This excerpt from a new Gilda story (which is slightly anachronistic in the Gilda chronology for those of you who remember the novel well!) will appear in the anthology “From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth” edited by Victoria Brownworth. It will be published in 2011 by Tiny Satchel Press. Gilda doesn’t appear in the story until the very end … but worth the journey.
for Sheridan LeFanu
Looking back it all seems so natural and perhaps it was.
I watched my father, Solomon scan the road outside of our small house for a sign. It was always uncertain whether he was more relieved when he discovered one or when he did not. He often invoked the name of the Lord either way but he sometimes appeared too exhausted to remember further prayers. He was a tall, dark man, thinly built, who looked as if he had important jobs to do. Watching for the sign was one of them.
Now, when I think of my father, it is those fleeting moments that bring his face to my mind most precisely. His determination was a force of nature. And freedom was always his goal. He spoke of it to me and everyone who would listen so often that freedom became a tangible thing, a thing to taste like berry pie. And it became our name—Freeman—when we escaped slavery and settled in Charlmont.
We’d lived on a small New England back road for some years before I understood—our farm was a depot. A place where those, like my father and me, stopped on their way to freedom. No one ever actually said these words, but the succession of ‘cousins’ who stayed with us in the years before I turned 14 were innumerable. Each would be called by the same name depending on the age. Men were called Cousin Simon, women were Cousin Delia and children were Cousins Henrietta and John. I think Father decided to use the same names so as not to tax my child’s memory.
Sometimes it became a source of a smile for Father and me. He’d look up say “Wonder if we’ll have a Cousin for dinner tonight?” And I’d say, “Yes, please. May we have them with jam?” It was the purest joy to hear my father laugh out loud.
Later I heard stories of the life of slavery he’d left behind on the plantation. Mostly from the Cousins who ‘visited.’ One who’s skin was drawn so tight by the scars of the lash he could hardly bend over; a ten-year old who, at the sound of the dogs, remembered to cross water so she’d swum downstream with her injured mother clinging to her back. The distance from the world of slavery to our farm was much greater than the sum of the miles.
By the time I was fourteen it ceased feeling like a secret game and I understood the stark terror the ‘Cousins’ had endured to make the journey north
“We’ve got cousins tonight.”
“No, sugar pie. Cousin Delia and Cousin Henrietta be in tonight.”
With that I went to the room where I slept to be certain I’d not left a terrible mess
I heard the buckboard on the road before Father did. His hearing was getting thinner each year, which he would never admit, of course. Mr. Leavitt, pale in the dim light thrown by the lantern at his side, helped Cousin Delia down first. She was tall and fair-skinned, almost as pale as Mr. Leavitt. She wore her head wrap drawn tightly down across her brow, shadowing her eyes. She was very thin, not unexpected given the journey they’d taken. Fleeing from the south to the north was hardly a nutritious journey.
Delia reached up to lift her daughter down before Mr. Leavitt could and the sinewy strength of her arms and back were barely concealed by the dark cloak she wore. Cousin Henrietta was almost as tall as her mother and just as pale. She could have been 11 or 16 it was difficult to tell in the dim light. Mr. Leavitt, handed my father a small satchel, turned away looking exhausted as if he’d not slept in days, and barely said good night before climbing back up on the seat of his buckboard.
We turned to our charges and offered a small snack.
“We kinda tired suh. If you don’t mind we’d like to….”
“I understand, Cousin. No tea?”
I couldn’t see her eyes well, but they didn’t look tired at all. Her voice didn’t seem as weak as her words but I couldn’t tell. So I turned to her daughter. She stared back at me with coal black eyes that were full of fear. That made more sense than the sound of her mother’s voice so I took her hand, which was exceptionally cool, and led her to the room she’d occupy until it was time for them to move north.
Once they were settled in the room Father rolled back his blanket so I could sleep in his bed. He pulled the curtain across the alcove where I slept while we had cousins; then he lay on a pallet by the stove. And then it was morning.
Father said Cousin Delia had asked they not be disturbed, they might sleep through the day. I put a piece of ham bone in a pot at the back of the stove then worked outside doing my regular chores; chickens and cows and fences don’t take care of themselves. Father took the horse over to the Fahey farm to help with their tilling and I tried not to listen at the door. I wanted to really meet Cousin Henrietta.
Near dusk, almost done with my chores around the farm, I ran water over my head like Father always did. When I looked up Cousin Delia stood in the doorway. I felt she towered over me although she wasn’t really taller. I’d seen many different colors of colored people since we’d had the visiting cousins but something about this Delia was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Coolness rolled off of her like fog rising from the cranberry bog. I smiled, though and asked if she wanted to go to the barn with me.
“Yes, that be nice…uh…?”
“Elizabeth,” I provided.
Delia said, “How fortunate.”
I thought that was an interesting response but people on the railroad often had an odd relationship to words, to space, to everything. ”
“Yes, please, my name is Caramelle.”
“You mustn’t say that.”
“Well it is and I don’t like being called something else.”
Once we were inside I shut the barn door like always and she looked startled.
“Why’d you do that?”
“You’re supposed to shut the barn door so there’s no coming and going.”
Something about that made her laugh and laugh and then me too. We laughed until we fell down into the pile of hay and the chickens cackled outside in the yard as if they were laughing too. We lay there smiling at the wood beams and the tackle hanging above us. It was the same peacefulness that I enjoyed but it was made richer by Caramelle being here.
“I remember this place.”
“How can you remember a place you’ve never been?” I asked a little uneasy.
“Through dreams, silly!” Caramelle laughed again which took the edge off of her words.
“Do you want to see the secret place?” I asked. She nodded.
I opened to gate to the stall and dug the pitch fork around under the hay until I found the seam in the wood floor. I pried until the hatch opened revealing the trough we’d dug into the ground below. It was lined with hay and a blanket but was still not the most inviting accommodations. We’d only used it once when a relentless bounty hunter had followed some cousins almost to our door. But that had been more than a year ago and the news was that the war was almost over.
“Let’s get in!” Caramelle said with excitement.
I tipped the hatch back and Caramelle dropped in like she’d been invited in to eat tea cakes. I looked at the closed barn door then slid down beside her in the hole. It could not have been more than four feet by six feet and was about four feet deep. I closed the hatch over us and felt a few sprigs of hay drift through the cracks into the mostly dark.
Caramelle started to giggle and put her arm around me, wriggled in close and whispered in my ear: “Can I tell you the story?”
I could hardly say ‘no’ in such close quarters and with my curiosity nipping so closely beside me.
“A man who used to visit the plantation pretty regular was determined to buy me and mama. He kept coming back and Massa Harriwell finally give us up; not for cheap though!”
“Once we was on the road…that man he turned us into something.”
“What does that mean: ‘something?’
Her breathing almost stopped so I did too.
“There was so much blood everywhere and I got sick. Mama tried to stop him but he made her bleed too.”
I was not able to hold a clear picture in my head. The way she described the profusion of blood made me wonder at their survival.
“From then on we was different.”
“Different like what?” I pressed.
“Just different…like…on the plantation we was always hungry. Now I’m never hungry…except…” She stopped again. “And I’m strong now. You saw my hands?”
I had, indeed, seen her hands.
“And we learn how to do things…some of ‘em not nice…but we strong.”
“Well, I can strike down a buck and drink his blood without spilling nary a drop,” Caramelle said with an undercurrent of pride.
That image was clear enough although the idea Caramelle drinking blood made me a bit ill at first.
“Really, it’s not such a awful thing,” she said as if she could read my mind. “You eat their meat don’t ya?”
She was right and I’d seen enough game caught and prepared to sink her extraordinary statements into a recognizable context.
“One night he tried to mess with me and I guess he forgot…about changing us I mean…and mama got mad and killed him.”
“Killed him!?” I nearly screeched the words. It wasn’t from any judgment about killing someone who thought it proper to buy human beings; it was simply that Caramelle said it so easily; as easily as the killing apparently had occurred.
“Yeah. She took out the small hatchet she keep hid in her cloak and took off his head. She said that was the only thing to do. We really had to run now. She said his people wasn’t regular and they was gonna be mad and we had to get north.”
The chill that surrounded her mother now also emanated from Caramelle. I hadn’t noticed that before. Or maybe remembering the death of her tormentor had dropped her temperature in a fit of emotion.
“We been traveling ever since, trying to figure out how to live since he used to take care of that.”
“Take care of what?”
“We better go, ain’t your papa coming home soon?” Caramelle said abruptly.
I couldn’t convince Caramelle to go on with her story no matter how hard I prodded or what I promised. Finally she relented just a little.
“We met a woman on the road, Gilda.”
“Who was she?”
“I ain’t never seen nobody strong as her! She say she gonna help me and mama. You’ll want to hear about her.” Caramelle said this with the first childlike smile I’d seen her convey.