Noon approached. The summer sun glared on the sandy Georgia road as patches of red clay fought their way to the surface. Loblolly pines hovered without motion. A thin woman plodded up a slight incline holding the hand of a small boy. Following close behind, an older boy and a young female of similar size pushed their wasted bodies between the deep ruts. None wore shoes.
The woman’s name was Mary. She wore a colorless, threadbare cotton dress that fell to her calves and possessed a long, dark-complexioned face emphasizing her Native American heritage. She could claim a pure Creek birthright or pass as a half-breed if it suited her purposes. Having never known her father, she was not certain herself.
The smallest child was John. He wore long wool pants with the cuffs turned up. Cord suspenders preventing them from falling. His shirtless, nut brown back derived from his mother’s heritage and the blistering sun.
John’s older brother, Jim, trailed close behind. Fair of skin, his ruddy countenance bore a perpetual frown, reflecting his displeasure with his lot in life. Appearing to be less than nine, he was eleven. He already had years in the fields and was his family’s most consistent and industrious worker. He wore ragged pants held up by a cord around his waist as well. His shirt had only one sleeve.
Cynthia’s face was perfectly symmetrical. She wore the only hat in the group to protect her fair skin from blisters. She had already passed puberty of sorts, but due to the lack of sustaining food and the enduring hard labor, her body maintained the profile of a boy. Her large, blue eyes peered at the world with unemotional indifference.
Leaving her with a brood of children and little means to feed and shelter them, Mary’s elderly husband, Joel, died of natural causes. One must own land or have access to the use of soil in order to grow food during this interlude following the Civil War. Following the passing of Joel during the War Between the States, carpetbaggers achieved what Sherman’s foraging soldiers could not. They presented her with papers and ordered her to take her children and leave. As a result of losing their home, Jim lost his smile and Cynthia her hope.
John spoke, “Mama.”
Mary ignored him, knowing what he was going to say.
“Mama. I’s hongry.”
Mary continued to walk.
John looked up into her eyes. He was the baby and at least for the present, his mother’s favorite. “Mama. I can’t walk no more.”
Mary never broke stride. “You hush your mouth, boy. We is all hongry, but we got to find work. You hush your mouth. If you can’t walk, we’ll tote you.”
John continued to pick up one foot and then the other.
As the desperate band trudged up a rise, a dog run house came into view set just off the road. It showed few signs of care, and backed up to cotton fields choked with weeds.
A large man named Fred sat on the porch with his feet resting on the banister. His gut strained against the leather strap he used to hold up his filthy trousers. He wore a tan-colored, unbuttoned shirt. When the approaching family arrived within shouting distance, he hollered, “You trash jest git on down the road. I ain’t got no time for the likes of you.”
Just as he knew they would, they strolled off the road and onto his property. He snarled, “Didn’t I tell you to git on out of here. Go on now.”
Mary led her family up to the house. She, momentarily, met his gaze then looked down. “My young-uns need a sip of cool well water. We looking for work, and I see that you got some cotton what needs choppin.”
“Them young-uns of your’n can’t chop no cotton. They too skinny. Couldn’t work fifteen minutes.”
Jim blurted out, “I can work. I can work all day.”
The big man raised a crock jug of corn whisky and took a generous swallow. He put his feet down and reviewed his options. “I’ll tell you what. You all work until sundown, and you can drink all the well water you want.”
Seeing that the negotiations were underway, Mary said, “Nawser. My chillin ain’t et for two days. We can’t rightly work that long without some cold corn bread and maybe a bowl of butterbeans. Then we could work.”
“Well I guess you would. Why don’t you ask for some chitlins to go with your pone and butter beans?” He scratched his un-kept beard and then his crotch. He spoke to Mary. “You got a husband, or you jest a whore?”
“I’m a widderwoman,” she countered.
Fred rose from his chair. “You young-uns go on down to the barn and find some hoes. I just might put you to work.”
Mary spoke, “My young-uns ain’t et since day before yestiddy. Could they have a few bites of corn pone and a sip of water?”
Fred kicked his chair and glared at the family. Then he disappeared into the gloom of the house. Soon he returned with half a pan of corn bread and handed it to Mary. “Now you get them young-uns filled up with pone and water and git ‘em out in the field.”
Mary broke off a piece of bread and handed it to John. He carefully took it with a shaking hand and bit off a small portion into his dry mouth. She then proceeded to divide the remainder of the bread between Jim and Cynthia. Jim’s eyes widened. “Mama, you ain’t got none.”
“Don’t you never mind. I’ll get some,” Mary said.
The children went around to the side of the house and drew a bucket of water from the well. When they had slacked their thirst, they devoured the bread. Mary drank deeply and then looked back at Fred.
Fred pressed his argument. “Y’all go on down and start choppin that cotton. Then you send that girl back up here. I got a whole pot of Crowder peas with some ham hock you can eat when you get done workin.”
Mary gazed into his eyes and said, “Nawsir. Cynthy ain’t part of no bargain.”
Fred stomped around. “I’s got to have me a woman. You want them vittels, you got to put out.”
Mary looked at the sweating male in front of her, and then she gazed back at her suffering brood. “How do I know you won’t just run us off after we do the work.”
“Well I guess you jest have to take my word on it,” drawled Fred.
“Yesser. Well, you let my chillin eat now, and we will do the work.” She hesitated for a moment then continued, “I’ll see that you get a woman.”
“Well Goddamn,” Fred snarled. He fidgeted for a minute then motioned the children back to the house. “I’ll bring them peas and some spoons out here. They is a bite of cornbread left. You might as well get your strength up too; cause you going to need it.”
After Fred found the food in his grimy kitchen and brought it outside, Mary and the children ate as much as they could, not knowing when they would eat again. When finished, Mary spoke to the children, “Y’all go on down to the barn. Git them hoes and start choppin that cotton. I’ll be on down terrectly.”
Jim started toward the barn, and then he turned back. “Mama, John can’t hoe no cotton.”
John barked, “I can to hoe. I can hoe as good as you can. Mama, when are you comin?”
“In a minute, boy. You just go on and do the best you can. Maybe you can rest in the barn til I get there.”
The children had made their way toward the barn. Fred looked at Mary and smiled, showing the black stumps of his teeth. He gestured for her to follow and trudged up the steps to the house. Mary rubbed her full stomach and moved toward the steps, shoulders slumping. Then she stopped. After a moment’s hesitation, she moved briskly around the house and called out to her children. Waving them back, she led them to the road.
Fred, half dressed, charged out of his house. “Where the hell do you think you going?”
Mary and her children continued walking down the road at a brisk pace.
“You git back here and chop that cotton. We made a bargain,” Fred screamed.
Mary said in moderate voice, “I spect I lied.”
Cynthia’s eyes lit up for an instant.