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HIS HAND CAME DOWN UPON MY CHEEK HARD AND FAST. Stunned, I staggered backward.
“Look at all dis cotton you left behind, gal!” I looked up to see the overseer’s hand nearing my face again. I flinched as he smacked me once more, sending me to my knees. I stared at the ground, seven years’ worth of hard labor in the fields burning under my veil of obedience.
“Next time I find you skippin’ ova cotton like it don’t matta nothin’ in the world to you, you gonna find yo’self beaten, gal, you understand me?”
“Yessuh,” I answered.
“Now get up and pay attention, understand?”
“Yessuh,” I said slowly, lifting my body from the ground.
Doing cotton for Masta was a lot of work. On his plantation in the western part of Tennessee there was the land preparation, the spring planting, the weeding and the plowing, and the harvesting near the end of August. Then, after it was picked, some folks would remove the small green seeds from the cotton in the ginnin’ house. When we weren’t working on the cotton, we tended to a small cornfield Masta also owned.
The year had come back around to the harvesting of the cotton. Picking was tough, especially when the frost would start biting the bolls. I preferred the hoeing or the planting, but for now, it was time to pick.
When I first started fieldwork, I admired the folks who could pull that cotton out of the bolls with a single hand, a single swipe, their eyes set somewhere else. Then they’d take that cotton and easily slip it into their sacks. Not a single branch would break in the process. The breaking of a cotton branch or the destroying of an entire plant in whatever manner was cause for punishment. The overseer would ride by and strike any slave who committed this crime with the whip that hung by his side.
The work didn’t seem so bad during my first days out in the field; that is, until the days started stretching out longer and the work sent aches throughout my body. My young hands would clumsily snap a branch and struggle to pull the picked cotton out of the brown bolls and get it into my sack. At the end of the day, my hands would be bloody and calloused.
Even before the sun rose in the mornings, we were awakened to begin our workdays, sometimes having to line up in rows for a slave count before heading to the fields to pick. Our bodies were so accustomed to this work that sometimes I felt as if we were merely walking flesh, our minds still lost in sleep. The overseers would come by nearly every day to check our progress, warning us with a slap if we were too far behind. There were two of them, and they’d always find an excuse to drop three or four extra bags near our feet to fill up. They’d never forget if we happened to pick more one day than we did the last, and they’d be sure we picked a little more the next. We couldn’t leave until the last bag strapped to our backs was filled with that cotton. Then, at the close of the day, we’d watch, grateful almost, as the sun set, giving us relief from its hot rays. I don’t know why the sun chose to glare at us like it did, hours on end, bringing glistening sweat to our bodies as if we’d done something against it. Only long after sunset would we be granted leave.
On that day, with the overseer’s hand imprint still burning in my flesh, I continued with my work. There was nothing else I could’ve done. I hated the fields that stretched as far as my mind would allow. It took me a long time to figure out how I could daydream, like I did when I was young, and work at the same time. The overseers thought they had snatched that mental freedom. But Aunt Mary, the mother figure that cared for me on that plantation, used to tell me that you could always find the greatest joy and freedom in your mind. Even so, it felt like a slap in the face to stand there, sometimes, staring at the never-ending rows of white cotton. With a quick reminder from a slave hand yanking at my dress, telling me to “bend down an’ pick so I wouldn’t get lashed,” I would return my attention to the row of cotton that surrounded me. With anger spinning in my mind, I would think of how we were engulfed in the white man’s world—nothing but a world of whiteness. If only we could get rid of all that cotton!
Later on, when the sun had set and the moon was high in the sky, I finally trudged home. My legs were heavy; my feet dragged behind me.
I walked past several silent houses in the slave quarters and only picked up my pace when I spotted a woman standing and waiting for me in the doorway of a small cabin. Mary’s posture looked anxious, and I quickly embraced her as I reached the door, my cheek brushing up against her chin.
Mary spent most of her time as a house servant but helped out when needed in the spinning house, making clothing and other materials. I was very small when I first came to the plantation at the age of four, and Mary was the one who took me into her arms without a word. Mary said as soon as she saw me, she knew I was a child of hers, just not blood-related. From then on it went without saying that she would be the mother I had lost and that her son would be the brother who’d been sold—and so, lost to me—when I first came across the seas to this land. Daniel was two years older than I was and was born a year or so after Mary’s first child, which she had lost. He had never been afraid of much, and that worried me a little bit. It didn’t take much so-called wrongdoing around these parts for a defiant slave to end up limp and lifeless.
Mary ran a hand slowly across my short, black hair, which rounded my head and sat two or three inches high on my scalp. Then she pulled back and looked me over, her eyes running past my large, dark ones, past my eyelids batting with fatigue, past my shoulders slouched with a long day’s worth of work, and on down to my dirt-caked feet.
“Look at you—got holes in them pants I just done sewn you, from workin’ hard out there in them fields. And looka here, you growin’ out of ’em already.” She shook her head back and forth, but that gesture and the heaviness lurking behind her voice were negated by the kindness in her eyes.
“Seem you even darker today than you was jus’ yestaday,” Mary said quietly.
“That sun ain’t got no mercy.”
My skin was very dark: When I was younger, the children told me I looked like the nighttime. I preferred to remember images from my homeland, from the black land way across the seas, images of me rolling in the dark soil and rubbing its similar color into my skin. It was something that made me a bit different from others around the plantation. It was clear to Mary, and to many others, my native origins weren’t from close by, and Mary said there weren’t too many folks like me who came straight from their ancestral lands. It had changed she said, from the days of her youth.
It was early in the year 1821. I was young, just about fourteen years old, according to Mary, who had helped me keep track of my age. Like most other slaves, she didn’t know hers. She told me once that when I first came here, it had taken quite a while to break past the resistance I had layered myself with. I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t look at anyone straight, and I could never sleep through a full night. Then one day, after a few weeks of the same, Mary found me crouched in the corner of the cabin, holding up four fingers and touching each one with a finger from my other hand. I repeated this over and over again. She figured that wherever I had come from, someone had taught me how to count the years I had been on this earth, and she decided to continue with that cycle. Mary knew children well, and I seemed to be around that age. She had walked over to me, silently, and touched her own fingers as she had seen me do. She then brought one of her fingers to the four I was holding up and then repeated the same. After a while, she had taken my hands in hers and brought my fingers to her lips, kissing each one by one. It was the first time we had bonded, and she kept that moment close to her heart by helping me keep up with my age.
It was nearing the end of September and, if we’d kept track right, I’d be turning fourteen when the first flower bloomed, signifying the beginning of springtime. Mary told me I was growing up slowly; she said I’d be as pretty as they get, and that made me smile a bit.
I wiped away the sweat on Mary’s forehead that glistened in the moonlight, and gazed past her drained face into her eyes. She shook her head back and forth again.
“You sho’ had a bad one last night, Sarah.” I nodded solemnly, remembering Mary waking me that morning, silencing my muffled screams from distorted dreams. She’d wiped away the sweat I was drenched in and dried my streaming tears, which seemed to flow from a place deep inside that connected those broken dreams with a reality I couldn’t remember well at all.
“You rememba it this time?”
I shook my head and sighed. “Only bits’ve it, Mary. Ain’t no dif’rent from befo’.”
“What ’bout them parts that got you cryin’ like that?” Again, I shook my head, but with less assurance. My nightmares didn’t come often, but when they did, I’d wake up, baffled, wondering why I couldn’t remember the images that had flitted so quickly and disjointedly across my mind’s eye. Most of them remained buried in a place inside of me, perhaps for the best. And yet in all the years I had been having those dreams after arriving on the plantation, some of the same images had returned to me again and again: a smiling face, a warm hand, large and staring eyes, the smile wiped away, empty, lifeless, and that word, that name, Bahati. …
“Well, it sho’ didn’t last long this time round. Maybe … maybe you ain’t gonna have ’em anymore.”
“Mary, you say that every time.”
She sighed heavily and shook her head. “I knows I do, but …” She looked down at my hands and ran a soft finger over the dried-up blood.
“Well, anyhow, ’nough of that. I do got somethin’ to say ’bout you workin’ in them fields, tho’. Hate to see you out there durin’ pickin’ season. They should have you carin’ fo’ the livestock, or in the orchard or somethin’. I’ma pick up my nerve and ask Missus if’n you can work in the house like I do—fo’ good.” I smiled warmly as Mary rambled on as she always did. She led me through the doors and placed a bowl of cornmeal on my pallet.
I rinsed off my face, hands, and legs in the cold-water bin on the floor before filling my hungry mouth with the little food that lay before me. To finish off my nightly rituals, I dived thankfully into bed—a small, itchy pallet large enough only for part of my body. My feet and ankles no longer fit.
“You know, Anna, I’m s’prised you wake up in the mornins high-spirited, countin’ on the day bein’ different, an’ come back at night, sleep the minute you hit that pallet, just to wake up the next day with the same high spirits as every mornin’,” Mary said as she gathered the half bucket of water to dump outside and then refill for Daniel.
“Ain’t nothin’ else I can do, Mary. I look fo’ward to the mornin’ breeze, anyway,” I said with a grin, my cheek pressed hard into my pallet. She shook her head, washed out my bowl, and blew out the lamp.
If I had fought to keep my eyes open for another five minutes or so, I would’ve seen Daniel drearily saunter in. Instead, I fell heavily into sleep.
© 2010 Noni Carter