Beneath the Willow
by Dalton Quick (with art by Freeman)
Josiah often fell asleep beneath the willow. He would come home – his body worn physically and mentally in equal measure, his heart racing with the pains of today, his mind anxious with the thoughts of tomorrow. He would walk around the house, careful not to look beyond the glass panes, not to see inside. He would slip off his shoes, and slide his bare feet into the shallow creek, feel the cool, placid, perfect ripples stretch over his scared skin. And after he’d crossed the waves, when his feet stood again on the soft, luscious grass, he’d gaze up into the emerald-colored canopy and drift away. That’s when the dreams began…
He first heard her sing beneath the willow.
He was sweaty and tired, his body burning under the fierce August sun of a Mississippi heat wave. Daddy had brought him home from school early when he needed help on the plantation. Never mind his mother’s protests, or his son’s wishes, or the 23 colored slaves he had working the fields from dawn to dusk – when daddy put his mind to something, he’d find a way to will it into existence.
Problem is, he’d never been able to drive away his son’s own will.
Mandias, or Mandy as the others new him, was peaking at 67-years-old. His body had long ago broke beneath the pain of endless work and the whip his father’s foreman carried daily, and so it wasn’t unexpected that in the midst of a scorching 101-degree afternoon, Mandy might break for a moment of rest.
But that wasn’t the worst of the sins committed that day. It was Josiah bringing Mandy a glass of water from the house.
The battle between he and his father was vicious. Josiah was 16, taller and stronger than his daddy, but still subject to his money and authority. He looked into his eyes – shaded in the same blue as his own – while he whipped the slave for sloth, and all the while he wondered how a man who looked so much like him could be so different.
Mandy fell to the ground in a heap as dust swirled around his body and settled against the bloody welts on his back. Josiah reached for him, but his father’s body reacted much too quickly, raising the whip again.
“Touch him and–“
“What?” Josiah stood taller, moving between Mandy and his father. “You gonna whip me next?”
His father’s voice was as callous as Mandy’s hands. “Don’t give me a reason to.”
“Reason.” Josiah looked down, wishing he could do something – anything – to end Mandy’s discomfort.
“You’ve never needed a reason to hurt people. Not them, and not me.”
He thought his father might strike him. It wouldn’t be the first time. But as if struck by something himself, he turned around and walked back out to the fields, throwing the whip into a side ditch where Josiah was sure the foreman would retrieve it later.
He helped Mandy to his feet, supporting his weight in its entirety. He looked toward the barn, but knew it was too far for him to reach if Mandy didn’t regain some of his strength, and the pale complexion in his cheeks told him that wouldn’t happen soon. So, instead, he walked for the next nearest piece of shade.
Beneath the old willow tree, he’d played under as a kid.
There was a stream that ran alongside it, that offered enough fresh water for him to clean the wounds.
That’s when he first heard her voice.
“Amazing grace… how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
And sweet it was. His hands were stained with another man’s blood, his father was a monster, his home a prison… and yet, Josiah felt entirely content as he listened to her sing.
“I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was lost, but now I see.”
The sound rebounded against Josiah’s heart, as thoughts of his father, of Mandy, of everything he hated about his family’s farm and his country’s laws, surfaced in his stomach – a deep pain that took his breath away. Until the second verse started.
“T’was grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
He held Mandy’s hand until he fell asleep, and stayed listening until her voice faded. And in that moment, he knew he had to talk with her.
She was lying in the field, with grass so tall and golden, there was no chance of her being seen by anyone who hadn’t followed the voice, by anyone who hadn’t been beneath the willow.
Her skin was darker than he’d expected – browner than the dirt she was lying on. Her hair was matted with the sweat of a day’s work, and there was no hint of a smile on her shadowy lips.
But her eyes were stunning. A honey-gold that seemed to surround him, as if bathing him in sunlight. And even amidst the heat, that light felt refreshing.
“Sing it again… please.”
The way he spoke to her was different from the others. Yes, he was asking something of her, but not as a demand or order; as a request – as if he were her equal.
“I’m afraid I’m not very good.”
His smile fell gently, his eyebrows shifting at her words, as if his body physically reacted to her insecurity.
“That’s absurd. You’re –”
There was a groan, and then a scream. Then another. Then another.
It sounded beneath the willow.
Josiah ran the short distance, taking Mandy’s hand in his own the moment he could reach for it. The man had woken from his sleep, the adrenalin gone, and his body now physically convulsed beneath the pain.
“It’s okay, Mandy… It’s okay.”
“Mister, please!” The man screamed every word as if it might be his last. “Please make it stop, mister.”
The girl was at his side the next moment, their arms brushing together, as she fought to help Josiah hold the man down.
“What can we do?”
“I don’t know…” Josiah whispered the words. His mind working to think of something he could do – anything.
There were medicines in the house, but if his father had whipped the man over a glass of water, he’d kill him for expensive creams.
“Please! Please make it stop! Please!”
“Sing!” Josiah looked to her, a begging in his eyes, while hers lifted in misunderstanding. “Sing to him.”
“Just do it! It helped him before… just try.”
She shifted her gaze from Josiah, to the fields, to Mandy, to Josiah, to the fields, to Mandy, to Josiah, to the fields…
Until Mandy screamed again.
“Beneath the willow… Far from harms way. The old farmer’s son holds the monster’s at bay.”
She looked at Josiah the entire time she sang, as if he were the one giving her words life.
“And though things are dark, the light is still here. Beneath the willow… where God’s men endear.”
She made the words up as she sang. He was sure of it. Each one sounding a perfect harmony that brought him closer to her, and her to him, as Mandy drifted into a deep sleep. But even then, she kept singing – singing for him, singing to the perfect smile that seemed to radiate against the sun.
Singing for a man that scared her more than he could possibly understand.
She sang for hours, until dusk fell over them and they both ended up together, lying on the ground, looking up through the canopy to the stars beyond. He held her hand, and she finally understood why he scared her – scared her more even than the farmer with the gun or the foreman with the whip.
She liked him. Liked him much more than she should. And that made her more unsafe than she’d ever been on this plantation.
Even after returning Mandy to the barn, they stayed together under the willow. Her singing… him smiling… as if they were the only two people who existed in the world.
Even though their worlds could never not be apart.
“I think… perhaps it’s time for me to go. If you’ll excuse me, mister.”
His disappointment was clear as they stood from the ground.
“You um… you don’t have to call me that, you know?”
She looked at him, amazed and confused at the same time.
“My name is Josiah.”
They stood in silence for several moments, until finally he asked, “And your name is?”
“Oh…” She looked down, embarrassed, as she twiddled her thumbs together. She wasn’t used to the procedure.
No one asked for a slave’s name.
The sound of the word sliding from her lips, was more beautiful than the star-soaked sky.
“Well, Amabelle, it is a pleasure to have met you.” He turned toward his house, and she turned toward the barn. “I hope to see you again tomorrow. Here… beneath the willow.”
He taught her to read beneath the willow; and she taught him to sing.
He spoke from his heart beneath the willow; and she did the same.
He told her of his dreams beneath the willow; and for the first time, she felt she could dream too.
They both fell in love… beneath the willow.
He decided to run away with her beneath the willow.
“We come here every day…”
Her voice never startled him, even when it sounded sudden and close enough for her breath to reach his ear. It was a tone so familiar, comforting, and soft, it seemed to drift through the trees with the brighter notes of a bird’s song.
“And I watch you… and I listen to you breathe… and I feel your heart beat… and, still, you haven’t shared with me what troubles you.”
He turned, his cheek falling to the grass as hers already had – his blue eyes finding the deep honey-color of her own, before trailing to her dark lips.
“That’s because when you’re here, nothing troubles me.”
She knew he was lying. Their troubles were palpable, paramount, even deadly.
Because he was the farmer’s son. And she was the farmer’s slave. And, yet, not their skin tones, nor his family’s hate, nor her family’s distrust, not the confederacy or the battles in the North, not even the law had been able to fight whatever it was that always brought them back here. Lying together. Everyday. Beneath the willow.
“I love you,” he said, all the while thinking that love is the only thing strong enough to fight through it all.
“But can you love me enough?” The question wasn’t accusatory. It was fair. Because while he was taking a risk, she was the one risking everything. “Do you love me more than your father? More than your mother? More than your family?” She looked down, where the breeze lifted a blade of grass between them and it settled on his calloused hands. They were cracked and bleeding – signs of his day on the land. A day with him. “Do you love me more than your home?”
“You are my home?”
“No, Josiah…” She wiped his face with her hand, half expecting there to be dirt where her skin touched his. They treated her like it… his family. You can only be told you’re dirt so many times before you start to believe it’s true. “This is your home. This house. This land. These crops and animals. These people…” her hand held toward the negros in the barn, “your property. Even this tree. This is your home.” Her voice settled and her eyes closed, as if she were trying to block it out – to erase this place completely.
“That man is your home. That man who has beat my father, and broken my brother. That man who has violated my sister, and killed more friends than I can count. That man who looks at me and sees my skin as if it is colored from filth and not from God. A man like that would rather kill me, and you, than see his son be with someone like me.”
It was the first time she’d ever admitted it – that she had ever dared utter it aloud – the idea that they might be together. Impossibly… Hopelessly… Somehow.
“As if it is even a question.” Her voice faded as her mind traced the thought back to truth. There was no world in which the two of them could be together if they weren’t beneath the willow. “It’s against the law.”
“Here it is… but not in the North.”
She lifted her gaze and found his smile, crooked, lifted just slightly higher on one side, reaching toward his perfect, clear blue eyes. In them she saw a certainty – a promise in every word that sparked a hope she was terrified to give life.
“You’re asking me if I can love you enough… But I already do. I love you enough to leave here, to leave this place. I love you enough to run away. I love you enough to sacrifice everything, because you are my everything. That is how much I love you.”
He reached for her hand, and she nestled in closer, their bodies as if one… at least, beneath the willow.
“Tell your family that we’ll send for them as soon as we can. I’ll gather a bag.” The smile on his face was endless, the thoughts of forever – of forever with her – bringing a sense of purpose and hope to his life that hadn’t existed for a very long time. They could be free. They could be together. They could survive. “We’ll meet here in an hour… one last time. And then we go.”
His words seemed to carry her to another life – one where she felt protected and secure… where she felt loved, just as she did beneath the willow.
“I love you enough, Amabelle.”
The words robbed her of breath, and it took her several minutes to find the power to speak again.
Power is so hard to come by when you’re born a slave.
“I love you too, Josiah.”
It was the first time she’d said the words. Finally… she trusted him.
Josiah woke from the dream; but he’d never been able to wake from the nightmare. From the last night he’d seen Amabelle.
He looked through the branches out toward the fields, the house, the workers. This place was beautiful. His family home was at its best in springtime – when the flowers were bright, and the air clean. When the birds whistled their songs in the branches, while the rivers ran clear with every hue of cerulean. When the leaves of the willow were vivid and new and perfect.
He guessed that’s why he’d returned. Why he’d come back all these years later – to search for color and hope and light.
But it all looked dark to him now. Dark and grotesque and lifeless. Without Amabelle it was nothing. He was nothing. Just the slave owner’s son. The man who, as a boy, fell for the one person he shouldn’t have. Who trusted his heart over his mind and reaped the consequences.
Or she had. Amabelle. The woman he’d loved. The woman he’d promised forever. The woman bound by a life of servitude. The woman who was his everything. And at the same time nothing at all. Because she was a slave.
The slave his father murdered.
Here… beneath the willow.