A Box to Freedom

(Note: this is the story I wrote for “The Writes of Spring,” a short story contest presented by local arts organization The Studios of Key West. It’s based on the true-life account of Henry “Box” Brown, a fugitive American slave who…well, I don’t wanna give it away.)

Jobah first heard it so softly, it was as if his subconscious was singing.

“See dat band all dressed in red, God goan trubble de wa-aater
Looks like de band dat Moses led, my God goan trubble de waa-aaaterrrr…..”

He raised his head above the bush he was crouched behind and quickly scanned the clearing in front of him. Nothing. He broke into the field, crossing its eighty-yard expanse in seconds, the crickets holed up in the weeds chirping in protest.

Jobah reached the edge of the neighboring woods at full gallop and leapt into another thicket, his face dripping more Tennessee sweat. For the past day or so, he’d sweated what seemed like gallons, ever since his last moonlight bath in some stagnant creek a few miles back. He crouched again, and in the stillness he could hear the singing more clearly now.

“See dem chirren dressed in blue, God goan trubble de wa-aater
Mus be da ones done made it through, my God goan trubble de waa-aaaterrrr…..”

After resting for a bit, he jogged over to the edge of what looked like another cotton field. There he saw, out amidst the billowy cotton bolls, a brown canvas hat bobbing slowly as the slave underneath it picked. The spiritual flowed from under the hat and into the muggy air above the rows of crops.

“If ya don’ believe I been redeemed, God goan trubble de wa-aater
Jes folluh me down to da Jordan stream, my God goan trubble…de waa-aaaaterrrrrr…..”

Jobah clucked his tongue softly, hoping to get the slave’s attention without alerting the white overseer situated on the field’s adjacent edge. The hat continued its slow rise and fall. Cluck cluck. Louder this time. The hat froze mid-bob. Then it slowly rose, and Jobah could see the back of a man’s head as the slave stole a glance at the overseer, whose attention was on a picker right in front of him. The slave turned to Jobah, who gave a desperate wave.

Cluck cluck, the slave answered as he returned to picking. He was four rows from the edge of the field, and Jobah knew he’d never chance leaving his current position. So Jobah sprawled as flat as he could on the ground, and waited.

**********

Jobah’s American slave name—given to him by his owner, Theodore Davis—was simply Joe Davis. The oldest of four children, Jobah had been born in Africa’s Gold Coast in 1829. As a young teen, he remembered, he and his family were sold into slavery in the United States. One of 74 laborers at the Davis plantation—otherwise known as The Grove–just west of Oxford, Mississippi, Jobah was 24 when he’d decided to find freedom. He’d tried to escape once already, but the posse’s bloodhounds had caught up with him before he’d even left Panola County. He stood six feet tall, and was in remarkable shape from the countless hours of labor, but Jobah was still no match for the hounds, who treed him several miles from the plantation. His mistake: traveling over land instead of in water whenever possible, to mask his scent from the bloodhounds. His punishment: two days in shackles in the main house basement with no food or water, then fifty lashes from Mr. Davis while the entire encampment watched. Jed Smith, the slave master, promised to “make ‘at leg a peg”—in other words, amputate it—if he attempted escape again.

After he’d regained his strength from his imprisonment and whipping, though, he’d started planning his next try. He’d realized his previous error one blazing afternoon in the field, when he’d heard another slave singing, “God goan trubble de water….” That’s it, he thought. It’s a code. I need to wade in creeks, swim across rivers…the dogs can’t follow me that way.

Two nights later, after saying goodbye to his family (which now included his own son, two-year-old Bumbo), Jobah stole away from the plantation in the pouring rain. He set his course for the North Star, another trick he’d learned from a spiritual. “”Follow de drinkin gourd” in the song meant following the Big Dipper, which pointed to the North Star…which pointed to freedom.

He’d heard from other slaves about something called the Underground Railroad, a series of secret routes and hideouts that helped runaways reach the North; Jobah hoped he could find out more as he went, but his first objective was to put as much distance between himself and The Grove as he could.

Jobah spent the next two days so terrified that his adrenaline helped him cross nearly sixty miles of countryside. He foraged for fruit, drank from and bathed in creeks, and once stole an apple pie off an elderly woman’s stoop, where she’d put it to cool, while she tended to the clothesline around the corner of her house. Jobah ate the whole pie in huge bites a few minutes later in the woods, and it had tasted like freedom itself.

He’d rest when he could, if he found a proper tree hole or thick bramble in which to hide. And at night, he’d walk. The Big Dipper was his beacon. He sang every song he knew (but only to himself, for fear of making too much noise); his favorite was “Run Old Jeremiah,” one he and the other slaves would sing as they sat in a circle on sticky Saturday nights at The Grove. “I’ve got to run, by myself / Who dat ridin’ de chariot? Well well well…” Jobah sang softly any number of times. He found that the “Old Jeremiah” chant worked better than anything else when dizziness and hunger threatened to bring his flight to a sudden halt.

Though Jobah had no idea, The Grove’s slave posse had given up on finding him, and had already returned to The Grove, by the time he crossed the Tennessee state line. And it was on his fourth afternoon on the run that he met Sabe, the strange, one-eyed slave picking in the field. Jobah was fast asleep when a dead cotton stalk hit him in the face.

“Huh!” Jobah started awake, then saw the man staring intently at him with his single eye.

“Massa gone to de other field,” the man said. “What’s yo name, son?”

“I’m Jobah. Who you?”

“Sam. Naw….I mean Sabe. Sam be what Massa call me, so dat’s what I’s used to sayin.” He flashed a toothy grin. “You on the run, aintcha?”

“Yep. From down Miss’ippi way. Where dis? Kentucky?”

Sabe chuckled. “Naw, you ain’t made it dat far yet. You smack dab in Tennessee. Massa’s place”—he pointed towards the woods behind him—“be near a town name o’ Waynesboro.”

There was a pause as the two men sized each other up. Jobah finally said, “I’m bout near starvin. Reckon y’all got some food at y’all camp?”

“Sho. Head through them woods back there…camp be bout two miles. Jus’ listen fo de singin. We always sings after supper.”

“Arright den. ‘Preciate it.”

And within seconds, Sabe was buried amongst the plants again, his hat continuing its slow bob.

**********

That night, Jobah heard the chant long before he reached the camp. As he darted from tree to tree, closing in on the slave quarters of the plantation, he could hear the ring shout growing in speed and fervor…and of course it was none other than “Run Old Jeremiah.” When he reached the woods’ edge, he peeked around a tree and spied a sight that brought him instant comfort: dozens of slaves in a large circle, clapping, stomping and shouting in response to the songleader standing in the circle’s center—a frail, ancient woman whose skin was so black it appeared almost blue.

“Run here Jeremiah (Lord, Lord!)
I’m on my way (Gotta go, gotta go!)
Soon soon soon (Lord, Lord!)
I’m on dat chariot! (Lord! LORD!)”

The ring shout heightened to a feverish pitch before the old woman threw her hands in the air and began yelling nonsense. The others did likewise, lost in the ecstasy of the song.

“You like that one, dontcha?”

Jobah was so startled he gave a cry—“Oh!”—and spun around. There was Sabe, his grin so wide it glowed against his dark face. “C’mon,” he said, his single eye shining. “I got some peas and con’bread fo ya. Dat sound good?”

Jobah’s stomach answered for him. Groooowl. “Sho do!”

Later, as Jobah sat on the dirt floor of Sabe’s hut, his belly almost bursting from the bowl of gruel, the old woman from the ring shout appeared in the doorway. She saw him, and her lined face was expressionless as her tiny frame seemed to glide above the dirt and into the room.

“You goan find freedom, son. And I’mo hep ya,” she said, her gravelly voice almost a whisper. “You know bout de Freedom Train?”

“Jes a lil bit, ma’am. Dey’s folks who hep me long my way? Got hidin places an such?”

The woman squatted down, her rheumy eyes locked on his. “Dey’s people—white folks—who don’t b’lieve nobody should own nobody. Dat ain’t nobody, not even we colored folks, is property, bought an sold like hawgs.” She stood, smiling as she rose. “Coss, you know dat. But dese white folks hep people ride de Freedom Train. An I knows a man up to Kentucky who say he hep. He know our Massa, an one evenin he come here all by hisself. He tole me he a pos’man up in a town call Lexington—big ole town, he say—an he know how to get a strong young man up to de North country.” Her eyes run down the length of his frame. “An a strong young buck—dat’s you, ain’t it? Lawd!” Her cackling was contagious, and soon they were both laughing.

After Jobah calmed: “Dis pos’man—how’s I goan find him?”

“Mistuh Tom Stewart he name,” the woman answered. “Mistuh say he got a big ole house on…Lawd. What dat road he say? Lawd…” She closed her eyes and thought. Then her eyes popped open again and she smiled. “Richmond. He on de Richmond Road. He say look fo da one wit’ red shutters.”

“Arright.”

“Reckon when ya get there, he give ya some Johnny cakes and syrup. Yep. Ain’t dat be fine? Hoo-WEE!” At that, they got to giggling again.

“Stop that nonsense!”

They instantly quieted when they saw Teddy Scott, the plantation slave master, filling most of the doorway. Teddy was six feet, five inches of fear, with a long red beard and steely green eyes that shone guilt upon anything they glimpsed.

“And who’s this? Don’t remember him.” Teddy stared at Jobah.

“Oh, dis! Dis…..you ‘member dem boys just came through goin up to Mistuh Green place? He one a’ dem. Massa takin him up tomorruh,” the old woman announced. Jobah was astounded by her instant grace. “Oh! Mistuh Scott,” she said as she glided past Jobah to him. She gave Jobah a quick, wide-eyed glance as she passed. “Wanna talk to ya bout dem other girls. C’mon, dey over here…” She coaxed Teddy out the door and towards another hut. At one point she looked over her shoulder at Jobah and, eyes still wide, quickly cocked her head in the direction of the woods. Jobah understood. As soon as they were a safe distance away, Jobah stole into the trees.

***********

Three days later, Jobah reached Lexington. Part of his journey there was in relative comfort, because the day after his retreat from the Tennessee slave camp, he fell in with a group of slaves that boarded a barge winding its way up the Cumberland River. He was fed, bathed, and given a blanket under which he slept.

And fate was on his side: just before the boat reached its destination, he overheard two white men discussing how they would take the group by wagon “up the road to Lexington,” and how they needed to “count the nigs first.” So Jobah wasted no time in diving into the Cumberland’s cheerless water when the guards’ heads were turned, then following the wagon train for several hours, scampering along in the roadside woods just behind the procession.

And somehow, at four o’clock in the morning, he found himself in Tom Stewart’s kitchen feasting not on Johnny cakes, but on a heaping plate of pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Once he’d reached the outskirts of what he thought must be Lexington, he’d rested until nightfall, then found the Richmond Road. (Though Jobah was illiterate, he knew that “Richmond” began with the letter “R,” so he’d searched the crude wooden street signs until he stumbled upon what he figured was the correct one.) He’d found the house after only a mile or so; in the darkness, its shutters were closer to black than red, but a different black than the others he’d seen. And closer inspection had confirmed his theory. He’d thrown a handful of pebbles at a window—and it happened to be Tom’s.

And Jobah had liked Tom instantly. When he told Tom his name was Joe, Tom, a slight, middle-aged man with mutton-chop sideburns and soft, kind eyes, frowned.

“I know that’s what my friend Mr. Davis calls you, young man…but what’s your African name? Your true name?”

When Jobah told him, Tom smiled. “Then Jobah you shall be. Now how bout some rest before we talk some more? There’s a bed for you up in the guest room.”

A bed. Jobah had never slept in one. He’d only fantasized about it during his innumerable nights of fitful sleep on the dirt floor of his hut back at The Grove. “Dat…dat be jes fine! You…you sho, Mistuh Stewart?”

“I am. You’re gonna need plenty of good rest before you…well. Get some sleep.”

Jobah couldn’t resist wrapping his arms around Tom and swallowing him in a bear hug. “Thank ya. Lawd…thank ya, Mistuh Stewart.”

The two men—one black, one white—stood embracing for a full minute. No words were necessary.

**********

Jobah slept for fourteen hours. When Tom’s wife woke him at seven that night, he almost refused to extract himself from the snug bed and its heavenly, soft sheets. It had instantly become his favorite place on Earth.

When he entered the kitchen a few minutes later, Tom was sitting at the table, an expectant expression on his face. “Let’s go down cellar. There’s something I wanna show you.”

They went through a low doorway off the kitchen and descended a flight of wooden steps. And there, in the center of the cellar’s dirt floor, was a plain-looking wooden box, an approximately four-foot cube void of any markings or paint.

Tom stood still, the hopeful look remaining in place. Jobah looked at the box, then at Tom, the back at the box. He was confused.

“What…what dis?”

Tom looked at him. “This is it. This is your way out.”

Jobah was still puzzled. “But…how…I don’ gets it. What you wants me to do?”

“I send crates like this to the North all the time on a Postal Service stagecoach. It’ll be difficult, because the trip from here to Philadelphia is three full days. But you…” He stepped back and eyed Jobah’s build. “I think you can do it. I’m going to mail you to freedom.”

Jobah stood still, dazed. He finally walked slowly over to the box, removed its lid, and peered inside. “Mistuh Stewart…” He raised his head, but kept his back to Tom. “I don’ know. Hows I goan…I gots to stay hunkered down for…” He turned to Tom, eyes shining with tears. “I jes don’ know.”

“I’ll address this to Joshua Jefferson, my good friend in Philadelphia. He’s the nephew of Tom Jefferson, one of our country’s Founding Fathers. Josh is a good man, very active in the Abolitionist Movement. And I’ve told him of my idea to send one of you North in this box, so he’ll know why you’re in there.” He paused. “So…what do you say?”

Jobah considered this outrageous idea. He had an incredibly strong back, and he had no doubt that Tom spoke the truth about Josh Jefferson. Even so…three days? He wasn’t sure he could last that long.

“I jes don’ know,” he said again, and lowered his head.

Tom turned Jobah to face him. “Jobah, look at me.” His head was still down. “Look at me!” Jobah finally turned his eyes upward. “Jobah, you can do this. Let me ask you: why did you run in the first place? Why did you risk your life to get away? You were tired of working twelve hours a day, I bet. Tired of eating scraps…being beaten…sleeping on a hard floor. Of being treated like an animal. Like someone’s property. Listen, Jobah: you are not an animal. And you—“ He grabbed Jobah’s arms and brought his face close to his own. “You can be free.

“Josh has other people who can help you live as a free man. And he can…let me ask you: you have other family at The Grove?”

“Yessuh,” Jobah said quietly. “Two sistuhs, a brothuh…Momma n Deddy…an lil Bumbo. He my son. Just turned two.” Tears sprang to his eyes. In his fear and desperation over the past week, he hadn’t given them a thought.

Tom said, “Our movement is getting bigger. With the Underground Railroad, and with more and more people willing to help groups of runaways hide while they go North, we’re able to get whole families out of slavery. And once you get to Philadelphia, and get settled…you can go back and help them.”

Tom took Jobah’s arm and they started towards the wooden box. “Imagine this, Jobah: you and your family living free. Working eight hours a day instead of twelve. Going to church on Sunday—hell, going to church whenever you want! Cooking supper. Playing with your son in the yard. And best of all? Sleeping in a bed.” They stood in front of the box. Tom looked into it, then to Jobah. “You can do this.”

As he stared into the box, Jobah thought about his own life. He and his family had been chained for weeks in the hold of the ship that had brought them to the States from Africa. They’d been separated for months while Jobah worked on a plantation in Alabama, before Mr. Davis had reunited them when he purchased Jobah at auction. He thought of how they’d tried to enjoy life together eating meager meals, singing and dancing in the ring shouts, or praying together at sunrise. Then he thought of Bumbo, and a surge of adrenaline shot through his veins. Jobah had a choice to make: leave them all at The Grove, Bumbo never knowing that life could be any better? Or someday play with Bumbo in their own yard?

Jobah looked at Tom. His tear-streaked face was now stone. “Less do dis.”

**********

At seven a.m. two days later, they were ready. Jobah had eaten a huge meal—a steak with mushroom gravy this time—then slept another twelve hours in that wonderful bed, so he was fresh and rested. They’d loaded the box onto Tom’s wagon the night before; the box was packed with supplies necessary for Jobah’s journey. Lining its bottom were two large glass jugs of water, plus a smaller one for his urine (and as he emptied the larger ones, those would serve as additional urine receptacles); a bag of assorted food like fruit, nuts, crackers, and two chocolate bars; a blanket to use as a pillow and cover; and a medium-sized pot with a lid for when Jobah needed to defacate. Tom had painted the word “FRAGILE” in big, boxy letters on each of the box’s four sides—and “THIS SIDE UP” on its lid—in hopes that the postal carriers wouldn’t upend its human contents.

Their plan was to travel in the wagon to the downtown post office where Tom worked, and Jobah would lay flat in the wagon to avoid being seen. Once there, Jobah would climb into the box—again hoping to avoid detection—while Tom was inside arranging the shipment.

And now it was time. They stood next to the wagon, both men silent. After a moment Jobah got down on his knees. Tom removed his cloth hat and bowed his head, and Jobah prayed.

“Lawdy? I’s goan need ya ta be wit me. I gots a hard road ahead…but I know what be waitin at de othuh end.” He said prayers for his family, and gave thanks for Tom Stewart and the other men helping him. Then, he recited the invocation he’d repeated hundreds of times before, one common to most American slaves:

“Lawd, I’m goan hold steady on You, and You gotta see me through. Amen.”

Five minutes later, Jobah’s odyssey began.

**********

The bumps were the worst part.

After Jobah climbed into the box in Lexington, he crouched, bent over with his head near his knees, for the first few hours of the trip. Eventually, as the stagecoach slowly rolled northward, his back threatened to spasm, so he shifted. He found he could sit with his head jutting forward, his shoulders jammed against the lid, in relative comfort—at least for a while. Eventually the muscles in the back of his neck were screaming in protest, so he reverted to the crouch. And after what seemed like only minutes, his back began quivering, threatening to force him to stand up—which would be disastrous.

So he alternated between crouching and sitting, shifting only when his muscles were so knotted he could barely move. And during these times of sheer agony, every bump the stagecoach rolled over would send a shooting jolt of fresh pain through his rubbery body.

After the first night—during which it poured rain, the fat drops turning the box into a wooden echo chamber when they thumped endlessly on the lid—Jobah lost all sense of time. He could only distinguish day from night by the miniscule amount of light that bled through the box’s few cracks. During this endless bumpy torture, Jobah was somehow able to detach himself from the agonizing reality by singing a lullaby he’d made up to help put Bumbo to sleep:

“Rock-a-bye, lil Bumbo bye
When dem stars up in dat sky…
Lay yo head upon my bres’
An sleep, my lil colored chile.”

The familiar words gave him comfort as the wagon crawled north. And pleasure temporarily outweighed the grueling pain when ate some nuts or a few squares of the chocolate bar, or he relieved himself in the jugs or the pot…but the dull, encompassing aches would return after what seemed only seconds. Somehow, too, his box remained upright, even though four times, at Jobah’s count, it was transferred from one coach to another at some mail station. During the transfers Jobah sat as still as his shaking body would allow him, holding his breath until he felt the thud of the box being placed on another wagon.

Jobah had somehow fallen into a fitful sleep when the frequency and intensity of the bumps changed. He awoke confused, and could see pinpoints of daylight through the cracks. The jostling was more constant, though not as severe as before.
We’re riding over stone, he realized. This must be Philadelphia. We’re here! He gave a small shout of victory—“Yip!”—then began listening keenly to every sound the stagecoach made, preparing himself for whatever happened next.

The wagon seemed to make countless turns and stops before turning once more, the driver giving a final “Whoooaaa!” as they rolled to a stop. Jobah’s heart was pounding, his abused body temporarily forgotten while he strained to listen. After a few seconds, he heard what sounded like two pairs of boots ascending stairs…then blap blap blap. Someone knocking on a door.

Silence followed. Sweat was pouring down Jobah’s face as he heard another BLAP BLAP BLAP, the knocking more forceful.

More silence. Then: “Reckon anybody’s home?”

“I dunno. Guess we c’n at least put his box on the porch.” The men to whom the voices belonged descended the steps, then Jobah heard more silence. The men climbed onto the wagon, then the box was sliding as they moved it to the edge of the coach’s rear platform.

The men grunted as they lowered it to the ground. “Damn. Reckon what’s in this thang?” one complained. Then Jobah felt weightless as they lifted the box. “Don’t matter. Just hold yer end,” said the other. Jobah held his breath yet again as he was carried up the stairs.

“Damn…I can’t—“ Suddenly the box tilted sharply and hit the porch floor with a loud thunk.

“Uh!” Jobah squeaked. He was so jumpy, his cry had slipped out before he could stop himself.

More silence. “What…the hell…?” one said. “Was…there’s somebody in here.” Jobah’s bowels loosened when he heard the men prying the lid off the box.

“Gentlemen! That’s my property.”

The deep voice came from a few feet away. He heard footsteps as someone crossed the porch. “I’m Mr. Josh Jefferson. I’ve been expecting this! Furniture from my family in Kentucky. If you gentlemen could—“

“But sir, think I heard—“

“—put this in my sitting room? And quickly. The missus will be here any moment, and I want to surprise her.” Jobah imagined the huge smile that was plastered on Josh’s face.

More of that weightlessness, followed by a gentler thunk when the men set the box down.

“Thank you ever so much. And here’s something for your trouble.”

A few seconds passed. Then one of the men said, “Thank you. Have a nice evenin.” More footsteps as the men exited, then the front door closed.

**********

Jobah was sweaty, filthy, and emaciated, and he squinted his eyes at the dazzling light when Josh inched the lid open. First he saw Josh’s steely blues eyes peering in, then his shock of white hair as the lid slid further back.

“Well, hello!” Josh said. “Do you think you can stand?”

Jobah tried, but his back flamed in disagreement. He waited a few seconds, then tried again. Slowly, with every nerve ending bemoaning his progress, he raised himself to his full height. He took Josh’s outstretched hands, and together they eased Jobah out of the box. He took a feeble step, then collapsed headlong on the floor. And then he started laughing.

When his guffawing had dwindled to snickers, Josh helped him to his feet. They stood eye to eye. Josh smiled broadly and took Jobah’s hand to shake. “Welcome to Philadelphia, my friend. I’m Joshua Jefferson. And you are–?”

Jobah had practiced for this moment with Tom Stewart for hours, Tom repeating the words while Jobah parroted him exactly with proper English.

“My name…is Jobah. I am…pleased…to make your…acquaintance.”

Josh’s face brightened even more. “Well! I’m pleased to meet you too. And Jobah?

“Welcome to freedom.”