Cecil Freeman was born that way, which is to say a free man; his father Jack was not, but had taken ‘Freeman’ on the day of his emancipation, the same way one might grasp a peach tree branch, and bending it down low, pluck a ripened globe from it. Freeman was a familiar surname for men and women born or sold into bondage, but Jack wore it as a badge of honor. His eldest son Cecil was tall and lean, uncommonly book smart and savvy. His blood relations knew enough of rudimentary reading and writing to get by, but where they saw literacy as a burdensome necessity, Cecil imagined the prospect of getting a toehold, and then a leg up on his hardscrabble life, if he could but pen a letter with an elegant hand, or speak articulately to his superiors. He was only too willing to bet his future on it, in fact, and at the first chance took his leave of the family who raised him. Cecil ran and kept on running without a fully formed plan until the day he encountered one Claudia Jefferson, whose apparent indifference to him he found so enchanting as to finally stop in his tracks.
On a particular Sunday Cecil Freeman had struck out on the next leg of a days-long trek to the promised land, he imagined, a little worse for the wear by now and already breaking a sweat in the heat of a summer morning. He could hear music nearby, and soon found a steeply pitched roof emerging on the horizon with a white clapboard building under it and a steeple rising above it. Through a pair of open doors Cecil saw the worshipers packed onto roughhewn benches and felt a longing for human fellowship rising in him. The men inside the church wore loose coveralls and ladies long, homespun dresses and hats. Hands everywhere clutched makeshift fans and moved them back and forth to at least suggest the hint of a cool breeze against all odds.
Cecil stepped inside quietly and stood straight and stiff against the rear wall, searching for an empty space where he might slip in unnoticed. Claudia felt his presence behind her and turned to steal a glance, but meeting his eyes looked away quickly and leaned in to whisper to the young woman seated next to her. Now he saw their two heads turned together in conspiratorial whispers, with their fans held out in front to make a little office where they might confer privately before reaching a consensus on this unexpected situation. Claudia’s friend turned to get a better look before resuming deliberations. Cecil could see Claudia’s shoulders shaking with silent giggles, and directly the two young women squeezed in tight, and Claudia motioned for Cecil to join them, patting the bench seat next to her.
Cecil Freeman lowered himself gently and quietly onto it, nodding politely to Claudia Jefferson, in whose countenance he now suddenly lost himself while the choir fell mute, and the whitewashed walls of this African Methodist Episcopal church vaporized into the ether, until all that remained was the roar of silence and Claudia’s exquisite green eyes.