In early 1860s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.
Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah, but he owed his freedom to them. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle. Determined to never see a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people.
Shortly afterward, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. But being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. But, the amputation took place too late. The infection had spread throughout his body and killed him.
A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.
She raised Rachel on her own and had a red schoolhouse built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes were allowed to attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, leaving Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.
Though always courteous to the other townspeople, Miss Rachel was thought standoffish. She kept to herself and never displayed deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. Like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them right in the eye. Some folks said she acted that way because of her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder-length black hair. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.
Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. She was never seen with a suitor. Folks said you could set a pocket watch by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was some speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But in truth, they’d only sit in her parlor talking, their behavior and mannerisms having more in common with siblings than lovers.
It was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. After arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d always ask after Samuel. Once Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick.
As he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do magic. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced his technique until he mastered each trick. Mr. Bart then started buying special tricks from a shopkeeper in town to give to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d perform it with Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel serving as his audience.
Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one-room schoolhouse, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she had him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel began performing as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.
To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. They’d dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head with hardly a glance. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d put them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them beneath saddles to ensure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish.
At daybreak, on the day of a show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, his head would swivel left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleys.
Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Samuel kept his performance clothes and freeman papers in the saddlebags. A second set of the papers lay neatly folded in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.
As Toby and Samuel made their way into town, Samuel stopped for a moment in its center. After staring at the makeshift wooden scaffolding for hangings that would serve as the stage for his evening performance he continued on his way. When he reached the far end of town, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. While Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the saddlebags’ strap. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. Then he removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with some of the trough’s dark stagnant water. Next, he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. After drying himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, he slid on his good black trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. He slipped on his socks, then set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair. Then he brushed his thick kinky hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as it could.
With his toilet complete, Samuel started rehearsing. With the patter designed to disguise his feints and misdirection going through his mind, he started with close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. After crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into his fist and opened his hand, revealing an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in one hand, he jerked his wrist downward, and they reassembled into a single solid rope. The practicing continued until Samuel had successfully completed every trick intended to distract and confuse the audience, save two.
With the sun sinking in the sky, the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered. Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform carrying a lumpy canvas bag. As he set down the bag a hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Expecting their reaction, Samuel leaped down into the crowd and pulled a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch the show.
Retaking the stage, Samuel did one trick after another, building suspense while allowing brief interludes for applause. Once all the standard tricks had been completed, it was time for the finale. To begin, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men in the audience and asked them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This would be one of the two special tricks he never rehearsed.
With the crowd hooting, hollering, and laughing at the somewhat sheepishly looking men, Samuel knelt and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. Handing them to the men, he instructed them to bind him well. Children balanced on the tips of their toes and strained their necks to see as a grave quiet fell over the crowd.
The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body as tightly as they could, the chains digging into his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation. And when they were done with him, he asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body, and on thirty, he spun around. As the chains fell to the stage, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped down into the crowd. Hat extended, he accepted the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.
When everyone was gone, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He climbed aboard him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it. All was safe.
As Samuel crept further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. Drawing closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes. Many had beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. A few who regretted leaving behind loved ones or were unable to conquer their fear of the unknown relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. Others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.
With the decisions made, Samuel offered a pregnant woman a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing to an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel helped the old man onto Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom.
They moved under the cover of darkness in silence, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. Being stalwart Christians, the slave owners’ would only delay pursuing their property until Sunday morning church services had ended. Then the tracking hounds would be loosed. Noses to the ground, they’d scamper between the hooves of the horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways and recover what they deemed rightfully theirs.
Despite hiding by day and traveling only at night, the runaways were almost caught many times. It was at those moments that Samuel steadied his breath and prepared to do the secret trick he held in reserve, the illusion of making himself and those around him invisible.
For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through dense forests, tall grass fields and swiftly flowing streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. Finally, on the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst and their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”
Samuel crossed the room to the bed and bent his head down. Miss Rachel cupped his face between her frail hands and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the house, and to the old abandoned schoolhouse. There, they gave the knock code and Jim opened the door. He received a kiss from Miss Rachel, then stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.
“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”
The group of runaways crowded around her. One by one they each took her small hand in theirs and thanked her for rescuing them. Tears trickled down the old woman’s face, the conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.