March a novel, p.16

March: a novel, page 16


March: a novel

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  I don’t believe I have ever been so tired as I was those evenings, not even in the aftermath of battle. Teaching the Negroes required a vast expenditure of physical energy, as I found that if I did not talk with a high degree of animation and an almost theatrical amount of gesture and expression, I could not hold their attention. I went to my sack bed spent, yet with my mind still spinning out the thread of the next day’s instruction. I would fall asleep and dream of lessons. I had found the work I was born to do. It was this conviction, and not the fatigue or frustration of trying to teach so many at so many different levels of understanding, that I tried to communicate to my dear wife, when I scratched out some lines every night before sleep claimed me.

  How often have I wished for some kind of magic telescope by which I could look from afar at you and my girls, and see how you do, and that you could turn from time to time to look in on me, and see how my ventures prosper. If you could, what a difference you would see. The passing of a season has wrought a wondrous change to the beings whose home is Oak Landing.

  My pupils, the old and young, progress apace with their letters. They open their minds to me now, and are no longer reticent. Josiah, who still ails and has a wracking cough that breaks your heart to hear, has nevertheless become a regular chatterbox, so that I hardly can reconcile him with the sullen, silent boy who met my boat. He is now so open that I can tease him about that time. He explained that silence was born of fear and prudence. In these regions, one learned young, it seemed, that even innocent speech with a white person could be dangerous. Once, he told me, having some errand in the town, he offered a “Good day” to a white sutler, who laid open his cheek because Josiah had had the “nigger insolence” to address him.

  I paused there, and pondered whether to tell her of Zannah, the one student who could not speak freely to me. For many days, I had taken her silence for some high degree of shyness, which crippled her ability to speak up in class or in private. But as days turned to weeks, and she continued to present herself for schooling at every opportunity, I began to wonder, and finally I pressed her, in the classroom, to participate. I did this kindly, saying that every pupil’s thoughts were a valuable addition to our mutual journey of learning. Still I extracted not a word, and the others seemed uncomfortable, shifting restlessly about.

  Later, the man Jesse, who as well as being my most apt pupil was something of a natural leader among his own people, came up to me and asked for a word. He told me that Zannah did not speak because she could not. As a very young girl, she had been the victim of an outrage committed by two drunken whites from a passing steamer. When she protested their molestations, “a-screaming and a-cussing fit to rend the heavens,” as Jesse put it, one of them-held her while the other took out his pocket knife, pried open her mouth, and cut offher tongue. When the Crofts, to their credit, sought justice for this brutality, they were told that they could have no redress for “damage to their property” because the slave in question was unable to make a statement regarding the alleged assault.

  I did not write of this, for while Marmee was under no illusion as to the degree of barbarity to which slaves were subjected, I did not think the ears of my little women should be sullied with such things. So, instead of writing about inhumanity, I turned my pen to a description of the natural world:

  Spring here is not spring as we know it: the cool, wet promise of snowmelt and frozen ground yielding into mud. Here, a sudden heat falls out of the sky one day, and one breathes and moves as if deposited inside a kettle of soup. In response, vegetation shoots out of the ground with irresistible force. Just when the body wishes to slow down and give way to lassitude, it must instead accelerate, for the challenge is to keep human labor on a pace with the work of Nature, or else be overrun by the excesses of her abundance.

  If there was something unnerving about this sudden and extreme fecundity, I did not write of it. I wrote of my hopes for a great future harvest at Oak Landing, of a season which would see ripening in both its vegetable and its human product. I needed, then, to portray this green and growing time as a period only of promise. Of the blights that might come-of worms or weeds, of weather or of war-I chose to think little and say less. I felt I had no choice then but to take the time on trust.


  First Blossom

  Oak Landing, May 10, 1862

  My dear,

  There was great celebration here today. It would have been a notable day in any case, for we were at last to see the ginned and baled cotton loaded safely aboard ship and headed to market. The bales had been hauled down to the landing more than a week ago, but too much gunboat activity on the river made it impossible for a steamer to fetch them away, and every day that passed we feared a visit from the irregulars, who love nothing more than to see the labor of months set swiftly alight, or else bales slashed and spilled,into the river. But the boat came, and the cotton departed, and there was much merry making, which only became more intense with the unlooked for arrival of a second boat, the Mary Lou, which you will by now have guessed contained the cargo secured by your good offices. How I wish you and our generous donors could have seen the faces light with joy and disbelief as the kegs of molasses, the barrels of salt and herring, the soaps, the threads and yarns, the slates and copy books, the cases of dried herbs and simples, but especially the boxes of good used clothing. You would have blushed to see the women trying on skirts and prancing about like peacocks, as if these plain things were Paris gowns. I was gladdened to see such a good store of medicines, for the hot season grows increasingly unwholesome and agues are a constant threat. Every one of us had some cause for smiles and exclamations as the cargo was unloaded from the ship and the contents of each box disclosed.

  I did not write to her of the one face not smiling. Mr. Canning stood so glum throughout the whole proceeding that I could not fathom his sour mood, and finally had to ask him. He answered through tight lips, “This is an extravagant liberality. You do no kindness to the Negroes.”

  “But, Ethan,” I exclaimed (we had resorted to first names by now, not out of any affection but simply from the necessary intimacies of our proximity). “You sanctioned this. You encouraged me to seek this charity ... ”

  “Yes. But I did not expect you to succeed in this degree. These people must learn that as they are paid, so, too, must they pay in turn to satisfy their wants. Yes, yes; I sanctioned some small relief effort, since we are not yet in a position to pay their wages-but this is beyond anything I imagined. No one I know in Illinois would give quality goods like this-and in such abundance!-to Negroes, in wartime, when there are whites in want.”

  “Well, perhaps you need to widen your acquaintance in Illinois,” I replied, and walked off so as not to give way to my annoyance. Some of my female pupils were beckoning me, in any case, wanting me to admire how they looked in their new garments. In truth, the clothes were serviceable cambrics and denims that any working man or women might wear-hardly finery-and yet every garment had been carefully laundered and mended before being packed up to send. In that, I thought I saw the kind attentions of my own dear little women, led by their remarkable mother. Who but she would have thought of such details?

  If Ethan Canning thought this small easing of want would make the Negroes profligate, he need only have seen how they husbanded the most wretched tatter of a shirt or pair of kneeless pants as they exchanged their old clothes for the new ones. Even the most ragged things were folded and tucked away, no doubt to be reborn at some later date as patches in a warming quilt.

  Marmee had often remarked on the African love of color and bright pattern, for we had had to convince more than one female “package” passing through our station that a rutilant shawl was not perhaps the best choice for someone hoping to avoid notice. But in this shipment, among the workaday necessities, she had included a good number of kerchiefs made, it seemed, from retired ball gowns, in exactly the vibrant hues and coruscating fabrics that she knew , would be most appreciated.<
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  I chose one of these for Zannah, who was hanging back with her usual shyness, away to the side of the noisy, laughing group of women. I picked out a satin square in a rich turquoise, and walked it over to where she was standing. “This, I think, would look very well on you.” She took it, and within seconds had tied it in an elaborate and very fetching topknot. Jimse was at her side, as usual, and now he clamored to be lifted for a better view of his fine mama. I scooped him up, enjoying the sweet sound of his laughter. He clapped his little hands, healed now save for a cobweb of white scar tissue that threaded across his palm, and held them out to his mother, who reached for him with that tic of a swift smile and embraced him with her usual nestling caress.

  Canning had promised the Negroes a night’s liberty to engage in what he called their “savage frolics” in celebration of the cotton shipment. And celebrate they did, long into the night. The trash gangs had cleared mounds of cotton stalks from the fields, and these they used for a great bonfire. I could see the sparks of it flying high into the sky from my place near the gin house. It was a still night, so their music carried all the long way from the slave cabins. From my lonely bed of cotton seed, I listened to the singing: one clear, resonant voice, and then another, rising and falling, being answered by a rich chorus. It was full of life and rhythm, but also full of longing. The sound of it awakened my own longings and I became lonely and unaccountably sad. When I finally drifted to sleep, they were singing still. The sound of it must have entered my dreams. I thought I was being hunted down by unseen pursuers, and when they caught up with me, I woke, my heart pounding, and the piece of sacking I used for my pillow wet with tears that I did not remember having shed.

  Things changed, after that shipment. I had conducted a burial every week since my arrival-three in my second grim week, including a stillborn and the poor girl I had seen in the sick-house, aflame with childbed fever—and to this duty I did not expect to see any sudden end, for the agues increased with the warming weather. But draughts of jalap and chamomile tea, along with the slight improvements to their diet the goods had offered, worked on the bodies of the ill so that some few of the less grave cases began to experience a return of vigor.

  The larger change was with the laborers. Having seen even a small return on their effort, they set to their tasks with a new willingness. The work in the field resembled a stately procession. Plow gangs led the march, tossing the soil to either side to make a long mound. Across its top, a mule-drawn bull-tongue followed. Zannah, one of the sowers, walked behind this, hauling a bag of seed as big as she was, and casting it liberally into the fresh trench. Behind the sowers, in turn, followed a small harrow, covering the seed with rich soil. By the time the last field was sown, the earliest planted already hazed the red earth with a green mist. The rate of growth was a small miracle to one who had farmed in the cool spare soils of the North.

  And there were other little miracles. A silver candlestick replaced our potato light at dinner. Thomas, the beekeeper, had suddenly come upon it while robbing one of the hives. “Someone,” he reported, must have cleverly concealed it there from the looting rebs, and then “forgot” having done so. The candelabrum, and our grateful and nonpunitive response to its emergence, seemed to jog other memories: the porcelain dinnerware, it seemed, had been guarded well under the nests of our broody hens, while two settings—oddly, only two-from the silver service were recovered from underneath the pigs’ slop trough.

  To my relief, Canning took this with good-humored amusement. The goods, after all, were not his own, and had been “hidden for safekeeping” long before he arrived here. Although a hard and ungenerous man, he was, at heart, a fair-minded one, and he saw and was grateful for the honest effort the workers were making as the cotton plants emerged.

  , Within a fortnight from the last seed going in, the ridges were a mass of solid greenery. There were hundreds, thousands, of plants. Cotton seed being considered of no great value, it is scattered thickly-more than twenty or thirty times, I judged, above what was necessary. And so came the scrapers, the most skillful piece of manual labor I think I have ever seen. Armed only with their indelicate hoes, these surgeons of the field moved through the thickets of growth, pausing every two feet, selecting just one delicate shoot, swishing and slashing away all others. By nightfall we could look down the ranks of young cotton plants, perfectly aligned, stretching as far as the eye could see. .

  Weeding now became the daily chore, and all hands were pressed into service to keep ahead of rampant grasses, vines, and wildflowers that daily threatened to choke the favored plants out of existence. With industry and a few more weeks, the cotton began to overtop its rivals, and cast enough shade to stall their growth. All we had to do was await July and the sighting of the first bloom. I say “all” but of course there were food crops always demanding attention, chief among these the corn, of which we hoped to have a surfeit to sell. So no one idled, and I had pupils who often came to me bone weary in body, but never in spirit.

  I had become concerned about Canning, who never ceased to drive himself as relentlessly as he drove his workers. He was drawn and spare, his limp growing more pronounced day by day, so that he now resorted to a whittled stick to assist his movements up and down the rows. He was awaiting, I knew, the factor’s report and the proceeds from our sold cotton. The yield had been appallingly low compared with expectations for the property. Too much had been lost to weather and neglect. Acres that could yield two hundred pounds of lint cotton had given only a quarter as much. Still, prices were driven higher by scarcity, and Canning’s mood veered from hopefulness to despair, calculating and recalculating inputs and wages and subtracting these from his hypothetical takings. When the factor’s payment finally arrived by steamer, Canning retreated to the parlor to make a true accounting. He emerged with his ledger, the cash bag, and a wan expression.

  “Mrs. Croft will be obliged to make some economies this year,” he said with a tight and cheerless smile. “After I distribute payments to the Negroes she will have a pittance, and I...” He trailed off. I followed him outside, where he instructed the house servant Ptolemy to ring the bell to bring the laborers to muster.

  “Whatever disappointments you are feeling,” I said, keeping pace with his swift limp through the yard and along the fence line of the field beyond, “I feel obliged to remind you that this is an extraordinary day for these men and women. It would be a good thing for future relations if you were able to bring yourself to an appearance of good humor as you make these payments, if only for the sake of the next harvest relations.”

  Canning scowled. “You’re right, of course. I must.” We had reached the rise above the largest cotton field. He spread out a hand to take in the vista of promised abundance. “All my hopes lie there. This is the crop that will make me or break me.” .

  The Negroes were setting down tools and coming from all directions. We fell in with the weeding gang. The little girl Cilla, who reminded me of a dark image of my Amy, came charging along the rows crying out gleefully. When she drew up with us, panting, she reached into her wild fuzz of hair and drew out a delicate, creamypetaled flower. “’S for you, marse,” she said, suddenly shy, holding it out to Canning. “First blossom!” Canning gave a slight smile and extended a hand to give the little head a tentative pat.

  When we reached the quarters, the crowd gathered there was abuzz with low chatter. Canning took a roll call, and then, to my surprise, called upon me to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It was the kind of gesture I had not expected of him. My prayer was heartfelt. While emancipation was not yet the law of the land, I said, the people of Oak Landing were about to taste one of the fruits of liberty, and I prayed that the day of total freedom might be close at hand. The assembled cried out “Amen!” and “Praise the Lord!” and like expostulations. Then Canning set to, calling laborers by name and handing them greenbacks. Every man scraped his foot behind, and each woman dropped a curtsy as they took their wages from Canning’s hand. So
me kissed the money, others held it aloft and danced a little jig. By the time we reached the end of the disbursements, the sun was easing down.

  There was a slight stir among the men. Jesse, my best pupil, an enormous man with a voice resonant as the deep notes of a pipe organ, came forward and stood before Canning and myself, his eyes downcast. “The folk is axing me to say that we got something we wants to give you now.”

  Canning looked confused. I smiled at Jesse reassuringly and said, “That’s very kind. What is that?” He turned then and gestured to the assembled people. About half of them scattered into their cabins and came out dragging the fat hessian sacks they used as mattresses. Jesse’s son dropped the first one at his father’s feet and handed him a scythe. Jesse swept the blade against the string closure so that the roughly sewn seam split. Out foamed cotton: the best long staple the property produced. All down the row, people were dragging out similar fat mattresses.

  “When the missus left us,” Jesse said, “and the rebs got wind she done signed the Union ’tection papers, they come through an’ ordered us to set a-fire to all the bales on the place. Well, we ain’t got no choice on it. We done burned maybe a hunnerd bales of Mrs. Croft’s cotton that time. But when they wasn’t looking we threw the husks or the moss out of our bedding and stuffed in the best of the crop. I think we saved maybe six, eight bales here. Since you bin fair with us and done like you promise, we’s giving it over to you.”

  I had never seen Canning’s narrow, rodent face so full of emotion. He pulled off his glasses and worried at his eyes. I realized he was weeping, with gratitude or relief, I could not tell.

  “Thank you,” he said finally, when he had command of his voice. “Thank you all! Curfew is lifted tonight. You may celebrate as late as you wish.” Canning was turning to go when Jesse spoke up again. “The folk is axing if you gentlemens would join us for the shout,” he said. I looked at Canning. To my pleasure and relief he gave a slight smile and nodded. I answered with genuine enthusiasm. “I would be honored.”

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