In the barn, he tells me, his voice shaking with haste. There’s an old cellar and a pile of straw.
It’s the best they can do.
I don’t question it. The barn door is heavy, almost too heavy for me, especially with a baby strapped to my chest. But I get it open, then closed again, and search for the cellar.
The trap door is hidden. The seams run with the dirty floorboards. If I didn’t know it was there, I might never have seen it. I pull it open, drop down inside, and it shuts.
The darkness closes in around. Stifling. Hot as an oven. Or hell itself. I barely have time to burrow into the straw, covering the baby’s face with my hands to keep the dust out of his eyes, when the door to the barn opens.
Floorboards creak. Dust rains on our heads. Heavy, heavy footsteps. Not the slim farmer, not his mouse-like wife. I bite back the fear on my tongue and hush the baby, soothing him as he stirs. He has dust in his mouth. Please. Please be quiet. For me. Please. He settles, goes back to sleep. I’ve been so careful to keep him asleep.
If he wakes, we’re both dead.
“Anyone else on the farm?” The slave catcher’s voice echoes in the barn. I press my wrist to my mouth, trying to silence my noisy breathing. He can hear me, I’m sure. Hear my fear. Hear my heart pounding. Please be quiet, baby. Please be still.
“No.” The farmer has come in with him. His voice is a refuge for me, my last hope of safety. “No one else.”