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Never the Twain

Lon Prater is a retired Navy officer by day, writer of odd little tales by night. His short fiction has appeared in the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5, Writers of the Future XXI, and Origins Award finalist Frontier Cthulhu. He is an avid Texas Hold’em player, occasional stunt kite flyer, and connoisseur of history, theme parks and haunted hayrides. To find out more, click on www.lonprater.com.

Undated journal and loose pages of manuscript found beneath the floorboards of The Daily Confederation, formerly McConnell's Printing Shop, Montgomery, Alabama, CSA, 1885.
Dear Livy,
I am writing you this letter though I have no idea when, or if, or how it shall ever find you. It is one thing to write out literary fancies like my "Yankee in King Arthur's Court," and quite another to find myself in the middle of one. I suppose that as I write this, you do exist somewhere here in this horrid little world, but you'll not have heard of me yet.
I never made it to the Quaker City to sail with those tiresome innocents, never met your brother, never begged your father--or you--for your heart and hand, and so in this world, unlike the one I left, you are still young and fresh and alive. Your heavenly Gravity has not yet exerted itself upon this Youth; I fear something far darker may have.
I was at Stormfield--in Redding, Connecticut--our only surviving daughter Clara was there, such a prize she's become over the years. Having her there with me at the end was the last and sweetest taste of the family we once took for granted in Hartford. I knew it was the end. My tobacco heart failing a little more every day and all I could think about was how wonderful it would be to finally get some damned rest! I'd outlived you, to my shame and dismay, and I suppose the odds of someone like me sneaking in to Heaven to see you again were about as good as any politician's: I mean to say, none.
I passed alone but for Clara and my biographer, Paine, into the final sleep several nights ago, and that should have been the end of it. But you know my luck, and my knack for getting all wound up into things I've no business involved in.
Well the two traits converged in some strange way and I woke up literally forty years younger. Dreaming, I told myself, but I've discovered it's far worse than that.
I was on the little dinghy yards away from that cholera infested ship, the San Francisco. I'd recognize her anywhere, moonlit, flaking paint and that sickly yellow flag flapping atop her masts. I looked around for the barber Nolan, or Reverend Fackler, or any of the others I recalled from that hellish voyage. I was alone. How I came to be bobbing around on the inky waves like it were any old night aboard Henry's yacht, I shall never know.
But that's a small mystery compared to the one I'm about to share with you. It's 1867 now, and I rowed for two days in the unseasonable January heat before being rescued. I rowed 'till my arms felt like they'd nearly worn themselves loose in their sockets, not seeing my so-called "rescuers" before they were upon me.
A great booming voice hallooed from somewhere behind me and I heard a bell gonging in the distance. I craned my sunburned head back to look over one shoulder and what I saw there was the most amazing thing I have ever encountered. A great hulking brute of floating metal and sails combined, flying the flag of the Confederacy!
If I hadn't already felt as out of sorts as a jezebel in church, I did now for sure. The men were gruff, angry sorts who hauled me aboard. They questioned me for nearly an hour about where I'd come from, and Livy, I knew better than to tell them Connecticut. They were all set to keelhaul me as a Yankee spy and abolitionist even before they'd asked my name!
When they finally got around to that particular nicety, and I told them Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens if they preferred, I got the biggest round of blank looks you ever saw.
The captain was immediately suspicious. "Who needs two names but a Yankee spy?" he bellowed.
"I'm a writer," I told him. Then scrambling to remember the boy I had still been at thirty, I added, "A reporter out of San Francisco. I write under a pen name."
"Who do you write for?" he asked.
I answered as truthfully as I could. Livy, you have to realize, here I was, a few days after my death, suddenly a young man again, and in a strange sort of world where the Insurrection had never been crushed in 1865. At this point in my life, I had been headed for New York from California, there to find a couple more newspapers to sponsor my trip to the Holy Land in exchange for travel letters and articles from abroad. I'd gone by steamship to Panama, crossed overland to board another ship and then rowed away from its quarantine. My "Celebrated Jumping Frog" should have already made a small splash. It was due to appear in its own book with some of my other humorous scribblings later in the year. That was as much as the world knew of Mark Twain--and these stalwarts of prejudice and slavery had never even heard so much as my name! I still had no idea as to what sort of relationship they enjoyed with the regular United States, but with their hairy eyeball stares and accusations of being a Yankee spy, I knew better than to even imply even a little bit of that.
"I used to write in San Francisco for the Alta California, but now I'm headed to see my mother in Missouri."
"Missouri, huh? What part?"
"I was born in a speck called Florida," I told him, "but Hannibal's probably the place you've heard of."
"I have." He scratched at a mutton chop beard so robust and curly it could have fed a family of eight. "What's the name of that little island out there?"
"Glascock's Island, captain," I said, sensing that this was a sort of test of identity, and that it might well be meant to lull me into false calm. Regardless, I was sore happy to have spent those three years upon the Mississippi as a pilot! I readied my youthful mind to answer more questions about it, but his next proved that first one to be nothing more than a feint.
"How many slaves do you own?"
Livy, dear! Imagine him asking this of me, the man who wrote "Huckleberry Finn" and "Puddn'head Wilson!" As progressive a soul as could be found with or without Missouri blood in him.
I answered cautiously. "We had three, but there was some bad fortunes and they all got sold off." To my eternal credit, I was able to keep my disgust as invisible as the insurance man after an accident.
The captain grunted. He asked me a few more questions, then told me that I'd man the crow's nest as a lookout two hours out of every six until we returned to Mobile at the end of the week.
It was quiet work. Climbing those ratty ropes and perching in a basket no bigger than a privy pot made me dizzy, but no dizzier than the smell of those unwashed men down below. I found myself grateful for the altitude and fresh air. I settled into a quiet routine and the Jefferson Davis made landfall with no further incident.
I was unprepared for Mobile. The captain told me I was free to go, and that as I did such fine work I should consider applying for a commission in the Confederate Navy. (I'd begun learning some of the ropework of the bosuns as a way to pass the time, and from there moved up to assisting the ship's purser, once it became apparent I knew my letters.)
I begged off, reminding him of my ill mother in Hannibal.
Mobile in 1867 was much as it had been in my steamboat piloting days: sleepy, hot and the air absolutely dripping with the sweat of slaves.
The whites hardly had any more meat on them than the slaves. Their clothes were not new at all, but rather all faded and patched and cinched up like a miser's purse. Fences and churchyards sported flaking paint and everywhere I could see, the pitiful little town just seemed to sag. Whatever circumstances had led to this sad state of affairs, with slavery still in its thorny bloom and an independent Confederacy, I dared not ask. But I knew exactly where to go looking.
I wandered the streets for a short while, feeling the ache of hunger building even as I realized I had far too much meat on my ribs to go complaining to any of the famished citizens of Mobile. I came upon a Negro man who wore his master's handwritten pass pinned to a garment that appeared to be more sackcloth with holes in it than an actual shirt. I asked him for the location of the newspaper and to my surprise he offered to escort me there.
He seemed a jovial, thoughtful sort, not unlike my "Sociable Jimmy," but all grown up. I felt a sort of bond forming as we walked. I asked him several questions, trying to gain a sense of the state of the world, but he only shook his sad head to every one. "Don't know nothin' bout no free states, Mas Clemens."
"Don't know nothin' bout no border, Mas Clemens."
"No suh, Mas Clemens, I's just a simple nigger. Don't know nothin' bout nothin' lest I'm told to know somethin' bout it."
Livy, my heart was breaking at this. And you know me well, my anger welling up inside me like the fires of Hell's own furnace. I had no money to tip the man when we arrived, indeed it was not even expected. I made note of his name, Darnell, and that he was owned by Briggs the grocer. Darnell set off on his master's business, and I tried to hide my great repugnance with the whole damn world before I entered the Mobile Daily Register.
It was a simple affair, much like any other cramped little newsroom, complete with neatly arranged typesetting cabinets, ink smudges on every surface, and an irascible looking hook-nosed fellow griping over a few sheets of copy. He glared up at me as the door slammed in my wake. I knew just the kind of thing to say in such a situation, having spent more than my share of time as a reporter (either forty years ago, or just a few months back, depending on which part of my life you wanted to count by, that of the body or that of my mind.)
"Did you hear the news?" I exclaimed, positively bristling with the scoop of the month. "The Confederate Navy rescued a man at sea last week and they just returned to port and set him on his way!"
The editor's hook nose twitched, as if he could already smell the extra sales such a headline would get him, especially if he got it printed up before any competitors.
"How do you know this?" he asked. I could tell from his manner that he couldn't care less whether the story was true or not. He was all but salivating at the prospect of scooping the other papers.
I ignored his question and asked him one of my own. "Did you know he's here penniless, just wanting to get back to Missouri to his ailing mother, and that of all things, he used to be both a typesetter and a reporter?"
Now the hook was set, I tell you, Livy! With just a bit of negotiating, I was able to maneuver myself into a reporting and typesetting job so as to make some money and get my feet beneath me. My first job? Interviewing myself of course!
Ezra (for that was the proprietor's name) hired me on for a dollar-and-a-half a week, plus a reasonable rate per page for typesetting. As fringe benefit I was allowed the use of a flyblown pallet in the back of the shop. And talked him out of a half week's advance on top of everything else! Of course, the first thing I bought was a good hot meal, this journal and pen. Well, the first thing... after a handful of cheap cigars and box of safety matches!
I've been sitting here for the better part of an hour, writing you this letter, Livy, though I know you'll never read it. But it gives me strength to pretend that somehow you are reading it, just as once upon a time you read my every word. I'm both comforted and saddened by the knowledge that you'll be excising no harshnesses from this narrative.
More soon, my dearest,
Dearest Livy,
I've been keeping quite busy, and frankly battling my own bottled up furies has left me drained, sickened, and horrified. It has been nearly two weeks in this wretched place, I have nearly enough saved to head north, for that is what I've decided I must do. If I remain here much longer, reporting on slave auctions, and which patrollers were forced to lynch which poor Negro caught out late without a pass, and the sorry state of rain and crops, I will surely lose possession of what little self-control I have left and resort to rending my clothes out upon the streets and getting lynched myself. I cannot much longer maintain the despicable charade of Bible-backed slavery all of these callous, hardhearted, hell-bent souls carry on with such facility. I mean of course, the way they, like Huck Finn before he sets off with Jim, believe it because all they hear from every pulpit and genteel table-setting is that slavery is the natural province of the colored man, and dominion over him that of the white.
Ezra has noticed my tendency for prankish typesetting error, I'm sure of it. But the man hasn't fired me, or so much as docked my pay. I dare not wear out my welcome with him, though I find what little bit of sanity I can in this place by changing the occasional headline to read "Slave Auction at noon a huge success for the Grosser Briggs" and so on.
I'd almost swear Ezra had a twinkle in his eye when Briggs came in to chastize him for the typo. I glimpsed Darnell waiting outside atop the man's carriage and rushed outside before Ezra could say a word to me. I greeted Darnell in a cheery manner and handed him a nickel and some pennies as belated payment for bringing me to the Mobile Daily Register on my first day here. His eyes enlargened and he swallowed like a suffocating fish.
"I ain't 'llowed no moneys, Mas Clemens."
"Please, take it," I said.
But the man would not. So I set it down on the carriage seat beside him. "If not for yourself, then use it to buy some candy for your children, or something nice for a lady you favor."
Darnell's eyes fell in an instant, and I knew that by my words I'd harmed the man. I felt ill to my stomach, but I had to ask nonetheless. "Where are your children, Darnell?"
He swallowed again, looked away from me. The dusty street quieted around us until all I could hear was the murmur of Ezra mollifying Briggs within and the beat of my own heart in my ears without.
Darnell put a hand to his face, still not looking my way.
"Sold," he said, without so much as a tremble to his voice. "Gone."
And that was that, Livy. That was that. "Why?" I demanded, clawing my way up onto the carriage, no doubt scaring the man in the process. "Why were they sold?"
"Time's is hard, Mas Clemens. Please don't make me talk 'bout it no more."
And he was right. The time for talking was past. I labored my way down from the carriage, feeling more like the seventy-two year old I was within than the pup of thirty I was without.
Until I saw Briggs stepping through the door of the Register, whereupon I punched him square in the nose and knocked the little man unconscious.
I know what you're thinking, Livy. That was surely going to land me in jail. But of all the surprising things in the world, it did not. Darnell took Briggs home in a hurry, and I began a serious talk with Ezra that I felt certain would end my employment with his newspaper. "If I'd known you were going to do that, I wouldn't have bothered unruffling his feathers, Clemens!"
The fire still raged in me, but I fought to contain it. Some of Ezra's comments over the brief week I'd worked for him had led me to believe that he and I might share certain principled positions on the matters of the day. I took this opportunity, seeing as I was about to get fired anyway, to see just how similar our principles really were.
I said, "Only the lowest of men would separate a family in the name of a few dollars, slave or no."
Ezra crooked his head to one side and stared at me, appraising me like one of the Scottish women in Edinburgh would stare down a bleary-eyed fish before haggling the price. He got up, walked to the door all ginger-like, as if he didn't want anyone to hear the floorboards creaking beneath him. He shut the door and put the closed sign into the window.
I sat down on a buckskin-backed chair and waited in the noonday gloom. Long seconds ticked by, but all I had to count was the drops of my own sweat trickling down the nape of my neck. I counted eight before the silence was too much, Ezra's scrutiny too overwhelming.
I said, "Well, if I'm fired, then what am I still doing here?"
Ezra lit a cigar and offered me one out of his box. They tasted too expensive for my liking and so I pulled one of my own two-cent cigars out of my breast pocket. We lit them, puffed deeply, and watched the smoke rise up to the ceiling.
"I'm going to ask you this one time, so I know whether I should call the sheriff on you," Ezra said. He swirled his cigar around in a little circle, seemingly fascinated by the way the smoke arced and twisted in the air. I waited. Another drop of sweat rolled down the nape of my neck. By now, my collar was absolutely salty.
He leaned forward and whispered in a ragged, hoarse voice. "Are you one of those snakebellied vermin trying to free all the slaves and topple the Confederacy?"
I swallowed, feeling a bit like Darnell up on the carriage, afraid to answer a simple question, afraid of what the answer meant.
I felt my fists clench up, Livy, as I thought of telling him, "No sir, not me. I just don't like people mistreating their property. Wouldn't want to see him whip his horse too hard, or kick his dog too much either." Livy, I thought all that, considered actually saying it out loud, for fear of what he might do, of what might happen. But in the end, I said simply:
"No, but I'm pretty sure I'd like to be."
"Then we don't have much time," Ezra said. "Briggs will be back soon as he wakes up, and he's not a man to trifle with when he's mad." He scribbled an address on a piece of paper and handed it to me. "Go to this man, he's another printer up in Montgomery. Tell him I sent you."
He handed me four more dollars and sent me out the back door with my meager possessions hanging out of my pockets like prizes I'd won at the County Fair.
I was on the next wagon north. It was a pleasure to vacate Mobile and leave the sputtering Briggs far behind me. Surely, he'll forgive and forget; they do still preach that on occasional Sundays, don't they?
That night sleeping in the open with the few other passengers reminded me very much of my trip with Orion out to the Nevada territory. I dreamed of him, and of you, and most of all, I dreamed of the world I'd left. I dreamed of it so hard I woke up with an aching heart, and perhaps just a hint of the idea that if I were to somehow bring myself to die in this world, maybe I'd end up back where I needed to be, whether that was Hell or Connecticut, I wasn't sure it mattered much.
It makes no sense to me anymore to sign these letters, Livy. You know they are meant for you, just as every word I ever wrote was meant for your eyes alone. But I cannot break old habit, and as a man of over seventy, there's no reason for me even to try.
Thus, I close this letter as Eternally Yours as ever I was,
Oh Gravity, my love,
So much to tell you, and I wish that I could stuff the first sentence to bursting with every single crumb of information like it were an overflowing sack of grain. Alas, even an author as accomplished as I am cannot, so you will just have to read about the developments one at a time as I lay them out on the sideboard before you.
To start--Just as your father and so many of our acquaintance did their part over the years to help the Negro slaves escape their torment into the north, so also have I become one of the Underground Railroad.
The man Ezra sent me to was none other than Emmanuel McConnell. A fine man, thick of knuckle and low of brow enough to make it quite obvious that he's a natural bigot and Confederate, but that is the glory of it! Behind that stolid southern mask of dull eyes and hanging jaw lies a nine-weeks wonder of a mind, and one bent on shuttling as many blacks to freedom as dare to run away!
He inculcated me in the secrets and signs, or least the bare handful they give to neophyte abolitionist agents like myself. No doubt there are deeper secrets to share in later, once I've proved myself reliable.
Livy, never has a dead old man felt so alive. For certain, the vigor of my younger self's body is nothing short of an astonishment to my... shall we say more seasoned soul within. Indeed, the thrill of taking part in this great and noble Crusade is nothing but the rarest of spices.
I imagine sometimes that through this effort, I am somehow still connected to you, even in this world, despite all the years and lives between us. The blacks I help to escape may well stop at your father's church on their way farther north. Or mayhap even at Quarry Farm!
And I've another idea which may entrance you. You know how sharp my memory is, how many hours of practice I put into it over the years to establish myself as a speaker. Working for the printer McConnell has put me in mind to become a pamphleteer in the grand tradition of our Founding Fathers. The pamphlets I'm writing? Huckleberry Finn. You see the logic of it immediately, don't you dear? When before, in our world, I finished it twenty years after the end of the Civil War, the book had Power. It changed people's thinking about the question of the blacks and I know that it will have the same effect here, now, as it did when slavery itself was much more distant. McConnell has no idea what I'm talking about, of course, and he just chortled me out of the room when I told him my idea of publishing what he called "a children's book" under the nom-de-plume of Huckleberry Finn. You see, the plan is to publish it in installments, anonymously, and get the people invested in it. Once I have the hook set in their hearts, I jerk the cane rod back firmly and pull them flapping like trout out of the river of their ignorance. And I won't soften the end this time, returning to the pleasurable gambol of a boy's adventures afterward. This time, there will be anguish, and sorrow. This time, the South will read it and know in their hearts the wrong they do.
McConnell agreed at the last, but only when I offered up most of my wage as payment. He's a sharp one, McConnell. His sole condition was that the pamplets not be distributed closer than twenty miles from his shop. He doesn't want them being traced back to him. Sam Clemens has a fine enough point on him to see the reason of that.
The first two installments have already gone out, and to no less than the expected acclaim. Folks are reading it in the streets, newspaper printers are freely copying the exploits of Huckleberry Finn into their newspapers like they've never even heard such a word as copyright! Imagine my own surprise, after all those appeals to Congress over the years, to be here, now, glorying in the theft of my work. McConnell has even decided he must follow the lead of other printers throughout the Confederacy and offer up printings for sale. Irony, thy name be Huckleberry.
The third pamphlet goes out for distribution in random churches and public houses Monday, and after that, the fourth, which will hold my renovated climax and conclusion. McConnell says he'll wait a week or two before he's able to "obtain" a pamphlet to print up and sell here in Montgomery.
My dear, my dear, my dear! Huckleberry Finn is stealing my audience from me, upstaging Sam Clemens in a way that Mark Twain never could have, and I am LOVING it!
I have already begun the fourth installment & shall complete it and begin to set the type when I return from this assignment I mentioned above. The particulars of it? I'm to go to a certain church, all the way south in Mobile, collect a pair of blacks from their hiding place, and escort them as my property all the way north to the Ohio River. There, I'll turn them over to an able boatman by dark of night and return to Montgomery, there to do it all again in a week or two.
This journal of mine will be far too incriminating to have on my person, Livy. I'm hiding it beneath the floorboards of McConnell's print shop with what I've written of the final installment. On my triumphant return, I will take up once again the pen. (And with no rheumatism--if anything ever felt so good as writing with my right hand not throbbing, I do not know what it might have been!)
I will close for now, Livy. Until I write again, please know that you have all of my love, Dear Gravity,
Your beloved Youth,
as told by
Huckleberry Finn His Self
I s'pose as you kept readin so far you want to get at the end, and that's what you're holdin' right now. When I cut off in that last little book, me and Jim was on the river and I was havin' a powerful hard time sleepin' on account of I knew I had to turn Jim in to his owners or let my soul burn in Hell forever after, and at the same time I knew that Jim weren't so different from white folk, with the way he cried after his lost babies and looked after me and all. I 'spect you all been tore up something awful waitin' on me to get round to tellin' you what come out of that long dark night. Well perk your eyes up real good because 'tween you and me--please don't nobody go tattlin' to the Widder Douglas, it'd rip her dried up pruny heart right in two to hear of it--this one's going to be an astonishment....
End of written materials found in The Daily Confederation building, 1885.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Author Comments

I wrote the short story "Never the Twain" while in the middle of writing an entirely different novel of an alternate Mark Twain at the end of his life in the early 1900s. One Twain rattling around in my head was more than enough, and the only way to exorcise this more fantastical version was to give the short story the attention it wanted. After, I was able to finish the novel, The American in His Season, with a little less distraction.

- Lon Prater
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