Long Way from Home, set in New England during the early 1900’s, is about Henrietta ’Retta Drayton, a fourteen year old African American girl, who is placed in a reform school for being a runaway. ‘Retta discovers that a truant officer removes girls from the home under false pretenses. ‘Retta befriends and joins forces with a gang of Irish girls, “The Muckers”, to stop this truant officer from kidnapping a young Native American child named Seasong and return her to her family.
The first time I feared my life would end at the hands of a white person was in late summer of the year of our lord nineteen hundred and fourteen.
I was fourteen, terrified, skinny, long-legged with brown skin, and curled up on the wooden floor of the hallway in building Number Four at an industrial boarding school for wayward girls. It was my first day. I could feel kicks in my stomach, back, and mid-section from three bullies. The red-headed leader of this gang sprawled on the floor across from me with a handkerchief stuffed in her bleeding nose. Moments ago, she had come to establish her supremacy.
The journey to this moment began in the wee hours just this morning.
As the sun rose in Worcester, Massachusetts, within the boundaries marked off by rope and stakes as “Circus Property Only,” I was jostled awake. The night before I had fallen asleep in the elephant’s tent next to our four-month-old baby elephant. I would sneak there most nights and sing to Petite so she could fall asleep. Usually, I’d fall asleep before I finished singing. I had watched Mabel, Petite’s mother, give birth to her, the most frightening and amazing thing I’d ever seen.
In the middle of a deep sleep I felt Mr. Seymour, the former Hungarian chemist who ran the circus, tugging on my big toe. His tug was usually a cross between a tug and a tickle. However, even in my sleepy mind I did not feel the usual tenderness. I felt urgency.
When I opened my eyes, I saw him standing with two starchy stiff men. In Mr. Seymour’s hand was my traveling bag.
“’Retta dear,” he said in a constrained murmur, “these men are truant officers, Officer Felton and Officer Young.”
He stopped a moment and took a deep breath and put down my bag. “They are here to take you away from us.”
“Take me away?”
“Yes. They have informed me you will be taken to a home for girls of some sort back in Connecticut. There is nothing I can do.”
I felt as if someone had thrown cold water into my face. I could hardly breathe.
I had always felt that one day I might be found and returned home. It was nearly a year since I ran away. But I had imagined the moment being more dramatic; a chase, screaming and yelling from the other performers, a riot of sorts, or even fisticuffs from quiet Mr. Seymour.
This civilized manner was to me colder and spelled more trouble ahead than anything I could have envisioned.
For some time now I had cautiously let the idea that I wouldn’t be found take roots in my heart. I knew I shouldn’t have even let the idea stay in my head. All good things end.
“Let’s go,” an officer bellowed.
I stood up nervously and looked around. Everything seemed as it should; poles holding up the tent, hay all over the place, dust flittering in the streams of sunlight pouring down from the holes, the stables, dead bugs floating in the blacken surface of the water troughs. This wasn’t a bad dream. To stall time, I stretched and let loose a phony yawn.
I wouldn’t see the inside of the tent again ever. The thought exploded in my mind, causing a tremble.
So I closed my eyes and felt the earth beneath my feet. Nana, a full-blooded Pequot, taught me about different things. She taught me to talk to the earth with my feet.
She said, “The earth remembers all. She keeps it in her heart as feelings. Your feet touch the earth most of your life. Learn to talk to earth with your feet. You’ll never be alone. You’ll never be afraid. ”
I let the tingly feeling at the soles of my bare feet rise through my body. I could feel the tingle rise through my legs, my stomach, and finally rest in my heart.
My Nana also said, “You’ll soon forget a face, a name, a place, and words. You will never forget how something makes you feel on the inside. You’ll have that with you forever.”
A watch case rudely snapped closed, and I opened my eyes, satisfied that I had inside all I needed.
Mr. Seymour, who looked like Mr. Mutt from the comic strip, extended his arms, and I sank into his kindness, sincerity, and warmth. As he and I stood together, Baby Petite rolled over and got up on her wobbly legs. She swayed from side to side and lifted her trunk, but no sound came.
After a few moments, Mr. Seymour and I let go. I brushed off a few strands of hay from my nightdress and asked him, “Could I please change into something more better for traveling?”
A sharp “No” came from Officer Felton, the older of the two who looked as if he hadn’t smiled since birth. “She will be allowed to change on the train. We are already running late.”
The younger officer, a rail-thin wisp of a man, unceremoniously grabbed my wrist and Officer Felton picked up my traveling bag. We headed to the flap that led outside. I turned and looked back at Mr. Seymour. He nodded and started patting Petite on her side.
Outside, the cool morning air filled my lungs, a stark contrast from the humid, stale musky air inside the elephant tent. The lightness of the air and emotions made me dizzy. I spotted Missus Seymour weeping silently a few feet from me. I stopped in my tracks, fighting back a flood of tears. The officer holding my wrist tugged me on.
As I reluctantly moved, Missus Seymour, black hair, thin, stoic woman, walked to me and slid a blanket over my shoulder. She patted me on my back with her small hands. She kissed me on the cheek. I looked down. I couldn’t look into her sad eyes. After a moment, over her sobs, I could hear her steps scurrying away.
As we moved passed the main area, I inhaled deeper the odors that had grown familiar, the earthly smell of the animals mixed in with the lingering sweet smell of the various goodies sold at the circus, the unavoidable aroma of human bodies in proximity clinging to the tents and chairs, and the odor of various rubbish waiting to be swept into bins.
The morning was crisp, but the sunlight was spreading warmth where it could find a foothold.
The Circus was aiming to leave later this day. I noticed the boxes had been packed and tents loaded up into wagons overnight, as if elves were part of our entourage.
What would have happened if our exit came a day or two earlier? Would I have gotten away? Maybe, but it was certain that I was going to be discovered at some point.
A waiting police wagon took us to the train station. There they gave me permission to open my trunk and change. I found the Colored privy out back and I returned in a sky blue dress with tow pockets made for me by Missus Seymour. We sat on a hard-wooden bench with large bolts holding the beams in place.
I asked for food. Officer Felton offered me peanuts wrapped in paper. I shook my head and looked down at the floor.
After a time, I heard the snap of the watch case again and we boarded the 8:03 train from Worcester to New York, making all stops. As soon as I sat down, before the train even left the station, I fell into the sweet, dreamless sleep of the captured fugitive.
In Hartford, we hitched an old buggy to Middletown, Connecticut, and from the center of town rode in a Tin Lizzy down winding country roads.
The openness of farmland under the blue sky made me think of freedom. Something I had tasted, but now would taste no more.
The buggy turned at the wooden sign with letters painted like a sign in front of a church, “The Long Lane Home for Friendless Girls.”
This was to be my new home, where at this moment I am getting my behind kicked by three daughters of the devil.
As we went up the main road, I noticed two newer looking buildings. We stopped in front of one. My insides were telling me something wasn’t all the way right. In uncertain moments, my belly tightens up, unerring like a sea compass. Tightening on the left side, things might be okay; tightness on the right, things were going to be awful. I felt tightness on both the left and right side.
I closed my eyes and stuck my finger in my ears in order to get a bearing. I shut off my hearing and seeing until something came to me; a notion, a feeling, my inside voice suggesting…
The buggy stopped. It swayed as the officer jumped out. I remained seated, sealed.
“Git down here girl, ” I heard Officer Felton through my plugged ears.
I shook my head. No. My belly tightened up even more.
“I said git down from there now.” His teeth were clenched.
I shook my head again.
“This one is a loon. I am going to strap her good. That’ll get her to understand.”
“Leave her be. She ain’t been giving no trouble,” Officer Young said from a different direction with something like turned milk in his voice.
“You go ‘head then.” Officer Felton answered with a smirk in his tone.
Then I felt an arm around my back and another under my legs and was swooped into the air. I admit it felt good, felt like I was flying. Officer Young was carrying me.
I wanted to scream, “Wee” like a young child but remained silent.
His weight shifted as he navigated over a rocky path. Then I felt him clop up two stairs. Sounds quieted and his walking smoothed. I figured we were inside a building.
Still with my ears fingered and my eyes shut, up ahead I heard a door open and close. A few steps on, he stood still with me up in the air. Instead of letting me straight down, he turned his body so that my belly was mashed up against his face. He slid me down his body slowly. His hands curved over my hindquarters and squeezed a little. I was smashed tight against his body as he slid me down. My dress rustled above my knees. I removed my fingers from my ears and opened my eyes.
I looked up at Officer Young’s face. He wasn’t as young as I first figured. His face was splotchy red, with bumps on one side. He had deep lines around his eyes, and his mouth had a lazy slouch. He was breathing heavy. His dull brown eyes weren’t threatening, but they weren’t kind.
I was glad when I felt my feet on the floor. I stepped back and adjusted my clothing.
He was staring at me the whole time.
“I saw your act last night,” he spoke removing his hat. “I have to admit I rightly enjoyed ya’ performance. You have talent. When you get out of this place maybe you should go back to circus-ing.”
I had received many compliments and even three marriage proposals as the “Enchanted Magical Urchin from Deep Dark Africa.” However, no compliment scared me and sent heat over my scalp like the one just spoken.
“I do appreciate,” I nodded.
Just as Officer Young was about to say something the door opened and Officer Felton waved us into a room. On the door was a sign, “Main Office” in gold letters.
“Sit in this chair and wait ‘til the lady comes and gets you. If you feel a hankering to vacate these here premises, remember next time the police will get you and they aim to lock you up in one of those prison places for girls your age. Believe you me, you want nothing to do with a place like that. So you better reckon twice about it before running off. ”
With that they both turned and left me alone. My belly loosened up. I prayed I wouldn’t see either of them again. Sometimes prayers aren’t always answered.
I had found myself in the pristine waiting room of the Headmistress Missus Frances Ashe. I was in a chair whose cushion felt very welcoming to me backside that had bounced for hours on a buggy from Hartford to Middletown. I had forgotten how bruising a buggy on a bumpy road could be to one’s behind. I was sitting as still as possible.
The room was square. The wooden walls were polished to a shine. The only other seat was a small sofa facing me. There was also a table with daffodils leaning on the side to my left. On my right was the door to the office with the sign bearing title and name. From the open window above the sofa I heard sounds of children’s laughter. I heard a horse protesting, hoofs pounding and a rapid whinny. A fall breeze lifted the window curtain lightly as if it were the hem of waltzing princess.
Finally a tall, thick-boned woman wearing a long black button dressed opened the door. I stood.
“Miss Drayton, I am Missus Ashe.”
“How’d do, mam.” I curtseyed.
She nodded, “Please come in.”
Her office reminded me of a doctor’s, both welcoming and strict. Missus Ashe went behind a desktop bigger than a bed. She had green eyes. Blonde hair pulled back framed a spoon-shaped face. There was royalty or at least old money in her bearing. Her expressions seemed as if she had a hard-edged pebble in her shoe.
She pointed to a chair in front of her desk. I sat in the wooden chair that was harder than rock.
The object that was causing her face to look so, seemed to have dug in deeper when she smiled and said, “Henrietta Drayton. You have been placed in care of the ‘Long Lane School for Friendless Girls.’ The state of Connecticut has deemed you to be a deviant, a miscreant.”
After I heard the word miscreant, a word that sounded to me like a monster from the sea, I couldn’t concentrate. I stared at a painting of hunting dogs chasing rabbits in a field of grass. I watched a bug crawl over thick bound books on a tall bookcase. I stared at papers hanging on the wall. Paper with names I hadn’t heard before, Albertus Magnus, Smith College, and Vassar. Phrases like “Solid Academics,” “Usefulness and Helpfulness,” and “Good Christian Fortitude” echoed inside my now pounding head.
“You’ll be here until you have proved yourself to be averse to unproductive and untoward behavior. We will talk more later. It’s close to mealtime and you need to rest and clean up. You will find a basin and towel in your new room. Go to your room, rest and get ready for dinner. In around two hours from now Miss Nichols will be in to escort you to the dining room. She is your house mother. Two hours gives you plenty of time to gather yourself and rest. I feel rest would be good for you now. Follow the signs to Building Number Four. Your room is number three.”
The mention of dinner reminded me I hadn’t eaten all day, most likely the cause of my headache. My stomach growled ferociously, right on cue. Now I wished I had taken those peanuts.
I reached the door. I turned and spoke in a quivering voice.
“I do thank you, mam, for taking me in.”
“You’re welcome, young lady. And I pray you prove earnest in your gratitude.”
Outside, I followed the big red arrow. As I looked around, I saw farmland. Floating in the distance, rolling hills encircled the fields. Shining white clouds and blue sky sat on top of everything for miles and miles. I figured crops were grown to make food and money. The air felt clean.
On a clear day like this I would take off and run at my highest speeds with no particular destination in mind, pursuing without a pursuer or pursued. My insides felt better while I ran, my thinking clearer. My mother used to say I was born with “legs just-a-pedaling.” She claimed that even when I slept, my legs kept going. “She could run before she could walk,” she’d say aloud to whoever was within earshot. However, I knew that sprinting at this moment might not be the right move.
I found Number Four on the same dirt road I came in on, a two story, box-like structure that looked clean and bright on the outside. However, looking into the open windows and the propped open front door, the dimly lit interior seemed at odds with the new white-washed exterior. I wasn’t just the dark against the light. It was something quietly forceful, like a whispered reminder.
I went inside and let my eyes adjust. Coming in from the sun, the inside felt chilly and damp. I was walking down to room number three. The Headmistress was right, I thought to myself. I need to finish unpacking, and my aching back tells me I need a little rest. I began kicking the side of my heavy satchel I dragged along, thinking how in the name of righteousness did I get so much stuff.
Just then, four girls appeared out of nowhere. They circled around me. A redhead girl with freckles, a robust shape, and a slight Irish brogue stood right in front of me.
“Listen,” she eyeballed me with a finger in my face, “I want to let you know who’s boss…”
I immediately hit her square in the nose in an upward motion with the meaty part of my open palm. My older brother Moses had told me, “If they’s bigger than you hit ‘em first with all you got and then haul ass.” A squeal shot out as she drew in a breath and plopped right down on her hindquarters. I watched as she kicked her legs back and forth like a colicky baby.
As I turned to run, one girl had already positioned herself behind me on all fours. I couldn’t see her, and she was so sneaky I didn’t even hear her. I was done in by the oldest trick in the book. This told me that these young ladies were no strangers to scrapping and hijinks. I admit I even admired them as I tumbled backwards. The moment I hit the floor, the other two began their road work on me.
Muddled by the fluids in her nasal passages, the redhead egged them on. “Kill that good-for-nothing darkie. That will teach her for putting her black mitts on me.”
Pain, noises, images splashed around inside my aching skull. I knew I was going to die. Sensations exploded into a ball of white light moments before I blacked out. Somehow in the distance, outside, I heard a door open and footsteps. I knew a teacher or another form of help was on the way. A vague hope that I wouldn’t die flickered within my pounding heart.
“I think someone is coming. Let’s go,” one girl warned.
As the youngest and prettiest of the band got in a last kick she said, “She’s bleeding,” followed by maniacal laughter fading in the distance.
Next thing I was aware of was darkness. Blackness billowed over my senses. As I faded toward unconsciousness, I dreamed a dream that was close to an Old Testament vision.
I was running in the woods between the farmhouse where my parents, my three brothers, and my sister and I lived and the home of my grandparents who were full-blooded Indian. I loved to run. I loved to feel the jarring of my bones as my feet hit God’s earth. I loved the pounding of my heart and the whoosh of my breath.
In this dream, I was not running because I loved it. I was running for my life. Wolves chased me. I ran into a cave. On the ground, right at the entrance of the cave, were words I couldn’t read or understand in the dirt. They looked like scribble. I heard someone walking from the darkness.
A white girl was standing there. She was blind. Next to her was an alligator. The alligator stood up and started chasing me out of the cave. He seemed to call out to me. He seemed to tell me not to be afraid. What he was saying I didn’t understand, but I knew they were the words written on the cave floor.
I heard the wolves howling. I knew they were out there. In some dreams I could fly. I looked at my feet. I tried to fly.
Then I was back in the woods running and the wolves grew closer. The woods caught fire. It trapped me. In the sky I saw smoke. My only escape was to run through fire. I knew I could outrun the wolves if I could make it through the fire. I counted to three and started to run through the fire. Heat blasted me in the face, and I could smell my clothes burning.
I woke myself up screaming.
I opened my eyes. My heart was racing, and a drum was banging in my head. I looked around. I was in a bare room with two night tables next to two other beds. The floor seemed scrubbed. The room almost looked as if no one lived in it.
However, sitting on the edge of my bed was a pipsqueak of a girl, a real mousey creature. She was what the old black folks used to call coal black. Her hair was gathered into two rope-like plaits. She was wearing a simple brown dress. She looked at me with ancient eyes behind very thick spectacles.
I sat up catching my breath and praying the ill feelings of my dream would let go of my thinking. She continued looking at me with her grandma in church glare.
“You were dreamin’. Sounded to be a really frightful affair,” she said in a sturdy bell-toned voice that didn’t match her rodentlike appearance.
“Where am I?”
“This is your new room.”
“How did I get here?”
“I had to carry you.”
I knew I was light as a feather, all skin and bones. I glanced and saw my satchel sitting on a wooden chair. I knew my bag was twice as heavy as me. She might pick me up but she couldn’t lift my bag and put it on a chair.
“Who carried my suitcase?”
“Well, who are you?”
“I’m Ernestine. Ernestine Bacote.”
She smiled. Something about this child’s smile reminded me of my Nana rubbing my face and singing her old tribal tunes to me before I drifted off for a nap.
“My name is Henrietta Drayton. Call me ‘Retta if you like.”
“Well how do you do ‘Retta?”
She extended her hand. As I propped up to give her my hand, a sharp pain sliced through my lower back. I immediately stiffened. I swung my legs from under the covers and sat up on the bed. This movement summoned all the aches from their slumber; my legs, neck, stomach, shoulder, and all chimed in with my back pain to create a chorus of extreme suffering.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.” Finally, I sat all the way up on the bed in the least uncomfortable position.
“You’re going to be a little tender for a day or two?”
“Your lower lip is swollen.”
I grabbed the lower lip between my fingers and pulled it slowly, and tried to glance at it. I shifted it a little from side to side. I was trying my best to see the damages.
Then a burst of laughter broke my concentration. Ernestine kneeled on the floor and was laughing with all she had.
“Girl, you sure do look funny like that.”
She grabbed her lip and crossed her eyes. She began moving her body around in jerky motions and going “Ouch and Ouch.” She turned it into a dance. Somehow, she got a glint in her eyes and a turn of her head that I knew was exactly how I looked moments ago.
Then she speeds it all up and started dancing around the squealing. Her eyes rolling like she had the Holy Ghost. Her hips were just a jerking, arms flailing and body shaking as if she had fallen down in a bed of hot ants.
I couldn’t hold it in. I laughed hard.
It was a cleansing laughter releasing pent-up fear, uncertainty, and worry. I was ecstatic. I both guffawed and screamed out in pain from the sharp movements of laughing. Ernestine picked my rhythm and mimicked by squeals of laughter and squeals of pain as she flopped around like a fish.
It was minutes before we got ourselves together. Eventually we assumed our original places. I lay out in the bed and Ernestine sat on the edge. We sat silently for a few moments.
“Did you steal or something to get here? I mean, did you break the law in some kind of way?”
Just as I was going to reply no, a low wailing, an incessant cry closer to a wheeze caused me to hold my breath. There was something truly painful about this cry. It came in from the open window. It was more powerful because it was almost inaudible. The emotion that was being let loose caused me to freeze. Instinctively I reached out and grabbed Ernestine’s hand.
“That’s Rose. She got here about a week ago and every day she tries to run away. Her parents were killed somehow. She didn’t have any family left and church people carried her here. This place is nicer than that old orphanage. And when they bring her back, she cries like a lost soul in Hades.”
For the first time, I began to feel, not just think about, my situation. I experienced, in a real way, the weight in my heart. What was happening? I was alone, not sure how to reach my family. It had been nearly a year since I left home.
While I was traveling with the circus, my destination when I fled, I was so occupied with my new, better, richer life that I only missed my family on sleepless nights or when the exhaustion of long traveling set in.
Hearing that cry out the window stirred up many feelings that I chose to ignore or stowed away deep enough to be forgotten, or at least overlooked. Hearing the depth of that girl’s loneliness, like a tuning fork, resonated with my deeper hidden longings.
I wanted desperately to see my Mother and Pa again. I ached to hear my brother Moses’ laugh at his own dry jokes. I missed my Nana so so much. I knew I wanted to go back home. I did. I did. I had to be honest with myself. I wanted to go home, even if just for a quick spell.
Ernestine’s next words seemed prophetic.
“Let me tell you, sister. Don’t think about anything that has to do with home. This place is hard. Not mean or cruel, but hard. I been to mean and cruel places. I seen worse and I seen better. And you know…”
She stopped as if I had just asked her something, but I hadn’t. She stared at me some more. Then she started to speak again, but closed her mouth. She stood.
“Get to resting. Miss Nichols will be here to take you to dinner. They always do that for the first timers. I’d keep an eye out for Dorothy, and her hellions if I was you. She don’t take too kindly to being punched in the nose. I can tell you that.
“I have to go. I will find you after supper. There is playtime after supper. If you don’t see me right away, wait for me by the big Willow tree near the broken fence. I’m guessing we will be sharing this room. I am in a room by myself for two days. They like us to be paired up. Something about prayin’ better. Headmistress said it is better if two or three are ‘grabbing in a mix.’”
With that, she jumped up and ran out of the room. I could hear the creaking floorboards as she made her way rapidly down the hallway.
I turned my face into the pillow and sobbed hard, as if there was no tomorrow.