Monday, September 24, 2007
SEP EXCERPT: Then Came Hope
Then Came Hope
by Louise M. Gouge
Delia ran as hard as she could.
All the while, terror nipped at her heels.
Had Massuh had set the hounds on her?
God will punish you!
Plantation voices screamed in her head, but she ran anyway.
Nothing in her hand. Nothing in her pockets. Nothing in her heart but fear. Nothing in her head but blind determination never to be beaten again. Never to be spit on. Never to have her hair torn out by a vicious young mistress.
Staggering, stumbling, falling, lungs bursting.
Branches reached out to seize her, but only managed to tear off her headscarf, scrape her cheeks and hands and legs. Roots grabbed her feet and threw her to the ground, but she got up and ran again.
She ran through the woods because of the gray-clad soldiers on the roads, but she didn’t know the roads anyway, not any more than she knew the woods. In all her seventeen years, she’d only been off the plantation maybe five, six times. When the war started, plantation folk didn’t go anywhere.
Rumors came. Some said President Lincoln freed the slaves. One by one, two by two, black folks slipped away in the night.
Delia would hear about it from Beulah, who’d whisper that Ol’ Massuh had the dogs out looking for some other worthless fool who’d believed “all dat Yankee talk.”
Her dark face smoldering, Beulah would glare at Delia. “Don’t you be thinking of going nowhere. We belongst to Massuh and Missus. It be Gawd’s will and Gawd’s law.” She’d turn away from Delia with a snort. “Who’d want ya anyhow?”
Maybe nobody would want Delia. Maybe she didn’t know the roads or the woods. But Delia knew north, so north she ran. Hard, she ran, from just after midnight when the moon rode high to break of daylight when the sun burst over the distant horizon amid blazing red and purple clouds, like the bruises left on her light brown skin by Miz Suzanne.
If Delia cried, old Beulah scolded. “Men’ll do you worse than any missus.”
Delia knew what that meant. She knew she didn’t want to be around when Massuh’s sons came home from the war.
And so she ran.
Just after dawn, she came to a stream where she bent over to work out the stitch in her side. She splashed water on her face and legs to wash away the sweat and soothe the stinging scratches. Then she took off her shoes to wade barefoot for a while. She’d heard Ol’ Sam tell how dogs couldn’t follow a scent in water.
Rain splashed on her face, and she jumped, then laughed. She always liked rain with its soothing powers. But the sprinkle soon became a downpour, and Delia felt her courage washing away. She must keep walking, but without the sun, she’d lost north. Which way to go? And how could she take another step when exhaustion sought to drag her down?
She stumbled through dense undergrowth amid a stand of tall pines. Now brambles tore at her wet skirt like fishhooks, but she yanked free and kept on going.
As the rain let up a bit, a building came into view. Some kind of barn at the edge of a field. She edged nearer and listened for any sound that might signal danger. But what did she know of danger sounds? A galloping horse? A growling dog? A screaming mistress?
A feeling of helplessness filled her chest, and she glanced upward. The misting rain blended with her tears. “Mama, help me.” She didn’t know if there was a heaven, but if there was, Mama was there. Maybe she would help. Delia had been calling on her for eight years now, ever since Missus had her beat to death. Delia shuddered away the memory.
The barn beckoned. She crept close. Through a gap in the wall, she peered in. People! Delia drew back fast and hunched down. Nobody inside stirred. She peered in again. They appeared to be asleep, some lying on the bare floor, others resting against walls or posts. An old woman leaned into the arms of a gray-haired old man. A glimmer of hope lit Delia’s soul. Perhaps she would find kindness here.
For every face she saw was colored.
Ezra jerked himself back into the thicket. Not ten feet away, ragtag soldiers wandered down the muddy road, remnants of a company whose gray wool uniforms now hung in tatters on their gaunt frames. Crouched low in the bushes, Ezra felt like a twice-painted target in his faded blue garb. How could he stay hidden from all these rebs pouring back into South Carolina? What he needed was a change of clothes, which he was not likely to find. Or maybe he just needed to rest so he could think more clearly.
The long line of soldiers dwindled to an occasional straggler. Enfield rifle in hand, Ezra moved from his hiding place, adjusted his knapsack on his back, and crept deeper into the woods. Hunger gnawed at his belly, but shooting a rabbit or squirrel might bring unwanted attention. Best thing would be to find a place to sleep all day, then search for food before dark.
Across a field overgrown with weeds stood a rundown barn. He followed the perimeter of the field, sticking close to the surrounding forest. In every joint and muscle, his body begged for mercy, and he longed to give in to his exhaustion. Just a few more yards, he promised his aching legs.
The rusty hinges looked likely to screech, so Delia crawled through a hole in the wall to sit just inside, where she could run away if she had to. Shivering in her wet clothes, knees drawn up to her chin, she studied the group as best she could in the dark barn. A shaft of light beamed down on the old couple and made their wooly silver hair shine.
If she’d not seen the woman, she wouldn’t have entered. Was she a fool for trusting her own kind like this when they mostly looked like field hands? Maybe, but she couldn’t go on alone, or without sleep and food. She leaned her head back against the wall and wished for both.
“Chile, where ya come from?”
Delia jumped awake to see the old woman kneeling before her.
“I…I’m sorry. I’ll go…” Delia brushed hair from her face and started to move.
“No, no, chile. Don’t be scared. You’s all right.”
At the kindness in the woman’s smile, Delia’s eyes burned.
“Shh, don’t fret. We’s all in the same fix. You had anything to eat?”
The woman handed her a withered apple. “It ain’t much, but it’ll help.”
Delia could only mouth the words, “Thank you.” The fruit’s tangy flavor burst on her tongue like a promise. She devoured it in a few bites and wiped wet lips with her sleeve. “Thank you.”
The woman chuckled. “You’s welcome, child. Now, I’m May Brewster, and that over there…” She tipped her head toward the others, all still asleep except the old man. “He be my man Willard.”
Willard nodded at Delia. “Miz.” His dark face conveyed the same kindness as May’s.
“You got a last name?”
“We just took our old massuh’s last name. You could do dat.”
Delia’s stomach turned. Was it the apple or the idea of carrying her hated owners’ name for the rest of her life?
May patted her hand. “You think on it. Up north, you need a last name. You’s yo’ own person now.”
Delia drew in a breath. Her own person? Was it possible?
Again May chuckled. “It’ll take some git’n used to, but we have a whole new life up ahead. You got plans for what you gon’ do? You got people?”
Delia shook her head. “No. No plans. No people.” Fear pricked her soul. She hadn’t thought that far ahead. “What’ll I do?”
May threw her head back and laughed aloud, then hurried to shush herself. “Oh, chile, praise the Lawd, anything you wants to. You’ll find work and git paid real money for doing it.”
Delia’s heart seemed to jump. “Paid? Money?”
May again smothered her own laughter. “Can ya’ believe it? I’m not sure I do. But that’s what we hear from…”
The barn door whined open, and stark daylight poured in, silhouetting the ominous figure of a soldier with his gun pointing toward Willard and the group of sleepers.
A few feet from the door, May and Delia gasped, and the soldier quickly pointed the gun toward them.
“Don’t move. Don’t move an inch.” The man stepped into the barn and pulled the door closed behind him. He blinked several times, his gaze darting from the women to the group and back again. He laughed—a nervous laugh like he was relieved, and lowered his weapon.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He removed his cap and brushed his sleeve across his dark brown brow. “Mind if I join you?”
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