REVISITING READEATLIVE.COM/BLOG IN THE EARLY MONTHS
To my surprise one of the most viewed summer 2013 posts was a short story I wrote titled “The Wardrobe” inspired by an antique wardrobe I saw on Facebook posted by an antique shop in Story City, Iowa. The story relates an imaginary incident from the Underground Railroad in Tama County, Iowa in the mid-nineteenth century.
Since last summer’s posting, the story has been revised and polished thanks to several readers. It appeared in the anthology Spindrift 8, published by the Florida Writing Group, Seaquills. I am most thankful for the support of that superb writers’ group.
If you didn’t have the opportunity to read the story last year, or you’d like to read the new, improved version, I hope you will enjoy it.
Margaret stood quietly for a moment before the wardrobe, her brother Matthew’s most skilled piece of cabinetry work. No one who saw it would deny the giant wardrobe was a beautiful piece of furniture, handmade in 1861. Carefully worked molding complimented the graceful elegant lines of the tall cupboard.
It had a small drawer above, but below, the apparent drawer was a door. It pulled down for easier access to the floor of the wardrobe. Hand cut dovetails, mortise and tenon joinery showed careful workmanship. It stood sixty-eight inches tall on feet perfectly proportioned and boasted a depth of twenty-two inches.
With its dark varnished finish, it was an impressive piece of furniture. The wardrobe held a power, a palpable presence. The family appreciated and loved Matthew’s handiwork. He had finished it only weeks before his death from summer quick pneumonia.
Oh yes, she remembered, she had come to fetch a shawl for her mother. She opened the large doors of the wardrobe and nearly cried out in surprise, clamping her hand against her mouth for she heard the quick breath of children. She pulled back her abundant hair with fingers roughened red by the week’s work. She blinked her blue eyes to check the images before her. She saw the round whites of their eyes surrounding dark pupils. It made her think of seeing cats at night when only the eyes are visible, glinting a yellow white against the night darkness. Two little boys with brown skin sat close together. They played at passing a belt buckle back and forth between them.
Margaret stared at the wee boys. They stared back at her, their round eyes growing larger. Were they contraband as runaway slaves were called?
She could hear her two-year-old son Mattie playing in the kitchen, tumbling pieces of wood on the kitchen floor, building something. She knew her mother was near him slicing cheese and bread to add to their supper. She hoped he would stay in the kitchen. It was the only way she could hope to keep things quiet.
Before Margaret looked into the wardrobe and saw those wee boys, she never thought much about enslaved people. She paid little attention to some of the conversations after Sunday services, or other times neighborhood people gathered. Around the family dinner table it was not a topic much talked about.
A question flashed across her thoughts: What happened to those who assisted runaways? She did wonder if these young children in the wardrobe were alone? Where had they come from?
Margaret thought she had not had time to think about slavery because she was so busy with a new baby and the family. Her mother had injured a leg while still in Scotland. It was difficult for Mother to get around. And she tried to keep up her cheese-making business. They were a household of eight, her oldest brother, who had found the land in Tama County, and three other siblings in addition to herself , wee Mattie, and her father. They crowded first in a tiny cabin, but now, blessedly a frame house had been built, a house with proper space for Matthew’s wardrobe.
Margaret looked deeper into the shadows of the wardrobe. She saw a wisp of a woman sitting against the back corner nursing a baby. The woman looked at her and spoke in a soft voice. “I be Dorcas,” she said. “This here is Alec and his brother Archie. Celia is getting her supper. I sorry we hide in your home. Someone will come for us when night falls.” Margaret thought most likely they had come in while the whole family was at Tranquillity Church Services.
Margaret knelt in front of the wardrobe, her hands on the closed lower door. In a few words difficult for Margaret to understand, Dorcas let her know that they had been hiding in a wagon headed toward the village. A man the driver knew to be a Copperhead halted the wagon. The two men talked briefly. As soon as the Copperhead was out of sight, their driver left the Ridge Road and hid the family in a thicket of bushy shrubs and trees near the creek. But the children became strangely afraid and restless there in the out-of-doors with no building, no wagon, no fire to anchor them. So they had wandered into the McKie’s house while the family was away and found a hiding place in the wardrobe. “We safe here, out of sight,” Dorcas whispered.
It was now late afternoon.
Margaret told them all to stay in the wardrobe, and she would go to the kitchen to get food. They could eat in the bedroom. She spread an old quilt on the floor. She did not want Mattie to see this family. He would get excited and disrupt everything. Who would come for them? How would anyone know to come here? She asked Dorcas, but Dorcas only shook her head and said, “Someone always come. I know it.” Could she have left some sign in the woods? What sign could that be? Margaret feared no one would come. Who would come? Where would these people go next?
Margaret went into the kitchen. She talked with her mother about the food she gathered. Mother had prepared a Sunday night supper of Scotch Broth, heated on the stove, along with the bread and cheese sliced on a serving board. Father, brothers and sisters were outdoors doing evening farm chores.
Margaret took Mattie outside to be with his grandfather who was feeding the horses. He lifted Mattie up to stroke the muscled neck of Henry, their dappled gray horse. Mattie giggled. He clung to his grandfather with his arms around his neck.
She spoke to her father about what she had found in the wardrobe. She said she planned to give the family supper in the bedroom. Could he do his best to keep little Mattie at his side?
Margaret thought this mother traveling with three young children certainly needed their help, and she said as much to her father. He nodded his agreement. Margaret knew he usually appreciated her sense of kindness and justice toward others. Then Margaret remembered she had heard him talk about the Copperheads. “They round up escaping enslaved people from Missouri,” he had said. “They stick their noses in other people’s doings. They are angry. I dunna understand why?”
On her way back to the house she thought about Dorcas who seemed calm, almost relaxed. How could she be so brave? How could she face the risk and uncertainty ahead of her so easily? As Margaret marveled at Dorcas’ courage, it birthed in her an understanding. Dorcas was less fearful of the unknown than she was of the place she had escaped. Then too, Dorcas’ features held a pose; her face didn’t reveal anything.
What did the Copperheads want anyway? Did they think two sweet quiet little boys should be sent back to slavery––owned, mistreated? When this family was on their way to Canada they would not bother anyone in Tama County.
As the little family ate, Margaret learned they had come through Illinois and eastern Iowa hidden on a train to Tama City. They expected to go north to Minnesota and Canada. Margaret held the baby while Dorcas took each boy to the outhouse. Margaret played a number game with pegs with the boy who took his turn inside. In between trips, Dorcas ate a few mouthfuls of soup.
One little boy had an endearing smile that peeked out when he finished his soup. The other, Archie Margaret thought, gazed about, frightened. The boys were four or five, small for their ages but certainly older than Mattie. Their ankles were skinned, probably from the sharp, tangled undergrowth near the creek, and bitten by insects so numerous in that area. When Dorcas returned from her second trip outside, Margaret went to her room and traded the baby’s wet smelly diaper cloths for dry ones to be used on the trip. The boys finished eating. They climbed into the wardrobe. It was a safe place. It opened its arms to them.
Margaret joined her family for supper. She was aware that over the last minutes, each family member paid no mind to anything but supper. It was the way of the parents, and it was the way they had trained their children not to notice what was not pertinent and necessary to them. They were not to intrude into what was the business of others. Margaret had directed Dorcas through the parlor and out the front door to the necessary, avoiding the kitchen where Mattie and the family were busy with supper. The little boys had been quiet. The baby slept.
. After supper, while her sisters took care of the dishes, Margaret brewed chamomile tea for Dorcas. Dorcas took the tea with a grateful look, wrapping her fingers around the mug. Margaret noticed the pink color of the insides of her fingers and hands. The calluses on her finger pads and palms showed a strange white. Margaret observed wee Celia was a quiet baby, a fortunate thing.
She could not help but worry about what would happen if the sheriff or some stranger from Tama City should approach the house while they were eating; or what could happen if the wrong person arrived this evening before someone came for this family. Her stomach tightened at the thought. She looked at those children and at the baby. She could think only about spiriting them to some kind of safety. With a firm resolve she put the sheriff and the Copperheads out of her mind.
The faith of Dorcas was rewarded. At full darkness Margaret heard a wagon rumbling quietly into the yard and the sounds of the horse’s trappings. Harness always made music. Margaret and her father went out into the lane to see about the visitor. Margaret was grateful that Mattie had gone to sleep directly after dinner and warm milk. She recognized the Wilson’s wagon. But her hand flew to her mouth to cover her exclamation of surprise at seeing the driver was her friend Flora Wilson.
Flora was somewhat disguised, but still Margaret recognized her. Tall Flora had been the first to befriend the McKie family on their arrival in Buckingham. They lived for a time in the village in a cabin across the street from the Wilson house. Flora was unmarried, maybe thirty years old, and she kept house for her brothers and her elderly parents. Flora was Margaret’s closest friend outside the family. Margaret realized that clearly, she didn’t know all there was to know about Flora. Flora had her secrets.
Margaret walked to the wagon and leaned against the side of the wagon seat.
“I’m here for your guests,” Flora said. She looked down at Margaret, serious business written on her face.
Margaret turned and nodded to her father. Without a word he went into the house to fetch the runaways. In a few moments he came to the wagon carrying the smallest boy who had a grin on his face. Maybe he liked wagon rides. The other held his mother’s hand and walked behind. The baby lay in a sling fashioned from a scarf hanging across her mother’s chest.
Flora handed Dorcas a shawl for warmth. Dorcas thanked her. “Mam,” she said. “I need this. I from the south of Illinois. I be some ill with fever and chills.”
She and the boys climbed quickly into the wagon and settled among its contents. Flora had loaded the wagon with sacks of grain and turnips as well as some produce ready to sell. Food was packed into a clothesbasket: cooked meat and boiled potatoes and turnips. Flora had jugs of tea and milk. She had brought a small basket for the baby.
Dorcas lowered the baby into the basket and covered her with a dishtowel. She bedded down the boys and pulled up a much-darned quilt that Flora had put in the wagon to cover them and the baby. Then she tied her scarf tightly around her head and redid the knot. The scarf frayed in places and her bushy hair poked through.
Father pulled the sacks of grain and turnips to the back of the wagon. If the gate was opened, the contents appeared a load for market. Dorcas secreted herself quickly. Margaret had no idea where she might be hidden, or how she might have curled herself among the contents of the wagon.
Flora said little during the few minutes it took for Dorcas and the children to settle. Flora wore a grey roundabout coat with deep pockets. Her hair was tied up in back and under a black felt hat. Margaret marveled at the intense secrecy of this situation. How could she have known Flora so well for several years and been completely unaware of this kind of activity? Maybe this was a first time. Still, Flora was a capable woman. It did not completely surprise her. She thought earnestly of a future time when she could talk more with Flora about this. What would Flora say? When would they have such opportunity? Questions clattered in her brain. In that instant she prayed for Flora’s safe return.
Father stood at the front of the team and steadied the horses. A crock of butter beans occupied the seat next to Flora. They infused the night air with a delicious smell that trailed down the lane to the road as Flora drove away.
Flora maneuvered the horses out onto the road. She allowed herself a small smile at Margaret’s shocked look. It was fun to surprise her friend. She was feeling confident and in-charge, blessed with a good wagon and a sure-footed team. She expected no trouble.
If Copperheads stopped her, she was ready with her story of delivering supplies to the Flemings who lived north and west some seven or eight miles, up near another village. They were a well-known family who had fallen on hard times. Both parents were ill, hence the butter beans to help feed the family. Flora was aware that with the harboring of runaways, she violated the Fugitive Slave Law and was liable to fine and imprisonment. She accepted this risk. She wanted to help in the war effort. She wanted to be as brave as her brother who was serving in the Union Army in unpleasant country in Arkansas and Texas. At any rate, she imagined it hot, barren and uncomfortable.
She drove along the road north. She knew it well. Moonlight was in short supply with only a quarter moon. She could barely make out the movement of the clouds across the sky. They were faster than the horses, but if she tried to keep up, haste might make waste. The likelihood of meeting anyone seemed slight. All the same, she hoped to stay alert and vigilant. She drove across open prairie and then through Fleming Woods.
It angered Flora that this subterfuge was necessary since Iowa was a free territory. But she knew the Copperheads were up-in-arms. They believed the recently enacted Emancipation Proclamation would cause freed slaves to swarm into Iowa. Their speeches and items in the local newspapers warned against this. She also knew of trouble as close as Grinnell over allowing free black men to attend school. This issue had led to violence there. It divided church congregations and the entire community.
Flora listened carefully to the night’s song: the frogs, crickets, an occasional owl, insects she couldn’t name. The beauty and calm of the night seemed a sign she was doing right. As she drove she whispered the words of Psalm 23. She believed she would arrive at her destination, but exactly when? Later she heard prairie wolves howling in the distance and thought they probably frightened the woman and her children. But she knew the wolves were some distance away and probably no danger to travelers this time of year.
She did not wonder at this frail but strong black woman, whose name she did not know, a woman who wanted a new life. She shuddered to think what the woman’s life had been like, enslaved to others, owned. Flora was not familiar with slave life. She only thought the woman must have had to work very hard with no freedom to come and go. To Flora, the most awful part for Dorcas must have been the lack of freedom to be her own person. Though she had heard tales of the evils of slavery, of horrific conditions, she did not know what part of such might be true.
Yesterday Elias Burnwell, a pharmacist in Tama City had stopped at around noon to tell her about this duty he was assigning to her. He had stayed overnight with a farmer friend. That farmer had a boy Silas. After Elias left the woman and her children in the brush by the creek, he returned to the farm. Silas was sent to watch the woman and her children, unobserved, and so he brought word that they had gone into the McKie house. Thus had Elias learned the situation and decided to ask Flora to provide the ride north to Hudson Grove.
Flora urged the horses on toward Hudson Grove where she expected her passengers would be sheltered in a small neat white house at the edge of town. Flora recited prayers of thanksgiving for the fact she heard no horses behind her. Therefore no armed gang of ruffians with rifles could be following in pursuit.
After a few more miles, Flora praised the Lord. Her trip had been uneventful. The woman and her wee ones were safely delivered. Stars still filled the sky as she helped them into the house and the waiting arms of another woman whose name she did not know or ask. She did know the next stop for her passengers would be a cornstarch mill in Cedar Falls located some miles further northeast on the banks of the Cedar River. How or when they would go there was not for her to know.
This tale of tall, fearless Flora and the dark-skinned Dorcas and her children was handed down through the generations of our family for many years. Margaret and our own ancestors were seen as resourceful and courageous. The story was always told with humble pride, as is thought appropriate by our Scottish people.
Margaret, the McKies and Flora as well as those of us who told the story through the years never knew what happened to Dorcas, Alec, Archie and Celia. We never knew from what exact place Dorcas had fled or why? Had she been mistreated or was she simply responding to an urge to be free? There was, of course, nothing simple about it. But we always thought the best when we imagined the rest of their journey in following the North Star, since once north of Cedar Falls, it was likely that the underground railroad to Canada ran smoothly.
As for the wardrobe, due to its beauty, its exciting history and amazing presence, it was well-cared for and passed down from generation to generation. Today it is as lovely as ever and painted white. It decorates the front hall of my home in Des Moines.
Paulette Mitchell Lein