Dictionary.com: Coffle – a line of animals, prisoners, or slaves chained and driven along together.


Midnight, Alexandria Virginia, May 23, 1861
A line of chained men, eighteen in all, struggle to find a rhythm in their leg irons which are chained to their waists to their manacled hands. Each wears a steel collar. A chain connects these so the men are forced to march in a line. They make a coffle. A fat unkempt white man and his young assistant lead the way, their whips dragging in the dust. The coffle is black and will offer no resistance enroute to the Slave Pens. They are the midnight parade, one the giddy white folks won’t be bothered to witness.

The overseer hands his assistant a coin and the key to the pen. “Jus lock ‘em in a cell. We’ll separate ‘em and spray ‘em down tomorrow ‘fore the buyers come. Write this down and take it to Mister Birch: ‘I got me a dozen an’ a half stone breakers. They is long limbed and hard muscled. You wanna beat the sale, come see ‘fore ten tomorra mornin’”.

The youngster pulled a pad from his pocket and wrote furiously. He stuffed the pad back in his pocket, fumbled the key into the lock. The door to the cells opened with a complaining screech. The old man laughed and scratched his groin. “Ya all boys get on in there. That bolt cannot be lifted from the inside.”

The black men, eyes on the ground before them, shuffled into the dark stinking quarters of the Slave Pen. Here they would sleep and try to hold their water until morning came. Before the door closed behind them, one began to sing. His voice was low and syrupy and cracked like muddy water. He sang:

mister, set your whip down
you done cut this body ‘way
if I never lift that hammer
oh-oh livelong day

The younger white man banged the door with his whip. “You want I go whup ‘em quiet?”

The fat man laughed. “I like your brass, boy. You go give Birch that note. Come on back an’ if they’s still singin’, I want you write down them words. I heard tell they’s some kinda unnerground railroad an’ them songs is signals to ol’ Abe Lincoln hisself. You bring me them darky’s words an’ I’ll tip a pint or two with ya. You go on now!” He gave the padlock a pull to reassure himself and turned to go to his quarters. A voice darker than prison followed him down.

mister overseer
you done sold my children ‘way
got me chained here to this hammer
oh-oh livelong day

Lord as my witness
turn this body back to clay
I will bury that old hammer
oh-oh livelong day

mama, tell your children
it don’t do no good to pray
with your hands born to that hammer
oh-oh livelong day

“Man, it’s so dark in here, I can’t even see your eyes. Why you keep singin’ that ol’ song anyway? Ain’t nobody listenin’, ain’t nobody give a care ‘bout us.”

The syrupy voice stopped. Chains rattled a bit and the singing man spoke. “You hear that fat man? Well, I got a bolt in me… that’s what I got and it cannot be lifted from the outside. It gets rusty, just like that one on the door. If I want to oil it all I have to do is sing. If you listened, you would know. There’s a tall man in a dark hat. He’s comin’ to break these chains and, when he does, I’m gonna fight in that man’s army. That’s my dream. I may never find my people but I can offer myself up. Wherever they are, they gon’ be free.”

“You crazy, man. How’s that song go? Mind if I sing with ya? Maybe I could go fight in that army with you… They really let a black man shoot and fight…”

But the singer was singing:

take a word to Mister Lincoln
if he breaks these chains away
I will fight them with this hammer
oh-oh livelong day

Next day the Union army surprised Confederates and captured the Slave Pen but it was empty except for one old man chained to the middle of the floor by the leg and he was singing:

four score and seven
if a man is what he say
he gon’ free me from this hammer
oh-oh livelong day

mister, I’m the digger
and that hole I made today
is the last one; you can lay me
oh-oh livelong day

Inquiries: tracy@traceliteraryagency.com & wordwulf@wordwulf.com
© artwork & words conceived by & property of Tom (WordWulf) Sterner ©
~Coffle was first published by Flashquake~


About wordwulf

wordwulf@gmail.com website: http://wordwulf.com
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