Forced into Freedom
by Paul Iasevoli
Manatee County, Florida—1861
The stranger dressed in green tore open the outhouse door and ripped Ishmael off the hole he sat on. The Seminole’s reddish-brown skin and the black paint under his eyes caused Ishmael such a fright, he evacuated himself on the ground. The Indian hardly gave the boy time to pull up his pants—he grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the pine woods in the opposite direction from the slave cabins.
“AnowahChehAdahee. LetkusEnaChepawne!“ The six-foot Indian dragged him along. The boy’s shorter legs couldn’t keep up with his kidnapper’s leaping strides. Ishmael alternated between running and falling into and around the bastard-pine trees. He felt his limbs ripping apart like a ragdoll in a mad dog’s jaws. His legs, arms, and ribs pulled in all directions—he wished for his head to hit the trunk of a huge longleaf pine, just so he could be unconscious and end his agony.
Adahee stopped and let go of him. “EnyTchutchutchattee.”
Ishmael looked up from the ground—he was in the mangrove swamp. On one side stood three small bark huts around a low, slow, smoking fire. On his left flowed a rivulet—a long wooden canoe beached on its sandy bank.
“EnyTchutchutchattee, EnyTchutchutchattee,” Adahee repeated.
Ishmael got up from the sand, tied the strings of his tattered pants, and brushed himself off as clean as he could. His head reeled from being dragged through the woods. Adahee yanked him by the elbow and led him to the biggest bark shelter of the three. The Seminole crawled on his belly to fit through its small entranceway dragging Ishmael behind him.
Against the back wall sat a robust, red-skinned man, older and shorter than Adahee. He put down the clay pot he was stirring and motioned for Ishmael to sit across from him.
“You are frightened, Chepawne?” The Indian said. “No need, we will not harm you in no way.”
Ishmael’s mind raced to take in all that was around him. In the dim light of the hut, he could make out intricate red and blue stripes on the Indian’s long-shirt that matched the pattern of his tight-fitting pants. Sweat dripped into Ishmael’s eyes and he wondered how the Indian could stand being totally covered in Florida’s mid-summer. A pile of glowing embers only added to the steamy heat inside a hut with no other openings except the small crawlway they’d come in through and a tiny hole in its thatched roof.
“Hompusche,” the robust man said, and handed Ishmael and Adahee a bowl of beans with some greens mixed in. Ishmael hesitated. “Hompusche,” his host repeated and made a motion with his hand for Ishmael to eat.
He waited for Adahee to take the first bite and lick his fingers clean. Ishmael dipped two fingers into his bowl and feigned pleasure at his first taste
“My name is Ittomicco,” his host said in nearly perfect English.
Ishmael glared at him. “Wha’cha got me here for?” He pointed at Adahee. “And why he drag me through the pines, and—”
“We brought you here for a reason, Chepawne—”
“My name’s Ishmael!”
“I know, but you will learn you have other names and another purpose. All things on earth have a reason, and we need you to complete what you were meant to do.”
“I’s meant … ” Ishmael swallowed his beans and greens and repeated his words as clearly as he could. “I was meant to be a slave and tend a tar still—so I’s no idea what you’s talkin’ ’bout. Y’all know it a crime stealin’ a slave?”
“Yes, Chepawne, we know, but there is more you need to do than be a slave to Hatkehononowaw. We have watched you these days. Watched how you work the fire under the still. Watched how you care for your brother and cousin, and we know you are like Coowahchobee, the panther, with your patience and strength. You are the perfect match for my daughter, so I chose you to marry her.”
“Marry … what?” Ishmael shouted. “I’s just turned thirteen years a age. I ain’t hardly thinkin’ ’bout no girls yet, and you talkin’ ’bout me marryin’ one?”
“Chepawne, we are few and my daughter needs a young man. At twelve she has just turned woman, and it is time she marry. She is pretty and you will learn to love her as your wife.”
“I ain’t got no need for no wife—besides, slaves ain’t allowed to marry for real.”
“You will no longer be a slave, you will come live with us in the place we call Immokalee. We, the people you call Seminoles, are few in number, only three hundred of us escaped from the Hatkehononowaw in the last war. But now that this war amongst your people has started, there are many of your race who have joined us—living as free men just at the edge of Pahhayohee. Thirty of us along with your people have made fine homes there on good lands, and you will live as a chieftain’s son-in-law.”
“Well, what I gonna tell my mammy? And when Massa find out, he’ll be comin’ for you with his whip or worse for stealin’ his slave.”
“Your master will not find us. We leave in a few hours in our canoe, and these huts you see here will become part of the swamp—no man will ever know we were here.”
“I’s refusin’—I ain’t goin’ nowhere’s with no savage like you.”
Ittomicco leaned over the embers burning next to him. He dipped a ladle into a clay pot at one side of the coals and poured liquid into a wooden cup.
“Drink this tea, Chepawne,” Ittomicco said. “It will make you understand.”
“I ain’t drinkin’ nothin’—I’s gettin’ outta here.” Before Ishmael could stand up, Adahee pushed him down onto the dirt floor of the hut. Ishmael kicked at him, but Adahee’s height and weight overwhelmed the thirteen-year-old. Adahee held Ishmael’s jaws open while Ittomicco poured the warm, bitter brew from the cup into Ishmael’s mouth. The boy had no choice but to swallow the foul liquid lest he choke and drown on it. Once he’d downed the better part of the noxious potion, Adahee let him go.
Ishmael lay flat on his back. The thatched roof of the darkened hut spun, and a warm glow radiated from his stomach out through his arms and down to his legs. A tingle in his groin aroused him. His manhood awakened while the rest of his body sprawled leaden and motionless.
And he saw himself—as if he were looking down on his own body from the clouds. As if he were a part of them—a part of one of the cloud stories his mammy used to tell. He looked to his left—a white stallion stomped the ground. To his right stood Ishmael’s master—his whip in hand, ready to strike at the first slave who might cross him. In an instant, there was neither left nor right nor up nor down. He was part of a separate place—a place filled with lights and colors he couldn’t name nor describe.
He looked down at his abdomen—a cord stuck out of it and grew longer, keeping him tethered to a huge glowing violet ball. Soon, the ball was the only light he could see, above him there was only black—a blackness blacker than any pitch he’d ever drawn from the tar still.
He growled, then roared—he heard a name, “Coowahchobee.” He said it out loud and clear—”Coowahchobee.” He’d become the panther now—chasing a doe. He pounced, then let go. He looked into her eyes filled with tears. He dove into her tear drops—salty and cool—and he understood why the doe cried, her fawn was nearby—dappled brown and white, it was hidden in dew covered grass—wet, cool, grass. Ishmael wished he could roll in it—wished he could refresh himself in cool morning dew.
As his tether stretched ready to snap—a thud and something hard against his back returned Ishmael to the violet ball he looked down on. He could sense he was moving—moving in a boat. Clouds raced overhead—Ittomicco’s face appeared, then Adahee’s—cloud faces or faces in the clouds?
“Coowahchobee, Coowahchobee, we arrived,” Ittomicco said into his ear. “We need you to walk from here.”
Adahee carried Ishmael from the canoe. Another Seminole, whom he didn’t recognize, stripped the boy of his sackcloth shirt and pants. Adahee lifted Ishmael’s naked body and dunked him into the cool river waters. A third dip and Ishmael came up gasping for air.
“Breathe deep, Coowahchobee, the air and the water will bring you into accepting this new life,” Ittomicco called from the bank.
The riverbank, the canoe, the cypress pines, and Ittomicco, all came into focus. The midday sun blazed overhead, but the brackish water on his skin protected Ishmael from its scorching rays.
“You wear the long-shirt now, Coowahchobee,” Ittomicco said, and he put a bright-green tunic over Ishmael. At first the vestment seemed heavy on his shoulders, but once the four men trekked into the cypress swamp, Ishmael realized he could walk along without getting scraped by pine branches or bitten by the insects that swarmed everywhere.
Although he could walk and see clearly, Ishmael’s tongue was still numb from the drink he’d been forced to swallow. It wasn’t until they stopped for the night at a site already set with huts and a stone fire pit that Ishmael attempted to speak.
“Where we all headed?” Ishmael slurred his question to Ittomicco.
“To freedom for you and the place I told you of—the place we call Immokalee.”
“Well, where I been and how’d I get here?” Ishmael asked. “I ain’t never seen no place like this. How’d we come on this trail?”
“This is a place we Seminoles can call our own,” Ittomicco said, “since the man you call Billy Bowlegs marched our tribe to the Indian Territories. My people who refused to leave have been pushed farther and farther inland by Hatkehononowaw. A few of us found some fertile ground at the edge of Pahhayohee—one more day’s walk and you will see it.”
“How long was I out—feels like days.”
“Two nights and one day―enough time to paddle our way from the Gulf to this part of the Caloosahatchee River.”
Ishmael rubbed the crust from his eyes. “But I feel like I’s been someplace else—not in no canoe, but a place that was like … like heaven, maybe.”
“The place you were, Coowahchobee, was inside yourself—inside the being you are.”
“It was like I dreamt … dreamt I was a panther, but not the kind we all learnt to fear. I was gentle and understandin’ … like I knew I was a part a somethin’ … somethin’ I had to take care a.”
“That is your self—that is what you are to become.”
Ishmael lay back on the ground. The soft rolled blanket Ittomicco gave him soothed his neck and head still pounding from the two nights and the day he’d spent inside himself. The coals in the fire pit glowed and pulsated even after he closed his eyes.
Ishmael pursed his lips and blew … the embers didn’t flame … they grew dimmer … the tar wouldn’t boil.
“Wha’cha doin’ sleepin’ there, boy?” His master cracked his whip in mid-air, but Ishmael didn’t stir.
“You hear me?” The whip slashed his back, but he couldn’t feel its pain.
“Fire’s dyin’ under the still.” The pop of his master’s whip snapped in Ishmael’s head. Another lash, but he ignored it—a purple glow permeating his eyelids distracted him.
A hand reached though the indigo light filling his mind. Ishmael grasped it—soft and smooth—his fingers entwining with it—five brown, five pale-red.
A perfume wafted on morning air, smelling sweeter than boiling tar.
“The tar still’s boilin’,” his master’s shout broke through the scented air, “and you just lyin’ there?”
Ishmael looked down at the hand he held—it tugged at him. He looked up—the figure of a girl in a gown, as sheer as gossamer, pulled him toward a river. From its bank, she stepped into its rushing waters. Ishmael let go of her. She motioned for him to follow—he hesitated—she waved again, this time from midstream.
A whip cracked just above his head and Ishmael whirled around—his master sat on a white stallion at the riverside.
The boy plunged deep into the river’s torrents. Blue-green bubbles surrounding him—they boiled from above and below—lifting him afloat to the opposite bank.
From across the water he heard his master shout and curse—the river was too wide and deep—his brave steed wouldn’t dare to ford it.
Ishmael looked left then right—the girl, who had led him to the river’s edge, was nowhere to be seen.
He gazed skyward—mauve clouds parted—Ittomicco’s face hovered in mid-air.
“Wake up, Coowahchobe. It is daylight and time to move on from here.”
By early afternoon the next day, they arrived in a clearing at the end of the trail through the cypress swamp. They walked past small plots of corn and ripe squash ready for harvest, then along a path that led to a cluster of ten or so bark huts.
The number of Negros living in the Seminole village surprised Ishmael. All escaped slaves—they’d found their freedom away from anything that looked like civilization, at least what Ishmael thought civilization might be.
Ittomicco led the boy into the biggest bark hut. This one had a canvas door they could draw open so there was no need to crawl into it like the others in the village. Next to a fire pit at the far end of the hut stood a girl, younger than Ishmael, leaning over a boiling pot.
“Hachi,” Ittomicco called from the entrance. “AttesChaTaMutcheCoowahchobee.“
The first thing Ishmael noticed was the girl’s white cotton dress. It was nothing like anything the slaves on his plantation ever wore. This dress was embroidered with tiny blue and green glass beads that formed a kind of river pattern on its front and back.
“Nice to meet you. I am Hachi,” she said.
“You speak English?”
“Well, of course … and Muskogee—or Seminole, like you call it.”
Ishmael stared at Hachi’s face. Her features looked almost white, except for the red blush that ran through her skin. It might have been the light, but the girl’s eyes seemed the color of wild violets.
“I leave you alone now,” Ittomicco said as he drew back the canvas to leave the hut.
Once Hachi’s father left, only the occasional pop of an ember burning in the fire pit punctuated the awkward silence between the two young people.
“How was the journey?” Hachi asked.
“I ain’t rememberin’ much—guess I slept most a the way.” Ishmael stood up and glared at Hachi. “What I doin’ here anyhow?” he shouted. “And why I be forced to sit here with you?”
“Because there is no other,” Hachi said. “No other my age here. We are few and there are no boys who can … I can marry.”
“I ain’t got no marryin’ on my mind … no matter you be the prettiest thin’ I ever seen. So why me? Why y’all pick me? You could a stole some other boy-slave from any other plantation.”
Hachi looked into Ishmael’s deep-brown eyes. “It was you yourself, Coowahchobee, who drew my father to the cabins. He sensed your purpose as he watched you from the mangrove, and he knew you were to be my spouse.”
“You mean he was watchin’ me whilst I worked the tar still?” Ishmael’s eyes narrowed. “Just waitin’ … so’s he could steal me.”
“No, no he did not steal you. This is our way. My father saw in you the spirit of Coowahchobee, so he took you to the place you belong.”
“I belong in the barn, tendin’ the still—that’s my life, that’s what I’s born to do.”
“Do you want to be a slave all your life? Is that your choice?”
“I ain’t never know’d no different.”
“This will be different—this will be right for you.” Hachi ran her hand under Ishmael’s long-shirt.
He froze at her touch. He wanted to shout for her to stop, for her to disappear, for himself to disappear. But then a fire rose in him—a fire hotter than any fever he’d ever felt. He leaned toward Hachi. Lost in her violet eyes, he recalled his journey as Coowahchobee.
At dusk Hachi and Ishmael walked out of the hut and into the open center of the village. Twenty or so Seminoles waited in a circle around a fire glowing in a stone pit—the Negros formed a bigger circle around the Indians. At the north side of the fire stood Ittomicco, he held a rope in his hands. Hachi walked Ishmael around the fire pit seven times, until they stopped in front of her father. She held out her left hand and Ittomicco tied a rope around her wrist, then he took Ishmael’s right hand and tied it so that the young couple was fastened together. Hachi faced the fire and motioned for Ishmael to do the same. With the flames rising higher, the two held the rope taut between them, each on opposite sides—they let their tether pass over the fire. When they reached the south side of the pit they turned to face Ittomicco. Hachi raised her left arm into the air and Ishmael raised his right. With the rope pulled tightly between them, Ittomicco shouted, “Achahay-Chahiwa!”
The crowd cheered and chanted in Seminole, African, and English.
“HiepasHompusche!” Ittomicco shouted and the tribe dispersed to the far side of the village. Hachi untied the rope from her wrist first, then untied Ishmael. She kissed him full on the mouth and her father put his hand on his shoulders. “EnyTehahpootsee, you are my son,” Ittomicco said.
His bride led Ishmael across the village to a spot where rough-cut tables were piled high with roasted corn and squash. Behind that, two Seminole men turned a small deer on a spit above glowing embers. The men sliced portions of meat for the tribe. Other small fires lit at the edges of the clearing provided enough light so all the guests could see, and enough smoke to keep the insects at bay.
Hachi sat on the ground next to her husband and fed him chunks of deer meat. In turn he cut pieces of squash and fed her. When Hachi put her arms around Ishmael and kissed him—the guests jeered and snickered, shouting insults and compliments in both English and Seminole. Ishmael felt his face flush. Hachi took Ishmael’s hand in hers and explained the tribe’s clever cajoling was its sign of approval.
Once the couple had eaten their fill, Hachi stood up and motioned for Ishmael to follow. They walked to a large hut at the opposite side of the village. A fire pit was already lit inside when they entered through its canvas doorway. Ishmael took a deep breath―the scent of fresh-cut pine hit his nose. The walls and rough-hewn furnishings were freshly made, maybe that very day. Hachi’s skin glowed bright-red in the light of burning embers. Ishmael looked into his wife’s violet eyes. He took her in his arms—her heart beat in rhythm with his. They lay down together next to the small fire—nothing between them but the night and their mutual desire.
A note from the author about the language: Since Seminole (Muskogee) was never a written language, I have taken some liberties in piecing together the phrases here. The original source has various spellings, probably indicating idiosyncratic usage; therefore I chose spellings based on commonalities. The capitalization within the phrases represents separate words—this is purely whimsical on my part since, separating words apart in sentences is a “modern” formatting technique, I thought it added a sense of verisimilitude to a language with no written form.
Paul Iasevoli has lived in Florida for the past six years, but his family’s roots reach deeper into the sandy soil of the Sunshine State. His uncle/godfather was the illegitimate child of an African American-Seminole woman and the son of an English-Bahamian slave trader. His uncle died at the age of 94, but he grew up listening to his stories about life in early twentieth-century Florida. Based on historical fact, this story was the 2017 winner of the Royal Palm Literary Award in the unpublished short story category in the state of Florida and is an extract from a novel. As a member of the Florida Writer’s Association, another of his historical short stories, “A Night at Madame Beauseau’s—1864,” was published in the FWA’s 2017 anthology, What a Character.