Zala

It was here in the thicket of trees shaded from the bright light which resembled a stage with a spotlight that he found me.

The next thing I knew I was staring up at a ceiling. I realized that I was in a strange bed in a strange room. I tried to sit up but I felt a bit weak. My eyes darted about the room. It was rustic. The walls were those of a cabin. The smell of the pine wood was strong. I saw basic furniture and a large window through which the sun streamed. I heard sounds coming from another part of the cabin and then he came into the room. I quickly lay down again.

He came over to the bed and stood looking down at me. “You’re awake,” he remarked. His dark green eyes were kindly as they met mine.

“Where am I?” I managed to ask.

“In my cabin,” he replied. “I was taking a walk when I stumbled across you. You were out cold. I brought you back here. I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of removing your clothes and putting some fresh, clean clothes which belonged to my wife. You’re about the same size as she.”

I raised the blanket and peeked underneath. Yes, I was wearing another woman’s nightgown. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and my eyes flew up to his face. The thought of him seeing me naked mortified me. But that was of little consequence when I was reminded of what I had escaped from.

I shuddered when I thought of my master’s hands all over me. We were alone. The mistress had gone out with the children. The other slaves were busy with their chores. We were in my room. Thankfully, he had had too much to drink before coming to me and passed out on the bed before anything could happen. As soon as I was sure that it was safe, I crept out of my room and got out of that house. I ran into the woods as fast as I could. If it weren’t for the master, I wouldn’t have run away.

“Where did you come from?” he asked.

I told him that I was a slave and that I had run away from my master because he made unwanted advances toward me. I told him that I was afraid that he was going to rape me one of these days if I didn’t run away. “Please don’t send me back there,” I begged. “Lemme stay here. I kin earn ma keep. I kin cook and clean fa yo.”

“Let’s not worry about that right now,” he said. “What you need right now is rest.”

“What ’bout yo wife,” I said, fear gripping me. “If she catch ma here, she gon send me back.”

“My wife is dead,” he replied. “She died three years ago. It’s just me here alone.”

My fear subsided again. “I’s sorry ’bout yo wife,” I said. I wondered what she was like and if she would have objected to having a negro wearing her nightdress and lying in her bed.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Zala.”

“Zala, I brought you some juice and crackers. Are you able to sit up?”

“I tried to before but I’s a little weak.”

They came one day to his cabin, men on horses. He put me in the hidey hole and then went outside to talk to them. It seemed like a long time to me. I was so relieved when he came back and let me out of my hiding place. We sat down at the table and he told me everything that happened.

“The one who spoke to me was obviously in charge. He said to me, ‘Look here, Mister, have you seen a runaway slave girl in these here parts?’

“‘Yes, I have‘, I said to him. ‘It was a couple of days ago. She came here but I sent her away. I told her that I live a nice, peaceful life here by myself even since my wife died and I don’t want any trouble. She begged and pleaded but I told her to git. And she did. She ran in the direction of the river.’ I pointed in the direction of the river. My heart was pounding and in my mind, I prayed that they would believe me. If it was discovered that I was hiding a runaway slave, they probably would have shot me on the spot and taken you back kicking and screaming to the plantation.

“The man studied me for several minutes and then, he said, ‘Thank you, Mister. Sorry to have troubled you.’ He signaled to the others and they rode off. I waited until I was sure that they were gone and then I came back into the cabin.”

“Do yo’ tink de gon come back?” Zala asked anxiously.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Why’s yo’ so sure?”

“I told them that I saw you heading towards the river. When they get there, they’ll find your dress and they’ll assume that you took it off before getting into the river. They’ll think you got away or that you drowned.”

“I hope yo’s right ’bout dem not comin’ back here.”

“You’re safe here with me, Zala.”

I smiled. “Yo sure is a nice man, Mister.”

“Thank you. I want to help you. You can stay here with me for as long as you like. You can be my housekeeper and in exchange, I will teach you how to read and write.”

“But, it’s agin’ the law to teach a slave to read ‘n’ write.”

“No one will know, Zala.”

“Yo’ bin so kind to me. I gon stay and take care o’ yo.”

So, I stayed with him and took care of him out of sheer gratitude. And he taught me how to read and write. Years passed and I found myself falling in love with him but I kept my feelings to myself. Didn’t make any sense thinking that he could feel the same way about me.

We learned that there was going to be a war between the South and the North. He couldn’t go and he seemed relieved about that. “I hurt my leg years ago. Shooting accident. It got fixed up but it’s not been right since. I feel it especially during the cold weather. I wouldn’t be any use in the war and I’m glad because I don’t want to be fighting on the side which doesn’t see that slavery is an evil thing.”

After the Union won the Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg in Maryland,  President Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order which would free every slave in the Confederate States. The war was over four years and the Union won. And in December of that year, slavery was abolished. It was going to be my first Christmas as a free woman.

“Now that you’re free, what are you going to do?” he asked me.

I stared at him in surprise. “Why, I’m going to stay here with you, Mister.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want you to be just my housekeeper, Zala. I want you to be my wife.”

“But, it’s illegal for us to marry, you being a white man and me being a negro.”

“Ours will be a common-law marriage which means that even though we are married, we won’t have a license or a wedding ceremony. That doesn’t matter to me. It will be like Adam’s and Eve’s wedding with God joining us together.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to be his wife.

“Yes. I never thought I would love again after losing Emily and then you came into my life, Zala.”

“Oh, Mister. I didn’t think you would feel anything but kindness for me.”

“And what about you, Zala? Do you feel more than gratitude for me?”

“Oh, yes, Mister.”

“Zala, it’s time you stopped calling me Mister. Call me Thomas.”

“Yes, Thomas.”

We became a common-law married couple and were blessed with five children. That day when I ran away from my cruel master, I found refuge and love. God delivered me. He set me free–free to live my life with a good man.

Source: National Park Service;

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