The waters were dark and inky, rolling gently against the docks and rocking the battered, wooden oyster and fishing boats. The air was cool, the night quiet, and he gazed across the dark, moonless horizon, the star canopy arcing toward the rolling, watery oblivion. He breathed deeply the familiar salt air, the fish guts and scales that had dried after being not quite washed off the piers and back into the sea. A handful of other watermen were out, as well, bringing nets back ashore or scrubbing down the pier or tightening the knots on moorings.
It appeared to be like any other late fall night, but he knew better. The rumors were all through the watermen slave community—Abe’s boats were out there, and they were loaded with men from the North who would show up within days. Even now, the distant sounds of wagons rolling on dark streets echoed faintly from the west.
His name was Ezekiel, and he did not know his exact age. He was older than the young men but younger than the old men, wise enough to read the sea and understand her messages, her occasional anger, her times of contentment, but still strong enough to run his master’s boat by himself, haul in the catch himself, and bring everything to market. He knew the canals, rivers, and bays better than he knew the lay of his own head. He could call them up at any time in his mind’s eye.
But this was not what he thought of now. He thought of those big northern ships sitting somewhere up to the North just past Fort Macon. He knew the day of judgment was coming, and he thought of the prophecies of the old prophet, his namesake:
Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast. And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.
It was almost time, so he stepped away from the docks and started the two-block walk to the cemetery. A light breeze rustled the few dry leaves that remained on the live oaks along the street. He thought of how it always was—the season of cooling and dying, the mild but sometimes cold winters, the rebirth of spring. He was a bit older, a bit slower, and bit more tired with every fall season, and he wondered how long the good Lord would keep him around, how long things would be this way, whether the destruction that was coming would free him or whether it would swirl around him and keep him yoked to these docks.
He glanced up the street and saw a figure at the gate of the cemetery. When the figure saw him, it moved into the cemetery. Ezekiel pulled his hat down tighter but restrained himself from walking faster—it wouldn’t do no good to draw attention to a slave walking late at night on the streets near the docks. His master, Jacob Williams, was easy going enough, but he was still a master.
He turned into the cemetery, which was full of live oaks and hanging moss. The shadows were longer and deeper than anything outside the cemetery, and he felt a chill run up his spine. Many of the other watermen believed in spirits on the water and the ghosts of natives long since passed. He wasn’t so sure about it, but seeing the moss shadows move in the light breeze just about had him convinced. Men from the Revolution were buried here, as were men from the War of 1812. Wars for freedom, they said. Freedom from tyranny, they said.
“It’s good to be free,” he always said, when white folk talked about it. That is, if he were part of the conversation. Most times, he was more like animated furniture when the white folks were around, when he moved them up and down the channels.
Of course, more than one white man had said to him, “You know how easy it would be for you to pilot this boat out to open water and away from here, don’t you?”
Dempsey had always told him, “Don’t you never answer that question how they settin it up. It’s a trap. You always say that you just happy where you are with a good home and a good master. Make it sound ignorant. That’s what they want. ‘I’s from a good home wit a good massa. They like my family. I don’t got no call to be runnin off to sea.’”
And that’s what he had always done, and that had always been good enough for the white folk. They had always just gone back to their own talk. They didn’t know he could read, that he knew the Bible better than they did, that he had seen and read parts or all of On the Origin of the Species, Common Sense, and The Declaration of Independence. They didn’t know that there was a network of slaves circulating information, that they knew the war was coming, and that liberation was coming too.
He was moving toward the middle of the cemetery, stepping carefully to avoid the concrete grave barriers, feeling along the obelisks, when he heard the whisper, “Zeke!”
He stopped suddenly.
“Over here, Zeke. We ain’t got much time.”
To his right, under the hanging moss of a live oak, he could barely make out a shadowy figure.
“Who else could it be this time of night in the Old Burying Ground? Come on, now. Grab that other shovel.”
Ezekiel stepped carefully along until he stood beside the shallow hole Dempsey had dug so far. He saw the shovel against the oak and grabbed it. A wooden box sat beside the shovel.
“What you got in that box?” Ezekiel said.
“Nautical charts,” said Dempsey.
“Of what?” said Ezekiel.
“Everything,” said Dempsey. “Every canal, every inlet, every harbor, everything from here to Nassau.”
“Where you get that?” said Ezekiel.
“The customs house. Everyone is packin up and headin out. I remembered they was plans there, and I got em.”
“But why?” Ezekiel asked as he started widening the hole.
“Late moon tomorrow night, same as tonight. And before it come, we gettin outta here. You, me, Thomas, Marvin, and Gerald.”
Ezekiel kept digging, not changing expression or movement from what he had been doing.
“Where we goin?”
“North,” said Dempsey. “And we givin these plans to the Yanks. Freedom’s acomin to Beaufort. And we ain’t waitin for it. We gettin out and we helpin the Yanks take the place and go further. And if they’ll have me, I’ll be joinin Uncle Abe’s navy. I’ll take them northern sailors all over and hunt out every slave owner they is.”
Ezekiel said nothing and kept digging, but inside, his heart leapt. Of course! He didn’t have to wait till the good Lord sent the North in—he could be at it himself. He could be a good bit better navy man than most of those northern white folks, especially in the waters he knew and in the rivers of the South. He had no wife, no children. Gerald was his brother, so far as he knew or was told, but he belonged to another family and worked more closely with Dempsey than he did with Ezekiel.
“The other, they know already?” Ezekiel asked.
“Mmm hmm,” said Dempsey. “Marvin got us a pilot boat . . . white folk who already left town. Father is a captain in the South army. Wife and kin done left already soon as they heard Hatteras fell. Ain’t no one watchin over that boat.”
Ezekiel nodded unconsciously. “Why ain’t we goin tonight?”
“We was goin to,” said Dempsey. “But then I remembered these plans, and Marvin said he could use another day or two for the pilot boat and Gerald, he say we should take his brother, that his brother be wantin to join the United States Navy. I saw my chance with the plans tonight and I wanted to make sure I tole you.”
Ezekiel sharpened the corner of the hole they were digging, seeing that it was bigger than the dimensions of the box. He paused and leaned on the shovel, sweat appearing on his forehead despite the cool, damp weather. He gazed up through the live oak branches, spying some of the stars above, thinking how he’d be using those stars the next night to navigate toward freedom. And for the first time in his life, he felt totally adrift, like he belonged nowhere. He swayed gently against the shovel, thinking of the feeling of a pilot boat on a gently rolling sea. He had always belonged to Jacob Williams and to these docks and to the sloop he ran out for fish and to his fellow slave watermen who worked the docks and the sloops and the pilot boats. But Dempsey had said the word, and even though he hadn’t actually gone anywhere yet, he could feel it—he was free. While joy filled his inside, he also felt strange and alone. If they were going into the US Navy, he might never see these men again. He surely wouldn’t see these docks again. All he had ever known . . . he would just leave it all behind and be like Moses or Elijah or the Baptist wandering in the wilderness and in the hands of the Almighty God.
He picked up his shovel again and dug in. “Thanks for remembering me,” he said. “You a good man, Demp.”
He felt Dempsey’s look more than he saw it. “If I can, I be freein every one of our people down these docks. They and theys families and kin. You a strong man, Zeke. We gonna need strong men to break the chains of these people.”
“Amen,” said Ezekiel. “Praise the Lord and may He be our guide.”