Pearl fell forward to her knees and clasped her hands. Dear God Jesus, she whispered, make a place fer dis good woman beside you. An me, yore Porhl, teach me to be free.
Slowly, the slaves, with their belongings wrapped in bundles or carried in old carpetbags, walked up to the main house and distributed themselves out front under the cypresses. They looked into the sky as if whatever it was they were told was coming would be from that direction. They wore their Sunday clothes. There were seven adultstwo men, the elder Jake Early and Jubal Samuels, who had but one eye, and five women, including the old granny who could not walk very welland three small children. The children were unusually quiet. They stayed close by and made bouquets of weeds or pressed round stones and pebbles in the earth.
Jake Early did not have to counsel patience. The fear they had all seen in the eyes of the fleeing Massah and Mistress told them that deliverance had come. But the sky was cloudless, and as the sun rose everyone settled down and some even nodded off, which Jake Early regretted, feeling that when the Union soldiers came they should find black folk not at their ease but smartly arrayed as a welcoming company of free men and women.
He himself stood in the middle of the road with his staff and did not move. He listened. For the longest while there was nothing but the mild stirring of the air, like a whispering in his ear or the rustle of woodland. But then he did hear something. Or did he? It wasn't exactly a sound, it was more like a sense of something transformed in his own expectation. And then, almost as if what he held was a divining rod, the staff in his hand pointed to the sky westerly. At this, all the others stood up and came away from the trees: what they saw in the distance was smoke spouting from different points in the landscape, first here, then there. But in the middle of all this was a change in the sky color itself that gradually clarified as an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down.
And, as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front and then widening like the furrow from the plow. It was moving across the sky to the south of them. When the sound of this cloud reached them, it was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives. It was not fearsomely heaven-made, like thunder or lightning or howling wind, but something felt through their feet, a resonance, as if the earth was humming. Then, carried on a gust of wind, the sound became for moments a rhythmic tromp that relieved them as the human reason for the great cloud of dust. And then, at the edges of this sound of a trompled-upon earth, they heard the voices of living men shouting, finally. And the lowing of cattle. And the creaking of wheels. But they saw nothing. Involuntarily, they walked down toward the road but still saw nothing. The symphonious clamor was everywhere, filling the sky like the cloud of red dust that arrowed past them to the south and left the sky dim, it was the great processional of the Union armies, but of no more substance than an army of ghosts.
Excerpted from The March by E. L. Doctorow Copyright © 2005 by E.L. Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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