by Raji Singh
Esteemed resident of the historic Fiction House, Kunta Kinder, is world renowned for his artwork – painting, carving, sculpture. His dangerous pre-Civil War work as an African-American Abolitionist ‘Conductor’ in the slave states demonstrates his acting prowess. Here now, as recounted in the novel, Tales of the Fiction House, one of thespian Kunta’s greatest roles.
* * *
THE TALE OF ONE EARLY UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SPUR LINE
(Editor’s Note: Slaves often traveled alone to do ‘marster’s bidding.’)
Bay is harnessed to a buckboard. She is ‘slow-as-Moses.’ Reined by Kunta’s rope, a-Hempis, she moseys the dirt road toward a western Kentucky plantation.
‘Aleka will be there,’ Kunta thinks, with each new plantation he approaches. ‘She’ll recognize me, but say nothing.’ (Aleka is Kunta’s sister.)
Poppy Sol’s yawning rise sparks, pinkish-red, against hundreds of acres of tobacco plants, then smolders the dew from the leaves. Kunta breathes deeply, holding in his lungs the stinging, sweet wonder of nature’s humidor.
He feels so free in his voluntary servitude. Duty-bound to brothers and sisters in real chains, his soul soars.
Before now – delivering runaways to safe houses north of the Ohio for the old Reverend – he rode Bay straight and proud.
Now, gathering slaves for the new Reverend in the south, he slouches on splintery seat, subservient.
Looking at the white-pillared mansion in the horizon, he pretends not to see the rifle-wielding, Overseer, approaching on foot. Kunta’s an actor playing a part. He begins singing in a contrived, almost-yelping Halleluiah timbre!
“Pharoah’s daughter on de bank, little Moses in de reeds. She fishes him out wid a…”
“Whoa boy! Where you think yer headin’?” Overseer grabs a-Hempis at the Bay’s snout and loops the rope around his fist. He aims the gun at Kunta’s pretend-flinch face. Kunta knows Overseer’s thinking, ‘No killin’ ‘nother man’s property lest there’s might good reason.’ The six-foot tall white man is clean-shaven, pristinely kempt. Creased pants and pressed vest contrast Kunta’s ‘slave costuming – threadbare jacket, tattered chapeau, patched pants and boots.
(The Constant and mortal danger of riding the rails of the Underground Railroad engrain in Kunta a perpetual sense of courage-caution.)
On Kunta’s lap is a bible. Into its leather cover, he’s scroll-worked ‘Moses-aleadin’-’is-people’. The image of his village women’s braids snake through it and point to a northerly ‘promised lan’-a-milk-n’-honey’. He inscribes it into all of Reverend Ezekiah’s bibles that he delivers to slaves. Quickly glanced, it is a picture, pleasing. Examined, it is a guidepost to freedom.
(At this point in the latter half of the 1820s, few, if any whites knew of the secret codes and cryptic maps woven in quilts, painted on barns, carved into trees, that runaways and their abettors utilized to successfully navigate to a free state, territory, or Canada.)
“You ‘def, boy. I wanta’ know where yer headin’?”
“Ah is Reverend Ezeki’ Bellows shepherd-boy. I’s on his mission,” Kunta says with absurd argot and pretend-cower. He sees his ‘fools’ crescent smile in Overseer’s spit-shine boots.
(“Boots for kicken’ a relcalictrant neg’ or negress who don’t pick their share,” the overseer loves telling newly-bought arrivals.)
Kunta raises a bible and thumps it with his knuckles. “Ah’s deliverin’ the good word for the good Reverend, suh. For the Reverend’s dark flock.” He motions, eyes diverted, to an open-lidded crate of bibles behind his seat. If he came across Aleka, or maybe a runaway, he could slip them into the crate’s false bottom and smuggle them to Valhalla.
Kunta clenches jaw, concealing momentary grit of the degradation he again feels – of enslavement to the cook aboard the slave ship. He hates the overseer he knows nothing of yet knows everything of, hates him as much as he hated the Cook.
“Hey, boy. It’d save me a heap a hasslin’ before breakfast if I just blow yer brains out now.”
a-Hempis doesn’t want to test the overseer’s brag – (The mystical rope, a-Hempis, is a reincarnation of a 15th century mystic cleric, Thomas a-Kempis) – what a-Hempis does now will give Kunta a chance to defend himself if Overseer is intent on firing. He tightens around Overseer’s hand as Bay tenses snout. “Ow! Son-of-a-bitch.” Overseer pulls away, lowers gun and shakes reddening fingers.
Bay becomes jittery. She kicks-up dust. ‘Can’t let anything happen to Kunta. He must be there when I foal to see my pony galloping beside me for the first time. Must see my pony when little Kunta makes him or her, his horse.’
(Bay and a-Hempis have varying plans for different scenarios. If Kunta’s ever set for-a-whippen’, a-Hempis would convince the leathery bullwhip to soften its slashing – by promising some of a-Hempis sought-after scent. If Kunta’s hung by his own rope, and, on his own horse, a-Hempis would slip from tree limb, then Bay would gallop through memorized bramble pathways she has traveled through that no hound, man, nor other equines, could figure out and follow. Each situation so different – they would observe Kunta’s lead; follow it.)
“Ahm sure mistress-’a-house wouldn’t want the spreading of our Savior’s savin’-Word be slowed.” Kunta allows a mere tinge of slyness to stain his words. No matter how little the man thinks of him, he won’t want black blood splattered all over mistresses ‘Word.’
Overseer rubs hand. “Gimme your papers.” He examines documents that include intricately scrolled documents Kunta has created to show that body, if not soul, belongs, without-question, to Reverend Ezekiah Bellows. Kunta has, well hidden, equally-meticulously forged documents signed by Reverend, that show he and Little Kunta are free humans.
Overseer drops the papers onto Kunta’s lap and opens crate. “Pretty fancy bible covers for folks born for picken’. None of ‘em read – least better not be able, or I’ll see to it they never do again.”
“Well suh, when Mistress not a readin’ to ‘em, to help calm ‘em for you…they can meditate on the cover – calms ‘em even more for you when they’re in the field…”
“I got whippings to do that, boy.” He pats the bullwhip that rings around his belt.
“Got lots a’ deliveries for the Reverend today, suh!”
“Sounds like whip-lip you’re deliverin’.” He quickly decides against any action because his hand aches. He looks at his pocket watch, gift from his Kentuck pappy; ‘overseer ‘afore me – and his, ‘afore him – taught me all ‘ah needa’ to know about treatin’ negs’.’ “They’re due to crops. Swing a wide berth from the house, head straight to the quarters and don’t snail about.”
Outside the shanties, shadowed gray by the white mansion, your heart, ready to burst free from your chest to fly to be with Aleka, coldly sinks. Nowhere is she among the dozens of ragged spirits, who are blank-eyed from the day-by-day tobacco sameness. None read, but all smooth their hands over your cover design.
‘Follow its path,’ you want to shout to them. ‘You will discover routes to escape your Egypt – you’ll find sympathetic Moses’ ready to help.’ You begin to preach-hint, as you stand amongst your people. “Close your eyes and meditate on the, PATH. You’ll be delivered to the Promised Land.”
You become a mandatory silent when you see the plantation owner in his creamy suit and string tie, approach followed by Overseer and the field guards. “Let me see that,” Owner says.
You shan’t look into his face to decipher what he’s thinking when he examines the cover. You realize he’s interested only in leafing through the pages for contraband. Overseer and guards do the same with other bibles. Overseer drops the book at your feet.
“Yes siree,” Owner says to the air as if you don’t exist, “delivered to a promised land, of tobaccy. All right everybody. To the fields.”
For emphasis, only a few feet from a dozen men and women, he cracks his whip. It ‘snaps’, stinging the ground.
Overseer: “Your heard your Massah. To …”
‘Does anyone here see hope?’ you want to shout as they shuffle away. You pick up the bible. As you think, ‘they are too beaten to see,’ a burly-chest man and petite wife, with two clingy sons under age 4 and a baby, stop briefly. The only difference between him and the others: His eyes are afire – with desire to find the Path. When no one is looking, he puts his hand to your shoulder. No words. But his expression says, “Thanks brother. Somehow, we will see you, and soon.”
‘Yes! There’s always hope. Aleka! Your brother’s coming for you: Have hope.”
NEXT WEEK: Conducting the railroad northward, to Cincinnati and FREEDOM!
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. My novel is available at Amazon, (Kindle and Trade Paperback) and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh
©2014 Raji Singh (New material)