Pact With the Devil by Tennessee Reed


by Tennessee Reed

I walked through the woods
leaving my life in the town behind
I was afraid of the dark
and the tight space
afraid of the unknown

I walked with my friends
we were all African American
runaway slaves
women who wanted to be free
of Baltimore’s grasp
so we followed the call of our husbands
who had taken the journey
to Canada
before us

Everywhere was woods then
there was no escape from the trees
we had to pass
through the woods
called the Devil’s woods
as we headed North through Buffalo
to Canada

We believed in the Devil
a white slavemaster who lived in the trees
with big eyes and a laughing red face

We knew
the Devil followed us
through his woods
because he lighted our way with his gleaming red eyes
and cleared a trail with his arrow-shaped tail

The woods were endless
so we needed rest
and a way
to stay inside
because the cold had come
and we could travel
no further

We all agreed
with the Devil
to give up our souls
for a cabin of wooden logs
something that was part
of the Devil
for something that was part
of us

So we rested in the cabin
and warmed our forgotten souls
until a while later
when a fierce white man
on a wild white horse appeared
at our door

He dragged us to where the Devil
was standing like an ancient oak tree
waiting for us

He said we’d taken something
that was part of him—
that was his own wood—
and now he wanted it back
to feel complete

But we weren’t ready to give the wood back
because it was still winter
time and the cold
kept us
wanting to be

He pointed to thundery clouds
at flashes of lightning
and the crack of thunder

The lightning flashed faces
of our husbands
their faces and beards
extending out as the North Wind
calling to us
this would be our fate, too

We ran back
into the log house
which disintegrated
turning us invisible
the moment we reentered
the Devil’s space

We all whirled up to the clouds
joining the North Wind
traveling Northwest
strangely, still
following the route
we had set to Canada

Our bodies flew up in the sky
but our souls remained on the ground
rooted forever
in the Devil’s woods

This story took place in Baltimore
during the 1860s
I can tell this tale
because I was once
one of these women
heading toward Buffalo
to escape through
Niagara Falls
to Canada

Source:  Tennessee Reed.   Airborne: Poems (1990-1996).  Juneau: Raven’s Bones Press, 1996.

Visit the website of Tennessee Reed

Visit the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

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