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The woods were vicious, uneven, with a ground-level tapestry of jagged stones, briars, and saplings that caught her legs, causing her to stumble. Her face was bruised and bleeding, her scalp raw where hanks of hair had been ripped out. Beneath the skin her knee shifted painfully as if the cap were dislocated, and a raw strip of blood-spotted flesh dangled from her elbow. A molar had been knocked from her jaw and coughed out into the weeds somewhere behind her. Trails of pinked saliva clung to her chin and neck.
The intensity of pain squeezed her mind until there were no thoughts, only the instinct to get out, get away, to run from the agony, to escape the torment.
She ran, away from what she did not know, toward what she could not fathom. She could no longer feel her feet in her shoes, could no longer focus on what lay ahead.
But on she ran.
At some point in time she came upon a hard-packed road that stretched in both directions, shaded by arms of tall and endless trees. Time was meaningless, as was the road. She only knew to take it, though not which direction to go. She turned and moved on, through the dust and insects and filtering sunlight, her feet dragging the road, her throat dry as old leaves.
Then came a wagon.
It moved up behind her, the wheels creaking, the leather harness squeaking, the mule’s hoof beats slow and determined.
A voice called out, “Ah, look’a there! It’s a girl! She’s hurt bad!”
It was a young voice, a boy’s. A colored boy’s.
“Johnny, slow up. We gotta help her.”
A man’s voice answered, the words deep, slow, measured. “We stop to help that young woman, and you know we be accused of doin’ whatever been done to her. Best say a prayer on her behalf and let her be.”
“But she’s bleedin’! She’s cut up, banged up!”
“I got eyes, Cittie. I see she’s bleedin’ and banged up.”
The wagon moved up and around the young woman, so now she could see it out of the corner of her eye. There was an old, white-haired black man leaning over the reins. In the back were six or seven boys sitting on straw bales, all dark-skinned, all gazing with fascination and sadness.
“Johnny! Stop!” It was one of the boys, one a head shorter than the others. He had close-cropped hair and his jacket was dark blue.
The old man turned his head back. “Cittie, we got to be back home shortly. What you suggest we do with her?”
“What would the Lord want us to do?”
“Ah, now, don’t be throwin’ that at me! Lord know I mean well, best I can!” The old man drew the mule up. The animal snorted and stomped a front hoof on the road. Flies buzzed about its head. The young woman felt herself stop, too, as if someone had reined her in as well.
“We got a doctor at the home,” said the boy. “He can fix her, then send her off. Ain’t nobody gonna think nothin’ if they don’ know nothin’.”
Several other boys now spoke up.
“Yeah, Johnny, that’s Christian thing to do. Don’ leave her here.”
“We keep it quiet and nobody’ll know. Doc Fitzgerald won’t say nothin’.”
The old man rubbed his mouth, sighed heavily, and then looked at the young woman with troubled eyes and furrowed brow. “Miss, you need a ride?”
“’Course she needs a ride!” said the boy called Cittie.
“Hush, now! Miss?”
The young woman turned fully toward the wagon, with its dark driver and its dark, wide-eyed passengers and the white lettering on the wagon’s side that read, “Hudson Colored Waifs’ Asylum.”
She tried to nod, but the weight of the movement pitched her forward onto the road, and just before she passed out, she saw sympathetic faces swarming around her and felt small but steady arms cradle her and lift her up and off the cold, callous earth.
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