“I will help those men, those women, those children. I will help them with you. Or I will help them without you. Make no mistake, Sir. It will be me, not some hero made of shadows, at the front of that line. I will get on my hands and knees and lay each piece of that moaning track, as that line moves along, piece by piece, as the line moves along, till my knees bleed and my back breaks, if that’s what I got to do. I will be there; candle glowing, right up front. A long line of candles, burning like the devil’s footprints in the blackest night. It ain’t about the destination, you see, or what someone told you you need to do to save your soul. It’s about what your heart screams at you, from the pit of hopelessness. You can go for the love of God with a clean conscience. You can go with vengeance laying on your skin red and hot as a brand. Don’t make no difference to me. Just so long as you start walking. Light up the hole of the night with a line of light, hang on, think only about the walking, and it will lead you to freedom.”
The rocker creaked against the rotting green boards of the porch. Back and forth. Like time.
She diverted her eyes upward and appeared to be staring into the oaks that lined each side of a long rutted path that led to the creek; their branches, waist-thick in places, seemed to curl before his eyes like something from a fairy tale. Moss hung from the branches; swayed in the warm air. It made him think of the unkempt hair of old women in storybooks, snagged while night-flying on crooked sticks through the trees.
The moon went behind a wisp of cloud. Crickets sung. The wind picked up. A cluster of moss landed on the porch step. He watched her lift the skirt of her white dress kneel on the ground and lift a delicate gray tendril with one slender finger. He thought he heard her whisper something, but that could have been the leaves.
The moon reappeared, full and white and unblinking as the eye of God. It Illuminated strands of gray that ran like silver threads through her coal-black hair, pulled smooth and tight across the top of her head.
Could he, too, hear the moss sighing from the tangle of dead leaves? “It’s whispering its surprise at so sudden a freedom— after a lifetime of hanging from them trees.”
She looked up at him. Her milky eyes burning into his. “Best thing for you to do, if you ain’t helping, is to forget you ever laid eyes on me. Forget; and be mindful that you stay out of my way.”
She stood slowly, bent to brush something from her dress. Closed her eyes. Her nostrils quivered at the smell of nightime; moist air and rotting leaves; and the smoke from hidden fires.
It was time.
—from “The Testament of Harriet Tubman” (c)2019 by Sanguine Woods. All rights reserved.