Virginia, June 1837
Alsie Stone’s breasts leaked milk from the moment of her escape. Over hard miles, her milk painted stripes of terror down the front of her heavy tow-cloth blouse. The stitch in her side grew teeth. She tripped in the darkness, fell on her face, and jounced the baby in the sling on her back.
Footsteps ahead of her stopped. “You all right?”
Alsie raised her head and spat, but the sharp-sweet taste of dirt and rotting leaves still prickled her tongue.
The baby cried.
“Hush, Hannah!” she said.
Alsie sat up, uncorked a small bottle. Her heart skittered as she gave Hannah more herb-water to make her sleep. The less she used, the better. She scrambled to her feet, then limped toward her family.
“Ben,” she grabbed her husband’s arm, hard as the iron he worked at his forge, “got to stop.”
“Can’t be long.” He handed her a cow bladder full of water, his face grim. She looked into his eyes, starved for reassurance, but he turned away. “Miller might be huntin us already,” he said.
Alsie’s stomach lurched when she heard Miller’s name. The devil alone knew what Bellaire’s overseer would do if he caught any of them, especially her. He’d first threatened her soon after he arrived at the plantation a year back: Go to his cabin or he would find cause to whip her sons.
After leaving his bed that time she had raced to the creek, stripped, and bathed until the chill water set her teeth chattering. She recalled the cabin’s mustiness, the grimy sheets against her skin, Miller’s smell of horse flesh. His finger had kept circling her nipple, and the pleasure it had given her deepened her shame. Her getting with child and lying to her mistress, saying that she was spotting, put a stop to his bedding her, but by then Ben knew about Miller. Everyone did.
She’d tried to use her beauty to shield her sons, but Ben wouldn’t allow it. She’d been his alone too long. Master had given her to Ben about a year after her first blood, to ensure good work from him. She was afraid of Ben at first because he was big, rough-spoken, and nine years older than she was, but he’d taken good care of her the few times she got sick. In eighteen years, love—thorny sometimes because they both could be cross-grained—had grown between them.
“I’ma wait till you’re two months out of childbed,” he’d said, “then I’m runnin with the boys and the baby, if it’s mine. Crazy for you, Alsie,” he’d gripped her arms so hard that she’d gasped, “sorely hope you’ll come, but I got to leave or break Miller’s neck.”
Her neck cramped when she remembered Ben’s words, but he wouldn’t have said them if he’d stopped caring for her. She raised the bladder and drank more water.
“Merciful Father,” she said when she finished, “help us!”
She felt for the pouch at her waist that Yowande, the African woman who’d reared her, had prepared. Yowande had said nothing when Alsie confided that she would flee, but the old woman’s eyes had darkened so. Yowande had prayed over the pouch for days. It held chalk, brown soap, candle stubs, lucifers to light them, herbs, and a tiny doll much blessed by Yowande. Coins earned from selling produce from Alsie’s garden plot added little weight.
Alsie closed her eyes and recalled Yowande’s face, wrinkled and dark as a fig, tribal marks high on her cheeks, the whites of her eyes aged to the color of parchment. Remembrance of that time-writ visage sent warmth rippling through Alsie, but unease she’d felt since Hannah’s birth crawled in her stomach.
A fox barked, the wind rose, and the whipping branches made her think of spirits trapped in the trees. Something brushed her arm and she jumped. Jake, seventeen, her oldest son, had put his broad hand on her shoulder. His bundle, stuffed with blankets, vittles, a knife and an axe, lay at his feet. She passed him the waterskin.
Jake gulped so loud that she counted his swallows before he passed the cow bladder to Jerusalem, just turned sixteen. Jerusalem swigged water, then returned the bladder to Ben, who put it back in the leather sack fashioned from his thick smithing apron. While he and Jerusalem checked their stolen guns, Alsie gave thanks that master had trusted Ben to repair them, so he knew how they worked.
Jake made a steady worry-grunt, a gut-deep growl he’d kept up since they’d left Bellaire. He didn’t talk, but he made his feelings known.
“Come on!” Ben waved.
Jake got going.
Alsie’s knee throbbed but be damned if she would give Jerusalem call to say, “House niggers got no grit.” He thought her life easy because she worked indoors. Housework had spared her so that she looked barely in her twenties, but she lived under mistress’s heel. Mistress could be kind one minute, full of vigor, trying to do five things at once. Then again, she fell into moods so crabbed and sour that she dumped slop jars on Alsie’s head.
“Alsie!” Ben, up ahead, motioned for her to hurry.
She plunged a hand into her pouch, and her fingers closed on the doll. Eyes brimming, knee aching, she squeezed it. “Keep me goin,” she said.
They trudged for miles over ground sown with stones and balls from sweet gum trees that crunched and stuck to her shoes. The sky held a hint of light when Ben called a halt. She followed his gaze to a small house of white clapboards backed up against a hillock. Cornstalks spread on one side of it, and a barn, smokehouse, henhouse and pigpen stood on the other. A log outhouse was at a distance.
A cock crowed, and it seemed less a sign of coming light than a threat of deeper darkness. When Ben signaled to them, they drew back into the bushes. He scouted the woods and fields for what seemed a lifetime, then crept to the house and tapped on a window. What if he’d made a mistake? Alsie tightened her bottom because she was trickling down her leg.
A young black man cracked open the door and wiped his face with a red handkerchief, the safe sign the itinerant preacher who’d visited Bellaire told them to expect. Someone inside pulled shut the homespun curtains. After Ben waved them forward, Alsie staggered over the threshold.
Inside, Ben extended his hand toward the man. “My name is—”
“No names, brother,” the man said. “Somebody come askin, we can say we don’t know you.”
“Good sense, but a sorry thing.”
The smell of wood smoke eased the hammering in Alsie’s temples. The brick hearth was newly swept, a twig broom leaning against a wall. The brown-skinned farmwife’s apron couldn’t hide that she was weeks from giving birth, and her cheeks seemed to glow as she roused the fire’s embers to flame. A half-finished cradle stood in one corner and a spinning wheel in another. Mint, basil and comfrey hanging from ceiling beams rustled and scented the room. The benches beside the plank table had a piney smell and felt new and splintery but had room for both families.
Before Ben ate, he looked at Jake, Jerusalem, Hannah and Alsie, his lips moving. Praying? He didn’t much like the secret prayer meetings in the woods, but now he whispered “Amen.” His handsome face, dark brown with a red tinge, had changed little over the years, but time had stolen his ease of manner, his laughter. She recalled how he used to buck dance like a wild man and ached with regret.
They gazed at each other across the table, and the warmth in Ben’s eyes let her dare hope that they would reach Philadelphia.
“There’s more food.” The farmwife came toward the table with a waddling gait and a smoking black frypan, the handle wrapped in a greasy blue rag.
“Please, sister.” Alsie, Hannah in her arms, nodded toward her plate.
“Course you needs more, nursin that baby.” The farmwife cocked her head to one side, admiring Hannah. “Face like a sunrise, small as she is. Can’t be above three months.”
“Just two.” Alsie cuddled closer. Was the herb-water harming Hannah? Was there any choice?
The farmwife slid a tin spatula under glistening eggs and set them on Alsie’s plate. She cut Alsie slices of coarse brown grudgeon bread.
“You don’t look far from lyin in yourself,” Alsie said.
The woman smiled and cradled her belly with her free hand.
After eating, they followed the young farmer to his barn. “I’ll wake y’all at twilight,” he said, handing them horse blankets.
The loft’s straw held enough of the clover’s sweetness, as they settled into it, to funnel Alsie back through time, to the cabin where her mother fought weariness and willed her fingers to keep moving to make Alsie a doll, the night before she and Alsie’s father were sold away. Burlap covered its acorn head. Enough cloth remained for a little body stuffed with clover and dirt, tied off with string. Alsie kept a burlap scrap long after the doll fell to pieces. Its roughness still lived in her fingertips.
The straw crackled when one of the boys shifted. Likely Jake, who never knew what noise he made. They were all together, thank you, Jesus. Alsie settled back into Ben and went to sleep with the warmth and weight of his arm shielding her.
The next night Alsie followed Ben and Jerusalem while Jake carried Hannah and brought up the rear. If danger approached from that direction, maybe Jake’s deaf-sense would warn him.
They made good time after they left the couple’s farm despite a drizzle that smudged the edge of things and turned trees into hulking giants. Alsie was talking herself into believing that all would be well when a screech owl gave its ghostly call. She raced past Jerusalem and grabbed Ben’s hand.
“You hear that?” Her breath came short so she could hardly talk. “Death be a-huntin tonight.”
“Hush.” But he felt for his gun, gripped it, released it, and walked faster.
The moaning call came again.
When she reached for Ben once more, Jerusalem caught her shoulder. “Leave Pa be.”
“We can still turn back.” Her voice rasped. “Ain’t just the owl. You seen Jake lookin back, feelin trouble?”
Ben didn’t answer, but he sped up.
Before they escaped, Alsie had shucked off mistress’s thin-soled, hand-me-down parlor shoes for heavy ones stolen from master’s barrel of brogans. Now they blistered her feet. Pain gnawed with every step. Her breath scorched her throat and a whirring came into her head. She lurched toward a tree trunk. The next thing she knew, she felt damp earth beneath her.
“You done fainted.” Ben held her head in his lap.
Jerusalem passed her the waterskin.
Jake stood rocking Hannah in his arms.
Alsie’s head pounded.
“Ain’t far now,” Ben said, studying her. “We’ll rest a little.” But his face went tight with strain.
Alsie crawled over to a tree with her knapsack and motioned for Jake to bring Hannah, who began to nurse. Alsie sank into sleep like a stone in a pond.
“Hounds!” Jerusalem shook her shoulder. “Run!”
She awakened, stifled a scream.
Ben sprang up, gun drawn.
“The baby!” Alsie cried, her heart thudding.
“Jake got her,” Jerusalem said.
Alsie turned. Jake held Hannah in one arm and his ax in the other. Alsie grabbed her knapsack and Jake’s. The sky was just growing light, hooves pounding, dogs barking. Two days, and Miller had tracked them down.
“Run ahead, you and Jake!” Ben yelled. Shadows grayed his gingery skin. “Me and Jerusalem’ll cover you. We might can make it up that hill. They can’t follow on horses, all them rocks and trees.”
Shit! Why hadn’t he heeded her warning?
The underbrush crackled.
A blue jay took flight in a blue-violet streak. A hound burst from the bushes and lunged at Ben, who fired. The dog went sprawling, the blood spurting from its left side steaming in the air.
“Yonder,” someone shouted. A rifle cracked. Gun smoke billowed in the growing light.
Alsie struggled up the hill ahead of Jake, but she turned when he yelled. A dog had its teeth in his leg. He swung his ax, split the dog’s spine, then looked stricken. He loved animals.
“Stop!” Miller called from the bottom of the hill.
Jerusalem fired when a dog sprang at his chest. The shot sent the hound’s brains spraying.
A whistle sliced the air, and the remaining dogs raced back down the hill. From the hilltop Alsie saw Ben and Jerusalem crouched behind a tree, reloading. Men belly-crawled toward them.
“Three of ‘em sneakin up!” she yelled. A bullet whacked bark off the tree beside her head. She dropped to the ground. Jake lay inches away with Hannah, who was wailing.
Two more rifle cracks, and Ben fell onto his back. A stain spread on his chest. Alsie’s heart seemed to shrivel.
“Ben!” She stood and screamed. A shot whizzed past her cheek. She threw herself back down. The birds had gone silent, and she heard only Hannah’s cries and Jake’s harsh breathing.
The three men rushed Jerusalem. He fired. Miller crumpled, shrieking, holding one knee. The other two men dove for cover. Jake thrust Hannah into Alsie’s arms then ran zigzag down the hill. He grabbed Ben’s gun off the ground, fired at one of Miller’s men, then reloaded the pistol to protect Jerusalem while Jerusalem hooked his arms under Ben’s shoulders and dragged him behind some trees. Ben screamed.
Alsie shuddered. Hunching, she wriggled down the hill with Hannah. Let them all die together if they must. At Ben’s side she scraped together a pile of leaves and set them under his head to ease his breathing. His eyes were glazing, his body going slack.
“Ben!” she shouted, “no!” She opened her pouch and put Yowande’s doll on his chest. Its divine essence couldn’t save him from so grave a wound, but it could slow death a moment, let them end with peace after troublous months.
Jerusalem sighted down the hill and fired. Miller’s men hustled Miller away faster, one clutching his shoulders, another his feet. His shrieks carried over the yelping of the dogs.
Jake took aim at one of the men carrying Miller.
Jerusalem tapped his shoulder. “Stop!” His hands flashed through homemade signs. “Far, far.”
The doll on him, Ben fought to keep his eyes open. He reached for Alsie. He had hit her at times over the years with his big burn-scarred hands, but now she craved his touch. His love flowed through it, nourished her.
“Ben!” She squeezed his hand, then stroked his cheek, rough with salt-and-pepper stubble. Ben squeezed back and signaled with his eyes for her to call over Jerusalem. When Ben patted his own pocket, Jerusalem reached into it and took out five large silver coins. Ben nodded yes and mouthed, “Up to you now.”
Ben’s gaze returned to Alsie. He opened his mouth to speak, then his hand went limp, his head lolled sideways. He lay still.
“Get up, Ben!” Alsie shook him. His head flopped and blood trickled from a corner of his mouth. “Goddammit, don’t leave us now!”
“He’s gone, Ma.” Jerusalem’s voice was choked. “We got to go. They’ll be back with more men.”
Jake stroked her arm. “Up!” he signed to her, raising an open palm.
It was as if her sons weren’t there. The moment held only her and Ben. She ripped the collar off his shirt, tucked it into her bosom, then hugged him to take in his heat, the smoky smell of the forge still in his hair.
Jake and Jerusalem tried to pull her off. She kicked them. She took the doll from Ben’s chest, put it in his left hand, and closed his fist around it. They couldn’t sing his soul on its way like at Bellaire, but the doll, steeped in prayer, could ease his passage.
At last, Jerusalem seized her arms, dragged her free of Ben, lifted her and placed her hanging over his shoulder. Upside down, she watched Jake pick up Hannah. Jerusalem started walking, bearing her away from Ben.
Constance Garcia-Barrio is a Black Philadelphian with Southern roots. An agent is representing her novel.