As Solomon walked with his son, he told the boy of a time when the road before them wasn't a road but a lane, a long length of red dust that found its way between your toes at every step, as fine and soft as baking flour. Back then, Solomon told him, he'd been no different than his father, who was no different from that lane, property of Mr. Grant, treated all the same. “It ain't just that lane that got walked on,” Solomon said. “But things change. Ain't that right? Road is a sign of things.”
The boy said nothing, for he'd known the tar road against the leather soles of his shoes since he could remember, had grown used to the road's shimmer when the sun hit it, the way it whispered his father's footsteps as he arrived home from work, the idea that it might lead somewhere when that somewhere called for him one day.
“Get that chest out, now,” Solomon said. “You want to give Mr. Grant the right idea.”
Benjamin looked up at his father, and saw that he'd already gotten a sweat going, his face dark and slick beneath his sun hat even though the sun was still only rising at their backs. He followed the man's instructions, stuck his chest out, but not too much, for his father had laughed at him once when he'd overdone it, had tousled his hair and called him an everyday fool between a fit of laughter. His father wasn't usually the touching sort, and a touch of love was no less unsettling than a touch of anger, and he'd learned his lesson all the same.
They hadn't come far. Solomon's cabin was at the end of Mr. Grant's property, or what had been Mr. Grant's property, until he'd given the little slip near the overgrown forest over to Solomon to work on his own. Nowadays he only found himself at the big house once a week with news of the crop, a short conversation in the evening done standing at the front door as Mr. Grant nodded his head and occasionally picked the berry seeds from his wife's pie from his teeth. But on this Friday he'd promised to put in a day's work on the old farm, for Mr. Grant trusted his fixing skills and there were plows that could do with some sharpening, a harness that could be refitted for a new addition to the stable.
The boy had come along at his father's insistence, but also out of curiosity, for he'd walked by the big house on the way to town with his mother and seen the family out on their porch—the mister tipping his hat, the missus holding up her cup of tea, the children paying no mind—and thought them friendly, perhaps even inviting.
“There's more than one sort of friendly,” Solomon told his son. “Don't mean they want to be friends. You say hello and you introduce yourself like your mama said to, but then you stay quiet. That'll be just friendly enough. Hear me?”
The boy nodded and Solomon led him off the road and onto the trail to the big house. They were covered by the shadow of trees on both sides now, and they arrived at a circular affair centered around a stone fountain where you could continue on, go around, and, if you pleased, leave just as you'd arrived. A group of chickens passed them on their way to the back of the house and they stopped for the gang to pass. The boy spotted two cats napping beneath a hobbled surrey missing a wheel, and knowing the work ahead of him had half a mind to curl up next to them and take a nap himself.
“What I say about that chest,” his father said. “And you look the man in his eyes if he speaks to you. Eyes on the ground then the words gonna follow them there.”
“And only a fool talks to the ground,” the boy said, for he'd long ago learned the words that followed.
“Tha's right. tha's just right.”
At the backdoor Solomon knocked twice and Mr. Grant appeared before him and Benjamin. He had on suspenders that held up tan pants, a white shirt unbuttoned just enough to let a small thicket of hair creep through.
“Solomon, there you are—how do you do?” he said.
“Besides this heat? Just fine, Mr. Grant,” Solomon said, wiping his brow. He'd once heard Mr. Grant's father make mention to an agreeable overseer many years ago that if he could weigh the sweat of a slave in any given day it'd be a fine judge of production, that this was something that should be looked into at the local university, and never had a statement described the old man's thinking with such perfection.
Yet this Mr. Grant seemed to Solomon a different breed from the elder one, for even if this Mr. Grant had never invited him into his house, he'd given him—the son of a runaway, penniless at the time, as shy and unsure as a field mouse when it came to anything but work—an opportunity to make something more of himself than any freedman might think possible. Some days spent in the field he liked to tell his son that a barren plant was of no concern, for it had no relation to a healthy seedling that very well may replace it in the future, and in many ways it was a lesson he'd learned from the differing Grant's.
“Is this who I think it is? Why don't you remind me your name?” Mr. Grant looked down at the boy and seemed surprised, as if he'd just appeared that instant, and his words carried such spirit that they seemed to demand an equally spirited response.
“Benjamin,” the boy said, speaking up.
Mr. Grant looked at Solomon, as if taken by this name, and Solomon gave the beginning of a smile in return. Although he'd aged in many ways, Solomon always found Mr. Grant young in the face, his skin as smooth and creaseless as linen just taken off the line.
“Know it's been a long time since you've seen him,” Solomon said.“ I figured now that he's getting older he might do with seeing how you like to run things. Hope to show him that plow you got, too, how to patch it up and whatnot.”
In a moment of shyness Benjamin stepped back and involuntarily put a hand to his father's leg, let go as quickly as he'd done it.
“Well I ain't opposed to the idea, but I was hoping to get you in the fields today. I got that boy—what is his name? From Buell's place—well, he knows his way around a tool shed....”
Benjamin had stopped listening. After saying his name to the man before him he'd begun to look into the house through the open door, studying its workings. There were ornaments on small tables and pictures on the wall. Things. So many things. Many he did not know the name of. He could make out the enormous paw of a hide on the floor, and he wondered what animal it possibly could have been and what corner of the world it once called home. A black woman appeared down the hallway and disappeared with the grace of a ghost; a white woman, the missus as he'd seen her, appeared then in a flowing blue sundress with a boy beside her that she scolded, the words too quiet to hear. Two more boys, similar in age, followed the first, and after a time the woman nodded to the verandah and they ran towards it, leaving the front door swinging ajar in their wake.
Benjamin heard his father mention the chance for a break at lunch just as one of the children, the oldest one, returned from the front of the house, yelling for his mother. When their eyes met the boy stopped yelling and stood stock-still. His stomach, large enough on his small frame that the weight seemed like it might tip him over, rose and fell and then stopped altogether as the staring went on.
Looking up once again, Benjamin found the eye's of Mr. Grant and his own father upon him, and realized he was expected to speak. He said, "Thank you," which seemed to be appropriate, and followed his father down the stairs towards the fields.
“You did good,” Solomon said. “I'd say more than good but we got a day's work ahead of us and you got all the time in the world to change that thought.” They went down a small hill and the path before them opened to the cabins, long abandoned now, and it struck Solomon that he could not remember which had been his mother's. Each that he passed offered a similar draw on his memory, that of him standing on his toes staring out of a hollow window in the dead of night, the heat of the hearth keeping him warm while the air he breathed showed itself like a dust cloud for a moment in the winter's cold. Him and another boy had agreed to watch for each other's breaths on those nights, as if they might not disappear but carry on down the lane past one another, and although their cabins were not exactly close, they were not far enough to think the chance of this happening was an impossible one.
With some fondness he recalled the boy's words come morning as they waited to take to the fields, shaking his head as if betrayed by the very air he'd given license to go free in the first place: “Just took up and ran away first chance they got. Ain't pay us no mind. No mind at all.”
“Solomon,” a voice said, and Solomon turned. Mr. Grant was moving briskly to meet him, and when he got there he took a moment to catch his breath. “I'll be damned if my boy didn't make the biggest fuss after seeing your Benjamin. Him and the other two have been cooped up with themselves the whole weekend and the sight of a fourth for their games has got them more excited than I could dare describe....”
From the way Mr. Grant was going on, Solomon was becoming more and more certain the man was asking him to allow his son to play with his children. “I really was hopin' to show the boy the workings of that plow, we ain't got one like it, lookin' to get one—”
Mr. Grant spoke as if Solomon hadn't. “He won't be going any further than the yard, and I got Marla working up a batch of lemonade as we speak for them. And they'll be time for that plow come another day. Look at the boy, he can barely keep still.”
The proposal itself seemed so gracious on the part of Mr. Grant that it seemed rude to reject it. To Solomon it also implied a sort of compliment, as if his own boy, the boy he'd taught with such effort through the years to be better than himself, had finally been appreciated by a man who could assess such a measure of worth.
“Can I?” Benjamin said eagerly, and Solomon saw in the boy's eyes the sort of giddiness that usually possessed a child in want of something long promised.
“I... 'spose it's just an afternoon.”
“Excellent, Solomon,” Mr. Grant said. “My children will thank you.”
For a brief time Solomon was silent, but the wave of resistance that came over him was compromised by the fact he'd already said yes to the whole matter. He nodded towards Mr. Grant while giving Benjamin a look that spelled permission. The boy collected himself and then walked over to the man.
“We'll take care of him,” Mr. Grant said before turning with the boy beside him.
Solomon did not leave quite yet but waited there as if he might be needed further, and Benjamin, at every ten paces or so, would look back, and Solomon would offer him the same nod that he first left him with, if not for permission then for encouragement. “Go 'head,” Solomon said at every nod, words spoken under his breath that acted more as reassurance for himself than anything, for the boy was out of earshot.
When Benjamin disappeared Solomon turned once again and made for the fields and saw the others there as dark shadows adrift in the landscape. He found an open furrow quickly and began to spread seed where the plow had already passed. The overseer was a difficult man who'd first worked for the elder Mr. Grant, and when Solomon took a break to wipe the dirt from his shirt and the sweat from his neck, the man shifted in his saddle yet said nothing.
The work was difficult, and the sun was at its highest point when Solomon thought he saw his father in the eyes of an old leather-faced man working beside him. The man's face was so lined by exposure it looked to have folded in on itself, like a piece of parchment briefly lit aflame. His father would be about such an age, with similar features no less, but this could not be him, even if it was the same man who'd walked back to his cabin every night in the dark after another lashing; the same man who promised to take Solomon and his mother to a place a thousand miles away from the world they knew, where there was no bell to wake up to, and work only of their choosing. No, if that same man stood before him now he was a different man altogether, for only a person so transformed as to change entirely would return to the fields he'd made so many sacrifices to leave in the first place.
The moment took him from his work—not that the man may have been his father, but the ensuing realization that, by this mode of thought, he could one day be that man—that his son would be in the very place he occupied presently. And right then Solomon became quite aware of how far he'd come that day, and he suddenly ached to quit the work before him. Without much further thought he twisted off the top of his sack of seed and began back for lunch. Even if he wasn't quite hungry, he figured the boy was.
Yet the movement from his the row must've altered something imperceptible in the proceedings of the afternoon, for the overseer's head rose and he clicked his boot against his horse and came alongside Solomon, as if to have a word.
“What's this?” he asked.
“Fixin' to get lunch,” Solomon said.
“You say lunch?”
There had been a time, in a previous life, when Solomon would wake early and follow this man into the fields. Sometimes, on a day following a restless night, he'd fall behind the line, and the overseer would come up behind him at a steady gallop and quietly trace his boot against the near edge of his head, just behind the ear.
“I can't recall Mr. Grant sayin' anything about a lunch.”
“I don't recall you bein' there when he said it.”
The overseer grinned. “Always the sly one, weren't you? Like you better than the rest. Like you special. That it? You think you special?”
If the overseer was to reach his boot out now, it would only reach Solomon's midsection, and he thought the blow might be so pathetic as to reduce the memories of the greater ones to the point of nothingness.
“I'm'a ask Mr. Grant at the end of the day,” the overseer said. “See how special you really is if he says you're lyin'....”
Solomon tipped his hat and looked at the man squarely. “I'll be on my way then. Enjoy this day now, sir.”
The horse slowed and turned away from him, and Solomon knew the field hands and the overseer were watching, kept his head high, his chest out, eyes trained on a place in the distance where his home was, for he knew it was only a walk away that he could put a world behind him and find solace in another, one of his own creation. He figured by now his son was as eager to return to it as he was, and he quickened his pace to retrieve him.
It did not take him long to reach the big house, although the heat made it seem like the journey took some time. When he cleared the hill to the house there was only Marla there, sweeping the back porch. “They out front,” she said, although it wasn't needed, for he'd already heard the children's voices. From a short distance away, the children, running round the broken down surrey in the front yard, presented themselves as a single blur, and it was only when he came closer that he spotted Benjamin by himself, watching the others.
The boy, seeing his father, came to his side.
“Solomon,” Mr. Grant said, rising to stand from the verandah. Even from where he stood, Solomon could make out the tide of sweat that had swept up from beneath his arm and marked the whole side of his shirt. “You finish early?”
“Just breakin' for lunch, 'fraid it's a bit earlier than I figured, stomach ain't being too kind to me,” Solomon said, feeling safe behind such an excuse. “I'll put in time on the backend. Promise that much.”
“I trust you will, you're a hard worker,” Mr. Grant said, and although his voice was stern it quickly grew playful as he continued on. “And if your boy puts in as much effort in work as he does play, I imagine he'll follow in your footsteps one of these days.”
Solomon looked down at the boy, and the boy looked up at him, although his face remained blank.
“That right?” Solomon asked his son, working up another small smile.
Benjamin said nothing but Mr. Grant spoke for him. “Not a thing in the world that could've taken the smile off that boy's face. Should've seen it, I tell you. Had ourselves a good old time.”
“That's good,” Solomon said. “He ain't get to play often.”
Yet the boy looked tired and beat and Solomon quit his own smile when he saw as much.
“Off you go then.” Mr. Grant said. “And don't take too long. Need every hand I can get down there.”
Solomon nodded and walked his son back to the front of the house and down the trail to the road. He'd meant to get rid of the sack of seed before he'd seen his son, for he was not keen on sending a message that he was anything but a fixer for Mr. Grant, and a partner when it came to his own land, but he'd forgotten, and now held it to the side of him where his son was not.
“You don't need to be smiling for me but it's polite to do it for the likes of Mr. Grant,” Solomon said. The boy said nothing so he went on. “A smile every once in a while ain't hurt anybody. Them boys smiling every which way and you just savin' all yours up for something that don't ever come. 'Sposed to be fun, you know. Playin' and all. You 'sposed to like that.”
He realized then that the boy was quieter than usual, so much so that it made him stop and look down. He saw that the boy's shoes were missing, and he placed the sack of seed down and crouched to look him in the eyes.
“What happened to them shoes?” he asked.
The boy returned the man's gaze. “Papa....” He said it as if to apologize.
“I asked you a question,” Solomon said. He'd worked some time to save for the shoes, had paid an old woman in the camps near town fifteen dollars, not counting the price of the leather, to put them together. Solomon himself didn't have a pair as nice. “I ain't mad at you, I just need to know. You understand that, don't you, that I ain't mad.”
The boy nodded, and the tears began to show, and although he did not wish to speak he began to do so, however reluctantly.“Stuck out my chest like you say to, and that fat boy thought I made fun of him and hid 'em in the woods someplace. I did as you asked is all. I ain't mean nothin' by it.”
Solomon stood again and considered things, and the boy's story rolled around in his head until his thoughts caught up with it. “Ain't no need to cry then,” Solomon said. “Y'all were just playin'. It was just play. Ain't nothin' to worry about, you hear me?”
The boy nodded again.
“You just wait here now,” Solomon said. “I'll make things right. Won't take me long.”
When Solomon turned the boy said, “Papa,” and was already near his side again.
“I said it won't be long.” But Solomon could see the boy was frightened now, and he stood with him for some time saying nothing, just quiet, waiting for his breathing to slow. “I ain't going far, now. Just to the steps over there. You'll see me the whole way.”
The boy stopped then and waited there with his eyes tethered to his father's back.
Solomon walked back towards the verandah with his hat to his chest.
Mr. Grant must have thought something was wrong, for his brows arched in an unusual show of concern, and Solomon already regretted the imposition as he mounted the steps to meet him.
“There a problem, Solomon?” Mr. Grant asked.
“My boy's shoes,” Solomon said. “Seems he might've gotten them taken in one of them games they were playin'.”
Mr. Grant looked off into the distance, as if the view might jar his memory. “Well, I was watching them all afternoon,” he said. “I didn't see anything happen with any shoes. Pains me to say it. You sure he didn't lose them at some point?”
“Had 'em when we walked here,” Solomon said.
“That's a shame, a real shame,” Mr. Grant said.
“You don't 'spose there's a chance you didn't see it happen,” Solomon said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Might've run off for a spell, to the woods, maybe. Boys tend to run off when they playin'.”
“Well, I'd extend an invitation for you to peek around the woods yourself, but it sounds like your stomach might not be up to such exertion today.”
The words lingered but Solomon merely blinked and let them pass. “They the only shoes the boy's got, sir.”
“I'll tell you what. Those shoes turn up, I'll have Marla bring them up to your place first thing. How's that sound? I think that's fair.”
Solomon looked over at Mr. Grant's children standing only feet away near the broken surrey: the younger two looked busy licking the stick of lemonade from their lips, yet the oldest stared at him with a giddy eagerness, his arms crossed, a wide smile across his face that portrayed some sense of satisfaction.
It struck Solomon that his son had been at the mercy of the boy, that what he'd endured was almost certainly no different from that which Mr. Grant, unknowingly or not, was causing him to experience this very moment, and he wouldn't have wished such a sense of helplessness on any man, let alone his own blood.
“If you could just ask your boy, maybe. If he might have seen them shoes. Tha's all I'm askin', sir.”
“My boy? Solomon, please–”
Mr. Grant shook his head once again with an emphatic frown, yet his face went blank when Solomon stepped forward and delicately placed an arm on his shoulder. Solomon whispered directly into Mr. Grant's ear with the sort of desperate tone he long ago stored away, long ago promised to leave behind until his dying breath.
“Mr. Grant, you know yourself there ain't a thing under the sun you've asked for that I ain't done. And all I'm asking for is them shoes. Just the boy's shoes. Tell your boys to let up now. Please, sir.”
Mr. Grant pulled back as if from a blow, and Solomon only then realized the power of his touch, for it had not only stripped Mr. Grant's composure from the proceedings, but also, in one instant, reduced years of goodwill to nothing at all.
“Honestly, Solomon, that will be enough. If there was something to be done, it would be done. I don't know what's gotten into you. Now I was gracious enough to invite your son to my home and you've responded by placing blame on my boys for something they had no part in. There's no more to be said on the matter. And I'm afraid you've upset Abigail with all this talk.”
Solomon looked over at Mr. Grant's wife but her eyes were on her cup of lemonade, and if his look was a plea for help, or even acknowledgment, it went unreturned.
“You go on now, Solomon. You go on home.”
Solomon stepped down the stairs, looked at the ground, and he did not wish to return to his son like this, without the shoes, with only a hat in his hand to show for everything the day had brought to pass.
“You ain't invite him to your home,” he muttered.
“I said that would be enough.”
“Yard ain't your home. Those two different things.”
Solomon turned then, and he could hear Mr. Grant speak to him as he made distance down the track back to his son.
“Expect you to make up this time, Solomon. And I expect that report come Friday, too, tell me how that land's comin'. This just like every other week, you hear?”
Solomon walked to his son and kept on. “Come on, then,” he said as he passed.
The boy caught up to his side. “Why ain't he ask 'em?” the boy said. “The fat one did it, papa. I swear it. If he'd just asked 'em.” Solomon didn't respond, and the boy kept up. “Papa—”
“That's enough now.”
As they reached the tar road Solomon looked back and saw Mr. Grant and his boys hunched over the railing of the verandah watching them off.
“Oh,” Benjamin said, letting out a whimper, for as quick as he'd stepped on the road he'd stepped back to escape the heat he'd found there.
Yet Solomon continued and the boy followed, for as much as he feared the heat, it mattered more that he stay by his father's side. Soon he found that each step was a relief until the raised foot touched down again, and without realizing it he was nearly running, as the urge to get away had overtaken the urge to be near his father.
He was about to take off when he felt Solomon's hand grab his own; so strong was the hold that he thought his father must have been experiencing the same pain he was.
“Don't you let them see you run, boy,” Solomon said. “You take that pain and put it somewhere deep, but you don't let them make a fool of you.”
After a time, his father's grip tightened further and the boy clumsily began to walk on the sides of his feet where the skin had yet to blister and throb or peel away entirely.
“Let me see that chest out,” Solomon said, yet the words came out weak and shallow, swallowed whole by the thick summer air before they could gain enough traction to be convincing. “Head high. What I always tell you.”
Solomon looked back at every tenth step, and then every fifth, and when the big house was out of sight he picked the boy up in one motion and put him over his shoulder. He ran then with an urgency he did not know he possessed, his eyes trained on his home as it drew near. The boy's mother met them on the porch and stole the boy from him, and although he wished to explain to her what had taken place, he knew there were no words that would earn her understanding.
When they were inside she soaked the boy's feet in a pot of cold water and sang him songs in soothing tones, ones they both knew well that turned his cries to mere sobs. Solomon watched on in silence for some time, and when the boy turned to face him he looked away, overtaken by an anguish that had quickly turned to shame.
“Don't make me go back there,” the boy said. “Ain't nothing you can do to make me. I swear.”
The boy, amidst the pain, did not realize how long they'd been back, that day had already turned to night. “You rest now,” was all Solomon could say. “You ain't going anywhere.”
“Not there,” the boy said. “Never goin' back there.”
Solomon finally looked at the boy, and for the second time that day his own father peered back at him, a face hard and sure enough to appear stubborn, set permanently and with enough conviction to strike fear into a lesser man; at once he knew that the boy's feet might be injured that moment, but a day would come when they would heal, and he would make the most of them then, whatever the cost.
“I 'spose you'll go where you wish,” Solomon said.
The boy fell asleep, his mother beside him, his head in her bosom, and Solomon silently excused himself to the porch. Darkness covered everything, and when a breeze picked up and swept through the woods in the distance, he found himself wanting to follow the rustling there. Given the time before sunrise, he could search for some hours for the shoes, and even with a lantern as his only guide of light, they might be found, presented to the boy upon his waking, all made right again.
He would be asleep before he could act on the urge; come first light it would be the crops, not the forest, that had his attention. He'd tend to the fields alone that day, and the distraction, the work there, brought him the sort of comfort he'd spent all night seeking out. By his calculation it would only take a single harvest to afford a new pair of shoes, and the thought only added incentive to work harder, and longer. As for the old pair, well they were so deep in unexplored acreage he'd never unearth them even if he tried. Better to just keep working—to ignore what was already gone.