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She waited on the docks accompanied by the unseen presence of a man, a man she hoped she would never see again. His image burned beneath her eyelids. He taunted her, making her relive a previous life, a life she desperately wanted to leave behind.
She was far away, close to safety she knew, but the emotional burden was too much to bear. She had taken what was left of her family, her two sons with her. Now, she clutched onto them harder than necessary, willing for them to never leave.
While she waited, as precious seconds ticked by, she played with the necklace, that hung around her neck, her only prized possession, and one that she just barely dared to wear. Fingering the carvings, the woman thought of the dove that was incised onto the pendant. It was a beautiful symbol of peace, one that she hoped would be achieved, because as different as the woman was, she longed to belong in a world that had no place for her. Lost in thought of a perfect world, the woman didn't notice the man slinking behind the shadows, moving towards her.
He approached her quietly, appearing out of the shadows and into plain view, stepping in front of her. The man was the one she would cross the water with. The water. She didn’t know how she had come this far, this far from a life she thought was forever. The man looked up at her expectantly. She knew what she had to say, but for a second the words wouldn’t come out. They were stuck in her throat as she hesitated for a moment. Is this what she wanted? Images of the cruel injustice she had suffered and endured flashed through her mind, her self-doubt vanishing, as it was replaced by a surge of anger. Defiance.
“Menare.” The word didn’t waver as she expected it to. The woman she had come here with, had told her exactly how to say it. It was without mistake that she was able to come this far. If she made a mistake now, if she was caught, she would have to go back. Going back was not an option. She would fight.
The man stepped forward eyeing the woman curiously. He had gotten the letter a day before by the young messenger, who had sent him hundreds of such notes before. The note had read:
You must come down to the base of River Jordan like you have done before in the past. There are parcels expected to arrive at exactly dusk tomorrow. We are forwarding them until they reach Canaan. You should be expecting three flying bondsmen. Leave ten minutes of your time to wait for them. If there are no bundles of wood we can expect the inevitable, but they were last at a station where the kind station master had kept them for a day. Cross half way through River Jordan, and travel towards the glow of a lighthouse. The agent wants you to drop the parcels there. There are patter rollers close by. The parcels are on their way to promised land through the Gospel Train. A man shall be waiting.
The man, Louis, beckoned for the woman to follow him onto the boat. They didn’t have much time. He had been warned of patter rollers, slave-catchers, and he was in as much danger as the fugitive slaves he was helping. He could run now, run and never look back, but the look on the woman’s face stopped him, yet again. It was that desperation in her eyes that he wanted to listen to. The way she held her children, as if she could shield them away from all harm in the world. She had a story to tell, a pensive story.
With that, he beckoned her to follow him into the boat. Soon they were drifting through the blue of the river waters in the dark and the cold. He rowed the boat through the wind, battling the tossing and turning of the waves. The lighthouse, first just an insignificant dot, was now getting bigger and bigger as its glow burned. He had carried someone across the water almost everyday for the past three months, and overtime he had started to understand the enormity it carried. To anyone else, it would be just a lighthouse, but to the woman it was a saviour.
When they reached the rocky shores and dry land, the woman carefully climbed out, carrying her children with her. She looked at the man, memorizing the details of his face. He had risked his life to bring her closer to freedom. She couldn’t say it but drifting through the wind, her message was being carried. Thank you. She would never forget him.
She turned around to make her trek towards the base of the lighthouse, when she heard him call behind her. “Wait!” She stopped midtrack, half frightened. What is your name?” He asked hesitatingly as his words echoed through the emptiness of the air.
It had been years since someone asked her that question, and for a second she couldn’t answer. “Willie Ann.” She said softly, smiling at hearing her say the words she thought she had forgotten. It was a gift and a sort of peace to be able to say it freely, to own it. The woman turned to look at the man one last time and hoped he could sense her appreciation. It was time to go. Once again she set her sights on the lighthouse, guiding her children across, this time with a new aura surrounding her. She still had a long way to go, but in a way she was already there. She was free, free to hope.
The Underground Railroad.