It was post Civil War Alabama in the heart of the South’s unbuckling "Black Belt" and Isabe Free lived in a log cabin high on a hill hidden in tall pines and kudzu. To the rest of the world it was Christmas Eve 1875, almost ten years after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the same year Geraldine Whitemore changed her name to something more her liking.
Izzy, as some of her fellow "freed" folk called her, wasn't a big fan of the grand yuletide season. She didn't hate Christmas, she just chose to forget it existed, or tried to. She lived with her 10-year-old nephew Myson, who each December, was shipped off to Isabe's daddy's home down below her hill. Izzy said she didn't want her own mental poison polluting the boy's holiday.
During those times alone she liked to sit outside. Izzy's front porch was her sanctuary. She would just sit, rock and look down the hill through the trees at the charred remains of the Whitemore plantation home. Isabe Free was as dark as the mahogany varnished oak wood chair she sat in sipping her morning tea. The smell of burning wood from her kitchen stove allowed her to close her eyes and relive a happier time, picturing the glorious blaze of the old mansion below going down in a ballet of flames. It was even sweeter hoping the serpent Andrew Whitemore was roasting slowly inside tied to his desk chair. Yet this hateful pleasure was nothing compared to the loathing darkness she held for her mother in the blackness of her bile. No joy existed when she remembered Christmas Eve 1864. She just hoped wherever her female birth parent was in the North States, some mad-Yankee had her chained to a tree for his hunting dogs pleasures.
It wasn't a healthy thing for the surrounding timber when Isabe's past reflections turned to the woman who bore her. During those "episodes of expression" as she referred to them, Izzy would get up out of her chair, grab her axe and find a tree to start hacking at. And if she actually cut the tree down, she just let it lay. She wouldn't even use it for firewood. The front of her cabin was littered with felled rotting pines. And with each hewed pine the clearer she saw the Whitemore ash heap. The better her view, the more trees that fell. She thanked God Christmas was only once a year.
Isabe was still an attractive woman of 26 years. But young men had long since stopped coming by her cabin to court Miss Free. She had a nickname for her axe, and if a suitor didn't take her "no thank you" for what it meant, she introduced them to "Mr. Hell No", and they soon got the message running back down the clay road where they came from.
Isabe Free wasn't crazy. She didn't hear voices; didn't swat at imaginary bugs. Her memory was just stuck in the wet clay of a rain soaked rut of a road in her past. And that made her mad, and her madness was darker than any slave who ever worked the fields of the Whitemore Plantation and was blacker than the smoking ash of its sizzled skeleton the day after the fire. Her daddy knew this and it bothered him deeply. He still lived in their renovated slave home down the hill from his daughter's perch. Pa George, as he liked to be called, was a sharecropper and doing better than most of the freed slaves in the area. A new corporation up the creek in Birmingham bought the plantation land after Mr. Whitemore mysteriously disappeared. Pa George made what he felt was a comfortable living and made sure Izzy and the boy had the food and supplies they needed. He was even glad to have Myson each December, and took him to the big Jesus Jubilee on Christmas at midnight. But this year he sensed he had to try to shed some light into the womb of his daughter's pain. He knew it was time to do something. Standing in his living room, the sun-baked fifty year-old looked like he was listening to the framed rope in the shape of a cross that hung on the wall. He could hear his wife's voice just like it was on that Christmas morning a decade ago, "Don't you tell her George, don't you tell her. I gonna be free and she gonna be free", he remembered 'Momma' saying with a bruised smile, "gonna be as free as a black assed woman can get. You just take care of my baby. And if you tell 'er, I'll come back and bust my black skillet over that hard head of yours. You hear me man of mine, don't do it."
"Whatcha teared up for pa," asked Myson looking up at his Grandfather?
"Nothin boy, but, listen here. Ya wanna do somethin' for Geraldine for Christmas?"
"Ya mean Aunt Izzy Pa?"
"Ya boy, Isabe Free, go up the hill and git her. Bring her on down. Tell her Pa George has something for her."
"She ain't comin down that hill Pa, you knows that. She be up there hacking down them trees."
"You just go git her boy. Think up somethin. It's important, I gotta go hide a skillet."
While watching his grand boy run up the hill, the bald headed former Whitemore slave, shifted his gaze to the reason he never moved away from the plantation. The massive oak tree in the front yard was still there along with the moss-covered rock that rested at its base. And then looking to the sky he spoke, "God, is you be real, like I feel you are, you gotta help me show her the truth of that cross, and yours for that matter, for Christmas sake, and then you's have to protect me from any flyin skillets. Amen"
Up on the hill, Izzy was in the security of her cabin. It was safe inside. Nobody to sell her out, as she would put it. Nobody to violate her. No little boy-asking question after question. "If you're my Aunt, where's my momma?" "Where's your momma?" "How come I'm so light skinned, Aunt Izzy?" She loved the boy, and knew she had to raise him. But how could she answer those questions. How could she explain the deafening cry of her heart, the piercing empty pain of abandonment, the scream of her soul? Silence was her Christmas present each year, one she tried to unwrap slowly, one Isabe was trying to enjoy when Myson burst in the front door.
"Aunt Izzy, Aunt Izzy. You gotta come quick. You gotta come down the hill. Pa's sick."
"Settle down boy, take a breath. Now what you mean Pa's sick?"
"He's bad sick, just layin on the bed, groaning like an ill bear."
"Well go git Mr. Watson, he knows some doctoring."
"Can't Aunt Izzy. He asked for you. Like it might be his last sickness or something."
Isabe Free looked at the boy for a moment then snarled, "You lyin' boy. I can always tell when your white hinny is tellin me a lie. Now what be the true story or I'll get the switch."
"Listen Aunt Izzy," Myson explained slowly. "Pa said to come git you down the hill, that it be important. Now I ain't sure I'm really lyin. Cos he aint never said to git you down the hill before, so he must be sick to think you would. And I caught him cryin in the house. He might be sick Aunt Izzy. Come on down the hill. It's Christmas."
Now it was Isabe Free's turn to speak distinctly, "Let's you and I get something straight boy, and then you can go explain it to your pa. I am not coming down the hill. Not on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, not even the day after Hell freezes over. So take a close look at my big black, non-lyin lips. I am not coming down the hill. And do not tell me again it's Christmas. I know its Christmas, and that is bad enough. You hear me boy."
"Aunt Izzy why you hate Christmas?"
Izzy took a deep breath, kneeled down and tried to explain, "Boy, it's not Christmas, cos Christmas is a good thing, it's Christmas Eve. And it's not just Christmas Eve, its what happened on that day. And it's not even what happened, it's what didn't happen, its what my momma didn't do. You know boy, sometimes what didn't happen to you hurts worse than what did. And when your gram mommy decided to flee north, that's when I decided I'm stayin in the south, cos I don't wanna be no where near where my momma might be, and that’s why I'm stayin in the cabin because it ain't down the hill. It's like a bruise you just don't want anybody to touch. And, and... I just ain't goin down the hill boy, and I ain't gonna talk bout Christmas no more. Now I know that’s a lot for you to understand. But do me a favor, before it gets dark. Go back down the hill and tell Pa George I ain't leavin my cabin and for you two to enjoy the singing."
"Didn't you git what you wanted for Christmas?"
"Enough with the questions boy, now git!"
"Aunt Izzy," Myson said holding a hand out towards her, "I want to spend Christmas with you. If you want, we can just pretend it’s another day. That's all I want, is to be with you. Why you want to send me away?"
Isabe had to turn her back on the boy to wipe the tear from her eye. "You just git down the hill boy, now."
Myson turned and ran down the path to Pa George's letting the wind dry his tears. Isabe grabbed her axe and started looking for a tree.
Izzy was working up a sweat chopping on a big pine when she heard crunching footfalls coming up from the other side of the cabin. 'Nobody's come up that path in years', she thought to herself. She didn't recognize the gray-bearded black man in the knit black hat who came up into the front yard. And he sure looked like he didn't recognize the wide-eyed, sweating young woman standing with an axe over her shoulder.
Somewhat startled the deep voiced man said,” Pardon me maam. Didn't know a cabin was up here. You gettin some firewood ready?"
"No, I’m celebrating Christmas,” Izzy responded in a facetious tone, “now what you doin on my land?"
"Just passin through...just passing through young lady. Didn't mean to interrupt your-ah-celebration. Working my way down to Big Pa George's place. I heard he was still working the land on Whitemore Creek. Hopin I could find him. He still around? I heard this area has a fine Christ Serenade."
Izzy had her head cocked way left as she took a step towards the man with her axe still on her shoulder. "What business you got with my daddy? He don't have any kin livin. Who are you?"
"You must be lil Geraldine," the man seemed to remember with a proud laugh.
Izzy took the axe off her shoulder and slowly lowered its head to the ground, turned her face, spit and then looked straight into the big brown eyes of her stranger.
"I sir, am Isabe Free. I don't live down the hill no more. Don't have to have a down-the-hill name. Now you still haven't answered my question", Izzy continued,” who are you?
The man laughed again and spoke, "Geraldine wasn't no slave name, if that's what you're saying. If you are who I think you are, your momma gave you that name. She's my sister."
With that bit of news Izzy picked up her axe and tossed it perfectly, rotating it once before it stuck in the ground right between the stranger’s big shoes.
"Listen to me Uncle Mom”, Izzy started to preach, “you right, Geraldine ain't no slave name. No proper slave woman would let the Plantation master take her lil daughter up to the big house without a fight, specially on Christmas Eve. No proper slave woman, proud of at least what she had, would run off first chance she had to the north...leavin my daddy all alone...leavin me in that big house washing all their stinkin clothes. Geraldine is a name a chicken livered, yellow-bellied nigger woman would give her daughter. If it would have been a slave name, I'd a kept it with pride, called myself the Great Geraldine. I ain't free, cos I've been emancipated. I'm free cos I'm free from your sister. Now you got three seconds to get moving off my yard, before I grab that axe twixt your legs and start choppin."
Three seconds went by fast and Izzy went to get the axe, but as soon as she made a grab for it a stronger hand took hold of the axe first. The man stared Izzy right in the eyes and said, "I don't know what ails you woman, but your momma wasn't no nigger."
Izzy went to slap the black cheek of the man in her face, but he caught that hand too.
"Listen to me, Is-a-be-bout-as-Free as a rabid coon in a cage. Your momma ain't in the north, ain't never been any further north than this here plantation. And I know she ain't never let no white man just take nothing of hers, specially her only daughter. Now she might not react as rashly as you tend to, but she didn't have a yellow bone in her body, and she had a mind, a sharp mind. She was proud, strong and was your momma right up to the last."
"What kind of stories you tryin to tell Mister," Izzy said softening some?
"Ain't tellin no stories. In fact I'm takin this axe with me down this hill. You want it back; you come and get it. It'll be stuck in the old Oak tree in your daddy's front yard. I think he's got some talkin to do with you. You want to find out what I'm saying. You come on down the hill." With that said, the man pulled the axe up out of the ground and started walking. Izzy just stood there staring at where the man was, replaying what he said over and over.
Just before the man started down the hill he stopped, looked and inquired, "What happened to the Whitemore Plantation home?
Izzy turned slowly with a sneering smile and answered, "Some say Mr. Whitemore burnt it so the Yankees wouldn't get it and went to Brazil with that Colonel Norris from Georgia to take up farmin and slavin there. Others say lightning hit the house and Ole Master Whitemore got trapped inside and went down with the ship."
"What you say," the stranger asked?
"I don't," stated Izzy and turned and went into her cabin.
”Well you better come down and at least get your axe back," the mysterious man in the black hat yelled back at Izzy as he made his way down the hill. "And by the way, your Momma never would have let no man take her axe away."
All he heard was Izzy slamming her cabins front door.
"I'll be gettin my axe back, you can bet on that,” Isabe muttered to herself. Hands shaking, she reached for a pot to heat some water. "If that big footed, gray bearded old man, be any where near me, when I gits my axe back. I'll show him who lets who take what from who...And what he mean, momma never been past this plantation. Daddy said she packed up and took off up north."
Isabe didn't drink any tea that evening and fell asleep with her head down in her arms on her oak wood kitchen table. The thoughts and questions she was having were as intoxicating and debilitating as any whiskey. Even being the thought-a-holic she was, the "bottle" of that evenings encounter with Uncle Big Foot was too much for her emotional balance, and she passed out. Her cabin was finally still, and the only sound to be heard was the wind whisking mystically, yet musically through the tops of the hill's winter pines.
Down below Pa George and Myson were on their porch listening to the whispering wind and looking at the
half moon above.
"You think Aunt Izzy alright Pa," the young boy asked?
Pa just raised one of his eyebrows and cast a side-glance at the boy.
"I mean, you think she safe," the boy corrected himself with a smile.
They both laughed a little and Pa put his arm around the boys shoulder.
"She's alright too," Pa explained softly, "She gonna be alright. Her mind just works too much on the same thing."
"I think mine’s do too Pa", the boy said looking up at the moon. “I keep thinking bout where my momma is and if she ever gonna come back."
"I do too boy, I do too", Pa sighed, "Let's go on in and get ready for the big fire and singing. Maybe God heard us and something special be on the way."
"Wasn't much else out here for Him to listen to, Pa. 'Cept for the fact we weren't talking too loud and the winds was blowin. I betcha He did hear us, Pa.” The boy smiled real big and agreed, "Somethin' special...yes Pa I believe I could handle some special...bout time.”
At 11 p.m a big brass bell was rung, and folks in the area started gathering at a home about a quarter mile from Pa George's. A huge bon fire was started and the two-dozen or so families began staking their places around it. At midnight the singing would start and last for hours. In-between songs certain ones would speak a scripture they memorized from passing through evangelists. When Pa George sensed it was his turn he proclaimed, "Whom the Lord sets free is set free indeed." A chorus of "amen’s" punctuated the verse. Then Pa George Looked up the hill, and spoke it again, this time in a booming voice, "Whom the Lord set free, is set free indeed!" Everybody looked up too, listening to the echo, and started singing amen’s, which the sound of, mixed with the smoke from the fire, seemed to float up to Izzy's cabin.
It was the bell that woke Izzy up. She was standing on her porch looking down the hill wrapped up in a small tattered blanket, seeing some of the red and yellow flames dancing in the distance. The faint singing was like angels from a distant heaven. Taking a deep breath, she tasted a bit of the smoke rising up the hill and quietly said, "Amen" and went back inside, cracking a window open slightly before going to bed. She always enjoyed the singing at Christmas, especially her momma singing 'It came upon a Midnight Clear'. She remembered every word, and momentarily forgot all the bad. She silently sang like she was with her, curled up in her lap like a kitten.
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Isabe Free fell asleep.
Early Christmas morning Pa George woke up and started getting a fire going in his living room hearth. Rustling and grunting from outside gave him cause to put his jacket on and head to the porch.
Once out his front door he couldn't believe his eyes.
Isabe had both hands on an axe, both her feet up on the tree and pulling with all her strength trying to free her buried axe head from the base of the big Oak tree.
"What you doin' girl", Pa asked with an uneasy laugh?
He didn't get a verbal response, just unintelligible muttering.
After a moment, Pa George cleared his throat and offered, “You not trin' to cut down my Oak tree are ya?”
More silence. "Ok", he said, thinking,” You know whose axe that was before you got it? It was your momma's. She used to use it round the outside of the house."
With that bit of information Izzy jumped off the tree and started pacing in a small circle. When she stopped, she turned and eyed her father. "Is momma's brother in house?"
Pa George just scratched his head some and said slowly, “No, just Myson."
"What he do leave already, or did you throw his big footed behind out? I hope you did, cos he was up on the hill tellin all sorts of stories bout your wife last night."
"What he have to say, girl?"
"He said, she ain't never left this plantation, that you had some stuff to straight out with me. That she was my momma right up to the end. What did he mean by that daddy, to the end? And what did he tell you when he came down here last night?"
"Down here? `Pa asked cautiously.
"Yes, down here. He took my axe from me. Told me he was going to stick it in this here tree. Told me if I wanted to know what he was talking about, to come on down. Well, I'm down daddy. I'm down the hill. I'm out of my cabin. There's my axe buried in the tree. Now if Uncle "Good News" isn't here, which doesn't surprise me if he's related to your wife, you need to start talking."
"Ya wanna come sit on the porch girl?"
"No I don't sir," Izzy answered starting to cry,” I just want to know what the what is."
With that Pa George took a step towards his daughter and took her in his big arms.
All Izzy could do was cry and sob.
"Girl, I missed ya," Pa whispered into her ear, searching his own mind for what to say. He looked up at the sawed off stub of what was left of the long thick limb that used to hang over the front yard from the big Oak tree. With more tears in his eyes he could only add,” Baby girl, I just don't know what to say. Your momma told me not to tell...ands I got to respect that...you got to know the truth. And I know that."
After a moment more Isabe broke free from her daddy's embrace and pleaded, "Tell me what daddy? What? You told me after I got took to the big house, that momma left...Took off to help other slaves escape to the north. You said she went to be with her mammy and paw. Is any of that true, daddy, any of it?"
After a few deep breaths, big Pa George spoke, "Your momma did go to be with her parents little girl. And she did go up yonder to help set some slaves free, you being the main one."
"Daddy, if you don't stop talking in codes, I'm gonna scream."
"Okay, okay, at least come to the front steps and I'll tell ya the story."
After they both sat, Pa George started, "I come home on Christmas Eve night. Momma was fit to be tied. She told me we weren’t goin nowhere. She said Master Whitemore come got you to work in the big house. I never seen her so mad. Was all I could do, to calm her down. Some of the others came over, and we prayed, right on this porch. Then all of a sudden, momma said she got a peace, knew what she had to do and went in to bed. The next morning was Christmas and we thought all the slaves in the big house got to come home. But when you didn't come, she said, "I'm gonna take her present up to her then."
I argued, "What present?"
Momma just whispered, "A momma's gift for her baby," and put on her coat and went out the door.
I don't know what happened up there. But about an hour later I heard a big commotion outside.
When I's got out the door both Master Whitemore's oldest boys had momma by the arms. A group of other white men had their musket rifles pointed at me. The Whitemore boys had a rope round Momma's neck, I charged at them and two of the other men hit me in head with the butt of their rifles and the others tied my hands behind my back.
Momma screamed at them to stop and for me to relax. When I finally looked back up at her from the ground she had a real calm face. She said Mr. Whitemore wouldn't be harmin her baby no more. And with that, both them boys smacked momma in the head to shut her up. But she smiled and kept talkin, tellin me not to tell ya, and that I wasn't to put her name on any gave markins, to just put, 'Momma'. And with that they threw the rope over the limb and....." he couldn't finish. After a few minutes though he added, "they took me up to the big barn and locked me up for a long spell. Wasn’t much after I got out when the war was over. Then I got you out of the house so you could be tended to."
Pa George's daughter was speechless, not knowing what to say, or feel yet. She just sat, stared at the dirt, then looked up at the tree and finally asked, "What happened to the big limb Pa?
"Made some furniture and stuff for your cabin," her dad whispered.
Izzy put her face in her hands and started to weep. Every minute or so she would wipe her eyes, lift her head and start to say something, but more tears would choke the words out of her mouth and her head went back into her hands.
"Where is momma now? I mean where's she buried?"
"Right under that rock by the tree." If you go clear some of the growth away, you'll see it says, 'Momma' 1849-1864"
"I was borne in 1849, not momma."
"I know girl, she was born a slave. And she always said she never felt alive ‘til you was born." Pa tried to continue through his own tears. "She told me once, if she ever died, to put your years on her grave marking, cos you was her life to her."
All Izzy could do was cry, heave, weep and sob as wave after wave of revelation of her mother’s love washed over her. Trying to clear her throat and mind she said, "Daddy, I need to find Momma's brother, I bet he's feelin bad and I need to make it right with him."
"Girl", Pa George replied gingerly,” Your momma didn't have no brother and nobody come down here last night, least nobody we saw. I don't know who you saw, but I be thankin God for whoever he was."
Goosebumps ran up and down Izzy's arms and the back of her neck causing her to shiver and bury her face in her daddy's shoulder.
"Girl, I knows you don't want to hear this, but there is a lil boy in there wanting to know who his mommy is."
"I know daddy," Isabe whispered, "I'll go in there and tell em all about me, or what I think he can understand. But I don't know what to tell him bout his...his..."
"No need to worry bout him girl. He won't be round no more."
"Was you the lightnin daddy," Izzy asked nodding towards the remains of the plantation home? "I was still up at the Watson’s, took me two miles a waddlin with child to git here, once I seen the smoke."
"Heaven didn't need me lil girl. Some say three lightning bolts hit that house at the same time. Went up in flames just like that. Master Whitemore's two boys had left the week before for Brazil. I only heard the blast and went running to the house. Some of the house workers escapin the fire said the Master was still inside layin on the floor. When I gots closer I could hear him screamin for help."
"Did you just let him die daddy, burn like he needed to burn?"
"No, no I didn't daughter,” Pa George explained biting his lip till it bled. "I, I went inside and saw him layin there. I heard the fire comin like a twister, the swirling smoke was gettin thicker and when the man looked at my face, and seen who I was, he just closed his eyes to die, knew their was no hope in me savin em."
"Ya shoulda left him daddy."
"Well, I tell ya girl, if he would have begged me, I'd a left him lay, but because he thought I wouldn't, that meant if I'd a left him, that's what he'd a done, and we's better than that lil girl, so I went to pick him up. By that time though the fire was comin hot and as soon as I went to reach down for him, a ceiling of hell dropped on us both. I jumped back outside fast, and was just gonna leave him, but he started screaming for God to help him, so I ran back in and dragged him out. He had about enough breath left to say, ‘thank you’, and then he died. I just stood over him breathin real hard. Didn't ever know if he was thankin God, or me, but it didn't make me no mind, cos if it weren't for God he'd a stayed inside. Then those two Evans boys took him and buried him out in the waste pit."
"Least that was fittin. Why didn't you tell me all that, daddy, once I got there?"
"Don't know lil girl, it was just a lot easier sayin I didn't know. I should a told ya though, shoulda told you bout momma, but in your condition, I just decided to tell ya what sounded good to you and what momma wanted me to say. I's sorry lil girl, I's so sorry."
"Me too daddy,” Geraldine said, burying her face in her daddy's shoulder again, "Me too."
Five years later, Geraldine Free Reynolds was busy helping her husband the Reverend Ralph Reynolds put the finishing touches on their newly built church and cabin home. It took a while to clear the rubble of the old plantation away, but when they did it was the perfect spot to build.
"Where's Myson at,” Pa George asked his daughter?
"He up the hill daddy getting a few of the oak things from the cabin for our place down here. The rocking chair, kitchen table, chairs and stuff."
"Well, he better get the front door too," Pa George said with a big hardy laugh.
It was that years Christmas Jesus Jubilee they burned the last of the usable pine trees Isabe Free had cut down up on the hill. Christmas was all those felled firs were ever used for, and folks said they made some of the best bon fires they ever saw.
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This is a stunning masterpiece. I don't know where to begin, except to advise readers to go back and read a second time. You will find the early clues you might have missed and put them all into place after the startling ending reveals the truth. This NEEDS to be made into a movie! And, I want my own CD copy. Sir William, where did you ever come up with this dynamite story?