Delilah was headed for the wrong side of the tracks. And in the days before railroad tracks crisscrossed the midwest, the only tracks in Missouri belonged to runaway slaves.
Delilah worked—or daydreamed, rather—alongside the rest of us in a tobacco field. Our plantation stretched serenely along the Missouri River, owned by Master Henry, a mild-mannered, dimwitted, and alcoholic specimen. The adjoining partition belonged to Master Dalrymple, a hot-headed, bald-headed, ambitious frontiersman who took pleasure in everything he overdid. Our Masters were generous folk. They gave us liberal amounts of supper, hard labour, shelter, and solid beatings. Did this make them enemies, or friends?
Delilah was headed for trouble well before she changed her name. As a child she stole candles from Master Henry so we could tell ghost stories. As an adolescent, she stole kisses from Master Dalrymple. On her 14th birthday, she luxuriously resisted his cornucopia of chrysanthemums:
“I'm not for sale,” she coyly smiled.
“Well,” stammered the poor gentleman, “yes, technically, you are.”
By her fifteenth birthday, Delilah had stolen Master Dalrymple's heart. She got away with it too: it was Master Dalrymple who was arrested on misdemeanor charges for “trespassing on the neighbour's property” (the legal nomenclature, per the Missouri State Constitution, for taking the virginity of someone else's slave girl).
Delilah had no interest in education. No interest until, in 1847, the General Assembly outlawed all such learning for persons of colour. The moment literacy became illegal, Delilah suddenly couldn't get enough of it. She stole Master Henry's Bible and spent weeks translating Exodus from English into fairytales. She read how Moses dove into the Red Sea and seduced the mermaids with his magic staff. She read that stealing is against the Ten Commandments and promptly stole the Misses' copy of Pride & Prejudice so she could have something more interesting to read.
Most of us considered ourselves lucky because Master Henry was too unimaginative to be sadistic. Our lashings and beatings were generally restricted to harvest-time, when we could never bundle the tobacco fast enough. Delilah's beatings, on the other hand—well, she never got any. Delilah had set the bar so unprecedentedly low that Master Henry was pleasantly surprised to ever find her doing work of any kind.
Given her unrepresentative perspective on slavery, Delilah was indifferent toward emancipation. Indifferent, that is, until the Compromise of 1850, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The moment escaping to the north became federally criminalized, Delilah had to do it.
“Should I sail across the state line in a riverboat,” she ruminated casually, “or you reckon I'm better off tryna walk across on water like that Jesus fellow?”
“Shush!” I scolded; “Pastor Farnham says it's a sin for slaves to run off. Says so in the Bible.”
“How you know that's true if you've never read the damn thing?”
Not until the following year did railroad tracks come snaking across Missouri. On July 4th, 1851, the Pacific Railroad commemorated Independence Day with a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the American ideals of liberty and justice for some, slavery for others.
“Them locomotives are about as stylish as a runaway oxcart wearing spectacles,” sneered Delilah with derision; “if I ride any railroad outta this place, it'll be the Underground Railroad.”
With the railroads came thousands of settlers, who brought thousands of possessions, including portable libraries, cholera, slaves, ivory-studded bookcases, hemp-seeds, and stories. Crazy stories from someone named Harriet Beecher Stowe about a slave girl who escaped with her son downriver. Crazy stories about someone named Harriet Tubman who smuggled hundreds of slaves northward out of Maryland. Crazy stories that planted crazy, dangerous ideas in Delilah's head:
“That's it, I'm changing my name.”
“Delilah,” I protested—
“I don't go by that name anymore. My name's Harriet now.”
Who was there to contradict her? Not her birth certificate (she didn't have one); not the Supreme Court (according to whom she wasn't technically a person). Delilah—Harriet, rather—could call herself whatever she wanted.
No sooner had she made a new name for herself than Harriet felt compelled to set off and make a name for herself. That night she dragged me from my straw-thatch mattress and hauled me into the unsuspecting darkness, stopping only to post a goodbye-note on Master Henry's door:
Dear Master Henry,
I'm not running away. Think of it as a permanent vacation to Illinois, because your property is about as exciting as the Book of Exodus.
Quickly she stole supplies for our getaway (paper for a diary; candles for ghost stories), and then we stole quietly into the night.
“See that keelboat?”—Harriet pointed to a wooden vessel moored amid the shallows—“that's how they'll come looking for us tomorrow.”
My eyes were wide with fear: “how do we steer clear of it?”
“Silly question,” Harriet giggled; “come on—climb aboard!”
We hid beneath the paulin canvas in the rear cabin and told ghost stories to assuage my trepidation. And come daybreak, the furious tandem of Masters Henry and Dalrymple made their way aboard and shoved off.
“They're headed downriver, sure as eggs is eggs,” drawled Master Henry.
“How can you be sure?”
“Left a note they was headin' fer Illinois. God knows where in tarnation she learned to write.”
While Master Henry lacked the senses of a bloodhound, he did manage singlehandedly to smell, track down, and dispose of several flagons of whiskey on the foredeck. His intoxication progressed so rapidly that he would have been tipsy enough on dry land: balancing midstream was out of the question. By the time our boat reached St. Louis County, he was obligated to sit, lest he topple overboard.
Master Dalrymple scanned the riverbanks and furrowed his brows: “no sign a' them girls.”
“We'll find 'em,” proclaimed Master Henry; “riverbank's cleared of vegetation. Ain't nowhere to hide.”
Master Dalrymple joined in the consumption of whiskey, and joined in sentimental conversation: “You hear a' them upstart Republicans?” he sighed; “I hear they're fixin' to outlaw slavery.”
“This is a free country, Dalrymple—I'd like to see them try to take away my right to ownin' slaves! Shucks, them negroes got no sense of discipline; ain't got no sense of proper speech—and they're supposed to govern themselves? It's a notion equally preposterous as marriage among sodomites—preposterous as a black president—it'll never happen.”
What Master Henry lacked in tracking ability, he made up for with opinions. Mr. Dalrymple, meanwhile, fretted that we'd already escaped: “Still no sign a' them runaways. You reckon they're in Illinois already?”
“Delilah can't even make it to church on time; no way she's reached the state line already,” reassured Master Henry, oblivious that he'd given us a ride precisely there. “We'll just drop anchor here and wait till we catch sight of 'em.”
I scurried off, too nervous to look back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt. Harriet, however, paused just long enough to deposit one last goodbye-note above the cabin door:
Further thanks for your generosity in giving me the tools to educate myself—and for giving me a ride to Illinois.