Fuller Plantation, South Carolina
The only thing that was clear to Kitty in all the fussing and carrying on was that they needed to run. The Yankees were coming—thousands of them. The soldiers would steal everything they could find and burn Massa’s plantation to the ground. They’d do unspeakable things to the women—white women like Missy Claire and even to slave women like Kitty. She and Missy had to flee again, just as they had fled from Massa’s town house in Beaufort a year ago. The plantation was no longer safe.
“Better hurry, ma’am,” the Confederate soldiers warned Missy Claire as they marched past the house. They didn’t even pause for a drink of water or a bite to eat as they marched by on the double-quick. Two of the officers stopped just long enough to say, “The Yankees are coming. Six thousand of them have landed on the mainland at McKay’s Point. That’s only seven miles from Pocotaligo. We figure they’re aiming to cut the rail line between Savannah and Charleston. I’d leave today if I were you, ma’am. Tomorrow morning at the latest.”
“And be careful, ma’am,” the second officer warned. “The Yanks have been stealing our slaves and arming them with guns. Nothing worse than a Negro with a gun in his hands.” The soldiers tipped their hats and marched down the road toward Pocotaligo in their mismatched uniforms and worn-out boots and shaggy beards, leaving nothing but panic and a cloud of dust behind them.
They’d thrown the household into an uproar, filling it with so much fear that Kitty thought for sure it would overflow like a bucket. Missy Claire’s face turned the color of pie dough, and she looked about to faint. Kitty made her sit down real quick in the nearest chair, and she grabbed a palmetto branch to fan her.
“Oh, Lord ...” Missy Claire moaned. “Why is this happening to us again? Isn’t it enough that the Yankees chased us from our home once before? Why have those cowards declared war on innocent women and children?”
Kitty waved the fan faster, moving it closer to Missy’s face to help her breathe. “It’ll be okay, Missy. Everything will be okay....”
“No it won’t!” she shouted. “Didn’t you hear what they said? The Yanks are arming slaves! And once a Negro gets a gun in his hands, he’ll murder us all in our beds!”
Her words gave Kitty the shivers. For a moment it was as if both of them had forgotten that Kitty was also a Negro. She’d been Missy’s slave since they were children, but she’d never seen her this upset, even when they’d fled from Beaufort. Of course, back then they’d thought they would be returning to town in a day or two, once the Yankees were whipped. But that had been nearly a year ago. “Where we gonna run to this time, Missy Claire?” Kitty asked in a hushed voice.
“I don’t know. They’ll burn every plantation house in the area.... We’ll have to pack up everything that we don’t want to lose.”
“Everything?” Kitty glanced around the drawing room. “There’s so much, Missy! All of Massa Fuller’s nice things.... How we gonna know what to take and what to leave?”
She could see that her mistress was getting control of herself again. Missy pushed the fan away from her face and rose her feet. “We’ll have to get all the other house slaves to help us. Now hurry! We’ll pack as much as a wagon will hold, the most valuable things first—then leave the rest to God’s mercy.”
Kitty set to work as fast as she could, but it wasn’t fast enough for Missy. She shoved Kitty backward and nearly knocked her down because she thought Kitty was packing one of the steamer trunks too slowly. When Kitty accidentally dropped the silver caddy, spilling the tableware, Missy grabbed hold of her hair and pulled. And when Kitty asked her who would take care of the house while they were gone, Missy Claire slapped her. “Don’t bother me with your stupid questions, Kitty!” Missy wasn’t usually this mean. She was scared, that’s all.
“If only Roger were here,” she kept saying as they went from room to room, trying to decide what to pack. The big house was crammed clear to the attic with Massa Fuller’s things, passed down through his family for years and years. The paintings of all Massa’s relations would fill an entire wagon all by themselves, and his books would fill a second one. Anyone could see that they would have to leave all his beautiful furniture behind—Massa’s oak desk and his piano, the canopy beds and wardrobes and dressers, the walnut dining table that Delia polished with beeswax and turpentine until it gleamed like a mirror. There were closets full of table linens, feather beds and spreads; cupboards of fine porcelain, silver serving pieces and tableware. They couldn’t possibly take it all. Those Yankees must be demons from hell if they would burn down such a fine old house and destroy all these beautiful things.
Kitty was upstairs packing Missy Claire’s clothes when she heard the rumble of wagon wheels outside. She ran to the window, expecting to see soldiers and armed slaves coming with guns and torches. But the wagon that stopped out front was empty.
“Kitty!” Missy said as she hurried into the bedroom. “One of the field slaves finally brought a wagon up from the barn. Quit gaping out the window and start loading some of these things into it. I already told Delia to gather the baby’s clothes.”
Kitty scooped up two satchels and headed toward the stairs.
“Make sure you hurry right back,” Missy Claire yelled. “None of your usual dawdling!”
Her words hurt more than a kick in the shins. Kitty never dawdled the way a lot of other slaves did. Maybe she daydreamed once in a while, but that was different from dawdling, wasn’t it? Folks dawdled on purpose, but daydreaming was something you just couldn’t help.
Kitty was still grumbling to herself about how unfair Missy was when she met Delia going down the stairs with a bundle of the baby’s clothes. The little woman descended the stairs much slower than Kitty did, her joints painful with age. Kitty slowed her pace to match.
“What’re you pouting about, honey?” Delia asked. “Mind you don’t trip over that bottom lip of yours, hanging clear to the floor.”
“Missy’s been hollering at me all afternoon, Delia.”
“Ain’t just you, honey, that’s for sure. Brr, it’s chilly out here!” she said as she pushed open the door. Outside, the autumn sky was as raw and gray as a tombstone. “Can’t be good for Massa’s little baby to be dragging him all over creation this way,” Delia said, shaking her head. “The Good Lord said that when Judgment Day finally comes, we’re supposed to pray that our flight ain’t coming in the wintertime.”
Kitty looked at Delia in surprise. “Is this here the Judgment Day?”
“Seems like the Lord’s judging some folks,” Delia mumbled, nodding toward the wagon. “Never thought I’d see Massa’s family riding in an old cotton wagon pulled by a team of mules.”
Delia was right. The farm mules that had been hitched to the wagon were what poor folks drove around. But the Confederate soldiers had taken away all of Massa Fuller’s horses a long time ago. Grady had stayed in the carriage house that day rather than watch them go. For as long as he’d been Massa Fuller’s coachman, Grady had looked after those horses like they were his babies, same as Delia looked after Missy Claire’s baby. He had to work as a field slave now that his horses were gone.
Kitty dropped her burdens onto the wagon bed. The driver stood near one of the mules’ heads, adjusting its bridle. It took Kitty a moment to realize that the driver was Grady. He looked even thinner than the last time she’d seen him, and his clothes hung on him like rags. She longed to go to him and hold him in her arms, but when he looked up at her, his expression made her hesitate. It was almost as if he was holding her at arm’s length.
But Delia didn’t hesitate at all as she hobbled over to Grady and hugged him tightly. “Lord, Lord, honey! I hardly recognized you. You driving Missy Claire’s wagon for her tomorrow?”
He shook his head. “I’m all through with being her slave,” he said quietly. “Me and the others are stealing away to the woods tonight. Once we get to where the Yankees are, we’ll all be free.”
His words sent a tremor of fear through Kitty. “You can’t run away, Grady! They’ll send the dogs out after you if you run!”
“Who will? Ain’t nobody left to chase us but the overseer. He can’t catch all of us, can he?” He folded his arms across his chest and raised his chin. “You don’t have to go with Missy Claire, you know. She can’t make you go with her.”
“What do you mean? She’s our missy. We have to do what Missy says.”
“No you don’t,” he said in a low, harsh voice. “We don’t have to do nothing she says no more, now that the Yankees are coming. Y’all can come hide in the woods with us tonight ... unless you think house slaves is too good to run off with field hands.”
“Nobody’s thinking that,” Delia said.
“Then come with us,” he urged.
Kitty gazed toward the south, the direction the Yankee soldiers would be coming from. The sky above the distant trees seemed a deeper shade of gray, as if darkened by smoke. “Missy says the Yankees ain’t our friends,” she told Grady. “She says they gonna have their way with all the women and=—”
“Don’t you know them white folks is lying?”
“Missy Claire don’t lie! I been with her just as long as I can remember, and she=—”
“Go on with your fancy white missy, then, if you’re wanting to be her slave so bad.” He spat on the ground near his feet, as if the words had left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Kitty gazed toward the woods again. It scared her to death to think about hiding in that terrible place. Snakes and spiders and alligators lived in those swamps, and the paddyrollers would chase after you with their baying dogs. When they caught you they would whip you until the blood ran. She remembered what had happened to her own parents, and she longed to run to Grady and beg him not to go. Kitty had seen the scars on his back from when they’d whipped him before.
Delia stood beside the wagon, not saying a word. But they all looked up a moment later when one of the second-floor windows slid open with a loud scrape. Missy Claire leaned out of it. “Kitty! Get back up here this minute!”
Kitty turned and ran straight into the house. Halfway up the stairs she realized that she hadn’t said good-bye to Grady. She hurried to gather another load, but by the time she brought it down to the wagon it was too late. Grady was gone. She wondered if she would ever see him again.
Delia came down with two more satchels a moment later. She paused to catch her breath, leaning against the wagon.
“What are you gonna do, Delia?” Kitty whispered. “You gonna run off with Grady tonight and hide in the woods?”
“Never mind what I’m gonna do, honey. You got to be deciding for yourself what to do. Can’t nobody tell you which way to go except the Lord.”
“Decide? How?” Kitty had never made up her own mind before. She always did whatever Missy said and wasn’t allowed to have any ideas or wishes of her own. Making up your mind was something you had to learn to do, like reading and writing—and she’d never learned those things either, only how to obey. “I don’t know how to decide,” she told Delia. Her words came out in a whisper, as if she were too scared to say them out loud.
“It ain’t so hard,” Delia said. “Just think of your life as a story. As if you’re telling it around the fire someday to your children.” Delia was a storyteller herself, well known among all the slaves in the area, so she knew a thing or two about spinning a yarn. She gave Kitty a minute to ponder the idea, then said, “Now, how are you wanting that story to end? What would be ‘happy ever after’ for you?”
Kitty didn’t even have to think about it. The best ending would be to wind up in Grady’s arms and finally hear him say that he loved her as much as she loved him. They would be together forever, with Grady driving Massa Fuller’s carriage again and Kitty tending Missy Claire like she always had, and both of them knowing that Massa would never sell them apart.
But then Kitty remembered Grady’s bitter words and she knew it was never going to happen: “Can’t nobody love you, girl, until you learn to love yourself. You obey that white woman like you were her dog—like you’re dirt under her feet and she can walk all over you. Think a man can love dirt? Think a man wants a dog for his woman?”
Kitty knew what he meant. Hadn’t Missy lashed out at her just this morning, pulling Kitty’s hair and slapping her? Grady said she needed to respect herself before he could respect her. But how was she supposed to do that? Would he admire her for disobeying Missy and running away?
“Now, are you seeing that ending?” Delia asked, interrupting Kitty’s thoughts. She closed her eyes and imagined herself in Grady’s arms.
“What are you needing to do right now to get there? Beginning of that story has already been told. Can’t change the ‘once upon a time.’ But you can be making up the middle part that will take you to the end.”
Which path led to Grady? Kitty tried to picture herself running away with him, not answering Missy when she called, hiding in the woods until the wagon drove away. Then what? The only thing Kitty knew about disobeying white folks was that you got whipped for it. No, it was much easier to do what she’d always done—obey Missy, follow along behind the wagon, take care of her mistress and the new baby. But wasn’t that what Grady got so mad at her for? For bending her back and thinking like a slave?
All of a sudden a scary thought shuddered right through Kitty, as if somebody had walked over her grave. How would she ever find Grady again if he ran away into the woods and Kitty went with Missy? What if she never saw him again?
“But, Delia,” she said, “how will Grady and me ever find each other if he runs off and I don’t?”
“Is that what you’re worrying about?” Delia let out a big sigh. “Listen, honey. Maybe you’ll find that boy again someday and maybe you won’t. But first Grady has to find hisself. And so do you, child. So do you.”
Everything went blurry as tears filled Kitty’s eyes. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to find myself,” she said. “Can’t you just tell me what to do, Delia?”
“Go back to the beginning,” she said gently. “How’d you get to this day? If you know where you’re starting from, and if you know where you’re wanting to end up, then maybe you can find the path in between.”
Kitty knew the beginning—of Grady’s story as well as her own. She knew where they both had started out from. She wiped her tears and gazed toward the woods, remembering a time when her name had been Anna....
A Light to My Path (REFINER'S FIRE Book 3) by Lynn Austin
Copyright © 2004, Lynn Austin
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.