Every push for life pulled her closer to death.
With tears, Lydia pressed her way forward through the black night, through the maze of oak and hickory, through the path of pines, over stubble, patches of worn blue grass, fallen twigs, moss. The beauty of the things that bred around her, these natural wonders she had first come to recognize as a child, now as familiar as her own scent, she could not see. Through the wiry thicket, she ran, her breath catching in her chest until it rose to her lips in a desperate pant.
With every step toward freedom, Lydia was bound. She knew it, even now, in the midst of her flight, she knew there would be no unleashing from all she left behind. Every mumbled rainbow wish, every broken branch she rose, stretched out over the creek she demanded to part, every Black-eyed Susan she plucked and bunched into a bouquet for a brown boy she longed to marry, for every dried, white crusted tear she’d rubbed clean from her eyes in the cold water of the river, shivering when she discovered not one dream of them would come true. Every crinkled brown sack hand she’d clung to, squeezed, soothed, Daddy’s right-cocked smile, Grandma Lou’s feathery touch, all would remain, reside in her until they smothered her to death.
Lydia swatted past oak limbs and evergreen branches, scratching her arms against them and the coarse wool of her cloak. Push! She pushed against the cool April air whistling in her ears until it chilled her, caused her to dip lower into the hood that slipped from her head when she whipped around every few feet. Sweat slipped down the nape of her neck, slithered down the bumpy road of her spine. Hot in this cold. She pushed for life.
Bondage could not hold her.
Only a couple of hours had passed since her first step toward freedom. Her heart thumped at the thought of that first move, the choice that brought her here alone scrambling through the forest searching for the light, the safe house she’d heard about. Already she had rested, collapsed against an oak, bark crumbling over her shoulder as she glanced up at the Maryland sky. No moon. No stars. No light. Nothing in the heavens guiding, leading her. Not one sparkle, one glimmer on her side.
She knew she was running too fast, muscles tensing so soon, moving much too quickly in the dark, her hissing breath now clipped, but she was stirred, compelled, drawn to something that had once lived outside of her but somewhere along the way had entered in and now pulsed boldly through her veins, pumped her very heart. The alluring call of life swelled within her and its echo.
Tonight Lydia was ready to die for it. Death would surely come. Not a death of nothingness, for death was never that but a cruel unbearable unrest one couldn’t do a thing about. And yet still, she pushed because there was not one without the other. Death rode the wings of life, swarming in just as sure as night followed day. It was the way of the world. She had seen one too many mothers panting, their blood stained thighs pushing out babies only to slip away themselves. Every prize had a price. For everything she wanted, there attached to it like the thorn of a rose, was the thing she didn’t. But life was worth the risk no matter what was lost.
Lydia smoothed the woolen hood from her head and looked around. She would miss the words, the music. Here was just the sound of her own feet and the crunching of leaves. And crickets, night creatures. Was this the right path? She was near the river, she knew, several miles north of her plantation.
She picked up the pace and began to sprint again. Bent arms and knees swinging hard, pressing, pushing. For every thrust forward, she left behind every friend she ever loved, ever bloody back she helped heal. She had to make it to the light. She gasped. Determined, she moved through the woods, panting, panting. She couldn’t breathe.
Truth was, she hadn’t breathed in months. She hadn’t breathed in years. Lydia had never breathed a single breath her whole life. Not one grasp of air in two decades. Not one moment of filling her lungs with life. Not one. That’s just how it was. Just a life without breath. No life at all.
The night’s wind and the salt of her tears burned hot streams down her cheeks. The cotton slip of her dress caught in the thicket, tearing her hem loose so it hung lifeless, dragging against a soil that housed the bones of her people. Run, Lydia, run! Dragging like little Jacob’s body behind master’s wagon.
Life. Death. Life. She needed it. Push! She gasped for the breath of life.
Lydia ran for her life.
Somewhere it was there. This life, this breath she needed. She knew because she had seen it with her own eyes. She had witnessed in some, not the up and down movement of their chests, but their souls rising and falling, lifting. And color didn’t have a thing to do with it.
Not all White folk were free. Some were just as bound as she. White didn’t no more make one free as black made one bound. Lydia knew because her skin was as white as theirs, her eyes as green, and all of them were as bound as her enslaved grandmother was free.
Born to two light-complexioned, mulatto house slaves, Lydia’s skin was cream to their beige. With her father’s eyes and her mother’s hair, no trace of her African blood flushed through her pigment. That was only in her spirit.
As the night passed, she grew weary. Arms that had hours before swung with vigor, rose to swat tree limbs with exhaustion. She scraped her cheek against a lower limb and winced when the air stung her pierced skin. Wiping the blood away with the back of her hand, she dragged through the woods. Push! The night seemed suddenly noisy, the distant sound of barking dogs, the scurrying on dry leaves all around. She turned behind her. Furry feet shot across the torn leather of her shoe. She screamed, swung around and slammed into a thick hanging branch. A thundering pain shot through her skull, watered her eyes. Lydia gripped her head and tried to steady her balance. She was frightened, lost.
And then she saw it.
One small round, dim light. High and far away. She staggered toward it, dazed and weak. She dragged toward it. But when she was close enough to see the circle did not grow in size, it was too late. She was blinded by the beam in the hands of a man.
“Well, now, boys, what do we have here?” The words poured out of his mouth slow as molasses as he lowered his torch. Through bleary eyes, Lydia saw three White men standing in front of her, one with rope, the other two with guns. The butt of a rifle cracked high against her forehead and sprung blood down her brows, showered her lashes until the men were blurry ghosts of red. Lydia collapsed at their feet.
O death, where is thy sting?