Authors: Joyce Hansen
The young girl and the old woman sat side by side on a rug made from grass and palmetto fronds. The girl's homespun trousers stopped just above her ankles and bare feet; her thick hair was cut short. The woman's small, black, bony face was framed by a clean white cloth tightly wrapped around her head. The woman's husband sat on a scratched bench near the door of the tiny cabin.
The woman and the girl, who was about fourteen years old, wrapped palmetto fronds around blades of grass, making rugs like the one they sat on. A peal of laughter from the soldiers outside broke the silence inside the cabin. The woman stopped working and stared at the girl. “Easter, stay in the camp with us. You close to freedom here.”
Easter continued making a circular pattern out of the frond and blades of grass. She and the woman had had this conversation many times before, but Easter's mind was made up. She was leaving. “I have to go back and find Jason, Mariah,” she said. “My eyes see him all the time and my ears hear him. How he cry when me and Obi leave. How I promise I come back for him.”
Her only memories were of her life of enslavement on the Jennings farm, near Charleston, South Carolina. Her only family, although they were not relatives, were Obi and Jason, also slaves on the farm. Easter didn't know her exact age or where she came from or who her parents were. When a young child, she had been given as an Easter present to Martha Jennings.
Obi and Easter's careful plans to run away to the Sea Islands off the Carolina coast had been thwarted, and
they'd had to leave the farm without Jason. Easter, disguised as a boy, had headed to the coast with Obi. They had been captured by Confederate soldiers and forced to work in the army camp.
Mariah picked up her work again. “Ask the Colonel to let you stay here. One of the field hands tell me there'll be only fifty soldiers left in this camp when the regiment leave. You could be the servant boy for the new colonel.” She winked at Easter. “I know the Colonel say yes. What he care about one slave boy when he have Yankee to fight?”
“Woman, think you know everything?” the man muttered as he cleaned his ax.
“I know how white peoples think, Gabriel. That's why I still livin'.”
Easter's bright brown eyes nearly closed when she smiled. She rubbed her forehead. “Don't y'all be fussin'. I leavin' with the Colonel. I the one who beg him to take me to Charleston. I tell him I only want to work for him. When we near Charleston I runnin' from the camp and I find the Jennings farm.”
“Suppose you don't find it,” Mariah said as she pulled hard on the palmetto frond.
“I find it. I go to the Phillips plantation, where Master Jennings hire me and Obi out to work. All I have to do is ask someone where the Phillips plantation is. Everyone know it.”
Mariah sucked her teeth loudly. “Suppose you ask the wrong someone. You know them patterollers still beatin' and arrestin' runaways. You foolish. The work here be easy when the regiment leave. All we have to do is duck when they start firin' them cannon at the Yankee boats.”
“Got to get Jason,” Easter repeated softly. “He waitin'.”
“It's a year since you leave.”
“I know. He waitin' still,” she said.
“Guess I save my breath to pray with. Your mind is set,” Mariah mumbled. She picked up more grass, intertwining one blade with another.
Easter's smooth chestnut brown face looked older than her years. “Jason mother die when he born,” she said, “and Mistress Jennings make me take care of him from that time on.”
“If you stay here, you could escape 'cross the river like Obi did and get on the island with the Yankee,” Mariah insisted.
“Thought you was savin' your breath to pray with,” Gabriel muttered.
Easter's mind drifted back to the day Obi escaped. Mariah interrupted her thoughts. “He 'cross that river thinkin' about you right now,” she said.
Gabriel rubbed his wiry gray beard. “Lord, woman, you even know what peoples 'cross the river thinkin'?”
“Why don't you and Gabriel go to the island, Mariah?” Easter asked, trying to change the subject.
“When Master send me here to work for these Confederates, it the happiest day of my sad life.” Mariah laughed bitterly. “I free long as I don't have no mistress in my face day and night screechin' after me. I don't want to see another rice plantation long as I live. Them Yankee have to get on this side of the river if they want to free me.” Her high cheekbones seemed to jut defiantly out of her face.
“After I find Jason, I get to Obi. And you and Gabriel comin' with us.” Easter's mind drifted again to the day Obi left the camp, the way he held her and kissed her, the way his long slender waist felt enclosed in her arms. He'd always been like an older brother; she had no words for her new feelings about Obi. But first she had to find Jason.
Gabriel narrowed his tired-looking red eyes. “Suppose the family ain't there no more?” he asked. “Didn't you say they movin' to the West?”
“They wasn't takin' Jason. Mistress tell me they was givin' him as a wedding present to Missy Holmes, or maybe they sell him.”
“How you find him if he sold?” Gabriel asked.
“Maybe they sell him to one of the farmers nearby,” Easter replied.
“Maybe they sell him to someone clear 'cross the country,” Mariah snapped.
Easter refused to be discouraged. “Then I go clear 'cross the country to find him,” she said.
Mariah's small slanted eyes moistened as she peered closely at Easter. “You like a tough little nail, gal. I still see the day them soldier drag you and Obi into this camp. We goin' to miss you.”
Easter dropped her work and embraced Mariah. Mariah cupped Easter's dainty, heart-shaped face in her hands. “Be careful, gal. Pray. Most time only God be listenin'.”
Easter gazed at the gray mists rising from the river and at the small figure of Mariah; her cloth enveloped her head like a swirl of white clouds. Mariah waved, and Easter kept looking back until she could no longer see her. Mariah, the huts, and the cannons lining the riverfront seemed to all be washed away by the gray mists, which were becoming a heavy downpour.
The procession of soldiers, horses, caissons, supply wagons, and black laborers crawled down the road. Easter clutched the grass rug that Mariah had given her, a design of squares decorated with pine needles. Besides the army shirt, the trousers, and the straw hat she wore, the rug was her only possession. She was a small figure trudging alongside the wagon that held the Colonel's cooking utensils, food, and other supplies. She kept her distance as best she could from the foulmouthed soldiers and the other blacks, who were all male. They took care of the supply wagons and the animals and would build the fortifications and dig the rifle pits when the regiment settled into a new camp.
The blacks called her Ezra or “the Colonel's boy” to her face. She knew that behind her back they called her “the Colonel's sissy.” She hoped that no one found out that she wasn't a girlish boy but a real girl.
Her fears eased as they sloshed along the wet roads. Everyone concentrated on keeping dry and mud-free. That night Easter spread Mariah's rug on the ground. The Colonel gave her a piece of oilcloth to cover herself with, but her clothing remained wet. The rags she'd tied around her feet for the journey were filthy and soaked. She curled herself practically into a ball, but nothing she did made her comfortable. Rocks, small stones, and branches jabbed her no matter how she lay. Only by staring at the bright stars, thinking about Jason, and reliving Obi's embrace did she manage to fall into a fitful sleep.
The days were a blur of soldiers in wide, dirty slouch hats and forage caps with the stars and bars on them, laborers in overalls and straw hats, muskets, shotguns, haversacks, boots, steel-toed brogans, tents, mules, horses, caissons, and gun carriages, their metal clanking and scraping over the ground. Her senses were assaulted by the pungent smell of men and animals. Mud. Heat. Flies and mosquitoes. Her own body sore and stiff and beginning to smell sour also.
Finally one night she overheard a soldier say, “We just outside of Charleston.” It was her time to leave. She gazed at the camp and couldn't imagine herself going alone into the darkness that spread beyond the campfires. With only memories of being a slave, she had no idea until now how a helpless child must feel.
Nervous, she was beginning to prepare the Colonel's evening coffee when she heard shouting as several soldiers and laborers came roaring into the camp. “We havin' a feast tonight,” one of the soldiers yelled. Two black men carried a pig hanging upside down with its legs tied around a stick. The whole camp burst into cheers.
“You been stealin' from these farmers 'round here?” a sergeant asked roughly, but with a wide grin on his face.
“No sir, we ain't been stealin',” a soldier answered. “We was
' for wild berries and possum, sir, when this here
pig come in our path. We thought it was a Yankee, sir, so we shoot it.”
The camp exploded into laughter. By the time Easter served the Colonel his coffee, cleaned the coffee boiler, and finished a few other chores, the smell of roasting pig filled her nostrils. The smoke and the smell reminded her of the Jennings farm.
I bet the farm near here,
she said to herself. She watched the men stoking the fire and giving instructions to the black cook, who ignored them. She listened to the laughing and the rude jokes and tried to find the strength to leave. There were farms nearby, and the camp was near Charleston. There was every chance that she was close to the Jennings farm.
Easter stared at the sparkling night sky. She'd always liked to watch the stars. She used to tell Jason that stars were really the angels smiling down on the world. The thought made her less afraid.
Is God up there?
she wondered. Was God peeping down at her, listening to her, like Mariah said?
She had the stars and she had God. Easter rolled up her rug and walked away from the Colonel's tent, past the shouting, cursing, rollicking men. She walked past the circle of campfires. She didn't even runâsimply walked away, and no one noticed. But once darkness covered her, she raced through the night with a heart and mind empty of every feeling and thought except fear. The noise from the camp gradually faded into the sounds of the forest. She ran, trying to break through her wall of panic with prayer. Each time the panic threatened to paralyze her, she prayed and glanced at the stars, imagining God.
She ran until she heard the sound of a barking hound, knowing that meant the possibility of a nearby farm. Easter stumbled toward the sound on numb feet, until she could run no longer. Spreading her rug on the ground, she lay down and fell into a troubled sleep.
She didn't wake up until she felt sharp jabs to her shoulders and thighs. Opening her eyes, she stared into a dirty, blond beard.
Yes, Ethiopia yet shall stretch
Her bleeding hands abroad;
Her cry of agony shall reach
Up to the throne of God.
Frances E. W. Harper
“You a runaway?” the man asked. “What you doin' here?”
“Nothing, suh,” Easter said, scrambling up quickly off the ground. The man's battered hat shaded his eyes. He pointed a shotgun in her face. His hound sat quietly at his feet. “I lost,” she added as she bent down and picked up her hat, keeping one eye on the shotgun.