When Auntie unflapped the buckling tarp off the four of them, she saw from the knoll where they’d hidden that yesterday’s muddy, red road was frozen stiff this morning. Stirring beside her, fellow freedmen, Margaret, the man, and the little boy rose stiltedly to their feet, then huddled to pass around the biscuit. Each person took one shivering bite. They stood working their jaws, forming a soup in their mouths—biding the time it took the quivering man to unwrap and hand around the small slice of fatback, which he bit from last.
After opening his eyes from masticating and swallowing breakfast’s salty broth, the man folded a greasy rag over the two leftover bites they’d save for Auntie. He then stomped down to the road towards Margaret and the boy, using his floppy hat, swatting off the long grass they’d strewn all over them like a shredded blanket, before finally covering themselves with tarp.
In the road, at the edge of where they’d stopped last night, Margaret, the boy, and the man stood hunched and rocking, waiting for Auntie. She was on the knoll, kneeled over their flattened space on the ground, huffing into her clasped hands, trying to breathe some warmth into them so that she could fold their tarp.
Given the weather, her hunger, thin coat, and bare hands, how did she summon her fingers to work in the cold—to flat-roll the tarp into an inch thickness, to tie its two bunched ends together, and then loop it across her body like a sash? In that cold. A cold that made her wince when she brushed herself off and stepped down onto the road, where the man handed her the last bite of biscuit and fatback.
They let her chew a long time and swallow before starting up the long and unmarred, red clay way that lay ahead. While behind them, ice—hard cast from yesterday’s squashed footprints left a pocked-trail, fifteen miles long through Sumter County, as if, while they slept, their restless and bone-chilled spirits had stamped to and fro, waiting for them in the road.
How could hope overcome such cold? How did they keep walking that way, angling their bodies to cleave through such a hard grayness? Who could push through such cold? A cold that crawled into their faces when they inhaled, then burrowed down their throats and bit the tips of their lungs during each breath—a long and deepening assault until hope warmed it.
“You know where we goin’?” Auntie asked. The little shrunken boy hunched forward three times for “Yessum.” He loosened his arms from hugging himself to jerk his right elbow at the spindly black burst of upper branches on the tall walnut tree, two miles or so away.
“You know how we got to here?” she asked.
He hunched forward again and shivered through his moth-eaten scarf, “Bbby-by our star, Auntie.”
“Above that ol’ black tree tha’s tryin’ to snatch our light.”
She eased down his scarf and squinted through the cold at his tense jaw, fighting to clench his chattering teeth that sounded like someone tapping together two stones. “I can make it to there for her,” he said, “I don’t need the fire yet.”
He bobbed, nodding “Yessum.”
Where did this drive come from? How did they come by the courage to claim it? Or the audacity to think that possessing such an exorbitant supply of motivation was even possible? And then to endeavor with so much drive that they could ladle some of their own to a child, who replied with shivering and resolute “Yessums “—in that cold. A cold that clawed at their coats and clothes, as if it were trying to undress them—but succeeding only in making them tug those tatters across their bodies even tighter, yet carefully, so as not to burst the valuable thread on the weaker patches.
Back in July in St. Michaels, Maryland, moments before fleeing, Mr. Walker-Dane—with his fiery, crab-shaped splotch blazing along the back of his neck, the reddened skin there like cracked mud—crushed a clutch of Margaret’s hair in his bone-white hand, yanking her with him towards the big house. She went, weeping, dragged by her leash of fine curls, on her knees in that good-planting tar-black dirt. Three of the four Union cavalrymen had to jab their cocked rifles to his heaving chest for him to release her while the fourth soldier, who’d been stumbling through Maryland’s new Constitution abolishing slavery, stood stunned, his mouth a red hollow of horror. When Mr. Walker-Dane finally let Margaret go, he trembled saying, “Who you are and everything you have are what I’ve allowed you to become, and something that I have given you.”
Before leaving, each of them had bundled-up one or two belongings for the journey, and then hid their pride at the good string tied across their meager packs. But Mr. Walker-Dane snatched those packs away, flung them on the ground, kicked them into a circle, then ripped the clothes off their backs, slung those rags atop the heap of shoddy packs, and set it all ablaze. They left that ill-Eden in the same condition they had come into it. Afterwards, the blue-coats, without offering them so much as a string of yarn from their horse’s musty blankets, trotted by on their sweaty bays, stirring-up four hot gritty clouds, leaving them behind, as they padded away from there, bent hand-over-hand, covering their privates.
Five miles up the road, a self-professed deacon ushered them into his barn. They reluctantly filed through its weathered entrance, wary of stopping—thinking the farther they got from Mr. Walker-Dane, the freer they were. What was their nakedness, a lifetime of indignities, and humiliation, compared to freedom? They tried to explain this but the good deacon was insistent and ordered them to come in and cover themselves with the empty burlap feed sacks, and in pants from the pile of his deceased uncle’s britches.
While weeding through the mound of sacks, for a smaller one for the boy, Auntie and the man cut glances at the deacon watching Margaret dress—working his hungry, tobacco-juice stained mouth, ruminating on the man in him. Before long he sidestepped by them and went into a far stall. There, they heard the hush of rustling hay. Margaret tried not to listen; she found and put on an old shirt and was holding up against her waist potential sacks to make into a dress. When the deacon finished with the hay, he told Margaret he had an old pair of shoes that might fit her in the stall. They waited back on the road for her. The man turned from the barn and faced the way ahead, perhaps wondering if the mistreatment and hardships behind them also lay onward. Within a quarter-hour Margaret rejoined them on the road, dangling a pair of shoes by two fingers hooked inside of their heels. “Here,” she said quietly, “they’re too big for me Auntie.”
That day, walking barefoot on that baking July’s cool dirt road, Auntie felt like she was strolling on a plushy woven rug. One made of finely spun wool, not of those splintering green cattail reeds like the man had once made. But even if upright broken jars had paved that road, she still wouldn’t have worn those shoes until all four of them had something to put on their feet. In three weeks time they came by the kindness of two Antietam widows who gave each of the others a pair of cracked shoes. By then, the deacon’s scratchy wear had soften from all their walking, hiding along the road, and being scrubbed against the James River’s smooth rocks.
Near the tail of September, outside of Petersburg, a farmer let them chose an outfit from a battered trunk of old clothes in exchange for a day’s work.
Margaret now wore a long dress made of linty, faded blue gingham. Though she stilled carried the burlap sack-dress with the red-flaking word stenciled across the lap—”Peanuts” the deacon had said of the letters.
The man had taken to wearing the deacon’s dead uncle’s pants the others no longer wanted. He fashioned the six pairs of trousers into a frock, after swaddling the little boy in his coat the first morning their breaths fogged the air and ice sheathed the stark trees, dusting its sparkling whiteness over the stone-pimpled dirt road. Auntie and Margaret gossiped that they’d seen scarecrows dressed like dandies compared to him in that coat of pants.
But likening the man to something raggedy made them feel ashamed because he scouted ahead of them now, looking back and swallowing before creeping around a bushy bend, or a sharp, unsuspecting turn in the road, and flinching at every crack from the jostling woods or caw from its branches, then kneeling, matting his pant-leg with the frosted dirt caking the ground so that he could wave them off what was then a sandier road, and into the safety of the bordering woods.
But these gray days on this long red way were much colder than those gone by. And even more so, after the last embers of this morning’s bite of biscuit and fatback had burned out. Indeed, these gray days were soul-wringing and often made the hunched man tarry in the road, until Auntie, Margaret, and the little boy reached him, their four breaths hitching from the chill as they huddled somberly, as if to mourn the death of heat.
“Not much farther now,” Auntie warbled, while trembling her head towards the far-off towering mirage. The others turned stiffly from the circle to see.
By what they guessed was noon, they reached the black walnut tree. Sprouting up from its trunk’s river of shriveled bark, the tree’s crooked splay of skyward branches resembled coal-dark tributaries against the flat gray sky. Auntie led them around the trunk, reverently tracing her numb fingers down its wrinkled flues, skimming over the warmth she imagined was coursing under there in that cold. A cold they could feel seeping through the seams of their worn-out shoes to supper on their brown toes.
“This must be the one,” said the man. He squatted down and shakily patted a thigh-sized root that seemed to point toward a distant, wild hedgerow, bordering a tall stand of pines. Auntie spread out her arms and circled the tree until she found the two lowest branches separated by the trunk, but aligned like an arrow in the same direction as the thick, knotted root. She nodded her wrapped head and asked, “What you think, Margaret?”
“I think it’s the one, too.” She replied.
The women’s agreement on their way spurred the man in the lead over the frosted-grass meadow, towards the hedgerow. The grass made crinkling sounds underfoot on their way to the mark. The man looked behind him every twenty paces to ensure he was following the gnarled, black root’s direction. After a while, with each closing step, they were laden with more worry, as they watched the long thorns on the hedges appear on its impenetrable snarl of branches. Seeing no way in, they checked their bearings behind them again for where the root was pointing, and searched eight paces to the right. There, planted like camouflaged sentries, two thorn-less bushes with waxy, reddish brown bark sat like a door on the high hedgerow.
Auntie spread apart the harmless sprigs like curtains before stepping through the hand-parted thicket; and like her, the other three glanced behind them at the road, as if once they had passed through the divide, it would close like the Red Sea, and forever.
Their covey emerged from the reddish-brown passageway, into some pinewoods. The little boy inhaled deeply of its cool, earthy cleanness but coughed, after the cold sprang down inside him and nipped his throat.
“You can’t go tryin’ to breathe in all of this creation, not when the cold’s so mad ’cause its wind can’t get in here,” shivered Auntie to the boy.
He bobbed his wrapped head, “Yessum.”
Stilled by their concern for the little one, they smelled the wood smoke and stumbled toward the burning. Margaret went first, the hem of her blue dress rolling small pine cones underneath it, while whishing against the floor of pine needles and brittle brown leaves as if it were a forest goddess’s wedding train. The man trailed closely behind her, his long arm pointing toward the orange flickering between the brown columns and soon after to an open space on one of the long logs, forming the large square around the fire. He tugged the brim of his scraggly hat to the seventeen other travelers, before sitting down beside Margaret on the sticky pine log that was weeping a fragrant amber sap, summoned by the sweet heat its sisters had provided.
Peering over the licking flames and past the hilly shapes of folks sitting on the far log, shadows of a man and a woman trudged towards them through the jumbled pillars of tall pines. The hunched-over couple entered the glowing clearing, carrying bundles of cotton with sharp, dead-green husks still attached. They shook off their loads onto the fire’s side of the log while Auntie un-looped the tarp from across her shoulder and the man loosened the twine fastening his coat of pants. A cinnamon-skinned woman sitting on the felled pine on their left pulled a knife from her boot. The blade glinted with orange licks as she cut strips of denim from an old tent. “Take alls you need,” she told Auntie, without looking up. Auntie grabbed a hand full of the blue streamers, and then waited her turn in the line behind the piles of cotton.
Clutching the denim strips and cotton to her chest, Auntie bent over and tapped the man’s knee, Margaret’s knee, and the boy’ s knee as she stepped by them. When she sat down, the little boy and Margaret scooched in close to her; the man knelt down on one knee and swiveled on it to his left, closing their huddle on the log. Auntie knelt too, and started unlacing the boy’s boot. He winced and started hissing in air between his teeth when she pulled down on the run-over heel to unstick his foot from the boots inner sole. Auntie then scowled, from the sour-smelling, pinkish-stained rag socks, matted with his blister’s gluey puss, and sighed, “Didn’t I ask you about your feet at the knoll? Didn’t I! Now why ain’t you tell me ’bout this!”
”’Cause we had to get to here, Auntie. I can make it. I told you I could make it.”
Her dark eyes teared, looking at the boy. “Why ain’t you just tell me chile?”
Some of the travelers around the square blinked away from gazing at the dreamily whitening and reddening coals, and looked up at Auntie. She defied every stare, until their eyes wilted away from hers, and down onto the dirt in front of her shoes…the fire…and back to the entrancing embers.
The little boy’s feet fell sometimes, from balancing them in the air, as Auntie peeled off the matted pink rags. When she finished, Auntie folded the gooey rags into a ball and tossed the mess into the red pit. She hadn’t noticed the man leave, or return, until he was kneeling down, saying, “Here’s sum’,” handing her a tin cup of water. Auntie washed the boy’s raw feet, then eased his heels onto the toes of his sorry boots, to warm air-dry. While waiting, she, Margaret, and the man stripped off the cotton’s sharp husks and tore out its fibrous seeds, before stretching and spreading the puffy blooms into some new cushioning to be worn under the sock of denim strips.
After everyone’s feet had been re-wrapped, Auntie hugged the boy close to her and whispered, “You remember how we got to here?” The little boy lowered his small palms from the heat, dug his right hand deep inside of the man’s coat pocket and withdrew a long red string. He flicked the string off his sap-sticky finger and then circled his hands on the dirt clearing. While squatting there, he gently laid down the piece of string, every now and again, closing and opening his eyes, before bending or twisting the red line into the configuration of the map route he was tasked with remembering.
On the outskirts of the string, lying in the hand-swept space in the dirt, the man drew landmarks with a twig: a pond, the cotton field, a burnt and leaning barn before a town of seven houses, woods, and the chain of hills falling down a mountain. When he finished, Margaret dug under her coat for the pebbles she carried, and placed them around the string for the locations of safe places along their way. Auntie rocked on the log and softly coughed while psalming, and looking over the mosaic of remembering, to here and yonder.
They had done well. The colorful crazy quilt hanging on the side of the big corn crib, eighty miles gone, lay replicated intact. Auntie closed her eyes, seeing its thick black horsetail hairs stitched in the spindly form of the walnut tree. The thrice-split, spicy smoky-smelling cloves signifying black birds, flew on a red corduroy road to the threaded-in pine needles, representing the tall woods. There, inside of a square clearing, two clove birds greeted bulbous beaks. The swatch of brown with sewn-on rows of little white tufts of lint stood for the unpicked cotton field. The short cut through the jean mountains…fifty miles, or five patches away…Auntie blinked back to them.
A gray man—ashen faced with a beady gray beard—threw two logs on the fire, sending a constellation of orange sparks into the sky. “It’s a good time now, everybody comin’ has come,” he said.
“You may as well start us off since you up,” suggested a woman sitting on the South log to his left.
Everyone within the square sat up studiously when the gray man started hobbling down the East log, to the Northeast corner of the quad. The fire in the middle crackled, baking his sweaty, musky odor as he passed. A family sitting near the corner sidled away to give him room.
“My name’s Josiah. Come here…come here from Powhatan way. I’m looking for my Bessy…my dear wife. She old like me. She gots alls these teeth.” He smiled and rubbed his fingers across his gums to show them where he meant. “She got Rheumatism and limp like this here,” the old man demonstrated his wife’s limp. He swallowed to remember more. “Her face is a pecan-brown with buts two wrinkles, here, when she smile.” His hands trembled to the outer comers of his eyes. “Any ya’ll folks seen her? Seen my Bess’?”
The human square murmured, trying to recall, until the ripple of their heads shaking no slowly subsided, and the old man had sat back down, bowed a little bit lower.
The cotton man and woman stood up next. Their daughter, dressed in boy’s clothes, followed her parents up to the corner. The woman stated, “We trekked from Greene County, quilt says that’s Carolina.” She took off her bonnet to show her face. “I gats three little moles high on both my cheeks, same as my Nathan. He didn’t have but two teeth when he gets sold off, but he gats these like me,” she said, going around the square, pointing to her and Nathan’s moles. Her daughter and man walked behind her, asking each traveler they stepped past, “You sure you ain’t seen our Nathan?” Before sitting the woman said, “He don’ know our names but he speak them, nonetheless. He say mine all the time, callin’ me to come find him. And I says back, ‘I’m coming, don’t you fret none, Momma’s comin’ for you Nathan. ‘”
“I answer to Horace Bean. I’m looking for my poppa. He a long-time blacksmith and put a notch on the nib of every shoe he make. Big ol’ black man, raise his hammer way up like this to take real big fearsome swings. He Bang! Bang! Bang! on that anvil all night to finish his day’s work.” Horace Bean sat down still hammering the air, re-telling his neighbor how his poppa had once labored.
“My name is Doretha. I’m looking for my Suzi. She gats black, black wavy hair. Probably wearing it in two long plaits that come to her shoulder, like this. She sing this song, too.” The woman sang softly for a long time; she sang her way back to a seat on the log, where she continued humming the lullaby and nodding to her neighbors to remember.
“Our name is Mason. I’m David, this here is Mary. We lookin’ for our son, Thomas,” David Mason beamed a toothy smile around the square, “But we call him ‘Tater ’cause he like potatoes so fine. He come to ’bout here on me,” David held his right hand at waist level. His wife tugged on his sleeve. “We got a little girl, too, named Sissy. She gats a snip cut on her left ear.” His wife, Mary rose on her toes to his ear and whispered, “It on her right ear, David.”
Mary stepped in front of him, to say, “They’s just like mine.” She went around the square showing the people her forked right earlobe, snipped by an overseer. “Sissy broke her wrist in the field and favor it like this, now, when she work. “
Margaret walked to the comer next. Some of the men’s mouths went slack, watching Margaret un-wrap her head and brush her long black hair from her creamy-brown face. “I’m looking for my Romona. She has butter-colored skin and almost red, but reddish-brown hair. She stammer a little like this…and her laugh, Oh my, she got a pretty laugh. Like new angels tinkling little bells in an April sky. She cover her mouth with the back of her hand when she do it. ” I wonder if she still do that? Margaret whispered to herself, then continued in her reverie, saying, “Mr. Walker-Dane, he tried to beat her outta me, you know. But I ain’t forget. No Suh. I ain’t forget her,” she looked around the square, then defiantly pronounced: “I ain’t forget not one hair on her precious head.”
“We remember a girl like that, don’t we sister?” a young man said.
“Yessum. Pretty yellow girl within burnt brown hair just like you said,” his sister replied.
“Lord Jesus, where at? Where you see her at?”
“Kinston, North Carolina. She was a wash girl then, but she up and left, might be on the road now, too.”
“’Think she out here lookin’ for me?”
“Maybe. Yessum. Everybody searching for somebody, nowadays. Place called Kinston, took in wash work where she could find it. She left there, though. I ‘spect headed North. They had a quilt directin’ to here, down them ways, too. You likely to meet up with her, if she can make it—” The young man stopped before fully saying, “If she can make it in this cold.”
Margaret headed back to the log. On the way there she bent over and grabbed the little boy’s shoulders and gave him a wide, heartening smile, “You hear that?” she asked. He nodded soberly and stepped into the comer. He was the only child to speak today, and said, as only a child could, “I’m lookin’ for my momma.” He looked over at Auntie; she nodded for him to proceed. “She a big woman. She make her cracklin’ bread with a sign in it.” The little boy slowly drew a J in the dirt with his finger. “Her name is Martha, and I’m her boy, John. She got long cut-marks on her lips right here,” he looked over at Auntie—she nodded again—”cut-marks on her lips ’cause he told her not to say my name when she’s took away from me, and was fightin’ to stay on, sayin’ she love me. Right Auntie?”
Auntie’s lips curled in a drained smile at him for getting the story right; he turned back to the square and said, “My momma hitch up the bottom of her dress like this and walk with her arm just a-swingin.'” The little boy pulled up the man’s long coat and acted out the way his Auntie had described his mother’s walk. He pranced around the square like that, twice, his face furrowed with concentration, and then he stopped, and with hurt cracking his voice, pleaded, “Any ya’ll folks seen my momma? A big lady named Martha?”
A few people were tempted to say “Yes”, so that he would sit down-because standing, he was such a heart-achingly sore reminder. Others wanted to claim they’d seen his momma to bolster his endearing hopefulness. But Auntie waved him back over to her before either group could bring themselves to lie.
Three more people spoke after the little boy; last was a short man wearing leather gloves and a fine, burgundy pea coat that stopped at his knees. He stooped over outside of the fire square, then stepped back in, noisily unrolling a rustling, hand-painted white canvas sign for those assembled to read:
LOST TO ME
Wife, CYNTHIA MEADOWS, 36…
Son, ISSAAC MEADOWS, 16…
Girl, CICEL Y MEADOWS, 11…
His proud sign may as well have been scribbled in Assyrian cuneiform; their indecipherable words would have been equally lost to the silent block. So the short man read aloud his sign, listing his wife, son, and daughter’s names, and ages. Then he laid it down, furling in the dirt, and resorted to the square’s theater of missing—performing a lengthy description of each member’s physical characteristics, and acting out every idiosyncrasy he cherished and could remember about his stolen family.
By this time, the tall pines had slipped off their long shadows, swiveling eastward, stretching across the cushioned ground of brown needles. While talk inside of the square left some of the people who were leaving it, feelings that an already too-big world was a thousand times broader, frightfully overgrown, and consisted of unseeably long and perhaps unreachable distances.
The cotton family, along with the old gray man, Horace Bean, and two other people were already standing on the verge of the cold, cowering before it. They listened while Mary Mason clamped her coat around her within a knot of two fists, and spoke more of her daughter, Sissy, saying, “Every mornin’ when I’d wake her up for chores, she’d say, ‘Why you call me back to here, Momma?’ She dream so clear she think that she’s here in real life. I had to put a switch to her tail one mornin’ ’cause she don’ wanna leave it. Then I ask, am I there? Am I there with you, Sissy? An’ she say, ‘Yes Momma, we all there, and we so happy. We so happy…’”
The man tried not to listen to Mary Mason but he did, envying her and the rest of them for their grit-long memories, wishing that he could thicken-up and grasp just one of the slim recollections he had about his folks.
“Anything comin’ to you?” Auntie asked.
He slowly shook his head, “No.” But then, how could he recollect any memory through all of his traumas? When since he had been knee-high, all he’d striven for was to forget, forget how a mere breath had scattered like dandelion shoots, every living soul dear to him into a great Diaspora—until Auntie and the little boy came.
They were the last people to leave. Margaret led them out of the pines in the opposite direction from whence they’d entered them, the hem of her dress whishing along the wood floor. The man followed her, as did the little boy, holding onto Auntie’s hand, but such tender gestures didn’t last very long—not in that cold.
“You know where’s we headed? And how we gonna get to there?” Auntie asked, taking back her hand from the boy, stuffing its chilled ball into her coat pocket.
“We goin’ quiet through the back of the town, then head in for past the hills to find my momma.”
“What that dip in the hill doin’ ’bout now?” asked the man.
“Tryin’ to saddle our star,” the boy replied.
“Tha’s right, trying to buck-off our light and our way.”
“Our way to yonder, right?” the boy asked, looking up at the man.
The man nodded, while Auntie said, “Tha’s right chile.”
“How far is yonder?” the little boy asked, only moments from the fire and already shivering.
None of the adults answered him.
“It don’t matter none. I can make it. I can make it to there for her, Auntie. Just you watch me and see. I can make it…”