Old Mom-Mom told her
“it’s a track without a train,
a railroad running north
and, sometimes, underground.”
In the dead of night,
with more stealth than wealth,
they slipped onto the barque
of a Louisiana swamp.
Three dark panthers melding into
the shadows’ thin cover,
where a white man
at the helm did hover.
Fear and quiet made the slither
of pole on green water
seem to shout
upon the wild river.
Near to dawn, they put in at land,
there to await,
the next helping hand.
In a slimey cave they rested,
In Mom-Mom’s lap.
Clara’s head softly nested
Sullied water and moldy bread,
a wormy apple or bright berries,
it was on these they fed.
Night two or was it more?
Gators snapping as
carefully they stepped
in mud and gore.
Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,
when the tree snake reached down
to dust Clara’s curly hair.
Dawn found them on a sandy beach,
here to hide and keep watch all day
against the sound of dogs at bay!
When Clara’s feet began to bleed,
Mom-Mom tore her turban loose,
to wrap those tiny feet
beyond the scent of any breed.
Night after night, they traveled on.
Hiding again at first light,
always searching for guide or clue
to carry them from all they knew.
Until Clara wondered at seeking more,
hiding from the searchers,
their dogs and gun,
when hope itself had nowhere to run.
Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay,
behind a secret wall,
under a bed or up a tree,
caused them often to pray.
A thin soup, a crust of bread,
an ear of corn to chew,
where came the next meal,
they seldom knew.
Drained of hope by pain and sorrow,
their next stop
caused them to burrow.
To Illinois-land they came,
Trackers’ hounds at their heels.
A house, a barn, a cellar,
promised respite from their flight..
Thin, tired to the bone,
with blistering feet and soul,
they fell into a restless sleep.
Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,
no light by which to see,
the shifting dirt drifted down.
Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,
huddled against a sudden outcry.
when a critter ran across a foot,
fear doubled and took root.
On and on they sat in silent dream,
thinning air adding to their sleep
sending them into a well too deep.
Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,
“Air’s there. See the mole mice
at they’s mother’s teats?”
“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”
Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,
her lungs stretched thin.
“Y’all gots to smell the air,”
Clara wanted to scream.
Tugging and pulling,
she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.
A gasp, another and then a whisper,
“I declare, child, you’s right.
Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk,
Sure as we kin drinks the air.”
And so the time passed,
as each had the luck
to suck of Clara’s air
until the last of the slave-seekers left.
The lid popped open from above and.
the whites declared,
“A miracle from God”
that all still lived.
But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew,
it was Clara’s air
that saved the day
and them, too.