Word Count: 1900
Summary: John Henry and his wife Polly know better than to make a deal with the Devil, but when the steam engine comes, they have no choice.
Notes: This story was the winner of the Patreon poll for this month, and was sponsored by my awesome crew at Patreon! And since donations hit a new milestone for me, I thought I'd both expand this story a little bit and give it an illustration, on top of what I already planned since the money vs. wordcount added up a little funky. I hope you enjoy! More notes at the bottom.
Everyone knows the story of John Henry, the man with the hammer who fought the machine of progress and won-- for a little while, anyway. Everyone also knows that the victory came at the cost of his own life.
But there’s a different story about him and his wife, one less well known.
Polly Ann and John Henry had many things in common: they were both kind, gentle people, they both yearned to have a family of their own, and they were both born slaves. However, how they dealt with those hellish circumstances was very different. John Henry developed a deep focus and a craving for action; with his tool in his hand and his body in motion, he could silence the rest of the world, narrow it to the task at hand. This intense concentration gave him the ability to power through almost anything, and made him unparalleled with the hammer. It also meant that he was a man who never held still, never slowed down, even when he needed to.
Polly Ann, on the other hand, developed a quiet awareness and caution. Her eyes, ears, and hands were always open, taking in the world around her. She absorbed information, skills, and gossip like a sponge, since she never knew what might come in useful later. And while she never became the best at anything, like John did, she did develop a dazzling array of skills, all of which served them well.
All of their friends agreed that they were a perfect match, but it was John’s sweetness that won Polly’s love, and her mental agility that won his. That love was all they cared to remember from those terrible days.
When the war ended and freedom came, they couldn’t marry fast enough. Within a short time, Polly found she was pregnant. And though it was what she had always wanted, she was scared. For so many years, pregnancy meant pain, suffering, inevitable separation and sale; she herself had never known her mother.
But John held her close. He reminded her that they belonged to no one but each other now. They could finally have the family they had always wanted, a child who would never be taken away. A child born into freedom. And it was his focus on the present that helped break through her fear and grief of the past.
Unfortunately, there was still the issue of money. They were looking for better lives; they just hadn’t found them yet.
“I’ll think of something,” John promised.
“We will,” Polly corrected.
Of course, they both looked for work—they couldn’t afford not to. But slavery cast a long shadow. Every one of Polly’s skills came in handy—mending, laundry, cleaning, repair, midwifery, odd jobs, she did it all. But as her pregnancy progressed, they knew she couldn’t keep up the grueling pace, and even with the two of them together, the money just wasn’t enough to support their child.
“We’ll think of something,” Polly said, patting John’s shoulder.
He said nothing. It bothered him deeply that all of his strength and will wasn’t enough to support his family.
That night, as they slept in bed, John heard a knock at the door. There was a late fall chill in the air, and outside their window, the moon hung in the sky like a silver coin. It was the witching hour, and John certainly didn’t want to leave his warm bed and his warm wife, but the visitor was very insistent. Polly, uncharacteristically, didn’t stir, and finally, John got up to answer the door.
On the other side of was a man in a crisp white suit that wouldn’t come into fashion for another fifty years. The brim of his hat shadowed his face from the moonlight, so that later, John wouldn’t be able to say much of what the man looked like, except that his skin was dark as the night sky, and he had a big, white smile like a slice of the moon.
“John Henry,” the stranger said. “I’m at your service.”
John Henry felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. On some instinctive level, developed from a lifetime’s encounters with the little devils of cruelty, apathy, and selfishness, he knew that this stranger on his doorstep was the Devil himself.
“I don’t want none of your service,” he said, and tried to shut the door in the Devil’s face.
But the Devil caught the door in one hand gently, and however John strained, he couldn’t shut it.
“Sh,” the Devil said. “You’ll wake Polly.”
John froze. Part of him wanted to continue straining, force this surely malevolent stranger from his home and his family. But he thought of his wife, and he let the front door go. “What do you want?”
“I have a business proposition for you.”
The Devil went on as though he hadn’t spoken. “Tomorrow, there will be a job opening at the Cavendish railroad company. If you get up at the crack of dawn and let nothing distract you, you’ll get the job. There, you’ll make enough money to care for your family the rest of their days...”
John thought of the long hours spent in job lines, in worrying. He looked back at Polly, who seemed deep in an enchanted sleep. He thought of their child, as yet unborn, and he thought of the love that had sustained them through hell and back. He thought of all the things he would do for her.
“Nobody’s told you this, John, because they don’t know, but your heart’s weak,” the Devil continued. “The work you do, it will burst on you. But not yet. Now, in a couple months, there’s going to be a wager, man against machine. You don’t need details; you’ll know it when you see it. Take the wager; that’s where the big money is. If you win, you’ll go down in history as a hero, a legend.”
“But your heart will give out. You’ll never see your child.”
“And if I lose?”
The Devil shrugged. “You’ll live… for a while. But no money, no legend. You already know what that life is like.” He smiled, put out a hand. “What do you say?”
John thought. He knew what he wanted to do. But he knew, more than anything, that right then, he needed Polly’s sense, her ability to weigh all the options and weave them through her fingers without losing track of a single one.
“I need to discuss this with my wife,” he said.
The Devil squinted at him for a moment, as though trying to read his intentions. Whatever he saw must’ve satisfied him, for he smiled again. “By all means. As you should.”
And he disappeared into the night.
John woke Polly, and because he was him and she was her, she believed him instantly, and got to work analyzing it all. Could the Devil be trusted? (Of course not.) What should they do? (Nothing seemed quite right.) They talked and talked, worried themselves in circles, until finally they lay quiet in bed, Polly’s head on his chest.
“If we don’t stop this, I’ll sleep through the job call,” John said.
“Maybe we’d be better off if you did,” Polly said.
They were silent a while. John could feel her eyelashes fluttering against his skin. He stroked her hair.
“I have an idea,” she said.
The next few days passed like a dream, or a story. John Henry got up at dawn, and just as the Devil said, the job was there. It was good paying work, playing to John Henry’s strengths and skill, but both him and Polly were quiet, anxious. She wasn’t sure her idea would work; he wasn’t sure he’d be able to follow it even if it did. It was one thing to turn to her when he was just standing there; it was a whole other thing when he was in full labor.
When the wager came, it all seemed to fall into place in his head. Man against machine, John against all the implacable, unfeeling forces against him. This was surely what he was meant for, what he was born for.
And wielding his hammer, John pitted his muscle and mind against smoke and steel.
If not for Polly, he would’ve ascended to that heaven in his mind, the one where nothing existed but the work, and he would’ve hammered the nails into his own coffin without a thought. But there was more than just himself now; she was his wife, and she was there in the crowd, watching him, keeping pace with him, eyes big and round.
Because he was aware of her, John could remember what she’d told him, and began to notice a tightness in his chest, shooting pains down his right arm—his valiant heart, desperately trying to keep up with all the pressures it’d been under. From her worried face, it was as though she knew even before he did.
Even with all the talks and planning he and Polly Ann had gone through, even though he knew better, John Henry was tempted. Maybe the Devil had lied—that was what he always did, wasn’t it? Maybe he could work through it. Maybe… maybe…
But he saw Polly watching him, her face pinched and shining with love. They shared a timeless glance.
And John Henry did what he’d never been able to do. He slowed down.
They didn’t know if it would work. It was a gamble, Polly’s clever mind wanting to find a solution to an unwinnable game. He couldn’t afford to lose to the machine; his family couldn’t bear for him to win. Which meant there was only one thing to do.
John poured every ounce of his willpower and his concentration into that goal, driving steel, pumping his battered heart. And he could feel Polly’s eyes and prayers in the crowd, the mother of his child, the wife of his heart, more important than any labor.
John Henry didn’t beat the machine, but he didn’t lose to it either. They finished, as he and Polly had planned, at the exact same time.
John smiled at her, and then he collapsed.
When he came to, he was in his nice warm bed, and Polly Ann was at his side, with a warm bowl of soup. She, of course, would be tending him. She knew how. She knew half of everything. Her soup was rich and delicious, but John Henry couldn’t take the spoon. He felt so heavy, so tired. He knew, even before Polly told him, that his hammering days were over. His heart would never be able to endure such labor ever again; he would only be able to perform the lightest of physical tasks from here on out.
That was fine. What really mattered was...
“Are we…?” he asked.
She smiled, and her eyes were filled with tears. “We got half the reward money.”
And they held each other, and they cried. Because it was enough. It’d always been enough. And when their child was born a few months later, John took care of her while Polly worked, and they knew they had everything they’d always wanted.
Notes: The idea for this might've come from a dream we had on the general theme, plus some irritation with parts of the legend in general. Polly Ann is mentioned a good few times in the stories, but she rarely gets to do anything. And part of me was always bothered how the story kinda presumes that it's better to die heroically and nobly than maybe to survive with your loved ones, even in a weakened state. Also, John Henry never gets to have any hair in those stories. He's always depicted with really short hair, so I decided to give him the Frederick Douglass fluff instead. This entry was originally posted at http://lb-lee.dreamwidth.org/791017.html.