The Moses of Octoraro Creek
Written By: Breena Clarke
“The first moment I lay my eyes on her I felt different. I understood that I had been foolish and careless and the child’s destiny had been changed. She looked like a little doe, was brown with big eyes. I listened to the Ancestors tell me what to do. I was compelled to rescue your mother. I brought her to Russell’s Knob. I took her into my home and circle and she became the sun around whom all else in my life turned.”
My father’s recollections are colorful. He has always been full of stories about our ancient ancestors and his compelling destiny. In those last days, he became very frank and straightforward, but also flowery. It was exhausting to be in his company throughout a long day and into the night. He chattered continuously. He was lucid most of the time and when he seemed otherwise he was just being fanciful. He seemed unable to stop saying things and singing things and rediscovering tales. He went on and on until I dosed him with laudanum so he could rest.
“We were fed courage with our mush.” Do you remember this aphorism, Lucille? The old ones were very fond of that one. Rather boastful. Well, one bright morning several weeks ago, I fed Father his mush and his coffee and then was forced to endure his fevered account of Bonnie Cleary’s beauty.
“Most women have a bodily flaw that keeps them from appearing to be perfect. Bonnie didn’t. Every bit of her was beautifully composed, harmonious. She had few thoughts, though. She said little. She only answered sweetly and quietly when she was questioned. She allowed herself to be looked at and touched and I talked on and on and told her things. I wanted to fill up the quietness around her. When I think back on it, she didn’t drink much at all either. She plied me with liquor and listened. She was the exact color of Jamaica coffee beans after they’ve been roasted,” he said.
I said, “Yes, Father. I know exactly.” I do, of course. I know coffee beans. I know roasting and grinding and brewing and serving coffee. Received wisdom in our town. I brought Father a fresh cup of coffee.
“She was an expert at rolling cigars. Now I ought to have known she was a professional woman on account of her skill at cigars. The average, ordinary, decent woman don’t get so much practice at cigar-rolling that she becomes as expert as Bonnie Cleary. Ah! Could be I loved her for her cigar-rolling. I love a woman who can coax a cigar to a steady, even burn.”
This was my cue to light up a cheroot for Father and puff-puff the air a bit and pass him a smoke. Dr. Murtaugh, Uncle Ismail, has rolled Father’s cigars with cannabis, the laughing leaf. He experiences much relaxation as do I.
“Ah! Bonnie Cleary!” he said after a long draw on his cigar that cost him some coughing and spitting. “I found out later that she had learned the trade of tobacco rolling in her childhood as a slave.”
This legendary beauty, this Bonnie Cleary, was the instrument by which my father, a conductor on the shadow railroad, betrayed a fellow conductor and changed the course of his own life.
“She was like apple butter, a wonderful, surprising, tasty thing to put on your bread.” He accompanied this comment with a lascivious tongue gesture which disgusted me. I stared at him directly and sternly. Then he came back to himself. “I ought to have figured it for a honeyed trap. After all, I was not a mere boy. There was a way she was available and a way she was not. It itched me, made it impossible to resist her. I was unabashedly smitten with her for a short while.”
He said he first caught sight of her in a tavern in the town of Rising Sun, Maryland. He was camped nearby and was biding time, waiting to pick up a package and conduct it on the shadow railroad. He was intrigued to know what a woman who looked like her was actually doing in the town. She didn’t look like a common slag or a doxy. But she did seem to be a companion for a price as it were. Father claims he was smitten, was struck with desire though there was no chance to speak with her. His travelers were to come off a barge at Port Deposit on the Susquehanna and Father was to travel there to meet them and take them up, guide them on further.
The portion of the route on the shadow network that fell to Father was an arduous stretch. He took his packages north from Port Deposit along the Octoraro Creek through a brick tunneled stretch on toward Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The weather conditions were various and often Father had to provide for covering the feet of his charges. The terrain of Father’s route was various, too and some travelers were most frightened at moving along in the dark in an open boat while some were nearly paralyzed for fear of climbing on rocky land in the chilly dark night. Father said he was sometimes forced to threaten and hector his charges so that they would keep onward and not give in to fear. Nevertheless, the many people who undertook the passage from slavery to freedom with my father have insisted that they would not have lived to enjoy their freedom if not for him.
Prior to the great personal watershed of 1849 when he rescued my mother, then a child, Duncan Smoot was known on the underground circuit as The Moses of Octoraro Creek. Because of his exploits, he was well respected amongst those who knew and emulated the brave ones who worked to free people from slavery. However, in the course of rescuing Mother, he did something that curtailed his effectiveness as a conductor and troubled him for some time after.
My father was demanding by nature, but he softened up as he wound down. He commanded me to record his story. He knew about your passion for writing a complete history of the People of Russell’s Knob, Lucille. In fact, we all know you’ve been in a fever of documentation, wringing life stories out of all the old people. Naturally, Father wants to be in on it. You idolize your father and will paint him beautifully in anything you write. My father worried about what you might write about him. He tried to persuade me to convince you of his better nature. He wanted you to think that he is worthy of your history.
Of course, he is. Of course, you know the story. My mother was born into slavery in cruel privation. Father assisted her emancipation at some cost to his own soul and circumstance.
One day I told him I thought his life had given him far more gifts than he had earned. “Don’t whine and complain of pain, Father,” I said. “After all, you’ve had the comforts and joys of being my mother’s husband, a woman far too young for you,” I snorted.
Remarkably, it did not make him angry to hear this. Father looked deep into my eyes and smiled. He told me that I was the wisest woman he’d ever known. “I was surprised when you were born. Naturally I thought the child we were waiting on, who’d caused so much of a fuss, who, it was claimed, was a voice from the Ancestors, would at least be a boy.”
“Well thank you, Father,” I replied with impudence.
We have heard many stories about him, haven’t we?
“If you do not sit quietly and pray. If you stand or holler again, I will club you senseless and throw you over to save myself and the boy.” Father claims to have said this to his most recalcitrant passenger, a woman so frightened of the canoe and the creek and the dark and the cold that she stood up in the canoe and wet her clothes in her terror. For the rest of the journey on the creek, she was imperiled in soaking, stinking clothes that caused her a chill and might have brought dogs if Father had not made her strip off and leave them. All along his route, there were caves in which Father stored supplies. The woman was given a dry gown and bloomers and she only muttered quietly until they reached Lancaster.
The plain truth is that Father was intimately engaged with Bonnie Cleary for a period, though he was nearly wed to another woman at the time. He admitted that he had intimate associations with ladies on his circuit. Father says “ladies,” I think when he remembers that he is speaking to his daughter and thus it seems to matter that he dissembles for the sake of propriety. He forgets himself occasionally though and will shout about cunts and whores and bitches and prostitutes and doxies and dollymops and barn whores on and on until I get the laudanum into him. I’ve discovered that he is not as unguarded as I thought. Sometimes he will rein himself in to keep me from dosing him. Sometimes he tries to keep his stories clean.
Father took up with this woman in the town of Rising Sun. Bonnie Cleary turned out to have been an informant. He found that she was the personal companion and spy for a bounty hunter named James Cleary well after he’d told her about the barn on the outskirts that sheltered Zilpha Seabold. Father succumbed to Bonnie Cleary and revealed some facts about a preacher woman who conducted on the shadow circuit. The bounty hunter used information given by Father to Bonnie Cleary to find and capture the preacher woman. The woman was conducting my mother at the time she was taken up, tortured and killed. When he put it together in his head, Father realized what part he had played. He had betrayed his confederates for a dalliance! He was remorseful, but the damage had been done. Father became obsessed with the need to find and rescue my mother, the child who was being conducted by Seabold when she was captured. Father said he could not eat or sleep for worrying over this child caught up in chicanery and danger on account of him. This child’s hard fought chance for freedom was crushed because of his appetite for Bonnie Cleary.
Eventually, he did find Mother on a farm downstate. She was being worked like a bond person, starving and cold and ill-treated. Father will only say that he was compelled to destroy the people’s farm to rescue my mother. Would he have done it if he hadn’t been so oppressed with the guilt of having betrayed Zilpha Seabold? Who knows? You see, my father believes in fate, Lucille. He believes only in fate. He believes that his ancestors have a plan. Father has said to me very plainly that he believes the Ancestors used his sexual misadventures to bring about certain events. And, though he is remorseful for the cruelties he perpetrated against others, he believes he is in thrall to the Ancestors.
“I cringe when I remember certain things. I sometimes want to slap you because you have said something exactly impudently as he would have. I want to weep. I am irritable with your mother sometimes. I’m jealous because she loves you so much and I imagine it is him in you that she adores. Then I realize that I love you, too. I love her. I loved him. I love you. You are the fulfillment of my fate.”
“Oh hush, Father,” I replied. I am sorry I said that.
“Have you rolled my cigars? I think it ought to be ten cigars. Five in one hand and five in the other if you can manage it,” he said resignedly.
Last week Father decided that he wasn’t long for this sphere and that he’d soon need to propitiate his way past some guard or other at the gates of heaven. He declared that all gods love tobacco. I was cajoled to promise to bury him with cigars. I thought it cruel of him to want me to have this final chore. Well. I rolled them and set them aside. His sister collapsed when she saw the readied stack.
“It is never good to separate a body from a soul before its due time, by murder or mercy, because that soul is like to go off wandering, unanchored to its people.” This is another of the old “sayings”. What effect the words have had, I do not know, Lucille. I remained at Father’s bedside until he ceased on his own, breathing one minute, not breathing when I turned back from fetching a glass of water. I squeezed the cigars in his fingers, then rose to open the windows.
“I’ll speak to all of the Ancestors when I get to heaven. What shall I say on your behalf?” Father had offered lastly, solemnly.
“Oh Father, those cigars won’t get you out of all your transgressions and into heaven. Perhaps you will spend some eons in purgatory? You’ve got much to atone for, you old scoundrel!” I said teasingly, mischievously. “You will come to heaven eventually. You have earned some heaven, Father. You rescued my mother and gave her freedom. You helped many others as well. You led them. You were Moses, Father.”
My father went to sleep.
Breena Clarke is the author three novels, most recently completed, Angels Make Their Hope Here, set in an imagined mixed-race community in 19th century New Jersey. Breena’s debut novel, River, Cross My Heart (1999) was an Oprah Book Club selection. Her critically reviewed second novel, Stand The Storm, is set in mid-19th century Washington, D.C.
Breena Clarke is a member of the board of A Room Of Her Own Foundation; is a member of the fiction faculty of The Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing program at The University of Southern Maine; and is co-organizer of The Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers. Breena Clarke is the author with the late Glenda Dickerson, of the play, Re/Membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show.