“Git a-way down child, Massa’s comin‘,” Papa whispered.
Papa reached into the wagon and scooped up an armful of musty, damp hay tossing it over my head completely. I stifled a sneeze.
I snatched a glimpse of the blue and red tumbling blocks quilt Miss Hattie had tossed over the clothes line to air, more than a week ago. I knew from Mama’s lessons around the fireplace the quilt’s pattern meant a conductor was in the area prepared to transport slaves up north, to freedom land. Heavy footsteps approached the wagon. I feared to breathe.
“When shall I expect your return?” Master Benjamin asked. Papa took in a deep breath then cleared his throat.
“I prays to be back a-fore sundown Massa Ben,” Papa said.
I knew of no plans to return, only to sell the fruit and leave the Master’s money with the wagon in town. I gasped then quickly buried my head in my sleeve, lest even the tiniest of sounds eek out. I’d never heard Papa lie before and especially not to Master Benjamin. I was sure the lying hadn’t come easy to Papa and the clearing of his throat must have meant he choked on the words as he said them. I closed my eyes. Please God I prayed, forgive my Papa for lying.
“See that you don’t tarry and that you get a fair price for the fruit.”
“Yes Massa,” said Papa. “I do’s ya right.”
The wagon lunged backwards as Papa cracked the leather reins against the horses rumps. Hidden deep in the bottom of the wagon under crates of fruit and layers of hay, we rocked and swayed back and forth with every clip, clip, clop of the horses hooves along the dusty path. With a quick snap of the straps the horses quickly pulled the wagon free from the Master’s great plantation that had been home to us for twelve years, two years longer than I’d been alive. Nestled in the bottom of the wagon I drew comfort in feeling Mama’s hot breath against my shoulders. As the wagon bumped along I remembered the night before we left.
“What is it, Mama?” I asked. “What is this… this freedom?”
“It is the greatest gift on earth,” Mama said.
Quiet, and prone to few words, when Mama spoke it was mostly in hushed, almost whispered tones.
“But what does it mean, to be free?” I asked.
Sitting in a straight backed chair pulled close to the popping fire, Mama rocked from side to side. I studied her movements, praying to remember every second leading up to our freedom day. She folded her calloused, sun dried hands and placed them gently on top of the quilt blocks in her lap. She smiled at Papa then back at me and I knew I‘d done a good thing asking about this freedom.
“Oh child, I can’t tell it all but I’s try. You listen, ya hear?”
I nodded. I’d never seen Mama like she was that night. It was as though her spirit was suddenly loosed to float and flit around us there in the one room cabin we called home. She breathed a long sigh, like she was surrendering all the weight she’d toted on her shoulders for as long as I could remember, then she started in again.
“To be free is to run through open fields, laugh without being quieted, to own our own land, sow our own seeds, and rock our babies to the melody of our lullabies. To be free is to kneel when we need, pray when we want, and love without fear. Oh child, freedom is… life.”
I fixed my eyes on Mama as she talked. Tears rolled down the worry lines years had etched deep into her face, yet I knew in an instant the tears were not of sadness. My heart skipped its beat. She’d made me want it too - this freedom thing of which she spoke. Mama stopped talking and gazed a-way off into the distance, like she was looking into a far away land as she spoke and I knew our time was here. After months of preparation and prayer, our appointment had finally arrived - our appointment with freedom.
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