Orion is the name of a brawny giant in Greek mythology, a slayer of all beasts, who became a constellation. In this story, his namesake is a physically beaten, emaciated African disavowed by all on the plantation except one slave boy; accordingly, his proud name has been truncated to “Ryan.” The boy, contemptuous of his vapid chores and the animal stories often repeated to him, is eager to take his place alongside the field hands and to learn the subtleties of male conversation. Restless, he alternately laments both “the nothing always there to think of” in his mind and the bombardment of orders from others on him, “so crowded and noisy lots of time don’t hear his own voice.” For this reason, Ryan, who maintains serenity while obstinately speaking “heathen talk,” abstaining from American food, and meditating in the river, poses an irresistible attraction.
Despite a beating from Aunt Lissy, the black doyenne of Mistress’s kitchen and the supervisor of the slave children, the boy follows Ryan every spare moment, hiding behind trees. He even memorizes a word that he has heard the man shout in his direction: “Damballah.” Though the boy does not know that this refers to a powerful god in the African pantheon, the word’s very sound engenders equilibrium in him. He senses that Damballah will permeate something latent and beneficent inside himself, like a sudden gleam “you knew all the time . . . was there” appearing in a tarnished spoon when he polishes Mistress’s silver.
The boy suspects that Ryan, aware of his spying, longs to communicate with him, yet before the two can meet directly, Master loses his patience with the recalcitrant man. Frustrated and irate, Master requests a full refund for Ryan in a letter to the unscrupulous trader who sold him. Then at last Ryan does something powerful, worthy of the legendary Greek hunter but for him, a slave, unthinkable and fatal. He strikes an overseer from his horse with bone-breaking effect, incurring a punishment of death: Master and the other overseers torture and decapitate him. Not even death can stop Ryan from contacting the boy, however, and through Damballah’s intercession Ryan transmits to the child the native stories that he had yearned to preserve. When his spirit finally departs, the boy tosses the severed head into the waters where the dead man used to stand.