We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Leah Angstman’s forthcoming collection Shoot the Horses First, due out in February 2023 on Kerpunkt Press. Angstman’s forthcoming collection finds unexpected juxtapositions within history and seeks unlikely ways to address historical injustices. This selection is taken from the story “Yellow Flowers.”
from “Yellow Flowers”
The yellow flowers reminded her of the fever. Anna had watched her mother’s eyes fill with the same dreaded yellow color overnight, and now the flowers that dotted the Pennsylvania countryside through the coach’s rolltop window brought the memories back. To a seven-year-old girl, the blood from her mother’s mouth and stomach had been shocking, but the image of those jaundiced yellow eyes, so empty and lifeless, is what would forever haunt Anna.
She’d been living with her family in the nation’s capital, bustling Philadelphia, in the summer of 1793, when the fever struck. Her father—a sailor at Arch Street Wharf, where thick swarms of mosquitoes and the stench of waste permeated the air—succumbed after only three days, but not before bringing the devastation into their home and plaguing Anna’s mother and two infant cousins. The babies, their insides so fragile, died quickly; but her mother held on for a while.
Anna dripped wet cloths over her mother’s forehead for two days before the young girl was whisked away by a neighbor, enclosed in a lightless root cellar until she’d lost track of time, and finally stuck on a coach headed away from the city and into the countryside. The yellow flowers caught her attention again. The buds reminded her that she’d never know what her mother had looked like when she’d died, never hear her last words.
“Remember, don’t tell them you’re from Philadelphia,” a voice spoke over her shoulder as the coach approached the Maryland line, “or they won’t let you in. They’ll think you’re diseased.”
The voice belonged to a black man from the Free African Society, but Anna hardly knew him. Thomas: that much she did know. He’d been sent in to help at the request of President Washington because the black men of Philadelphia were immune to the fever, she’d heard. Thomas was the one to find her in the root cellar after her neighbor had disappeared—died, more likely. Anna still had several roots and canned meats from that cellar in her overnight carrier; she’d been thankful her hiding place held provisions, and Thomas had been thankful that she’d shared the meats with him. Touched by her plight, he took the great risk of escorting Anna out of Philadelphia before the fever could claim them both. Apparently, he hadn’t been so convinced that black men were any more immune to the fever than whites.
Just over the Maryland line, families gathered to find their panicked loved ones and to band together to build shelters for any unaffected evacuees. Thomas knew this, but insisted they pass by this camp to avoid detection. The bordering states quarantined refugees and refused to let them cross the state lines. Many of the evacuees were infected, spreading the fever, so traveling farther onward would keep Thomas and Anna alive.
More yellow flowers sprinkled the meadows as they passed, and the sun blazed violently, blinding Anna. Her forehead felt moist; was she sweating? Her eyes fuzzied. When she could see clearly again, a figure moving among the camp stole her attention. She knew that figure. She knew those arms, the height of those shoulders, even that floral apron she’d seen for all her life.
“Stop the coach!” Anna cried. “It’s Mama!”
Thomas squinted in the sun, contemplating. To stop the coach could mean death. He looked back at the little girl, knowing this, but knowing that if he didn’t stop, then that also meant death. He’d risked life and limb to bring them this far, but. His heart sped up, and he worried his bottom lip with tight teeth, a tight jaw.
“Stop the coach!” he called out, pounding the wood behind his head. “We’re here.”