by Agustin Eliab Juarez
The cabin down the way inhabited
by the slave family was illuminated only by the bright harvest moon as all
lights were turned off on the plantation after eight as per orders of the
master. If you wanted any type of lighting you had to use candles. The
main house did: Mama and Papa loved to read the Bible, Master Junior his comic
books and little ten year-old Missy her fairy tales. As the Negroes had
no education and were to be surely kept from ever reading or writing they did
not need light at night. And so at the moment, with the two younger kids fast
asleep in their beds, Omar, the eldest of the three and wide awake at this hour
of the night for some reason unknown muttered, “I can’t help but think a change
is coming.” This he whispered into the bundle of packed clothes wrapped in a
white cloth he used as a pillow pretending to talk to his best friend Eddie the
Loyalist. Little did Omar know that in time he would be right? Instincts
in people show at the most curious moments: sometimes at the crossroads in life,
sometimes in advance of an event and other times, predispositions simply came
to you without you so much as a summoning your interior powers.
somewhere in that dark cabin Omar heard a noise, something unrecognizable yet
something familiar that he made out as the sound of a wooden plank breaking in
half. It was his father Duke in the corner pulling on an old piece of
floor board, breaking it loose. After placing the plank to the side, he
reached down into a deep hole he obviously knew and retrieved an old tin box
covered in dust. After opening the box he pulled out something resembling
a pamphlet. He looked at it for a long time as if something magical was held
inside as if his life’s dreams were living in those
rumpled pages, as if were he to lose it, the end of the world would surely be!
Old man Duke
then crawled on his knees over to the kids’ bed holding tight to the decaying
pamphlet. The bed: an old rackety crate that once held tobacco leaves which
were transported to the East Coast, specifically to Boston where they were then
placed in a new wooden container by thousand pounds count, to be shipped to
London where the cigarette craze was in full blaze.
up! Get up!” He whispered to the sleeping children, though in a low,
guttural voice to keep the plantation dogs from getting a whiff of his plans
and thus give him away. “We don’t have much time,” he added.
two sleeping children were startled awake, and now, feeling confused and
displaced at this ungodly hour, they sat up in bed and looked at dad. Duke
could feel the warmth in the bed as he laid his hand on the mattress – a bunch
of handmade and stuffed large pillows stitched together for the purpose. Omar,
in the corner, observed the action the way he would later in life enjoy
watching a live Negro League baseball game. All that was missing was the
two children spoke at once, asking “What is it,” and “What’s going on, Daddy?”
But there was little time for questions as Samuel and Felicia were reprimanded
by Elizabeth, their mother who has now joined them bedside. Omar from the distance
noticed his mother was fighting the urge to cry but losing the battle as she
slid her wrist past her nose to wipe the drooping wetness. “Something is surely
about to change here,” Omar said to himself like a wise old sage, or better
yet, like the wise, mature man he would someday become. A teacher of sorts, a
leader, a man of means and power, a man good with words and a man who would
surely one day learn to read and write and maybe have something to do with
things being different in the world!
The children want to move from the bed but they don’t know where to move to or what to do, so they shrug their shoulders and bite their lips waiting for direction – for a command that only comes when Momma sees they are as confused about this moment as she and maybe hurting inside as much as she. She begins to pack the few clothes the children have putting them in a canvas bag the size of a baby. It is only then the young ones realize they are going somewhere. Putting on their shoes and clothes, they quickly follow Momma and Papa out the door. The silence is at once expected of them, understood and necessary.
Well what happens next is an almost self-destructive and self-revealing event that should never have taken place had it not been that it was so well planned: the family of five races through a harvest moon-lit field without so much as a bark of the dogs – Bubbles and Smoke Ring, who are probably sleeping soundly next to the boss. Old Man Duke is now running ahead of his kin thinking he has to keep his one good ear open to the sounds of the dogs barking – the two beefy, speedy and mean Rottweiler canines on the plantation –but just then he realizes the two “hounds” are completely familiar with the slave family so there will be no giveaway tonight. The two dogs are surely nicely tucked under the master’s big brass bed, snorting and shifting around like they do when asleep, and so all is well.
The family continues running. Now they traverse through two small, adjoining creeks that lead to a river miles away, a place they once hiked to for a picnic with the Master’s family in tow. They were going in the river’s direction, but instead, they reach the woods where the bears are now very few in count as the white man killed and shot every single one of them they could find and made money off the furs. The few bears living in those woods today know to run at the sound of humans for fear of being shot themselves. Duke knows this because he has seen the poor animals scatter in fear when out in the woods gathering the precious eucalyptus branches Master loves to place in the fire at night. “The white man takes what he wants, destroys what he wants without so much as thinking twice about it,” he muttered to himself as he looked ahead for a resting place. Duke may not know how to read but he does have a mind of his own, though Master and the other whites would never know, for Duke hides his thoughts in his head, filing them away for use someday, a day that may never come yet a day that just might be this very night as he scampers away from the plantation scared as hell, as if being chased by Bubbles and Smoke Ring frothing at the mouth ready to eat him in one bite.
miles traversed by the family mean nothing at the moment as they have no idea where
they are, or where they are headed. All they know, all Duke knows is that he
has to get somewhere, anywhere away from that place that demands so much of his
time and energy day after day after day without rest. Oh, his family gets
treated alright, I mean, he is a slave after all, slaves do talk to one another
when meeting at the store, or at the market walking behind the mistress of the
house, or even at the tailor’s. The slaves speak to one another, they share
the latest news, they tell of the most recent events in New York or
Mississippi, the North, the South and the in-between. The slaves know they are
slaves, “Let us not deceive ourselves for one moment,” one of Duke’s
acquaintances once stated as if they were living in a dream or a nightmare. “This
is what we are, and until we are no more, we will be,” the man said. Duke
thought about those words all the way home that day, thought the man was not
only right but that the man had contributed to him in more ways than he cared
to count. Well, for one, Duke could now start to think too! Duke could listen
to conversations and deduce for himself. Duke could dream and make plans for a
future that might never come but a future that just might be around the corner
especially if this Lincoln man was going to be president.
stopped at a big tree, his breathing hard but nothing compared to that elicited
by his family who were panting as if after a mile race with a tape at the
finish line. Felicia, looking rather irritated asked, “Where are we going?” But
mother and father were irresponsive as they push their kids along to keep going.
This is urgent, this trek is life-saving, or life-threatening, whichever you
choose, maybe even it is hell itself but why not take the chance considering
they are living in hell daily while on the plantation though the only real
benefit they get is to eat well. They eat well because there is plenty of food
and because the owners, the bosses, the masters think nothing of allowing the
help to energize themselves with good, tasty home cooking. Now, though, the
parents Duke and Elizabeth can’t say where they are going, they can’t explain
what is happening just yet, they have to first get there to the destination
before any explaining happens.
After a short
rest in the woods, covered well by the foliage and wrapped in the one blanket
Felicia managed to carry with her, the family emerges from the wood line onto a
grass field. The grass is wet from the early morning dew, though it’s
still dark, dark outside and the sun still has a bit of a climb before making
it’s ritualistic daily appearance what with its hotness and stinging and
burning, suffocating heat of midday. They hide in the tall green grass like
grasshoppers, like lions in the jungle waiting for prey, and like scared little
lambs waiting for the pastor to call them after hearing the howling of the
wolf. Although everyone is quiet and full of anticipation of the next step to
be taken, Duke knows that one hundred yards away the train tracks await him.
And then, as if suddenly surprised by a pack of vicious wolves, the family
hears the sound of a train in the distance as it approaches, the bitter sound
of the wheels turning, a recognizable sound to their ears, for the family will
soon be taking the next step in this hurried, confusing escape to freedom.
Duke now takes charge, though not before clearing his throat. His boys would never forget this one ominous gesture. For years and years they would imitate dad clearing his throat when they as youngsters answered tough questions at school, or in the neighborhood meetings of their teenage years; it was in those moments that they knew they were to keep from crying, they fought to keep from feeling the emotion that would surely break their concentration. They had to keep away from crying for the rest of their lives, keep the hurt hidden away, eventually from their wives and children because those two of Duke’s boys made a pact to never cry at the thought of momma and papa.
said Duke, “this train will take you north to Reading - Reading, Pennsylvania.”
“You have to
go,” he told her firmly. Felicia wrapped her arms around Elizabeth’s waist, now
letting out a sound resembling the squeals heard from a slaughtered pig. Young
Felicia, though scared at the moment already had a mind of her own, she was one
to speak her mind, one little girl who was already prepared for Reading,
Pennsylvania though she did not know it. She would excel in school; earn top
grades year in and year out, eventually moving up to secondary education to be
followed by a strict apprenticeship with one of the most famous female thinkers
of the time who insisted women were just as able to “read a book, write and
debate as well as men.” Felicia would never attend college, but she would
indeed read as many books, memorize her geography, she would write
controversial essays in school that would later be published in local
newspapers under a pseudonym, and a lot more.
without you and mama, I won’t.” She was adamant now as the train slowed
before them. If this argument went any further Duke would be relegated to
literally picking up his daughter by the pigtails to place her onto the train’s
caboose for safekeeping. He broke a sweat thinking his daughter might resist the
train trip and ruin the whole plan. Funny, he thought, the run through the
woods and the fear consuming me didn’t make me sweat so much as a drop, but
this beautiful little girl is making me pour rain from my body!
Elizabeth calmed Felicia by softly caressing her hair and face. Again: the angel at work.
settle down; settle down...my little pearl.”
weeps openly now after hearing her mother’s tender words. Momma only called her
‘My little Pearl’ in the most vulnerable moments, like when she fell and
scraped both her knees, like when she got burned trying to put her finger in
the hot sugar Momma was melting for the caramel apples she so loved. Like the
won’t go. I won’t go!” she now yells, knowing very well it is not the right
thing to do, yet knowing very well that she wants to win the war but is going
to lose the battle. Adults give orders, children follow those orders.
ma, no paw!” he whimpers, now running to his father’s arms. Duke though, has to
be strong. He holds his son closely after bending his knees to reach the
ground. He wishes he could hold him tight, take him to freedom himself, carry
his son all the way to Reading, Pennsylvania but that won’t do. He finds that
every moment he needs to grow stronger and stronger. Imagine Hercules, his
hair cut growing stronger and stronger.
The family is silent, in harmony, each with a thought of his own, each wanting to break down crying, each already missing the other, each one of them wanting the biggest and longest hug ever in the whole world. The train now is silent too and before long, the sounds of footsteps and voices calling out to one another, greetings and laughter interrupts the next-to-last family moment together.
Dad urges with a whimper, an unusual sound coming from a huge, proud, hardworking man.
time to go.”
When the children reach the top of the train where they will ride unnoticed, they turn to wave goodbye only to find the platform empty.