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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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It was a day far removed from the blood and pain and horror of war and bondage. Instead of having church service inside the log house, they decided the Sunday service should be held outside, “under God's roof,” as Brother Thomas said. Service would begin when Rose and Rayford returned from the judge who would marry them.

Everyone had brought a bench, a box, or a chair to sit on. Tables covered with oilcloth were placed near the kitchen shed. People brought whatever food they could spare, and Easter and some of the other women had stayed up late into the night baking pies.

Julius sat in front of Easter. Every minute he turned around to say something to her. “Will you write to me when I join the army?”

“Yes. I told you I would. But when you get to them other islands, remember to ask about Obi.”

“Okay,” he said, looking disappointed. “But when I get to the other island, mostly I remember how pretty you look today.”

Easter wore a new homespun dress that Isabel had made for her. Isabel had dyed it with indigo, and the violet shade complemented Easter's nut brown complexion. She'd let out her black hair, which framed her face like a dark, cottony mist. Miss Grantley sat next to her, and Easter hoped that she wouldn't ask her about going north today. She didn't want to think about anything that might trouble her.

The crowd stirred; they'd spotted Rose and Rayford walking toward them. James, Brother Thomas's son, had driven them to the judge in his wagon. Everyone clapped and stood up when the couple neared them. Rayford waved the marriage license like a flag. Rose's unblemished mahogany-colored skin was enhanced by the white dress and head wrap. Rayford wore the white pants and shirt that he used to wear on the Phillips plantation.

“They are a handsome couple,” Miss Grantley murmured, adjusting her glasses.

Brother Thomas sat them in front of everyone else. Julius turned around to Easter. “Bet you look as beautiful as Rose when you get marry.”

“Hush,” was all she said as her face grew warm. She hoped that Julius wouldn't pester her all day long.

They had all scrubbed themselves and had mended and washed their garments and made as fine an appearance as they could muster for Rayford and Rose. Jason wore his Sunday pants, a pair of long trousers that must have belonged to one of the former master's children. Easter was angry at him for paying the cook two dollars for the trousers and another ruffled shirt. She snatched his Yankee forage cap off his head. “We havin' church,” she whispered. There were gingham dresses and homespun dresses dyed various
shades of blue, overalls, trousers, and plaid shirts, and in some cases, suits. Brother Thomas's smile was as broad as his back as he stepped before the congregation.

“We have a marriage to celebrate,” Virginia shouted. “Don't preach into Eternity, Brother Thomas.”

Easter thanked God for the day and then blocked out Thomas's oratory, thinking about Obi instead—imagining that she and Obi were sitting where Rose and Rayford were. She then joined in the singing, which was particularly joyful that Sunday. When the church service was over, several women brought out sweet potato pies and placed them on one of the tables. Samuel, Elias, and some of the other men had dug a barbecue pit.

Julius nudged Easter. “The only part of that pig they ain't cookin' is the oink.”

“I have to go and help the women bring the food out,” she said, and left her seat to go to the cooking shed. She wanted to get away from Julius.

Easter helped bring out the steaming bowls of rice and peas. Some of the men had gone hunting for wild turkey, against army regulations. Easter glanced at Rose, who blossomed as she sat like a queen greeting her friends. Rayford stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. He smiled happily.
Never knew Rayford was so handsome,
Easter said to herself as she returned to the cooking shed.

“I never see Mister Ray smile like he doin' today,” Isabel remarked as she helped Easter pile more rice into a bowl.

“Hope he don't hurt he face,” Easter joked. She looked at Sarah, who stood next to her, carving the turkey. “What's wrong?” she asked, and was shocked when tears streamed down Sarah's weary face.

“I had a husband one time, but it was only a slave marriage. He was sold away. I never see him again.”

Melissa stopped what she was doing and put her arms around Sarah. “Don't think about that. Things changin' now, can't you see?”

Easter watched the two women.
There's always something
sad to think about, even during a happy time,
she said to herself. She scanned the people milling around the tables, but she didn't see Jason. “Jason suppose to be helpin' us carry this food out,” she said to Virginia.

“There he is with the banjo picker.” Virginia pointed beyond the tables.

“We can forget about help from him once Weston start pluckin' that banjo,” Mary remarked. People started clapping to the banjo's rhythm, and Jason moved his lithe body as if he were being plucked like one of the strings. Even Miss Grantley clapped as she watched Jason.

“Folks are enjoyin' Jason so much they'll get mad if I make him come and help us,” Easter said, bobbing her head to the music.

After everyone had eaten, the celebration really began. Brother Thomas's voice was heard everywhere. He shouted to one of his sons, “James, get that wagon and go fetch the old fiddler from the Johnson place!”

Brother Thomas's wife, Anna, who'd always lived on the plantation, snapped her fingers. “That old man make these trees dance,” she said.

James returned with an old man who could hardly climb out of the wagon. Easter tried not to laugh when Mary said, “He look like he can't even hold the fiddle, much less play it.”

He toddled over to Weston, slowly adjusting his instrument under his chin. But when he fiddled, it was as if he had magic in his bow. No foot was still. He and Weston played, and Rayford and Rose led the circle of dancers. Melissa took Elias's hand and they too joined the dancers.

Julius approached Easter with his hand out and a grin on his face. She accepted his hand and was caught in the old fiddler's magic, forgetting for a while about Obi, Miss Grantley, and going north.

The next day was work as usual for everyone. Rose was back in her fields, with a worn-out Jason helping her in the
afternoon. Easter knew that she'd have to give Miss Grantley an answer soon, and as she walked from her hut to the school, she made her decision.

Even Miss Grantley tried to stifle several yawns as she pried answers out of her weary students. When the class was over, Easter approached her.

“Miss Grantley, I can't leave Jason here, and I can't leave without knowing where Obi is.” She averted her eyes from the teacher's disappointed face. “Suppose Obi come here and no one know where I am?”

“We can leave word, Easter. Rayford or Rose or any one of the people here could tell him where you are.”

“Suppose Rose and Rayford leave, and these other people forget where you tell them I gone 'cause you leave too. People comin' and goin' all the time.”

Miss Grantley sighed. “That they are, Easter. But I don't think your going north will hurt your chances of finding Obi.”

“Another thing too, ma'am. I don't know nothing about the North.”

“Easter, I'll write to the commander on Hilton Head Island where I hear colored soldiers are being trained. You say Obi is just a little older than you, so there's a good chance that he is a soldier.”

“Oh no, Miss Grantley. Soldiers get killed.” Easter tried to control herself, but she couldn't stop the tears. “Maybe he dead.”

“Easter, don't think such thoughts. I'm sure he's as alive as you and I.”

Easter wiped her face. How, she wondered, could Miss Grantley be so sure of that.

“If we find him and you are able to bring Jason with you, would you agree to go then?”

“Yes, I think so. But I have to find him.”

Miss Grantley took off her glasses. Her green eyes searched Easter's face. “I sense something else keeping you
here. In order to move forward, sometimes we have to sever ties. You have your own life, Easter.”

“I don't understand, ma'am.”

“I mean … well, someday Jason will go his own way. And Obi too.”

“Oh no. Obi is going to look for me. I know it.” The conversation was taking the shape of the conversations she'd had with Rose and Rayford. Her feelings were in her heart, and words could not express what was there.

“Easter, your life belongs to you now.”

“But what is my life if I not with Jason and Obi, and in the North who is there to tell me, ‘Easter, you better not do that because it's dangerous?' Or, ‘Easter, you better work the fields or you won't get land.'” She smiled as she imitated Rayford's deep voice. “Or, ‘Easter, we like sisters.'”

“I understand—I think. But we have to let go of certain things in order to move forward,” Miss Grantley said again.

“How can you let go the only people you have?”

Miss Grantley had no answer. “I'll write the letter to the army commander's office and find out what we can about your young man,” she said.

By the end of the year an answer to Miss Grantley's letter arrived. One afternoon after class Miss Grantley showed Easter the letter. “The army is very slow. There were men from the mainland and from many of the islands sent to Hilton Head Island for training in January. The army has no idea where they went or even what their names were. Many of them took new names once they joined.” She adjusted her glasses. “We'll keep trying, Easter.”

Easter left class that day feeling helpless and wondering whether she should forget about trying to find Obi. But she couldn't forget him; the disappointing letter from the army only seemed to make her think about him more. Julius and a few other young men left the plantation and joined the Union army. Once again, Easter promised to write Julius and reminded him to make inquiries about Obi.

The beginning of 1864 brought more changes. One day, after school had ended, Easter was in the cookinghouse preparing lunch. Miss Grantley, looking flushed and upset, rushed into the shed.

“What happen?” Easter asked, afraid of the answer.

The teacher bit her lip. “I just received this letter,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. Easter thought it was another letter from the army in answer to the additional inquiries Miss Grantley had made about Obi. “I'm being sent by the society to open a school on another island. I'll be leaving here shortly.”

“Oh no, Miss Grantley. You're
our
teacher. Nobody else can be a teacher for us.”

Miss Grantley removed her glasses and brushed her hands over her eyes. “The society is sending another teacher.”

“Why can't the new teacher open the school and you stay here with us?”

“I … I have more experience with starting a school.”

Easter picked up one of the babies, who'd begun to whimper. “It won't be the same with another teacher,” she said. “It won't feel right, Miss Grantley.” Easter tried to push back the tears welling up in her eyes. “When they sending this new teacher?”

“I don't know. There don't seem to be enough teachers to go around.”

“This is terrible. There'll be no school at all, and we'll miss you.”

Miss Grantley put on her glasses and cleared her throat. “I begged the society to let me stay for at least another year, but I was told that I must leave. I'll miss all of you, especially you, Easter.” She placed her hand on Easter's shoulder. “I'll write you.”

“Me too. I'll write every day.”

“And Easter, you run the school until the new teacher comes. You can do it.”

“I can't. I don't know too much my ownself.”

“You can. You know how to teach those little ones their letters and numbers.”

“But what about the geography and the arithmetic and the history and …”

Miss Grantley smiled slightly. “Just teach what you know, and that's plenty. One day you'll come to the school in Philadelphia. Promise, Easter.” Before Easter could say anything, however, Miss Grantley said, “No. That's not fair, to make you promise such a thing now. Think about coming to the school. Will you promise to do that?” The teacher took off her glasses and wiped her eyes again.

Easter nodded, having to force back tears herself. “I promise,” she barely whispered.

Chapter
Ten

My army cross over,
My army cross over,
O, Pharoah's army drownded!
My army cross over

Traditional Spiritual

May 1865
Easter walked quickly past the former slave market in town, imagining a long white arm pulling her inside its dark corners. The sidewalk was choked with people: men and women, whites and blacks, destitute families, prosperous-looking men who seemed not to have been touched by war at all, and Union soldiers.

Easter enjoyed looking in the window of a dress shop that always had a lovely dark blue satin dress with burgundy ruffles down the front and a wide-brimmed burgundy hat to match. The shop had been closed since she'd been coming to Elenaville. As she walked away, she wondered whether she'd ever own such a fine dress.

Jason skipped ahead of her in wide-eyed excitement. There was a chorus of peddlars. A woman passed them carrying a large basket of eggs on her head. She sang the praises of her produce:

Fresh eggs brown and white,
Yellow and sweet inside.

A man pulling a wagonload of catfish, shrimp, and other seafood sang his song also, on the opposite side of the street:

I have shrimp and catfish,
Oyster and clam.
Buy from me,
Your fish-sellin' man.

This was the third time since the war ended in April that she, Sarah, and some of the other people from the plantation had come to the Freedmen's Bureau office in Elenaville to inquire about relatives. Easter came seeking information about Obi. Brother Thomas still warned them, “Don't walk—especially through them woods—an' get back here before dark.” James drove them. Passengers riding in the wagon paid him ten cents to carry them back and forth. Once the war was over and people from the plantation started traveling to town more often, Jason constantly begged her to take him to Elenaville. She couldn't come without him.

BOOK: Out From This Place
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