I’m participating in a flash fiction competition where we’re given three prompts—a genre, a location, and an object—and must write a short story of 1,000 words or less. For the first challenge, my prompts were historical fiction, swamp, and pillow. I’m really happy with the result:
The swamp was different in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry, waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitos.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. He was six years old. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then a gator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah could not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, lost themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’ grandmother she tended to. It was down filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.
Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.
They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.
They parted ways a little north of Lima. They were staring at a wall of trees that went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” The preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.
If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitos, great clouds of them.
When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah felt his own eyes well up.
They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.
Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked.
“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”
“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama.” Judah was soon asleep himself.