There was nothing that irritated Haywood more than the distinct squishing noise that his handcrafted dragon leather shoes made when they came into contact with the muddy, swampy grounds of the Beauvais property. Try as he might, he could never get himself to land near the house. Haywood began to hop forward on one foot and drag the other leg behind to wipe off the remnants of mud, moving as if he’d stepped in gum.
A low rumbling sound caught on the breeze, causing his heart to skip several beats. In no time, a considerable amount of eyes began to flicker in the darkness of the nearby woods, watching his every move. Ahead of him, the door of the home opened rapidly and a familiar voice rang out into the night air.
“Woody. Is that you?”
“Yea— Yes!” he replied, stiffly picking up the pace and looking over his shoulder.
Near the edge of the woods, the eyes began to slowly melt back into the darkness. Amity set down her shotgun near the open doorway and embraced him.
“Hey, little brother. Trouble landing on the porch again?” she teased.
Though she was several inches shorter than him, she carried herself with the air of a person double her height.
“Am I the last one to arrive?” he asked, ignoring her jab.
“No, you know how Mrs. Josephine likes to make an entrance,” she said dramatically, batting her eyelashes. “We were just about to serve everyone when the alarm went off.”
She turned on her heels and marched through the front door, summoning the shotgun as she did. The door closed loudly behind them and he heard the loud clicking of the locks putting themselves in place as his sister ducked into the next room. While he moved to place his bowler hat and coat on the nearby rack, she popped her head around the corner.
“And don’t you get no mud on my floors,” she said sternly, before pausing to wink.
A mighty sound of clinking glasses and stifled laughter reached his ears as he entered the dining room. The usually quaint room had been elongated to fit the large number of guests who had made their way to the Beauvais home from every direction of the country. Twin brothers Herman and Thurman Gott were the first to acknowledge his presence. The brothers wore matching receding hairlines and cheeks puffed out similarly to English bulldogs. Their stoic demeanors were an eerie reminder that they spent the majority of their days working as morticians.
As he continued along the table, he looked down at the small place cards written in an elegant script he’d recognize as his sister’s anywhere. He quickly found his name and gracefully plopped himself down, trying not to interrupt the conversation going on.
“Who’s there?” said a gravelly voice from across the table.
“Um…it’s me, Haywood, Ms. Ruth Anne.” he said politely. Acknowledge your elders! The strict voice of Mrs. Bellgrove, his mother, snipped in his head.
“Oh, Haywood. How are you doing son?” said Ms. Ruth Anne. The old woman stared through him with unseeing eyes and a soft smile. Ms. Ruth Anne was considered the mother of the movement. She spent most of her young adult life enslaved to the family line of a founding father. After a mysterious illness swept through the cabins she found herself blinded and without a family. She ran from all she knew, making her way west to a small colony of indigenous people that welcomed those that had escaped bondage. For over forty years she bravely weaved in and out of the southern states helping others gain the freedom she had come to know.
“I’m good, ma’am.”
“WILLIE—” she yelled loudly, elbowing at the softly snoring gentleman next to her. “Willie. Look, it’s Haywood.”
“Hmm? Haywood?” he said, slowly opening his eyes. He extended his hand across the table and into Haywood’s firm grasp.
“I was just telling Clara how we might be seeing you tonight.” Ms. Ruth Anne said with a hint of amusement. “You seem to have made a bit of a name for yourself out there in Washington.”
“I don’t know about that ma’am,” said Haywood, uncertainly.
“Well, I said it because it’s true.” Ruth Anne said with a slight frown, “Trust me son.”
Haywood began to scan the table uncomfortably as Ms. Ruth Anne continued looking in his direction. He felt as if she was staring deep into his soul, seeing much more than her eyes ever could.
His shoulders relaxed suddenly as he caught sight of his childhood friend. Clara’s soft and delicate laugh rang out over the conversation and crackling fire. She was smiling widely at Amity as they burst into the room carrying several platters of food for the table. She looked slightly out of place in her long satin dress and deep red cape, as if she had come straight from an elegant gala and decided to help out in the kitchens. Knowing Clara as he did, he knew that she probably had. Through all of their schooling and access she had never lost her sense of the price of freedom her family had paid to give her and her siblings a better life.
“She’s gorgeous isn’t she?” Ms. Ruth Anne whispered, snapping him back to attention.
“Umm…” Haywood cleared his throat. “ Yea–Uh. Yes. Very pretty.”
“I can hear your heartbeat boy, you don’t have to tell me nothin’.” Ms. Ruth Anne smiled, sipping her glass of water.
Haywood shifted awkwardly in his seat as the women began to put on a show. Platters of food danced gracefully from the kitchen to the table while Amity and Clara moved skillfully to the music coming from the small figurines on the fireplace mantel. The small and round figurine of a man playing the banjo danced wildly while the tall and almost bug-like figurine man stamped his foot and played a drum with all his might. The show came to a grand finale with Amity and Clara hovering above dancing purple embers that had jumped from the fireplace keeping time with the figurine band. A small trumpet playing figurine had sprung to life and continued to play excitedly as the conjurers looked on in amusement. The banjo playing figurine walked over and tapped him a few times on the shoulder before he realized the music had stopped. The figure turned red, fell in line and went back into an immobile state.
Laughter and cheering filled the room as the party began looking over the feast sprawled out on the table.
“For me? You shouldn’t have,” came the loud and high pitched giggle of Josephine Delonge. She stood in the doorway decked out in deep emerald robes and a matching dress with black roses embroidered on the bodice. Her large black hat sat diagonally covering her left eye, accentuating the dramatic gold eye shadow currently on her lids, remnants of her vaudeville past. Josephine had left the hustle of the stage and settled with a successful French businessman.
She swept into the room and found her seat on the other side of the table, gently planting herself by the once again sleeping Willie.
“Excusez-moi, Haywood, suga is that you?” She said, catching sight of him.
“Ah yes, Mrs. Delo–”
“Josephine.” She interrupted, throwing her hand across the table at him.
He grabbed it and kissed the top of it politely before releasing it again. “Josephine,” he corrected himself, “you look as lovely as ever.”
She batted her eyes coyly. “And you look…” she paused.
“Like a grown man.” said Ms. Ruth Anne with a snort.
Clara airily approached the table and sat down next to Haywood, ending the awkward tension.
“Saved by his grace,” Ms. Ruth said with a smirk.
“Hi Woody.” Clara whispered with a giant grin before turning her focus to the head of the table.
Haywood’s voice caught in his throat before he was able to say anything back.
At the front of the room, his brother-in-law Jeremiah had begun the meeting procedurals.
“It looks like everyone is here.” He said, scanning the room and locking eyes with Haywood. He nodded in his direction and continued. “So, as you all know, there have been some resistance groups popping up in our communities. Some have been showing up and intimidating folks who are trying to vote. A few of the labor unions were forced to get rid of colored folks before the companies would agree to any negotiations. Just in our area, a group called…” he said looking in Amity’s direction.
“The Knights.” She said quickly.
“Tuh…white people.” Ms. Ruth said under her breath, causing them all to snicker.
“Yes, the Knights.” Jeremiah continued, “They have been wreaking havoc on the colored community that work near the docks. Some of the street vendors have had to close up early to make sure they get home before dark. Too many people have had their money stolen and been beaten nearly to death. About five of the seven businesses that sell to us have been set on fire. A young mother just went missing on her way home from work just this week.”
The room suddenly felt as if all the air had been sucked out.
Haywood’s thoughts drifted to earlier that week. None of this news was shocking to him. He and his colleagues had returned to their small office at the D.C. chapter of the Freedmen’s Bureau to find the place completely torn apart. Broken chairs and papers strewn about; another warning from the local white business owners. How dare the government give any assistance to the formerly enslaved? Wasn’t freedom enough? The resentment that the men faced for trying to legally reunite families and set people up for paid labor and home ownership had moved from outward taunting to physical assault. Jim Reese, their white colleague and assumed manager, had been punched in the eye when he placed himself between Haywood and an angry trio of business owners who had been called out for unfairly paying Negro workers.
“The members of our community are reporting similar things,” piped up Thurman Gott. “There was a burning cross placed outside the colored schoolhouse. A young couple, the Tillmans, moved in a few months ago and began teaching some of the folks everything they needed to go to the polls.”
“Excusez-moi? What are we supposed to do about this?” Josephine said loudly, dramatically slamming her hand on the table. “We can’t let them get away with this.”
“She’s right!” came the mouse-like voice of Mamie Freeman. The woman sat so small and unassuming, you’d hardly notice she was around at all.
“Calm down. Calm down.” Jeremiah said soothingly to the group. “I have been corresponding with Woody and his mentor Roscoe Bynam in the Freedmen’s Bureau, who unfortunately couldn’t be here tonight. They are currently coming up with a database so that we may have better contacts throughout our states. Local soldiers, healers, lawyers. Friends like us with skills that we can use to protect the constituents.”
Most of the table residents turned their head in his direction, giving him a once over. Haywood immediately noticed Amity beaming with pride at her husband’s side. Haywood shifted slightly in his seat. Before he had really interacted with the politicians in D.C. he had little to no interest in joining his sister on this side of activism. They had grown up privileged in a community of people just like them, free and middle class. He had believed that Negroes just needed opportunity and that those opportunities would come once they were given the chance to change laws at the source. After over two years in the political space, he realized that some people would rather die than see Negroes gain equity.
“That’s great, Woody,” Clara whispered excitedly, touching his hand before turning back to face Jeremiah.
“I think that it’s time to shift how we do these meetings.” Jeremiah continued, “We came together to help supply each other with needs. We have networks of food and clothing and jobs to set folks up but, those very things are being threatened.”
There were several solemn and engaged nods around the table.
“Like I said, Woody and Roscoe are working on a database and they need your help. Right now, we need everyone to go back to your community and gather the names of people who are willing to help. What are their specialties? What connections do they have?” Jeremiah said, staring down the table.
“Don’t you think that’s a lot to ask?” squeaked the mouse-like voice of Mamie Freeman, “I assume that this will all be written down somewhere. That’s an easy way to target people if it should ever get into the wrong hands.”
A gruff agreement came from down the table as Herman Gott pointed and nodded in Mamie’s direction.
“DON’T BE RIDICU-LOUZ!” Josephine barked in an exaggerated French accent. “Who would not be willing to -elp?”
“Death is on the table!” shouted Herman.
The table began to murmur with excitement as members of the group tossed pros and cons back at one another like daggers.
“Okay! Alright!” Jeremiah shouted, trying to gain the attention of everyone again.
Amity let out a loud piercing whistle that brought the noise down and the attention back to the head of the table. After a beat, Jeremiah began speaking again.
“I know that this is a lot to ask but the dangers don’t seem to be going anywhere. The more people that we get involved, the greater the circle of protection can be,” he sighed. “Please. Let them know of the dangers but explain to them the benefits of working together. I’m sure that they know many of those same people have been bene‒”
A loud rush of wind whipped through the room, startling the group. Josephine screamed, ducking for cover under the table as dishes rattled about. A transparent blue light flickered in and out of view before taking its final form of a large bird.
“My apologies,” rushed a panicked voice that seemed to be coming from its beak. “I am receiving word of multiple attacks happening in each district. Fires, bombing, and shoot outs. Coordinated attacks. Oh!” The bird paused staring directly down the table.
The members looked to one another and back again. Haywood immediately recognized the voice as Jerry Burroughs, the young conjurer that had just begun working alongside him and Mr. Bynam.
“Oh…oh no. I just got word that Mr. Bynam has been shot. There are no further updates to his condition.” The bird said, making direct eye contact with Haywood and disappearing from the room.
There was a loud gasp and Haywood rose from his chair quickly, hoping that this was all a dream.
Down the table, the parties engaged in fierce whispers trying to figure out what to do next. The buzzing became louder in Haywood’s head as he stood in silence.
“Okay! Alright!” Jeremiah yelled, gathering their attention again.
Haywood, suddenly aware of Clara’s presence, turned his attention to her. His dear friend gave him a sobering glance while tearfully patting him on the shoulder.
“The point of this meeting was to make all of us more aware of the dangers we face and to have each and every one of you take up the mantle of leadership in your communities. Those communities sent you here because you are well trusted,” Jeremiah said, fiercely glancing around the room. “We don’t yet know of Mr. Bynam’s condition so I motion to have Woody‒Haywood, temporarily take Mr. Bynam’s place as chairman of the D.C. chapter.”
Haywood froze, taken aback, staring questioningly in Jeremiah’s direction.
“Me?” Haywood blurted before he could stop himself. Why me? Surely, you all don’t think I’m qualified for that, he thought, slightly panicking.
“He obviously trusts you, he sent you in his place,” Jeremiah reasoned, answering the question on his face. “All those in favor?”
There was a resounding chorus of “Aye,” and Jeremiah continued. “Good! Everyone, back to your districts! Gather the people and get that information to Woody as soon as possible. We’ll meet back here in two weeks!”
And with that, the loud sound of chairs scraping backward from their positions echoed throughout the room. Amity followed her guests quickly to the foyer, sending farewell greetings as the distinct sound of popping filled the air.
Haywood walked slowly to the door, still shocked by all that had happened. Clara and Amity were tearfully giving their goodbyes. She hugged both Amity and Jeremiah with a slight pat on Jeremiah’s cheek before walking over to him.
“Be careful out there, Woody,” she said softly. She grabbed her handbag off of the entrance table, stepped out into the night air and disappeared with a loud pop. For a brief moment, Haywood wished that he was headed to Chicago too.
Still wide-eyed, he glanced over at Jeremiah and Amity.
“You have to get back, Woody.” she said gently, “Update us on Roscoe as soon as possible, here?”
Jeremiah made his way to the coat rack, pulled Haywood’s jacket down and helped him slip into it. Patting him on the back, he moved over to where Amity stood.
“Welcome to the resistance,” he said, looking at him intensely.
Haywood took one deep breath and stepped through the doors. The eyes of the swamp watched as he slowly descended the stairs, took one last look at his family, and disappeared.
The heavy load of responsibility weighed in his mind as he thought of approaching the D.C. council and he hoped beyond belief that this was not the last night for his mentor Roscoe T. Bynam.