The Parting

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.  

    Now, 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.

    “Get 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.

    The 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 popcorn.

    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!

     “Listen to your father.  We must hurry! Get dressed!” she cried, but really, with tiny, ant-size tears forming in the corner of her eyes, though she wouldn’t show it, or admit it, or speak of it ever, this moment would never again be repeated nor would it ever be mentioned because to do so would be to choke in a giant wave of tears, and they, long held-in tears that would be something like a volcanic eruption for her.  That would be unacceptable, for Elizabeth the mother had to be strong in every sense of the word, and nothing less would do.

    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.

    The 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.

    Duke 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.
     Felicia tugs at her mother’s apron, the apron she forgot to take off before going to bed, the apron that she would forever keep wrapped around her waist in memory of her children, the apron that she would one day touch with her forefinger and start to cry. The apron that was forever being tugged at by the kids even after they grew tall enough to tug at her blouse choosing instead the childish habit that just never seemed to go away because to them touching her apron meant love. The apron was love.  “Are we’re running away?” asks the girl Felicia, catching the loud sound of her voice and covering her mouth as if to stop it from getting out.

    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. 

    “Yes...” said Duke, “this train will take you north to Reading - Reading, Pennsylvania.”
Felicia just about jumped out of her skin.
“You said you.  You mean us?” she asked politely so as not to feel the hurt just yet.  The boys were now standing next to each other, Samuel holding onto Omar like he was an anchor on a drifting boat.
     Mom and dad looked at one another.
Elizabeth held her daughter’s hand, and caressed her little puffy cheeks.
     “No, my love, just you and your brothers,” she said in the gentlest voice ever heard. Felicia would later in life tell anyone who cared to listen that her mother was a true angel just because of those few, tender words.
“What? “ Felicia cried now, “No, I won’t go! I'm not going without you.”  The lament in her heart was about to burst, you could see her chest expanding as if a balloon being filled with gas, though not a weeping sound came from the mouth of the little girl.
Duke did not want to get forceful with her at this moment in time, but he was the chief behind this tribe, he was the planner, the head of household, he was the man as his two boys were just that:boys.

   “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.

    “Not 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.

    “Now, now, settle down; settle little pearl.”

    Felicia 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 time...
     But Felicia spoke through the tears in her little girl’s voice, almost whimpering like the child she no longer was.
     “I-don’t-want-to-go without you.”
“You know the Master,” said Momma, “To lose a couple of kids from his field will surely upset him. If he were to lose me and your father, his hardest workers, well -- he would go to the ends of the earth to find us... If we go with you, you have no chance of freedom.”
     But Felicia doesn’t accept the explanation.  She wants her momma. Who doesn’t at a moment like this?

    “I 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.
Now Samuel still holding onto his brother’s arm feels the heat of the moment.  Felicia’s cries are catchy like a bad cold. Fear and apprehension creeps into his skin as he listens intently to everything being said.

    “No 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 train makes its final stopping screeches, the wheels puff a vapor that to everyone else looks like cigar smoke.
     “You mind me now!  All of you,” says Duke, now himself hurting inside as the crucial departing moment comes closer. “You are going to get on that train and you and your brothers are going to have a better life.  You hear me now!  I need you to be brave!”

    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.

    “It’s time to go.”
     The boys, though older than Felicia, cry now, though without making a sound.
     “Momma!” they seem to be crying out.
Mom and dad give each of the kids a big hug. In a moment, Duke calls the family together and they form a circle, in essence hugging together like a family for one, last time.  As they break away, Duke gives Felicia one everlasting,  enormous hug before scooting her away to join the boys who are now climbing the steps to their future destination of hope, freedom and glory.

    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.

The Parting by Agustin Eliab Juarez

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