Phew! I just finished the tail end of that chapter, AND I broke the 40,000-word mark. I stopped writing, looked at the word count, and it said: 40404. I’m going to think of that as auspicious! Time to shower and venture out into this blustery, rainy day. Even my mother says she’s starting to warm up to Judah—true progress, indeed!
“Our cause is a righteous one, Judah. You will not be condemned for what you have done. Is that what you fear?”
I look up at the countless stars, knowing more than six hundred thousand men will die before this war ends two years from now. I remember the deafening boom of shells exploding overhead and the final, breathless gasp that told me Carter was dead. “I thought it would be harder, taking a man’s life. I thought I would have to fight against myself, against all I believe—all I was taught.” I look down at my hands—the same hands that crushed Carter’s throat, showing no mercy. “Soldiers kill. They follow orders and do as they’re told without thinking twice. They can’t afford to waver or feel regret. On the battlefield it’s kill or be killed. I can’t go back to that. I don’t want to know—” I stop. Rev. Garnet waits a moment, then prompts me to go on.
“Know what, Judah?”
I don’t want to tell Rev. Garnet about my father. And I can’t tell him about my ’hood back in Brooklyn where some kids pick up a gun and go wild in the street like they’re playing a video game. I can’t tell him about those cops—trained to serve and protect—who pump lead into black men who’ve done nothing wrong. So I just say, “I don’t want to know that side of myself, sir.” ’Cause maybe it’s something inside all of us. Maybe the urge to kill is always there, just waiting for a chance to come out. And what better chance than a war against whites?
Rev. Garnet says nothing for a very long time. I tell myself that if he had lost all respect for me, he would have walked away. But he just puffs on his pipe and after a while I grow comfortable with the silence between us. Finally, Rev. Garnet pulls the pipe from his mouth and turns to me. “You know, Judah, there are many different ways to serve.”
I hope he’s not talking about the military. I already know how black folks “serve” white soldiers by washing their clothes, digging their latrines, cooking their food, and burying the dead. I wait for Rev. Garnet to explain what he means.
“There is a circuit—it’s less active now than before the war began, but I’m sure I could find you a sympathetic audience.”
This time I really am confused. Circuit? And why would I need an audience? Rev. Garnet realizes he’s getting ahead of himself and leaving me far behind. He backs up and tries again.
“Public testimonials are one of the most effective tools in the anti-slavery struggle. No one can sway hearts and minds better than an actual slave—a woman or man who knows from experience the horrors of slavery. You want to contribute to the cause of freedom, but you don’t want to take up arms. Perhaps God has another plan for you, Judah.”
I think quickly, trying to assemble the pieces of this puzzle. “You want me to—to tell people what I did?” I can’t imagine telling a room full of white folks that I killed my overseer with my bare hands.
Rev. Garnet offers something between a shrug and a nod. “Your story will have to be…tailored, shall we say, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of our white friends. But your story neither began nor ended with that encounter. Did it.”
I shake my head. My story. I hardly know where it began, and I have no idea how it will end. I look at Rev. Garnet and say, “I was born free.”
Rev. Garnet’s eyes begin to sparkle like the stars overhead. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and taps it lightly against the side of the barn. The ashes glow for just a moment before the reverend grinds them into the ground with his heel. “I’ll see that you get a journal. Take some time, recall and record as much as you can of your descent into slavery and your eventual escape. I’ll make some inquiries and see about setting up an engagement with two or three other speakers.”
This is all so new to me, I’m not sure how I feel. Excited, but also afraid. I think of the court scenes I have seen on TV: a witness puts his hand on the Bible and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. “Sir, if I am going to testify…I have to tell the truth.”
Rev. Garnet becomes stern. “I fully expect you to be honest, Judah. Misleading the public does not help our cause in the least.”
“But you said my story would have to be—”
“Tailored, not falsified. That is a significant distinction. For now, focus on writing everything down. Once I’ve read your story, I’ll help you decide how best to relate your experience to an abolitionist audience.” Rev. Garnet holds out his hand. I grasp it within my own and after one firm shake let the reverend go back inside. I look up at the stars but already my head is filling up with all the words that will map out my incredible journey.