By Raji Singh
Last week: The realistic ante-bellum Underground Railroad journey of Kunta Kinder to free slaves.
This week: His surrealistic river rafting to freedom.
One may wonder: When Turt’s not rollin’ down a Kentucky hill, strollin’ a parade, helpin’-out a flounderin’ Carper and founderin’ James; or when he’s not out-’n-about gettin’ tattooed – just what, with his very long time on this earth, does he do? …to make just a small corner of his world, right…
COMES NOW A TALE OF ONE SUCH NIGHT
Turt tugs a-Hempis [a sentient rope]. One end is in Turt’s beak-snout, the other attaches to a wooden raft he pulls up the Ohio. Bobbing head is barely visible. ‘Less clench please,’ vibrates a-Hempis. Turt obliges. They’ve made this trip often since their Valhalla reunion.
Aboard is Kunta, dressed in dark colors– to be inconspicuous to trolling slave-catchers. Turt is a low-gear motor, freeing Kunta to check for sandbars with a 20-foot pole. Crowded beside Kunta is the family from the tobacco plantation. Mother cradles baby. Father grasps toddlers’ hands. Gaunt looks reflect the family’s turmoil, their hell-on-this-earth, of the past weeks:
Hell’s eternal hours –
‘Quick! Hide here’: Shivering in bogs to fool the overseer’s bloodhounds.
‘Hurry! Crawl here’: Crowding beneath stinking manure wagons.
‘Climb up; fast!’ Days spent hiding quietly in haylofts without food. Slightest stomach growl or barn-board ‘creak’ might be their giveaway.
‘Run! Run!’ At midnights they streak between safe houses, stopping only to sip crick water before reaching – ‘Praise on High’, Valhalla!
Kaneshawa tends their physical needs – hot baths in the safe room Kunta and Ezekiah doubled in size as they finished rebuilding the church and parsonage. She burns tattered, stinking apparel and alters second-hand ones donated by northern sympathizers. Rested, renewed, fed, the children play with little Kunta, Turt, and Sea Line.
Reverend Ezekiah – he tends adults’ spiritual needs: “HE came with you this far. HE shall beacon the rest of your way.” Adult Kunta enters through a hidden doorway and provides an earthly realm to their journey. “I – shall take you to Cincinnati. There, others will direct you.”
Before Cincinnati happens, their hazardous river journey must continue:
Luny Mum stays behind clouds so this raft part of their trek is inconspicuous. Kunta keeps rifle close. He knows the best routes to avoid slave-catchers; but, always, there is a risk of detection.
Turt’s amphibious senses tell him what Kunta cannot know:
Coming toward them in the darkness are three humans, in a float just smaller than the one Kunta captains. Turt sniffs: Same butcher-ous scent of the pirates; same acrid odor of the powder that makes their killing weapons explode.
There is no avoiding collision; so Turt quickly devises diversion. He releases air from shell pockets with a slow, reflexive, pumping action and takes in water. Still clenching a-Hempis, he submerges, dropping to the Ohio’s mucky floor. He anchors fin-claws into mire, uprooting a couple of giant sleeping catfish – nearly his size. ‘Sorry gents.’
a-Hempis tenses as Turt’s anchorage jolts raft to a stop.
Kunta uses the pole to block the passengers from tumbling into the water. ‘Something’s wrong.’ He grabs rifle, whispers, “Hold the children.” Parents pull them closer.
Suddenly: ‘THUD!’ A dinghy collides with them. Luny Mum peaks curiously above clouds. Kunta notes three gun-wielding men – a threadbare trio. They’re stooges for plantation owners. Kunta always has plans for encounters, but is caught-off-guard by the chance collision. Move, even slightly, he knows he’ll be shot. He positions his rifle inconspicuously along his leg and hopes the darkness keeps them from seeing it.
“Looks we hit a jackpot,” comes a drumble from one slave-catcher-stooge.
You wait for the moment your amphibious senses tell you the enemy float is right above you. You purge water from your shell pockets, hunker down, prepare to launch upward and ram the interlopers. ‘NOW!’ You push at riverbed: No go. Fin-claws lock into the mire. ‘Damn the mud!’ Looking like a two-leg doing push- ups – you pump, cannot dislodge. You’d finally found your old friend, Kunta. Might lose him just as fast.
Now, catfish: They’re dumb, but persistent. After being scooted from their place, they stay close, flopping behind seaweed. They emerge and with winks and nods agree they’ll help if you return their ‘spot’.
Mud swirls as they burrow beneath you. Fin-claws dislodge. You rocket. You twist; turn, unable to keep balance. It’s a bullet-straight ride. Heart pounds. You tuck-in neck and beak-snout, but let legs dangle because they act as quad-rudders, helping control direction. Your nerves tingle. You feel water pressure might ratchet-away your top shell and you’ll have to spend life water-bound. That notion vanishes when you strike something.
A brittle, splintering sound: Turt has slammed the dinghy’s hull. It ‘whooshes’ above water. The slave-catchers fly, erratically firing rifles. Bullets ‘puck’ into the Ohio. “Blasted Go…Da…Son-of-a …” Vulgar shouts are barely coherent as they get dunked. Water splashes raft, soaking Kunta and the family. The Boys, “WHEE”, in delight.
The men grasp their knives and swim toward the raft. Luny Mum comes from behind clouds. Seeing one of the men in her moonlight, Kunta points his rifle at him while the father, sons seizing his legs, grabs the pole and pokes at another to keep him away. “We’ll take you. Mark my word,” yells the one Kunta guards. The other slowly raises his knife above the water. Just as he readies to throw, Luny Mum glints against it so the father sees. He slaps it away.
“Ow, Goddamit,” the man squeals.
The third one had swum underwater, to behind the raft. Unseen, he boards. The baby, startled by his movement, whimpers. Turt hears. His protection instincts activate. He skims through the water. As the man readies to begin slashing their backs, Turt cranes neck and grabs his ankle, snapping it easily as a twig. He drags him, kicking, screaming, son-a-bitching – “some-un get the Goddam ‘ting off me.”
He’s on Turt’s surf now. Turt pulls him away, looses, and then lets a current do its work. It sweeps him downstream. Turt disposes the others similarly, seeming to wave mock ‘so-long chumps’ with fin-claw.
Boys cheer wildly. Mother shushes them. Her face mirrors a contentment she’s never before felt. She looks onward, believing she can almost reach-out, touch the freedom her children soon will know. They pass around a canteen. Kunta takes one of the boys on his shoulder and the father does the same for the brother.
“Look straight on, son.” Kunta points. “Soon you’ll see Cincinnati’s lights.” Kunta knows what their mother is thinking. He has seen it in so many others he’s transported. He whispers to her, “Soon you’ll touch freedom’s beacon.”
The boys grin when they first see the city’s glitter. Despite what they’ve experienced, they yet possess smiles of innocence, something long lost to parents.
You tighten beak-snout to a-Hempis. You pull, and the journey continues. How many more will you make? Which might be your last? You put those scary thoughts in your shell’s furthest recesses. You replace them with the good thoughts: Soon you’ll see Carper, Ol Tom, and Mariner. You can’t wait for the look on Mariner and Kunta’s faces when they see each other again.
* * *
The next day
THE MAKING OF THE LEGEND OF WHAT HAPPENED DOWN-RIVER
Poppy Sol watches as dockworkers seine two of the stooges to safety. Poppy listens, amused, to one of their accounting the fate of the third.
“All’ve sudden a Goliath catfish nabs Moe by the ‘u-don’t-wanna-knows. Bites herself off his prizest possession ‘afore she pull him under – fer what porpoise? He didn’t have the part left that coulda ‘satisfied her.”
‘That’s what the blimen’ blow-hard tales to those that save ‘ims,’ Poppy Sol tells Luny Mum.
Mum remembers seeing it all, and grins. ‘Twas but a mere submerged limb did the pulling on ‘ims.’
‘Must of drove the other stooge batty, Mum, watching his slave-catcher mate drown. Funny thing, as I blink from high-sky I see, those that done the savin’, they’re not buying the blowhard’s sale. Instead, they’re takin’ a shine to batty’s true blitherens’ – about how a giant shelled creature be passengerin’ humans. Maybe the ye ol blow-hard’s big fish made it sound possible?’ Poppy imitates blitherer. ‘The…the shelled one’s tail be hundred foot if it be an inch.’
Mum shimmers. ‘Twas a taut, extended a-Hempis what seemed a hundred foot tail. Harmless as can be.’
As the smuggling of humans to freedom continues in coming decades, the legend of the abolitionist-creature grows; making future slave-catchers wary of the beast; and pre-occupied, with what might appear from nowhere to attack them. Because of it, many-a-runaway gets away.
(You can read more of the legend of Kunta Kinder, his Underground Railroad ‘Conducting,’ and of the Abolitionist Movement in the novel, Tales of the Fiction House, by Raji Singh.
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