Down the River by David Wilma

(about this author)

  • On the Kentucky frontier in 1810, ambitious men struggle for power over a young, gritty society based on slavery. Ruthless planter and politician David Morgan chooses his young servant Phyllis to gather information on his friends and rivals from other slaves. He also finds her a husband, the love of her life. She develops a keen sense of observation as well as knowledge that there is more to the world beyond the isolated valleys and a system that regards her as property. Despite her warnings, Morgan’s fortunes wane and she and her husband and their children are sold to Edward Osborn, Morgan’s enemy.
    Osborn’s ego and the War of 1812 bring more tragedy into Phyllis’s world. Morgan and his son are murdered, and Phyllis is the only eyewitness to the crimes. Her experience as a spy and her own wits help her survive a lynch mob, but may not be enough to reunite her family.


    Every testimony begins with something small like a breath of wind in a sail or a bugle in a sleeping camp. The bugle signals the opening of a great and horrible battle. A mother recalled placing a bowl of soup in front of her small daughter, described meticulously the meal she had prepared, the warm biscuits, the fresh butter, and every one of the words her little girl said to her. Then the cyclone struck them with unimaginable fury, and her home, her family, all she knew in the world, vanished. The epiphanies each of these people experienced all started with something simple: an ordinary act that is then frozen in memory by the worst of God’s creation.

    I can recite every detail from the afternoon the Morgans died. I can tell you the color of their horses, the smell of the trees, and the taste of the dust. I can describe every word spoken as clearly as if I heard it at breakfast this morning. I remember it all, not because of the screams and the blood, but because beginning that day, God chose me and tested me. Those dead men cost me my children and they almost cost me my life. But their blood paid for my freedom just as the blood of our Savior paid for our salvation. My freedom grew and blossomed into freedom for millions, but never for those whom I loved.

    For me the breath of wind, the bowl of soup, or the bugle’s note is a yellow dog waking from his nap in the shade. The farm is a sad affair. The house is built of cut lumber rather than of logs suggesting some affluence on the part of the owner when construction commenced. But the boards never knew paint, and the mossy roof shows crude patches. Any plans the builder had for a substantial home atrophied many seasons back. A porch extends across the front where the tools of homemaking—a tub, a stool, a churn, a saw—lie where last used instead of being stored in an orderly fashion. Smoke from the embers of the breakfast fire seeps from wide cracks in the chimney.

    I am seated on a log in the shade crushing boiled corn with a heavy wooden mallet. The wide trough is worn deep from years of labor. The remnants of yesterday’s dried product becomes part of today’s meal. I lift the tool and let it drop, using long and tiring experience to pulp the corn with little wasted effort. I do not even have to look. I take the work slowly, knowing my masters expect no speedy conclusion to my task and that only other work awaits me at the end.

    A few feet away two dogs slumber. The spotted one snores. He is the simpler of the two, only a little less aware napping than when awake. The yellow one is closer to me, seemingly asleep as well, but he never really rests. He is always thinking, listening, calculating.

    I add more corn to the trough and raise the mallet. I glance at the yellow dog just as his eyes open and one ear moves slightly. The mallet falls into the corn. Thump. He is still a moment. I raise it again, and he raises his head. He is instantly alert, searching the tall cane in the creek bottom. Someone approaches, but all I hear are the flies buzzing in the heat. Despite my sadness and the repetition of my work I consider what might have awakened him.

    His eyes narrow. His throat tightens to loose a cry. My world changes forever.


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Down the River

Down the River

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