Ezra turned and reached for Orelia, who was doubled over in pain. “Come on, baby, I’m here. House is just up there. See the lights in the windows.” They scrambled up the bank, and the small boat paddled away, making its way through the icing creek. “Mrs. Hitchcock she ready for us. We in Iowa now. They’s a free state.”
“How do you know, Ezra? Ohhhh . . .” Orelia doubled over again.
He didn’t answer her. Ezra knew he had to get her through the snow, up to the house, and down in the cellar. All as quiet as mice. And her having pains so early.
Orelia slid down again as another pain hit her. “Ohhhhh,” she moaned.
“Honey, can you be quiet now? We don’t want to get anyone hearing us.” He pulled her to the top of the bank where they sat in the snow waiting for her pain to subside.
Ezra wadded up a faded blue kerchief. “Here now, next time a pain hits, you bite this.” He tried to stuff it into her mouth while she sucked in air.
She spit it out.
“No, baby. You gotta do it. You listen to Ezra now. There can’t be no hearing us or this whole trip for nothin’. We’ll never reach the promised land.” He stuffed it back in and barely pulled his fingers out in time not to get bit.
Orelia struggled and ran in a painful lop-sided way, holding her belly, the holes in her homespun shawl lit up by moonlight. A distant owl hooted. A quiet growl came from the brush.
A lump of hurt choked Ezra as he watched his wife, at least that was how he thought of her. They’d get married proper when they got to Canada. He couldn’t stand seeing her run that way. She stumbled and he put one arm behind her knees, another on her back and tipped her up. He grunted. She was usually so small, but the baby made her off balance and clumsy to hold. She buried her face in his shoulder.
Up ahead he saw the flicker of three lanterns in the windows. That meant they was expecting three runaways. Old Simon had fell out the boat into the icy black river. He didn’t bob up, not even once. So there was just him and Orelia and the baby.
The sight bucked him up. He staggered faster. Orelia screeched into the cloth, into his shoulder. Her teeth sunk into his flesh, and he winced. At last he reached the open cellar door, ready to receive them.
The steep, uneven steps tripped him up, and he bumped Orelia’s head against the frozen dirt wall. Orelia’s pain made her punch him hard on the arm in return.
At last they were in the cellar. He had to put Orelia down on the dirt floor. “Just for a minute, baby.” Around them, jugs of preserved foods lined crude shelves. Dusty bottles of wine lay on their sides in a rack. Above, he could hear a piano playing a lively Christmas tune. “It must be Christmas Eve,” Ezra said.
Thumps on the floor be dancing. “That party noise keep ‘em from hearing us.” Even so, he moved the shelves ever so carefully to reveal the safe room. He didn’t want to leave no marks in the dirt floor. Then he returned to Orelia, panting now, and helped her to a straw pallet. He found matches and lit the candle before lifting the shelves back in place.
“Baby’s comin’,” Orelia spluttered between pains. Then she pushed so hard her whole body shuddered as she groaned a mighty, low groan.
Ezra had to open her legs to see. He hated doin’ that, but they was beyond being shy now. It was a necessary thing. He’d seen his mammy birthing babies back on the plantation.
A bloody bony head appeared, almost purple. Joy wiped away the struggle, the fear, the constant fear. “Baby’s head,” he whispered.
Orelia thrashed, grunting and shuddering and clawing into his shoulder.
He grasped the slippery roundness and pulled best he could, slow, steady.
Out it slipped, a wiggly bloody little one.
It were the baby. It were born. “Orelia, honey, it be here. It’s a little girl.”
He took Orelia’s shawl and wrapped the baby in it.
Above, the music had changed tempo. He recognized “Silent Night.”
The baby gave out a newborn mewing cry, and they exchanged their scared look. Could such a little sound be heard upstairs? They might be in a free state, but it was still illegal to hide runaways.
“Let’s call her Christmas,” Ezra whispered.
Orelia smiled down on the bundle and whispered, “Christmas. Our very own Christmas.”
The shelves moved. Had somebody heard them? Come to arrest them? Take them back South? Both Ezra and Orelia sucked in breath.
A lady stood in the flickering candlelight. “I’m Mrs. Hitchcock.” She came to the straw pallet. “Oh, dear God, it’s a baby. A baby on Christmas Eve. Oh, she’s lovely.”
Orelia said, “She cried once. We was afraid y’all heard.”
“We did hear. The mayor was here, but he said the night was so magical he had heard the newborn Jesus cry.”
“Praise be to God,” said Ezra.
Mrs. Hitchcock left to bring water to wash the baby, and food and blankets to keep them warm.
“Orelia, honey, our baby, she born free.”
“Free,” Orelia repeated what Ezra had said. A fierce, proud light shone in her eyes as she looked down on the tiny child.
It were a holy night. Oh, holy night.
About the Author: Bernie Brown
I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. My short story, Same Old Casserole, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.