My father killed Albert Miller on Saturday, June 4th, 1851, an afternoon of high sky and unforgiving sun. I’d just stepped from the shade of Riddle’s store where I’d gone to fetch baking powder for my mother, and as I paused, hand held against the glare, two figures emerged from the milliner’s across Montana Street. One was Mary W., who‘d arrived with her family from Poland bearing a last name none could pronounce, the second a slave who held a parasol above her. Mary, the mother of the girl I’d one day marry, was all in white—hat, dress, shoes—the negro wore a burlap shirt whose sleeves were ripped away. For a moment, neither moved; then the slave switched the parasol from left hand to his right, Mary took a step, the slave did, and in the distance two shots exploded, followed by a scream, and all of us were running. I saw a man lunge from a doorway, face lathered with soap; the chinaman came from Obediah’s laundry, the cobbler from his shop, and when I’d crossed the railroad tracks and reached the jail, the crowd had gathered.
It was hot, bright; I don’t remember sound. I recall a woman with hands pressed against her groin, I remember the Augusta twins, boys my age, had their arms around each other, and that my father shoved his pistol in his belt. Albert lay on his back, eyes open, the blood dull red beneath him, a ring of something blue around his mouth. When I turned to follow my father’s eyes, I saw Reesus trotting down Montana Street toward us. He wore a yellow coat, a purple scarf on his head like a pirate.
Here comes Reverend Smiley, someone said; Reverend Smiley, said another, and there he was, rolling past Obediah’s houses, bounding from the buckboard, pushing past a drifter with a melancholy face. Then he stopped the way a blind man stopped who’d walked into a wall. He sank to his knees and touched Albert on the shoulder.
Reesus began to sing about a light gone out. My father’s shirt was green with blue suspenders. Shut up, he said, and Reesus did, and the Reverend asked, What happened? .
He had rocks. Was going to brain me.
We looked. There was a rock the size of a fist on the ground next to Albert’s body. There was one in my father’s hand; he moved as if to weigh it.
My Lord, Ebenezer, you couldn’t manage a ten year old boy with a rock?
My father stiffened; for an instant worry made his eyes small, and then they weren’t. I didn’t, he said, mean to kill him. The Reverend stared at him. My father stared back. Then he dropped the rock, stood with arms akimbo, and when he spoke his voice had changed.
Get up off the ground, Reverend. This here is sheriff’s business.
It’s my business, too, the Reverend said, and didn’t move. My father said something to his deputy, a big man, who shook his head. My father looked directly at him and said something again; the deputy shook his head. So my father did it himself: pulled the preacher to his feet, began to push him toward the surrey, firm shoves between his shoulder blades, though measured; he’d not have wanted to be accused of mistreating the Lord’s anointed. As he went, he seemed to search each scowling face to see if his restraint was noted, and when he saw me, his eyebrows raised. I knew instantly what he was thinking, could see it on his face: he’d found an ally. But he was wrong, I wasn’t his ally; only blindness or a gift for self-deception could have told him so.
He had rocks, my father said—he who never explained anything to me beyond the heat of hell, the worthlessness of negroes—he had rocks, I told him to put them down, he wouldn’t….
Somebody coughed, then it was still, absolutely silent, and I knew from my father’s shrug that it had dawned on him that he need provide no further explanation. He stepped the preacher up into the buckboard, gave him the reins; he slapped the horse who went obediently forward. Then he turned to us.
Go on, now. You know I can’t have you blocking the street this way. Go on. Some left hurriedly, as if they feared reprisal if they didn’t, or wished to put as much space between them and what had happened as quickly as they could. Others took their time, and held my father’s eyes as he glared. I was one who chose to be deliberate in retreat, keeping my head turned so my father couldn’t see my face or hear me. You are a murderer, I whispered, I’ll never be like you.
I looked to see him lumbering into the jail. His deputy was lifting Albert’s body; the head hung as if too heavy for its neck. I could feel the sun, how hard it was to breathe, and I turned toward home, carrying the powder my mother would use to make biscuits light as air we’d later eat in silence.
There was only one church in Dominion, Missouri in 1851, Christ the Redeemer, and it was to it we walked on Tuesday next for Albert’s funeral. I recall how Bass, wearing a blue tie with no shirt beneath the black suit my father had given him, smelled, inexplicably, of milk, and how three lines of people merged to make one line, and how it broke to let Adrian pass when he arrived. Years later, Adrian would be the drummer for a traveling band out of Saint Louis, work he’d give up for a widow with four children and a voice like smoke, but on that morning—bark colored, thin as a second thought—he sat cross-legged on the ground, his back against a gravestone, pulling from his drum the measure for our walking. We went slowly—first my father, then my mother, finally Bass and me—we were silent, heads down until we stepped into the sanctuary where two ushers bumped as they approached us. The white one deferred, left the negro flustered. She was, I later learned, going to lead us to the front of the church as befit my father’s standing, but she didn’t know what to do concerning Bass. Slaves had the right to worship, but could they sit in front? Behind us, people leaned to either side, stood on tiptoe to see what the matter was, and when they did the drum began to beat like the heart of a man who was running. My father, annoyed that attention had been brought to bear on him, pointed to the nearest available seats, one row from the last, only to have the usher balk again at how far they were from the pulpit. Only when my father hissed did she relent, and it was in that charged uneasiness that we took our places. I looked to where Reesus sat, a lime-colored cloth around his head; in front of him were the Wright and Webster families. Then the Bowman clan, a light complected gathering of eleven: we’d learn that the fifteen year old, Harvest, had given her virginity to Reverend Smiley just the week before. Across the aisle from the Bowman’s was Samuel James, who ran the bank, and Chauncey Riddle, who owned the general store. The Augusta twins sat with their parents next to the Dixons and the Higginbottoms. In front was Della, Albert’s mother.
The drumming stopped; the sun punched through the haze, and in the pulpit the stained glass window of John the Baptist’s head appeared to bleed. Albert lay at the foot of the altar, but I couldn’t see him. I could see the sap that stained the white pine casket; I could see the lilies bowed above it, but I couldn’t see him. When I stretched to make myself taller, there was movement at my back, and I twisted to see the negro choir file in in military neatness: men in black, women in white, and when they reached the altar they arranged themselves to sing. Our God is a mighty God, His glory to be praised, they sang, one verse repeated, one verse that soared, diminished, and when they were done, the Reverend stepped to the rostrum.
His text was taken from Romans 6, verse 9: For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death has no dominion over him. He was halfway through his sermon when I understood there’d be nothing said of how Albert had died, or who’d done it. I sat, holding myself, seething, and the white choir, the women with daisies in their hair, trooped from the back of the church, gathered at the casket where they sang a song I don’t remember. When they’d finished, the Reverend announced it was time to view the body, and in the hush that met those words, Albert’s mother began to moan. Nine months before, she’d lost her husband; it was Saturday, the two of them playing cards, she’d accused him of cheating. Drunk, laughing, he’d taken the lantern to the privy, trailing a blanket because the October night was brisk. He’d fallen asleep, the lamp tipped over, lit flesh and blanket, corncobs….
I stood before the body of the boy who’d been my friend, his white shirt starched and ironed, the hands at his chest so scrubbed the flesh below his fingernails was raw. The blue had been wiped from his lips, and he’d been rubbed with oil that left him shining. The oil smelled sweet. I wanted to lower my head to see if beneath it I’d find the smell I knew: dried leaves crumbled in the hand, mown hay, a musty blanket. I wanted to open his eyes. I was standing next to Bass, who was shaking his head as if he’d just been asked a question; the negro choir was humming, the drum outside a steady, solemn beat. The usher said I had to move. She said it gently, and I turned, blinking, and followed Bass to where my parents stood in front of Della. My father’s words were awkward, rehearsed; my mother’s heartfelt, though without distinction. I swallowed, said I was sorry. Bass chose not to speak, simply placed his hand on Della’s hand.
Back in our seats, the drumming stopped, the negro choir sang again, and the congregation honored its exhortation to join in. In the pew before me, November, a negro girl who’d recently come to Dominion, turned and greeted me. Her smile was wide and warm; a purple scar the length of a finger marred her throat. I was later to wonder what had caused that scar, and if it was why she’d left where she was to come to Dominion, but by the time I’d gathered courage to ask, she’d been slaughtered. But then, on that morning, she was very much alive, and when she reached for me, I gave my hands and let her pull me to my feet. Her eyes were gray and danced despite sorrow. I smiled back and let the tears come. I was standing next to Bass who was singing with great force, and now, all around us, white and black raised hands and swayed to song that made this promise: we were not without hope; while we waited for the life to come, the life we lived could be worthwhile, abundant. All we need do was learn to bear each other’s burdens; all we need do was learn to grieve each other’s loss. I was twelve years old, but I understood this. I wept as a sweet and powerful feeling rose in me. I knew where the feeling came from: community, the sense that I belonged and didn’t have to be alone. What I didn’t know was that the feeling wouldn’t last the hour, or come again until the negro troupe arrived.
My father went off after the service, but I stayed with my mother and Bass through the burial and then the funeral feast, during which Reverend Smiley circulated between tables of ham and chicken, greens, biscuits and lemonade, avoiding any mention of what had happened, choosing only to note how fine it was that all of Dominion had sat down to eat as one. I’d asked Bass why negroes and whites so seldom came to the same Sunday service—the nine o’clock attended largely by whites, the one at eleven by negroes—and he said that most of his people preferred to sing and dance their religion, while whites praised God in a less expressive way. It didn’t have anything to do with better, he said, it was just different, and so the first separation of the races in Dominion came not by law, but custom.
When the Reverend had retired, and all eaten their fill, several whites, led by Samuel Adams, took it upon themselves to speak to what brought us together. Albert’s death was unfortunate, they said, a tragic misunderstanding. But we must not let it poison who we were, we who lived in peace, who stood by one another. We’d always done this; if one needed an example, recall this January past when, for four days running, snow fell, filling the valley to our knees, and how those men arrived wearing great coats, steam at their mouths and at the mouths of their horses.
Can you prove these slaves are yours, they said, are these negroes free? Where are your bills of sale, your papers?
Remember how they waved that proclamation permitting them to carry away any negro whose status couldn’t be proved, and how we, white and colored, stood shoulder to shoulder, defying those men, and how God-fearing Ebenezer Dooley stepped forward to say he’d neither answer their questions nor allow the head of any negro to be touched or taken from us?
I watched as the negroes nodded. You right. Sheriff stood up to them mens, and us’n wid him. You got that right, they said, their responses tight and muted.
It wasn’t until later that I learned why my father had been so noble: Obediah, the mayor, had insisted that my father carry out his duty as sheriff and protect all citizens and their property, or lose his job.
Obediah sensed the mood of negroes after the shooting, and convened a group
to discuss the incident. The white men were Samuel James, the banker, Chauncey Riddle, who owned the general store, and the post master, Jonah Willis. The negroes were Lucas Webster, the richest negro in Dominion, and Alexander Tibble, who owned the stable. Rumor was that the negroes’ argument was brief: my father’s actions were indefensible. But Samuel James said that to punish a sheriff for the shooting of someone he thought was about to commit a crime would be to strip discretion from him and to undermine the effectiveness of his office. Then a vote was held, and the outcome, posted on the courthouse door, held that the shooting of Albert was self-defense. The finding further noted that both my father and Albert would have benefited from restraint.
The night after the funeral, I lay in my room thinking of how Albert had come to Dominion a year and a half before, like me, an only child, his father a carpenter, his family free. He had large, startling eyes, dark and depthless; he was small, what old folks referred to as “delicate,” and I felt a connection to him, though it was almost a week before I went up to him at recess. When I did, he was sitting by himself, back against a tree, looking off into the distance.
Hello, I said, and he said hello, his face so open, and we began to talk. I decided what made us friends was that neither of us cared for baseball; later I understood that what drew me to him was his kindness, his stillness that mirrored my own, and because we shared a reverence for beauty that we found in the shapes of clouds, bird flight, the depth of a rose’s red. I couldn’t bring him home, my father wouldn’t have stood for it, but I could go to his. His room had books along one wall, and small carvings of animals and people his father had made which delighted us for hours. When we were done with those, we made up stories, we fished, caught fireflies in jars and ran through nights holding their glowing before us. Once we tried to move the Founder’s Rock, convinced treasure hid beneath it. Then Albert’s father died, and Albert’s face went shut like a slammed door shuts, and what we did came between us.
Outside, heat lightening lit the night. I blinked, and my grief came down, not in tears, but desolation. Albert was dead. And my father had done it. I sat up, lit the lamp, then tiptoed across the floor to the dresser, opened the next drawer from the last, took the watch from where it lay beneath two sweaters. My father had given it me for my tenth birthday; I was not allowed to use it except on special occasions—Christmas, Easter Sunday. I carried the watch back to the light; it had wound down, the hands said 4:22. I blew the lamp out, went past my parents’ room to the door that led to the yard, stepped into air thick with the smell of two stones struck together. For an instant lightning made the night noon-bright, lit the shed, the barn, and I went to the side of the barn and threw the watch as far as I could through the darkness. I heard the sound it made when it struck a tree, and I stood, wondering if there was anything else that came from my father that I could be rid of. I thought of his God, and eagerly denied Him. Said to all and to anything that would listen that I’d live out my days as a disbeliever, that I’d not serve a God that allowed my father to go unpunished for what he’d done. For a moment I experienced a fear that God would strike me down, but the moment passed, only to be followed by the sense that my father, glowering, loomed in the dark behind me. I spun, but there was nothing. Trembling, exhilarated, but needing something I couldn’t name, I set out for Bass’ shed, only to pause when I reached his door. Bass had recently said I was too big to sleep with him, that big boys didn’t go crawling into other people’s beds. I’d turned back toward the house when his voice called out, so unexpected I jumped.
Me, I answered.
Me got a name?
Me, Bass. Michael.
What you want?
To come in.
Well, come on then.
I pushed the door back. I couldn’t make him out in the darkness, but then the lightening flared.
You all right?
I could hear him make room in the bed. I climbed in, my back to him; he put his arm around me. You scared of dying?
I’d seen death: the horse thief my father hanged, the surprise in the doomed man’s eyes when the fall stopped so abruptly. I’d been to funerals before, and I’d gone with my father when Albert’s father burned himself to death, saw his body, gaunt and blistered, sitting straight up on the privy hole though there was nothing evident to hold it.
No, I ain’t scared.
I miss Albert.
I know you do.
We lay awhile, not speaking, the lightning coming and going.
Bass, why’d my father do it?
Baby, I don’t know.
I should have done something.
I don’t know. Anything. Not just stood there.
Wasn’t nothing for you to do, Bass said. You do what you can in life. Just don’t let it pass when you have the chance for doing. Otherwise you live with empty.
Uh huh. Here…and here. He’d touched my chest, my stomach….
Bass, I said. I feel things….
Like I’m different. From everybody else but Albert. Alone. I make up stories. Some times a thing’s so beautiful….
You wants to cry?
I nodded, forgetting he couldn’t see me. I do.
Aw, baby, that ain’t nothing to worry about. That’s fancy, imagination. Another source of truth.….
Just is. Make sure you feed it.
Feed it? How? With what?
Learn to pay attention. Read.
Read? Can you read?
No, baby, I can’t read.
Want me to teach you?
Can’t, it’s ‘gainst the law.
No, it’s not. I sat up. Nearly every negro in Dominion knows how to read.
Well, we won’t tell anyone.
He laughed. Last thing old Bass want is for you to get put in jail by the sheriff.
He put his arms around me and laughed again; he was what he called “tickled.”
I turned so my knees were pressed to the backs of his thighs. What about alone?
What about it?
Why do I feel so alone?
You’re not alone, Bass said, you got me. You got your mama and your daddy.
I didn’t answer, and he, as if he sensed how unsatisfactory his answer, asked, How about we go fishing tomorrow?
I could feel his slow and steady heart against my hand; I could smell him, the odor of milk gone now, leaving the scent I knew: deep musk and slightly sour, and as I burrowed against him, lightening lit the room.
My father was an angry man. Once, furious at something I can’t recall, he dug a
hole in the yard large enough to hold a body, then filled it. Another time, again driven by rage, he cut down a tree that narrowly missed the house when it fell. Shaken that he might have destroyed Obediah’s property—the house, the barn, and Bass’ shed were part of his salary—he took the afternoon to recover, then set up lanterns, sawed and chopped the tree into pieces, telling Bass he didn’t want assistance, and so labored through the night.
He called, my father, all the time on Jesus, but had no compassion. I suspect he became a sheriff solely for the joy of apprehending those who broke the law; such acts were, at root, ungodly, and he was a hater of all ungodly things, not just crimes, but men and women who committed them, that and pleasure: sex, laughter and the drama, and he’d speak of these with a fervor that made his eyes shine, the light of which served not to lead, but blind him. His recipe for salvation called for purifying the mind through observing the properties of fire, by subjugating the flesh through fasts and prayer, and he held that if one must stoop to craving, let it be for naught but sacrifice.
My mother’s name was Kathleen; she made a life for herself that consisted of her garden, of visiting the sick, and assisting savages in Peru. On my fifth birthday she began my education about work and thrift and money. It was my charge to feed the chickens, one of which she gave me; I sold the eggs to Dominion’s wives. Half what I earned went toward the upkeep of the house, half into a can that sat on the mantle, and it was these savings that provided me means for a peppermint stick or a gift for someone’s birthday.
Substantial in stature, my mother carried herself in a way that suggested she was trying to hide her size—shoulders hunched, arms held to her sides—postures even more exaggerated in the presence of my father. She called my father Dooley; she, to him, was Mother, and their preferred medium was silence occasionally broken by references to sin and the wretched Peruvian poor.
I know little about my parents’ lives before they married; my father had come from North Carolina and met my mother in Dominion, she the daughter of parents who moved to Tennessee after the wedding and who died before I was born. Of my father’s family, I know that a group went to California to make their fortunes, only to vanish in 1830 somewhere between Haywood and Sacramento. My father never spoke of them, and I wondered what they were like and why he hadn’t gone with them.
At some point after he killed Albert, my father took to whiskey. At first he sought to conceal it, but soon gave up the pretense and carried a flask in his back pocket for the last years of his life. He’d reach for it in the midst of one of his rantings: how negroes, in their failure to invent things, to explore the world, to make art, were of no account, and so to be used for one’s purpose, monitored and soundly punished should they step beyond their place. Their natural condition was slavery and if, by some act of providence, they managed to rise above it, they inevitably turned to crime.
Now that I have some sense of human complexity, I’m prepared to argue that no man is entirely evil, nor none entirely good, and so I search for the good in my father. The effort leads to Bass. Although my father loathed negroes as a group, it was Bass who received his most meaningful affection. I know this is contradiction; after all, my father whipped Bass, changed his name from Curtis, and never set him free. But there’s also no denying the pleasure my father took in putting a window in the shed so his slave could have light, or the fact that he gave Bass a stove for heat in winter, and I know I didn’t imagine the laughter they shared at the hole my father dug and filled all by his self. Neither have I invented the fact that when my father grew ill, it was Bass he wanted at his bedside, Bass he chose as his companion for the journey to his death.
A week after Albert’s funeral, Samantha Dixon collapsed outside the bank, spit glistening on a tongue that never spoke again, though she lived to be one hundred. In the wake of Samantha’s silence came awareness that slaves had been afflicted with an ailment that caused them to drop plates and stumble over slop jars. Shortly thereafter, this malady appeared to affect free negroes as well; they began to bump against their neighbors at the bank, or in the aisles at Riddle’s, causing whites to step back, perplexed, not only at negroes’ sudden clumsiness, but at their refusal to smile and beg their pardon.
Then Reesus, in blue pants and shirt, a white scarf around his head, appeared outside the courthouse at four o’clock one afternoon, ringing a cow bell. When he had sufficient audience, he announced that what was wrong with negroes, slave and free, was that they were upset with the ruling that Albert’s killing was in self-defense. In addition, they were disappointed with Reverend Smiley, who’d not sufficiently lamented Albert’s death, or challenged the notion that the life of a negro boy had no value.
We’re upset, too, whites said, but it’s over. Let bygones be bygones. No one’s said the boy’s life had no value. No one’s said that at all.
Thank you, Reesus said, as if they’d given him what he’d asked for, thank you very much, and he went away, only to come back the next day at the same time to prophesize of bones scattered in a wilderness, a blood red sun above a desolate horizon. While most were taken with the imagery and found it thought-provoking, a few divined that Reesus might be trying to stir up trouble, and so they went to my father, who said it was best to ignore Reesus (who he’d always referred to as crazy). Folks shouldn’t come to hear him speak and shouldn’t respond to him, my father counseled, for if they did, he’d simply be encouraged.
The next day, wearing blue pants and a yellow hat, Reesus held out his hands so all could see the carving on the right one. Times, he said, were about to get hard. A pestilence was coming, from the throes of which a savior would appear, only to have his life taken, not on a cross, but by hanging. Then he told of a mighty struggle, the deaths of boys like Albert multiplied, and no one there to mourn them.
None of this raised anybody’s ire. The trouble began when Reesus foretold that once the struggle had ended, white people’s unborn children would slide from their mothers’ wombs to ravage the world by eating up everything in it. This caused negroes to smile and whites to shake their heads and hiss at him. Others tried to engage him in debate, which he studiously avoided, saying it was his job to tell the future, not explain it. If they needed things explained to them, go see a preacher.
All while this was going on, my father was taking his own advice and not looking in Reesus’ direction. It wasn’t until Riddle’s pregnant wife screamed at Reesus for suggesting that her child would be a monster, then collapsed, weeping in the street, that my father intervened.
Reesus, he said, You need to stop this mess. You can’t talk about people’s children that way. People particular about their children.
I ain’t said nothing about that woman’s child, Reesus said. Her child be half-grown by the time monsters start arriving.
But it’s not necessary. None of this is necessary.
I ain’t doing nothing, Reesus said, but saying what I seen.
What you seen? You can’t see if tomorrow will be Tuesday. You can’t tell if ice will melt in the sun. Now I want you to stop.
Whatever it is you call yourself doing.
My father sighed. Because I say so.
Oh, Reesus said, because you say so. He shook his head and looked at those of us who stood there as if to say did we see what he had to put up with.
Reesus, my father said. Don’t make me hurt you.
Oh, you goin’ to shoot me, too?
If I have to.
My father didn’t get too close when he said this; he knew the history, how Reesus had come to Dominion in 1836, a boy of thirteen, the word Tiresias carved on the back of his hand. Negroes took him in, but when they asked, he wouldn’t tell what had happened. Neither would he stay long with any family, as if he feared to be indebted, or wanted to distribute fairly the small burden that he was. While negroes eventually shortened his name, for the most part they accepted a boy who was in love with colors, who wore long sleeves in all weather, who swam in the pond fully clothed. He held to modesty even when it came to baptism, which he submitted to in a green scarf and overcoat and a borrowed winter hat.
It was Miss Alice, the colored school teacher, who told us who Tiresias had been named for, and for a while some wondered if what made him so strange was that he was both female and male. Reesus never responded to that wondering, though when he heard of his namesake’s gift, he declared that he was a prophet. His first pronouncement came in the spring of 1837: a president, he said, would die in Texas, men would fly and women storm the gates of power waving underclothes. When none of these came true, Dominion lost interest in him until five white boys sought to see for themselves what lay between his thighs. One of those boys grew up to go to Albuquerque where he worked in a gambling house, forever lisping because of what teeth had done to his tongue. Another’s nose never regained ability to smell; the rest were beaten to unconsciousness. Following that skirmish, Reesus disappeared (gone off to prophecy school, some joked), returning seven years later to live by odd jobs, refusing to say where he’d gone or what he’d done while he’d been there, much less what he made of the fact that in his absence slavery had come.
He made another attempt at predicting in1849, proclaiming that a drought would descend upon Missouri, and it was while he waited in vain for this to happen that I went up to him where he leaned, disconsolately, it seemed, against the Founder’s Rock. He wore a yellow shirt and hat, green trousers, a blue sash around his waist. I had no strong belief in Reesus’ gift for prophecy, though sometimes, for reasons I didn’t wholly understand, I’d wished he could tell what was to come. So it was with one part unfounded hope and one part desire to make him feel better that I asked if he’d consent to tell my future. He blinked, then looked around, insuring I was alone. He was cautious about children; the Augusta twins had set fire to a bag of cow dung left at his door, and some other boys were fond of throwing rocks at him.
Three, he said, and held up that number of fingers.
Three? Three what?
What about them?
You’ll love three people.
No, you’ll stand and watch a fire.
A fire? What kind of prophecy is that? I said, and when his face fell, I walked away, disgusted. He called after me, said something I couldn’t make out, but I never turned back to hear it.
Later, I wondered why he’d said three people and not three women. And did he mean that in all my life I’d love but three? Or that I’d love all three at the same time? Each notion confused me. Finally I concluded that the stricken look on Reesus’ face came from his understanding of how poor his prophecy had been. It was second-rate, possessed neither art nor vision, and while it might have mentioned fire, shed no light.