I had only one fear. I did not fear my fate: my death that was approaching all too soon. No, I feared for my helpless siblings and friends. Above all, I was afraid of what would become of them.
Would they be killed too? Would someone feed my brother and sisters, caring for them the way I had? Would they be so devastated that they would give up? They mustn't. Of course, I pleaded in my confused head that they would go on, that they would continue this legacy which was started, and change the evil ways of this country.
But my thoughts overwhelmed me, forcing me to hear the truth the way I had often forced herb mixes down Abigail’s´ little throat when she was ill. Oh, how I missed her! I missed her sweet face that was always round- even when she was famished. Recalling her giggles, my worries were suppressed and I was taken back to our small, cozy cottage on Colonel William’s plantation.
Everything had happened so fast, it seemed as though one moment our lives were as ¨normal¨ as the horrible life of slavery could be, but the next I found myself about to be hung. Just as my mother, Mary Ann, had, I was leaving Jason behind, my ten-year-old brother, whose humor and caring personality had me in constant awe and laughter. Then there was Charlotte, only eight years old, but so independent and determined to help. She was always followed by little six-year-old Abigail and all her tales that gave insight to her unending creativity and imagination.
My heart was a damp rag, slowly being squeezed until there was no hope for it to be filled with what it once had. No hope to regain that water which gave it strength; no more courage, no more strength, but so much guilt. I hated myself for being so daring, completely ignoring the danger that had stared me in the face, challenging me to strive for freedom, which had led to my unsureness of whether I had hurt my family instead of helping them.
In these last moments of my life, I tried to recall all that had happened amid the catastrophe, confusion, and chaos. Four years ago, when I was thirteen, my widowed mother wilted from my pleading and sobbing grasp, leaving behind four vulnerable children to the jaws of the unrelenting world. At that moment, I could never imagine what responsibilities were now mine to burden over. Being a mere child myself, how was I supposed to take care of three more? My mind was set on keeping us alive and nothing else, like a mother bear whose cubs are in danger. Immediately I began to formulate a plan.
The master of Millford Plantation, the place that I despised though it was my home, was Colonel Williams. He was a cruel master, one who would delight in watching the sufferings of those he had bought. Though he had an equally wicked overseer and had no need to monitor our progress, he would often walk out onto the fields with a whip, swinging and slashing it all around him, piercing the backs of the slaves who were working so diligently. It was this sight, this constant terror and barbarity which we slaves experienced, that nurtured and fed the fire of hate that dwelled inside me.
On a scorching hot day in mid-August, I walked back from the fields along with my friend Cecilia on the path which was trodden in the grass by the hundreds of blistered feet that traveled on it every single day. We spoke of the day’s events, flippantly addressing all the pain from the toil. Suddenly I felt no joy inside me, no desire to make light of all we had to endure. I looked at Cecilia, my eyes revealing my change in mood.
“Cecilia, we have to do something. Our lives are worth more than what Master makes them out to be. We are humans, and we deserve to be treated like them, though the white people may not believe it. The white people have no right to treat us as animals who are inferior to them.”
The look she gave me was one of sorrow, of a hope lost due to the long years of living with no purpose.
“Rebecca, I know we all yearn for freedom. But it’s an unrealistic dream that can never be reached. The more we dream, the more our hearts will break over the reality that will never go away.”
So I was alone. Not even my best friend was willing to try to fight for what we so rightly should have. The world spun around me in an overwhelming hurricane - I wanted liberty so desperately; it was a taunting string right in front of my eyes, and I was the cat, desperate to touch it.
As the sky grew dark with the stain of night, I heard footsteps approaching our cottage. I ran to Abigail’s bed, where she was lying sick with scarlet fever, her sleeping face showing no peace, only agony. Pushing back my desire to allow her to continue to rest, I gently picked her up, knowing very well what was going to happen. Once she was in my arms, I gripped her tightly and tried to prepare myself for what was next: banging on the door. Shouts.
“Open up, you dirty animal,” the voice said.
Dreading every step, I walked cautiously to the door and hesitantly opened the entrance which would determine Abigail’s fate.
“Is this where Abigail lives?” the impatient man demanded; he was an indentured servant who worked at the house and kept the gardens and lawns tidy.
“Yes,” I said. “What is she needed for?”
There was no need to ask, I was just trying to create time so that I could think of a way to get out of this dreaded moment.
“Master says he wants her to go to him right now. Word got around that she’s got cholera, and Master don’t want her to get all his slaves sick. So hand her over.”
Being a slave meant you were not allowed to voice your opinions or be obdurate; you must always do what the Master says with submissive obedience. Which meant that I had to withhold my feelings, and that was not something I was very capable of doing.
“No. She’s fine. She is healing - there is no need to take her life,” I said, though I didn’t believe a word of it.
My corrupting thoughts pushed their way through to the point where I almost slipped, causing my sentences to become choppy. This wasn't right; Master couldn't just take Abigail away, giving her no chance to fight through the illness.
He grew even more irritated, and as he did I gripped Abbey even tighter, afraid that I was hurting her, but preferring that over what would happen if she went to the master. As I continued to be defiant, the indentured servant realized that it was to no avail that he demanded her from me. Seeing no promise in continuing, he ran back to the house to get the master. It had worked; my stubbornness had so far helped Abigail. Now I had time to hide her, but I needed to hurry - they could be back any minute. Hurriedly, I took her outside and placed her softly down in the tall grass, hoping it would be enough camouflage for the time being. Knowing how punishable my resistance was, I made up my mind to just take the consequences; to avoid once was a miracle, to evade them twice was impossible. Returning to my cottage, I embraced the moments that would follow.
Just as I had expected, Master himself came to ensure my punishment and having had to leave his duties to do so, he was in a despicable mood. He grabbed my arm with a hostile force that left red marks on my dark skin. I was taken to a corner in the room, turned roughly around so that my back was facing him, and he began to viciously whip me, so hard that skin immediately broke and swelled, while blood gushed out of painfully deep cuts. He did this all in front of Jason and Charlotte, who looked horrified at this scene. It was all I could do not to scream out from my emotional and physical agony of the beating and knowing that my siblings were seeing all this, even though they were too young to experience this distress. Finally, when I felt that I was about to go unconscious, Master stopped his swinging arm of torment.
“That ought to teach you and your disgusting little ones a lesson.”
My only relief was that for the moment, he seemed to forget the reason for all this uproar, and he did not mention Abigail. He promptly walked out the door and went back to the House, leaving us and the door gaping at his departed wickedness.
I bolted outside to where Abigail lay terrified, her expression revealing that she had no clue as to what had just happened and what caused all the shouts. I thanked her under my breath for keeping quiet and hidden. Together we rushed inside, and as I closed the door tightly I slumped to the ground, trying to decide what to do next. Despite my mind telling me that I needed to rest, that I deserved it after all the trauma, I knew that we could not remain here. We were due to be separated and punished further, and neither my siblings nor I could live through that. Trying to tame my voice and keep it calm, I told the children to help me gather what little we had - our food provisions for that month and a few quilts, which all fit in a small pack I had made - and to follow me.
Only a few hours remained before the rising sun would betray our absence and reveal our fleeing. Going as fast as we could, we headed towards the fence on the far side of the slave village. As we drew nearer to it, we plunged behind a tree so that I could strategize getting past the watchmen and barbed wire fence. It is my belief that either the odds were completely in my favor, or that God Himself was helping me escape because that day the guard must have been in town- and so he left his teenage son to watch the fence. This meant that the entire security of this part of the plantation was in the hands of an inexperienced, snoozing boy. Realizing our opportunity, we dashed to the tree that was nearest to the fence. Due to all the undergrowth around the tree, we remained hidden, although we had a clear view of it.
Inside, I could make out the boy, sitting in the chair with his elbows on the ledge, his head in his hands. So as to be cautious and not throw away my chance, I waited several minutes and observed him. He would absently look around, then as he placed his head back into his resting position, eyes drooping, slowly give in to the temptation of sleep. Every once in awhile he would stir and with a start realize that he had dozed, but soon returned to the usual cycle.
All I had to do was get through the fence. It was an easy task, really. However, I did not have the tools to accomplish this seemingly simple task. I analyzed my surroundings, and spotting nothing that would aid me, I relied on my creativity to help me.
Come on, Rebecca, I said to myself. This is our shot, our chance to leave the chains that bind us to the white people. Think of something, quickly!
Giving myself this mental pep-talk must have awakened my senses and problem-solving skills because I soon registered the wires which were moderately thin and looked bendable. I crept to an area of the gate that was under shadows, wary of the guard who could so easily be alerted. Looking over my shoulder the entire time, I reached for the barbed-wire fence, and gingerly pried open a space that would allow us to slip through without changing the structure too greatly. In the hurry and urgency of the moment, I forgot to force the fence back so as to leave as little evidence of our absconding as possible.
We were free. Free at last!
But my mind wouldn’t stop reminding me of the reality: we were not entirely free, we still belonged to a master who would search for us and have us returned. There was still a long journey ahead, one for which I was prepared in the least. The only thing to do was to flee, away from the terrors, away from my fears, away from the plantation that haunted me. Ahead was a hope of freedom, a vision of all the possibilities that freedom presented.
“Abigail, get on my back, just like we used to play in the little house when you were little. Jason and Charlotte, we are going to run for as long and as fast as you can. From now on, I need you all to promise me something: you will do whatever I ask you to do, and you’ll remain quiet, or otherwise speak in hushed voices. We can’t risk being discovered and taken back.”
Frightened and perplexed, their wide eyes stared at me and they nodded their agreement.
Wasting no more time, we were off, gladly vacating the wretched place. Our small caravan stepped into the dense woods and began our journey northward - to freedom.
We traveled for hours, taking few breaks, and those were only momentary stops to refresh and rest ourselves. Even when the sun retired for the day and the moon took its place, we continued further. Though I had said no talking, Abigail couldn’t help but mutter of the great creatures and magical things which dwelled in her mind and which she imagined in our world, turning our journey into a fairytale. I loved hearing her sweet whispers, however, the pain of carrying her after receiving the bitter whipping the night before was almost unbearable. With each jostle and rubbing of her clothes against my back came a sharp pain and I felt like screaming. Even Abigail would moan at times from her own sickness. My only reason to not pause to relieve myself of this agony was that I knew we had to get to our destination as fast as possible.
Finally, after the eternity that it took for the sun to rise, I decided that we should be done traveling for the day. Now that we were well away from the plantation, I thought it best to only travel by night, that way reducing the possibilities of being spotted. Already the woods were beginning to get thinner, and a group passing through them would be a very suspicious and visible sight.
Setting down our single pack, I tried to find a soft spot on the ground with few sticks and roots so we could rest. Finding one not too far away, we eagerly sat down and portioned out the food. Feeling satisfied, we lay down, keeping close to each other, and closed our eyes.
This stop-and-go expedition continued for five days, and I began to imagine our successful end. Although Abigail was getting sicker, I knew that once we reached freedom she could rest, and we had just enough food to reach our target. I truly believed that we had overcome the struggle which had lasted our entire lives until this point. But, as my spirits rose so did the hope of freedom, vanishing into the air like a balloon that is released from a child’s grasp.
I woke up to the sound of leaves crunching not too far from where we lay. Next, there was barking. The dogs were about a half mile away, yet they still posed a real danger - their noses would soon pick up our scent and give us away. Knowing that we could never escape together since the dogs would betray a clue of us, I made a split-second decision. Jason, Charlotte, and Abigail would continue to run, and strive towards a land where they could be free. I, however, would turn myself in, giving the others time to escape and the captors no reason to continue a search.
“Jason!” I whispered urgently.
With that, Charlotte and Abigail also woke, and seeing my troubled face they started to interrogate me.
“There are people nearby who are trying to find us. Y’all can still be safe if you run fast and leave soon. I love you all so much, but I don’t know if you will see me again; I need to stay here and talk to them. Keep going towards the free land, and don’t give up. When you feel sad or weak, just remember me and imagine me telling you to stay strong.”
Tears streaming down my face, I hugged each of them tightly and kissed them on the cheek.
“Jason, I need you to take care of the little ones. You gotta be a man now, like you always have been. You won’t have me or Momma to help you no more. Protect them as much as you can, and do what you remember me doing. Now go, quick. I love you!”
Seeing them depart wrenched my heart from my chest. I was releasing into the dangerous world the children which I alone had mostly raised. They were just as helpless as me, and nothing I could do would aid them.
Not too long afterward, a man hollered, and on the dogs rushed towards me. Knowing that I would be less of a threat in a submissive position, I sat down near the trunk of a tree and wrapped my arms around my legs, attempting to protect myself. Before I could think of what would happen next, my arm was yanked, and I lunged forward.
“Found it!” one of the three men said.
I wasn’t even referred to as ‘her’; I was an it. As much as I tried to let it roll, I felt the anger boil inside of me.
“A nice one, ain’t it? Hungry, but strong. Man, it would be a shame to Colonel Williams if the thing had escaped and not been found,” the tallest man assessed as the others murmured their agreement.
As much as these comments infuriated me, I had been taught from the time I could speak to never protest or resist, as this would result in severe punishment. This verbal and mental abuse would continue, and I could not stop it.
Tied and being pulled through the woods, I was finally ushered to the edge of the trees and onto a dirt road where a rusty old carriage sat. The men shoved me into it and slammed the door, locking it on the outside. I was trapped; the only thing which ran free was my mind. But try as I might to think of a way out of this terrible bog of trouble, I knew that there was no way to break free again. As I scrutinized over how they found us so easily, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to fix the fence. My heart dropped at this recognition, understanding that I had left proof of our exact route of escape, leading them right to us.
It seemed like ages went by during which the carriage bumped steadily along with the clop clop of the horse hooves, and I drew nearer and nearer to my fate. After an eternity, long after the hope had faded that this could all be over quickly, we came to a stop. I was blinded by the sunshine that came in through the carriage door when it was opened, and I could only see when we entered a small, musty building which I assumed was the jailhouse.
The stall that I was to stay in was dank, dark, and dirty. I would be thankful to leave this place, even if it meant receiving a terrible punishment. The food given to me was stale, and not enough. It didn’t matter that I was starving because I was told by the guard that my execution would be held in the next few days. However, after a while, I began to realize that in reality my death would hurt my siblings more than me. My body was numb with the understanding of what my death meant. Helplessness and guilt sunk deep into my soul, putting me in a daze that lasted till the day that I was taken out.
Since my execution, I have surmised that freedom in death is preferable over slavery and being trapped in life. Pain and suffering no longer reside in me.
I haven’t seen Jason or Charlotte, so I can only hope that the best destiny awaited them when we separated. I smile when I imagine them all grown and helping fight for the abolition of the atrocious crime called slavery. Of course, other outcomes are possible; however, I choose only to envision the happy endings. Sadly, Abigail joined me not too long after I arrived here. Her death was both grieved and celebrated, for she was so young and had so much more life to live. Yet she was taken out of her illness, and for this reason she was able to return to me.
Though I may not have succeeded in my first attempt for liberty, my failure led me to be free indeed.