My family, on vacation,
stopped for dinner at a restaurant
in an old stone farmhouse on a country road.
The sign read, “Built in 1702. Try our world famous apple pie.”
The host said, “Please seat yourselves
at any table on the second floor.
And on your way upstairs,
check the slave hideout built into the wall.”
We walked halfway up and looked.
The hideout was a cavern in the thick stone wall,
an empty space the size of a refrigerator lying down.
Wooden doors once blocked the open side,
to make it seem a cupboard for extra pots.
Now there’s glass instead, a window to a dangerous, secret place.
The slaves who hid inside this cave were runaways
fleeing cruelty, fleeing violence,
weary of being owned just like a bowl or a chair.
When they escaped, they had to hide.
Their owners tracked their every step,
to capture them and make them slaves again.
In safe-houses, in holes in walls,
in barns and attics, cellars and sheds
of people who considered slavery wrong,
the runaways stayed a day, a week, or more,
until the chasers took another route.
Then the slaves could move again
toward the next stop on the underground railroad,
their freedom road.
We looked at the hideout, my family and I, and I thought,
What if we’d been slaves,
cramped and frightened in this little cave,
knowing if we crept outside
someone might drag us back to bondage?
If I were a slave, I’d wonder
why other kids laugh gladly in the yard,
why dogs bark when they feel like barking,
why even mosquitoes choose whose arms to bite.
I hope we would have run.
I hope we would have journeyed,
station to station, night to night,
ending finally where we didn’t have to hide.
© Suzanne Werkema