The following flash fiction was hastily created for the Kanturk Arts Festival flash fiction competition, based on the below photo prompt. When I first saw the image, I was struck with a sense of loneliness and hiding. I was put in mind of the awful conditions in which black people had to suffer during the times of slavery in America. I remembered reading of situations in the past, where certain whites would help to shield and hide those who’ve escaped captivity, either beneath barns, in attics, or anywhere else for that matter. Sadly, those instances were too few, and no amount of fiction or storytelling can ever romanticise or undo the horrific wrongs of our world at that time. In this image I saw an escaped slave, working in solitude to create tailored items. The story expanded from there, as you’ll read in a second.
In any case, sadly this piece didn’t pick up a win in the contest, and while I think the story has its own merit, I felt squeezing the story into only 500 words was an injustice to the characters and themes I initially envisioned. (You can read the winning pieces here.) I researched extensively for this story (hence the short time to write the thing), and I discovered the amazing story of Nat Turner and the small revolution that would go on to change the face of slavery forever, for better AND worse. I highly recommend you spend a few moments going to research him once you’re done here. While I do like the end result, my heart wasn’t truly in this rendition of the story. Upon learning and researching for the story I had in mind, I quickly realised that I didn’t have enough words to convey all I wanted to in the way I wanted to. So in a way I feel blessed with another chance to tell the story I want to at a later date. For now though, please enjoy this abridged flash fiction piece.
Gabe stitched through the leather with a careful precision, paying close attention to the tattered pages strewn across the workstation. Moonlight filtered in through cracks in the overhead floorboards, bright and heavy as the night of the revolt. Shadows flickered and shifted across the damp blocks, the flame of his lantern casting a taller, thicker version of himself on the opposite wall. He watched himself work in shadow form, free from scars and riches and class. Not a black man, a white man, a soldier, or a slave. Just a man, working his craft in calm solitude. Shadows revealed the reality of humankind, each equal in the absence of colour.
His wounds had healed up to tightened scars stretched out across his skin, a few pale additions to the tally that claimed most of his back. He tied off his final stitch, wondering what became of the brothers and sisters that followed Nat Turner toward freedom. Robert told him many escaped just like Gabe, but many died too.
Gabe packed the finished product into a dusty box he excavated from beneath the workstation, and placed it neatly beneath his bed frame. Sleep came fast and without complaint.
He awoke to the sound of Robert creaking his way down the ladder, moaning and groaning as he did. “Wakey-wakey, Kid,” he said, breathless, “I come bearing good fruit and bad news.”
“I’ll take the fruit,” Gabe replied, “the news can wait a while.”
Robert placed the basket on the bed beside him, sighing as he did. “Actually Gabe, it can’t. Nat Turner’s been captured. They hanged him and a whole bunch more at Jerusalem. With what’s happened, they’re stricter than ever. Scared too.”
“Oh the white folk are scared,” he retorted, “s’that right?” Gabe shook his head while he processed it. His best friend, born and raised on Ben Travis’ plantation, gone. Dead. Silenced by the hangman. “Jesus Nat. God was menna-be on our side.”
Robert placed a rough hand on his shoulder. “God’s as much a slave to us as you are to them, Gabe. He’s bound to those with the loudest voices.”
“You mean with the most guns.” Gabe pulled out the box from beneath the bed and handed it to Robert, the burden of the news weighing heavily in the features of his face.
Robert opened the box to reveal the finest pair of boots he ever laid eyes upon. The blueprint he never dared lift from the paper himself, now crafted to perfection. “Gabe, did you… How?”
“I fallowed’ya sketches. Was thinking if they good enough, maybe I keep making ‘em?”
Robert stood silently, inspecting them in awe.
“Sir, your generosity’s seen me safe, but I may never walk free. These boots, they can run free and wild. Travel the highs and lows of all the great states, go on a’ventures. They’ll see men marry fine wives and drink fine wine. Each pair’ll carry a little piece of me with ‘em. For now I can only dream of freedom. But these boots… these boots can go where I can’t.’
“My slice’a freedom.”
For what it’s worth, I can’t wait to tell this story again, and do it the justice it deserves. Think of this as just a tiny snapshot of the greater story in play. Of course I can only imagine the tragic circumstances of what it was like to exist back then, and can I even imagine what it would’ve been like to be black back then? What I can say for certain is that I can do my best to relate the sense of entrapment, loneliness, struggle, fear, and torture, while being awestruck of the hope, love, and fight that never escaped those poor souls that were treated so terribly. A truly awful period in history. Shameful.
Shadows revealed the reality of humankind, each equal in the absence of colour.
Like this story? Try out my favourite flash fiction on this site so far: Endgame.
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