hell do,” Ned replied with a chuckle. “A good fancy girl can cost as much as five-thousand dollars. They even print the selling prices in the newspaper so everyone can see who bought the most expensive girl.”

Before John could ask his father if what Ned said was true, he excused himself; either he had to use the latrine or he’d overheard the conversation and wanted to avoid John’s questions.

“Usually,” Ned continued, talking as if he were an authority on the subject, “the best girls are offered at fancy trade slave markets, where there’s nothing for sale but beautiful mulatto and octoroon girls.”

John’s eyes were drawn to the girl at the far end of the platform; she had the most extraordinary oriental-looking eyes, and a complexion so perfect she looked like a painting. He was admiring her appearance, thinking how much she resembled Aryanna, when she suddenly looked his way and their eyes met, just like his eyes used to meet Aryanna’s at the corn husking. Did she hope he’d be her master, like a savior prince who might steal her away on a magnificent horse and ride away into the distance? John blushed, but something stopped him from looking away, as though he had discovered another kindred spirit. He wondered what her life was like, and if there was anything he could do to help her.

“Don’t go thinking your father will buy you a present,” Ned spoke up as if reading John’s thoughts. “The likes of her is for some wealthy New Orleans gentleman, or maybe a planter down from Natchez.”

John was aghast that Ned had noticed his longing for that loveliest of the fancy girls, but pleased that he considered him in need of a man’s sexual gratification. “Besides,” Ned added, “you and your brothers already had one of your own.”

John looked at him, baffled.

“You know,” Ned said, “that girl who ran off a while back, Aryanna.”

Again, John struggled to hide his shock. “How could Aryanna be a fancy girl?”

“She was such a beautiful little girl that your papa bought her for when you and your brothers grew up. Being she was a child, she hardly cost him a thing.”

“Who told you that?” John asked as calmly as possible, trying to hide his devastation.

Ned shrugged, as if reluctant to answer. “Just about all the niggers,” he said.

“Which nig—Negroes?” John asked, his world once again turned upside down.

“I think your papa was right disappointed to lose her, too,” Ned said, avoiding John’s question. “I think he blames those two brothers of yours.”

John remembered Aryanna telling him she had come from the coast of Georgia.

“Where did he get her?” he asked, thinking he’d test out Ned’s story.

“That was before my time with you people, but I got the impression she didn’t come from the traders.” Ned said something about her being the daughter of a cotton planter, but John could hardly hear him over the excitement of the crowd as the first fancy girl came up for bid.

“Where do you think she went?” John asked, raising his voice over the hubbub.

“If I knew, I’d bring her back; claim that reward your papa’s offering. I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes her way to New Orleans. I half expected to find her here. I might yet, who knows?”

John’s mind raced as that loveliest of the fancy girls was sold to the highest bidder. Aryanna, the first friend he found in the world, the person he had trusted the most in the safest place he could remember, had turned out to be nothing but an illusion. As much as he had loved her, maybe just like Mammy, she had never been quite real; everything that happened between them had only been a meaningless diversion, a sideshow of sorts. But it wasn’t her fault; she was the victim born into bondage. Aryanna’s role was having her costume ripped off so she could endure the sexual fury and pitiful desperation of another generation of masters.

It had never been clearer that his absurdly large sex organ was God’s way of stopping him from inflicting the pain and humiliation that his brothers reveled in, as if God had finally said "No more." Doctor Pelham’s theory about phrenology and his malfunctioning cerebellum was nothing but a desperate excuse. John had never been more certain: it was God’s judgment rather than modern science that explained his hideous affliction. Indeed, no matter how the doctor tried to pretend otherwise, the grotesque organ was unquestionably a curse, the fruit of God’s revulsion, if not His will.