Washington NC, Underground Railroad, Freedom Trail
A Letter Left on the Table
William’s heavy footsteps echoed as he walked across the cabin’s porch. Iris sat at the table her hands shaking, not knowing how he would react to the news that was written on the paper in her hand. She felt every year of her fifty years at this moment. “Why do you task me with this? God, why?” her eyes raised to the ceiling, a tear escaped.
She could hear the fatigue in his gait, tired from working in the fields all day no doubt. Maybe she shouldn’t give it to him, she argued with herself. She knew he couldn’t read it. It would save him heartache. No, her daughter deserved this. He deserved to know.
There was no knock when the door swung open. He would expect dinner to be on the table, but it was only her sitting there waiting to deliver contraband, a hand-written note. This small piece of paper was worth fifty lashes at least from the overseer if not a week in jail in town. The master preferred to handle things properly on the plantation though so if she were caught, there would be no mercy. Sweat beaded on her upper lip.
“William, I have a message for you.” The paper crinkled in her hand. She couldn’t believe that Selah had been so careless to leave it sitting on the table. She wouldn’t have noticed it if a breeze hadn’t caught it blowing it towards the corner of the cabin where she was working. That girl hadn’t learned much in her 17 years. She would give her what for when… her thoughts paused, and sadness filled her. Selah wouldn’t be coming back.
“what? Do they need me in the barn or something?” His eyes were wrinkled from working outside all day in the sun and the smell of fresh cut tobacco filled the room with its pungent odor. His hand paused on the door handle waiting for the answer.
“No, it’s not the Master. It’s this.” She held up the note so he could see it.
He let the door slam and rushed across the room, “Lord, woman, you want to get whipped. Put that away and just give me the message.”
Iris gripped the paper as if it was her own Freeman papers and hid it in the folds of her cotton dress. William looked over his broad shoulders as if he was expecting someone behind him. “There is only the note. I haven’t read it,” she whispered. “I haven’t opened it yet.” Iris pulled the paper back out and looked at it again.
“who is it from?” he whispered.
Iris looked into his light golden eyes, “You know who it’s from. She has finally left.”
William snatched the paper from the old woman and looked at it. He turned it over and saw the sunflower drawn on the outside fold. “Read it to me.” He handed it back to Iris. “Go ahead.”
Iris nodded and unfolded the paper slowly. “I will read it only once, and then we will burn it. It’s what she would have wanted.”
William watched her closely as she smoothed out the paper her hands had creased haphazardly moments before. “William, you will have to stand behind me, so I have the sun to read by.”
He nodded and stepped around the chairs so that he was standing over her shoulder. “thank you, Ms. Iris.” He set his large callused hands on her shoulder.
She padded his hand and leaned over to focus her eyes.
“My dearest William,
I wish that I could talk to you at this moment, but only the thought of writing this letter has brought me to tears. I was told today that I must leave. The overseer says I am a threat and they will never let me marry you because I am free and you are not. When you get this letter, I will be half way to Wilmington and on my way north. I have left the money we saved to buy your freedom in our secret place and only taken what I need for the journey. I will send word with the remainder so you can meet me. Follow the bird path and watch for sunflowers. “
Iris could feel moisture dripping on her back. She didn’t turn around. She wouldn’t. Let him grieve in peace, she thought to herself.
“One day we will walk together in the fields as man and wife, and they will not be able to stop us. The final order of quilts is stowed under the bed. Make sure that Aunt Clarissa gets them for me. She knows who needs them. The small one is for Lizzy and the new baby. Take care of her for me. She needs a strong man beside her.”
Iris’ tears fell to the paper splashing on the ink creating holes in the lettering. There were other splashes in the writing. The lettering was uncharacteristically uneven. She knew that Selah was upset as she wrote this. How could she not be? William had been her whole world since her daughter was little, always being the tagalong until she was old enough to be considered differently. Now she was running to keep him safe.
“I will love you for the rest of our lives. Stay safe for me. Hold your temper. I know you well.”
William started to laugh loudly, interrupting her reading. He grabbed the back of the chair, “She knows me so well.”
“Do your best and give them no excuse to punish you. I need to know you are there, waiting, waiting for our future together. It will keep me from going mad without you. I will send word when I arrive at my destination.
With all my heart,
Iris refolded the paper and handed it to William, blindly. She didn’t turn and face him, “better burn it now.”
“I will not. It's mine. She left it for me,” his voice filled the small cabin with a force like she had never heard.
“William.” She turned to face him. His face was soaked, and she could tell he was not in his right mind. “William, you know what has to be done.” She grabbed his arm.
There was a knock on the door. Iris stopped. “Ms. Iris, open the door.” The voice on the other side sent a shiver through her body.
Iris whispered, “burn it now.”
William only shook his head.
The door opened, and Iris could only close her eyes as Williams sealed his own fate.
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