This story is by David H. Safford and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
At the end of every night, Celestine insisted that she comb her daughter’s hair.
She had good reason. As they braved the hot, sweaty bogs of the Deep South, stubborn bits of nature would stick to them as they hid from men and dogs in gnarled bushes and impenetrable dens of thorn and vine.
So as the moon fell that night and pink tremors appeared in the east, she took Winnie’s shoulder and said, “Let’s rest here.”
The girl’s face soured. She made to keep walking.
“I don’t wanna. There’s a station ahead.”
The mother shook her head and sat cross-legged on a patch of earth between two arching palmettos.
“No, it isn’t safe,” she said. “Come here and sit.”
The girl ground her toes into the dirt. “I’m not sleepin’ outside again.”
“Yes, you are,” the mother scolded. “There aren’t any stations this far south that we can trust. Now sit here and let me comb that mess.”
The girl obeyed and sat before the comb.
“We heard them singin’ about it at that farm,” she murmured. “Remember them?”
Celestine remembered, but said nothing.
“And we heard it again, when we snuck in that big house outside Chesterfield. Remember?”
That, too, she recalled.
“It’s just up ahead, Mama. Can we please try?”
With a fierce tug, the mother yanked at a knot and Winnie yelped. For a minute they didn’t speak. The toads and crickets sang the final verses of their nightly songs. Then the girl whispered, “I wish we never left.”
“Don’t you say that.”
“At least we’d be inside, not sleepin’ out like animals.”
“I said, No.”
But hearing the bitterness in her daughter’s voice, Celestine began to count the consecutive days spent sleeping under the sun. Back home she’d slept at night, indoors, and sometimes in the big house in a real bed. And sometimes she’d slept in the arms of man whom she hated, but would humble himself enough to call her ‘My Sweet’ and wrap an expensive blanket around her naked body.
That was long ago. But when she closed her eyes and ran fingertips over her calloused flesh, she could feel the gentle touch of that fabric once again.
Winnie fidgeted under the pawing of the comb. She swatted her leg and murdered a mosquito with a loud smack.
Celestine closed her eyes. Maybe they could risk it. Maybe, after so much running and hiding, they could enjoy a little warmth tonight.
She plucked the comb from Winnie’s hair.
“Mama?” the girl said, looking up at her.
Celestine took up her pack. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s find the station.”
The door of the gray farmhouse was flanked by a sight she had been told of, but had never seen with her own eyes: a lantern with one of its glass windows blacked. The sign of the Underground. She ascended the steps to the door and rapped on the wood.
She waited. The gentle mooing of dairy cows floated from the nearby barn.
Heavy footsteps boomed behind the door as a male voice grunted, “Who is it?”
Celestine remembered what the slaves had sung and said, “Just comin’ with some extra milk, suh.”
The boots shuffled. She ducked low, holding her anxious breath. Then the door’s latch rattled and opened with a creak. A thick man, his skin deeply red, peered out.
“Why’re you crouching like that?” he said.
“I – I dunno, sir,” she said.
He frowned and peered down the road to his farm. “Come in, then,” he said.
Celestine waved and Winnie appeared from the trees and ran across the yard. She leapt up beside her mother.
“Shut the door,” the man said.
The women obeyed.
“Thank you, sir,” Celestine said. “We don’t mean you no trouble —”
“Now listen here,” the man interrupted. “My name’s John. Y’all can sleep in my room while I’m about the farm. It’s right here.” He pointed to an open door, the walls dark and menacing in the glow of a single gas lamp.
Celestine swallowed, terror stabbing at her throat. She nodded.
“Thank you, sir.”
She pushed her daughter forward through the flickering doorway where they found a simple, unmade bed. Celestine placed her pack on the quilted blankets.
“I’m scared,” Winnie peeped.
“I am, too,” Celestine said. “Just do what I say.”
They turned as John reappeared with a jar.
“Milk,” he said, offering it.
“Thank you,” Celestine whispered. The glass was cool to the touch as she brought it to Winnie’s lips. The girl looked at the milk, then the man, and took a hesitant slurp.
“Good?” he asked.
She nodded. Celestine lowered the jar and a silky mustache sat on Winnie’s upper lip. The mother gave a weak laugh. “Oh, girl,” she said, and wiped it with her dress.
Their host approved with a grunt. “Listen now. I’ll be about the farm. Don’t leave before sunset.”
Celestine nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Mm hmm,” John confirmed, and stepped out and shut the door behind him.
His departure sucked the wind from their lungs and they collapsed on the bed with an exhausted sigh.
“He seems nice,” Winnie said.
The mother nodded, still listening as John’s footsteps faded outside. The cows continued to moo, afraid of nothing.
“Let’s get some sleep,” Celestine said. “Besides, I never finished with your hair.”
The comb did its work as they lay down together, the mother’s arms wrapped around the little girl’s thin body, and soon they both were asleep.
She woke with a start as John’s footsteps boomed about the house again.
Celestine sat upright and pressed a hand to her chest, gasping. When she held her breath, she could hear the footsteps more clearly. Some were heavy and slow, but others seemed light and quick.
Someone else was there.
Did John have a wife? A child?
Celestine crawled over her sleeping daughter and listened.
Two of them.
She stepped off the bed and slung her pack. The footsteps grew louder, closer.
“Winnie!” she whispered, giving the girl a shove.
The girl did not move.
She knelt to the floor and looked under the bed. Maybe there was a way out.
The boots paused for a moment, then resumed, coming closer.
She crept to the wall and ran her hands over the floor, feeling for any loose boards. Her fingers caught a warping slat that gave with a strong tug.
The footsteps crashed to a halt outside the door.
Her little eyes burst open.
The iron latch rattled as the door began to move. Celestine wrapped her hands around the board and lifted. It yawned up from the floor, leaving a narrow chasm just wide enough for their thin bodies.
“Mama?” Winnie moaned.
“Come!” she whispered. “Now!”
But the door burst open and Celestine pushed herself backwards through the gap and pulled the plank down over her head, leaving Winnie all alone.
She could barely hold her panicked breath as she squinted between the floorboards. A man stood in the doorway. It wasn’t John.
He was tall and skeletal with charcoal eyes and a sickle nose. He stared down at Winnie, his lip curled with disdain.
“Where is the other?” he asked.
“Other?” Winnie whimpered.
“Yes,” he said. “Where did she go?”
Celestine heard the sound of shackles clattering against a chain. The man took Winnie’s arms in his bony fingers and locked them with two iron bracelets.
“The other,” he said. “Where is she?”
“I dunno, sir!”
Don’t hurt her.
She had to do something. Celestine searched the clay around her for anything she could use as a weapon. Even a discarded farm tool would work, but there was nothing.
“Where is the other?” he asked.
Winnie yelped in pain.
Celestine squinted again to see red drops dribbling through the floorboards. The man held a knife to Winnie’s throat, the point disappearing into the flesh of her neck.
“Tell me. Tell me now.”
She scampered from under the house and peered into the yard. A black carriage was parked on the road, a horse flicking its tail at a cloud of flies. She ducked under the house again and crawled to the far side where there was a row of empty milk bottles.
“Mama!” Winnie cried.
Celestine took one of the jars. She stood, aimed, and hurled it toward the trees where it crashed in the bushes.
The footsteps roared.
She sprinted for the carriage and climbed in and pressed her body against the floor.
The door to the house blew open and the men ran into the yard, cursing.
John lumbered to the northern trees, the likeliest escape route, but the other man strolled into the midst of the lawn, peering in all directions. He clutched Winnie’s shackles and gave them a vicious shake, the rattle of metal piercing the air. Winnie sobbed, her cheeks glistening with tears.
Celestine ground her teeth.
The man gave the bonds another merciless jerk, this time toward the carriage.
Come here, Celestine urged.
He dragged Winnie across the yard, his eyes reflecting none of the sun’s light as they swept the expanse of the farm.
He turned his head toward the house.
Celestine groped for his belt to steal the knife, but he turned at the sound of her feet and immediately found the hilt.
“Dirty fugitive!” he spat, and swung.
His full weight came down as she barely caught his hands and pushed back, howling in terror. The knife inched forward, closer and closer, until the point touched her sternum like fire.
“Winnie!” she wailed. The girl stood unmoving, her mouth agape.
The dagger pressed harder. Her fingers slipped and all she could grip was the blade’s razor edge, slicing her palms.
She met his dark eyes as they studied her, calm like dried bones, dispassionate at killing her like this. The knife broke the skin and her hands trembled to keep it from disappearing entirely.
“Winnie,” she moaned.
And then the girl seemed to wake from her stupor, seeing her mother’s plight. She hesitated, inched forward, and then leapt on the man’s back, throwing the chain around his neck.
He gasped and reached back to pry her off. Winnie drew the iron necklace into a noose.
Celestine caught the man’s flailing hand, steadied the knife, and drove it into his ribs where it plunged down to the handle. The man’s eyes flew wide as he hit the earth face-first, heavy with death.
“Mama?” Winnie whimpered, her arms draped over the man’s shoulders.
Celestine fumbled about his leather belt until she discovered a pocket with a key inside.
“He’s dead, Mama!”
“Yes he is, Winnie.”
“You killed him!”
The girl quivered as her mother worked the key until the shackles fell with a metallic cry.
“Yes,” Celestine said. “Yes, I did.”
She peered up at the sun, measured its arc, and pointed south. “There. Go.”
As they turned to flee, they heard John yell “Stop!” from across the farm. They ran with every ounce of remaining energy until they were miles deep in the thick of a festering marsh, all over again.
They hid for the reminder of the day, fending off water moccasins as dogs and men prowled about, desperate to find the murderous fugitives.
When night fell, the mother dared to climb onto dry ground and grant Winnie a few hours rest while she held watch.
Winnie lay silent for a while before closing her eyes. Then, suddenly, she said, “You picked a good spot tonight, Mama.”
At her daughter’s words, Celestine’s soul broke along its deepest fault. A tear formed that she silently wiped away.
“You shush now and sleep,” was all she said.
And Celestine combed that hair, combed it until her hands bled, the gashes in her palms black and wide. All that was left was to caress Winnie’s shoulders with the tips of her fingers. It was nothing like the warmth of blankets.