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I'm still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter's plantation. Lots of Negroes lived on his place. Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers. We all lived in rotten wood two-room shacks. But ours stood out from the others because it was up on the hill with Mr. Carter's big white house, overlooking the farms and the other shacks below. It looked just like the Carters' barn with a chimney and a porch, but Mama and Daddy did what they could to make it livable. Since we had only one big room and a kitchen, we all slept in the same room. It was like three rooms in one. Mama them slept in one corner and I had my little bed in another corner next to one of the big wooden windows. Around the fireplace a rocking chair and a couple of straight chairs formed a sitting area. This big room had a plain, dull-colored wallpaper tacked loosely to the walls with large thumbtacks. Under each tack was a piece of cardboard which had been taken from shoeboxes and cut into little squares to hold the paper and keep the tacks from tearing through. Because there were not enough tacks, the paper bulged in places. The kitchen didn't have any wallpaper and the only furniture in it was a wood stove, an old table, and a safe.
Mama and Daddy had two girls. I was almost four and Adline was a crying baby about six or seven months. We rarely saw Mama and Daddy because they were in the field every day except Sunday. They would get up early in the morning and leave the house just before daylight. It was six o'clock in the evening when they returned, just before dark.
George Lee, Mama's eight-year-old brother, kept us during the day. He loved to roam the woods and taking care of us prevented him from enjoying his favorite pastime. He had to be at the house before Mama and Daddy left for the field, so he was still groggy when he got there. As soon as Mama them left the house, he would sit up in the rocking chair and fall asleep. Because of the solid wooden door and windows, it was dark in the house even though it was nearing daybreak. After sleeping for a couple of hours, George Lee would jump up suddenly, as if he was awakened from a nightmare, run to the front door, and sling it open. If the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day, he would get all excited and start slinging open all the big wooden windows, making them rock on their hinges. Whenever he started banging the windows and looking out at the woods longingly, I got scared.
Once he took us to the woods and left us sitting in the grass while he chased birds. That night Mama discovered we were full of ticks so he was forbidden to take us there any more. Now every time he got the itch to be in the woods, he'd beat me.
One day he said, "I'm goin' huntin'." I could tell he meant to go by himself. I was scared he was going to leave us alone but I didn't say anything. I never said anything to him when he was in that mood.
"You heard me!" he said, shaking me.
I still didn't say anything.
Wap! He hit me hard against the head; I started to boo-hoo as usual and Adline began to cry too.
"Shut up," he said, running over to the bed and slapping a bottle of sweetening water into her mouth.
"You stay here, right here," he said, forcing me into a chair at the foot of the bed. "And watch her," pointing to Adline in the bed. "And you better not move." Then he left the house.
A few minutes later he came running back into the house like he forgot something. He ran over to Adline in the bed and snatched the bottle of sweetening water from her mouth. He knew I was so afraid of him I might have sat in the chair and watched Adline choke to death on the bottle. Again he beat me up. Then he carried us on the porch. I was still crying so he slapped me, knocking me clean off the porch. As I fell I hit my head on the side of the steps and blood came gushing out. He got some scared and cleaned away all traces of the blood. He even tried to push down the big knot that had popped up on my forehead.
That evening we sat on the porch waiting, as we did every evening, for Mama them to come up the hill. The electric lights were coming on in Mr. Carter's big white house as all the Negro shacks down in the bottom began to fade with the darkness. Once it was completely dark, the lights in Mr. Carter's house looked even brighter, like a big lighted castle. It seemed like the only house on the whole plantation.
Most evenings, after the Negroes had come from the fields, washed and eaten, they would sit on their porches, look up toward Mr. Carter's house and talk. Sometimes as we sat on our porch Mama told me stories about what was going on in that big white house. She would point out all the brightly lit rooms, saying that Old Lady Carter was baking tea cakes in the kitchen, Mrs. Carter was reading in the living room, the children were studying upstairs, and Mr. Carter was sitting up counting all the money he made off Negroes.
I was sitting there thinking about Old Lady Carter's tea cakes when I heard Mama's voice: "Essie Mae! Essie Mae!"
Suddenly I remembered the knot on my head and I jumped off the porch and ran toward her. She was now running up the hill with her hoe in one hand and straw hat in the other. Unlike the other farmhands, who came up the hill dragging their hoes behind them, puffing and blowing, Mama usually ran all the way up the hill laughing and singing. When I got within a few feet of her I started crying and pointing to the big swollen wound on my forehead. She reached out for me. I could see she was feeling too good to beat George Lee so I ran right past her and headed for Daddy, who was puffing up the hill with the rest of the field hands. I was still crying when he reached down and swept me up against his broad sweaty chest. He didn't say anything about the wound but I could tell he was angry, so I cried even harder. He waved goodnight to the others as they cut across the hill toward their shacks.
As we approached the porch, Daddy spotted George Lee headed down the hill for home.
"Come here boy!" Daddy shouted, but George Lee kept walking.
"Hey boy, didn't you hear me call you? If you don't get up that hill I'll beat the daylights outta you!"
Trembling, George Lee slowly made his way back up the hill.
"What happen to Essie Mae here? What happen?" Daddy demanded.
"Uh . . . uh . . . she fell offa d' porch 'n hit her head on d'step . . ." George Lee mumbled.
"Where were you when she fell?"
"Uhm . . . ah was puttin' a diaper on Adline."
"If anything else happen to one o' these chaps, I'm goin' to try my best to kill you. Get yo'self on home fo' I . . ."
The next morning George Lee didn't show up. Mama and Daddy waited for him a long time.
"I wonder where in the hell could that damn boy be," Daddy said once or twice, pacing the floor. It was well past daylight when they decided to go on to the field and leave Adline and me at home alone.
"I'm gonna leave y'all here by yo'self, Essie Mae," said Mama. "If Adline wake up crying, give her the bottle. I'll come back and see about y'all and see if George Lee's here."
She left some beans on the table and told me to eat them when I was hungry. As soon as she and
Daddy slammed the back door I was hungry. I went in the kitchen and got the beans. Then I climbed in to the rocking chair and began to eat them. I was some scared. Mama had never left us at home alone before. I hoped George Lee would come even though I knew he would beat me.
All of a sudden George Lee walked in the front door. He stood there for a while grinning and looking at me, without saying a word. I could tell what he had on his mind and the beans began to shake in my hands.
"Put them beans in that kitchen," he said, slapping me hard on the face.
"I'm hungry," I cried with a mouth full of beans.
He slapped me against the head again and took the beans and carried them into the kitchen. When he came back he had the kitchen matches in his hand.
"I'm goin' to burn you two cryin' fools up. Then I won't have to come here and keep yo' asses every day."
As I looked at that stupid George Lee standing in the kitchen door with that funny grin on his face, I thought that he might really burn us up. He walked over to the wall near the fireplace and began setting fire to the bulging wallpaper. I started crying. I was so scared I was peeing all down my legs. George Lee laughed at me for peeing and put the fire out with his bare hands before it burned very much. Then he carried me and Adline on to the porch and left us there. He went out in the yard to crack nuts and play.
We were on the porch only a short time when I heard a lot of hollering coming from toward the field. The hollering and crying got louder and louder. I could hear Mama's voice over all the rest. It seemed like all the people in the field were running to our house. I ran to the edge of the porch to watch them top the hill. Daddy was leading the running crowd and Mama was right behind him.
"Lord have mercy, my children is in that house!" Mama was screaming. "Hurry, Diddly!" she cried to Daddy. I turned around and saw big clouds of smoke booming out of the front door and shooting out of cracks everywhere. "There, Essie Mae is on the porch," Mama said. "Hurry, Diddly! Get Adline outta that house!" I looked back at Adline. I couldn't hardly see her for the smoke.
George Lee was standing in the yard like he didn't know what to do. As Mama them got closer, he ran into the house. My first thought was that he would be burned up. I'd often hoped he would get killed, but I guess I didn't really want him to die after all. I ran inside after him but he came running out again, knocking me down as he passed and leaving me lying face down in the burning room. I jumped up quickly and scrambled out after him. He had the water bucket in his hands. I thought he was going to try to put out the fire. Instead he placed the bucket on the edge of the porch and picked up Adline in his arms.
Moments later Daddy was on the porch. He ran straight into the burning house with three other men right behind him. They opened the large wooden windows to let some of the smoke out and began ripping the paper from the walls before the wood caught on fire. Mama and two other women raked it into the fireplace with sticks, broom handles, and anything else available. Everyone was coughing because of all the smoke.
Soon it was all over. Nothing had been lost but the paper on the wall, although some of the wood had burned slightly in places. Now that Daddy and Mama had put out the fire, they came onto the porch. George Lee still had Adline in his arms and I was standing with them on the steps.
"Take Essie Mae them out in that yard, George Lee," Daddy snapped.
George Lee hurried out in the yard with Adline on his hip, dragging me by the arm. Daddy and the farmers who came to help sat on the edge of the porch taking in the fresh air and coughing. After they had talked for a while, the men and women wanted to help clean up the house but Mama and Daddy refused any more help from them and they soon left.
We were playing, rather pretending to play, because I knew what was next and so did George Lee. Before I could finish thinking it, Daddy called George Lee to the porch.
"Come here, boy," he said. "What happened?" he asked angrily. George Lee stood before him trembling.
"Ah-ah-ah-went tuh th' well—tuh get a bucketa water, 'n when ah come back ah seen the house on fire. Essie Mae musta did it."
As he stood there lying, he pointed to the bucket he had placed on the edge of the porch. That seemed proof enough for Daddy. He glanced at me for a few seconds that seemed like hours. I stood there crying, "I didn't, I didn't, I didn't," but Daddy didn't believe me. He snatched me from the porch into the house.
Inside he looked for something to whip me with, but all the clothes had been taken off the nails of the walls and were piled up on the bed. It would have taken hours for him to find a belt. So he didn't even try. He felt his waist to discover he was wearing overalls. Nothing was in his reach. He was getting angrier by the second. He looked over at the wood stacked near the fireplace. "Oh my God," I thought, "he's goin' to kill me." He searched through the wood for a small piece. There was not one to be found. Moving backward, he stumbled over a chair. As it hit the floor a board fell out. He picked it up and I began to cry. He threw me across his lap, pulled down my drawers, and beat me on my naked behind. The licks came hard one after the other.
Screaming, kicking, and yelling, all I could think of was George Lee. I would kill him myself after this, I thought. Daddy must have beaten me a good ten minutes before Mama realized he had lost his senses and came to rescue me. I was burning like it was on fire back there when he finally let go of me. I tried to sit down once. It was impossible. It was hurting so bad even standing was painful. An hour or so later, it was so knotty and swollen I looked as if I had been stung by a hive of bees.