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A man followed an eagle into the forest because he believed in omens. He believed that the earth contained an eternal heart that beat in all of its children.
He followed the eagle day after day as it flew westward along a river. Every morning when he awoke the eagle would be perched in a tree on the riverbank, watching him silently with silver eyes, and it would lift from the branch in a flash of silver as its wings caught the morning light. One morning when the man awoke the eagle was gone, and the man knew he had come to where he was meant to be. He looked to the sky and the river and the trees gathered thickly around him; he inhaled deeply the smell of the life all around him. He thanked the earth.
With the pain in his hands and the pain in his back he cleared a field on the north bank of the Ohio River in what was to become Brown County, Ohio. He spent the first winter camped in the hollow of a fallen cottonwood; he listened for wolves and ate the remains of their kills and lost one of his fingers and two of his toes to frostbite. He prayed to God and to the earth and, with his teeth chattering, pondered the cold lying deep within him. In the spring he jointed the first logs of his cabin, and in the summer when he finished it and lay on the riverbank with the heat of the day passing, with the pain in his body flowing back into the earth, he looked across the murmuring water to the other side and wondered if he should have cleared his field and built his cabin there. But in the eagle's actions God and the earth had spoken. The man believed in omens.
The man followed the river east before winter and returned to his farm with a seventeen-year-old bride just as the snow was beginning to fall. Through the years they raised crops and children, strong sons, strong and beautiful daughters. The man's hair had thinned and the joints in his hands had knotted by the time he buried his wife in the back corner of the pasture. He spent more and more time staring across the water or searching the western horizon. He would wonder at the beat of his heart within him. He had never forgotten the eagle, the flash of its wings in the morning light.
The sons and daughters drifted away, some east, one west, until only one son remained. As the man lay on his deathbed he gripped his son's hand and transferred through their clasp the knowledge that had always driven him. The son felt it as a heat and a trembling, as brittle bones hot with the last of the old man's life, but after he buried his father he lifted his eyes to the river and the horizon.
The son buried his father's knowledge beneath the farm and its responsibilities, beneath its taming, beneath his own fear. He felt it only in an occasional glance at the river, at the sun at the end of the day. In time he took a wife who had come across the river and they had a son of their own. The birth was difficult, tearing from her the seed for other children.
The boy was like any other, but he carried within him the knowledge of his grandfather, the hidden knowledge of the father whose mule and plow he now plodded behind. His name was Jacob, and as his grandfather had done he would lie on the riverbank in the weathered hollow of the long-ago cottonwood and stare across the water or to the sun. He would wonder as his grandfather had done, though he did not understand the wondering. He had never heard of the earth's heart.
Three miles downriver from the farm was a town named Ripley. Between Ripley and the farm, across a stand of oaks and maples and chestnuts on the farm's western boundary, was a plot of semiwild land owned by a coarse Irish immigrant named McIntyre. His wife had abandoned him, leaving him with a daughter named Mary who had taken upon herself the responsibilities of her mother, a colorless girl with the straight, thin, desiccated body of a reed in winter. Jacob had known her for as long as he had known the river, seventeen years. She had known the river two years longer. He planned to marry her one day, though he didn't know why.
"Jacob," she said.
"Do you love me, Jacob?" It was almost spring with the sky overhead threatening a cold rain, with the snow gone but for dirty gray husks hiding in shadows. They were sitting beside her father's skiff on the riverbank. A breeze licked a strand of dull red hair across her freckled pale forehead.
He looked at her hair, at her face, at the colorless dreams in her colorless eyes. Something twisted inside of him that he did not understand. He turned to the river.
"I got to go," he said.
"I love you. I got to go." He felt her eyes upon him as he rose. Before turning away, he dutifully kissed her forehead. The river whispered quietly.
Jacob followed the bank, winding alongside willows, through oaks, through cottonwoods, and stopped in a straddle over a spring to gaze at the river. Dark water, cold water, impenetrable, whispering. An old, dying cottonwood on the other side cast amorphous shadows that for all of its inexorable power the current could not move. He imagined himself an old man with an old wife, her thin red hair graying. He looked at his hands and saw them knotted as he remembered his grandfather's had been in some inherited memory. He stepped over the stream and hurried to the farm. He shoved his hands into his trousers to hide them.
The two hogs in the sty grunted greetings; hens cackled their twilight gossip. The half dozen nameless cats prowled through shadows and glanced at him furtively. As he walked past the barn toward the cabin, Mabel, the cow, lowed from her stall. Whatever it was he had felt sitting beside Mary was the edge of a blade within him.
"How's Buck?" his father, Cyrus, asked when he went inside. Cyrus was a small man with ropy muscles and thinning hair, the callused hands, the thick fingers, the deep color, the thick smell of a farmer. He was sitting at the table, trying to repair a trace. Buck was Cyrus's mule and his pride, tall, strong, bright-eyed, still young, muscles that bulged beneath the harness, perhaps all that Cyrus wished to be.
"Didn't know I was supposed to check on him."
"Mules need checking on. You were over with that McIntyre girl, weren't you?"
"Leave him be." Clara was sitting at the table beside a lantern whose flame grew brighter with the thickening darkness, flickering on the panes of the china cabinet against the wall, glowing on the china within it. In her face she held a desperate fervency that Jacob had been told she'd picked up in the battle for his birth. A picture hung behind her of Jesus casting down his eyes. She was reading now her Bible. "You were young once, too."
Cyrus glanced up from the trace. "Huh."
"You used to dote on me. You used to steal away from the fields to bring me flowers."
"And my daddy would wup me." Cyrus looked at Jacob.
"I'll go check on Buck," Jacob said.
He stepped out the door and studied the yard and the naked field beyond it, the pasture beside the river, the new grass shining, even in the dusk. The clouds were heavier, darker. Rain had begun to fall, and small, dark circles peppered the yard. The peeling white fence separating the pasture from the field rose from the earth like bones. He hunched his shoulders against the cold rain and shuffled to the barn.
The mule was stamping in his stall and eyeing the oats impatiently. Mabel lowed quietly, the square box of her haunches protruding starkly and her udder hanging almost obscene. Jacob filled the mangers and watched them eat, smelled them, felt the muggy heat around him from their bodies. He was young, and his ascent to manhood struggled within him. Finally he walked back to the door, trailing his fingers over Buck's withers. It was raining harder now, drops slapping the ground and muttering on the river, and the wind was damp and cold.
Cyrus was still working the trace, and Clara was reading the scriptures to him. Jacob sat at the table. He gnawed at a callus on his palm and studied the fire.
"And it came to pass," Clara read, "when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai." She closed the book. "Amen."
"Amen," Cyrus repeated absently. His fingers fumbled with the trace.
"Huh," Jacob said.
"Huh?" Clara asked him. "Do you huh the word of the Lord?"
"Seems to me the Lord does an awful lot of smiting."
"He had passed judgment," she said.
"Then it seems to me he does an awful lot of judging. It don't make no sense, him telling Joshua to kill all those people. If something don't make sense, how can it be?"
"The ways of God," Clara answered him. She ran her fingers over the book's cracked leather cover and stared into her son's eyes. "They are beyond men's ways."
"The ways of God and men don't seem much different. One is just an excuse for the other."
Clara's eyes flashed. "Such talk will bring your sins down upon you, Jacob. They will haunt your steps."
"I'm just saying it don't make sense."
"Read the paper," Cyrus said.
"I'm just saying."
"Read the paper." Cyrus settled back into working the trace. "You get to your age and you think you know everything. We don't need a row."
Jacob spread the paper Cyrus had bought in Ripley, laying it in the circle of light thrown by the lantern. He could taste his anger. If God exists, then he is both love and hatred and such a contradiction cannot be and Jacob did not believe in God. God was a word in a book. A justification.
Clara had said that the eye is the mirror of the soul. He had once seen in Ripley a fugitive slave being returned to its master, wrapped in chains, a brand on its shoulder festering. Jacob had looked into its dark, empty eyes. Men are men, are dust. White men are white men, are dust. Black men are black men, are dust and chattel and none of it made any difference. The sanctified choirs of the redeemed sing only in men's longing.
Outside the spring storm grew, a gentle muttering on the roof, a whisper growing with the darkness. The fire sizzled cheerily. Jacob looked from the paper to his father, watched his mother read, watched the fervor in her eyes as they moved almost frantically across the page. She believed.
Cyrus finally sighed and set the trace on the table. It looked little different than it had when Jacob had first come in. "Well. Might just as well turn in."
Clara nodded and set her Bible to the side. She stepped behind the curtain beside the hearth and came out a moment later in her nightdress. Jacob stared at the fire. He looked down at his hands glowing red within its light. He thought of Mary's hair and his youth roiled within him. Were these the hands of a farmer?
"Turn in, Jacob," Cyrus said. "There's work tomorrow."
He nodded and climbed the ladder to the loft where he had slept every night he could remember. The fire's heat was all around him and he lay on top of the blankets, looking up at the rafters, smelling the dusty smell of them. He listened to his parents on the down mattress beside the hearth, listened to the sounds they made, the sighs, the steady breathing. Sometimes they made other sounds, sharper sighs, heavier breathing, and it was nights like those when Jacob stared up into the blackness of the rafters and wished most that he was away from here. Thinking about where he might be, the exotic places, the exotic ladies of every color who would beneath him shout their passion in words he could not understand, aroused him and his hand slipped into his drawers. But his mind kept bending back to the farm and then back to Mary, her narrow, pale, familiar face, her familiar mundane hair flaring, her familiar surety of a future he felt chained to. He took his hand from his drawers.
Lightning flashed and thunder cracked and someone knocked on the door. Jacob sat up and looked down into the flickering darkness.
"What the hell?" Cyrus asked.
"Don't swear," Clara warned.
"What the hell."
"Your sins will come down upon you. Go see who it is."
Jacob listened to Cyrus rise, listened to him shuffle across the rough plank floor. He sat up on the bed and reached for his trousers. The door scraped over the floor and the leather hinges creaked and Jacob felt the wind, smelled the rain on the wind, and when lightning flashed the threshold framed a slope-shouldered silhouette of a man who looked like Tobias from across the river. Tobias's shape attempted to deny the strength in his thick, smooth muscled arms, in his thick fingers. His skull was as smooth and shiny as if he waxed it, and a light brown beard grew down to flare grandly over his chest. Jacob had worked for him with his bees, had worked with him in their fields, since he had been a child. They had shared meals, shared pain, had wept together when Tobias's wife had died. Such are the things neighbors do.
"God damn, Tobias," Cyrus said. Cyrus's shadow looked like a spider beside the bulk of the other man, elbows in angles, knees bent. "What kind of trouble are you in?"
"No trouble." Tobias held out a crock. "I brought you some honey."
"You brought honey at this time of night in a storm? What kind of trouble are you in?"
Tobias wiped the rain from his face, from his beard. "Well," he said.
Thunder cracked behind them, lightning flashed. Jacob climbed down the ladder. Tobias wiped the water from his beard and stood silently. He nodded at Jacob and Clara.
"Don't just stand out in the rain," Cyrus said.
Tobias nodded again and stepped into the room. The water dripping from him stained the wood flooring. He sputtered the rain from his mustache and set the crock on the table. Clara stepped behind the curtain and came out wearing her housecoat. She lit a match and a sudden, tiny light glowed in the corner of the room. She lit the lantern and the light grew.
"I got a problem," Tobias said.
"What kind of problem?" Cyrus asked.
"Well..." He removed his slouch hat and wiped his hand over his scalp. The sour smell of his rain-drenched clothing filled the room. "You're good people. I've always known it. I've heard you say that one man is as good as another."
"What kind of trouble are you in?" Cyrus asked.
"Do you know what I do?"
"You're a beekeeper."
"I don't mean that. Do you know what I do?"
"I suspect," Clara said. She pulled a chair back from the table and motioned for Tobias to sit. "Who you got out there with you?"
Tobias looked at her, then dropped his eyes and surrendered to the chair. "There's two of them. I can't keep them with me."
"Two of who?" Jacob asked.
"You're talking about the railroad, ain't you?" Cyrus asked.
"I won't ever come to you again," Tobias said. "I mean that from my heart."
"Oh, Jesus," Cyrus said. "The railroad." He shook his head. "I don't want nothing to do with it. This is the valley."
"It being the valley don't make no difference to them."
"It makes a difference to the neighbors -- they'd just as soon shoot the white helping the nigger as the nigger himself. I don't want nothing to do with it. This ain't no railroad station."
"There's a man and his daughter..."
"A slave and his daughter," Cyrus said. "And when someone finds out, the government will take half the farm for violating the Fugitive Slave Law and the neighbors will burn down the rest. Maybe somebody gets killed along the way. My daddy built this place; he and my mama are buried out back. That means something to me. Them slaves, they don't mean nothing to me." He wiped his thin face with his thin fingers. "A man's a man and the color don't make no difference. You all know I believe that. But they don't mean nothing to me."
"You're liked. You're respected."
"I'd like to stay that way."
Clara sat beside Tobias. Her long, blond hair had pulled loose in stiff strands that caught the light of the lamp, that stuck up like horns from her scalp. Her corded neck like steel bands. "They got souls. You can't deny that."
"I ain't denying that. But this farm's got a soul, too."
"You never would have placed this farm above a soul when we married."
"There was never a need to. These are different times."
"Right and wrong," Clara said, "don't care about times. God does not change."
She stared at her husband. Tobias again wiped the rain from his scalp and passed his hand down his beard. Jacob leaned against the wall and watched his mother and father. Cyrus sighed and crossed his arms and swore beneath his breath.
Clara rose, handed Tobias a towel, and sat again. "Tell us about them."
Tobias nodded. "There's a man and his daughter, him about forty and her fourteen or so. They brought them to me and I saw that little turd Anders kid hanging around in the bushes. Hell, you know his father. I couldn't keep them there at the house."
"They'll know where you brought them," Cyrus said.
"You've never done this before. And it's the other side of the river."
"Names," Clara said. "Give me their names."
"I don't know them." Tobias wiped the towel over his skull.
"Where they from?"
"I don't know that, either."
The rain was heavy on the roof, heavy dripping from the eaves, spattering in puddles. Jacob looked out the window beside the door into the darkness. He had seen slaves and he had seen free blacks, but he had never seen a fugitive still free. In the faces of slaves he had seen a hopelessness of a world that would never be; in the faces of free blacks he had seen a hopelessness of a world that could not be. He wondered what he would find in the face of a fugitive. They had fled one world and did not yet know the other.
"Where they at?" Clara asked.
"In the willows by the river."
"Good Lord, Tobias," Clara said as she stood. "You left them out in the rain?"
"I wanted to know what you'd say before I let them in your buildings."
Clara wrapped her husband's coat around her shoulders. They stepped out into the chilling rain with bare feet slipping and fingers tugging on hat brims and Tobias leading the way to the river where the raindrops sputtered against the water and the heavier drops rolling off of the branches almost boomed. Long, loose willows on the bank faded up into oaks and maples and chestnuts.
"Are you in there?" Tobias called. No sound came but the wind in the branches and the rain on the water. "It's all right. There's people with me, but they're good people."
Something rustled in the branches. A foot sloshed in water.
"Are you in there?" Tobias asked again.
"Yes," a voice answered. Deep, like the thunder. As steady as rain.
"She in there, too?"
Feet sloshed in mud and bodies jostled. Jacob could smell Tobias, but not the fugitives. Do fugitive slaves hold no scent? He couldn't remember any on that slave in Ripley.
"It's all right," Tobias said. "They agreed to let you stay."
"We thank you," the voice said.
Cyrus cleared his throat, and he spat. "This ain't no place to talk, standing out here in the rain."
Lightning flashed silver on black faces. Then gone. Jacob felt the fervent heat of Clara's body beside him. "To the house."
"To the barn," Cyrus said. "We've had one visitor tonight and if we had another while escaped slaves were at our table there'd be a world of trouble."
"God defends the righteous," Clara said.
"Then let him defend them in the barn."
Now her hand was on Jacob's shoulder. Her grip was tight and trembling, five little points of pain. "Jacob, go fetch the light."
Jacob hurried back to the cabin with the rain in his eyes and his breath hardening within him. He felt only shame for Tobias, for his parents, for himself for saying nothing, for fetching a lantern so docilely. Chattel was not worth this. He drew the shutter around the lantern's chimney to protect its hot glass from the rain, then stepped back outside. Cyrus was standing in the barn with his fists planted on his hips and Tobias was running his hand over his scalp and watching his face. Clara was fawning over the black man and his daughter. The man was as bald as Tobias except for a ring of gray woolly hair that ran from ear to ear and across his dusky face in bushy eyebrows. He was wearing the breeches and waistcoat of a house slave, both mud-spattered and dark with water, torn and frayed at the seams that ran up under his armpits, threads in the fabric briar pulled into feathery loops and circles. A cracked leather book in his pocket. The girl wore a dress printed with tiny blue flowers with no petticoats beneath it. It clung to her body, revealing the narrow hips and high, tight breasts of a girl. Her black hair was tied back and as woolly as her father's. Her nose was slightly flattened, her skin smooth and darkly creamy, and her eyes were wide with fright.
"Poor child." Clara put her arm around her. The girl shrunk and her eyes rolled from Clara's face to her father's. "What's your name?"
"I don't want to know," Tobias said quickly. "You don't want to know, either."
Clara's eyes flashed at him. "People aren't people without names. I want to know their names."
The girl said nothing. Her lips trembled. Buck stamped a hoof; Mabel watched impassively. The black man took the girl from Clara's arms and held her next to him. "This is Sarah Clay," he said, his voice softer now. "My name is Isaac."
"Where are you from?" Clara asked.
"Oh, hell," Tobias said, and he shook his head.
Clara sent Jacob back to the house for blankets, and they made beds for them behind the buckboard and the stalls in the straw. The slaves spoke little, and until Tobias, Jacob, and Cyrus stepped out into the slackening rain, they did little more than watch silently.
Jacob followed the men to the cabin. Together they stood in the thin red light coming through the window from the hearth embers. The rain almost unnoticed.
"I got to get back," Tobias said. "They'll come looking."
"What about that Anders boy?" Cyrus asked.
"He's a liar and everybody knows it. If they come by the house and find no slaves, everyone will call him a liar again. I thank you for this."
"I don't want it to happen again," Cyrus said. "Take them somewhere else next time."
Cyrus wiped his hand over his face, over his beard grown more sparse in the rain. "Damn it, Tobias. I never would have thought it."
Tobias pursed his lips. "Sometimes things just come upon you." He settled his big slouch hat on his head and nodded and walked toward the river, disappearing in the darkness.
Jacob listened to Tobias's slogging footsteps. An oar thumped hollowly against a gunwale, then an oarlock creaked and water swirled. The cold rain burst briefly on his shoulders.
Clara came up from the barn. In the hearth light she looked young again. "Is Tobias gone?" she asked.
"Just left," Jacob said.
"I wanted to thank him."
Cyrus grunted. "Thank him for what?"
"For letting us help him."
Cyrus spat. "Hell," he said.
The rain had dwindled to a soft patter. A thin patch worn in the clouds shone dully with moonlight. "They need dry clothes," Clara said. "I'll give Isaac some of Jacob's. The girl I don't know. She's so tiny."
"Give them just what they need," Cyrus answered her. "We got troubles of our own."
She nodded, then strode resolutely into the cabin. The door opened and shut, and her shadow passed over the window.
"You like this?" Jacob asked his father.
"Never seen two darker niggers," Jacob said. "I bet that old buck pees India ink."
"Buck is a mule," Cyrus said.
Copyright © 2000 by Kevin McColley