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“Hey! Boy! Can you read?”
Charles frowned, and stood, wiping his hands off on a grimy pair of frayed trousers.
“What d’you want, ni—negro?” He bit off the word angrily. Just because he didn’t go to school didn’t mean he was a racist, like Mr. Henny down the road.
More slowly, the slave boy repeated his question so that he could be heard over the din of the awakening street.
“Can you read?”
“Maybe he can, and maybe he can’t. What’s it to you?” Nilly said, dancing out of the alley to stand confidently next to Charles. Grateful, Charles turned a glare on the slave.
The dark-skinned boy looked left and right nervously, and Charles noticed how stiff he was, as though it pained him to move.
“I can give you bread,” the slave whispered hurriedly. “You’re hungry. If I get you food, will you teach me to read?”
As if answering, Charles’ stomach growled. He glared at the black boy harder, willing him to leave.
He looked young, maybe ten or eleven years of age. His frizzy black hair was shorn, nearly to the skin. A bruise, or perhaps just a shadow, dusted over his left cheekbone.
“’S against the law to help a slave, Negro,” Charles said finally. Nilly tugged on Charles’ sleeve, and whispered in his ear.
“But Charlie, what ‘bout Mark?”
Before he could comment further, a carriage rumbled down the street. The slave boy started violently, and backed away from the alley. “I have to go before I’m gone too long,” he explained. “Think about it. I’ll feed you if you teach me to read.”
The way he said it almost sounded like a threat, but Charles thought of Mark, curled up in his family’s shack with hunger pains and barely strong enough to move.
The slave boy was almost out of earshot when Charles shouted out, “Wait! What’s your name?”
The slave boy turned, and replied so Charles and Nilly could just barely hear him.
“’S Fred. Fred Bailey.”
Five days later, Fred Bailey came back to the alley by the butcher shop. Charles hadn’t given him an answer yet, and it irritated him when he saw the two small loaves cradled against the slave’s chest. The boy seemed to have more foresight than he did. But Nilly wasn’t arguing.
“Charlie! Look! He came! Didn’t I tell you he would?” Nilly whispered loudly, pointing across the street where Fred Bailey stood.
“I think what you said was, ‘You shouldn’t have let him go. He probably had money on him.’” Charles quoted.
Fred carefully danced through the onslaught of wagons, carriages, and other dangerous vehicles. He had to leap a puddle, and landed wobbily in front of Charles.
“Will you teach me? Please? I brought the bread,” he panted breathlessly as soon as he’d steadied. “As a… leap of good faith.”
Nilly, the littler of the two, snatched a loaf out of Fred’s hands. The slave’s pleading expression didn’t change, but the muscles in his neck tightened. Charles noticed this, and took the loaf back from Nilly just as he bit down, his mouth closing on air.
“This is yours, for now. We—and by me ‘n’ Nilly, I mean me—we’re gonna teach you to read.”
Taken aback for a moment—perhaps unused to taken things being returned—Fred nodded mutely, tossing the bread back to Nilly, and handing the second loaf to Charles. He then pulled something out from under his shirt.
“What’s that?” Charles asked suspiciously, refraining from cramming the still-warm dough into his mouth.
“It’s an old, um, reader. It won’t be missed,” Fred mumbled. “I gotta be back soon. Take a look at it, will you?”
Nilly, who had been standing on tiptoes at Charles side, coughed loudly. “Hugh? As in the Hughes? The family with the huge house and the plantations down south?” He whistled in amazement at the neat script in the upper right corner, and Charles raised his eyebrows at the boy.
Charles told Fred the Slave, “They’re a big family. Powerful, like. We’ll get in big trouble if we’re found out.” But he took the reader in Fred’s outstretched hand anyways. “You sure no one’ll care about this?”
Fred nodded fervently. “Yes. I’ve used some of the earlier ones, and I can do small words. My masters haven’t ever noticed.”
“Have never,” Charles murmured, flipping through the reader’s pages. The handwriting in them was neat-but-sloppy, belonging to the Hughes’ boy no doubt, who was only eight or nine.
“I’ve got to go now, but I promise I’ll give more time next time. And bread,” Fred assured them.
Charles frowned for a moment, but held out his hand. Fred looked at him strangely. He had nothing left to give. Understanding, Charles said, “Shake on it.”
They shook, and their eyes were the size of dinner plates by the release. Only Nilly laughed, not realizing the gravity of what had just occurred, and snatched the reader out of Charles’ loose free hand.
“Ha! This is gonna be fun!
Many years later, Charles walked out of a bread store, holding a paper-wrapped loaf of bread. He walked by an alleyway, and paused, looking into its depths.
Hesitantly, he took two quick steps into the murky interior. Swooping down before scurrying back into the light, he took up a sodden newspaper from the ground. He squinted at the picture, a faint memory stirring in his brain.
Frederick Douglass Gives Groundbreaking Speech in Cincinnati.
The man in the photograph looked vaguely familiar—mulatto complexion, wild black hair, piercing, all-seeing eyes. Charles wondered briefly how he’d look without his close-cropped beard and mustache.
A carriage rumbled close by, and Charles jumped out of the way of the inevitable road-water splash. Discarding the memory, Charles dropped the limp newsprint in a waste bin off the cobblestones. Whistling a tune a young slave boy had once taught him, he continued down the street.