The town of Preston, full of faceless people in chattering crowds, lies before us. The marketplace is bustling with action as the smell of sweat and hay fills the air. Horses cross the dirt road in all directions, springing up great clouds of sand with their hooves that fog up the view; their riders donning beaver pelt hats and smug faces. I hear the distant blast of a train coming to life, its whistling far too merry for my mood. In its first moments, I recognize it as a business town. The ladies all wear large skirts down to their toes, wide-brimmed chapeaus, and dainty white gloves. Trailing helplessly behind them, I see slaves. And not just the occasional one-no, this town is full of them.
In their hands they carry baskets full of fruits and bread that they can neither eat nor touch. A sickening feeling enters my stomach, as I see their faces, gaunter than mine, staring longingly at the meals before them, closer than ever but still out of reach. I glance to see Isaac, expressionless and fists clenched.
“Welcome home, gents,” says the Chief with a broad smile.
The jail is smaller than I anticipated, only ten or so cells lining each wall covered in cheap, white plaster. Engravings are written all over them, messages for the next unlucky soul, but I can’t read them. I remind myself to ask Jarrah or Isaac later. A musty stench hangs over the entire place, like the gloom before an execution. I look into the cells, to see the unmistakeable sign of defeat in every man’s face. I feel the Chief’s presence beside me, as he searches my own to watch my reaction.
“Homey, is it not? We try and make them much the same as the plantation quarters are, you know.”
I lift my chin slightly.
“Well, that’ll be all. Enjoy your freedom for now.” The Chief strolls away, hands in his pockets as a whistle plays on his lips.
Jarrah is immediately separated from us to the other end where the whites are kept. Isaac and me are unceremoniously shoved into our respective inglorious piles of hay with a trough-yes, a trough of dirty water.
“We’re low on space, so the Chief’s asked a personal favour of me that you hold the smallest cells we’ve got. Sleep tight,” says the cell-keeper with a toothless smirk.
I stare across from us to see several empty (and larger) cells, and take the hint that we aren’t exactly welcome.
“We’ve been in worse,” I laugh awkwardly.
“Right,” frowns Isaac from his cell, immediately turning to the corner away from me and nestling in.
“Everything alright? Besides the obvious, I mean,” I ask slowly.
“Peachy,” he grumbles.
I stare at him for a few moments, before turning to my own corner and lying down underneath the barred-up window. My hand runs over the rotting wood.
I miss the night sky.
We’re awoken early the next morning to the clanging of a bell.
“Rise and shine, you lot! Breakfast!” yells the cell-keeper.
I hear grumbling stir throughout the cell, and I awake stiff and tired. I whisper across to Isaac in his cell when he remains motionless.
“Wake up, Zac!”
“What is it?” he asks groggily.
His eyes light up, before he remembers where he is. I smile slightly, still unsure what else is troubling him.
“Don’t wake me up, next time. I was in a better place asleep.”
I frown as he turns back around, craning my head to see what’s happening in the other cells.
“Oatmeal? Ahh, my favourite. You shouldn’t have done that for me!” I hear, and roll my eyes, immediately recognizing the voice to be Jarrah’s at the other end of the jail.
“Then I won’t next time,” growls the keeper, “and you oughtn’t be so smug, boy. Your trial’s next week and I’m sure as hellfire that’ll be enough to wipe the smirk off your face.”
“Next week? Why, we’ve just started to get to know one another!” Jarrah responds, but I hear his voice falter at the news.
Next week? I think sadly.
If I thought life on the plantation was dull, I was ill-prepared for the reality of prison. I’m restless and angry. Angry that for three years I’ve been running away-but something always pulls me back. I need to do something. We can’t leave, either. Not to walk or exercise, and the cells are too small to stand up straight. My whole body aches and my legs yearn to run again. Isaac won’t talk to me, and I don’t understand what I’ve done. Instead, he faces towards the wall. Always staring at the words I can’t read.
I am as trapped in my mind as I am in this jail.
I wish I had someone to talk to, but Jarrah’s too far away. All I hear is his boisterous laughter occasionally-obviously, he’s made friends with the people around his cell.
No action happens for another three days, until I’m abruptly awoken by a commotion.
“Let me go-I dinnae do nothing! Ye’ve got the wrong lass! It was ’im, it was Gerald! Why won’t ye bastard’s listen teh me?”
A girl is thrown into the cell beside Isaac’s as she struggles to break free of two guards’ grasp. They ignore her protests, slamming the cell doors shut and walking away.
“Why would I take it?! I don’t even need his bloody produce!”
“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you stole it!”
“I’ did no such-oh, for the love of God! It’s not fair!”
“Just shut up!” growls Isaac, “your life’s shit and no one will believe you. Nothing’s fair anyway.”
The girl raises her eyebrows at him.
“Well, I’d hate to share a cell with you.”
I chuckle despite my best efforts, and she turns, finally noticing me.
“Oh? Who are you?” she asks, not unkindly.
“Alice,” I respond, “and yourself?”
“Faria. Everyone calls me Lewis though, after my uncle,” she says proudly.
“Welcome to hell,” I say with a smile, and she gives one in return.
“So? What’s with him?” she nods to Isaac.
“Man’s in jail. Did you think he’d be peachy?” I chuckle.
“You don’t look so hot yourself. Been in here long?”
I laugh. “Three days, but it feels like eternity.”
“This your first time in jail?” she asks, eyes twinkling.
I raise my eyebrow. “Is this not yours?”
“’Course not. Have to get by some way though, you know? Gerry’s not too keen on my taking his produce, though it’s the first time he’s seen me around his cart in a solid three months.”
“So you did?”
“Hm?” she asks, with a devilish smile.
"Allegedly. They don’t look for proof though, anything to get me off the streets. Been in here for armed robbery, arguing with the police, lying to the law, and verbal assault on a white man, who declared that he wasn’t actually going to use his whip after mistaking me as his slave after I stepped on his shoe. Can’t say I did it by accident, the whites in this town drive me nuts. It’s just me fighting back any way I can. My own little rebellion. My uncle tried to settle me down, but I know he woulda done the same if his business hadn’t depended on it.”
“You keep busy,” I say, “must know your way around town, jail included.”
“Yeah. You could say I’ve spent some time in here. You’re in my usual cell, actually. Dincha read the writing on the wall? I’ve got quite the poetry going on. Stuck on verse five, if you could help me out.”
“I can’t read,” I say awkwardly.
“No? Why, you must be a slave then!”
I quirk my eyebrow. “You aren’t?”
“Oh, deary, no. I was born free. Wear my skin with pride, though the cops look for any reason to ship me out of Preston. I was raised here, though, and I don’t plan on leaving without a fight.”
I like her. She’s fiery and blunt, a breath of fresh air in this stuffy place. Her hair is short and cut at odd angles, like she used a knife to cut it without a mirror. Her eyes are playful and her lips curled in a constant smirk, like she knows something you don’t. I get the feeling she’s usually the smartest person in the room.
“How are you liking the food?” she asks.
I imitate a gagging sound, and she nods.
“It gets better.”
I raise my eyebrows skeptically.
“Well, you get used to it anyway,” she laughs softly. “Did you see the bloke in the white’s section? With the sandy hair? Gorgeous. Shame he’s white. Rather live here the rest of my life than deal with the likes of him. He seems like a right up thorn in the side to me. ”
I shuffle nervously. Jarrah.
Isaac looks up immediately, an amused smile playing on his lips. He shoots me a look before saying, “Oh? You know, Lewis, I think you and me are going to get along just fine.”
* * *
The next two days pass in pretty much the same fashion as we keep each other’s company. I haven’t mentioned Jarrah to either of them, hoping her opinion of me doesn’t grow bitter before it’s begun. Isaac’s been helping Lewis with her “poetry” on the walls, but he still keeps his distance from me.
I watch her inscribe the little symbols onto the plaster, curiously trying to see what they will look like.
“I want to learn to read.” I say determinedly.
“It’s not that necessary, really. No one expects you to,” says Isaac.
I shake my head and try to explain myself. “I always feel like that’s something that lets them act superior to us. They act smarter than us. More worthy of the knowledge than we are. And words? They’re powerful. They’re the only thing that lets us fight back when we’re physically tied down. That’s why they won’t let us read, you know?”
Lewis looks at me curiously.
“I want to be on the same playing field before I kick their asses.”
She smiles broadly. “Alice, I like you more already. Alright, I’ll teach you.”
“Now, can we shh with your dramatic moments? I’m in the middle of genius. What do you think of this?” Lewis reads,
“The gale tormented, it ravaged, it destroyed
Winds howling around her, claws extended
Always grasping at nothing,
Always yearning for something,
Trying to stop the setting of the sun
And keep back the darkness.
Time was coming for her,
But he was not.
She reached for him in the water,
Watched him slip through her fingertips.
She cupped her hands together, but still
The slippery liquid leaked back into the endless black sea below
that threatened to swallow her.”
“How do you write like that?” I ask curiously, “I mean, where did you learn?”
“My uncle, Lewis, was a writer. God, the things he could do with words. They’re more powerful than a Colt, I tell you. He could get his way out of anything with a charming smile and a bottle of rum already in ’im.”
“Sounds like Jarrah,” I say instinctively.
“Who?” she asks, and Isaac watches for my reaction.
“He’s, uh, a friend of mine,” I say nervously, blushing.
“Oh? A friend? " she looks at me sceptically. “Well, where is he?”
“You’ve met,” I say awkwardly.
“Met?” she repeats, brows furrowed.
“Is it-” she begins, eyes widening in realization as she nods towards the whites section.
I go a deep red and she giggles.
“Alice, you’re in deep, aren’cha?”
I roll my eyes.
“How come you’re travelling together? Kind of an awkward group, the three of you.”
“Long story. But his trial is in two days and then we won’t be seeing each other any more, I guess.”
The knot in my stomach tightens.
She frowns, seeing the look on my face.
“Well, that hardly gives us any time.”
“Time for what?”
“I was hoping we had at least another week...” she muses.
“For what, Lewis?” I repeat.
“Saving our skins, of course-if you get what I mean.”