Massey Delacroix was an only child, sort of; both parents had other marriages and other kids now. Breaking with tradition, her mother took the name of her new husband. Massey, the last of the Delacroix lineage, was left with a mystery to solve about her ancestors. This mystery was intriguing enough to bring her from temperate small town Dover, New Hampshire, to the steamy humid city of Shreveport, Louisiana.
She strained to see behind her as she backed out of the parking spot near the Bossier City Historical Center library entrance. Being small in stature, she was glad she had chosen the sedan instead of the hulking SUV they tried to give her at the rental store. Though her legs were long enough to reach the pedals, she sat close to the steering wheel to see, still getting used to her new multifocal glasses. As she entered onto the city street, she relaxed enough to let her mind wander over the information she had gathered today.
The Delacroix family was a light skinned bunch of refined blacks who lived in northern Massachusetts. Massey’s dark skin hid a truth no one wanted to share. She knew her mother was a descendant of a black slave who ran away from a convent in this area of Northwest Louisiana. She had heard the story sung many times to her and her cousins in their childhood. Though it was a calm soothing lullaby that eased fussy babes to sleep, little Massey always listened to the words. As an adult, she realized the words painted a dark image of painful servitude, fearful escape, and tenuous freedom. She wrote them down once and forgot about them. Until a chance meeting with a historian from a southern Mississippi university, who inquired about her last name. He was fixated on the similarity to the name of a group of nuns who did missions work in Louisiana before the Civil War. He called them the Sisters of the Cross and said they were buried in a North Louisiana garden cemetery.
This brief encounter played in her mind about a month later, when she was brainstorming for a new book idea. Having tenure at the University of New Hampshire required research and publishing every few years, to show you are staying fresh in your field. Massey’s field was Africana and African American Studies. In all her research, it only now occurred to her to investigate her own family tree. What was so special about now? All her cousins were married and they took their spouse’s surnames. Knowing she was the last one to carry the family name made her feel obligated to tell their story before it was lost completely.
Her fiancée asked her when they could start thinking of a date. He thought a fall wedding would be nice. She said it was too soon to plan. She didn’t know which name she would claim as her surname; his or hers. Should she follow tradition or strike anew like her mother? Did it really matter? She knew it mattered. However, her mother, Sally, nee Delacroix, now Martin, was more interested in a name that carried a material history, one that commanded special treatment and luxurious upgrades.
Massey liked her name. She liked the fragile link to a distant past, even though her mother told her precious little about it. She could not imagine having someone else’s name. Hers had so much meaning. It had its own story, its own song. Few blacks could say that. Often Caucasians could tell something about their lineage, their country of origin or what their great-grandfather did for a living. Most African Americans are hard–pressed to provide any details about their ancestors, and even less about their name. She knew where her name originated.
The white men gathered outside in the main yard, around a crackling fire, drinking, swearing and sharing stories of the brewing war between the states. The black men moved purposely about, tending to the needs of the white men, despite their own tiredness from working the fields all day. This baby did not seem to want to greet the world tonight. The missus had carried it for a few days more than she liked and, now it was time, she did not appreciate the long labor. Her black nurse kept hot rags and cool towels to soothe her pains, but all she got in return were curses and accusations for personally prolonging the birth with her Haitian voudou. She was alternately pushed away then pulled closer to help bear down.
After many hours of abuse, the black nurse saw the head start to crown and took quick action to call the little black girl by the door over with more towels and cloths. The baby was coming hot and fast now, but there was too much blood, she said. The baby plopped out, small and angry red. It was quickly wrapped and sent out of the room. The white woman nearly passed out from the pain, after glimpsing the dark bundle of baby flesh and blood. She already knew before the nurse told her. The baby was dead. Thank God.
Mass held the bundle tight to her flat chest and ran as fast as her skinny legs could carry her toward the slave quarters. She passed up the shacks, avoiding the little fires of light, and kept on toward the river. She was very dark and very light footed, so she was not seen or heard in the night. She took deep breathes as she pumped her legs forward. She ran for all her life, headed north. She did not stop until daylight when she hid in a beaver dam. She hummed a familiar song in her head. She followed instructions well. The nurse had whispered one word, “run”.
In the darkness of the beaver dam, she allowed the wiggling figure to peep out of the cloth and catch some cooler air. The new eyes barely opened and the baby turned its head toward her close face. She had heard the softest cry while running but could not allow the baby to move freely for fear of detection. Such would be an immediate death sentence by bullet or rope if she was lucky. If she wasn’t, which was most likely, it would mean bloody stripes on her back, the humiliation of the slave auction block, and brutal daily raping of the soul, if not the body.
Mass gently rocked the baby as she began to put words to the song she hummed. She smiled and let her eyes comfort the baby’s dark eyes. She was familiar because she had been the missus’s little handmaid, so the baby had heard her voice many times. This familiar was enough to keep the baby calm and happy. She liked to laugh so she giggled a little now and the baby smiled back. She settled down in a less damp section of the abandoned beaver cave and tried to get a little rest, though always listening and alert to trackers. As the day became hotter, she took a piece of bark and fanned the baby’s face; she dared not move too much. The ripples in the red river water would give them away. Here they would be safe until dusk, when she could start running again.
The baying of hounds could be heard in the distance, mixed with the gruff shouting of men searching for the runaway slave. They noticed her absence in the big house and suspected she had run off. The men followed the dogs as they sniffed the ground and picked up the trail. The girl’s scent led them to the water’s edge and they picked up their trotting pace, following the serpentine course of the river, headed south. As they stumbled over cypress knees and tree roots, they sniffed and inspected the muddy holes along the bank. Their noisy clamor faded away as they followed the fake trail she made before back tracking in the river to hide.
The heat of the day brought on fitful napping, peppered with dark dreams of being beaten, mauled by dogs, and slowly drowning from snake bites. Mass was glad when dusk arrived. She gave the baby some of the reddish brown river water to drink before wrapping it up again for the next leg of their journey. They had to make it to the big river and find the railroad people whispered about. No one knew for sure it existed but they had to try to find it. Their life depended on the help of strangers to get them to freedom. Mass tied the baby to her chest, so both arms could swing freely. She could run faster and for a longer time before resting. She felt she could run until dawn.