Pale: A Novel

Pale: A Novel

by Edward A. Farmer

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Overview

“Some things just don’t keep well inside this house …”

The summer of 1966 burned hot across America but nowhere hotter than the cotton fields of Mississippi. Finding herself in a precarious position as a black woman living alone, Bernice accepts her brother Floyd’s invitation to join him as a servant for a white family and she enters the web of hostility and deception that is the Kern plantation household.

The secrets of the house are plentiful yet the silence that has encompassed it for so many years suddenly breaks with the arrival of the harvest and the appearance of Jesse and Fletcher to the plantation as cotton pickers. These two brothers, the sons of the house servant Silva, awaken a vengeful seed within the Missus of the house as she plots to punish not only her husband but Silva’s family as well. When the Missus starts flirting with Jesse, she sets into motion a dangerous game that could get Jesse killed and destroy the lives of the rest of the servants.

Bernice walks the fine line between emissary and accomplice, as she tries her best to draw secrets from the Missus’s heart, while using their closeness to protect the lives of the people around her. Once the Missus’s plans are complete, families will be severed, loyalties will be shattered, and no one will come out unscathed.

With a dazzling voice and rich emotional tension, Pale explores the ties that bind and how quickly humanity can fade and return us to primal ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982673864
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 05/19/2020
Sales rank: 341,859
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Edward A. Farmer is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, where he journaled and cultivated stories his entire childhood. He is a graduate of Amherst College with a degree in English and psychology, and recipient of the MacArthur-Leithauser Travel Award for creative writing. He currently lives and writes in Pasadena, California. Pale is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Young people see cotton as beautiful, something to roll around in until their eyes bob like apples and they become dizzy. A cool place to hide their feet on summer days, along that base where weeds grow, but never too long before the chop of a steady hoe. Let Daddy tell it, those white stalks were no different than the white man, a devil he'd known all his life out in Crenshaw, Mississippi, the place of his birth.

"You don't know that white face until it works you," he'd say, coming through the front door tired and sore, his hands knotted like ropes as he wrung out the tension through cracks of his knuckles.

But Daddy left this world to be with the Lord a long time ago, and only Henry was left by my side. When Henry left, I had no one. He was supposed to send for me but never did. Together, we were going to live out a life far away from this wretched place we knew as home. On the first day, all joy I had for his journey faded just as fast as mop water on a sun-licked floor, as I feared his passage had met its end somewhere out in the black heart of Mississippi. Yet, slowly, as the days dragged on, those images were but pebbles inside my mind that rattled around whenever my spirits sank low. I knew he'd somehow made it and was now starting a life for us, and that I would soon join him. After two months, I knew my letter would arrive any day, and that we would be free in that place we'd dreamt about together. We'd lie barefoot on the sand, feeling it clump between our toes like the red dirt that chipped along the countryside and made the pathways muddy. We'd open a basket of figs and natal plums, and we'd eat selfishly, never fearing the weight of that white hand pressed over our lives again.

At three months, the sorrow came once more, along with visions of his death. At four months, I checked for his name in the obituaries almost daily. At five months, I wrote to the bus station to no avail, and at six months I just gave up, not on him but of any hope I had of ever leaving — for with him went all of our money. At night, I dreamt of his face merged with the countryside, the rounds of his eyes in perfect harmony with the passing fields as he watched through bus windows a land that had betrayed him. On other nights, I dreamt he'd died by the hands of the Klan and his body was strung up like a welcome banner for everyone to see. I watched as my strong husband fought then bled and died on the streets of Sumner with no one there to mourn him, his blood a hot trickle along the cracks in the gutter curb as it coagulated into a cold clay and became the earth.

Nonetheless, on other nights, not so troubling, when the soft winds blew the sweet smell of jacaranda trees into my window, I pictured more simple thoughts of him resting by the ocean, content and dreaming of his bride, his apparent death nothing more than part of his plan to sneak back to my bed. These dreams continued every night until the time of the dog-day cicada, when my brother sent for me to live with him near Greenwood, Mississippi, down in Leflore County because, according to him, "Ain't no woman should be livin' by herself at times like this. Plus, they treats us far betta down here."

Floyd knew those parts better than most and, as such, knew the good from the bad like he knew the back of his own hand — and mine, too, let him tell it. Although it was late summer, it was still hot, the date on the calendar meaning nothing when it came to Mississippi and heat. The plantation went for miles in both directions, one of those places where there was nothing, then something, then nothing again for acres at a time. Ninety miles from Jackson, thirty miles from the nearest interstate, tossed out there amongst the coyotes and armadillos, the Cotton Capital of the World, they called it. It bears a starkness that can only be said to exist in the furthest reaches of one's imagination, as one would picture hell to be if it were an actual place on this earth that one could see and feel. A wolf in sheep's clothing, Daddy would say — an aphorism that for only that reason remains a jewel. The rain dries quickly, the ground a pillowed bed, the marsh a thirsty bowl, those cotton sheets a white covering for the night, lulling so gently and quietly into my ears. Nothing ever happened except for the rain and plows, or maybe a loud truck occasionally came roaring down the street or, if they were lucky, a car passed with blaring music, but nothing stirred in the fields.

Plantation life was often a slow and steady process with little to do between planting and harvesting except maybe check for whiteflies or squirrels on the bolls. On the day I arrived, the grounds sat completely void of any human life until we'd actually made it inside the house.

The cool air met us at the door as Floyd gave a shove to my backside with his wide hands.

"Don't mess aroun' an' let out the cold," Floyd barked.

We walked quickly into the kitchen, where a woman stirred up something awfully good, especially to one in my condition, having traveled most of the day and foolishly packing very little to eat. The woman was of a sturdy build and not fond of smiling and, as such, gave nothing more than a nod in my direction when Floyd introduced us, continuing her duties in silence while we continued through the kitchen and out toward the parlor. Floyd had mentioned her in previous letters to me. Said her name was Silva, and she had family in Lafayette and some parts of Jackson. Said she was a snitch and couldn't be trusted with a secret around a deaf or a mute.

"You stay 'way from her," Floyd said as we entered the parlor, quitting his speech right quickly as we came upon the Mister of the house.

The pleasant breeze inside all but faded when we entered that sunlit room attached to the side door. On all sides large windows sat cracked to let in the humid air that rushed through like tempests while old Mr. Kern sat beside the window with his legs crossed and a cigarette hanging from his lips, that white stick having grown soggy from the moistness in the air.

"Sir, I'd like for you ta meet my sista Bernice," Floyd said.

The stern man turned from the window to face us, his nose a pointed peak that pierced just as sharply as his eyes. From his forehead fell beads of sweat while on his nose, or those parts that were wide enough to collect moisture, clung oily drops that caused his entire face to shine. He removed his cigarette from his mouth and placed it on the tray beside him. Taking his handkerchief from his breast pocket, he wiped the sweat from his upper lip and forehead then placed it onto the arm of his chair, the smoke from his cigarette curling beside it as he watched us.

"We all like family here," the old man said in a gruff voice, hiking his pants and coughing loudly. "You good with the Missus, you good with me."

I had never encountered a man like him before — mean as the day was long yet gentle toward a negro he'd only met once and need show no kindness toward. I watched him intently, forgetting I was there to complete a job and instead studying him as if I worked at his side. Floyd nudged my shoulder, having waited long enough for my response and refusing to wait any longer. The old man turned back to the window, done with me all the same.

"Yes, sir," I finally said, noting right away the old man's inherent shortness of speech, in addition to the lack of patience that seemed to touch everyone in these parts. "I'm very grateful, sir."

Floyd led the way back inside the house, that cool sanctuary where the curtains never parted and sunlight never touched a crack on the wooden floor. Like spurs our shoes hit the floorboards with a firmness that urged us closer and closer to the Missus's upstairs quarters. She spun around as we entered, her skin the palest I'd ever seen on a person, its thinness like that of paper that was translucent and easily torn.

"Floyd!" she gasped. "You know not to be so loud inside the house."

"Yes, Miss," he said with his head low. "This here's ma sista."

"Even so," she said. "There's no need for all that noise. Gonna wake the dead, I swear."

She stared at Floyd until she was certain he understood her severity. Then, when his head sank the lowest it could go and his eyes were infantile and teary in nature, did she finally turn to me.

"Welcome," she now said kindly, her youthfulness evident in her mild stare.

She had to be at least a generation younger than Mr. Kern who appeared to be in his late sixties, his skin the thickness of rubber and the color of used cooking oil. She possessed features softer than any Mr. Kern could ever imagine, her forehead plated milk and her hair golden wheat out over the plains. She was pretty, even if slightly anomalous, her one eye offset from the other, as it could never quite follow in the right direction until she had blinked several times, and then it caught up, only to trail once more.

"This here's Miss Lula," Floyd said to me.

"It's my pleasure, Miss," I replied.

"I look forward to you carrying your share," she said distantly.

Her eyes were half closed and her gaze stuck on some item along the dust ruffle of her bed.

"Silva knows the house and will show you the rest."

And with this unusual greeting, the young woman turned away from the door and back toward the dim space where she knitted silently, making the loops without ever looking at the work of her hands.

Floyd spent that evening acquainting me with the lay of the house and its rules, as he saw them.

"There's talk of them out there," he said, his cupped hands juggling pellets he spread for the chickens. "They's sayin' all types uh nonsense. I believe them as much as the next. But I don't dare bring that foolsness in here. Mista Kern be good an' you smile an' say thank you. Here makes a good home. See it so."

With this final order, he dropped the remaining pellets and slop for the hogs. He jostled their pens and was quiet again, if only for a few seconds, before returning to his duties and leaving me to trail behind and await his next lecture.

CHAPTER 2

The abandoned skins of the cicadas were left on the trees after that summer, and the children used them to chase each other. The countryside was filled with their screams, yet the Kern Manor sat quietly in its own blockade. Along the farthest reaches, the children's laughter invaded, though never reaching the front porch. There hadn't been milk-laden breath in this home for years, the little Miss of the house passing one winter, well before I arrived, as told to me by Floyd in one of his many letters.

With no children to rear and Silva to care for the family indoors, Floyd assigned me duties in the fields with him, preparing for the cotton harvest, except for at night when Silva returned to her family and I would care for the house and the Mister and Missus during her absence.

"You're gonna need plenty of patience to deals with her," Silva told me on that first night, awaiting any bit of dissention I might have so that she might run back and inform the Missus, I was sure.

When I merely nodded, her face turned to stone.

"Just know," she said, "things that typically keep well in other homes don't keep well here."

"I keep all my things in the ice box," I replied fiercely. "Even the flour."

After this, she knew me and I knew her, and our paths rarely crossed, and if they did, it was pleasant. Still, when the Missus fell ill that September of 1966, Silva undoubtedly blamed me. For it was during that hot stretch of summer that Miss Lula fell victim to the strangest sickness I'd ever seen on a person, as in an instant she had gone from her normal position beside the curtained window with her needlework in her lap to one of pure anguish, doubled over on the floor. It had been only minutes since I'd checked on her when her cries rang out, as delicate as the mouse whose squeaks we'd hear echo throughout the halls at night. I did swear she was one of those creatures as I found her shivering helplessly like a rodent trapped inside the corner, and me with the broom in my hand.

"Miss!" I cried out. "What's the matter?"

With one hand I gathered her elbow and with the other grabbed the thinness of her waist, lifting her from the floor onto her feet. She sagged in my arms, sinking like stones in the river as she took a seat in the nearby chair.

"Bernice!" she called while lurched forward and panting.

"Yes, Miss, I'm here," I assured her.

She was whiter than at any other time since my arrival, although in her hands burned a color that swore she had made contact with the bright flesh of a beet. Floyd barged in with a look of terror, wildly throwing his arms in front of the Missus. She could barely gather the strength to shoo him away as she slumped further in her chair like some hand puppet now done for the day.

"Hold 'er up," Floyd said with his large palm against her shoulder. "Expedishously!"

Floyd had learned a new word recently: expeditiously, and he had taken to using it at any chance he got. Notwithstanding, we both lifted the Missus until she was seated upright and had slowly returned to her normal breathing. Floyd excused himself to go wash up, as he was still dirty from his work and would surely be scolded if seen inside the house or tending to the Missus in this condition.

The doctor came quickly and guided Miss Lula from her quarters into the Mister's bedroom, where he laid her down. With her nightgown removed and her feet elevated on the bed, he wrapped her sickly body in towels and bade her not to move or else she might reawaken the monster.

"Miss Lula done suffered a heatstroke," he said in serious tones. "Makes you take relief in the fact it wasn't her normal ailment, but could've been — believe me, it could. Just make sure she rests. Ain't no need of chancing it for some silly wish to get out of bed and stir about. Not in this heat."

So, this was how I would come to know her, this helpless creature, this mindless thing, this porcelain doll that we coddled and babied and wished would just fall asleep already. No detail of the doctor's delivery was lost as, when Mr. Kern later discovered his wife's impairment upon his return home, he blamed the staff for having left the doors wide open while running in and out. Silva then blamed me, her words coming across as clearly as whiskey on a sinner's breath as she repeated quite viciously, "Some things just don't keep well inside this house!"

Despite the Missus's condition, Mr. Kern spent that evening inside his parlor as usual, insisting no less, that the doctor's orders be followed scrupulously, that the Missus rest throughout the night and that I look after her for the remainder of the evening, replacing towels and retrieving water whenever she requested it.

It was during this time of my care that she woke in a fit as frightful as the first and tossed the towels from her chest and forehead, sending them falling like wet sheets on the line caught in those nasty winds that rushed over the plains.

"No, Miss!" I shouted, pinning her down as best as I could although her strength was that of ten men. "You can't."

"I hate this heat," she insisted. "If it were up to me, I'd leave right now, I tell you."

She pouted and appeared even more childish than when I first met her in that dark room, with her lily hands that had seemingly never lifted an object heavier than a spoon to her mouth and were so soft that they reminded me of wadded silk. Her tantrum was short-lived, however and thank you, Lord, for as soon as she lay back, there was a faraway look in her eyes that I had only seen once before in a man right before he died, that blankest of expressions that made her appear either lost or dumb and signified defeat. Her eyes wandered for a bit in this confused state before settling permanently on the wet towels upon the floor. She then closed her eyes and moaned.

"Guess I'd be lucky to leave this world anyhow," she said.

"Don't talk that way, Miss," I said. "It's so nice here."

"I should know," she said prudishly without ever looking up.

She didn't speak any more after that and urged me not to as well, unwilling to even fuss as I replaced the towels with fresh ones and forced more water down her throat. She lay there helpless like an infant for the remainder of the week, requiring that Silva "get this" or "move that" or "keep it down, please" or else she might be sick once more. Needless to say, Silva placed even this on me, repeating, "I don't knows how else to say it, but some things just don't keep inside this house!" Silva found need to remind me of this each time we passed. Whether it was the kitchen or outside the back stables or on that front porch and indeed along those gravel parts just beyond the back shed that led to the walking paths near the outer gates, she was a constant foe.

"Missus gonna need lots of care," she said, "and you can't go forgetting it."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Pale"
by .
Copyright © 2019 TK.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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