- Author:Pierre Gilson
- Series:Black Fiction
- Word Count:7,974
- Edited by:
- Julian Brooks
- Damien Taylor
- Kyle May
- Courtney May
Tales of the African Diaspora
Langston could faintly hear the ominous howls of the wind beating against the wood frame of his home as he lay beside his brother. Alabama winters were hardly his favorite time of year. The cold made work harder on the older folk, plaguing them with a violent cough that made them hoarse and never seemed to go away.
“Langston. William…” His father, a stern and robust negro, turned a gaze upon his sons that twinkled with the reflection of their fire’s embers. “Remember that story I used to tell y’all when you could barely walk?”
How could they forget? Langston and his brother remembered that story like it was their birthright. “Yes, Daddy. I remember,” Langston replied as he watched his father grip the back of a chair with his swollen hands.
His father squirmed as alcohol rolled down his back. Deep gashes created a picture of claw marks over his rough hide, jaded and battered from years of hard labor. The very sight of it compelled Langston’s mother to dam her tears as she cared for his scars. His father bit his lip.
“What do you remember about that story?”
“Um, that there is a place far away that Pop-pop came from, before coming here. He was a warrior, I think.” Langston regarded the shoddy ceiling for affirmation.
William nearly pushed Langston out of bed as he added, “Oh! He killed giant big cats and rode horses!” Langston elbowed him in his side as he shoved himself closer to the center of the bed.
The boom of their father’s voice cut a silence across the room—the kind of quiet that made loose boards rattle and the howling wind outside hush to a whisper. He gave Langston a stern gaze, “Boy, don’t you ever hurt your brother again. You hear me?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Langston replied to his father’s knees. His eyes would not leave the man, but neither could he stomach the stern gaze that was surely trained upon him. He fought the urge to fidget.
“One thing my father always said was, ‘Don’t let no harm come to family’. You are the oldest, Langston. You got to protect William, from anything and everything.”
The words dipped low into Langston’s ripening spirit, giving him sense of direction. William looked over at him, his eyes glowing with the same bronze flame as their father’s.
Their mother, a beautiful woman with skin the color of deep autumn, finished the last of the bandages for her husband’s back, and slapped the wound tenderly. “All done. Not quite good as new, but that should hold you together well enough for the fields come mornin’.”
“My, Momma,” his father exclaimed in awe. “You can make a man feel ten times stronger!”
Their father rose from his chair and turned to embrace his wife. He clutched her so close that, in the dimly lit room, it was hard to discern which arm was who’s in their tangle.
Her warm features flushed with a happiness that seemed to drain just as quickly. She quickly hid her face to keep him from spying her grief.
Their father smiled warmly as he gently took her face in his hand. “Momma, don’t cry for me. Know that everything I do, I do it for you and the boys. I know that, one day, freedom will come for us. We just got to hold on. I need you to be strong for me—for all of us.”
She fell into a spell in his hands. Langston and his brother watched as she wrapped her hands around his and tenderly kissed their father, long and slow.
“I’ll always have faith. One day God will bring us out of this cold world and to the Promised Land.” Hearing about the Promised Land caused Langston’s skin to blister with goosebumps. It was a place where his father and mother didn’t have to hurt no more; a place where they would all be free to do whatever they wanted without the fear of the cracking whip. That place was where he wanted to be. But he could not help but wonder how and when they would all arrive at such a haven. But before he could ask, it was time to sleep. And so, Langston, William, his father, and mother greeted the sandman inside their one-room cabin. Every one of them plunged into their slumber, clenching their faith that the days would lead to broken shackles and the Lord’s promise fulfilled.
Let the Church sing, “Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is a-waitin’ to take you to freedom.”
In the dead of night, boots creaked against the floorboards inside the cabin. Dry mud flaked off his soles and crumbled underneath Langston’s steps. He cautiously made his way to his satchel, which he stuffed with food earlier that day. The crickets hardly chirped that night. Winter was the bane of most creatures. His hands quivered as he rifled through his supplies. It was not by the cold they trembled, but from the fear of being caught. The consequences made his heart pound with anxiety.
He looked over at the cots, making sure his family was still fast asleep before he crept to the door and took his father’s old work jacket. The odor of horses and labor filled his nostrils as he slipped into its sleeves. The dim lighting from slices of torched wood provided enough light to make out his feet in front of him, but nothing more. He silently brushed past his brother, who had matured so fast in the last eight months. It pained him to imagine how much he will have grown by the time he would see him again.
He took a deep breath as he neared his parents, the door only a few feet beyond them. The first step bent the wood beneath him, sending out a long, exaggerated creak. His body froze, his eyes too petrified to turn in his parents’ direction. The noise made his father stir, throwing his arm over his mother. Langston recoiled as he glanced at his father’s hand. Three fingers gripped the side of the bed. He’d lost the other two by talking out of turn when an overseer questioned him about Langston. The man wanted to know when the boy would be ready to join the rest of the slaves in the fields. Langston gritted his teeth as he thought about what he wanted to do to the man that hurt his father.
Langston flinched at the howl from deep in the woods. He chambered his fear with a lumpy swallow. It was those very same woods for which he was headed. Once he opened the door there would be no turning back. Once he set foot in those mysterious wilds, he would be a runaway. He continued toward the door once he was confident enough he would not wake his parents. The doorknob twisted as he gripped it, at first with a twinge of anxiety and then boldness until a voice broke out.
“Who is that there? Langston, is that you, boy?”
He shut his eyes so tight that his head would’ve burst if he did not let up. “Yes, Mamma. It’s me,” he answered, numb with guilt. He turned to face her, his hand glued to the door.
She batted her eyes until the sleep went away. She noticed then that, instead of his night clothes, he was dressed for the winter forest. Her grave expression was a blooming tornado.
“What in God’s green earth are you doing, boy?” Her glassy eyes were as clear as day, despite the poor lighting. The frightful urgency in her voice was as austere as an alarm.
“I’m leavin’ for a while, momma,” he whispered. His mother started to slip out of bed. He instinctively cracked the door and she paused. Tears sprouted as she stared in disbelief at what was unfolding before her very eyes. “It won’t be long, I promise. I’ll come back.”
His mother could not let her child go out in the world all by himself—not this world. She swung over and rocked his father awake, her sobs alarming him to attention. “Your son is leaving! Stop him!”
His father’s stare hit him like the ground after a long fall; like a big, fat rock right on top of their ramshackle home.
“Langston… close the door, boy.” He stood up so fast that Langston’s eyes could barely recall the movement. William remained deep in his sleep, his dreams drowning out the turmoil that befell his family.
“Daddy, I can’t.” His words slipped free before he had time to muster a more delicate response. His father looked at him with surprise and aggravation. They stood within walking distance from each other but neither made any sudden movements. Another howl broke out, reminding Langston that his time continued to dwindle the longer he stayed. “I love you, Momma, Daddy,” he said.
The door nearly flew off its hinges as he pulled it open. The winter frost rushed into their home on a gust of chilling wind. The small flicker of flame died and Langston’s brother began to stir. “I’ll protect him like I said I would. When I come back, I’s coming back to free y’all.”
“Langston, get back here!” The boy’s feet took off just as his father dashed toward the door. He could feel the heat of his father’s hand as he lunged to snatch him from the air. But the frost betrayed his old man’s naked feet, leaving him to crash on the floor. Once the young slave-boy’s feet touched the ground, he was off. His father reached out for him as he lay on the porch of their home, his eyes swollen with despair. He did not yell out for his son, for if he did, he knew with certainty that he would never see Langston again.
Langston’s successful departure was more enchanting than he imagined. It was as if he dashed through a tunnel sculpted by white streams of frosted wind. The ocean-blue sky was vivid, though it seemed to do nothing for the darkness of the forest. The harder he ran from the plantation, the more form his mythical channel took. He managed to escape the slave cabins more easily than he expected. The overseer and the other authorities were elsewhere; a miraculous coincidence given it was the night he would escape the harshness of the south. The master’s manor lit up brighter than all of the cabins. He and his guests reveled in their festive dinner party, their laughter fading just behind Langston’s heels as he escaped down the beaten path, off the plantation outskirts. The crescent moon resided above him, both eminent and brilliant like a king. It was the only figure to remain still as the darkness swallowed everything else in his periphery.
The cold pinched his hands as he neared the forest. He stuffed them in his sleeves, distracting him from the sheet of ice only several strides ahead. With a frightening slip, his feet flew up and he went rolling downhill toward the wood line that granted passage to the forest. The air swept him along like a sail. Leaves blew past him as his body cascaded down the hill. He could not see the sturdy oak tree standing firmly in his path, not that it mattered whether or not it was visible. It appeared and disappeared within a blink of an eye, too suddenly to frighten him. He came to an abrupt halt with mind-shattering force, his world shattered into blurred fragments. A cold wedge was driven down the middle of his imagination’s beautiful fantasy.
O’ Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan something more than the hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan…
The clouds above the forest conveyed an unusualness that Langston did not have the privilege to observe. Black starlight and blue moonlight warped above his unconscious body and the forest began to transform as well. Tree branches arched and curved, bushes wrestled off snow, and a soulful song hummed in the wind that sounded as if a choir of harps harmonized in melodious chords. The wood and green heeded the call of the heavens, departing from the very laws of nature.
Langston hazily caught sight of the moon as he tried to regain his awareness. A glimpse of the silvery orb swathing itself in the nightly shade seemed like an ordinary occurrence. The overcoat of the world churned as its stars blended with the moon’s craters and the nebular mass contorted into elegant poses. The final strokes of the sky’s transformation cued Langston’s fall from consciousness. The forest froze, stilling itself as the moonlight christened everything below in its new form, one of gorgeous ebony and vibrant luminosity.
Langston’s tattered pants ruffled. The ruffling continued as a smooth, gentle touch moved up and around his legs. He stirred awake, his head heavy from the dazzling concussion. He looked down to his feet to see what woke him. His brown skin paled to ash as two golden eyes peered out of the deep darkness of the shadows behind the trees. His legs were wrapped in a coil of emerald scales and thick muscle. A slightly uncomfortable and firm squeeze around his legs let him know not to make any movements.
“Hehe,” greeted a quiet titter. “You look lost, little slave boy. Are you lost?” The green slits from the creature’s eyes inspected Langston from top to bottom. Langston’s dry lips shuddered from the sight of the creature’s serpentine silhouette flickering as it traveled through the moonlight rays. Its head swam up a nearby tree, its limber body following behind in a rhythmic pace like a ribbon caught in a violent current. “Ain’t right, not speakin’ when spoken to, boy. Momma ain’t teach you much, did she?” The serpent tightened its coil, giving Langston a reason to respond.
“Please, mister, I don’t want no trouble. I was only passin’ through and fell down a hill,” Langston pled, the clouds of his frantic breaths swallowing that of his words. The eyes of the serpent spotted his satchel that laid next to his right hand.
“Well, I don’t take kindly to strangers, especially runaways stirrin’ up trouble around my den.” Its head sat on a tree branch as it watched Langston, delighted by his fear.
“Let me go and I’ll be on my way, Mr.—”
“Mister Snake, boy. And you’re in no position to bargain.” Its forked tongue tasted the air and a grin stretched across its face as it caught the flavor of Langston’s angst. “You ain’t here for my treasure, is ya? No, no. You’re too scared to try and take what’s mine.”
“No, mister! No treasure,” Langston cautiously replied. “I’m looking for the Quincy settlement.” The snake drew in a deep breath and then thundered with laughter that sparked the birds from their nests. Langston did not understand the amusement of his journey beyond the forest. But, he was beginning to learn a snake’s sense of humor.
The snake plopped down its head once he regained his composure. “Ain’t no way to get to ol’ Quincy’s from here. That route there’s been blocked for some time, boy. You’d best turn ‘round and go on back. Beg ya’ massa’ don’t beat you too bad! Hahaha! Or maybe, you tell him you just went out for some fresh air!” The snake’s coils began to loosen the more it laughed itself into a frenzy. Langston used it to his advantage. He patiently slipped free, watching the snake convulse with odd amusement. Once freed, he snatched his satchel and hightailed it as fast as he could from the snake’s den before he was discovered.
The snake laughed and laughed until it managed to open its eyes and see its captive fleeing deeper into the woods. “What do you think you’re doing?” The snake’s lengthy frame surged through the trees, covering Langston’s distance in seconds. It towered over the boy, shaking the rattle at the end of its tail furiously. Langston backed away as the snake moved in close, blocking his escape. “I wasn’t going to hurt you, boy, but if you run from me again, I’ll kill ya’ and won’t think nothin’ of it.” Langston lost his voice as the snake’s rising stature made him shrink. He began to understand what that scrap of meat felt like, resting on the table in front of his father after a long day in the fields. “Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonable mister, so I’ll tell you what, if you give me something that no one else has, I’ll point you in the right direction.”
Langston’s threadbare clothes were not something that would ever appease the desires of any reasonable ‘person’. And yet, it was all he had. He did not understand what this snake wanted from him—not until he caught the snake’s sideward glance at his satchel. Even if he did have something of value, Langston had decided that there would be no agreement fashioned between him and the snake. He did not enjoy his company at all.
“I don’t have nothing you’d want, Mister Snake,” Langston replied. His satchel remained at his side, hidden from the snake’s lascivious gaze.
It snorted, slithering in a circle, making an encampment around the lost boy. “If you don’t have nothin’ to offer then how’s about a wager, boy? What do ya’ say?”
Langston looked around. With nowhere to run, he did not have much of a choice but to hear the snake’s proposal.
“I’ll let you go, and if you happen to make it to Quincy’s settlement, I won’t hunt you down.” The mister’s thick fangs reflected the moon’s shine. Langston clearly saw himself in them. “But if you don’t make it out of here, you’re mine to do with as I please. And I claim whatever it is you carryin’ there. Do we have a deal?”
The deal sounded too good to be true. Langston would surely find his way out of the obscure forest, and most importantly, away from this beastly snake.
“Ya’ got a deal, mister! I will get free—of this forest, this plantation, and you!”
The snake’s mouth grinned so wide that, if Langston didn’t know any better, he would’ve sworn that the snake had already collected its winnings. But, since his two feet were still firmly on the ground, there was only his suspicion. Mister Snake knew something he didn’t. The snake’s body rushed past Langston as he left, allowing the boy to continue with his journey.
Langston ran on, trying his best not to look back. The snake ridiculed him as he got farther and farther.
“Don’t forget to follow that star y’all love so much!” The snake mocked, laughter biting the back of the boy’s neck.
“Oh, my good Lord! Keep me from sinkin’ down! I tell you what I mean to do! Keep me from sinkin’ down! I mean to go to heaven! Keep me from sinkin; down! I look up yonder and, what do I see! Keep me from sinkin’ down! I see the angels beckonin’ me! Keep me from sinkin’ down!”
The frostbitten trees from before were no more as Langston’s surroundings continued to warp the further he went into the dense forest. Leafless trees with bony branches appeared every which way he looked, his worries weighing on him again. He stopped and searched the snow that came up to the top of his boots. There was nothing around that would guide him out of the labyrinth. The unfamiliarity of this world made him think of his home and the security of a place he always knew. Langston wiped the memories away. He knew that if he turned back, there would only be never-ending bondage, living out the same fate as those who worked until their plots were all that he remembered them by. His life would not be that way. He knew it was something far greater than anyone ever realized.
The white flame of a single star shined brightly between the brilliant constellations and the moon. His mother used to tell him that shape was what the kind of pot the fancy folk ate and drank from.
A beam of crystal illumination shot down on the snow, seizing Langston’s attention. Though he had never seen anything like it, Langston did not deny that the light had come to help him. He could not put it into words, but deep down in his spirit, through flesh and bone, it called him. He ambled closer to the starry spotlight, where it beckoned. A set of miniscule animal tracks, went behind a tree, vanishing from sight. The star’s guidance left Langston as he followed the trail to a tiny burrow. Inside the burrow slept a single hare, snoring as softly as its fluffy, auburn fur or the cotton tuft of its tail. Langston did not understand why the North Star brought him to the abode of such a tiny critter, and he did not want to disturb it. But, what choice did he have?
“Um, pardon me,” he said quietly. His frail tone yielded no answer. With his boot, Langston rocked the nest, a mass of twigs and sticks. The hare grumbled underneath his breath as he rolled over to the opposite side, away from his rude guest. Langston kicked the nest again, but with more effort.
The jolt awakened the hare with a nervous start. “Earthquake!” he panicked. “There’s an earthquake, people!” It jumped on top of Langston, knocking him into the snow as its distress turned into utter terror.
“There’s no quake,” Langston replied as the hare’s head twitched and spun to the four corners of the world. “I kicked, er—knocked on your door.” The words seemed appropriate in this place, Langston thought.
“You what? You kicked my nest?” The hare’s foot furiously thumped as Langston explained himself, and the starlight’s absurd guidance which he accused for his invasion.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Langston concluded, his soft words like a ribbon tied into a bow. But the hare gave him the same look his father gave him only hours ago.
The stillness of the forest did not incline the hare to believe Langston’s tale. He leapt from the boy’s chest and went to inspect the damages of his home, the undeniable part of the boy’s story. Yet, aside from its disheveled appearance, it was still as wholesome as he feared it wasn’t.
“Well, I can’t say for certain if you’re crazy or not, but at least you didn’t mess up my nest too badly. You haven’t a clue what it took me to build it.” The hare picked up his twigs and tried to force them back into the foundation where he’d calculated their most structural integrity to be. Langston was swollen with guilt as he watched the hare attempt to repair the damage. It was his fault that the nest came undone, the least he could do was help. He grabbed the twigs as the hare backed away and began to spew his contempt. Langston, however, had repaired his nest and improved it even, also repairing the hare’s piece of mind.
“Where did you learn how to build a nest, kid?” The hare eyed it, impressed that a human possessed such craftsmanship.
“My daddy taught me way back when.” A lump formed in his throat, closing off his words.
“It doesn’t matter. As long as my nest holds up! Now I can get back to my dream of dreams,” the hare replied, titillating with excitement.
“Wait! I need your help.” Langston threw himself in the hare’s path. “I’m lost and I need to find my way to freedom before something bad happens.”
“Now that’s not good, now is it? No, it’s not. I suppose I could lend a hand,” said the hare as it hopped around. It then stopped and said, “But, on the other hand, I don’t know you. Why should I help?”
Langston did not have a sure answer. He looked over to the nest that he fixed for him but he closed his mouth before bringing it up. He was the one that had ruined it to begin with. His honesty was all that he had left to offer. “I don’t have nothing but some food I was savin’. There ain’t nothin’ else, really. But I’m comin’ back with some help to free my family. Maybe I can bring you something?”
“Like what?” The hare’s bulbous eyes awaited an answer.
“Maybe some carrots or—” Langston stared at its nest, and it finally came to him. “I’ll build you a nest! One even betta’ than the one you sleepin’ in now.” Even the hare knew his nest could use a bit of remodeling. The hare gave him a hard cock of the eye as he looked Langston up and down.
“Hmmm. And when do you suppose you’ll pay me this favor, child, hm?”
Langston looked up at the stars and began to count in a way that made the hare question his abilities. “I got to learn a lot more about building, but as soon as I do, I’ll make you that nest. It’ll probably take me a couple o’ seasons, but I’ll do it. Before winter, you’ll have the best nest in the forest!”
Against the hare’s better judgement, he replied, “I’m going to need you to promise me, child. Promise me that you’ll come back and make me a great home.” As quickly as the hare’s demand left its tongue, Langston promised. Unlike the agreement with the snake, Langston did not feel any apprehension with this creature.
“I promise. I’ll come back and I’ll build you a home. We can even do it, us both, if you like.” A slight grin appeared upon the hare’s face, but then vanished as a notion sprouted in his mind.
“Well, since you seem to be in a rush, I suppose we’d best go to see the twins.” The hare hopped over to a trail that led to a family of hills wearing white caps of snow. “They’ll be your best bet at finding a way out of here, at least for a human.”
“Alright then.” Langston went to the hare’s side to get a better view of the area. Another howl echoed through the woods as he peered into the distance. He did not bother to ask who the twins were. For some reason, the moonward cries seemed to call him, as the light from the sky had before, urging him to forge ahead.
Oh, bye an’ bye, bye an’ bye. I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load…
I’m troubled, I’m troubled, I’m troubled in mind. If Jesus don’t help me, I will surely die…
The wind slivered between them as Langston and the hare neared large humps, bumps, and lumps of land. There weren’t as many trees anymore, save for the quartet of scrawny timbers that looked like sprawling branches erupting from the ground.
“Wait right here,” the hare said as they reached the foot of the first hill.
Langston, afraid, muttered, “Okay, don’t leave me…” A deer lay beside another hill, its lifeless eye twinkling in the moonlight. Langston tried his best not to imagine what sort of creature had the ability to lay the creature to rest in such a way.
The hare hopped only a few feet away from Langston, perched on its hind legs and spoke. “Excuse me, Lady Guardian of this ever-so-majestic wood,” he greeted nervously. Langston could not fathom what sort of creature would elicit such amateur flattery. “I have dire need of your wisdom. You see, a friend of mine—”
“Your friend is a trespasser, hare.” The stern voice clutched Langston with utter fear. He could swear the voice was his mother’s, but with an entirely different accent that he had never heard before.
Clearing his throat, or rather the fright in his tone, the hare replied, “And that is why we are here, Lady Guardian. The child seeks freedom from his oppressors.”
Shespoke. “Freedom? What does a human know of freedom?”
The soft rustle of the tall grass pulled Langston’s eyes to the hill. From behind it came a pure white wolf, whose gentle steps were silent as she came upon them. Her milky white fur was immaculate; too delicate to have ever been touched by anyone or anything of the earth. One look upon its celestial glow and Langston was certain the Guardian’s coat belonged to the stars. The great wolf took her seat upon the top of the hill, locking her downward gaze upon the groveling critter. She turned to Langston next. “Do you have an answer, child of men?”
Langston’s breath froze. He was both enthralled by her majesty and petrified by her eminence at the same time.
“What have you brought to me, hare? This human carries no voice to let its desires be heard. Those who cannot speak deserve to have their throats removed. What need is there for a voice if its power cannot be harnessed?” The hare looked back at Langston, twitching his nose and flexing his eyes, desperately trying to cue Langston’s response.
“I don’t know freedom.” The words left Langston’s mouth with difficulty. “I ain’t never seen it before, but my daddy used to tell me and my brother stories about it all the time.”
She looked at Langston with particular interest, inhaling the air to draw his scent in. Langston watched silently. “You smell different.” Her tail waved as the cold breeze brushed the clearing. “Answer me, what will you do with the pain that comes with being free in this darkened world? How long will you live knowing death surrounds you, searching for you with blind eyes, knowing it would claim you if it could?”
“I—” A brown hound fell at Langston’s feet, its eyes hollow, and its limbs sprawled listlessly. He reeled with horror, as did the hare, as the macabre of the departed canine took its toll.
“This human child doesn’t know. You’re wasting your time, sister…” Langston swore his eyes played tricks on him as a wolf of umbral fur stalked from behind him. It emerged as if from the shadows—his shadow. The odor of stale blood and spoiled flesh emanated from its body as it passed Langston.
“Your contempt is much too forward, Black Claw. This human seems different. He is aware, but not woken, for his youthfulness blinds him from seeing the path that lies ahead.” The snow-shrouded wolf’s proverb seemed to float from her mouth with supernatural ease as she lay upon her belly.
Langston looked at the dog lying near his feet and noticed something peculiar. The collar around its neck was one he’d seen countless times at the plantation. His hands quivered as he realized that he now was being hunted.
“You reek of fear, boy. Your fear had best not be wasted on them. That is why I met them all. Besides, they were easy game,” Black Claw said to him. He too observed his expired prey, but with approval. The black wolf walked up the hill and looked upon the white wolf with dubious disregard. “This one is riddled with hatred and doubt—and fear. I can smell it swelling inside of him. You have no claim on him, White Fang. Let me have this human before his meat spoils.”
White Fang replied, “The human has to decide. It seeks exodus of this land’s corruption; a place of peace and prosperity, if one exists for its kind. You see hatred and fear. I see unyielding passion for its family.”
“Ah, I see. It is a fool as well,” Black Claw sneered. He walked back down the hill, cutting its eyes at the hare. The hare became as petrified as a piece of furniture. The shadowy wolf stood over its kill and then turned its gaze upon Langston. “Would you like for me to take you home?”
Langston replied with confusion. “What?” The offer was too blatantly contradictory for its meaning to occur to the young boy. Was everything in the world so subtle, he began to wonder?
“I can take you to get your family from the pale humans. I can save your family if you like. The choice is yours,” Black Claw circled Langston, prowling for an answer.
Had Langston reached his destination? Perhaps it was not Quincy’s plantation he was supposed to make that night, but rather that green pasture in the wolves’ den. The wolf had offered for his family to come with him, all in one fell swoop. What other creature was more capable than the one that laid the oppressors’ greatest weapons to rest with such ease, he thought? He could see it clearly: his mother, father, and William, all happy and free.
“Choose carefully, child. Everything comes at a price,” White Fang replied, standing on all fours. “Black Claw has great power, but it will not serve you without wealthy payment.”
The dark wolf bared its dingy, sanguine-tinged teeth. “Be silent, sister. Let the human decide. That warm, rapidly beating heart knows very well what it wants.”
But the white wolf’s warning did not miss Langston. “What sort of reward?” He asked the mischievous black wolf.
“My brother senses the pain and hate of others. Where the shadows sleep, his hungering gaze resides, coveting that which will sate his lust,” she replied, unease in her eyes as she looked upon Langston.
“I’ll ask you this, human,” Black Claw spoke. “How many times have those people hurt you, or those you care for? Don’t you believe that they deserve punishment; to meet the same demise they wrought upon others? Would that not be justice?”
Those words hit Langston hard in his stomach. He raised his voice, “No, I don’t want to hurt nobody. I want my family, so we can get to the Quincy Settlement.”
“You are weak! The pale men are your enemy! And the one you seek is no different,” the black wolf growled. Langston backed away at the sight of its blood-red eyes that gleamed like marbles.
The white wolf leapt from the hill, landing between Langston and her brother. “Back away from him, Black Claw. This one has no use of you. He seeks far more than bloodlust, which means you shall have no power over him.” Sheturned towards Langston, “Those who live by blood will die by blood, in whatever manner you take care of it. Remember those words as you go forward.”
“Curse you, sister,” Black Claw hissed. He then strode off into the trees, vanishing like a fleeting thought.
The white wolf walked back up the hill, regarding the hare with a nod of approval. Langston could feel her nurturing warmth. At last, he was confident enough to beseech the wise deity. “I wanna’ go to Quincy’s real bad, ma’am. Please,” he said, his emotions swelling. “Please help me.”
White Fang observed his demeanor with austere scrutiny as she prepared to make her final judgement. The young human that rendered her brother powerless had earned her favor in turn. The moon glistened with energy, endowing the white wolf with greater wisdom as her coat’s luminescence brightened. “The way to your freedom lies east of the serpent’s den.”
Even though Langston did not understand the word ‘serpent’, he knew. “Mister Snake? He’s out to get me. I can’t go back that way.” The hare jumped up in panic at Langston’s alarming disclosure.
“That devil is a scourge on this entire forest. He took my family from me, all those many seasons ago,” the hare concluded.
“Not only must you return to the creature’s den, you must retrieve the relic he has stolen from us. Without it, there is no way to break the chains off the door that will allow you to complete your journey.”
“But,” Langston’s hands shook more than before. He gazed upon the white wolf’s impeccable beauty in the moonlight. “I don’t know if I can go back. My legs won’t move.”
The white wolf replied, her voice imbued with his mother’s uncanny warm tone. “That’s why we have others to give us the push we need to keep going.” She looked at the hare. “Isn’t that right?”
The hare looked around, frantically searching for any other she might’ve regarded. But then, with a short sigh, he accepted his charge. “Of course, my Lady Guardian. I’ll be glad to lend the child a hand, if you wish it of me, that is.”
“You will?” Langston wiped the tears from his face.
The hare hopped over to him and began to shove his leg. “Yes, yes, but we’d best get going. There’s not much time until daybreak.” Langston started away from the hills, but shouted his thanks to the great wolf. He beheld her eminence one last time as she stood upon the peak of the hill, her white fur billowing in the wind, kissing the stars in the sky. She bayed into the night sky as loud as she could, a decree of protection upon Langston for all the denizens of the wild to uphold.
Oh, while I live, to be the ruler of life, not a slave, to meet life as a powerful conqueror, and nothing exterior to me will ever take command of me.
The hare hopped beside Langston as he beheld the gargantuan oak tree standing taller than any other in the vicinity. Langston knew they had arrived because of the whisper-like rustle oozing out of the brush, almost as if he was listening to hair grow. With the aid of the moon’s light he tried to descry those haunting, yellow and green eyes glaring out of the darkness.
“Well, how about that? The little slave boy done come back to make good on his wager. Usually, I got to go a-huntin’, but, not this time. You’s an honest boy.” The snake remained in the shadows, but raised his voice enough for Langston to hear.
Langston let go of his fear, as the hare curled behind his legs. “I ain’t here for no wager, mister! I come to get what you stole from the white wolf. You knew I wouldn’t be able to leave without it. You tricked me.”
“A wager is a wager, boy! And now, you only got a little while ‘til that sun reach on up over the horizon,” the snake teased. “How you come by that mutt in the first place?”
Langston pointed to the sky. “The heavens, they helped me. Or, something up there did.”
The snake hissed. “Those bastards, always gettin’ in the way.”
Langston continued to search around, trying to find any object that might be regarded as a relic. He hadn’t noticed before, but the snake hoarded many things in its den. Empty bottles of moonshine, broken crates and, much to the boy’s dismay, the bones of those that never saw him again—possibly other runaways.
“Do you see it?” Langston whispered to the hare.
“Not yet, I’m looking!” The hare made sure to keep up with Langston’s long legs. “I’m sure we’ll know it when we see it. The Lady Guardian always keeps the best of things, and if the snake stole it then it has to be at least shiny. Keep on looking.” They searched and searched, the snake’s eyes following them everywhere they went. They turned and toppled over every box and case until they had multiplied the junk.
The night sky began to transform again as the sun began to awaken. The stars began to disappear one by one. The snake coiled in anticipation as Langston rifled through the junk, trying to find the only tool that would further his journey.
Langston let a silver antique fall out of his hands. It wasn’t there. He looked everywhere for the tool he needed, but it was nowhere in sight. He had to hurry. If he wanted any chance of freeing his family, and escaping the wretched snake, then he had to think of some way to find it. Langston averted his gaze upwards, hoping that the light that helped him before would assist him one more time. But there were no miracles to Langston’s surprise, only the rattling tree branches that blew in the wind. Langston regarded the stars as he beseeched their help, knowing that he had no other way of finding the stolen instrument. As Langston began to succumb to his despair, a suspicious light twinkled from behind a tree. He ran across the cold hard grass, hurrying before he allowed it to vanish. The hare followed at his side as they both arrived at the source of the glimmer, their breaths laboring with exhaustion.
Langston’s astonishment blistered his face as a wintry draft blew over them. There it lied, a hammer unlike any he’d ever seen. Shimmery moonlight emanated from the inside out in a manner as unusual as everything else he’d encountered that night. He clenched the handle, feeling an overwhelming energy swell within him as he lifted it. There was no other relic White Fang could have intended for him to find.
The snake slithered into the light with his fangs eager to sink into his oblivious prey, breaking his silence as he inched closer.
“What makes you think I’m gonna’ let a little slave-boy thief waltz outta’ here with that which is mine?” Langston backed away as the serpentine giant closed in on him and his furry companion. He flourished his hammer, but the serpent was much too big and smart to fear a desperate child. “I thought about keeping you as my pet, but there’s just something about you I don’t like.” With its head cocked back it prepared to strike.
Just then, a howl broke out from deep in the woods, from where the strange wolves lived, as the snake lurched forward. It immediately stopped and turned to the sound, staring off into the distant void of darkness. Another howl clashed against the echoes of the first. The snake whipped its gaze at Langston and snarled a great snarl.
“I don’t know what you did, but mark my words,” the snake then eyed his satchel and looked back at Langston. “One day, boy…” The snake darted past Langston and swiped the satchel right off his arm, taking it with him. Its huge body blended with the tree branches, almost as soon as it left. Langston and the hare’s eyes followed the beast into the distance, making sure they were safe.
The hare did not want to waste time, should the snake renege on its retreat. One could never be sure of serpents. He hopped to the eastward path. “Let’s get you out of here! Quickly!”
One hopped and the other ran, both moving as fast as their legs could carry them. The various creatures were startled by their urgency. In the distance, Langston saw what looked to be a door of odd form. There was no house or structure to accompany it. It was a door in the middle of the woods, and he did not have a key. Only a hammer.
“That’s your way to freedom, child. All you have to do is smash it in and—” the hare looked at Langston, his ears draped along his head. “I never asked your name. What’d your mother name you?”
Langston walked over to the door, observing its stone craftsmanship. It was cinched in chains of steel. “Langston. My name is Langston.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that, Langston, when you come back to build my new home, all right?”
Langston smiled at the witty hare. “Yes, sir, as we promised.”
“Alright then, be off now. There’s no time to waste.”
Langston stood in front of the door. The hammer shimmering in his hands began to shine bright, brilliant glares rolling across its surface. It became warm with energy. He lifted the hammer’s hard core over his head, summoning thoughts of his mother, father, and brother once more. This time he did not feel remorse, but a powerful emotion more potent than all the others. All of the good vibes of the cosmos teemed with his certain determination, swelling in the pit of his stomach. With all his might, Langston let the hammer fall on the taut links, setting the chains free with a sudden snap.
The stone door awaited him to plow through it for the second strike. He inhaled and exhaled as he conjured the strength of his family and their ancestors. No more running, he thought. From that point on, he would be fighting to get back what belonged to him, no matter how long it took. Stone met stone and, when it did, a spark of lightning blinded Langston, throwing him into a darkened place within a deep slumber.
“I can’t play a slave.”
Langston heard it, over and over, the frequent clacks of hoofs hitting the dirt road. A hazy blur clouded his sight as he struggled to open his eyes. Once they had adjusted to the daylight he plainly saw the horse underneath his body and the hands gripping the reins in front of him. He fearfully began to panic because the hands that he saw weren’t his own. They were white hands.
“Whoa! Whoa! Settle down! Ain’t nobody gonna’ hurt you, child,” the voice of a white man spoke. Langston sat in front of him so he wouldn’t fall off the horse. Nothing made sense to him. The last he remembered was falling into a tree and something about talking animals. “I’m not gonna’ turn you in to your master. Don’t worry your little head ‘bout that.”
Langston didn’t turn around. It was illegal to look at one of these men without permission. He did not know what to say.
The road they traveled had neat, white picket fences along the grass all the way down for miles. The lawn on the opposite side was handsomely groomed.
“I found you on the side of the road, about ten miles from the closest plantation. I’m surprised you made it through those woods. I’d sure like to hear that story, that is, whenever you feel moved to. I ain’t gonna’ force you.”
The man’s friendly speech gave Langston security. He did not feel any malevolence emanating from him. Langston felt confident enough to ask, “What is your name, sir?”
The horse came to a stop at the porch of a manor so grand that it made Langston’s heart stop. In the garden, two girls, one of his color and the other of ivory skin, frolicked in a bed of daisies. He even saw other negroes sitting down on the porch, one reading and one writing. The man then replied with a voice of courageous disposition, “My name is Arthur Quincy Clowe, but everyone just calls me Quincy.”
Langston’s face swelled with tears. He’d made it. He’d done the impossible. The joy he felt was powerful enough to make him leap over the manor and back. “You were talking in your sleep. I heard a great deal of your endeavors. Savin’ your momma, poppa, and little brother and all is a noble thing. If you plan to do all of that, you’ve got a great deal of growing up to do.”
Langston looked out into the settlement and took it all in. He’d made the first step of his new journey. It would be even longer than his last.
“I know, sir,” he replied confidently. He repeated those three words until they harmonized with the very beat of his heart.