Read Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History Online
Authors: Tananarive Due,Sofia Samatar,Ken Liu,Victor LaValle,Nnedi Okorafor,Sabrina Vourvoulias,Thoraiya Dyer
As tiny feet kicked at her, Lottie vowed she would name William’s baby Freedom. If only she could find Uncle Jim and survive the night, they could all change their names.
A few white miners remained huddled at the gate while she waited and hoped to see Uncle Jim’s beard or his shock of white-splashed hair. One by one, the miners untied their horses. About a dozen colored men emerged last, but they did not have horses. Instead, they shuffled down the road as fast as they seemed able, lanterns swinging. Uncle Jim, born a slave, had slaves working for him?
What makes you think he’ll help you?
The forlorn call of a bullfrog hidden somewhere nearby reminded Lottie of swinging from a rope on a rotting oak branch, slowly to and fro.
They would not make it without Uncle Jim. Would not make it to the state line, or to the farmhouse in North Carolina where the Quakers would come fetch them. The last few days’ horrid rain had stopped at last, but they would be cold tonight. Lottie couldn’t remember when her clothes last had been dry.
“Go to ‘em, William,” Lottie said to William. “Say you lookin’ for a few days’ wages. Say you wanna talk to Free Jim.” Panic made her voice sound twelve instead of seventeen.
“They’ll know that’s gum,” William said.
Without the wagon, they had been forced to go to Uncle Jim in Dahlonega, where William had been reared. Cherokees weren’t welcome since the Army started marching families off. William said he’d rather die running with her than let the white man choose his home.
“Whatever you gonna say, hurry and say it, Waya,” she told him.
William’s mother had given him a Cherokee name, Waya, though he used William outside of his boyhood home to set white men at ease. William pressed his palm to the side of her belly, head bowed. Then he stood and crept past the brush and up the road toward Lot 998 – Free Jim Boisclair’s mine.
The chatter at the mine entrance went quiet when William walked up. Lottie tried to hear, lying so still that she didn’t brush away the insects that tickled her ankles and calves. But she couldn’t hear a word over the bullfrog’s warble, vexing her like a haint.
A sign, it was. A bad sign.
Then she heard the low, snapping bark that followed her into her dreams. Dogs were on their trail again! “Damn, damn, damn,” she whispered to the dark.
Next, the men came. On the road, two white riders trotted north, their
steady and loud. If not for the brush, she would be in plain view. The angry barking drew closer, crisper. And William was surer with his knife!
Lottie’s frightened heartbeat shook the earth.
They would be found! Her eyesight dimmed. She would beg mercy from the slave-catchers. She was carrying a child, plain as day. One of them might have brains enough to realize that cow-hiding her might kill the child – and then what would they tell Marse Campbell about his lost property? She would never see William again; he would be sent away with his people. But he would not be alone. She’d wanted freedom, but at least she and her baby would live.
The plan was hard, but anything was better than dogs.
The riders stopped in the road, barely six strides from where she hid.
Two shadows walked from the mine’s gate to meet the men, one carrying a lamp. Lottie saw the paunch of a man’s middle beneath a brightly-colored vest, pocket watch swinging. She had seen that pocket watch before. Please, Jesus, was he the one?
“Evenin’.” Uncle Jim’s voice! His pocket watch winked in the lamplight.
“Evenin’.” The lead rider spoke in a manner reserved for other white men.
“Need you at the ice house. Injun’ll stand watch here.”
The riders circled Uncle Jim and William on their horses. Uncertain, it seemed.
“All right, then,” the lead rider said after a long while. He made a kissing sound for his horse, and the second man followed him up the road. Lottie had never seen white men do what a nigger told them. Uncle Jim had a mojo for sure!
Uncle Jim thrust the lamp into the brush, his wide nose nearly pressed to hers. “You’re damn fools. ‘Specially
Uncle Jim’s first words to her in five years.
Five years ago, he’d told Mama he would keep his promise to his dead brother. He’d gone to the back door of Marse’s house and tried to talk to him, even offered him a bank note, but Marse Campbell had turned him away. Lottie and mama both had cried themselves hoarse. Lottie had not, could not, forget Uncle Jim’s last words to her.
Don’t you fret, Lottie. I’ll come back for you
Uncle Jim cursed a fury as he led her and William around a bluff on the brick-lined path to a wooden door. A preacher should know better than to blaspheme, and wasn’t he a preacher? Wasn’t he the one who’d taught her to read Scripture? Wasn’t he the one who had left her in Augusta when he’d promised to buy her freedom?
Once the door was closed behind him, they walked a narrow corridor on a wood plank floor until Uncle Jim stopped at a door made half of glass. JAMES BOISCLAIR, the glass read in script so fancy she could barely make out the lettering.
Inside, he lit lamps and brought daylight to the small room. The desk buried in papers, bookshelves stuffed with books. Lottie hadn’t realized she was shivering until Uncle Jim laid a warm blanket across her shoulders, and her trembling stopped.
“Look at you,” Uncle Jim said. He’d fussed away his anger; now he only sounded sad. “You thought you’d get to the state line?”
“Got this far,” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim’s eyes lashed fire at William. “What are you going to do for her and a baby?
? She has kin in Augusta.”
“Ain’t his fault,” Lottie said. “I wanted to come. Had to. I couldn’t wait no more.”
Marse Campbell had refused to let her take William as her husband. When her belly showed, he told her he would drown her half-breed baby if she gave him trouble. Drown her baby! William had been telling her she should run all along. He knew the roads and the woods. The first day she’d seen William, he’d sat perched in his driver’s berth with the promise of faraway places.
“I saw a runaway notice in town!” Uncle Jim said, fingers twisting his beard. “Someone will piece it together. Those men you saw were not stupid men.”
“We saw those crackers do what you told ‘em,” Lottie said. “Jumped right quick.”
“Those,” Uncle Jim said, “are white men who would turn in a stray Cherokee and his nigger runaway for a whole lot less than Campbell’s reward. For shillings!”
Outside, the rain started its cruel pounding
Uncle Jim went silent when William took a step to him. She hoped Uncle Jim would not lay hands on him. Her husband would show his knife.
“Jim Boisclair’s a big man,” William said. “The mercantile. Eating house. Ice house. And this gold mine. Jim Boisclair’s got his name, Lottie. No time to fool with you. My uncle was a big man too – had a dozen slaves. Now where is he?”
“I know you,” Uncle Jim said. “Injun Willie the driver. You’ve hauled for me. My men were wondering why you’re not on your way to Ross’s Landing with the rest. Or Tennessee. Where you gonna’ hide in Dahlonega?”
, not Dahlonega,” William said. “You steal the word and destroy it.”
“I ain’t stole a damn thing,” Uncle Jim said.
“Stealing from our grandfathers’ mountain is nothing? Stealing land is nothing?”
Their words sounded like blows. It was all going terribly wrong.
“William, please,” Lottie said.
“You’re big enough to move the mountain,” William said. “To take the gold. We ask a small thing from a big man.”
When William glanced her way, Lottie begged him with her eyes:
Stop vexing him.
“We jus’ need a roof for the night,” Lottie said. “We move on at daylight. William had a wagon, but we had to leave it cuz of the paddyrollers and all the soldiers on the road. We’ll walk if we gotta, but if’n a body could ride us up closer to North Carolina…”
“Then why don’t I snap my fingers and make pigs fly?” Uncle Jim said. “Didn’t you hear me? I can’t be seen with–”
“We could sleep in the mine.”
Lottie wondered who’d said it, but it was her own tiny voice. From Uncle Jim’s face, she might have said they should light themselves afire.
Uncle Jim shook his head. “It ain’t fit, Lottie.”
“Fit?” Lottie said. “What I care ’bout that? You think I’d rather be drug through the woods by dogs? Me an’ my baby?” When she said
, Uncle Jim cast his eyes to the floor.
William brushed his fingertip across the colorful book spines on Uncle Jim’s shelf. “You afraid we’re gonna steal your gold, big man?”
“Git away from there and mind your business,” Uncle Jim said.
William reached up to a higher shelf, which was empty except for a small sack of burlap bound with twine. William took the sack and weighed it in his hand.
Don’t touch that
,” Uncle Jim said. He tripped over his rug rushing to William, knocking books to the floor as he snatched the sack away. He hid it beneath his shirt, his whole body shaking. “That’s not for anyone but me to touch!”
Lottie had never laid eyes on a bag of luck before, but she was sure William had found Uncle Jim’s. He kept his mojo in plain sight. He might have feathers or bones in the sack, or powders, or strands of his old massa’s hair. She knew people who’d bartered food or shoes to heal maladies and turn a beau’s head their way, or to wish ill luck on their masters, but she had never imagined such a mighty mojo. With so much power, could the creature who’d sold it to Uncle Jim be called human?
“What that cost you, Uncle Jim?” Lottie whispered.
Uncle Jim looked at her with tears, bottom lip quavering. “I can’t help you, Lottie,” he said. “It’s not I don’t want to, girl – I
. Every time I do… when I try… it goes wrong. You hear me?
free. Just me. I can’t share it with nobody else – even you. Especially you, girl. Don’t you see?”
“You turnin’ us away?” Lottie said. “To the dogs and patrollers?”
“Might be better,” Uncle Jim said. “You hear? Might be better’n staying with me.”
Lottie had seen survivors of dogs with rent limbs, missing eyes, and ruined faces. She didn’t want to believe dogs could be better than anything, even death, but the mine’s stink seeped beneath the closed door: sour water full of rot.
“Told you he wouldn’t help us,” William said. He’d been wiping his hands on the seat of his pants since Uncle Jim took the bag of luck, as if his palms were sticky from its touch.
Lottie raised herself to her feet so fast that she felt dizzied.
“We gotta leave this place,” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim’s heartbroken eyes said
Yes, thank the Lord you understand, child
. But his lips twitched, as if against his will, and his mouth said, “Into the cold night? The rain? How can I?”
That was how the plan was settled.
Before the first miners arrived at dawn, Uncle Jim would hire a wagon master he knew, an Irishman named Willoughby who had no fondness for slavery or the Cherokee relocation. Willoughby would drive them to the train – “I’ll be up the whole night to devise the papers and think of a pretense!” – and try to ride with them as far as Charlotte. Uncle Jim would pay Willoughby handsomely for his silence and peril, greater than the advertised reward.
But arrangements would take until morning. A long night lay ahead.
“Tonight,” Uncle Jim said, “you must sleep in the mine.”
Under the ground, Lottie met the purest lack of light she had ever known. Every step, it seemed, was blacker than the last.
Lottie steadied herself against the pocked wall, which felt as damp and slimy as a water snake. William stayed close to her, offering his hand, but instinct made her hold his arm instead. William wiped his unclean palms still, as if they itched from the bag of luck.
Uncle Jim’s lamp was a poor defense. A flickering, sickly light.
“With the storms, the whole mine was flooded,” Uncle Jim said. “Where we’re going, water’s still as high as your ankles. Higher, in some places. Lottie, mind where you walk. Don’t get that dress wet.”
Lottie’s dress had been wet for two days. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been so desperate to run back up the narrow steps as quickly as she could. She almost stepped on the dead, bloated rat at her feet, halfway under the water, a flash of light fur against the void.
“At least the flood killed the rats,” Uncle Jim said. “But they’re raising quite a stink.”
“Water is good,” William said. “It fools the dogs’ noses.”
Nothing was good about this water. No rainwater or creek bed carried the stench of the water in the mine. Lottie thought she might bathe for days and never be clean of it. She hoped the smell couldn’t reach William’s baby inside her, but it seemed all too certain her unborn could smell it too.
“Well…” Uncle Jim said. “You needn’t worry about dogs down here.” He huffed a breath when he said
“What, then?” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim looked back at her, his face and eyes invisible.
“Breaking your necks,” he said. “Blowing yourselves to bits. Touch
The narrow cavern opened to release them to a wider space where a mining car smaller than a wagon sat on the tracks, empty and still. If only the Underground Railroad were truly underground, she thought. If only they could ride to freedom unseen by any human eyes.
“Where’s the gold at?” Lottie said. The walls did not look golden.
“Deep in the rocks. T’ain’t plain to the eye.”
Black water pooled just beyond the mining car, shimmering tar in the light. Dripping echoed around them endlessly. Again, Lottie fought the urge to run.
“We ain’t gonna drown down here, is we?” Lottie said.
“Not so long as you do as you’re told and don’t wander,” Uncle Jim said. “Come on.”
As he led them past the mining car, water seeped into her worn shoes, cold enough to tingle her toes. Water dripped just beyond her nose, and Lottie looked up: sharp rock formations like swords above them stood poised to fall and slice them in two. The next water droplet caught her eye, and she panicked as the cold stung and blinded her. With a gasp, she wiped her eyes clear. Her lungs locked tight until she could see Uncle Jim’s lamp again.