The hundreds-year-old tree between the two houses was the only one still alive who knew how it all began. Past residents of those houses, Ruby and Dottie, had stood under its wavering, winter-bare branches years ago and argued about some trivial, forgettable, nonsense. Each woman, seething with rage, had marched inside and told their respective husbands not to speak to anyone next door again.
Ruby and Dottie were gone now. It was Ruby’s four-year-old great-great-granddaughter, Pearl, who decided to defy her mother and venture to the other side of the tree. Leaning against its trunk was Sam, Dottie’s great-great-grandson, who was absentmindedly playing with a pocket-watch he’d found in his attic. There was a folded note inside. Before the children could open it, the wind picked it up and carried it away. It was in Dottie’s handwriting, addressed to Ruby, and bore only the words, I’m sorry.
The watch forgotten, Sam and Pearl laughed and chased each other around the base of the tree, as she sighed with relief and showered them with blooms.
“I know it’s only been three weeks since the roll-out but the response has been phenomenal...”
Tonight was supposed to be date night. As usual, Nate’s “quick work call” had lasted more than an hour. Mary re-filled her wine glass and carried her plate into the living room, flipping on the television. She’d gotten used to not being Nate’s first priority any longer. He’d made a comfortable life for their family. A gilded cage. He didn’t know that long before his success, she’d trapped herself. She still loved him. She’d always love him.
The coffee-table book caught her eye. A collection of pictures from the early 20th century. A young girl was on the cover, forced to work long hours in a factory before she’d even entered puberty. Mary imagined what her life would have been like had she been born during that time. Maybe she would have gotten married when she wasn’t much older than this girl to a man she barely knew, no one caring what she actually wanted, her future already planned and assumed. No escape.
Nate appeared in the doorway, signaling that he’d only be a minute longer. A lie, but she nodded anyway. Mary ran her hand over the girl’s solemn face and sighed.
Dad was taking me on a tour of Savannah, his hometown, stopping in front of a grand French-style home. Grand Historic Home – Tours Daily read the sign. A group of tourists milled about.
“Our family lived here for generations,” Dad said.
“Lived here? They were rich?” I asked.
“No, honey. They worked here. They were slaves, then, after the war, they were servants.”
I remembered the stories I’d learned in school. People in chains, treated as less than human, subjected to all manner of inhumane treatment. I stare at the tourists snapping photos and laughing, confusion twisting my face.
During the mid-19th Century, Canada was the end of the line for runaway slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that between 1850 (when the American congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law) and 1865 (the end of the US Civil War), more than 100,000 African-American slaves escaped to Canada, with most settling in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
For many slaves, Canada represented a dream of freedom where slave catchers and lynch mobs couldn’t hurt them. Slaves on the Underground Railroad endured months, and even years, of living like fugitives while bounty hunters and racist government policies were always trying to impede their flight to freedom.
Most slaves started out their journey on the Underground Railroad (which wasn’t an actual railroad but more of a resistance and escape route that was heavily organized by concerned American citizens) by running away from their plantation in the middle of the…