“Must I inherit the sins of my forefathers?” Issac wondered aloud. “Must I honor their ideas simply to relive their misery?” He stood alone before the gates of his childhood home. His tears blurred the town of Moriah into a kaleidoscope of flickering street lamps, broken windows, and weed-ridden lawns. He blinked away those tears to see clearly his father’s old revolver, his own steady hand that held it, and a childhood scar on the wrist of that hand. There was a day when he trembled to hold this gun. Today was no such day.
He tucked it into the waistband of his jeans and turned toward the house to which he had become a stranger. Long after his father had inherited it, the house’s wood panels were rotted, and its blue paint was chipped and grayed. The gate screeched as he pushed it open to walk through the thinly scattered blades of grass, his steps finding only the crumbled vestiges of a once homeward path. By the driveway, he paused to gaze at the rusted sedan that seemed to grow from the weeds and asphalt below it. Once his father’s most prized possession, the car sat with its tires saggy and cracked. Its once lustrous paint was peeled and faded to reveal the scarred steel beneath. Its windows were made foggy by many a weathering storm. Its headlights were yellowed like the eyes of a jaded drunkard.
As he turned to the front door, he realized that he did not wish to encounter the void that had grown behind it. He would only find empty rooms in which happiness had been stunted by gloom, and he would only mourn a life that should have but could not have been. He shuddered as he pushed his key into the worn lock and turned the knob. The door was heavy with age, and the thick, dusty air inside flowed like molasses into his nostrils. He took a tentative step past the threshold, and the echo of the creaking floorboard skittered down the darkened halls. For a brief moment, he thought his father might emerge from that darkness with drunken gait and clenched fists. He thought of the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it.
By the remnant light of dusk, Issac saw that the house had come undone. He stumbled over couch pillows that had been thrown to the floor, and he broke his fall by the old coffee table upon which newspapers and unopened mail lay sprawled. He wandered into the dining room where emptied nips of scotch and vodka told a solemn tale. He found the rotting smell of unwashed dishes swelling from the cavity of the sink in the kitchen. He traversed the barren halls to the dark and dusty stairwell where every step expelled a protest to its dwellers. He swept aside worn clothing and old furniture in his parents’ bedroom where the scent of stale smoke wafted about from full ashtrays. He all but held his breath as he searched the closet for a knapsack and some clothing to fill it. Finally, he made his way to the second stairwell leading up to the attic, his old bedroom. It was only as he approached the attic door that he began to feel a bit at ease.
The rusted hinges whined when he pushed the door open, and a heavy and stagnant air poured into the hall. Yet, there was light from the tiny window within, and that light beckoned him away from sullen chambers. Inside, a veil of dust and cobwebs had settled upon all of the furniture, but the order of the room was preserved. An old quilt lay perfectly smooth upon his bed. His wardrobe stood stoically in one corner of the room, and his books were lined neatly on the shelf against the wall that rose to meet the slant of the roof. The faintly sweet musk of an old pine chest emanated from its place at the foot of his bed. He took a deep breath and walked over to it.
When he lifted the cover to the chest, the first thing he saw inside was a small crystalline music box topped by a figurine. A tiny ballerina stood en pointe atop a tiny grand piano. Issac sat on his bed and wound the music box. He watched the ballerina twirl to the sound of his mother’s favorite song. Closing his eyes, he easily and vividly envisioned his mother, the once beautiful dancer.
Farah sauntered gracefully about a tidy kitchen filled with the aroma of simmering collards and baking cornbread. She reached down and grabbed her son’s tiny hands while humming her song. They danced and jumped about the room, and their cheeks felt as though they would burst from smiles and laughter. Issac admired her cheeks, like tourmaline set aglow by the sun’s kisses upon them. As she twirled about the room, her hair waved about and shimmered like raven feathers. Indeed, she seemed to have wings.
“Are we flying?” Issac asked her as they danced, for surely there was no higher aspiration than this joy that both of them took for granted.
But soon, the music box wound down in his hands. The song slowed until the crystalline figure no longer danced but languished. Then, he saw Farah sitting solemnly in the living room, her hair disheveled, her dream deferred, and the corners of her eyes creased by wrinkles of despair. Slowly, a tear trickled along these wrinkles and down her round cheek before landing among spirits glittering in a crystal glass. It was the first time that Issac would remember seeing his mother so stricken by sadness. He was four years old.
“Though he slay me, yet will I have faith in him,” she whispered the words softly, perhaps as a psalm to God or perhaps as a prayer for the many fights she would have with Issac’s father. Though her whispers were meant to restore her spirits, they sounded to Issac like surrendered feathers fluttering down from her wings. He feared that one day those wings would no longer fly.
The music box froze in Issac’s hands, and he heard the subtle rustling of footsteps through dry leaves outside. Someone was approaching the gate. He thought of the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. Instead, he calmly placed the music box beside him on his bed, and he reached into the chest again for an old photo. He was five years old in that photo, and the football he held was far too large for his hands. His father was in that photo, too, standing so tall that his forehead had been cropped out. His face remained, however, with eyes darkened by the shadow of his furrowed brow, nose perpetually flared, and mouth drawn slightly downward at its corners. Abram looked stern, angry even, but Issac remembered his father’s smile on that autumn morning.
The sun was not yet higher than the trees in their backyard, and it shone through a canopy of crimson, orange, and gold leaves. The air was crisp, and the smell of burning wood wafted about from the chimneys. Issac’s hands were chapped from the cold, hard leather that met his palms with each attempt to catch his father’s passes. When Issac finally held on to the football, his heart leapt in his chest.
“My boy is gonna be a ball player!” Abram declared with a wide grin. Certainly in that moment, Issac did not want to be anything more. His father had spoken a dream into his soul– a heaven to which he could aspire. If only Abram knew that fathers can speak heaven or hell into existence for their children. Perhaps he would not have given utterance to so much hell.
“It’s like everybody in this world wanna take your joy,” he echoed words he had heard long ago. “Sometimes, I think they wait for you to start looking for joy. That’s when they hunt. Their bait is the food in your mouth and every desire of your heart. That’s how they got my pops– turned everything and everyone he loved into a thing to be worked for, a leash to hold him by. Made him work ’til the very end.”
“But his heart killed him,” Farah said. Abram shot her a menacing but fleeting expression.
“I ain’t gonna let nobody have that kind of power over me.”
“Sometimes you gotta sacrifice for the people you love,” Farah said.
“And I sacrifice plenty!” Abram replied. “Y’all got a hold on me, and they know that. They treat me like a slave ‘cause they know as long as I wanna take care of y’all they own me.”
“Is that how you see us?” Farah asked, “As bait for someone to control your life?”
“That’s just how it is. Everybody eats somebody. That’s how you get ahead. I’m the dumbass because I’m just sitting here trying to drink this beer in peace– in my house.”
“It ain’t gonna be yours for long if you don’t get a real job,” Farah said.
Her last words felt to Abram like the pull of a chain around his neck, and he slammed the bottle down on the kitchen table in protest. The bottle shattered in his hand, and he howled.
Beer and blood mixed and dripped to the floor. Farah’s eyes widened with panic as she looked at the gash in Abram’s palm.
“Give it here. I can fix it,” she said as she searched frantically for a bandage. When she found a clean one and approached him, he pushed her against the table on his way out the back door. He did not return until just before dawn the next morning.
Issac looked sorrowfully at his father’s expression in that photo. He decided that it was not one of sternness or anger but one of pain. Perhaps Abram wished to smile in that photo, in that moment. But his own thoughts kept him from doing so. Issac placed the photo near the music box as he listened to the gate screech open outside. Soon, the front door sounded a deep groan downstairs as it was pushed through the threshold. The familiar, heavy footsteps that trod through the hallway and into the living room made Issac’s heart drop into the pit of his stomach.
He thought about the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. Instead, he thought about the day he got that gun. He was seven years old...
The cool, dry earth has left the soles of my feet calloused and cracked. The crisp air has seeped all of the moisture from my skin. Gentle breezes are menacing hisses, and the sun does not shine for me but looms, an imminent doom, beyond the thick canopy of branches. I sit here in the shadows, coiled amongst the protruded roots of an old oak, my head tucked into the nook of its trunk, my knees drawn tightly to my chest. I wonder what it would be like to lie out there precariously admiring these waning moments of autumn. The moss would feel cool on my back where I instead feel the sting of dried leaves against tender keloids. I would seek the warmth of the sun rather than the cold of refuge. I would know intimately that ideal which I seek, that peace of mind that must come with the knowledge that each breath I take is mine.
My breaths now are measured and outwardly relaxed, but they are not mine. My father, whose whims gave rise to my being born into bondage, possesses them. It is to the great detriment of a man’s mind and body that he be born a slave, but it is a much greater anguish on his mind if his enslaver is also his father. Mine is not an unusual case. As is evident by the many shades of brown that pepper the population of Howard County, slave owners are quite taken with the idea of increasing their property wantonly. If by chance a Fayette slave should look into a mirror, he might be haunted by the image. However, while many slaves in my condition may learn of their lineage through rumor or speculation, I am perhaps peculiar in that I know for sure: I am the son of Joachim Bishop.
Of course, though he is no more in the dark on this matter than I, he assured me often that our shared blood was of no consequence. I slept and awakened at his command; I ate what he saw fit to give me; I toiled for his benefit, and I lay exhausted by his ambitions. He declared through scripture and torture that I was his slave foremost. There were no places to which I could retreat for solace except my own thoughts, and even these were confined to my mind, never to breach the threshold of my mouth. My reason was stifled by the threat of the whip; my inquisitiveness dared not venture beyond the fields; my aspirations, though they manifested sparingly in my dreams, dared not linger there, for the dreams of a slave must dissipate with the morning fog, into the murky revelations of every dawn.
Every call to the fields was his declaration of my enslavement, so I declared my independence by escaping. However, I am just beginning the war. Though I rest now, I do so not by choice but necessity. If I should suddenly have to run, it will be by his provocation; every pant, every puff, and every gasp are his until I am assuredly out of his grasp. And further, when I cross into unsettled territory tonight, I will know that I have not yet shed the last vestiges of the slave to which he laid claim. My physical scars are not the only ones I carry with me on this journey. Though I will have endured the howls and the pursuit of his curs and withstood the curses from their tobacco stained mouths, though I will have eluded the jowls of wild beasts that would feast upon my flesh, though I will have staved off starvation, and though I will have freed my body from the possession of a man, I know that if I am to truly be free, it is my soul that I must salvage and liberate.
§ § § §
“Slave,” he did not utter, “obey, in everything, your earthly master and do so for fear of the Lord.” He glared at me through whiskey-glazed eyes, his jaw trembling from the force with which he kept his mouth shut.
“I shall bid my slave to be submissive to his master. And if he is not, he shall bear the punishment that must fall upon the disobedient,” the words did not come forth from his mouth, yet they lingered in the air, it seemed, as the ghosts of past sermons. I only imagined that they might be words he would call upon now, for what other words might a father say to a son whose esteem he now sought to extinguish, whose soul he meant to extort from its body so that it might never again inspire such acts as mine had been found guilty of inspiring? What other words would be comforting for a man who had created such a hell for himself? What words, indeed, but those he deemed to be from heaven?
Though my arms were bound by ropes around the trunk of a sycamore, though all of my flesh was exposed to the autumn air, though my heart ached from the distant cries of a familiar voice, and my temple throbbed from the events that preceded my most unfortunate circumstance, I looked at my father, and I knew that his was the greater misfortune. I had spent many moments of my childhood contemplating that trauma of the flesh that the slave inevitably suffers for the sin of pride and ambition. However, on this day of reckoning, my mind was occupied by the sight of this pitiful creature, this man who himself seemed haunted by his own reflection. In me, he saw his broad shoulders slumped against the tree, his long legs hobbled by having been dragged through the woods, his jawline etched out in sweat and blood, and his fiery black eyes accented by that last glowering light of dusk— and by defiance. Naught but a few shades and a few decades stood between us. The rope that bound my hands was the cowhide that bound his. And when that cowhide tore through my flesh, he knew that his blood would be spilled.
He took one inebriated step forward, and I was immediately reminded of my mother’s words from that morning.
“Hell,” Miriam had said, “is earth. And men make it that way. They nurture it in their souls and carry it with them. They give birth to it in their words and grow it up in their acts.” She had said this on a morning when the sun was shining, a cool breeze was finally stirring in the summer scorched atmosphere, and the other slaves were dancing joyously about the quarters. The harvest had come in bountifully, and Joachim was in a generous mood. He had rewarded us with a holiday, given us new clothes, and even provided a barrel of bourbon, for he knew that the slaves would celebrate the harvest. And celebrate they did. Solomon told lively stories while the slave children giggled with delight. A few of the slave men stumbled about in a drunken stupor. A young girl named Serafina played a kissing game with some of the young boys while even some older men chased her around with groveling hands. My mother, however, sat brooding from the porch of our shanty.
“Fools always look happy,” she grumbled while her nimble fingers turned reams of straw into baskets for next year’s harvest. “You whip the smile into them, and then you liquor them up so it stays there.”
It had become uncommon to witness my mother’s smile. While the other slaves were keen to toast and make merry more often than not, Miriam had long ago resolved not to forget that happiness was but a fleeting moment in an otherwise miserable condition. While the other slaves sang Joachim’s praises, she dwelled on the hell that he had brought forth and that they seemed to ignore. She glared at them when she reminded me that there was no salvation anywhere but in heaven.
“Good people are not made for this world,” she warned me, “But if we just wait on the Lord…” She had uttered the beginning of that sentence often, but she had never finished it, choosing instead to trail off into a song. I rarely pondered her unfinished sentences, for I delighted in her singing. She smiled when she sang though her song was often somber. She sought salvation in the hymns, and sometimes she seemed to find it. She found it for me as well, for it did quell my own angst to see her happy-- if only briefly. Once, when I was but a young and foolish child, I thought that her songs of freedom were songs of her heart's desire. I told her that if freedom would make her happy, she should simply escape. She responded by striking me across the face with all of her strength.
“Don’t ever breathe those words here,” she hissed through clenched teeth, “Not to me. Not even to yourself. You hear me?” The pain in my cheeks impelled me to nod in obedience. She sang that particular song less frequently thenceforth, but the notion of sojourn grew with me. It started as a glimmer of curiosity illuminating a secret path of contemplation and ambition. What must it be like to be free? To come and go as I pleased? To discover the things that inspire happiness? To meet and converse with other free people? What do they talk about? What songs do they sing? What inspires them to dance? To work? Are they good people? And if they are, had they found some place on this earth?
Against my mother’s wishes, I began to seek out Solomon’s stories, for he often spoke about promised lands. I began to watch Goliath, our Negro foreman come and go by the master’s permission, and I delighted in the rare occasions when I would be called upon to accompany him into town. I committed the routes to memory, while I searched the margins of the road, the plains that emerged from the woods, and the tall grass that hid the creek. Indeed, I searched the land for promises. I imagined what it would be like to run through those woods. I searched the faces of the townspeople to imagine their goodness and happiness. I tried to remember the scraps of conversations that found my ear. I remembered a song that a fiddler played outside of a taylor's shop. It later impressed upon me a wondrous dream of mellifluous laughter. Then on a night not more than two harvests ago, I found that my glimmering curiosity had grown fully into a luminescent desire to roam the world outside of my dreams and imagination.
It was a warm and humid night after a summer storm. The thunder still roared in the distance, so the slaves remained huddled in their quarters. It was as still as it had ever been and just as dark. The earth had been softened to clay, and I curled my toes in it. Then a cool and inviting breeze wafted by, enticing me to venture behind our little shanty. I took a deep breath and a few tentative steps. The moon peeked through the crawling clouds, but the black of the woods cloaked me. Slowly, I approached the crooked row of ash trees that separated Bishop Plantation from the rest of the world. The thunder cracked far in the distance, and I imagined the slaves huddling closer together in their barren rooms, each assuring the other that God’s work was almost done.
My heart pounded, and I stepped into the world. The thunder sounded once more, but the world remained intact, I was sure, for the bullfrogs began to croak and the crickets began to creak and a hush of mesmerizing whispers beckoned me from the creek. I started to run as fast as my spindly legs could carry me. I ran, and my heart pounded, and the thick, warm air brushed my face and stuck in my lungs. As my heels displaced water from their puddles, my wiry arms swiped away the low hanging branches, and drops of freshly fallen rain fell into my eyes. Then the woods opened onto the high grass of the open plain, and there was nothing to hold me back. The air became a little cooler and my legs carried me so that I felt that I was flying. For a brief moment, I thought that I could comprehend freedom.
I closed my eyes and wondered if this was how the bluebirds felt when they swooped from branch to branch. I envied the wild horses that I had once seen galloping through the hills. Then as the hush of the creek grew louder, I opened my eyes and came to a stop. My chest heaved. The clouds had thinned, and the woods were far behind me. Here, in the pale gleam of the moon, I had begun to grasp fully the notion that the horses and birds were freer than I, as were the bullfrogs and crickets. How wretched was my condition that I was forbidden even the experiences and emotions of wild animals? After a long while of envying the flight of the blue bird and the galloping of the horses, I turned and headed back to the plantation. And as I approached the entrance to the woods, my heart stopped.
“Quincy?” Miriam’s harsh whisper cut through the darkness, “Is that you?”
Before I had time to respond, her dark figure emerged before me. I felt the sting of her calloused palm as she struck me across my sweat-dampened cheek. I froze and made no sound. She struck me again before pulling me close to her bosom and holding me there tightly. Together, we silently stood amidst the whispers of the creek, the croak of the bullfrog, and the creak of the crickets. I felt that we would have made a tranquil scene but for the tremors of her sobbing. After a long while, she whispered again,
“You’re a fool! You think you’re all grown up, but you’re just a big fool. If Joachim catches you, he’d— ” she stopped abruptly, as if she had thought it better to put the words out of her mind, and she hastily dragged me back to the plantation.
That night, my mother cradled me as if she wished to turn my tall frame into the babe it once was, and she cried and pleaded. She rocked back and forth, and she sang every song in her memory. Then when she was weak from crying, and her voice was raspy from singing, she whispered,
“Don’t make them take you away from me. You’re all I have.”
And my heart pounded in my chest because I wanted to say “Yes’m,” and nod and be obedient the way that I had done when I was a child. But I knew that I was going to run again. The small glimpse of freedom that I had felt on that night birthed in me an insatiable desire to experience it again. I began to long for dark clouds and thunderstorms, for these were the setting of my happiness. Everyone, including my master, was preoccupied with their fears, and while they fantasized about God obliterating demons with each flash of lightning, and perhaps while they themselves hid from that obliteration, I reveled in the low rumbling bass of the thunder and danced amidst the staccato melody of the raindrops. Every flash of lightning was an epiphany of the life I began to dream for myself, and every calm breeze that quelled the woods once the storm passed was the briefest realization of that dream. Each time, I ventured a little farther, and lingered in my dreams a little longer. Then there was the night after the slaves had celebrated and a storm had come, when I ventured too far and indulged my dream for too long.
Reality crept upon me through the fog, first with the slight hint of burning tobacco in the air, and then with the low rumbling of galloping horses. Finally, I became alert to the barking dogs, but before I could consider an escape route, the voice of the slave foreman rang in my ears.
“Ooh, nigger you’re in trouble, now!”
The rope wrapped tightly around my legs, and I was dragged the entire way back to the plantation. The ground, which had once cooled my feet, scoured my body. Twigs and fallen branches left splinters in my arms, and mud caked my eyes and nostrils. Finally, a large rock met with my head and ensured that I would remember no further details of my recapture. When I awoke, I could see my father off to the side, slumped as if he were exhausted or defeated. There stood a man before the mouth of hell and with no pretense.
“But he’s your own flesh and blood!” the familiar voice cried out, and though this was perhaps meant as a deterrent to his actions, it instead served as a provocation. He stood tall and erect. A fire flashed in his eyes, his nostrils flared, and he raised the whip. I closed my eyes, and a blood-curdling scream ripped through the night air and clawed into my back. Every muscle in my body convulsed and my jaw clenched. I swallowed a cry, and just as that cry settled at the bottom of my stomach, her scream came again and tore down my spine. Lightning and thunder had converged and fallen upon me, and a crimson rain fell in torrents. I tried to remind myself to inhale, but each time, the air fought desperately to escape my lungs. I gulped several fleeting breaths before the scream and the strike came again. This time my head snapped back and my back arched. I panted, but I did not cry. The shrieks from behind me collapsed into helpless sobs but the strikes continued, lightning without thunder. My torso fought against the rigidity of the tree and my wrists dug into its bark. My breaths were out of my control, but my mind was opportunely blank; I would give no voice or thoughts to the breaths that escaped. After the tenth lash, my legs trembled beneath me. The earth fell away and the tree vanished. My last thought was that I had become a ghost; that my body had been taken from me.
§ § § §
I awoke several hours later and the memory of that evening’s event flooded to me in one immediate sensation: searing pain that sent tremors through my body and tears to my eyes. I let out an agonized but resolute sob. Then I heard my mother singing as she applied a salve to my wounds.
“I got wings. You got wings.”
I grimaced at her words, for they caused me as much pain as my wounds.
“All of God’s children got wings,” she drew out each note with a vibrato that turned the often jubilant song into a requiem. I grumbled and spit dirt as I struggled to turn my face from the ground.
“How can you sing those words?” I wanted to scream. “Look at me. Look at my back. All I have are lashes. Show me wings!”
Then I looked upon her face and what I saw frightened me more than the prospect of any whipping could. The face of the woman who had cried defiantly moments before and who had once looked upon the dancing slaves with self-righteous indignation was eerily vacant. It was as if she had wiped the previous hours from her memory.
“They’re in heaven,” she seemed to retort my unspoken words with a whisper and an empty smile. Then she continued with the song and salve. “When I go to heaven, gonna put on my wings, gonna fly all over God’s heaven.”
As she sang her song, I felt dawning in me a most important revelation. What all-graceful God would see fit to put men in a life such as this? What all-knowing God would give men dominion over other men? What all-powerful God would strike a man with such pain as I now felt, would smite a man for the audacity to dream of happiness? The audacity to know freedom? The audacity to think himself a man? What all-merciful God would make a man long for heaven at the price of living through hell? Though I had once regarded my mother’s singing as a glance into heaven, I listened to it now and realized that it was no different from the sermons Joachim preached.
“Slave, be submissive for this is a virtue and the righteous path into the kingdom of heaven. Slave, obey your earthly master. Slave, fear him as you fear the Lord.”
And as I thought of these words echoing about my nightmare by the sycamore, my body ached, not from my wounds but from my soul, which was stirring and becoming fully awake for the first time. And every part of it wanted to stretch my body erect against that sycamore, strain my wrists against my chains, direct my gaze into Joachim’s eyes, and declare,
“I do not fear the Lord!”
Thus it was that while my father fancied himself God, and my mother sang his praises, I resolved to find heaven on earth. For six days thereafter, I learned to walk upright again. On the seventh day, I was sent back to work. On the eighth day, I took flight not merely to imagine my freedom for a fleeting moment, but to make my freedom real.