Miles and miles of forbidding coastline stretched ahead. My blistered and bleeding feet walking on, dragging them through soft sand, but not feeling anything. My body was covered in dirt and grime, and I smelled so bad that if anybody had walked near me may have choked on the stench. The waves were singing of the boats they had sunk while washing over the beach. The sky was glistening with stars, and as I glanced up at them, I whispered softly, “The underground railroad.”
The words filled me with wonder and joy, they were like a dream.
A dream of hope.
The wind blew gently, like there was a secret it needed to tell me, but I couldn't understand. Like I couldn't understand that being free would be bigger than not having a owner, and how I couldn't understand that I had let my life been run the way it was. I was taught how to live, I knew only useful things, like how to talk, how to sew, how to pick cotton, how to live with little rations. I didn't know any numbers past one hundred, I didn't know how to read or write very well. I was the perfect slave. Used to be. Now I'm running for my freedom, for my life, for my family.
I sighed, and looked for the big dipper in the stars, the giant spoon that was leading me to my dream. I closed my eyes and winced as a sharp shell dug into my foot, but I merely walked on in the waves. Salt stinging, my eyes didn't even water, my fatigued body not allowing it. My stomach clenched and rumbled a painful song of agony. After I doubled over, I uprighted myself and caught my breath, continuing my race against time and death itself.
By the time the last of the night was banished from the sky, I was hidden. My worn body, curled up in the highest branches of the tree, legs aching, I slept.
When darkness blanketed the sky with an inky veil of safety, I aroused and walked my slow, sad, and painful journey, knowing that if I kept going, I would find food, meet my family.
My thoughts raced as the word family entered my brain. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see a whip raised in the air, coming down harshly onto my father's back, leaving gaping wounds. My mother, her eyes soft and caring, her body strong and firm, the child inside her, vulnerable. And my small adorable sister, her brown eyes forgiving, her hair in eternal pigtails. These thoughts brought on the memory, that terrible memory.
I saw my mother, struggling to get away, but the dog, red-eyed, starved, and crazed, bit her foot. I paused to help, and as she looked at me, the world seemed to slow down in the few seconds as she whispered the words, those terrible words. The words that fill my heart with remorse and agony. The words “Just go.”
As I looked around, I saw the horses kicking up dust, the lanterns casting light over the field. I looked ahead and saw my father, a statue of strength, carrying my sister as he ran for his new life. I looked back at my mother, her eyes pleading and regretful. She attempted a smile, and said, “Go. Please. I'll be all right.”
I stood on my narrow feet, and ran, heart pounding, eyes-searching for any traps, mind-reeling in confusion. I ran until my legs collapsed beneath me. I knew only one thing. Now I was a boy, sad and alone, wandering the world.
Walking on and on, my nose tingled with excitement. I had arrived at a town, where there was food! I raced there, stumbling, not paying attention to who saw me.
I scuttled to the back of an old tavern, where there were piles of rotting garbage. I looked right, then left before I began my feast. I ate hunks of ham, turkey, chicken, and any other food I could find. Just as I finished my meal, I sensed something. As I turned around I saw a huge, dark shadow. Jumping, I prepared to escape.
“Wait!” said a voice, bold and unafraid.“You need to find the river on the other side of the town. Follow it north until you see a farm. It’s lights are on and it’s laundry is out. Go,” the voice urged
As I trudged back to the woods, I thought of how he could have tricked me, that he was leading me into a trap. But I knew I had no other choice. Light-footed, I silently found the river and followed to the farm he was speaking of. Lights on, laundry sending sweet scents across the yard to me, it looked like a beautiful blazing star had fallen and landed in the town, ready to take me in. I scampered up the worn side path to the side door, where I knocked softly.
A beautiful lady answered the door. Her caring eyes looked at me, in a You’re-being-examined way. She gently took my arm and pulled me into her house. I entered the kitchen, where there was a set of rickety old chairs and a table, looking as if a breath of wind would blow them away forever, never to be seen again. She sat me down in the chair that was next to the man that I assumed was her husband, and the smaller boy that I assumed was her son. She set a pan of warmed water on the ground and told me to put my feet in. She took a bar of soap and began to rinse and gently rub the dried blood and dirt off. My feet were on fire, the steaming water burned like a thousand bees were stabbing my feet over and over again. Then a young girl walked in carrying a bowl of broth and bread in her slim hands. She gracefully set the food on the table, and immediately backed out of the room, nearly tripping over the skirts of her dress, her cheeks roses.
Everything was silent. Finally, the man spoke.
“Where are you from? How long must you stay? Are you alone?”
I timidly answered, “I am from Charleston, South Carolina, I need only to stay for today, I’ll be gone by this evening.”
“How many are there? I know you're not alone. Go get the rest of them.”
“There's just me, sir. Nobody else.”
He just looked at me, studying my face. His wife continued to clean my feet, but was now using soap. When she finished, she called her daughter in, saying, “Louisa, bring in the torn cloth please. Hurry.”
Louisa glided in, her face bowed down and solemn. She handed her mother the cloth, and bent down to whisper something in her mother's ear. Her mother nodded grimly, and made room for her daughter to sit down. The beautiful young girl took my feet and examined them carefully before she wrapped them up in the brown calico cloth.
As soon as she finished her job, she exited the room, and I was led into the room opposite of the room she entered. The younger boy lifted a huge secret door out of the floor of their parlor. They showed me how to climb in and out and closed the door over my head.
After I'd laid down, I fell into a deep but fretful sleep. I dreamed of a beautiful girl, Louisa, she waved at me from her bedroom window, and I raced into the woods, running from something. . . . A huge pack of dogs, chasing me without resting, their ferocious barks shattering the peaceful silence of the dark.
I awoke in the small secret room, my body glazed with sweat. After thinking for a while, I realized that I would stay where I was for as long as I could, until I was healed, and could travel without fatigue. I would be with Louisa, and I would love it as long as it lasted.
To Be Continued . . . . .