SOLOMON WAS BORN in the year 1830 or 1831. Even his mother didn’t know the day, exactly. They were slaves in Macon County, Kentucky, right across the river from Ohio. When Solomon was just a small child, his father and four other men had rowed across the river to freedom. Solomon remembered that one night shortly after his father left, the preacher, who could read, came to their cabin with a paper from Ohio with a Hue and Cry in it. That was an announcement for the whites to shoot the five escaped ones if they saw them, and get paid for it, too. On hearing this Solomon’s mother dropped to her knees and cried, pulling at her hair. That picture stayed with Solomon. Not of his mother exactly, but the ball of snarled black hair on the whitewashed floor of the cabin, standing upright like a small wild creature. Look after her, the preacher told Solomon. He tried to. He drew her some water and when she wouldn’t get up he boiled up some mush and fed his smaller brothers, but it didn’t help, because the next they saw his father it was hanging from the white oak tree in front of their cabin, with three of the others. One had gotten away.
So Solomon never dared to hope for a different life. When he prayed at night, he asked only what the preacher had taught him: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.
When Solomon was twelve or thirteen, Old Marse, their master, died. His son, Lil’ Marse, became their new master. (They did not call him Lil’ Marse to his face, though he might not have minded.) Lil’ Marse was not little at all. He was a thirty-year-old man, but he looked fifty. His body was stooped and fat, so that his braces—rather than holding up his trousers—made dented stripes in the belly that oozed out between them. He had watery eyes in his white face, which was soft and sad and droopy. He seemed to be their new master in spite of himself.
Solomon heard the others say they did not know what to think of Lil’ Marse, but Lil’ Marse was the spawn of Ol’ Marse so he must be evil too, in spite of anything the Bible said about forgiveness. So Solomon hated him.
But Solomon’s mother worked at the big house one week when the cook got sick. She came home and said, Lil’ Marse like to set us free.
He tell you?
I just know. But he too weak.
There were other plantations on all sides of them. You could picture a master bold enough, sure enough in himself, to incur the wrath of his neighbors, said Solomon’s mother. But Lil’ Marse was not the one you’d picture.
Solomon grew tall; he must have been fourteen or fifteen. In the month of April he was walking past the big house with a wheelbarrow full of wood for the cooper. Lil’ Marse called to him from the porch.
Solomon, you’ll be wanting to go courting soon.
Yes, sir, I suppose I will, he said.
Solomon, is there a girl here you find nice?
No, sir, he said.
Well, said Lil’ Marse, you think about it. And if you don’t find one, come the lay-by for the cotton, you can go to Singleton’s.
Or whichever place you want, till you find someone.
Would you like that, Solomon?
I don’t know, master.
You don’t know?
I never thought about it, sir. Courting.
Lil’ Marse sighed. He rested his elbows on the porch railing and looked down at Solomon. His eyes had a vague, womanly look that made Solomon embarrassed for him.
It isn’t something you think about, Solomon, said Lil’ Marse. It’s a feeling you get. You see someone, and you feel something for her. And then you follow that. See? And when you feel it, you’ll just know.
I will, master?
Yes, Solomon. In August, then?
Yes, sir. Thank you, Lil’—thank you, Marse. Sir.
Then he saw what his mother meant. Lil’ Marse hardly seemed evil. He was a reluctant master. He seemed shy of Solomon, even.
Soon after this talk with Lil’ Marse, love began to occur to Solomon. At night he prayed two things: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord. And, if it be acceptable, let me find someone to love.
And not long after his mind had taken up the suggestion, the world seemed to conspire. It was blossom time. As he worked, the scent of magnolia would come up his nostrils. He stopped. He fixed his attention on that smell. Or walking home, after the work of the day was done, he looked down to see his bare, torn feet on a soft white carpet of dogwood petals. He bent to feel one. Between his thumb and forefinger it was like soft skin. Along the path to the cabins, where only weeds normally grew, flowers the color of a pink-orange sunset had sprouted. As he passed, they bent their heads to him in the breeze. They sang a little song.
This is your story, Solomon, the story of your life! We are part of it, and your father, your mother, and your brothers. But you are the center! It’s your story. You! It was a cheerful song. And Solomon felt warm, and wonderful.
This made him wonder later, if love came to you, even before you met the person, if it was in you somehow, as a seed, waiting for the other to water it.
The spring turned to summer, the sunset flowers withered. The hot months of their hard labor passed, and then it was August, the time of lay-by for the cotton. An auntie on the Singleton plantation sent a message with the blacksmith, who’d come to shoe Lil’ Marse’s horse: she had a girl for Solomon to meet. Solomon cleaned up, borrowed his father’s meeting shirt that his mother kept in a box beside her pallet, and took the path that went through some chinaberry trees and along the river, listening to the sound of the water he could not see. Later when he remembered it (and after, he lay awake, tracing it over, remembering it) there was some kind of song in his heart that went along with the cheerful sound of the current. He couldn’t see the water for the trees, but he was walking downstream. He thought of that dark water drawing him along without seeing it, and though he didn’t often think in this way, it occurred to him in the happy moment that both he and the water were pulled along; that current, as all the forces of the earth, pulls us toward our destiny.
He got to the Singleton place and asked for the auntie, who brought the girl. At first he didn’t really look at her. They sat on the auntie’s pine bench together, the auntie beside them so they had to sit close together, closer than he would have dared hope for. Her name was Rebecca. She was quiet, much darker than bright Solomon; she wore her hair tucked under a sunbonnet like a white woman.
Then she looked right at him from under that bonnet brim with big eyes shining white in her tiny dark face, and it came upon him as fast as Lil’ Marse had described it: a tugging in his heart, coming straight from this look that she fixed upon him. He asked her, What do you do?
Days I milk and churn and clean the big house. Nights I card and spin.
Yes, it was her face, her small delicate body that stirred him, and also the sound of her high soft voice as she answered him shyly. But it must have been more, and something else (they didn’t exchange more than twenty-three sentences, he counted later, speaking each one again, aloud, lying on his pallet), and he didn’t sleep that night for the glee of it.
Days, I milk and churn, and clean the big house.
Nights I card and spin.
He went twice more. The first time Auntie brought them some meal coffee, and they sipped it and talked a little more. The second he helped her gather some rotten pears that had fallen to the ground and put them in a basket, and twice their hands touched as they put them in, and when they went to throw these pears to the hogs, they were covered with ants and he brushed them away for her. She pulled her hand back, but smiled, and thanked him in the quiet high voice.
It don’t sting me none.
When they had finished and sat on the little rise beside the river, the sky turned the same pink and orange of the flowers on the cabin path; it was the time that the auntie usually told him to go, and yet she had not yet come to feed the hogs and was nowhere to be seen.
They sat; the sun lowered suddenly, and they were under cover of night, beside the great dark river. What a thrill it was to speak to her in darkness, how his heart leapt and sang, and he thought back to the hope of such feeling, which was all he’d had formerly, and the current experience of it, and couldn’t quite believe he was here with her, Rebecca. Rebecca. It was almost too much, so that he felt that the whole thing was very like pain. A pain of anticipation, a joyful pain of being with her, a pain of having to leave, which made him fear somehow losing the joyful feeling. And it was all so terrible that he had nothing to lose by speaking.
What you thinking?
She pointed across the river. Over there, she said, they free.
He didn’t think too much of her words then, because his own words were not what he felt. When he asked her what do you do he was saying, I’m pleased with you, and when he asked her what are you thinking he was really asking, Do you love me? So, when she answered him, didn’t she, too, mean something else? Come back to me, soon? I love you? The more he let himself hope for it, the worse it seemed that it might not be so.
Then for two days he could not go to her; the overseer made them split rails, and by evening Solomon’s body was worn and tired, his hands splintered. From his father’s box he took the corncob pipe and a pinch of tobacco that his mother always kept there, and he thought he might share it with Rebecca, and put it in his pocket. He went to Lil’ Marse and said, Please, Master, may I go? Marse only smiled.
I’m glad you found one, Solomon, he said.
Yes, sir, Solomon said, fingering the pipe in his pocket, bending the toes of his right foot up, and then the left, because it was a torture to stand and wait for the answer.
A few good days will make her more eager, Solomon. It’s better this way. She’ll love you more for it.
Solomon threw the pipe down on the porch. It skittered across the edge and off into the grass. A cat yowled.
How you know, Lil’ Marse? he yelled.
To speak to a master that way! It was unheard of. Solomon’s face was hot, and he wanted to hide himself.
But Lil’ Marse only nodded. I was young, too, Solomon, he said sadly. That’s all.
Can I send her a message?
You can, Solomon. But sometimes a woman likes to be kept waiting.
Oh, Lord, Solomon said—pressing the heels of his palms into his forehead, and rocking that way forward and back—She do?
Solomon could hardly believe that. He would not like to be kept waiting. But Lil’ Marse had been right before, about the feeling. So Solomon trusted him, and waited.
That night, turning on his pallet, Solomon worried. Could he remember her voice still and her face? When they touched in the pear basket, when he brushed the ants from her skin, he had not had cause to examine her hands. If they were as soft and fine as petals he loved them. And if they were coarse or rough, even better. If they were square he loved them just as well! He tried then, almost eagerly, to think of anything another boy would not like in her, so that he might love it. She did not wear shoes. Surely her feet were coarse and rough, though they were covered by some kind of homemade moccasin made of cloth, a rag from a worn garment. He thought they were beautiful. Even with that bonnet, she was very dark, he thought, and he was pleased, because some other boy might want a brighter girl, but the darkness was perfect for him. Rebecca.
Two long days passed. Solomon split the rails for Lil’ Marse, and his back and ribs were sore and angry from impatience and waiting. The blacksmith came from Livingston’s again and brought with him a note. It was handed him, Solomon who could not read, and he burned with impatience and shame. He brought it to Lil’ Marse.
Why Solomon, said Lil’ Marse, I do believe your scheme has worked.
Then he paused. He was a slow man, and it was common for him to pause in speaking (and they sometimes made fun of him when he’d call them in, Solomon…would you go on out to the…uh, the sugar house…and get…and get…while whatever it was you would have to do soon seemed better than this standing around waiting for him to find his words). And so it was now; he stammered as he studied the notepaper. Well…it says here…it seems, she says, she asks, rather, I mean she—
Oh please, sir! yelled Solomon.
And Lil’ Marse really laughed. A good laugh. Then he took pity.
Miss Rebecca requests that young Mr. Solomon pay her a visit tomorrow, for she has a favor to ask of him.
He grabbed the paper and looked at those incomprehensible marks, as if they could help him to understand what she would ask. Would she ask him to marry her? But a woman couldn’t ask a man, could she? Although, if it were that, of course, he would ask her himself if she wanted him to. He would make her a promise. Would Lil’ Marse trade her for another, so she could come to live here?
And he thought of these things the next day as he swung his axe, and as he cleaned the wood dust from his clothes and the mud from his boots and the dirt from under his fingernails.
They sat again on the bench, under the chinaberry tree in the awkward silence, which was now so full of possibility. It was not yet dark. The auntie was next to Rebecca, looking away, and Rebecca was next to Solomon. It was hard to breathe.
She said, I wanted to ask you—
Would you row me across the river?
Across the river?
He said, All right, as if she’d asked for something easily given, or something he’d expected.
The auntie sat forward on the bench and craned her neck at him.
Row you there for—something caught in his throat—for good?
She has someone to meet her on the other side, said the auntie. She’ll be taken care of there. She explained what Solomon had to do. Auntie would show him where the skiff was tied. They could go down past Singleton’s, she said. The river’s narrow there, just two miles across, ain’t it? And Solomon nodded though he didn’t know where the river was narrow and where it was wide, or how long it would take to row two miles, but he nodded, as if he knew. And when you get near look for a lighthouse. Row to the light.
Someone would say these words: Is not this the fast that I choose?
And Solomon should answer to loose the bonds of wickedness, and that would mean he had the right person, and then they’d pull him in to the shore. Be careful coming back, Auntie said, in case anyone’s caught her missing, and tie up the skiff and you’ll be done.
Solomon’s looked down toward his hands. His heart beat hard in his chest. He felt that he did not exist. He was swallowed up by disappointment, and shame. (If she loved me, why would she go?) But he could feel Rebecca’s eyes on him. She was smiling.
Then a second thing happened that Lil’ Marse hadn’t prepared Solomon for. He knew quite suddenly what it was to love someone, what the flowers were singing about. Solomon was the actor in the story, because there was a goodness in him that came before Rebecca, some kind of goodness that was not his own, really, but his to use, somehow.
He took Rebecca to freedom that very night after the sun went down. The moon never did come up, and they sat in the skiff in darkness with only the sound of the water and the oars dipping and pulling. They didn’t speak. Maybe there was nothing left to say. He found the light, and got near, and said what he should say, and she was gone. He rowed back safely.
The word got out about Solomon. People lined up. They waited for the dark nights of the moon. In the dark Solomon went to the meeting place. In the dark he rowed them over.
There were people and more people and he saved them, and they were strangers to him. He didn’t hear their stories. He didn’t see their faces in the dark nights.
Later, when people told Solomon’s story, they said, Well, wasn’t that also the way of the Lord and Savior?
Lil’ Marse must have known what Solomon was doing on those dark nights. His own slaves disappeared one by one, including Solomon’s own mother. And those who were left, sensing that their time, too, was near, grew happy. Lil’ Marse was happier, too. His step grew lighter, and he never asked Solomon any questions.
It took about five years for them to catch up to Solomon. One dark night when he tied up his boat after rowing back home, they came after him, and he never went back to Lil’ Marse. He slept in the woods, and in the branches of trees, but he knew he could help no more. He waited for the very next dark night of the moon to come, so that he could take the skiff and row over, and be free. And so he did. And he was.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.