Runner Up: The Upper Bright World

by Zilla Jones

Zilla Jones is an African-Canadian woman writing on Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg.) Her fiction has won first place in the Malahat Review Open Season contest, Prism International Jacob Zilber contest, Freefall Magazine prose contest, and the GritLit Festival short story competition, and Honourable Mention in the Room Magazine short prose competition. She has been longlisted in competitions run by the New Quarterly, Craft Literary, and the CBC short story prize, and shortlisted by the Writers Union of Canada, Missouri Review, and Fiddlehead. Her work appears in the Malahat Review, Prism, Freefall, The Puritan, and Prairie Fire, and is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead. When not writing, she is a criminal defence lawyer, anti-racism educator, singer and mother.

A victorious work, Jones’s “The Upper Bright World” offers a sweeping narrative of its protagonist Deborah’s relentless pursuit of freedom and fulfillment. In turns harrowing and cathartic—a valiant feat for a short piece —this story plunged me right into Deborah’s heart. As much a story of escape as it is one of homecoming, readers are welcomed into Deborah’s specific plight as well as a broader history or place, resistance, and belonging.

—francesca ekwuyasi


On the first day of the new year, she ran. She ran from nowhere and nothing, following the drinking gourd, and the brilliant star at the top of its handle. She ran through the creek, across the swamp, into the forest, and up to the Ohio River. She kissed the ground, and then she kept running, because folks said to her, “Don’t you stop here. You go on north, now. They got a new law lets them pick up fugitive slaves in the free states, so go on to Canada. They can’t bring you back here from Canada. Everyone be equal there.” They taught her a song: Let the heaven light shine on me, for low is the way to the upper bright world. The upper bright world: that meant Canada. And she sang that song to herself over and over as she hid by day and ran by night.

She came to Upper Canada first, but then she went east to Nova Scotia, because she heard there was a ship there sending Negroes back to Africa, far from any white folk. But when she arrived, the ship had already left. Well, she thought, this be my home now. She looked for a place where she could give praise to God for leading her from the groans of slavery to the upper bright world by the sea. But at the first church she went into, an usher told her, “Don’t you come in here. This isn’t a church for Negroes. You go to your own church.”

But it was a sweet lie, one that got her through the months and years where the question would not be quiet in her soul: What if they find me here?

Thought everyone be equal here, she said to herself. But she found the Negro church a block away. The congregation sang the old songs of slavery, transformed by liberty into gilded outpourings of praise. And when they learned she was a runaway, they became her family. They showed her where Blacks were allowed to live, and helped her get a job in a lady’s kitchen. She was treated the same as slavery, doing the same things, but at least she got paid for it. Everyone was not equal here; that was a lie. But it was a sweet lie, one that got her through the months and years where the question would not be quiet in her soul: What if they find me here?

When she ran, her name was Sarah. It was the name given to her by Massa Hanson. Mr. Hanson. The man who thought he owned her. The man she ran from. But the church in Nova Scotia gave her two things: a new name, and Bartholomew. “You don’t have to be knowed by what your owner called you,” Pastor told her. “You take the name you want.”  Massa Hanson named her Sarah, but she had always loved the Biblical story of Deborah, a prophetess who foresaw a great battle, followed by forty years of peace. And Deborah found peace too with Bartholomew, her husband.

Deborah never made a family when she was a slave, when she was Sarah, because she always knew there would be a time when she would run, and she did not want love to tie her to a life of bondage. But when she was sure she was safe, she married a man who touched her like a whisper with the same rough hands that unloaded ships in Halifax Harbour. Who laid those hands on her when she pitched and bucked in their bed with dreams of being grabbed and dragged away, being taken back to Massa Hanson, her voice dwindling to a whisper, unable to cry for help.

In time, Bartholomew and Deborah had children: Zebediah, Samuel and Martha. They went to the coloured school and Deborah and Bartholomew dared to hope that their future might have less limits than their parents’. In time, the nightmares stopped and her nights were punctuated only by the stars shifting through the heavens, the hooting call of the trains, and the roll of fog over the ocean.


Deborah left the job in the lady’s kitchen as soon as she could. Doing the bidding of a white woman who found fault everywhere was too reminiscent of Mistress Hanson, and how she used to step on the clean floors and then demand they be scrubbed again, brandishing her whip to ensure compliance. Deborah found work instead at a tavern where she cooked the sorry meals they served, washed dishes and cleaned up after the men who came in and out all day and night and led females up and down the staircase.

As a Christian woman, working in a house of ill repute gave her pain, but it was the only place willing to employ a coloured woman who could not read. So Deborah closed her ears to the noises the men made and their satisfied smiles after. Well, the men were satisfied at least. She saw the women biting their lips, hugging themselves with their arms or sometimes even crying. She looked away from them when that happened. And she always looked away if a woman from the church came in. There were not many ways for Negro women to make money in Halifax, and Deborah wasn’t going to make trouble for anyone; she had trouble enough of her own.

That is, she looked away until the day that one of those men came in with a Negro woman who instead of hanging her head, looked right at Deborah when the man asked for a key for a room. Her eyes were defiant, challenging. Judge me if you want, they said. Her head was wrapped in a colourful, knotted scarf and she was wearing a stripey blue and green dress in a shiny fabric with many layers to the skirt, like the white women wore to their church on Sundays. The woman went up the stairs with that man, not slinking in shame like some of the others, but swaying her hips like she was doing him a favour.

Fifteen minutes later, Deborah heard it. A scream, seeping through the floorboards. She didn’t know what made her do it, but she ran up the stairs and knocked on the door where she knew they went. “Help!” the woman shouted. “Help!”

Deborah pushed the door open to see that the man had that Negro woman pinned on top of the bed by her shoulders, and he was holding a knife to her throat. He turned and waved the blade at Deborah, but that second of inattention allowed the woman beneath him to sit up. She swept her booted foot into his face and he dropped the knife. She snatched it before it even hit the floor. Bare-breasted, she reared up and pushed him down to the mattress with her body. She put her face close to his ear and Deborah couldn’t hear what she said, but a moment later, the man stood up, did up his pants, and stalked down the stairs. The front door of the tavern slammed shut.

The woman’s head wrap had been knocked askew, and she looked at Deborah, panting as she put it right. “Thank you,” she said. Deborah nodded, casting her eyes away from the woman’s round, brown breasts, as firm as Deborah’s used to be before the children. Nothing else was said until the woman was decently clad again. Then the woman said, “That be my mistake. Usually, I draw my weapon first. I slipped.”

Deborah remembered that she had a musket, when she was running. At night, she would hear dogs barking and wonder if they were coming for her. If she would have the courage to shoot. The need never arose, and the musket was rusting away in a dark corner of her cabin.

The woman drew a deep breath, and said, “I’m Rahab.”

“Deborah.” In the Bible, Rahab was a whore, she thought. She wondered if Rahab chose that name herself, or if she was fulfilling a destiny given to her by someone else.

“You from here, Deborah?” Rahab asked.

“No. I’m from down there. I ran.”

Rahab’s eyes expanded into wondrous orbs. “A woman who ran. Alone?”

It was Deborah’s mind that got her across that line, pouring conviction into her legs when they trembled and sagged and thought they could not take another step.

Not many women escaped from slavery.  Most of the ones who travelled on the Underground Railroad were men. Women are too slow, they said. Too constrained by their bodies. But they didn’t account for the steel of a woman’s mind. It was Deborah’s mind that got her across that line, pouring conviction into her legs when they trembled and sagged and thought they could not take another step.

Rahab asked, “You live here in Halifax?”

“Yes,” Deborah answered, and Rahab sucked her teeth with a loud disapproving pop.

“It ain’t safe for you here. Them catchers coming up all the time now, looking for fugitives. You best off in Africville.”

“Africville?” Deborah had never heard of such a place.

“Our settlement. Outside the city. Black folks only. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us. And any white catcher try to come in, he meet a whole row of rifles.”

“More beer, wench!” hollered a man from downstairs, and Deborah had to go. But after that, she saw Rahab a few more times, and they talked a little, if they got the chance. Deborah told Bartholemew about Africville, but he wasn’t interested. It was too far from their work and the childrens’ schools and the church, he said. It had been so long, Deborah had changed, and no catcher could find her now.


One morning when frost thickened the windows and the tree branches bore a white varnish, Deborah entered the tavern, and Tom, the stable hand, said, “You know a Negress named Sarah?”

Deborah’s heart went cold like the window.

“A man was here,” says Tom. “Says he’s looking for Sarah, property of a Mr Hanson.” Deborah’s heart shattered and shards of ice pierced her chest. I must run again, she thought. But where? I am already at the top of the world.  Then she remembered what Bartholomew said. It had been a long time. She looked different now. Her back more stooped from work, lines at the corners of her eyes and across her forehead, her body changed by three children. It was a young woman who ran from Massa Hanson, and she was long gone.

Deborah shrugged, and forced her voice to sound unconcerned, just like when she handed over the false road pass to the paddyrollers. “I ain’t know any Sarah,” Deborah said, and that wasn’t even a lie.

At night, she pressed her face to her husband’s smooth, warm back, listening to the snuffles of the children as they slept, and she could not bear to break the peace that she had predicted would someday come.

She was careful all day, and all week, scanning the bushes at home before she stepped outside to go to the well or relieve herself behind the trees, looking around her as she walked to and from work. She knew she should tell Bartholomew about the man, but the words caught on the wire that twisted through her throat whenever she thought back to those days. At night, she pressed her face to her husband’s smooth, warm back, listening to the snuffles of the children as they slept, and she could not bear to break the peace that she had predicted would someday come. Tomorrow, she said to herself, I’ll tell him tomorrow.

Night after night, the moon rose tranquil, and then made way for the bleached sun of winter with its shimmering rings of cold, and no one mentioned a man again. All seemed well, and Deborah started to think that the Lord was hearing her prayers and protecting her as He promised. There was no need to visit her fears upon her family.


Deborah hoisted a pail of garbage onto her head and carried it behind the tavern to empty it, far enough away to keep the rats and raccoons at bay. The grass crackled under her feet, laid with a grainy carpet of snow. She watched the potato peelings and bread crusts roll into the undergrowth, and bent to lift the pail again, when a hand clamped down on her wrist. Another hand snared her waist. Breath latticed with rum and rot blew past her nostrils as a voice crooned, “Sarah, we’ve been looking for you.”

Two of Massa Hanson’s overseers, their hair lank against their scalps, their faces pasted with dirt, grinned toothlessly at her. She jerked forward, trying to pull herself from their grasp, but she was sand, falling at the first lap of the waves, just like the castles her children built along the shore in the summer. And she realized how foolish she was to think she could run, to believe she could ever escape. Her eyes were already damp, thinking of her children, and she thought of asking the men to take her to say goodbye to them, one last kiss before she was returned to slavery. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came out but a stream of cold air. It was like those nightmares years ago. She predicted this, too.

“Come on, now,” said one of the men. “Back to Alabama, where Mr Hanson is very anxious to see you again.” He laughed. “Got a whip waiting with your name on it.”

Deborah worked her lips, trying to force moisture into her throat. She could not go this easily, she chided herself. She ran through the mud and the clay and waded through the chilly waters with an empty belly and a wailing soul, all for her freedom. She earned it, and she would be damned if she ever went back to toiling on her knees in those cotton fields, under that stinking heat. It burst out of her: a scream that split the sky, sent birds fleeing from bush to bush, cracked the frozen earth.

“Shut up!” One of the men slapped her across the cheek, but she kept screaming. Her eyes were screwed shut so that she heard the footsteps creeping through the bushes before she saw her.

“Hand her over,” said a new voice, and then she opened her eyes. It was Rahab. She had a rifle pointed into the back of one of the men, and she said, “I will shoot, ‘less you let her go.”

The man laughed. “You won’t shoot me,” he said, and he turned his head to spit.

The gun didn’t even shake as Rahab pulled the trigger. The shot sparked through the icy air, echoed from the tree trunks. Deborah was still screaming, but the man was screaming even louder as he dropped to the ground. His partner wavered, still holding onto Deborah as he gaped down at the redness radiating out from the hole in his companion’s chest like the sun warming the sky when spring returns.

“You’re next,” said Rahab to him, her voice quiet but sure. He let Deborah go so abruptly that she staggered into a tree, and he backed away from Rahab. He stood looking at his partner for a moment, and then he turned and ran through the woods. Rahab laughed as she fired after him. “Your turn to run!” she yelled.

She turned to Deborah and jerked her head toward the man on the ground. “You want to do it?” she asked, passing Deborah the gun. It was heavy and cold in her hands, but its mouth was warm, and its weight was familiar. A rifle like this was her comfort during those lonely nights traveling north. Deborah pointed it at the man, and she said, “I’ll give you a chance to live. If they find you in time. If they do, what you gonna say when they ask you about Sarah?”

His teeth chattered as he looked up at Deborah. “N-never seen her.”

Her finger folded around the trigger. “You sure ‘bout that?”

He nodded, frantic, his head jerking up and down so fast it looked as if it might come off.

Deborah said, “My God is a God of mercy. If you live, you promise me, you’ll stop chasing people who did nothing but take the chance to live free, just like you.”

He nodded again.

Rahab’s foot shot out and stuck him in the ribs. He yelped.

Rahab said to Deborah, “Get your family. Y’all got to come, now.”

“Come where?” Deborah asked, but she already knew.

“The Canadian government won’t stop these sons of bitches,” Rahab said. “They’ll let them take you back there. Only your own can protect you.”

The man on the ground groaned, “Sarah, please—” but Deborah said,

“Sarah is dead.”


With the danger past, Deborah’s body flopped and flailed and it was a struggle to make it back to her cabin. Rahab walked with her, holding her up, soothing her with lullabies meant for babies. It was Rahab who told Bartholomew everything. Rahab who helped Bartholomew pack everything up in a frenzied silence. Rahab who took Deborah’s entire family with her to meet the cart that brought people between Halifax and Africville. 

“Ma,” said Zebediah to Deborah as the cart jounced over ruts and stones, “Canada’s safe, ain’t it? Ain’t it? Ain’t it the upper bright world? That’s what you told us, that you ran from the place of darkness to the upper bright world, so you could be safe.”

Deborah’s hand closed around his as she said, “Everything Canada tells you about itself be a lie. Don’t you listen to their words. What you see happen in Canada be the truth.”


Everything Canada tells you about itself be a lie. Don’t you listen to their words. What you see happen in Canada be the truth.


When they arrived in Africville, they saw how the ocean smacked into the cliffs, curled onto the black rocks it had spat up and polished smooth. They saw the fishing nets, the lobster traps. The expanse of green stretching out from the ocean, and rising from it houses, a church, a school. Garden plots lying fallow, waiting to house potatoes and vegetables when spring returned. Fires burning behind the houses, the smell of baking mackerel and eel swirling into the air. Women hanging laundry, beating rugs, skinning deer, and singing into the wind as they worked. Men sitting on porches cleaning their guns or polishing their boots. Children chasing each other from porch to porch, their noses trickling in the cold. Negroes, all of them. And at the last house, a man sitting on his porch with a shining rifle across his knees.

“No one comes in or goes out without someone sees,” said Rahab. “No white people be coming here unless we knows their business.” And with nothing but space all around, Deborah saw that any visitors—any intruders—would be impossible to miss.

Deborah felt the fluttering in her chest, the lightness in her head, that had grown stronger the further she got from slavery and the closer she got to Canada. She remembered that it was a feeling strong enough to push fear aside, to dissolve it. It was what hope felt like.


On the last day of the old year, she ran. She ran from everywhere and everything. She ran from a past that bumped up against the present, that took bites from her future. She ran to a place that would not just tolerate her, but that promised to embrace her, protect her, heal her, save her. And then she never ran again.

 


Zilla Jones is an African-Canadian woman writing on Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg.) Her fiction has won first place in the Malahat Review Open Season contest, Prism International Jacob Zilber contest, Freefall Magazine prose contest, and the GritLit Festival short story competition, and Honourable Mention in the Room Magazine short prose competition. She has been longlisted in competitions run by the New Quarterly, Craft Literary, and the CBC short story prize, and shortlisted by the Writers Union of Canada, Missouri Review, and Fiddlehead. Her work appears in the Malahat Review, Prism, Freefall, The Puritan, and Prairie Fire, and is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead. When not writing, she is a criminal defence lawyer, anti-racism educator, singer and mother.

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