We were lying on the beach. Marie, who felt the cold less than I did, had gone for a swim after our picnic. She’d come back to lie next to me, without drying off, enjoying the hot sun on her wet ... [+]
They stood at the end of the tobacco row, just beyond where the north end of the field met the woods. They stood in the shadows, perfectly still, watching only her. They reminded her of deer: thin, tense, alert – ready to disappear at the first sign of a threat without a rustle or the snap of a stick, as if God never created sound.
They were two women and a man. They called out to her only with their eyes. It was an invitation to life.
May pretended not to see them. She continued to sucker the tobacco plants, breaking the sucker off close to where the leaf met the stem. She peeled worms off the leaves, dropped them onto the ground, and crushed them under her foot.
Her dress was soaked with perspiration. The tobacco gum made her fingers stick together. The mosquitoes swarmed around her ankles, and the sun fried the back of her neck like corn pones in pig fat.
Suddenly, she wasn’t alone. Ruby slipped into her row and was now working the plant next to her. “You see them?” Ruby said, low.
“Umm-hmm,” May responded.
“It’s the railroad, Aunt May. And they lookin’ at you.”
All the folk had been whispering about slaves disappearing off the plantations to the south, that they might be making their way north, that it might happen here. As May had lain on her pallet at night, she’d mused about escaping the plantation, and what she would do if – impossibly – she had the opportunity to go. But it had only been a fantasy.
Now, suddenly, the choice was being presented. She was making her way to the end of the row. The window of opportunity was short, and the moment of her decision imminent.
“They lookin’ at you, Aunt May; you hear me? They think you strong enough for the journey.”
Could she really go? May wondered. Certain things would be required. Quick feet. She had those. Strong legs – she had those, too. Strong lungs...
Yes, she had those. All of those.
So why was she afraid? What was it she was missing?
“Are you gonna go, Aunt May?” Ruby whispered the question without looking at her.
May worked her plant a little slower while she deliberated. There would be dogs. Dangerous river crossings. Snakes and cold nights sleeping on the ground. And if she survived, she might get caught, and then there would be horrible beatings. These things terrified her.
But she was still young enough. Strong enough. Why was she hesitating? Why did she feel she was missing something she needed?
Was she afraid of being homesick? Did she think of this farm as her home, with its endless hours of labor, its near-starvation, its humiliation?
No. An emphatic – no. It would just be different – unfamiliar. So why was fear holding her back? What was it she was still missing?
Was she afraid for someone she’d be leaving behind? Every younger slave called her “Aunt,” but she had no blood-relatives here. No one else depended or relied on her. Did she think the lice in her bed-ticking would be heartbroken if she didn’t return to the cabin tonight?
No. That wasn’t it either. It was something else she was missing. Something that came from inside a person – from deep in their soul.
It was the thing that allowed a person to act despite their doubts, despite their fears. It was the thing that gave a person the power to step out of the muddy field and into the woods and begin an entirely new, uncertain existence. It was the thing that, if it wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be able to even start the journey.
She wished she knew what it was, but all she knew was – she didn’t have it.
She had reached the end of the row. She felt their eyes on her – waiting, anticipating. She stepped around the last tobacco plant to the next row and began working her way away from the north end of the field.
She felt no reproach from the three who watched from the trees. Whatever the thing was, they knew she had to have it to make the journey. They knew it was as important and real and necessary as the water they carried in their flasks and the bits of bread they had wrapped in their handkerchiefs. And they seemed to understand that if she didn’t have it, she couldn’t make the journey any more than if she’d been lame.
She heard Ruby’s voice behind her, asking one last time. “Aunt May?”
May responded by breaking off another sucker and crushing another tobacco worm.
All at once, she felt Ruby’s arms around her, giving her a powerful, impulsive hug. “Goodbye,” she whispered to May, and then Ruby was gone – stepping out of the muddy field and into the dark woods.
It felt as if a ray of light lit up May’s heart. She knew there would be nights she would question this moment, but – ultimately – she would be at peace with her decision. She didn’t have that thing – whatever it was. But Ruby had it, and other of her people had it, and it filled her with pride to know that.
She allowed herself a brief glance toward the trees. All at once, the deep, dark woods silently swallowed the four figures. At first, May’s chest tightened with fear for them, but it was quickly replaced by the warmth of hope.
She turned back to her tobacco plant and went back to work. "Fly," she whispered a prayer to the bold ones. "Fly and be free."