Joe was looking for a white house, small, at the edge of a village called Hamilton somewhere in Pennsylvania, not that he knew where Hamilton was, or Pennsylvania, for that matter; this land was all just trees and dusty roads and streams and fallen leaves to trudge through. When he was thirsty he crouched at the brook and cradled his hands in the water and raised them to his cracked lips in the same way he had done since he could drink by himself. He had never used a cup.
The people that lived in the white house would help him. They were named Mr. and Mrs. Dodge. They had helped others like him to hide, to get something good to eat, to rest, and then they had pointed them in the right direction further north.
At night Joe walked along roads, directed by a vague sense inside him of where he was going and by the moon and stars and the direction of the wind—what mattered, he supposed, was not that he got to the white house, because he knew there were other houses like it, but that he put distance between himself and the place he was coming from. He was alone, which worked against him, he figured, but he could not risk coming with others. They would make noise. They would ask questions. They would die.
There, in that place that he was coming from, sometimes they were brought back, they who had gone far indeed and then had been caught, lucky to escape the rope or a fate even worse, and hauled to their masters, where they were forced to hold onto a pole and were whipped for hours, their screams searing the night. Joe spent a few nights fully alert, curled up on the hard wooden floor, listening. Each strap was a crack as clear as a bucket of water splashed in the face. The screams came later, but they always screamed, eventually. And then, after a few days, they were out with the rest of them, digging, picking, planting, carrying, their faces cast down, their steps careful, as if by merely breathing wrong they would be brought back to the shed to receive the treatment again. And, maybe they would.
But after some time, they started to talk; about how they had gotten away, about what the world was like outside of there. And, once, one of them said, “I never made it that far, but you get up to Hamilton, Pennsylvania, you look for a white house. Man there named Dodge. He help you.” That was the first time Joe even thought about escape, in a serious kind of way. Oh, he had dreamed, as had all of them, about how it would be to sprout wings one fine day and take off into the air, and look down on their hell and then to flit off wherever his heart felt. But his business was not so clean. No wings. Only tattered shoes and mud, and swimming across rivers by instinct because he had never properly learned how, and running crouched over so that he could not be easily seen.
After two days, he could sense them on his trail. Dogs, men on horses, the law. He knew that if the dogs got to him first, they would rip at his legs and genitals like ravenous monsters. The men were not necessarily better. And he knew that all he could do then would be to curl up into a tight little ball and hope for death, sure that it would mercifully come, but by what means, and when, a mystery. But he never saw his pursuers. He did not know how it was supposed to work. If they would wait for him in the next village, or if they would overtake him in the forest and string him up to a tree. He always assumed the latter, but now, in fleeing, he supposed some of the game was in the waiting to see.
When the sun broke over the horizon in the morning he walked a little deeper into the woods and found a hollow place to sleep for a few hours, covering himself with brush and branches and mud. When he cocooned himself inside he allowed himself to pray a few words, his eyes still searching through the branches for intruders, his ears still alert for the sound of footsteps and heavy canine breathing. When he did drift off, he did not know if it could be technically called sleep, but rather some kind of slow-state, where there were no colors or smells, no future, no past. He liked that time the most. It was when he felt most free.
When evening crept back in he brushed himself off and continued on his chosen route, trying to keep the road in his peripheral vision, but finding it nearly impossible because there was no traffic, not at night. Sometimes a falling branch sounded like a command: “Stop!” And his heart would freeze for that moment, terrified, and a primal wound opened in him and he would decide, without really deciding, whether to obey or not. Before discovering whether or not he would run, it would dawn on him in a wash of relief that there was nobody in these woods except for him, that nature was playing tricks on him, and his veins would slowly cool again until he could breathe normally.
Joe lost track of his days and nights until they were all just a period of moving slowly and hiding, foraging for berries and grass and water from the stream, which sometimes wound deep into the woods and after a half-day of walking would reappear like a recaptured slave. Its water was clear and cold.
He had memorized the way it was written: Hamilton. After some long age of wandering, he saw it from a distance scrawled on a sign at a bar, and despite not being able to read, he recognized the H and its brethren letters immediately, and he knew that this was his village. Hamilton, Pennsylvania. He emerged from the woods in the morning, just enough light to see and to give himself away by. Men were gathered around horses, chewing tobacco and smoking. They watched him as he neared them, and he knew that they knew who he was. He was a black man, sneaking out of the dark forest.
“Hey,” one of them called to Joe. “You.”
“Yes sir,” Joe responded automatically.
“What are you doing?”
These were the first people he had spoken with since his flight—except for God, not that He was a person. “I’m going home,” he said without thinking.
The men nodded slowly. “And where is home?” one of them asked. “You look lost to me.”
“I ain’t lost,” Joe responded. “But I got to talk to Mr. Dodge.”
“I figured it,” the man said. “You’d be better off turning tail and heading back.”
The thought was an excruciating one, like sticking his bare hand into a fire. That was a sensation he knew from experience. To imagine going back of his own free will, his legs functioning, his eyes able to move in their sockets and look upon whatever they saw with joy, his lungs able to suck air in their own time and at their rhythm, not rushed nor labored; to leave these things behind was an impossibility. “No,” Joe said, unaccustomed to telling any white man no. “I need to see Mr. Dodge.”
“All right then,” the man said. A smile stretched across his lips and his face looked decimated, a skull smiling. “Head on down the main road. Last house on the right. Clear out of town.”
“Thank you, sir,” Joe said, setting off. He put the men behind him as quickly as possible, the muscles in his shoulders and back tensed, waiting for stones to strike him, already listening for the cruel laughter that would accompany this. But when he screwed up the courage to glance back at them, they were already gone. “Good,” he muttered. Maybe they were not bad men. But they all were, in one way or another, it was just that with some it took more digging to find out how.
The village consisted of a few small shops, some houses, a post office and a couple more bars. He recognized his word, Hamilton, several times as he walked. He saw in the faces of men and women and children an odd curiosity as he passed their gardens and lawns. He felt something like a mule being shown and somehow this treatment was just as bad as where he had fled from. Sometimes he thought he heard whispers as he passed, but when he dared look at whomever had spoken, no lips were moving—just that cold stare, curious but anxious for him to pass.
He put the village behind him and the house, small, stood like a jewel at the base of a gentle hill. The grass was long and in the full and green garden there was a bare-backed man crouched at his crop. Joe stood for a moment at the road, staring—he had never seen a white man do this kind of work before, and the way the muscles and tendons in his back stretched across his shoulders was just like a black man, except that the skin was pink and obviously sweaty. The man raised his head to the air, as if sniffing, and then turned and saw Joe watching him.
“Can I help you?” the man called out, standing without difficulty.
Joe did not know what to say. I hope so. Please. He took a tentative step toward the man, aware now of the sun, the slight breeze, the fact that despite his clothes he was naked. “My name is Joe,” he called, his voice cracked. “Are you Mr. Dodge?”
The man’s face broke into a bright grin. “Call me Steve,” he said, striding toward him. “I bet I know why you’re here. Right?”
“I reckon so,” Joe said.
“I’ve helped a bunch of you before,” he said, now standing only a few feet in front of Joe. He was a tall man and despite being white his face was dark. Joe had the impulse to take his own shirt off and offer it to him, but he beat it down within himself—it was a stupid notion, that a white man would accept it, that it was reasonable to offer it. “Why don’t you come in?”
Joe took one last look about him: the road, stretching off deeper into Pennsylvania, the blue sky, the clouds skittering above him. He was not sure he could give it up. But he felt something crumble inside himself, a kind of wall, and then there were hot tears pooling in his eyes, and he realized that this was what he wanted, what he needed. To give it up, to let someone take him and take care of him. He stepped onto Steve’s lawn.
“You hungry?” Steve asked.
“Oh boy, am I,” Joe responded.
“Well, follow me.” Steve wiped his hands on his trousers as he led Joe into the small white house. It was cool and dark inside, cramped but not in an unpleasant way. His master had had a much nicer home, a mansion really, and Joe had only been inside a few times, mostly to move some of the larger furniture from one sun-soaked corner of the sitting room to another. But he liked this house much better. “Why don’t you sit at the table?” Steve said, indicating a stool pulled up to a wooden table. “I’ll have my wife fix something up.”
“Steve?” Joe heard. It was a woman’s voice. “We got company?”
“Yes, we do.” He winked at Joe, and Joe felt instantly embarrassed. A trim young woman entered the kitchen hurriedly, crimping her hair. “His name is Joe. He needs our help.”
“I’m Hannah,” she said, curtseying ever so slightly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
As a force of habit, he looked down and away from her feet as he spoke to her. “The pleasure is all mine, ma’am.”
“Why don’t you fix some stew for Joe?” Steve said. “I have to go finish up in the garden.” For a terrifying moment, Joe thought that Steve would wink at him again as his wife turned to the stove. But he was already out the door and in the sunshine.
“How long have you been running?” she asked, rattling pans.
“I don’t know. Seemed like forever.”
She nodded. Her hair slid against her back. “We got one come all the way up from Georgia before. I can’t even imagine it.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Joe said. “First time I was ever on my own like that.”
She turned to look at him for a moment before returning her attention to her work. “A lot of them say that. They been cramped up with everyone else all their lives, they didn’t even know what it was like to be alone for a minute. To have only your thoughts to keep you company.”
“And God,” Joe said.
“Yes, of course. Sometimes I think He brings you here. Because He knows.”
Joe wanted to tell her how alone he was, even on the plantation. He had many friends, and of course everyone knew him. Many of the older ones had sat around in the evening laughing at him running around naked as a baby. But he was alone, regardless. When he was picking, or digging, the only things that existed for him were his sore hands, or the shovel, scraping some insignificant hole into the earth. Even the master disappeared. That was how he survived, really. Any other way, and he would have jumped up at his snide remarks and his whip, wrapped it around his sunburned neck, and squeezed with all his strength until his face turned purple or his head popped off like an apple being plucked from a tree. “Well, I’m glad I found the place,” Joe said.
“So am I,” Hannah said, already stirring something wonderful in a giant pot.
Steve came in after a few more minutes and their conversation took a quiet turn. Of course, Joe would never have even spoken to a white woman before, and his sense of danger, now a thing finely tuned inside him, would have been screeching even at being alone in a room with one. But he was in Pennsylvania now, and so their conversation had a different texture. It was as though Hannah did not want to let on to her husband that they had been speaking about anything more important than the soup. It was a kind of secret she and Joe shared, and it made him nervous and excited him at the same time.
They ate. Joe, ravenously. He felt sick afterward, unable to properly move, but it was a good pain, a kind he had never known, picking scraps off the salty strips of meat the master sometimes threw them around Christmas. They drank coffee afterward, and it was the first time Joe had ever had any. He did not understand why men loved it so—it was bitter and hot and did not mix well with his insides. But he was energized, and it encouraged him to broach the most important subject. “So,” he said, “where do I go from here?”
Hannah and Steve looked at each other. “What is the hurry?” Steve asked him.
“Well,” Joe said, contemplating his answer carefully. “I want to get settled somewhere as soon as I can. I got a life to get living.”
Steve laughed, which Joe took as a good sign. Hannah said, “Of course, but surely you want to rest a few days? You can’t have it in mind to leave too soon.”
“I would hate to get in the way,” Joe said.
“We’ve had runaways stay for a long time,” Hannah said. “How long did the one stay, Steve?”
Steve nodded his head slowly, and for some inexplicable reason Joe felt an unpleasant tingle rush down his spine. “A real long time,” Steve finally answered softly. Now he was staring at Joe, and Joe shifted on his stool.
“Maybe I’ll take a little nap, if that’s all right,” Joe said, imagining himself crawling out a window and running away, but knowing that he would not, because beyond Hamilton, he knew nothing. He still needed their help. The problem was that he was starting to feel trapped, and he wondered if there was any place on earth where he would no longer feel that way.
“You can sleep in our bed,” Steve said brightly. This was a thing Joe could not even fathom. A white man and woman, giving their bed to a runaway slave? Joe was about to object as a natural reaction but Steve ordered his wife, “Show him where.”
She nodded once and stood from the table, and Joe followed her. It was a small house indeed, and their room was the first that Joe and Hannah came upon. Joe saw a curious room with a narrow door in the back of the house, and he was about to ask what it was for, but Hannah interrupted by saying, “You just sleep for as long as you need to. You need your rest.”
“This is awful kind of you,” Joe said. “I didn’t think I would ever sleep in a bed.”
She left him alone and he slid under the sheet fully clothed. He had often tried to imagine what it would be like to lay in such comfort. After a few minutes, he crept out of the bed, laid on the floor, and fell asleep.
In the early morning, he roused himself awake and listened to the intense silence of the house. This was when he would be waking into his public morning ritual, along with the rest of the slaves; all of them yawning, stretching, peeing and shitting just outside, trying to find enough light within themselves to stumble to the fields, or the house where they would cook and clean, for another day, given away for nothing, no returns on their time, no love, no purpose. The saddest part was always the biggest perspective; Joe could handle the work easily, but working with no opportunity for love was like planting gardens in the desert sand, and it was the thing that finally made him run away—not the love he hoped he might find in a woman, or in making a child with her, but any human love that he could freely express. It was a dream he knew existed, somewhere. Back on the plantation, that was what Hamilton meant to him.
He sat up and stretched, and then stood and started toward the door. Quietly—he did not want to wake his hosts. He would step outside and breathe some free air and wait for them.
Just outside the bedroom he glanced toward the strange room that had caught his eye the day before. The door was cracked open, a slit of sharp morning light stabbing into the darkness beyond. Going somewhere in a white man’s house without his permission was akin to stealing a horse, and he could be hanged for it, probably even in Pennsylvania, but still, something drew him there, step by silent step, until he was just outside. He listened carefully for the sounds of breathing, because he did not want to enter the room if Steve and Hannah were sleeping there. Such a thing was unthinkable. But there were no sounds, and so he slowly pushed the door open.
There was enough gray morning light to barely see by. The room was empty but for a sturdy table in the middle. Joe could discern shapes, lumps, and his mind scratched for some solid hold as to what they might be, even as he knew. But still he needed to go closer, to see, to feel, to know. And he did go closer, his knees weak, his lips trembling, bladder about to open.
The biggest lumps were two naked legs, one presumably male, the other female; an entire ribcage, laying like the frame of a burned-out ship; arms, but with separated hands, all from different donors; and a face created from too many people—eyes, lips, cheeks, teeth, a fat, bloody nose, all of them laying slightly askew so that it looked like God had created a man while under the influence of some powerful drug. Joe was drawn toward the eyes. He never knew eyes were that big in a person.
A noise from behind him. Joe spun around. Hannah stood in the doorway, her hands grasping the frame, her legs wide, blocking his exit. “Steve,” she screeched, her voice high and thin like an attacking alley cat. “He found it.”
Then the sound of someone rolling out of sleep, and the quick shuffling of feet. “What?” Steve cried as he appeared behind his wife. “What are you doing here?” he demanded of Joe, pushing past his wife but not entering the room.
Joe began to stutter. He could think of nothing to say—indeed, what was he doing here? “What is this?” he finally managed to ask, trying to creep away from the table and its gruesome setting at his back, but afraid to move closer to Steve and Hannah.
“It’s our slave,” Hannah said, her voice coming from behind Steve’s broad shoulders.
“Quiet,” Steve snapped. “It’s nothing.”
But now Hannah moved past her husband. “We might as well tell him,” she said. “It’s kind of like building a man from clay,” she said evenly, “except it’s God’s clay we are using.” She moved close, and he felt like a ghost was brushing near him when she put her fingers on the tabletop and let them skim over it like leaves on a pond. “We take a part from each runaway that comes through. And when he’s finished, he’ll be ours.” She paused for a long moment and Joe had the horrifying thought that she would start to recount from whom they had stolen each limb: Remember that nigger we took the left hand from? How he screamed!
“Why?” Joe croaked, aware that Steve was inching closer now.
“We don’t condone slavery in Hamilton,” Hannah said, putting her hand on Joe’s shoulder. He had never been touched by a white woman and now he shivered. “But it isn’t slavery if we create him.”
Now Steve was at his side, and he too put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked down once again at the morbid collection on the table. “Only one part remains, and then he will be alive,” Steve said. “He needs a heart.”
Joe felt his own heart burn with fear as he swung his massive right fist out at Steve, connecting with his temple. Steve crumpled to the ground like a bag of ashes, and Hannah screamed: “No!” Joe wanted to run out of the house, north, south, it did not matter to him; but he kicked Steve in the throat, and then in the face, over and over, his foot sinking into the softer parts and cracking against the harder parts, each stomp a blessing, a spit in the face of any master, anywhere. Steve’s wife was still screaming, and when he was satisfied that Steve was dead, he turned to her.
“Don’t,” she said, cocking her head and backing up, her eyes gleaming. “Please don’t.”
Henry had heard in the week before his slipping off the plantation grounds that he should look for a small, white house in Hamilton, Pennsylvania, should his path take him there. There were other suggestions, too, from those that had been around and shipped back: places in New York, even risky houses in Kentucky, places where at least he could eat something and lay his head down for a few hours before resuming his flight north. Not that he wanted to run, because there was a kind of safety where he was, despite the roaches and the snakes, the sun bearing down on them, the whip. But he had to run.
He kept to the woods, moving at night; he imagined that other, successful runaways, had done the same, and that he was following some kind of sacred trail in their footsteps. He hid under fallen trees to sleep during the day, and once he climbed into the branches of a tall tree and dreamt there. He never moved when he slept, probably because he had always laid between two other sweaty slaves at night, and if he rolled into one of them he was bound to get smacked upside the head.
It appeared from nowhere, like a mirage, a forest clearing—Henry could not read, but he recognized the word he had scratched once in the dirt with his grimy, sore index finger: HAMILTON. He remembered how he had wiped it away immediately after writing it, afraid some white man would see it and thrash him, how he had spread dirt over it after it was erased, as if the evidence could never be fully cleared away.
He saw no one as he walked through the village, which seemed strange to him. The stores, the bars, the post office, all empty, as if they had been fled from at the feet of Armageddon. A couple of horses, walking freely down the main street, whinnied as he walked past them. “Hey fellas,” he crooned to them. “Where is everybody?” He thought he saw something like terror in their gigantic, otherwise calm eyes.
The village was behind him in minutes, and there, set back just a stone’s throw from the main road, was a small white house. He knew it was the house, but something told him to keep walking. He squinted and saw movement in the garden, but whomever was working there was crouched low, his face in the soil.
“Hey!” Henry heard. He looked toward the house and saw a black man coming toward him, grinning. “You need some help?”
“I was looking for a Mr. Dodge,” Henry said. He saw the black man glance toward the garden at the name, Mr. Dodge. “Who are you?” Henry asked.
“My name is Joe.”
Now the man in the garden seemed to finally be aware that there was company. Slowly he rose, like a weed growing, and shambled over toward where the men were speaking. His clothes were in tatters, so much so that he was practically naked, and his arms and legs were pink and black and raw, like he had been hideously burned. The man’s eyes darted independently of one another and his curly hair was streaked with mud. With dawning horror, Henry saw that this monster’s face hadn’t just been in the dirt. It had been eating it.
“Don’t mind him,” Joe said, whacking the beast with his palm. A bit of skin sloughed off. “He’s just my slave.” Joe watched after it as it lurched back toward the garden, finally collapsing there onto its knees, its face low to the ground like an anteater’s. “Say, you look hungry,” he said, smiling. “How’s about I get my woman to fix something up for you?”
Henry watched the thing for a moment as it sniffed in the garden, and he imagined what Joe’s wife might look like, who she must be. And he said, “Can you just tell me which way north is?” Joe shrugged, and pointed, and Henry hurried away. By the time he had walked a few miles, he knew two things: he was sure that none of Hamilton had been real, and he was sure that he had finally escaped.