In the three years since George Washington left the presidency, he felt so stripped of the usual clinging crowds that he occasionally felt lonely. The experience of loneliness again crept on him as he toured the five farms of his beloved old Mount Vernon. His tour had been long planned.
It was an excessively snowy and windy day. Still, at this point in the December season, postponing anything because of bad weather could just lead into more days of worse climate. Besides, Washington had a determination — and he understood this was his own singular way of planning everything — to complete a survey on his old presidential parade horse Prescott going over all of Mount Vernon.
Washington’s years of battle left him with an instinct to react instantly and uniquely to every situation. Now he felt an unusual sensation that someone was closing in on him from his right side. Just as strongly, he felt himself being warned not to turn to that side, or the other side, nor to express any fear at someone who would here approach him unexpectedly.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Washington said, looking straight ahead.
“Yes, General Washington. I agree it is a good afternoon, if terribly snowy and freezing, isn’t it?”
“Who are you, sir?”
“Death itself, general.”
“I thought so, sir.” Washington said the word “hah,” this time speaking it instead of making the expression a noise.
“I had a feeling you would be approaching me, my good sir.”
“You seem comfortable with me, General Washington. Most people are not.”
“I have had the support of a loving providence throughout my life but most people have not. I see no logic in my providence abandoning me even with you here.”
“This is what it is like with me, general. When I find a 67-year-old man exposing himself to a blizzard like this, I expect that he was actually looking for me.”
“I assure you I am not a suicide. I am rather avoiding another day of watching all my fireplaces burn.”
“I understand, general. I promise you I am more pressing than all your burning fireplaces. I am happy to hear about your unusual need for this adventure, if you want. Do you mind if I ride with you?”
“You will be on the tail end of my ride, where I have my wheat farm. Unfortunately, my wheat is so bad I cannot eat it myself. My slaves have no incentive to do anything well, even to raise a little good wheat.”
“Isn’t whipping an incentive to harvest some good wheat, general? I am ruling out giving your slaves promotions for doing better work, or raising their pay.”
Here it comes, Washington told himself. He wondered if he were still free to look inside himself for a few more minutes, to be sure things would not start falling apart there, or even to make certain that “things falling apart” would not be betrayed in his eyes and his voice.
They rode silently toward the wheat farm, the snow turning into a hail and pelting Washington hard in the face. It had been seven years ago — the third year into Washington’s presidency — when the president had a young woman named Charlotte whipped on this same wheat field. He rarely had a slave whipped, yet he allowed his five overseers to flog any of them at will. But Washington had finally decided that if he personally didn’t do something about Charlotte, Martha would never stop complaining to him about the girl’s idleness.
All the slaves had been released to witness Charlotte’s whipping, which lasted longer than the girl’s capacity to remain conscious. After this lesson to all who watched, the slaves at Mount Vernon acted differently to Washington when he visited from his Philadelphia presidency, looking quickly away from him when he would ride by with his distinguished entourages. Then his most needed and what he thought most loyal domestic slaves — Hercules and Ona — ran clear away into freedom in the north.
“In the first year of the war, I had a young man in my elite personal guard hanged,” said Washington, looking straight ahead. “I seldom hung a man in the war, and I knew this Mr. Thomas Hickey personally. It was in New York City I discovered he was betraying me. Every man in my army viewed the execution at eleven that morning. After every of my brigades watched Mr. Hickey go through his ordeal, I had a lot less to worry about with my officers and soldiers betraying me. But of course, then there was Mr. Benedict Arnold. Do you know what I have learned from all this?”
“I have learned a soldier and a slave are very different beings.”
“I see it a little differently. To me, every being is my slave. For our purposes in particular, you are my slave.”
“I have a question for you.”
“The only thing I actually know is everyone is under my thumb. But naturally you can ask me anything you want.”
“I want to know how people in the future will look at me.”
“I am only Death, and that is enough for me. I am not a soothsayer.”
They rode silently back to the mansion. After over five hours of dallying in the worst storm of the season, Washington was sumptuously wet with snow and water filling his boots, and he felt like he was already getting sick. He also no longer felt that Death was simply beside him, but that the creature and the thing’s horse were starting to besiege him. “I will free my slaves,” he said, fighting the onslaught of snow with his living words and his living breath. “I will free all my slaves in my will.”
The snow kept falling.
“I will be worthy to be George Washington.”
He said it again, to be sure.
Chris Sharp has a new non-fiction book out on Amazon, How to Like a Human Being. He lives with his poetess wife Debbie Bongiovanni-Sharp in Menifee, California.