Promises to Keep
I stood out on the patio in the crisp morning air and whistled for my dogs, Harlow and Hunter. The trees whistled back, a mocking of my call. Goosebumps raced up my arms and I pulled them in close as I whistled again, anxious for the dogs to return. The pre-dawn twittering and cackling overhead among the low, heavy branches stopped and once again my plea for Harlow and Hunter to return was mocked, this time by the occupants of all the trees around me. In the tight confines of the darkness, it felt as if they were closing in on me.
I looked at my bare feet as a chill ran up my spine, this was to have been a brief task. I pursed my lips and inhaled to whistle one more time, when the thundering sound of heavy paws upon hard-packed earth drew near. Two dogs, each toppling the scales at more than seventy-five pounds, ran to me and huddled in close, panting.
“It’s time for breakfast,” I said, as I pet each beneath the ear, relieved by their return. These words were normally followed by a race to the kitchen, as each hoped to gain the first morsel to hit the dish, but not this morning. Neither dog budged. I looked down at them, their eyes were fixed. I followed their gaze and sucked in a breath before taking a step back. Harlow and Hunter shuffled back with me, cowering but quiet. My loving protectors barked at everything: falling leaves, squirrels, frogs, even butterflies. Everything! Everything, but the man now cutting through my back yard.
“Sir!” I called out, surprised by the moment and not thinking clearly. After I had, I was suddenly aware how thin and sheer my nightgown was. I crossed my arms tightly over my chest and stepped forward in anticipation of a response, but none came. Still, the dogs were silent.
I took a couple anxious steps toward him, stepping from the cold stone slab onto the crunchy, frost-covered remnants of grass. It didn’t feel like spring. As the damp seeped between my toes and the cold wrapped around my feet and ankles, creeping up my legs, I realized that the birds had gone silent. I shuddered, but the curiosity was overpowering.
“Sir,” I called again.
He continued his march forward without looking up.
Normally, a strange man walking through my yard would have forced me inside to bolt the doors and call for help, but the mere fact that Harlow and Hunter hadn’t barked put things on a different footing. The scales of my judgment felt tampered with, my balance was off. Why weren’t they barking? Why did he not respond? Why did he not startle or look up at the sound of my voice? He was intent on something, but what?
I took a few more steps toward him, still he was oblivious of me. I watched him cut through the furthest reaches of my yard, along the fence line. Then, he disappeared. He was there, walking toward the fence that edged the side of my yard. Then, he was gone. I want to say he walked right through it, the six-foot privacy fence that wrapped around my backyard, but even I don’t believe that. I know what I saw, but even I don’t believe that.
Harlow barked. I jumped, startled, and turned toward her. She barked again. Hunter offered a short bark followed by his deep howl. Yes, the neighbors hated me.
I glanced at my watch, it was 5:15am. This would warrant a call from Esther, sooner rather than later. It wasn’t that she didn’t like dogs, or even my dogs, but Hunter’s pre-dawn howling irritated her. Honestly, it irritated me too. It was loud, exceptionally loud, but you didn’t mess with Hunter. Fortunately, this also meant no one messed with me. That’s why this was so strange. No one dared walk around the outskirts of my yard, much less through it.
“Come on, let’s get inside. I’m freezing and I definitely need coffee.” Now, my two wild ones ran inside without a backward glance. Whatever was going on, in their minds all was well. Which was mostly good enough for me. Mostly. My curiosity, however, was slightly more acute than theirs. I wanted answers. They wanted food.
I didn’t need an alarm clock, I had Harlow and Hunter. The next morning, after being awakened by a cold nose and warm doggy breath in my face, I opted for a sweater, jeans, and boots. I opened the door and Harlow and Hunter ran, just as they always did. Crisp mornings were their coffee equivalent, which was a lot to take.
I stood out on the patio and waited. I hoped to see nothing, but for reasons I couldn’t aptly articulate, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case.
The minutes ticked by slowly. I was colder now than I had been in the nightgown. Then, in the distance, I heard the dogs thundering toward me unbeckoned. I stepped off the patio and pointed the flashlight deep into the far recesses of my yard. I could see Harlow and Hunter running toward me, but they were alone. No strange man had startled them and inspired their return to me. Maybe it had been a trick of the brain? I suffered from insomnia. When I was extremely tired, my imagination worked overtime.
I took in a deep breath, rubbed my temple, and he was there; a solitary figure walking along the far edge of my backyard.
I stepped off the patio into the grass. Harlow and Hunter crowded in beside me. Still, they didn’t bark.
It took a moment, but I mustered my courage and began walking toward the man. My brave protectors pushing in on me from either side. “Sir,” I called out, as I pointed my flashlight at him.
He didn’t respond. He didn’t even seem to notice the blinding light shining directly on him.
“Sir, may I help you? Are you lost?” I was moving faster now.
He didn’t look up. His eyes remained focused on the ground in front of him.
My eyes were focused on him.
When I was about fifteen feet away from him, I stopped and gasped. His clothes and hat were strange, old-fashioned. His feet were bare. Now, as I stood so near to him, I could see that much of the left side of his body, the side furthest from me, was badly burned. Half his hat was missing and most of his clothing along that side of his body was gone as well.
I stood, frozen in fear and confusion, while he continued along the edge of my yard muttering under his breath, “Gotta get it right this time… Gotta get it right this time…” As he did, I realized that the light from my flashlight passed though him and he cast no shadow to impede the reach of its light. I sucked in another breath, willing curiosity and determination to win out as I forced myself to hurry forward and stand in his path.
He stopped abruptly and stared at my feet.
Though frightened, I was determined not to turn and run. From right to left, his body transitioned from peculiar, tattered clothes to charred and blistered flesh. The cogs began to turn in the back of my mind and I felt warm tears trickle down my cold cheeks. I had heard stories, heartbreaking tales of a small band of escaped slaves, but that was…
He was staring at me now. He too looked as if he’d seen a ghost. I exhaled slowly, my breath plumed white and wispy, filling the space between us. He continued to stare at me with his one good eye, in the place where the other should have rested was a void surrounded by vivid, red blisters and charred flesh.
“Gotta get it right this time,” he muttered.
“Get what right? Maybe I can help?”
He hesitated so long before responding that I thought maybe I hadn’t gotten the words out. They had felt strange and awkward on my lips and my chest hurt from the cold and holding my breath for too long, but he finally said, “No, ma’am. I ain’t never talk to no white woman like such fore, but no ma’am. All due respect, and I thank you kindly, but no ma’am. I trusted the wrong person ‘fore, can’t do it again.”
“I can help. I’m sure of it,” I said, though I was sure of no such thing. “Please, let me try,” I pleaded as I reached out and placed my hand on his shoulder.
His eye went wide and he shuffled backwards, away from me. In his hurry and confusion, he stumbled and fell to the ground. There, he quickly dug in his heels, pushed himself further from me and looked around nervously.
I took a step back and held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… mean to… upset you.”
“Upset? Thing like that’ll get a man like me, slave or free man, kilt.”
Bile rose in my throat. Such dark days. “I’m sorry. I guess I forgot… um… I guess I forgot myself.”
He hurried to his feet, keeping the space between us wide. We stood in silence for a moment before another realization took hold of him. Slowly, he turned his head and stared at his shoulder, the place where my hand had rested. “So,” he began, before turning to look me in the eye, “you’kin see me and… and touch me?”
I nodded. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to touch or feel him even though I had watched the light from my flashlight pass through him. Now, however, I didn’t know where to begin with the questions. So much seemed obvious, but I didn’t believe in ghosts and… I guess that’s at the heart of it; I didn’t believe in ghosts. Yet, everything I was seeing and everything I thought I knew seemed to point to only one conclusion: this man was one of the victims of the cellar fire at Braxley Farms. I shook my head. It wasn’t possible. It was barely more than a legend around these parts and one few gave much credence to.
Before the Civil War, Indiana had been a free state, but not all agreed with such thinking. There were some who weren’t above capturing an escaped slave and forcibly returning them for a reward. Mrs. Braxley was an abolitionist. Mr. Braxley didn’t particularly favor the cause, but feigned support because their money was actually her money and her father was still alive to oversee it. Aldus Carson, their overseer, had only one loyalty and that was to his wallet. Aldus convinced Lionel Braxley that the handsome reward for returning a handful of escaped slaves outweighed temporarily alienating his wife. The two men arrived at the cellar an hour after Thelma Braxley had carefully hidden a family of five within it. They tried threats and force, but nothing would compel the escapees to mount the stairs of their own volition and begin the long journey back to slavery.
The men were in a quandary over what to do when Aldus decided smoking them out was their only option. His intent had been to lean in and throw a torch deep into the back of the cellar, but the opening was small and as he leaned in with the torch his sleeve caught fire. He dropped the torch to save himself and by doing so trapped the cellar’s occupants behind what quickly became a great wall of fire.
The fire killed all five escaped slaves. It burned through the wooden cellar door, ignited the dry brush and grass that edged the small entrance, and shot up the old oak that stood between the cellar and the back of the house. The yellow flames raced over the long branches and leapt upon the roof of the great house that overlooked Braxley Farms. By morning, all that remained of the Braxley house was ash and a handful of glowing embers. A scorched rock marks the spot to this day. Some say the burns are from a lightning strike, but most will tell of the treachery of Aldus Carson and Lionel Braxley and the fire that killed the five escaped slaves and Thelma Braxley.
I shook my head.
“Ma’am,” said the man in front of me, drawing me out of the story that raced through my mind. “Ma’am, no disrespect, but I’m short on time and best get movin’.” He tipped the edge of his scorched hat and made to move around me.
“Wait. I don’t understand.”
“Ma’am, there ain’t nothin’ you need understand. This just what I gotta do.”
“But how have you not, I mean you should… I don’t understand how you’re not at rest now. At peace.”
“Ma’am, I promised my son he’d leave this world a free man. Promised it, and ‘morrow night the moon be just right, bright, but not full. ‘Morrow night we gonna walk on outta here, to our next stop, our last stop, and I’lla kept my promise. A man only as good as his word and I want my son a’know my word is good.”
Again, he tipped his hat, this time he moved past me.
I watched him until he disappeared through my fence.
Just after sun up, I drove out to Braxley Field to look for Scorched Rock. I only moved to town six months ago, so I’d never been before. I’d heard it was “easy to find” though. After ten minutes of wandering in circles I began to question what this town’s version of “easy to find” was. Then, I tripped over it. It would have been easy to find if the field hadn’t been up to my waist.
I stared at the scorch marks on the rock. It looked like the handy work of lightning to me. There appeared to be a point of impact and fracturing, but what did I know? I began circling the rock, pushing out in an ever-widening circle, and then I stopped abruptly at the crumbling edge of a large crack in the earth. I knelt and peered into the darkness, but no end was in sight. I could only guess that somewhere beneath me was what had once been the cellar of Braxley Farms. Could it all be true?
The trip to Braxley Field and the following six-minute drive home yielded no answers, only more questions. I sat in my car and turned them over and over in my mind. Why now? Why my yard? Why could I see him? Touch him? I leaned back and stared through the windshield at the fence that wrapped around my back yard. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I know what I saw. The funny thing was that one of the reasons I moved to Inwood was because my mother had talked about her Braxley lineage ever since I could remember. Speculated about it is probably more accurate.
Thelma Braxley died in the fire, which prior to moving here I had believed was a kitchen fire. Lionel vanished afterward, never to be heard from again, but there were rumors that Thelma had recently given birth, though the child was sickly and not expected to live through the winter. Having already lost two children, one was stillborn and one to cholera, Thelma had kept the birth quiet. My mother had always claimed that when the fire broke out the nurse fled with the baby and that that child was my great, great, great grandfather. Knowing that my mother was fond of usurping tall tales and weaving herself into them, I’d never given the possibility more than an amused smile and courteous nod when she shared the details of the nurse’s dramatic flight from the flame-engulfed mansion at dinner parties. After my husband died, the small town of Inwood floated to the forefront of my mind, not because of some perceived family connection, but because it was small and quiet, which made it the perfect place to hide from the flood of sympathy and start over. It was random, that’s what made it perfect.
I shook my head, made a mental note to call my mother, and reached for the door handle. Just as I wrapped my fingers around the latch to open the door, an explosion pierced the silence and shook the earth. Startled, I squeezed the keys in my hand, accidently setting off my car alarm. The screeching bounced around the confines of my small sedan until I thought my head would explode as well. When I finally pushed the right button and silence returned, I leaned back and exhaled slowly, trying to calm my nerves.
The new owner of the property adjacent to Braxley Field was removing tree stumps with dynamite. They’d blown out three the other day before the sheriff put an end to it. I couldn’t believe they had started up again. It was unacceptable. I was in the middle of fuming over this as I slid out of the car and realized that the tree stump removal had been the day before yesterday, just before my first surprise visit. The explosions must have cracked open the slaves’s grave. It was the only explanation, after you moved past not believing in ghosts.
I awoke early the following morning and dressed quickly. I put leashes on Harlow and Hunter and attempted to hurry them out the front door, a task they associate with a visit to the vet, and as such it was met with some resistance. Once we started around the side of the house, though, they were all in and eager for marking new territory.
We made our way to the far back corner of our lot and waited. Minutes ticked by slowly and I found myself worrying that we were too late. I was on the cusp of heading back into the house when Harlow and Hunter turned and focused on something deep within the darkness. I clicked on the flashlight. Soon, a handful of figures were moving out of the shadows toward me. I sucked in a chest full of crisp morning air.
The man who had twice cut through my yard was in the lead. When he saw me, he tipped his hat, but said nothing. A young woman with a small child on her back walked behind him. Another man, younger than the first, followed and behind him was an old woman. The old woman could barely stand upright. How had she managed to come so far? The old woman was aided by a white woman whose face was hidden by a bonnet, but I presumed it was Thelma Braxley. She too appeared to have a task that demanded completion. My breath caught in my chest and tears filled my eyes. They were all badly burned, but they trudged forward and I watched as one by one they walked through the fence and disappeared into my yard.
After Thelma and the older woman vanished, I hurried along the back of my fence and waited for them on the other side. When they passed out of my yard, Harlow, Hunter, and I followed them at a distance. We made our way through the wooded lots of my neighbors until we were on the edge of town. In the ditch adjacent to Hawthorne road, the young man stopped and the party that followed him did so as well. I watched as he bent down and laid his palm flat against the asphalt of the narrow road. He shook his head as he stood, stepped from the damp grass and packed earth onto the cold road and turned right.
He led his family onward, through the sleepy little town I called home. A couple people stepped outside onto the sidewalk, rubbing their eyes in confusion and wonder at the strange sight.
The small band of escapees were almost out of sight when a question overwhelmed me. I hurried forward, the dogs pulling ahead of me, always eager to run. “Sir. Sir!” I called out.
The weary travelers stopped and all eyes turned toward me. “Sir, I’m curious, what is your name?”
For a moment, he stared at me, they all did. Finally, he removed his hat and held it to his chest, “Washington, Washington Hi…” he trailed off, shaking his head. Then, he laughed and a strange light flickered across his one good eye. The handful of onlookers standing out on the curb were now intent on something behind me. I turned and gasped. A tree in the center of Braxley Field was engulfed in flames, but no tree stood in the center of Braxley Field, it had burned down over a hundred and fifty years ago. I blinked, confused, and as I did, I was sure I caught a glimpse of the old house as it crashed to the ground. I turned back toward Washington.
“The name’s Washington Freeman, ma’am. Ain’t that got a nice ring to it?” Washington smiled, returned his hat to his head and offered me a nod before turning and leading his family onward.
I nodded. Hot tears trickled down my cheeks. My eyes traced each of their faces as one by one they turned and walked away. The weariness of moments ago was gone, it had been replaced with joy. When I reached Thelma, I stopped, the air caught in my chest. She was looking right at me. Her bonnet was pushed back now and I could see her face. It was like looking in a mirror. She smiled at me, her task now complete, then, she turned and followed Washington and his family into the distant dawn.