William is one of the central characters in my novel Asunder. He is an African-American boy enslaved to a Georgia plantation with his mother, “Comfort.” It is 1850, and talk of division fills meeting houses and Gentlemen’s clubs from Florida to Massachusetts. William, around age 9 or 10, must take to the Underground Railroad for doing the unthinkable: learning to read and write. Here, in his own words, he tells how their journey starts, and the need to protect his mother:
It was fast, the way it all happened. Although at the time, it felt like being stuck in mud, unable to lift our knees or feet fast enough. Mama was making soap near the summer kitchen, and I was tilling rutabaga roots with the other boys and men assigned to the Master’s garden. Mister Jenkins told me to carry a basket of rutabaga stubs to the main kitchen, and that’s when I learned about Aaron and his trouble.
Aaron worked in the Master’s house, and was adored by the Master’s wife, Missus Bethany. She liked him so much he was allowed to join Missus Bethany’s children in their daily readings and writings. Aaron could spell the alphabet, and knew how to write short sentences. Whenever we was assigned to the Master’s garden together, he would teach me. By summer’s end, I could read letters he stole from Missus’ wastebasket. I knew all sorts of words, but I never told Mama. She didn’t have no mind for letters anyway.
By the time I reached the kitchen, Missus Bethany was screaming something awful, and Master Pickman was taking no notice, dragging Aaron by the back of his shirt with one hand and holding one of his favorite rifles in the other. Aaron’s eyes were wild with fear, but I couldn’t help him none. They say Master caught Aaron with some of the Missus’ letters and they were filled with exclamations of love and longing. The letters weren’t from him, but Master didn’t know that. All he knew was his wife was loving a nigger, and after shooting Aaron, he said he was going to shoot his wife! Well, that didn’t happen, but Aaron was shot in the groin and hung on the front lawn for all to see.
It was only a matter of time before the Master would find out Aaron was teaching me the alphabet as well. That was because some of the other house slaves knew about the reading and writing lessons, and kept telling us to stop, kept saying you’ll get us all in trouble, it being against the law and all. And they wasn’t willing to save our hides if we got caught. Once Master Pickman started beating the other slaves for information, my name was sure to come up, and I couldn’t wait around for my own hanging. And poor Mama. Who would take care of her, all simple and easily confused, if I was hanging from a branch overlooking the front lawn? No sir, I knew I had to leave, and I had to bring Mama with me.
There had been talk for several years now about slaves who went missing in the dark. Some say they found their way to freedom, as it was believed there was freedom to be found in the Northern sky, and some say they were dragged into the thicket by the devil and torn apart limb by limb. When Master let us have dances sometimes on Saturday nights, us boys would collect behind the barn, away from the music and dancing, to discuss our own theories of what happened. Bobby, he was my cousin and the oldest in our group, he had a big mouth and a big voice. He was always saying he knew the truth, he knew everything. I thought he was filled with ox fumes, if you asked me, but he claimed his pa got away by going below ground. Right into the earth! Now, how he knew this I have no idea. Did his pa come back and tell him so? Not likely, and if he did, why didn’t he take Bobby with him? Probably because he had too big a mouth. I knew there was someone who knew the truth and would share it with me. I had to run and find her before Master was inclined to shoot anyone else, especially me.
Elsie was in the healing hut, clipping herbs and mixing poultices. She was the midwife for the slave women, and she had seen her own children grown and died. She was the oldest person on the plantation. Mama said even Missus Bethany visits her for advice, especially when she be wanting another baby. I wondered why Elsie didn’t help Mama have another baby. She had only me, and that didn’t seem fair when other mammys had five or six children.
Elsie didn’t look up when I ran in the hut. She just said, “A man running deserves to be chased.”