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Beasts

I stole Father's revolver and ran away the day I turned nineteen. I crossed the cotton field before sunrise and went up the road past the slaves' quarters. Old Saul was leaning against the railing of the bridge when I arrived. He looked me over, his dark eyes cast in shadow by a wide brow, and handed me a heavy burlap sack of food.

"We all wishin' you good luck, young sir," he said in a slow and steady voice. I took the sack and slung it over my shoulder. "We always knew you was betta than the rest."

"I'm glad that you think well of me, Old Saul," I said. I tried to smile at him, remembering all the times he had come for me when I was huddled in the cellar, my eyes full of tears, one cheek red from my father's heavy hand. But my face was cold and stiff, and my smile was more like a grimace of pain.

Saul closed his eyes and nodded sagely. "I will sleep soundly tonight, I think," he murmured to himself, pushing off from the railing. He slid his hands into his pockets and loped off down the road, whistling a picking song to the pale moon. I watched him until his hunched shoulders disappeared into the mist, and then continued on my way. Fourteen days of walking lay before me before I reached the North, and the Union lines. Fourteen days of keeping to back roads, keeping out of sight, and keeping alive in the midst of civil war.

At the crossroads beside the edge of the plantation I stopped to rest and take a swig from the flask of water at my belt. The sky was lightening now and the stars had begun to fade. I watched a string of spanish moss wave overhead until the sound of footsteps drew my attention towards the road once more.

A figure in a white dress was running towards me from the direction of the plantation house. I panicked for a moment, frantically searching for a place to hide, until reason came to me.

"Harland! Harland!" shouted the woman. She tripped and stumbled, but caught herself and kept running. I hastily tied the flask to my belt and ran to meet her. We collided forcefully and I gripped her shoulders, lifting her and spinning in a circle. The smell of her washed over me in a sweet wave, the smell of honey and lye soap and sun.

"You were gonna run away without saying goodbye," she breathed against my neck, and I felt shame burn in my chest.

"I didn't want to worry you," I murmured, my voice thick with emotion.

She pushed away from me and put her hands on her hips, raising her chin. "That sure never stopped you before."

I reached out to brush a strand of loose hair away from her cheek. I couldn't imagine it now, leaving this place without seeing Beth once more. All my memories of Lowell House were inextricably mixed with memories of Beth, and as I set out to leave the only place I had ever lived, I also set out to leave the only woman I had ever loved. Beth, my Beth, my Elizabeth Adams, with her sunset-colored skin and her night-sky eyes, with her hair the color of bitter English tea and her voice like spring wedding bells. Elizabeth, the overseer's daughter. Elizabeth, legally my slave.

"Why don't you let me come with you, Harland?" she demanded, taking up one of my ghostly pale hands and smoothing it between her own. I felt weak at the knees, giddy, exhausted, as though someone had suddenly sucked the purpose out of me. "I know I could be of help to you. Please, I know I wouldn't be a burden, really I wouldn't."

When were children together at Lowell House, I'd taught Beth to read using my old discarded primers. We read Dickens and Keats and Grimm's fairytales, and traced the pictures in John Audobon's Birds of North America. We read The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper and played Indians out in the cotton fields, until my father rode by on his tall horse and snatched me up by the arm.

"See to it that you keep that ugly half-breed child away from my son," said my father to the slaves standing nearby. As we rode off he spoke without turning to look at me, perched, crying and covered in mud, on the saddle behind him. "You must understand, Harland," he told me in a ringing voice, " that the Africans are mere beasts."

"I don't know how I'll get on without you Beth," I admitted to the dawn breeze, "but I can't let you come with me. It's far too dangerous. You're much safer here. The war will never reach Florida, father said so himself."

I watched Beth's delicate rosebud mouth pucker in frustration, and felt my resolve waver. What exactly was I running from? My father? The plantation? The Confederacy? I could not escape my past by fleeing North. No matter where I ran I would still be Harland Lowell, and my inheritance would still be measured in acres of cotton and pounds of flesh.

"What about when your daddy dies?" Beth demanded sharply, pressing my hand. "Will you come back then? You can't stay in the North forever." After a moment the anger disappeared from Beth's face and she sagged into my chest, looking tired and worn. I hugged her close, burying my face in her hair. "I'll be lost without you," she whispered, as the wind ruffled the hem of her dress. "Oh, please, Harland. Please don't go. We need you. I need you."

I closed my eyes. The North suddenly seemed very far away, and Lowell House very close. One step, with Beth at my side, and I would be home safe in my room on the second floor, with the tall stacks of books in every corner. I would be back in the grand house with its warm kitchen, its ancient, dusty closets, and the dark cellar where I had cried alone as a boy, and where Beth and I had first confessed to each other, and where we had shared our first, forbidden kiss among the rusted spare gin pieces and the yellowed ledgers that contained the name and age of every slave bought and sold by the Lowell family since our landing in Florida, before there was a Confederacy, or a Union, or any states at all, when this was just a colony, not even English, and when slaves were just slaves.

"I'm sorry Beth," I said quietly, and kissed the top of her head. "I can't stay here. I will go North and join the Union, and fight for what I believe in- No." I stepped back from her, leaned down, and cupped her face in my hands. Tears stained her sunset-colored cheeks. I smiled, and after a second, her perfect lips curved into a sad smile of their own. "No. I will fight for what I know." I kissed her forehead, and then pressed my lips against hers. "Because I love you more than anything. And I know that my father is wrong. You are not a beast. Your mother was not a beast. Old Saul is not a beast." More tears spilled from her eyes, and I reached up to brush them away with the back of my cold, shaking hand. "Because if you are, than I am a beast as well, and we are all mere beasts."




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