An Old Hymn and a Race Through the Woods
Romilly was a most spectacular girl. She had a beauty that rivaled the sun. One would say later on in her life, that it came from an inner masterpiece that radiated outward. She had long, curly black hair, dark, ebony skin, and the most piercing, brown eyes that flickered hazel with soul. She stood with the youthful sweetness of sixteen but with the experience of a woman many times her age. Her voice was deep and melodic, and when she talked, it was as almost as if she were singing a lullaby.
Her only blemish were the scars. They slashed cruel lines across her back and torso, dripping onto her shoulders and forearms. Some were faded, like old memories half-forgotten, but others were crested with blood and crowned with burning, searing pain.
She stood up, brushed the dirt from her simple cotton dress. It was torn and ragged. She was lean and muscular, her body intimate with the toils of the land. Her eyes swept over the fields. The sun was dying over the mountains with swirls of colors; only strands of grasping light lingered. It fell peacefully on rows, upon rows of cot—
“Yer not dun till I say yer dun!” Screamed a familiar white voice. Romilly woke from her trance, and glanced toward Mr. Grefferd, charging after a slave woman, who had straightened up from the cotton and was gathering up her things. Romilly felt a flame of hatred as she watched Mr. Grefferd slap the woman across the face. Quickly, she turned back to the cotton, hurriedly picking, until it grew so dark she could hardly see her hands in front of her.
“That’s enough,” came the screeching voice, “Yer filthy slaves are done. Git to yer cabins quick now.”
Romilly ran to the barn, balancing her basket on her head. Each step burned like the brand on her shoulder, the S with an arrow through it. Her body was aching and sore, scorched by the sun. She set her basket, seeping with cotton carefully on the floor, then slipped into Julius’s stall, crouched in the shadows, and waited. She heard and felt, the heavy thuds of her fellow field slaves, setting their baskets down, their discouraged steps, and their labored breathes.
She heard the last, wheezing breath of old Thomas. He sounded as if his throat had gotten too small for all the breath he was trying to hold in his lungs. She heard him sit down on a basket, catching all the air he could. After a few moments, he stood, humming Amazing Grace. With a voice that sounded as if it were choked with gravel, he went about, inspecting the barn, and locking up. He paused before Julius’s stall, stroking his tangled black main as he sang, “t’was blind, but now I’m free.” Romilly’s heart thundered like a runaway horse, in her chest. She could feel the blood pumping through the veins in her neck, pulsing with every heartbeat. She held her breath and felt like passing out. Her heart filled her ears, and so she scarcely heard the old man’s footsteps turn away and lock the barn door behind him. She heard him give the keys back to the overseer, Mr. Grefferd.
It was after, several of the longest minutes she had ever experienced, time stretching into what she felt like was an eternity. It was dead silence, save for the rushing the horse’s tails, and their soft, hot breath. Romilly finally turned her attention toward her stall mate.
Julius glowed a velvety black in the darkness. He radiated warmth, and she wrapped her cold arms around him. She ran her hands over his dusty, sleek coat, till she found the familiar brand on his should, the S with the arrow through it. As she touched it gently, Julius craned his long neck around to look at her with his big, murky eyes.
“I know,” Romilly whispered, stroking his massive head, “ I have scars too.”
Then she heard the barn door’s lock click, and the door slide open. Romilly dived down upon Julius’s hooves. He threw his head back in surprise and shifted his feet uneasily.
“Romilly,” called a familiar voice, “Romilly? Where are you?”
Immediately, she jumped to her feet, bunking her head on the stall door on her way up.
“Levi? Levi, is that you?” She called into the darkness.
There were the soft thuds of running feet toward her direction, and a familiar and beloved face emerged from the darkness.
Levi Sampton, the youngest son of the Sampton plantations owners, stood with a wide, innocent grin on his face, his blue eyes vibrant in the darkness, his hair the color of ripe lemons. His face was rounded with pleasure, his hands calloused, and his body, lean and muscular. He had the appearance of a young man, with the whole world before him, and his life in the palms of his hands.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” he whispered, embracing her over the stall. Romilly felt a leap of pleasure and noticed she was no longer bothered by the cold.
Then, breaking from his arms, and hating herself for doing it, Romilly whispered, “What news do you have?”
His face, already shadowed by the night, darkened, as he turned his face away. “The worst. My brother, Louis, told my friend that he wanted to request to,” he shuddered at the words, “buy you, from my parents. He claims he needs a new housemaid, but it is a lie. We both know what he wants.” At this, he turned his gaze back to Romilly, concern and worry carved into his young eyes. “I cannot let that happen,” he said, grasping Romilly’s hand in desperation, “I will not let him hurt you. So I, so I-“ His face looked so stricken and grieved as he choked out the words, “I-bought you. From my parents, before he could.”
Romilly wrenched her hand out of his, anger flushing her ebony cheeks. She felt as if she were drowning. How, how could he do this? After all he had promised, never to enslave or buy a slave in all his life, claiming that he was different. She felt the darkness and the lemoned colored hair, swirl with the soothing smell of horse and barn, the ringing of the silence, the soft muzzle of Julius until she felt all of her senses muddled by all of her confused emotions.
“I couldn’t think of anything else to do. He was going to come down to your cabin, tonight,” said Levi in a hushed voice, tears trickling down his handsome face, as he stroked Julius. “I couldn’t think of anything I could do to stop him that wouldn’t make his suspicious of our plans.” He glanced anxiously at Romilly, who continued to pretend she was staring into space.
“Did you do this so that you could get my freedom papers?”
Levi let out what might have been a sigh of relief, “Yes. I’ve got them tonight. If you are stopped by slave hunters or the police, you can show them these. It’s why I was so late.” He held them out to her. Romilly took them with trembling hands. She noticed how bright they were in the heavy blackness, and how her dark hands contrasted to the white paper. She pretended she could read what they said, but the letters and words blurred together like some unfathomable mystery. Never before had she wanted something so much, but it was like reaching out to the hand that would save you, your fingers touching, but coming short.
Levi’s voice broke the trance. “You have to go now. Hurry, before they send the dogs out on you.”
Romilly leaped over the stall, grabbed a stuffed satchel buried beneath a haystack, where she had hidden it earlier that day. Her bare feet padded silently. She careful folded her papers and placed them in it. Levi opened the door, and they slid out into the silent night.
The bitter night bit into her thin, cotton dress. The wood chips beneath her feet stabbed and cut. She shivered. Levi took her hand, and they ran into the woods beyond the barn. They carefully pushed past branches and stepped over roots and rocks. They knew that the less of the trail they left, the harder it would be to track them. The going was familiar, for years as children they had romped and explored this forest; a fallen log here, then the gnarled tree. At last, they stopped in a stream, the moonlight water silked over their feet, a cold, gliding fabric wrapping around their ankles. Romilly noticed that in the night of the forest, they were both the same color.
In their beloved woods, Levi took off the small sack he was carrying and three additional papers out of his pocket.
“Here,” he whispered, handing the pieces of papers and the sack to Romilly, “These are some food and clothes I
snuck from the kitchens, it’s for your journey.” Romilly took them with oddly trembling hands and nodded, a particular lump in her throat permitted her from saying much else. Then Levi pointed to the papers with a grave expression that didn’t seem to fit his complexion.
“Those papers are the most ‘important. The first is a ticket for Rugibie’s train station. The second is a faked official note from mamma, explaining why she ‘as her slave traveling so far away. Show that to anyone who questions you. The third is the most important. It is where I’ll find you. Don’t lose it.”
Romilly glanced down at the paper. It read, Tomson, Massachusetts, 12330 W. Miner Street.
“An’ I’ll be safe there,” she questioned, choking out the words, due to the odd inability to swallow, her eyes scanning the address for a second time.
“Perfectly. These are my friends. They are abolitionists.”
“Right.” The lump in her throat constricted.
“I just have a few more loose ends to tie up. I have to cover our tracks so we can disappear, without fear that Louis will find you. I will come and get you as soon as I can.”
Levi then took her hand. It was comfortably warm and strong. He looked at her. For a moment, the shadows fell away, and the light of the moon glinted like sliver stars in his eyes. Tears started to leak from Romilly’s eyes. She saw her journey, long and hard before her. And without Levi at her side.
“Courage,” he whispered, “have courage.” Then he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Then he turned away and started running. He stopped, glanced over his shoulder and smiled. He turned away and vanished into the darkness, but Romilly was sure she had seen the shine of salty tears.
After a few moments of staring at the patch of blackness that had consumed her dearest friend, she turned, walking upstream at a brisk pace. She clutched the hand that Levi kissed to her chest as if it had been burned. The forest closed over her, scratching her with its branches and tickling her with its leaves. The water squirmed beneath her toes. The darkness and stillness was oppressive, so she sang softly the song old Thomas hummed in the barn.
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost,
But now I’m found
T’was blind but now I’m free.”
And for the first time, she noticed that the old man had changed the last word of the hymn.