In 'Freewater,' author Amina Luqman-Dawson uses fiction to illuminate a little-known Black history
Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on June 3, 2022. Find that audio here.
The novel is a fictional account of a society founded by runaway slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp, which stretches between parts of Virginia and North Carolina.
Author Amina Luqman-Dawson (Zachariah Dawson)
Book excerpt: ‘Freewater’
By Amina Luqman-Dawson
DOGS BARKING IN THE FOREST IS EXTRA SCARY.
All their growling and yapping hits the trees and makes it sound like they’re coming from every direction. Stokes had sent out the whole pack. He knew we’d tried to escape, and his knowing had me to blame.
But Ada didn’t say that. Eyes wide open with fear, Ada’s skinny arms held tight to a tree trunk. She was huffing and puffing to catch air.
“Homer!” She howled it in that way that said, You’re my big brother— now what?
I didn’t have the breath nor heart to answer her. My mind was still on where we’d come from. Where were Mama and Anna? How could we keep going without them? Mama had gone back because of me, and now they were both gone.
“Homer, they’re coming!” said Ada.
Paws crushed dead tree branches. It was enough to bring me back.
“Run!” I said. But it was too late. In the moonlight I spotted dog ears that pointed straight up. Funny thing was, I knew this dog. Even in the dark, I could see its face, big and round like one of Mama’s iron pots in the Big House kitchen. Stokes had me feed that big head when he was away watching the fields. I had to do it with my morning work, after collecting milk and eggs, but before watering and brushing down the horses. The dogs ate just about the same food rations they gave us— lucky dogs. Yet they always stood there, yapping mean and angry— ungrateful dogs. Now here, this same dog came running at me like it didn’t even matter he’d had the food from my hand. We were strangers. I was the slave and he was the dog sent to catch me.
He sank his teeth into my ankle. Ada screamed. She didn’t need to. I was so scared I didn’t feel anything but the hot wet of his tongue. With my other foot, I kicked him in his head. He let go, whimpering, then backed away, maybe waiting for his friends before coming at me again.
I grabbed Ada and we ran.
There was water nearby—Mama had told us about it. If you don’t see me come back, get to the river, she’d said.
I didn’t take much heed of her instructions at the time. We were going North, and Mama and Anna were coming along with us.
Mama said there was a river, but she hadn’t told us it wasn’t a thing like the sleepy one we knew by Southerland. We heard the water before we saw it. It was night, but this river was awake. We stood on the bank with barking behind us and roaring water in front.
“It sounds like a hungry monster!” Ada likened everything to monsters and angels. But she was right. The water spilled downhill and grumbled like a belly waiting for food, its tongue licking this way and that as it turned and twisted toward the foggy swamp. Lord only knows what happened when it got there. But there was no time for worrying about that. If those dogs met us again, they weren’t going to be any nicer.
“Ada, you know that dream you have about flying?” I asked. Even with dogs on our heels, her face was kind of happy that I’d remembered her dream. She nodded.
“Well, now you get the chance to fly, like you did in that dream. We’re gonna fly right off this riverbank.”
Ada considered. “Into the water?” she asked.
I nodded. The sound of dog paws hitting soft ground came closer.
“But Homer, I can’t swim.” She said it more with sadness than anything.
“That’s all right, you can do it,” I said.
“But Homer, you can’t swim,” she said.
Before I had a chance to think about that fact, I grabbed Ada’s hand and ran toward the riverbank and jumped.
Excerpted from “Freewater” by Amina Luqman-Dawson. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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