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Flee to Freedom
She ran, faster than her beating heart, faster than her racing breath, faster than her fleeting mind. North, run north. But which way was north? It was above Kintuck’ – it said so on Mas’r’s map. But Missus taught her that North wasn’t just up a road – North always stayed in the same direction; it didn’t change like right and left. She’d asked Will which way North was once. He said it stretched out behind Mas’r’s house. “Someday, I’s gonna run dere,” he said. But there was no hope for Will no more. He was jailed up; he stole some money from Mas’r, they said.
She could hear the dogs behind her. They’d tracked her all the way up into these freezing New York woods. There’d been conductors and friends to lead her North up till now. When the men had caught her trail though, she’d had to get off the road. She prayed to God that she was still going north.
They were getting close – the baying of hounds was a few hundred behind her. They’d get her in no time. She remembered the whipping she’d gotten from Missus one time and it gave her strength to run on. She didn’t want no more whippings – she didn’t need ‘em, she didn’t deserve ‘em, and she wouldn’t wish ‘em on any creature, man or woman, black or white.
Once again, she prayed. North could wait, if only she could get away from the dogs.
It was pitch black. Not a sound but her feet, her heart, her breath, and those dogs. Suddenly, bare feet splashed into icy water. It was all she could do not to shriek. And then, it took all her strength not to sing “hallelujah!” It was a good-sized stream, big enough to mask her scent – she plunged in.
Mas’r taught her to swim, so that she could watch his young’ns when they went swimming in the pond. They swam there all summer long. She was a good swimmer now.
She swam a ways up the river, as far as her body could go before being numbed to the point that she could no longer control her muscles. Standing in the shallows, she watched the shapes in the darkness. A tree stood but a yard from her, with perfect climbing branches. Swiftly, uttering a soft praise, she swung on the limbs, up to the top of the tree. She had a perfect view across the river. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, refusing to allow herself to start shaking.
She could hear those beasts, bred to destroy and kill, howling on the opposite riverbank. In a few minutes more, she heard the loud curses from those men. But she also heard the chattering of her teeth. No matter how she tried, they would not stop. If she did not continue to keep her blood moving, she would catch hypothermia and die out here in the woods. She couldn’t bear to die so close to Canada. If still going north, she could reach Freedom before sunrise.
She stretched her stiff, frozen muscles, breathed deeply and let herself down from the tree. She walked quickly, but silently, her numb toes making no sound on the ice-cold earth.
As if by a miracle, the road appeared in the dim, early light of dawn. Seeing it, she ran. The last conductor told her that on this road, the United States gave way to free Canada. There would be a house right across the border with a white-painted chimney, a star on its wall, and a quilt hanging on the line. It was a freedom house. They’d feed her, clothe her, and give her a place to stay. They might even find her work. All in that in Freedom-Land.
She knew that now was her chance. If she could get to Canada before the dogs got to her, she would be free. She needed to run, and run fast. Adrenaline coursing through her blood drowned out her body’s complaints and the numbness growing from her swim in the river. Sweat poured from fear and exertion, dripping into her eyes. But she ignored it, dashing it away with shaking hands.
The adrenaline rush was dying. Her gait slowed. She couldn’t hear them anymore – maybe they’d lost her at the river, she thought. She was down to a steady jog, her eyelids drooping. She held them open as best she could, but she kept trying to blink the dots away. She stumbled to a fast walk, and eventually to a limping stroll. She began to trip over her own feet. Too exhausted to continue, she fell to the ground unconscious.
She slept lightly, a habit from months running. In her head she could hear the baying of hounds, the shouts of men. “I think they’ve caught me,” she thought in melancholy recognition. She heard a gunshot, and another. She wondered apathetically if she’d been hit. But someone else screamed – she didn’t think it was herself. And another voice, “Let’s get outa here!” And another called off the dogs. For a moment, all was silent. Then footsteps moved steadily toward her. As if in a dream, she heard, “Is she dead?” It was the frightened, compassionate voice of a woman who sounded just like her mother had. “Naw,” a quiet, calm man responded. “Praise God, she ain’t dead.” And then she heard nothing.
She woke up in a soft bed. A pillow of duck feathers. A thick, cotton blanket. The smell of beef stew. Slowly, and with much effort, she opened her eyes. She looked toward the sound of clacking knitting needles. A middle-aged black woman sat in a soft pink dress. She looked up.
“You’s ‘wake, you poor girl!” She walked softly over, her deep brown eyes smiling. “I made’s you some stew. You look like you ain’t eaten in weeks, baby.” She picked up a bowl and filled it from a pot over a fire.
“Where we at?” She asked, bewildered.
“Oh, poor chil’,” The woman’s eyes glistened with tears. “You’s in Canada, girl.”
The woman caressed her hair as her thin frame shook with sobs.
“Not long ‘go, I felt same as you, baby. Don’t be crying, girl. You’s…” The woman’s voice faded. The word she’d been about to say was sacred. A word that even after fifteen years of feeling it’s truth, was still the most precious word she knew. She took a deep breath and started again. “No tears, girl. You’s free.”