I felt it more than I saw it: Anna was so startled that she nearly fell off of her horse.
“You were named by a what?”
Her whisper was sharp enough to cut through a dry pork chop. Her amazement cut me to the bone. It was understandable. But still.
“I was named by a very old tree. In The Old Dominion, of course.”
“So, exactly how did that happen, Miss Willow? Did you hear a great rumbling voice speaking to you from out of the -”
She stopped speaking, giving me a look as if we were at Sunday meeting hearing of Moses and the Burning Bush. I began to laugh and had to stop myself, fearing that I might endanger our escape with too much mirth.
“I had only just arrived in Virginia, the Senator having bought me from my first master, as far as I know.”
“Do you recall your birth home, or your mother, at all, Miss Willow?
“No, Ma’am, I do not. Virginia is all I have ever known. And you?”
“Both of my parents are now free, living in Washington, DC, but my mother was still in her bonds when I was born, and so I must run.”
“That must be very hard, having your parents here and having to leave kith and kin all alone. How old are you, anyway, Miss Anna?”
“I am about 15 years old, Miss Willow, and you, Ma’am, are still straining to avoid my question almost as hard as old Mary there is straining to get to that grass. Why don’t we stop for a moment in that little copse of trees up there and have a little respite, as the gentlemen say, to eat and talk a bit?”
The idea was certainly a welcome one, nervous though I was about what I had to tell. I had no idea how far advanced the night had become, but it felt late, and we were all tired and hungry.
“That is a welcome idea, Miss Anna.” I leaned in the direction I wanted to go, laying the reins that way, but to my astonishment, old Mary began to wander off in exactly the opposite direction.
“Pull the rein on the side you want her to go. She got confused because some people use neck-reining, and that was what it felt to her like you just did.”
I followed Anna’s directions, apologizing to old Mary for my inexpert riding. She didn’t seem to take insult as quickly as our young guide, I was relieved to see. If we ever got out of this, and if I ever got to see old Mary here, again, up North, I would feed her as many apples and carrots as ever I could. Sugar would have to be a treat she’d forgo, as all of the cane I knew of was grown and processed by plantations down Natchez way, and I was loath to buy anything that I knew came from the stolen labour of those still in bondage, as I was even now.
We settled in, leaving our horses saddled, but tethered close by and able to graze as we also took some small refreshment. We had packed water, corn bread, apples, part of which I saved for Mary, and a few carrots. We dared not risk a fire, but the short rest worked wonders for my tired and aching muscles, unaccustomed as I was to riding.
As it turned out, cold though it was, we were wise not to light any fire. We’d just gotten our mounts under the shelter of an old bush arbor, as Anna said the old folks used to call them. It seems that some of the field hands used to know how to bend young trees and saplings into the form of a shelter. After covering them with the bark of a certain tree, they could make a living hut, round and supple, and reasonably warm, too. I was surprised to learn how much this young woman knew about living and moving about out of doors. Having been kept under constant watch in the house, I knew nothing of these things, and despaired of ever being able to learn them.
“Well, I think I will take this carrot over to old Mary-”
Anna was holding up her hand as she ducked low to the ground, sidling over to take the reins of both our mounts and pulling their heads low as well. I followed her lead, crouching down against the wall of our little shelter beside her. All was silence, to my untrained ear. Then I heard the sound of voices on the trail, some ways distant from us. They were too far away to make out any words. I found a dread overtaking me that rooted me to the spot as if that tree had adopted me as one of it’s own. Even after some minutes, when their voices had passed, born away on the pine breeze, I found myself unable to move. I also found the pain in my belly nearly overwhelming. I was barely aware of Anna telling me that all was well again. My breath, despite having opened my bodice before starting our ride, refused to move in or out of my lungs. My body simply remained in a paralysis against which I was helpless to act.
“It’s ok, Miss Willow, it’s ok. Just breathe. Come on, breathe with me.”
I felt her beside me, stretching my body out, rolling me onto a blanket she must have laid on the floor of our little shelter over the pine needles. I felt the rhythm of her breathing, her chest somehow directly against mine. As the air returned to my lungs, I felt a soft pressure against my body, wrapping me in a warmth that made it feel as if it might be safe to be alive. The warmth spread all along my back, and then into my legs. I felt myself enveloped in a warm cocoon that made me want to breathe and stretch. In my ear, a warm softness pressed in, uttering an unending command to keep breathing.
“That’s right, just keep breathing with me. You’re safe. We are safe.”
I opened my eyes and saw that we were lying together wrapped in a blanket, Anna’s arms around me in a protective embrace. I blushed, feeling a carnal sensation that made me ashamed of myself, especially after my previous shameful paralysis. My face and neck felt damp and irritated.
“Ssshh, sshh, sshh, it’s alright.”
I realized, as I opened my eyes again, that I must have been crying. Anna’s smoothing of my hair, as a mother comforts her child, only made me feel more ashamed. I was a burden, nothing more, and would do a favor for all the world if I would only have the strength to end my worthless existence. My weeping must have gotten even worse, for Anna began to hold my head and rock me back and forth, as one rocks a baby to sleep. And sleep I did, for a time. When next I opened my eyes, it seemed that the sun was just about to shine the bright rays of morning upon us. We still lay curled together, Anna’s hands tangled in my rebelliously curly long hair.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.”
How did she do that? I hadn’t moved an inch, except to open my eyes.
“How did you know -”
“That you were awake? Miss Willow, when you are on the road as long as I have been, you learn to notice things. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, much better, thank you. Just how long have you been on the road, Miss Anna?”
“Oh, since I was a young’un, I reckon.”
She smiled, a beautiful mischievous smile. She leaned over, stretching her body fully over mine, gently arching her back so as not to smother me, and reached out for the plate with our leftover apples and cornbread. I held her up at the waist, trying to be helpful as she held the plate even further out so that our horses could each take an apple. The feeling of the curves of her body brought feelings back to my remembrance that made me blush again, as I also found my appetite return.
“Are you hungry?”
I looked away, hoping that she had not noticed my blush.
“Oh, yes, thank you.
“I’m afraid we don’t have any butter, and we’ll have to eat it cold.”
“Not to worry, Miss Anna, this morsel of food is like the manna sent from heaven.”
Her smile lit up my day as that pillar of fire must have lit the day of the wandering Israelites.
We ate, arose and packed our meager belongings, taking pains to be certain that our tiny shelter left no evidence to betray our presence. As we prepared to leave, and she was helping me mount old Mary, Anna looked me in the eye:
“That is why you didn’t want to tell me, isn’t it?”
How did she doggon do that? I could only nod my head. She had caught me.
“I don’t think you have that tree around here, do you?”
She looked at me so tenderly that I thought my heart must break from it. She touched my face, just brushing a stray hair aside.
“No, ma’am, we don’t have too many Weeping Willows up this way, not like further south.”
There we were. I no longer needed to explain. Relief flooded me, knowing that what became general knowledge before I could even speak had, once again, spoken for itself.
“But let me tell you this: That particular breed of Willow is one of the strongest trees I know of. Those trees survive storm, rain, wind, giving shelter to all who pass by. They are useful, Miss Willow.”
I must have given her a baleful look, for her eyes firmed up, as she pointed a finger at me:
“And so are you.”