Editor's note: A hero with the strength of 50 men and a heart as big as all outdoors spirits slaves away to freedom from the Plenty Plantation and its overseer, Mr. Sorenson.
We have a great big pear tree in our yard, down by the river. Poppa Jabe planted it there in slavery times. That tree doesn't give any fruit now -- it's too old. But Momma Mary says that sometimes, after it's gotten a good rest, little white flowers blossom on it in the spring. "That tree has probably forgotten more of the world than most folks remember," Momma Mary says. And on days when the wind blows in whispers that only bees can hear, she tells me a "long, long time ago" story, like the one about how freedom came to the slaves on the Plenty Plantation.
One day, early in the spring, Mr. Plenty awoke with a powerful hunger for fish -- so he sent Addy down to the river to fetch some.
By midday Addy was mighty vexed; she hadn't gotten a single nibble on her line. Then Addy saw something bobbing in the water. It was a wicker basket, and something was inside it.
When the basket got caught in the roots of a fallen tree, Addy ran downstream to catch up to it. A little boy 'bout five or six years old just sat there, smilin' up at her.
She scooped him up and set him on the ground. In the bottom of the basket, where he'd been sitting, was a plump round pear, as golden as the noonday sun. "Here," said the boy. "For you. For fishing me out of the river."
Addy took a bite and sighed. "This must be the fruit of heaven," she said. "What they call you?" "Jabe," he told her.
When Addy had finished her pear, Jabe dug a deep hole with a stick, dropped the seeds into it, and covered them over. Then he brought water from the river to soak them.
"They want to grow," he told her.
Well, Addy thought, it is spring, after all.
Jabe looked at Addy's fishing poles. Then he looked at her empty wagon.
"S'pose to be, but I ain't catch nary a one."
Jabe leaned over the river, cupped his hands around his mouth and called:
"Fish, fish, where is you fish? Jump to the wagon like Miss Addy wish!"
Suddenly the earth began to tremble, the river began to roil, and the air was filled with fish -- jumping, hopping, flying right into Addy's wagon. Jabe opened his little-boy mouth and laughed a big man-sized laugh.
That spring was the growingest spring anyone on the Plenty Plantation ever remembered. Jabe was growing too. By May he'd left his boyhood behind and showed no signs of stopping. By June he was a full-grown man and had the strength of fifty.
Addy spent her evenings at the riverbank, visiting the tree she and Jabe had planted. She went to it often and stayed with it late. Its branches arched out over her, full of luscious pears. And there, shining between them, the North Star sparkled overhead.
It was such a plentiful harvest that no one noticed the sacks Jabe carried off to the Quarters, with enough cotton in them to replace every corn husk in every mattress.
It was a good thing for Mr. Plenty that all the cotton was picked, because the very next morning, a twister blew in bad. Mr. Sorenson sent for Pot-Tim to mend the barn roof, but he was nowhere to be found. "Jabe took Pot-Tim to that pear tree," Addy whispered, but no one heard.
The next morning the heavens opened up. Rain poured down so hard, seemed it would wash away the topsoil clear down to the core of the earth. When it stopped, looked like some of the slave folk had been washed away too. "Jabe took them to that pear tree," Addy whispered. This time people listened.
But in spite of twisters and floods and missing slaves, the Plenty Plantation was as good as its name that summer. Mr. Sorenson knew there had to be more to it than that! And he was certain beyond a shadow that Jabe had something to do with it. And who'd brought Jabe to the Plenty Plantation in the first place? Addy, that's who! If there was magic afoot, then Addy had to have something to do with it. "Come morning, I'm selling that gal away from here," said Mr. Plenty.
First thing next morning, Mr. Sorenson went for her. But when he undid the lock and opened the door, the chains were lying empty on the floor. Addy had disappeared!
Some said she was magic and had flown out through the smokehouse chimney.
Some said she'd tunneled under the floor and made her escape like any mortal.
But some looked out at Jabe chopping wood and breathed the thought that no one would say aloud: "Jabe took Addy to that pear tree."
After a while, Momma Mary tells me, Jabe moved on. One day he too disappeared from the Plenty Plantation, though he turned up at different times in different places throughout the South. And everywhere he did, burdens were lifted.
Momma Mary tells me all the stories, but the most wonderful, she says, happened right here at our old pear tree. And on days when the wind blows in whispers that only bees can hear, I know that she's right.
Excerpted from the book BIG JABE. Text copyright c 2000 by Jerdine Nolen. Illustrations copyright c 2000 by Kadir Nelson. Reprinted by permission of Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, a division of William Morrow and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.