The Shadow Of Death

July 7, 1896
Edith Bowen

We were on a boat. It was hard to tell at first. The darkness disguised everything. At first I even thought I was alone. Then, I heard her crying. It was not the sobs of hysteria, but the quiet tears of sadness and inevitability. I know them all too well because my cheeks were wet with them the same as hers.

I crawled along the floor until my hand touched her. She jerked back at first and then her hand found mine. I sat beside her and we held hands in the darkness. There was strength between us, but we were still afraid. The constant rocking of the floor soon registered in my head and it was in that moment I realized we were on the ocean. It was the most frightening revelation because it meant there would be no escape, no rescue and nowhere to hide.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“No. Are you?” Ms. Maple said.

“No. Do you remember what happened?”

“I was locking my door on my way out to Primrose Hall and there was someone behind me. Then I woke up here.”

“I was searching for you, your place was turned upside down and then I was on my way to call for the sheriff.”

“I take it you did not make it to the sheriff?”

“Apparently not. I was running and then I woke up here.”

“I did not think they would involve you.”

“You know who these men are?”

“Not specifically, but I know what they represent.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Some men are not ready to stand equal with women.”

“I was not aware such a day was on the horizon.”

“It is. Some might even say the day is inevitable.” A man said from the darkness.

Ms. Maple and I both jerked. We had thought we were alone. We had thought wrong. A lantern glowed in the darkness and came nearer to us. There was a man holding it and it seemed more men stood with him. Their faces were well hidden in the light and darkness. I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the blinding glow.

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“Just a man.” He said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I have what I want, Miss Bowen. You and your kind are an infection and infections cannot be allowed to spread. Can they?” He said.

“What are you going to do to us?” Ms. Maple asked.

“All in good time. First, I have some questions for you. Men! Tie her to the post.”

We tried to crawl away but there was nowhere left to go, we were trapped against the bulkhead. Two men grabbed hold of Ms. Maple and yanked her from the floor. I cowered in fear, praying they would leave me be. I could hear Ms. Maple crying again and then there was a tearing of fabric.

I heard the whistle of a whip through the air followed by a scream from Ms. Maple. The man laughed without humor. I swallowed my fear as useless and stood up. A man’s fist knocked me to the ground and I tasted blood in my mouth. The whip whistled again and again it was answered by a scream.

“Bastard!” I shouted at the flickering light.

A rough hand grabbed my hair and yanked me to my feet. I swung out in the darkness and slapped an unshaven face. An open palm met my cheek and sent me crashing to the floor again. Ms. Maple screamed as the whip lashed her once more.

“Now tell me, was Miss Elizabeth Bassett part of your conspiracy?”

“There was no conspiracy.” Ms. Maple cried.

The whip cracked twice more and Ms. Maple screamed twice more. I hugged the floor and cried.

“Was Miss Bassett a part of it?” The man asked again.

Ms. Maple only sobbed in response. I felt the air move as the whip was pulled back again and prepared to lash out.

“Wait!” I screamed.

“You have something to say, Miss Bowen?” The man asked.

“Yes. Miss Bassett helped me write the essays. Is that what you wish to know?”

“Yes, thank you. Now tell me about Miss Penelope Sumter.” He said.

“What do you want to know?” I asked.

“Was she a part of your little group?”

“No. I did not think she would approve.” I said.

“Thank you, Miss Bowen. You have been most helpful.”

The light and the men retreated leaving us alone again. I crawled on the floor until I found Ms. Maple’s feet. She was left bound to a post. The back of her dress was torn open and her back was welted and bleeding from the lashes. I tried to comfort her but there was little I could do.

It was sometime before dawn when they came to us again. They bound are hands behind our backs and bound our ankles with a short stretch of rope between them. We were marched out of the hold and onto the boat’s main deck. There was enough light to see by and the men’s faces were no longer hidden to me. I recognized three of them, they were the unsavory ones who had greeted me on my way to Primrose Hall, the rest were strangers.

We disembarked via a ramp. Ms. Maple and I struggled not to trip with the tight rope between our ankles restricting our steps. I never realized how much one uses their arms to maintain balance until then. From the dock we walked along the shore and then through a field of lavender. As we neared the field’s end I recognized the place and the tree which seemed our destination.

Elizabeth and I had met with the Brown boys out here. Elizabeth had taken one look at the tree and fainted. I wish now I could do the same but I cannot.

Some of the men strung up two ropes on the sturdiest of the old tree’s branches. There were nooses on the end and I did not need to ask who they were for. Two horses were brought next to us and we were sat upon them backwards in the saddles. We were led to the nooses.

“You can kill us, but you cannot kill change.” I said to the men.

The ignored me and placed the rope around our necks.

“I am sorry Edith.” Ms. Maple said.

“You have been found guilty of treason, the penalty is death.” The man said.

“The has been no trial, no evidence submitted. You are nothing more than thugs.” I replied.

“Trials are for the innocent. You are not.” He said.

“Nor are you. How brave you must be to kill two unarmed and defenseless women.” I scolded.

“I am afraid your time is at an end. Pity, I almost like you.” He said.

He nodded to the man standing next to us. My hands grabbed tightly onto the horn of the saddle. I realized it was hopeless but I could not face death without trying first to live. The man near us slapped the horses and yelled. They started to bolt.

I held tight to the horn and my horse reeled up in the air. Time slowed to a crawl. Ms. Maple’s horse took off and she fell until the rope went taunt and her neck jerked with the snap. She was looking in my eyes when it happened and there was no fear in her, only anger. I heard a gun shot and my hands slipped from their hold. I began to fall as the horse bolted away.

There was a commotion around me. The men were scattering as I heard two more gunshots. The rope tightened around my neck and I gasped surrounded by air but unable to breathe it in. Suddenly the rope gave way and I crashed to ground. My lungs sucked in the morning air. I was laying on my back looking up through the branches of the tree. The fog was just beginning to clear and blue speckles of sky stared down at me.

As quickly as it had all began, it ended. The sheriff was leaning down over me and behind him was the man Charles and I had met at Ms. Maple’s apartment. He smiled at me but his eyes were worried. I started to sit up only to find the sheriff holding me down. I tried to speak but found I had no voice.

“Lie still, Edith. Your neck could be broken.” The sheriff said.

The sheriff turned to the other man.

“Polly?” The sheriff asked.

The man said nothing but shook his head no.

“Get the Doc out here. I don’t think we can risk moving her until he has seen her.”

“I’m on my way.” The man replied.

The sheriff turned back to me. I could hear my own raspy breathing echoing in my ears.

“Help is on the way.” The sheriff said.

The blue sky went black and the rest of the world followed.


Paul said...

Ashley, this is horrible, did they really do this to suffragettes.
Well written though.
Warm hugs,

Anonymous said...

Yes, vivid and disturbing writing. I imagine that African American suffragettes were certainly lynched. But white ones??

MR R FANE of England