She watched them sleep, their eyelashes dark against their cheeks, bright with the day’s sun. Peter’s soft full lips parted slightly in a dreamy smile. He was young enough still not to understand. She remembered him turning away from her that afternoon, late evening sunlight gleaming redly in his black curls, the laugh upon his lips as he ran to carry her message.
The other boy’s brow was furrowed even in sleep. His arms were wrapped protectively around his little brother. Her firstborn. Little Leven. She held the sprig of goldenrod, twisted it in her fingers. She fixed in her memory the sight of his earnest, shining face when he had returned proudly from his day’s work in the field to hand her this prize.
So far, she had been able to shield them both from the worst. But tomorrow, they would find out what it is to be a slave. In the morning, Peter age 6 and Leven age 8, would wake up motherless.
Charity leaned over them, her lined face shining wetly in the moonlight from the narrow window above the thin mattress. She had long ago learned to cry silently in the darkness. Her masters had taught her that. Her lips moved without sound, repeating the words of the hymn, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,” and as she noiselessly sang, the tears streamed faster down her face.
The face was ancient, though her years were few, and her arms were strong. Strong enough to carry the little girls, just two and four years old. Strong enough to carry them toward freedom. They, at least, might never know what it is to bend to a master who holds life and death in his hands. They would never know what it is to be watched by his cruel, sly eyes. Nor, finally, what it is to submit your body to the pleasure of that same master’s hands.
Perhaps they also would never know what it is to stand over your beloved sons and know that you may never see them again this side of the Jordan River. What it is to leave them in the hands of the master who will vent his potent rage upon them tomorrow. To know that you will not be there to protect them nor even to comfort them, that your hands will not ever again wipe away their tears.
Earlier that morning, a stranger, an itinerant preacher, had visited the plantation and changed everything. He had made merry with the master, flirted gently with the master’s daughters, and sweet-talked with the mistress. Following the afternoon tea, he had smacked his lips and thanked the mistress for the delicious cakes. Carelessly he handed his empty plate to Charity.
Charity’s face did not reveal her curiosity at the soft scrap of fabric he handed her also, concealed beneath the plate. Only in the kitchen did she dare examine the token, a swatch of fabric, two different weaves sewn together. She recognized her own stitches. She recalled the evening she had sewn the patch onto her husband’s britches, bent over her work before the fire. She remembered the heat of his smile as he watched her, the gleam of his legs, the dark skin bare in the flickering firelight.
Her face flushed with the memory, even as her heart raced with anxiety and equal measures of joy and terror. As far as she knew, Lev lived still in sweet freedom, far away north. What could be the meaning of this? A message, surely, but how, and what did it mean? Was he here with her in this dangerous territory? Perhaps he was only a moment away from whisking her into his arms once again. She felt she could almost taste his lips on hers.
It was old Paul who brought the whisper to her ears. “Tonight,” he said, as he leaned over to take the pot from her hands, “When the moon is high, by the old oak tree, bottom of the big field. Bring only what you can carry.” And then he was gone, walking away with two pots of grits balanced on his broad shoulders, whistling the cheerful notes of Nelly Gray. Walking away from the devastating choice she must make. Bring only what you can carry.
Tonight, she would carry the girls out of this desperate dark place. She would carry them toward freedom. Tonight, she would say goodbye to the boys she would leave behind. She placed the sprig of goldenrod in Levin’s sleeping hand, and kissed each boy one more time. For the God who granted Charity four children did not also see fit to grant her four arms.
[Inspired by the true story of Levin and Charity Still, and their four children born in slavery: Leven, Peter, and two daughters. All had previously escaped to Maryland, but Charity and the children were re-captured and returned to slavery. Not content to stay, Charity found another opportunity to escape and successfully made her way with her daughters back to Levin, but at a terrible price: She had to leave her young sons behind.
The oldest son, Leven, died a slave in his mid-40s, beaten to death by his owner. His parents had never been able to locate nor communicate with him in all those long years. Peter, however, purchased his own freedom in 1850 at the age of 49, and found his parents in Philadelphia. Sadly, Peter had to leave his wife and children behind and never saw them again.
Charity and Levin went on to raise eighteen children, the youngest of whom, William Still, became known as the “father of the Underground Railroad.”]