Back in 1949 or 1950 when I was six or seven, my grandfather took me on my first trip on ‘the Slave Road,’ ‘the Hidden Highway,’ ‘the Nigger Byway,’ ‘the Devil’s Footpath,’ or ‘the River Styx Trail.’ All these names and more for a narrow, dark path, a little over a half-mile long, that saved almost a mile and a half between our farm and Corn Row Road. The “Row” was a dirt road, where our black friends and relatives lived.
My grandfather, black as coal, serious as a heart attack, tough as rawhide was word stingy, quiet-spoken, and even-tempered. Me, Kam Washington, and my cousin, Oya May Johnson, loved him more than anyone on Earth.
“Oya May, Kam, you mind a walk up to the Row wit me?”
My cousin and I leaped at the chance to be with our grandfather until he nodded toward the forbidden path.
Oya May swallowed hard, shook her head harder, her words leaked through trembling lips, “No thank you, Grandpa.” She looked to me to stand with her as I usually did, but not this time.
“Are there really panthers and bears and such in our woods? You never carry your shotgun. Why everybody so scared, huh?”
He chuckled, as we cut across the pasture, he stepped, and I leaped over Little Creek and entered the path. Every step took us deeper into a narrowing path that was dark as night in less than ten steps.
“We stop here, boy. Let our eyes adjust.”
Instead, I closed my eyes and eased one bare foot ahead feeling for the roots and dips in the path. The earth, beaten hard by those running away, running to, hunter and prey, welcomed me, calmed me.
I sighed in appreciation of the coolness. I soaked up the sounds in the thick brush, breathed in the damp smells, and felt the heavy, dense air.
I released my grandpa’s hand, opened my eyes, marveled at the shades of green darkness. I walked slowly, quietly, reverently. Not one word out of me. Not one. The path and the woods filled me with wonder at their age, power, and mystery.
We emerged into the blinding noonday light at the foot of Corn Row Road.
I closed my eyes, yearned for the dark passage at my back.
“What you think?”
I thought about how to answer my grandfather’s question. I took my time thinking.
I grabbed his hand and tugged him to a standstill just yards from Uncle Jacob’s. “Like, going home, kinda like that, you know?”
He stood on the hot, dusty road, considered my words. “Humm.” That’s all I got from him.
Later, on our way back I amended my comment, “Like family and home should be. That’s it. That’s what I mean.”
He lets me lead the way. We paused about half way to scoop and drink water from Hidden Creek.
“Home and family for you. Yes. You right.”
My life changed after my frequent solo trips up the shady path. My family and friends took stock of me, reappraised me, looked at me out the corner of their eyes. Looking for what I didn’t know.
“You smell different, like them woods. I don’t like it.”
I’m shooting marbles with Oya May. “Like it or lump it. You scared, yellow belly—”
The fight is on, fist, fly, blood flows in the dusty tussle. It’s too hot to fight for too long. We call it a draw to be continued at a later, cooler time.
“How you do that? Go down Hell’s Highway by yourself?”
I look at my cousin, Ford, two years older than me, as we empty our buckets of dirt from Uncle Jacob’s basement dig.
“Come go wit me and see for yourself, Ford.”
Ford blinks, wipes the sweat from his forehead. “No! No, slaves, white people, lots of folks, hounds and cats done disappeared down that path. I hear things at night. I bet you wouldn’t be down there at night. I bet you that.”
I look Ford in the eyes. “Cousin, it is always nighttime on the path. Come see.”
Nola Abbott, the girl I liked the most at school, tells me like it is. “I can’t walk with you to or from school no more, Kam.”
“You know why. You got no business on Satan’s Lane.”
“But why? I just— ”
She narrowed her eyes, stabbed me in the chest with her finger. “Just stay away from me. You got that?”
A year later the Sheriff came to my grandfather’s with two deputies. The Sheriff was polite and a little nervous. We talked on the front porch. Grandma served lemonade and ducked back into the house.
“Mr. Waters, Kam, right?” I nod. “Well, we got a colored escaped convict, aww, we think around here. I wonder, I mean, have you, either of you, seen, seen any colored around that you don’t know?”
Grampa sipped his drink, put it down, looked the Sheriff in the eyes. “No, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff exchanged looks with his deputies. “And you, Kam. What about you?”
I sipped my lemonade, sit down my glass, looked the Sheriff in the eyes. “No, Sir, Mr. Sheriff.”
The Sheriff and his deputies stood.
My grandpa and I stood.
“Well, Mr. Waters, what about the ah, ah, the Old Slave Path? Do you think the convict could be there? There in your woods?”
Grandpa looked at each of the deputies and back at the Sheriff. “I never seen or heard of anyone in them woods except the boy and me and my papa and his papa.”
“Well, I’m duty-bound to search there. Is it okay to search your woods?”
Grandpa gave his permission. We watched the three men disappear into the shadowy path.
Less than ten minutes later they were flying out of the woods, panting, sweating, and shaking like they got a fever.
They didn’t stop by the house to say goodbye. They looked shades whiter.
Oya May, the two youngest Scott brothers, and I were in trouble, again, for fighting at school.
“Oya May, why you always keeping up a mess? You keep me in the do-do.”
Oya May tenderly touched her split lip and jabbed her elbow into my ribs. That made my head jerk forward and restarted my nose bleed.
She hissed at me, “They calling you conjure boy, a witch and such. I will not have them talking about us like that.”
“Oya May Johnson, you called me worse things— “
“I got a right. We family. They ain’t.”
I returned the elbow jab and tilted my head back.
“Kam Yoruba Washington, you a heavy cross to bear. You know that, right?”
Two years later cancer took grandpa.
Oya May and I were inconsolable, inseparable in our grief.
After the funeral. After the noise and food and tears, I took Oya May by the hand lead her onto the path. She was so brave with her teeth chattering and squeezed my hand to pieces.
I took her to Hidden Creek, sat her so that we could see the big oak. I sat beside her, held her hand.
“Shut up, Oya May. Don’t move or talk. No matter what. Understand?”
I knew he would come, but he needed to come before Oya May fell apart.
Soft, soft, a shadow slipping among shadows, bringing silence in his wake.
Oya May felt the change in the air, in the forest creatures. She inhaled deep, scooted closer, shivered.
He leaped onto the oak limb, great yellow eyes shining, low roar, fangs exposed, glanced at me, dismissed me, eyed Oya May, licked his lips, crouched.
I moved a little to get his cat eyes back on me. “He dead and in the ground. She needs to know. In case something happens to me.”
The panther snarled, prepared to leap. I stepped in front of Oya May. I shout at him. “We all blood kin. You know that.”
He leaped, knocked me aside, roared at Oya May, sniffed her as she cowered, trembled, wetted herself. He roared again, slid back into the shadows.
Oya May’s seventy-fourth birthday party. We sat on her back porch, 2,000 miles from the path, from our past. We watched her grandkids frolic.
“Kam, it was a dream, a hallucination. It never happened. I’m not part of that, that craziness, superstition, myth, bullshit.”
“Well, if you say so.”
We sat there. I reached out and took her hand, felt the warmth and wear.
“I have to go back again. Soon. We need to keep them safe.”
She ripped her hand free, wiped at her eyes.
“They’re blood you know that. You dream that. I know you do.”
“Damnit! Kam Yoruba Washington, you don’t even know me or what I dream.”
After a while, she searches out my hand, squeezes it hard.
“We need to sell those woods. How many times have I told you that, Kam? Your damn trips home, the taxes— “
I stand, kiss her cheek, pat her hand, start for the door.
“Oya May, if you still scared, and a little yellow— “
We don’t mix it up this time. This time we fly home together, to the path.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com