At the age of sixty, I can’t say I remember many things vividly.
Eight years has certainly felt like a long time. Eight years since I saw the slave being sold down by Mississippi. He was young and strong, a handsome man. I still see his face in my mind’s eye.
“Sold!” cried the auctioneer. The young man turned around and was led off in shackles. I could see the scars where he had been whipped all over his back. As he was led away, he turned around and caught my eye. His eyes were full of pain and wisdom, sadness, and deep, deep anger. They weren’t the eyes of a nineteen-year-old boy, but an eighty-year-old man who has had more than his share of trials in life. These eyes challenged me.
“Do something! Help me!” But I just stared at him, my breath catching in my throat. After a minute he closed his eyes, as if he was tired of the world. I walked away with my handkerchief over my mouth. I felt like I had witnessed something horrible.
That was the first time I had seen a colored person as more than a slave. Unlike most people, I identified that man as more than the first part of the name, colored, but by the second part, a person. When I looked into his eyes, I had seen myself. I could have been that man. If his soul was in my white body and mine in his black one, would he have felt the same way I do? Would he feel the same strange connection—we were both living together on this earth?
It was after that encounter that I started helping slaves to safety. By now, I’d chance to guess I’ve helped about eighty-five men, women and children to freedom. There have been close calls, certainly Once, my nephew, Sheriff Paterson, dropped in on a late night visit. He leaned right against my closet door, which held the passage to the secret room. I swear I could feel the tension coming from two rooms over, where a mother and her three children sat quietly, holding their breath. But I am proud to say all of the slaves who have come to me have launched safely on their way to freedom.
Sometimes I wonder why I keep doing this. But every time a man or woman or family shows up on my doorstep, hope in their eyes and the word “freedom” melting off their lips, I feel a calling, an obligation to help these people live their lives. Who knows? Maybe someday the world will change and I will not have to hide these people in my closet. Maybe their grandchildren will go to college and have futures, like mine did. That is what I wish upon these people who cower behind a door in the closet this very second, clutching the sparse quilts and single candle I have provided them. I’d love to give them more, but if the room were to be searched, it would look suspicious to have more than that in there.
At four-thirty in the morning, I hear a rap on the back door. Jack is here. I hurry the man and his wife out the door; watch Jack help them into a compartment underneath the false bottom of the wagon. Jack carefully rearranges the potato sacks. Hopping up into his seat, he urges the horses away and they ride away slowly.
* * *
FIVE DAYS LATER
A black is prowling around my house. Now, I am not a superstitious woman, but this cat is by no doubt unsettling me. It just circles the house again and again, flicking its tail. I’ll try to get it out of my mind by baking some soda bread. That usually helps.
At nine o’clock it’s storming badly Rain is splattering on my windows hard, and lightning lights up the rooms of my house often. I hear a knock at my door. There stand a woman and a girl, a mother and a daughter. It is not until I usher them in that I see the girl is hurt. Her mother is holding her up on her feet, but the girl cannot support herself whatsoever. Her knees sag and she sinks to the floor. The gash running down the side of her head is still spurting blood.
“She tripped and fell,” cried her mother. She is going to say more, but I stop her. I give her a damp cloth and ice.
“Try to numb it,” I command. “I am going to fetch a doctor.”
The woman gasps. “But, Missus, we’ll get caught!”
I have already made up my mind. The little girl lying on my floor needs help. I wrap my shawl around my thin shoulders and go out in the pouring rain.
Thunder rumbles and lightning cracks, scaring the horses, but I urge them for-ward. The lightning strikes again and I catch a glimpse of the black cat. Its eyes glint in the sudden light.
“Curse you!” I mutter. “You brought this misfortune!”
I am soaked when I reach Doctor Shepherd’s house. Joseph Shepherd is an honest, good man who I value in the highest respect. If he turns me in I will not blame him. That is why, with my withered, arthritic hand shaking, I knock three times on his oak door.
Mrs. Shepherd opens the door. She is in her bedclothes and looks quite surprised to see me. I croak out that it is an emergency, and I need Doctor Shepherd. Soon Doctor is rushing down the stairs, pulling on a coat and boots. I admire he is taking me seriously even when he doesn’t know what’s going on.
Doctor Shepherd takes his own wagon to my home. I lead him in the front door, past the black cat that is sitting on my front steps.
“Mrs. Pietas?” He is looking for an injured or sick person, but sees none. I put a finger to my lips and lead him to the door in back of my closet. The doctor looks confused. When I take a key from around my neck, unlock a small door, and open it, revealing a harassed-looking woman leaning over a small black girl, his brow furrows. He glances back at me, question in his eyes. I look back at him. My eyes answer his question. It’s your choice now.
Doctor Shepherd kneels down next to the girl. I watch him work, sewing small stitches in her head. He shakes back his dark brown hair. He is still in the prime of his life, barely past thirty-five, and his hair is not graying yet. I know if he turns me in, he will have done the right thing in many people’s eyes. In his own eyes.
In a half hour, he is done. Standing up, Doctor Shepherd nods curtly to the girl’s mother, who is cradling her child’s head in her arms. I escort him to the door without a word. Before he leaves, he turns to me.
“I respect you, Mrs. Pietas. You are very brave.” He tips his hat, and, without another word, he leaves. As I watch him go, lightning flashes. I see the black cat. In another flash, the cat is gone. I smile. Doctor Shepherd will not report his discovery to anyone.
I know there are more people like me. More people are helping slaves escape to the north, to freedom. The Underground Railroad, some call it. Yes, it is dangerous. But we are doing the right thing, that we know. But who knows? Maybe, someday, we all will be free.