We arrive at the barn just before sunset. It is the first one I have watched away from the plantation, and it defines beauty in a way that my words will never be able to. Brilliant reds and oranges dance across the horizon, the light trickling in between the clouds in just the right way. My eyes hurt to look at it as long as I do, but I decide it is far more tragic for me to look away. I’d stay here forever if not for the urgency of the situation I’m in. This time yesterday, I was being tied to the post in Jackson Plantation after a hard day’s work. The sun was not so beautiful then, and yet it is somehow the same one I have looked at all my life.
Lucien introduces me to the rest of the party. They have already been through much, and I acknowledge that I’ve been relatively lucky.
First, there is Mary Lou. A silent, nine year old whose grief-stricken eyes tell a story all of their own. When I reach my hand out to hers to shake hands, she flinches and pulls back; as if afraid I’ll hit her. My heart immediately goes out to her, and I feel the need to protect her. Her sister Abigail is a year younger than I who seems to laugh at everything despite her circumstances. Oscar, who is around 25, is covered in scars on his back and arms. He has had chains around his ankles recently that have eaten into his flesh. He seems to wince with every step. He rarely speaks and doesn’t tell us where he’s from, but I respect it and leave him alone. John and Cora are a couple in their forties and tell me they lost their only son en route.
Lastly are the twins Tom and Isaac, both 19. My eyes immediately focus on Tom’s. They seem to twinkle in amusement, and they are warm and welcoming. His laugh is barky and loud, somehow cheering up the worry-stricken room. His hair is shaggy and unkempt, but somehow I can’t imagine it being well groomed. Though he is twins with Isaac, I immediately notice a difference. Isaac’s eyes, unlike his brother’s, are hard and cold, his head shaven and his lips pressed into a firm line. His jawline is hard and pronounced, making him appear strict and strong. He seems suspicious of me, and I can’t look at him too long before getting uncomfortable and turning away.
I quickly decide that I like John. He is protective and would do anything to save his wife Cora. I never really knew my father. He died when I was young. I didn’t need to though; because I know he was strong and brave and sacrificed himself for my family. His integrity is far greater than those who killed him, and yet they are alive and he lies buried among thousands of his kind. Such is the world. Accept it or leave it.
After a quick meal of bread and cold beans, Lucien and Wally come to give us the plan. I give Lucien a smile as silent thanks, but it drops from my face when I see the worry written in his eyes. Something is wrong.
“Alright folks, listen up! The welcome party is over. This group is too big to stick together for too long. We’ve got to get moving and now; Isaac here says he thinks one of us,” Wally quickly glances at me, “may have been followed.”
I glare at Isaac coldly, but his piercing gaze is enough to divert my attention back to Wally, who clears his throat before he continues.
“Lucien was able to acquire train tickets to Tennessee, a safe distance from Mississippi that should definitely buy you the time you need to escape your pursuers. Once you’re there, you’ll be secretly taken to a farm where an old lady by the name of Janice will hide you for a few days. She is a trustworthy host that has been our aid for years. Treat her with respect, and she will reward you with your safety.”
“This is good then!” says Cora enthusiastically, “we’re going to make it.”
Lucien frowns deeply. “Unfortunately, der ees...a problem wit our plan.”
“What do you mean?” asks Abigail worriedly, bringing her sister to her lap and cuddling her as if she can protect her from whatever news is about to be delivered.
Lucien sighs loudly, surveying each of our faces with sadness.
“I had hoped I wood be able to accommodate all of you, but I was unable to reach an agreement wit da conductor.”
“What kind of problem?” growls Isaac, and I shudder at his menacing tone.
“There are eight of you here. Unfortunately, Lucien can get only five tickets to Tennessee.”
We raise our voices to protest, but he quickly silences us with a wave of his hand.
“Five of you have this opportunity...but for the rest of you...we cannot afford to keep feeding you or host you here. It is dangerous to stay in one place too long, especially so close to a plantation. I am sorry; you will have to go it alone or stay as a group moving northward. I can show you the route, but I’m afraid—”
“Thank you”, I say immediately, “please don’t apologize. You’ve already done so much for us.”
Wally merely nods, then says, “so who will it be?”
An awkward silence descends upon the group; as the ideas of freedom and selflessness juggle in each slave’s mind. Harsh whispers echo against the barn walls, the groups debating on their fate. For the first time, I truly see how alone I am on this journey. I have no one to hug or comfort, and no one to hug or comfort me. I stare at the groups sadly when I realize--I also have no one to lose.
I watch Abigail hugging Mary Lou closely, whispering words of hope that are so optimistic I dare call them lies. Immediately, I decide that they need these tickets most.
Cora and John are the first to speak.
“We don’t need the tickets,” she says slowly, “John reckons he knows a place a few miles from here where we can stay, and we’re fitter than any of you.” It may seem strange, but she’s right. Judging by the thin layer of fat on their bodies, they have been marginally better fed, probably having connections in the kitchen or the master’s favour.
No one says anything. How can we? They risked their lives to get this far; and we all know they have no chance. The bloodhounds will be upon them in hours.
“Thank you,” murmurs Abigail. John nods.
I spoke up then. “I think Oscar should go. He’s injured and he can’t afford to run day and night all the way to Tennessee.”
Oscar looks at me in surprise, as if he didn’t expect that anyone would pay attention to him. He smiles at me gratefully, but Isaac spits, “who are you to decide? You’re the one who was most definitely followed. We don’t need you or a cripple tagging along.”
Lucien looks at him angrily, but I know that everyone in the room feels the same way upon learning that I am luring pursuers right to where we sit.
“Let the children go,” says John, “they are smaller and faster, but are also easier pray. They need distance.”
Cora nods in agreement.
Wally wrings his hands nervously. “So then it’s Mary Lou, Abigail, Alice, Tom, and Isaac?”
Oscar winces, but says nothing.
“Let Oscar go in my place,” I say upon seeing the fear in his eyes, “There are too many people after me. I’m the one who’ll only drag danger behind us.”
Isaac pipes up. “Yeah, you will. I agree, for once.”
Lucien speaks up finally, glaring at Isaac with such intensity that his usually warm, grey eyes are now an icy blue.
“Dat ees enuff. Alice beat up dat idiot Frederick, she ees more capable dan you know. Eef you have a problem travelling wit her, you may go alone and let Oscar take your place.”
Isaac grunts, but says nothing more.
“What’ll happen to the rest of you?” Mary Lou asks quietly.
Lucien looks at her sadly. “Dey weel be well taken care of. All of you will. Dees ees not da end for dose who do not board da train.”
“Chit chat’s over folks,” says Wally flatly, “Lucien will show you to the train.”
We all rise then, offering solemn nods or handshakes. Now is not the time to get emotional. Giving our thanks to Wally for his help, we step out of the barn and into the cool night air.
Instantly, we are greeted by thousands of glittering diamonds in the night sky. My eyes travel to the Big Dipper, a sort of familiar comfort in the vast sky. I’m thankful the moon is not a full one; or its light would give us away.
I feel horrible, like an evil sickness has manifested itself in me and nestled at the back of my mind. I am selfish and disgusted with myself for resigning John, Cora, and Oscar to their fates...but there is another feeling, one that I refuse to acknowledge. It is relief, I think in disgust. I am relieved that it is not me, but them, that will have to run with the dogs nipping at their feet and the whips stinging their backs.
Fear makes man evil, and pits him against his allies.
I walk in fear the entire time we head towards the town. I know it is late, dark, and few people will be out, but nonetheless I am conscious of my surroundings the whole time.
For once, I am thankful my skin is black.
It turns out that the “tickets” are really large sacks we will be hiding in in the storage compartment of the train. Slowly, we all climb in, save for Lucien who has only come to see us off.
“Now, when you get to Tennessee; eet’ll be light out. Sum men weel take you an’ load you onto a cart. Try nat to move an’ breathe light until you are acknowledged. You weel be taken to Janice’s place as a hay deliv’ry; she lives on a farm. Eet won’t be da coziest ride, but eet’s da best you get for free transport.” He chuckles halfheartedly, giving me a comforting smile. “Goodbye, and good luck. Send me a postcard from Canada, won’t you?”
Without so much as a second glance, he turns away into the night. I want to yell thank you, to tell him he is a rare man of his kind and that I will not forget him, but am fearful of being heard.
Always, I am being silenced by fear. By the men who enslave me even when they are not around. Invisible chains that tie me down.
So I watch him go, without another word, unaware of the regret that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The train blares on into the night; almost loud enough to muffle the sound of dogs I hear, and the blood curling screams of a brave soul named Lucien.