There was something beyond courage in them, something able to abandon fear and worry, and engage hefty ambitions. A piece of soap, two blankets for when the babies come, a clean dress, folded and rolled, a pair of pants and ripped pages from a Bible shoved deep down in a potato sack. Their minds were already there, rooted and growing hundreds of miles away in a place they never visited. The words on the letter read “…free and we are alive. Come.” Not used to happiness in excessive amounts, they gorged on their fantasies to ease their growing hunger and null the pain of letting go of the ones to be left behind. They know their sorrowful faces will be the heaviest bundle to carry and the most difficult to unload. In their minds, they know they must leave before they are gone to prevent them from looking back through the darkness. They would have to be tough and swift when they barge into the night hungry as lions, for if any sinister predator of the night got hold of them, it would be death.
It would be machetes and vicious dogs turned loose on men, women and children. Canine razor teeth would strip the flesh from the bones until blood ran and soaked the ground. It would be strings of saliva dropping heavy with dangling meat of muscles formed by lifetimes of strenuous labor. Gaping cavities in arms, thighs and backs would reveal gnawed bones. Effusive laughter from the mouths of patrolmen amid the tormenting screams and cries would croon into the darkness. Vainglorious patrolmen would bring word and the remains in broad daylight. They would stand upon wide porches of masters for rewards of coins, a cool drink and a swift pat of their backs. All the while, mangled body parts would bake under the sun on the backs of wagons, open and exposed for all to see. A swarm of flies would indulge in the immoderate meal and mangy dogs would sink their dirty teeth into pieces of meat and run dragging the limb or intestine or torso. Oh, how the masters would be proud and the other Whites would be pleased.
Then those left behind, would dare to question God of his decision to choose the varmint over the lives of those they love, for it was they who prayed without ceasing, who clutched their faith and stuffed it in every open space of their beings. It was they who believed wholeheartedly and in their own way. Who called on His favor by performing at their best. In the extra attention they gave to wiping the molasses jar clean of the sticky syrup and gentle cuts to skin the dead deer. In the way they gave added pats to the soil around the crops, the way they picked fruit from the trees with tender tugs, and they did not complain about the hot sun. It was they who believed they transacted with Him when they dropped their eyes to give the Whites what they wanted in exchange for the lives of their loved ones on the run – and to hide their terror and to hide their joy.
What was left of the sun crouched behind towering trees and branches laden with Spanish moss.
“They gon’ make it. I’m sure they gon’ make it. Right, Sylvia? They gon’ get there just fine. Right?”
“They will. You just keep praying for their protection. Everything gon’ be alright. God gon’ cover them out of here. You just got to believe it.” Sylvia believed it for her heavy-hearted friend, Lu. She had to believe it. It was the greater side of what could happen.
Lu’s cabin was filled tight with women. The plantation had a quiet rumble in the cabin just off the main path where the women were moving and frying dough to pack for the ones fleeing when the orange sun faded from the sky. They hummed deep and low from far within their bosoms. In the kitchen, they busied themselves with their tasks and did not look at each other except to ask for more lard or a piece of muslin to wrap the warm fried bread. Each had their own path to pave, they needed to find a place of rest to settle with their fright. Organized as they were, kneading dough, pulling dough, frying dough and sprinkling flour on the table amidst a fog of burning lard, in the silence of their beings, there was ransacking, tossing, turning, tussling, sadness, happiness and proper turmoil. They were wise and built themselves to sustain suffering and strife, but if their eyes touched, if they made sense of what they were doing they would collapse into each other and fall to pieces. A cool breeze waved the curtain nailed into the clapboard above the window. Sylvia knew she was in the midst of something bigger and more powerful than mere packing and preparations. The waves in her stomach told her so. Or, maybe it was the glimpse of the stars through the open window as they took their place in a clear sky. They settled far apart from each other, yet near enough for their lights to work together, led by the glowing moon. They were one—the stars, the moon and the women—each doing their own work to create something greater than what they were alone.
Their hopes and dreams were packed inside rolled socks and mended into worn shirts. For two days, those fleeing delivered their belongings, piece by piece, to Lu’s house for packing. It was a way to hide their intentions elsewhere and not in their own homes. The one in charge, the one insistent on being called First Lady, could havoc through their space at any time for any self-indulgent reason. She knew the young were too young to deny themselves what beckoned outside the town of Mercy and they knew her watchful eyes were on them. Sylvia placed a bit of herself in the pocket of an apron she folded and pressed down the half-filled potato sack. Not too full or the strain would cause them to tire and hunger before they should. She did not pack an entire Bible stuffed in a pair of rolled pants. Instead, she packed only pages to ease the weight. She ripped several soft, thin sheets of paper from Psalms and all from the book of Exodus because in there, they made it.
She could hear the gathering outside in the damp, dew-filled grass. Lu wiped a staggering tear with the back of her hand without pause to her busy work, tying the last pieces of warm bread in cloth.
“They gone be alright, I tell you,” Sylvia consoled with a hand on Lu’s shoulder. Her friend’s hands trembled as she tied and retied the knot.
“He’s the only boy I got left.” Lu said.
“Don’t know why he can’t be alright with being here. It’s that wife of his wanna get up and go. He do any and everything she tell him and he don’t give a fuss about it.” She looked at Sylvia with tears sitting on the rim of her eyelids. “Don’t make a lick of sense to me why he let her run over him like that. Man supposed to run his family, not the wife.”
Sylvia had no word of comfort. She was enduring her own share of a man running his family. Rubbing her hand across Lu’s back, her friend could no longer confine her tears.
“You go on and let it out now. They don’t need to see you like this before they go into night. You gotta give ‘em comfort. You just go’on and get it out.” She wrapped her arms around Lu and rocked her. “Go on. You gotta be stronger in a little while ‘cause you gotta give ‘em everything you got and be left with a little bit of nothing.” Sylvia could have cried without persuasion but instead tightened her throat and her heart the way she did when her own sons were taken from her. The lumbering despair in Lu’s bawls shot through the cabin without prejudice. Soon they were all using the hem of aprons to wipe their eyes and hugs were extended to lend and borrow bearings. It was time, everything was ready. Women with babies on their hips or wrapped on their backs fast asleep stood with torn hope falling from their eyes as they kissed husbands and older children goodbye. New wives clung to the necks of their new husbands until their mothers pried them loose and placed them on their bosoms making them children again. The curtains continued to flap until they were out the windows flailing in the cool breeze, and the night they all prayed for strength to make it through, continued to come.
The Lions—as they were called, the brave souls in pursuit of their rightful freedom—wrestled with joy and sadness. Their faces smiled and frowned at the same time but the darkness was black and covered their indisposition. They did not hug with might or length for if they did, they would be softened and fright would creep in and cripple their bravery. The four-day journey to Hartha Gables called for their will more than anything and they kept it secured with a stoic conscience. Hartha Gables was a town only a few years old and it was the Promise Land on earth. There were no masters, no slaves and the ground was pure of gray memories and crimson bloodstains. The seventeen people and two babies in wombs were the first to leave in over three months. The last group did not make it and were found strewn on both plantations, disjointed and unidentifiable except for two bashed heads still attached to the arm-less torso.
“Won’t see you no more on this side, but I’ll be waiting for you when you reach Heaven.” A grandmother said her peace with the fleeting wave of a stringy, veined hand to her two grands. Her eyes, milky and tired, revealed her undisguised knowledge and acceptance of knowing she would never see them again, not in her lifetime. She headed back inside her cabin leaving the night air no time to snatch away her breath the way it was taking away her boys. The row of cabins faced the edge of the woods and a river separated the two plantations. The woman’s wooden door was swollen and warped, but her frail arms managed and lifted the ledge enough to drag it shut just as they disappeared into the night.
Sylvia looked away as young mothers comforted their crying babies and plugged their mouths shut with milk-filled breasts to fill their stomachs and quiet the noise. In the limited light of the moon, she felt her own breasts wasting away, useless and childless. Lu fell to her knees and wept. A monstrous emptiness seized her and she succumbed to the hopelessness of sorrow and sudden loneliness. Samson, a man with a lopsided limp, almost tripped over her in the darkness. Gathering himself, he stood listening on the opposite side of where Sylvia stooped rubbing Lu’s back, because his short leg throbbed for relief from walking and because he understood loss and the grief it leaves to fill the space.
“She gon’ be alright?”
“She gon’ be fine. Just gon’ take some time.”
“Lost my boy a few years back. Got sold off one month to the day before ‘mancipation came. Nearly cried myself to my death. Don’t know where he end up. Dead o’ alive. Think he far away from here, though. I know for sure soon as he learnt he was a free man, he would have come back here for us. ‘Least to see ‘bout his mama.” Samson shook the thoughts out of his head and ran his hand over his tight-curled, almost beady hair.
Three women held hands as they passed, walking with heavy steps on the softened ground, sobbing. One stopped to touch Lu’s arched and heaving back. “Bless your soul, Sister Lu. Bless your soul.”
The innocent, sweet laughter of a child shot through the murmur of massive gloom. The gleeful sound quickened Sylvia and she thought to herself perchance the children knew best. She summed the adults focused on the remains, what was left behind—the empty bed, the extra cup, the over-filled kettle, the quiet floorboards and themselves, their worriment and their longing. How were they to cover their pain and ignore the empty space around them? How were they to find the good in it all when all the good they knew left them with scraps of themselves? All the years of wanting more, Sylvia thought, why were they not rejoicing? Them leaving was the good and the good of all the others who died without getting more.
Sylvia stood to her feet, stretching her back. She reached down for Lu’s hand and pulled her up to stand. Samson sensed movement and strained his eyes to see in the dark night. “Lu, you just leave those tears right there.” She could not see her hand in front her face but she found Lu’s cheek and swiped away the tears. “Dry it up. No more crying.”
“Sylvia, my boy is gone.” Lu wept into her palms. “What am I gonna do?”
“Right now, you gon’ stop that crying. Stop it!” She pulled at the locked fingers across her friend’s face. “Now listen, just listen.” Samson leaned in on the shorter of his two legs. “This night here, this is the night our people been waiting on. Dying and being killed for. You remember Arthur, from over on Butler?” Lu nodded but Sylvia could not see so she took the silence as a response. Lu wiped her eyes with the hem of her soaked apron. “You remember how he died?”
“Can’t forget. Ground still holding his blood on some of the rocks.”
“And you remember why he died?”
“Cause of those seeds. Gave ‘em to Clary so she could plant her truck garden ‘fore she died. White man say he stole ‘em. I don’t believe he did.”
“The one thing his wife wanted to do. Plant something. Leave something behind before she left this world. She knew she probably wouldn’t be here to look at it grow to harvest, sure enough. But planting ‘em seeds was enough. Didn’t live much too long after she put ‘em in the ground to see the first sprout come up, but she planted it. And when it did, I went over there myself and sat with that curled up leaf. Tomato vine.”
“That same vine over behind the…?”
“Same one.” Sylvia reached for Lu’s hand and took it in hers. “Everyone of us got a reason we here. And we ain’t all here to see the flowers grow. Those that done planted every bit of hope and prayers and died for nights like this one we living in, to let you see your boy off into the free world, a free man, going somewhere he can have his own land and make a good life for him and his family. They done died for that, Lu.” She squeezed her friend’s hand in hers. “You think about all these tears you shedding for him to not go. If he don’t go, he stay here. He gon’ die here. And every bit of dream them children got that been planted in him by you, me, and everybody else that come ‘fore us gone die right here with him.”
“This here bigger than us.” Samson said sucking in his bottom lip. “That’s what you saying.”
“That’s what I’m saying. So Lu, you dry it up. Let God take care. He gon’ watch over them and He gon’ have mercy on them.” She looked up at the sky dotted with starlight, Lu’s hands still folded into hers. “He gon’ have mercy on ‘em.”
There was a lamp in the distance moving through the darkness. They were not able to see who carried the light and knew for sure it was not one of them for they made certain to carry none. Just before sunrise, Lu had taken down the white sheet after hanging five days on the rope line. She hushed her crying and flung her head behind her as if she would be able to see her son and the others running farther and faster up the bank of the river and through the thick forest of trees before crossing the river at the border of the other plantation miles north of where they were. The uneven thumps of Samson’s running feet sent an earnest plea to the others and they scurried. They knew their way through the darkness but the onset of sudden terror created chaos. They tugged each other, and those from the other plantation ran into whichever cabin was nearest to them. Sylvia and Lu stood motionless in spite of the excitement around them. They watched the light move across the field, glowing and beautiful, the way a star would on Earth. Then it disappeared as if swallowed up by the blackness. They stood there a while longer, still and at ease, until they heard the horse.