Copyright is held by the author.
SAM WAS seven when we bought the house. He studied it carefully from the backseat of the car then climbing out nodded, “Hmph,” he said. “you bought his house.” Before I could respond he was up the front steps hand in hand with Ben. I watched as my two favourite men in the world headed off to explore the interior of our new ramshackle summer home. I smiled watching them walk into the house. So different: a squarely built, red haired stubborn man, a slender dark haired dark eyed waif of a child.
Sam accepted the dust and chaos of renovation with quiet resignation and entertained himself with super heroes, toy cars and trucks. He had always had imaginary friends so I wasn’t surprised to hear a one sided conversation when slopping past with a pail of warm water and wallpaper scraper. I still wasn’t concerned, a few days later, when leaving for the park he asked that I leave a chair by the front window because, “He likes to keep watch.”
“Who?” I asked making conversation.
“Does your friend have a name?” I persisted.
“John.” He answered with a tone that informed me that this conversation was over. My heart ached. My stomach knotted. Motherhood had come to me when my twin sister and her husband were killed in a car accident. John was his father’s name.
Returning, I watched Sam stare at the front window as we approached. It was then I realized we had stood in this spot before. In those days Sam visited annually. One summer we had rented a lake side cottage. Padding back after a day at the beach, I realized, we had stopped, here, to cross the street.
Sam had waited beside me, his hand hanging in mine lethargically. He’d spent the day splashing in the chilly Lake Erie waves, shouting, “Watch me! Watch me swim!” Icy droplets still dripped from his hair.
When the damp towel, draped over his slender and quaking shoulders, slid to the ground I bent to pick it up. He didn’t move. His dark eyes stared intently at the house across the street. I gathered up the towel and studied the house myself wondering what could cause such intense concentration in a four-year-old. I saw nothing but a worn-out sprawling derelict home.
I gave a shake to our joined hands and asked, “Ready?” He glanced up at me then returned his gaze to the house. He smiled slightly in the direction of the front window, gave a hint of a finger wave, turned to me and nodded. I led him away as if protecting him from the shadows. And now on this cool spring day, with the ink still drying on the purchase agreement I felt the same cold warning skitter up my spine.
When the nightmares and sleepwalking started I was rattled. The first time it happened we found him on his hands and knees clawing at the kitchen floor. “Help him, help him! Let him out, open the door. He’s scared. Open the door!” The cracked and brittle top layer of linoleum, its aged pattern long worn off, broke off in chips cutting his fingers. We tried to comfort him as he ranted feverishly, “He’s scared, let him out, they’re gone, let him go.” He thrashed and flailed as we tried to reassure him. Finally spent, he simply broke down sobbing.
The next day while workmen were dismantling the floor, walls and ceiling of the kitchen space Sam and I went to the beach. Sam methodically built tunnels and bridges, watching the water flow in and crash into his carefully constructed creations. Sometimes he tried to shore up his structures holding off the inevitable. The waves drew my attention too but in a more introspective way. I sat watching the shadows play on the waves like splashes of memories, wisps of a dream flitting just beneath the surface of consciousness.
Sam was industriously focused, the personification of courage and perseverance. He continued to maneuver his way with grace through so many losses: his parents, a west coast home, mountains, rivers, breath taking scenery. All replaced with the two of us and corn and hay fields.
I thought of Ben then and realized the two truly were kindred spirits. Ben was also a human face for soldiering on. He had faced the challenge of raising two children while nursing a wife back from the face of suicide over and over again. He too marched ever onward, committed to protecting his wife’s life, and his children from the verbal reality of a volatile marriage. His wife had spent the eighteen years of their marriage in and out of hospital, on and off medication, forever in search of stability and happiness in a bipolar roller coaster ride.
This brought me to thoughts of my own failed marriage. Ben was ready to take another crack at marriage, with me. The thought of a second hike down the aisle left me anxious. He was a lifelong friend. If it didn’t work, would I lose the friendship as well as a partner? Throw in Ben’s teenagers and we lugged a lot of baggage.
Arriving back at the house Ben greeted us at the door saying, “Kate, you’d better come see this,” and he held the door open grimly glancing over my shoulder at Sam behind me. I followed him envisioning any number of renovation disasters: dry rot, mould, the main floor collapsed and now resting comfortably in the basement. We walked into the kitchen.
The workmen had pulled up four layers of linoleum, removed both a layer of sub flooring and hardwood then below that a second layer of subflooring finally arriving at the original pine planks.
Ben reached down and pulled open what looked like a trap door in the centre of the room. It was cut into the floor and hinged revealing a rectangular space under the floorboards. Staring at it I considered the possibility of a below floor pantry. Or perhaps something to do with prohibition.
Before I could speak, Sam pushed into the room stepping between us his toys and towel still in his arms. Glancing wide-eyed down at the opening he gasped, “The hidey hole!” Then his toys clattered noisily to the floor, he dropped to his knees and began to cry convulsively.
It took forever to settle him that night but once he was asleep, I went looking for Ben. I found him in the back yard standing alone in the dark; his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, staring off blankly in the direction of the lake. Waves sloshed ashore in the distance and the air was thick, even the breeze felt heavy. I lifted my hair off my neck.
“The workmen were locals,” he said, softly, still staring into the distance. The breeze, carrying the scent of the lake, coiled around us then dashed off. “They said they’ve found spaces like that before in houses in this community.” He went on. “This area was part of the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves were smuggled across the lake and then hidden until they could they could be moved to a community further north.”
I rubbed my arms, suddenly chilled.
“Bounty hunters were allowed to follow and would try to abduct them and return to the States to sell them back into slavery or return them to their previous owners. Some people here provided shelter, hiding them when the hunters came.”
“How could he know?” I whispered.
Ben shrugged. “I’ll go to the registry office tomorrow; see if I can trace ownership, find out what the history of this house might be.”
Lifting his face skyward and visibly sniffing the breeze he said, “It’s going to rain, I’ll stay for a few days.”
We leaned into an embrace. Mists of anxiety crawled into the corners of my heart competing with summer’s blessings: croaking creatures, the hush of the summer breeze and the sticky heat of summer. With my head resting on Ben’s shoulder I pushed the conversation in a new direction.
“So really? Crop farmers can tell it’s going to rain by smelling the air?”
A chuckle rumbled softly in his chest and he kissed the top of my head, “Weather channel.”
The next morning, Ben headed off to the registry office. I was always impressed at how nicely he cleaned up. A passing glance in the mirror let me know that a shower and comb might serve me as well, at least a braid and elastic to corral my wild hair. Sam and I decided to visit the library. We chose a mountain of books then walked home slowly wandering through the park taking time to play on the equipment. We continued across the yard shared by the church and community hall. There was a brisk wind blowing in off the lake that smelled of the rain promised by my farmer, and the weather channel.
We were only a few blocks from home so a few drops of summer rain was no threat. We started out skirting the cemetery but Sam seemed fascinated by the stones. So we meandered across the graveyard.
“This one,” said Sam glancing up at me as I approached then pointing at a grave marker. “This is him.” I looked at the stone. It was almost smooth, but the angle of the sun cast enough shadows that I was able to make out the name, “John W. Blackburn.” I read aloud slowly guessing at some letters. “Who is this?” I asked.
“He lives at our house. It’s John.” He thought for a second and then reworded his declaration. “We live in his house.” Before I could respond he went on. “He says it’s best to hide in the open. How can you hide in the open?” At that Sam turned away from me and resumed our journey homeward as if this had been the most normal of conversations, sort of a “so, what’s for supper?” kind of everyday exchange.
“Sam?” I asked trailing along behind him, trying to catch up. “Can you see John?”
“Sure,” he shrugged, “sometimes.”
“Does he talk to you?”
“Sort of. I don’t hear his voice, but,” and he shrugged, explaining purple to someone color blind, “but, he talks inside my head.” I shouldn’t have had trouble accepting this concept. My twin sister and I had spent our lives sharing unspoken communication, but I was a reluctant believer.
He turned and began walking away from me. I followed, oblivious now to the heavy clouds, shifting winds, the smell of the lake. “Why does he watch over the house?”
Now nearing our front door, Sam stopped and turned growing impatient. “His wife. He’s waiting, for his wife and his little boy,” he announced nodding his head. “They were sold. How do you sell people? That’s why he ran away. But he didn’t know how to find them. Can I have a Popsicle? He’s hoping she ran away too.”
We opened the front door and went inside dropping our belongings on the floor. “Yes, you can have a popsicle. He was sold?”
“Yea,” a shrug, “then he ran away. What’s a slave? I want an orange one.”
I was being held hostage for an orange Popsicle.
He followed me down the hall and into the kitchen at the back of the house and waited while I opened the freezer. Lifting the freezer door with one hand and rifling around in the box of popsicles I commandeered a paper-wrapped frozen treasure. I held the treat out to him. He had barely ripped the paper wrapping away when Ben burst in the front door.
“I found deeds all the way back to 1832,” he announced proudly, waving the papers as he went into the dining room and carefully spread the papers out on the floor. I joined him listening. “This house was first built down at the water by a John Blackburn. He worked for a ship builder. There was an entire ship building industry here before the village was surveyed and lots and streets drawn up.”
Sam left the room slurping at the melting and dripping treat.
“A couple of decades before it was officially opened for settlement workers squatted on land, picked a piece of property and built a home. Once the town was surveyed and lots officially available, Blackburn bought the deed to this lot and had the house moved up here.”
The screen door slammed shut and I knew Sam was enjoying his treat in the quiet of the back porch. I filled Ben in on our morning and our walk through the cemetery.
For several days life moved with blissful uninterrupted normalcy. We were working on the front wall of the house. We had intended to restore the original plaster wall, but the last layer of wallpaper pulled off great chunks of the plaster and what didn’t pull away dissolved to dust once the paper was removed.
From across a room that was perpetually clouded with dust, Ben called to me. “There’s something written here.” He was up on a ladder and pulling at chunks of the plaster with his hands. We could see script letters, written in white, directly on the planking. He pulled the plaster away carefully. ‘No credit. No false tokens’. “Huh,” said Ben leaning his arms on the top of the ladder and studying the script, “what do you suppose that’s about?”
“I’m thirsty,” Sam announced entering the room. “Can I have…?” His eyes rested on the words penned in cursive on the wall. Then in mesmerized wonder he slowly scanned the room. I watched him, and held my breath, worried about what he might be seeing, helpless to protect him. Then the moment passed. I wiped my hands on my dusty shirt and knelt in front of him. He blinked a few times and looked at me intently but in confusion.
I reached out, resting my hands on his arms. “What did you see?” I whispered.
“Men,” he offered in disbelief, “eating, drinking, talking, like a restaurant.”
“Was Mr. Blackburn there?”
He nodded. “He was serving people, taking orders, pouring drinks from a counter, there,” and he motioned toward the kitchen. “They came and went through a door, there,” and he turned and pointed at what was now a multi-pane window along the side wall of the house.
“So, Mr. Blackburn, your friend, John . . . he’s a tavern owner?”
He nodded. “They don’t know about his mama and grandma. They think he’s like them, like his daddy and granddaddy. He pretends to be what they see. He’s still pretending. Still waiting.”
Sam looked at the vacant chair by the front window.
“Is he there now?” I asked.
“Do you know his wife’s name?”
He glanced up at me then turned back to the chair by the window. “Sarah. Her name is Sarah. And his little boy is named Eli,” he answered staring at the empty chair in a ragged voice aged beyond his years.
A few nights later he woke with another nightmare only this time, we were the ones in danger. “We have to go! Now, we have to go now! They’ll find us and take us back!” He would not settle.
We bundled the boy out the back door, buckled him into the car and sped off into the night. We drove home to pasture and corn fields, cattle and calm. To safety. He was asleep when we carried him into the house at the farm.
I thought of John, an escaped slave, making his way in a port town, fair skinned enough to pass in the white world, living in fear of discovery. All the while, waiting for his wife, hoping for word but unable to ask, powerless to openly search without bringing attention to himself. Then there was our little boy, struggling with the loss of both parents. Was he waiting? Was he hoping they weren’t really gone and that one day he could go home? My heart ached. Was it this loss, this waiting, this grief that drew these two together across the generations?
I didn’t know if we could make the visions go away but perhaps, I thought, we could find a way to lessen Sam’s connection with John Blackburn.
“Should we help him?” I asked my young visionary one blustery afternoon a few days later. Sam was lethargically stretched out on his back on the floor. He had two trucks one in each hand and was silently flying them back and forth through the air above him.
“Should we help him?” I asked again, when he didn’t respond.
“How?” he replied.
“Well,” I sighed, “I’m not sure, but there are organizations and on-line sites that help people find their ancestors.”
I popped open the laptop and joined Sam on the floor. A few minutes later I glanced over and realized Sam was asleep. It wasn’t surprising, his nights were still troubled. I tucked a blanket around his slender sleeping form, gently ran my hand over his head of dark hair and continued with my on-line search.
I eventually found an article on how to search for black ancestors that had been enslaved. Instructions suggested starting with the slaveholder’s family name. There were schedules that listed slaves owned by sex, age and colour.
Sam stirred. “I’m hungry,” came a sleepy muffled proclamation.
“What would you like?” I asked, listing off healthy options. He smiled at my suggestions but didn’t respond, crawling into my lap and dragging the blanket with him instead. He was warm and soft and a little sticky from sleep. His body went liquid against mine as he tucked his head under my chin and settled sleepily into contentment. “I love you auntie K,” he mumbled as I wrapped my arms around his small moist body and breathed in the scent of sleepy small boy. Then he added hastily, guiltily, “I still miss mommy and daddy but I’m glad I’m here with you and Ben.”
I hugged him to me resting my cheek on his head. I couldn’t trust my voice so for a long quiet moment there was nothing but the rushing sound of wind and rain. Then I whispered, “Me too, Sam. Me too.”
I researched the names of plantation owners that owned slaves in the southern States, looking for the Blackburn family since slaves often took or were given the sir name of their owners. At first I found nothing. Then I stumbled on a wanted poster. “Negro woman named Sarah, mulatto complexion, approximately 30 years old, of good address and intelligent, approximately 5’1” tall. Travelling with son approximately three years of age. If found please return – $250. Posted by WM Blackburn. May 5, in Mississippi.”
I wanted to believe that this was our John’s Sarah and that she successfully found her way to Canada and lived a long and happy, and free life. There were no records of those who traveled the Underground Railroad. There was no way to know where Sarah crossed and where she settled. But since Port Burwell was a terminus and there was a black settlement a few miles to the north I started with what I had on hand. Census records. Finally while plodding through the 1850 records I discovered a village blacksmith named Eli who was approximately the right age and who was listed as living with his mother. Sam and I drove north.
Hand in hand we wandered up one side of the main street and then down the other. We found a welcoming looking storefront advertising ice cream cones and went inside. While we considered ice cream flavours, I asked about the cemetery for the original black settlers of the community. The shop keeper, eager to be of help, not only gave us directions to the cemetery, but a long-winded version of her family tree including Quakers who had provided safe refuge for those making their way north.
We followed the directions until the gates of the cemetery appeared on our left. The stone gates and the historic plaque were the only indication that there had once been a church at the site.
The rows of place markers ran in crooked lines in the mottled shade of maple and oak, the ground dappled with light filtering through the leaves. Some sites indicated family groupings; others provided little indication other than a body had been once laid to rest in this site. Many were unnamed, many were children.
Of course, it was Sam who found Sarah’s headstone. As with John, he pointed. “This one.” Then as we walked back across the cemetery to the car he asked, “How come he didn’t see her come across?”
“Maybe she came into Canada at another landing. There are other ports along the lake that provided a safe-haven. Besides, John wouldn’t have seen or known of every single person that came across.”
“So, she made it here.” He pondered this knowledge in silence for a few paces. “How do I tell him?”
At that I shrugged, “He’s your friend.”
For several days nothing more was said. The summer began to drift away. The water turned dark and the leaves curled brown crunching under foot. One morning hunched over a bowl of cereal, Sam announced bleakly, staring at the back of his cereal box, “He’s gone. He’s not here anymore.” And with that statement he carefully set his spoon down, pushed his bowl away and dropped his head to his arms on the table. His thin little shoulders shuddered with gulping sobs. “He was my only friend and now he’s gone.”
I felt a rush of guilt. Should I have left the issue alone? Was the companionship he felt worth the nightmares? I had floundered with how to deal with John’s presence and now I felt equally inept at dealing with his absence. Sam’s tears of grief and loss broke my heart. I didn’t know how to fix this. Would I ever know how to fix anything?
The following summer when we returned to open the house for the new season we went armed with some spring pansies to plant around John Blackburn’s grave.
After opening doors and windows and dropping a few belongings around and loading groceries into the fridge Sam and I took our plastic packets of pansies and a small trowel and walked down the street to the church yard and the cemetery.
As we approached Mr. Blackburn’s gravesite I realized there was a young woman in front of the plot with a boy roughly Sam’s age. The woman turned and smiled in welcome.
“Are you connected to the Blackburn family?” I asked, still walking toward her.
She nodded but before either of us could speak I felt more than saw a spark of recognition arc between the two boys. “Hi,” said my son’s new friend, “my name’s John,” and with only that introduction they dropped to the ground and began running hand held trucks through the sand.