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Back Along The Octoraro

Russell’s Knob, New Jersey

Duncan Smoot received reliable word that there were a few remaining people at the old plantation on Kenworthy Island. They were said to be too frail to leave, were living in hovels on the place. The Kenworthy were long gone. And though they’d taken the island, the Union Army was uninterested in the remaining contrabands. Birds had already brought word. That was how Dossie, his wife, knew her beloved Papa was still alive though near his end. She was skilled in understanding the conversation of birds. She was accustomed to mimicking the talk of birds. She knew their cheer, their come-hither calls, their fear, their caviling, their dirges, their territorial songs. They recognized her gifts and, though they did not engage with her in direct conversation most times, spoke in her presence. They debated, they gossiped, they testified to facts and events around her.

He swears it was a sedge wren that first told Duncan she was in danger. He had fumbled her rescue, and she was in peril. The bird worried his sleep for a fortnight. Its song was like the rattling of small, smooth pebbles in a cup and he could not rest. He listened to the wren’s exhortations, and he’d rescued her miraculously. Yes, the wren’s prescience was borne out by events though he didn’t mention it to anyone. The art of making bird calls was a practice with a long tradition among the people on Kenworthy. Dossie Smoot had accomplished an unbelievable variety of different intonations. He most often asked her to render the full range of clucks, cackles, grunts, and squawks of the Coot, of which there had been many at Kenworthy Island, and sometimes at the pond near their home.

After the war for freedom of the enslaved, folks started getting word about a beloved’s whereabouts through the services of songbirds. Ah, the whippoorwill was a reliable confidant!

During her pregnancy, Dossie had sat on the porch and listened to birds and made complimentary chirps and warbles. She imagined her baby listening and acquiring the forte. At Kenworthy, pregnant women did bird calls to incubate their babies with the soothing coo-coos and trills and give them a secret language that the overseer and the master did not know. It was said the island’s babies hardly cried.

“Aren’t you scared your boy will be born in an egg,” he’d asked her. She sat with her hands at rest on her big stomach, chip-chirping excitedly like a swallow or making a rising screech like a grackle. “He is ’bout a bird I guess,” she’d answered. “I hope he doesn’t need hatching when he pops out.” He didn’t; he wasn’t. He was a girl. Noisy as they were, the grackles were a beautiful bunch of rounders with slick iridescence to their feathers, indigo heads, a wide span of wings. The little swallows were pretty, too, and plenty noisy.

The majestic one, the eagle, might have told her more, said more about the peril for her Papa. He was aggrieved. He’d narrowly missed her husband’s shot. He had seen his mate fall and watched the pitiful turkeys unable to escape the man’s gun, though the eagle himself had scooped up what was left of their guts that the man overlooked in his haphazard preparation of the carcasses. The eagle could have, ranging far and flying high as he was accustomed to doing, told her that her father had very little food and would shortly die if not rescued. He might have rasped and cawed and squeaked from his high perch. He did not.

The land at Kenworthy Island was said to have a special dirt that was perfect for growing wheat. All one thousand acres were planted in a variety of wheat that thrived immensely in soil dressed with guano left by the island’s avian visitors. This soil produced wheat for the finest milled flour in the region, Angel’s Breath Cake Flour. No enslaved person who worked in those fields or at the mill ever held a crumb of cake on their tongue that was made with this flour. Mrs. Kenworthy hired only Irish cooks, and she watched them like a hawk.

The large and varied stock of birds on the island were a godawful hazard and nuisance in the fields at planting time. They ate the seeds. A furious effort at ousting them from trees nearby recently planted fields in season was how the intricate island traditions of bird talk came to develop. There were specific chants that the folk used to cajole the birds to spare the seeds and harry them into leaving. When the collective noise – every enslaved man, woman, and child joined to sing, screech, and warble, and whoop and holler – reached an ear-splitting volume the birds took flight. It was a marvelous sight to see them lift into the air and darken a section of the sky with their retreat. This exhausting and cacophonous harangue of the birds kept up until the fields were planted and the seeds had been stomped into the soil.

The persistence of warblers in their woodlands first raised the alarm, called her back to Kenworthy. The crows were loud and irksome. They were adamant that all was not well in the lowlands. Starvation. They had seen it before, had lived through it. The furious squabbling of nuthatches convinced her finally to return. She and her husband waited, though, until needles of cleansing rains penetrated the top soil and flushed worms from the earth and the big-bellied, self-important robins came back a-caroling. The males sang sweet trills at dawn, frisking and fighting to stake a claim to their nesting trees. Dependable harbingers, the robins gave out bulletins about events, information gleaned from broadsides, discarded newspapers, letters, and telegrams. The robins enjoyed a banter in early morning. “Cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily” they sang though occasionally they raised a high-pitched, searing whistle if a hawk come by to frighten baby. The upshot was that there was no more fighting by the nearby armies. There were many bodies rotting in the fields. Cabals of vultures, hissing, grunting and disgorging their stomachs for their young feasted on the bounty of the abandoned battlefields. “There is some freedom for the bond people. They are free to starve,” a yellow goldfinch put it, tweeting brightly but in deadly earnest.

The eagle would have confirmed that one of the people left on Kenworthy was Dossie’s  Papa. He was grieving for his mate though and refused to give his keen-eyed testimony.

Papa had said she was to go forth to freedom and not ever come back to the Kenworthy place. This point was just what the nuthatches were arguing.  Should she, or shouldn’t she?

Ubiquitous in their woodlands, the chickadees were the most convincing. They chip-chattered all winter long, the baby’s first winter. Their baby girl was hearty and she and her mother often sat on their porch wrapped in blankets listening to the flocks of chickadees. The spit and polish cardinal and his dun-colored mate came again that winter and perched on a branch near the house as they’d done each year since the very first winter she had come to the mountains. He heralded the end of fighting with his churr and his pulsing throaty call. His mate concurred. Was there anything to fear in traveling back the way she’d come? Perhaps. Were there any of her people back at Kenworthy Island? Perhaps. She felt sure her Mama no longer lived. Even a small girl knows a death rattle cough when she hears it. But Papa? Perhaps. Yes. The chickadees kept up their racket of buzz buzz and whistling. When the barn swallows announced the return of spring with their unceasing cheeps, she and her husband had their minds made up to go and had only to pack their provisions.

They went by train to Washington, D.C., boarding the train in Paterson. At Washington, her husband hired a wagon to travel to the Eastern Shore. Perched briefly on a fence rail, a pigeon, a courier of some renown, verified that some enslaved remained on Kenworthy, too ill to move.

They secured their wagon on the mainland and crossed to the island in a small boat. Pairs of blue-winged teals hovered in the trees and prepared to leave for their southern junket as she and her husband reached the shore. The flutelike melodies of Baltimore’s oriole, her first accomplishment as a mimic, welcomed her home. She was shocked to see that most of the Kenworthy house was gone. Union soldiers had taken it down by piecemeal and burnt it up for firewood. The remaining shacks of the enslaved people had nearly collapsed.

Papa was a sack of bones when they reached him. He called her Mama, reached toward her, and asked if he had died and she had come to him in heaven. She touched him on his eyes, ears, and hands so he would know she was not an imagining; she was flesh and circumstance. When he understood, he cried and clutched her so tightly she was afraid that moving might snap his thin arms. Finally, he exhausted himself, and she slipped away. Her husband searched for water and brought provisions into the shack. Had she lived in this tiny stall?

They built Papa’s strength for several days but were anxious to return home with him. He resisted at first. He insisted he could die happily now. She said, “Hush, Papa,” and the matter was settled. Smoot went back to Washington City, returned the rented wagon and purchased a larger, covered wagon and two horses. He rounded up the skinny, wild chickens and killed some for their journey home. Even the disgruntled, grief-stricken eagle didn’t fault him for getting food for his family however it presented itself. The eagle, himself an opportunistic, thieving predator, sometimes had the stench of carrion on his breath.

A pair of ravens was flying withershins over their heads when they came up the crest to their home. The birds’ voices were hollow and guttural and unequivocal as they cavorted overhead. They kept up their utterances – caws, honks, squawks. A flock of jays came calling at dusk and sang a varied, lusty recital. She joined their piping, and they answered her. When night came on nightjars regaled the woods with their oft-repeated tune, greedily pursuing moths and beetles in the waxing moon’s light. “Poor-will. Poor-will.” She joined them. Her baby lay sleeping on her breast while she warbled, her sobbing and her singing not waking the child. Ah! Her chick!

The frail and very old man did not reach Russell’s Knob alive. They were caught in a rainstorm on the journey through the Octoraro pass and, despite all of their efforts, he caught a croup and died. They washed him in Octoraro Creek, bound him tightly with evergreen branches, and came all the way home with his body. Papa was laid to rest in the Smoot burial ground with a gold watch on his chest, in a mahogany coffin. Kestrels sounded a shrill keening from their nests in the cavities of viburnum surrounding the cemetery.

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