strong, steady, quick. But like his mama, he got no sense of
we been working together all day out in the field and around the
house. I say a few words to him and he stomps off in a huff.
Like I his enemy or mean him some harm.
been good to him. Done done as much as I could for him and his
brothers and his mama. He and his wife and his daughter now
staying in my house. And he just steps off like hell was his
companion, as if I had just punched him in his gut. Me a man
eighty some years old.
does a twenty-two-year-old boy know about life? Hard life. Real
driven work. I saw slavery time with a manís eyes and it werenít
like the history books paint it nowadays. Happy time in Dark
Town. If it were up to the Confederates Iíd seen many more
years in the era of the chain and lash. But I was spared that
outrage. Thank God . . .
sun in the pine tops, going down. I slop the hogs. They rush to
the trough in grunts.
doesn't listen to his own mind. His mama tugs at his
heartstrings. He'll be a support for her till the end. That's no
fault. But he's got another life, a wife, and chillun coming.
Why fight now his motherís battles?
* * * *
I said to him. "I got twenty-five acres here and a house.
You can have it all for a price. As you see I'm getting up in
age. I got two other chillun than you, two daughters and I got
proposal headed away from his desire. But that's his mama in his
head. She's worried him, with her loose talk, from around the
time he lost his eye from a pitchfork. Five years or about, his
mama been prodding him about his "daddy." And what his
daddy should do for him.
has a mind for the land. And that's good, he's a boy after my
own heart. Molly, Alice, and his brother Richard prefer the
quick life of the city. I've seen that life. Spent thirty years
in numerous towns and citiesóPetersburg, Norfolk,
Richmond--before Rachel, my darling wife, passed. I had no more
use for the soft life after that.
care nothing for the soil, this black swamp land. They'll sell
it back to whites as soon as they get their hands on it. They
hate backwater, country life, outhouses, and farm work. It is a
past to put out of memory, a shuffling and grinning past better
left dead. The urban now and big-time tomorrow is their cause.
can't give you the land, solely to you. I wish I could. You know
that wouldn't be right." He grew bolder and bolder in his
resentment. Flashes of anger burst from his eye.
can do as you damn well please," he says and stomps off.
* * * *
mule nudges me in the back. "How is it going girl." I
pull out a couple of ears of corn from the sack and lead her
into the stall. I pitch a few forks of pea vines in after her.
storm will pass. He's a good boy. Deep down, he's more like me
than his mother. Steady, keen, a mind for his own business. But,
like his mother, you canít tell him nothing for his own good.
Sometimes, thatís the way a man feels he has to be. A man's
got to learn in his own way, even if it be the hard
head-thumping way. I know that for a truth. I have a few scars
on my back.
legs ache. My age is finally pulling me down to that soil I've
loved all my days. I go to the shed and sit before the anvil. I
look across the fields. This was a good harvest, all around. The
Owen workers are still after the dry cotton. Not a penny to
smoke from Mary's chimney against a dusky sky.
a match, me a sixty-year old man and she twenty-five, thirty,
maybe. My God she was sweet and tart as a wild grape. Divine as
muscadine, a bluesman might say, with the light touch of a
started out innocent enough. My only interest then was my
* * * *
straighten a few nails. The hammer rings far and wide in the
twilight hour. Whip-o-wills summon the darkness. A bobwhite's
whistle brings on the quiet ringing of night.
woman slender, small, black as an African. Her teeth like the
moon and eyes the stars. Hair long enough to wrap around her
waist. Hair like her mama's. Both have Indian in them. From
Across the River, probably. Carolina Cherokee. They're a strange
was the way she walked, the way she carried herself that drew my
eye. As if she had some great weight on her head. And she must
show everyone that she had her balance. So much spunk. If she'd
been a man she'd been a Napoleon, the circumstances right. She
was a child of a new world of black freedoms. And freedom ain't
easy, as many found out.
me finish these few nails. . . . How time flies. This job's got
to get done. The metal bends under the hammer. Nice and easy.
There you go. Good as new.
* * * *
George, you all right. I brought you some food. Chicken, greens,
potatoes. Y'all did good work today, the barnís nearly full
with corn," says Ella, as she hands me the tin plate.
me a minute Ella. Sit it over on the counter," I smile at
her. A good woman, strong, intelligent. Sturdy like she grew out
of the earth. And pregnant again. Pompsie made a good choice.
He'll need her sturdiness in his frame of mind.
you doing this evening Ella. Pompsie eat yet?"
doing fine Uncle George. Naw, he got the gun and walked into the
woods. Didn't say nothing. But I ain't heard no shots. Y'all had
a sharp girl. Quiet. Sees more than she talks. Sheís got good
folks. A mother above reproach and a manly father away in
Waverly most of the time.
more than usual," I answer her. Fathers and sons can't see
eye to eye, like men. "He's bull-headed like his
go to the pump and run water over my hands, and then my face and
neck, and rinse my mouth and clear my nose. A cupful over my
head and then my forearms. I stand. Thank you Lord for this day.
Thou art a good God.
while I eat could you start a fire in that pan for me and sit
with me for awhile?" I uncover the tin pan, go to my chair,
and begin my meal. . . . Heís got everything. Youth and
a good cook to boot. "My, my, Ella! This is tasty!"
ya, Uncle George. I'm glad you like it." She gathers the
pine kindling and straw, lights the fire, places a few more dry
pieces on the flame. "That'll catch now." A woman who
knows how to work. Yeah, he's got a good one.
* * * *
Ella, sit down. How's your mama Laura and your daddy TeeJay?
all fine. Daddy's in Waverly. Hasn't been home in a couple of
weeks. Mama expects him soon."
got a good daddy, child. Hard worker. Carolina boys are leaders
of men. They know how to make money, and spend it too. Your
daddy was smart to buy those seventy-five acres from Grey Lumber
Company. Bought it and had no interest in farming. Your William
could learn much from him." I finish the vittles. I didn't
realize how hungry I was. I hands her the plate. She rises.
you, Ella." She takes the plate, pumps, and rinses it clean
and dries it with a towel. I light my pipe. She wants me to say
more. "Come sit a spell. Come sit by me."
tell her I offered Pompsie the land and house for a thousand
dollars. He could pay me so much a month until heís paid the
debt or as long as I live. He turned me down flat.
I mean him no harm. He's a good man, though a little sullen to
my taste, and his own hurt. And a damn fool." She nods, her
elbows on her knees.
Uncle George. He can be. He can be when he wanna be."
Mistress of her own house, I knew that'd catch her ear, and her
look at me. I'm an old man. I was twelve years old in Cox's
Snow. And I have two chillun living. And a grandson. All grown
making a life for themselves. This land and house is all I got.
I want to leave them all something."
listens deeply, takes in every word. But it's not the land, the
money, I explain. It's something deeper, much more than all
that. It's her soul at work. I mean his mother, Mary. How she
* * * *
never meant Mary, his mama, harm nor hurt when she became my
woman and bore me two sons. I thought of it as no light matter.
Our difference in age was before us. And maybe my damnation, me
a man of the church. It was a distance of thirty years, maybe
even another life, when I lay down with her. Oh, my God! I'm
lying if I don't allow it was good, and as wonderful as I wanted
it to be.
an old man and a young woman, time is different. With my two
sons, William and Richard, Mary
had five chillun to mind, and
poorer than a church mouse. I intended to marry her and care for
them, including Charlie Scott's boys Irvin and Joe.
didn't marry her, and there is the rub. And Pompsie's hurt. His
mama alone, in a manner, loose, with just her boys, to answer
to. . . .
full harvest moon is above the pine tops, white as a Klansman's
sheet. Ella with forearms on her thighs listens to my voice in
the darkness of the shed. I lean back in my chair and pause. The
fire crackles the wood. I light my pipe and puff a few bursts of
I don't want to keep you long." She sat up. "Iíll
make it short enough."
hesitated in my decision to marry her. But to be damned for that
seems a tad unjust. I knew better to hunger after a wild woman.
I doubt if she cared ever about me, or anything but her own
interest. . . . Some call me dirty names. I know you heard the
gossip. To them I'm shameless. A deacon at Jerusalem. Having
children on his son's woman. His grandson's mama. A woman
already with two boys by a married man. I was not a young man
urgent to throw all caution to the wind.
a long way from slavery, they say. Such low-life behavior, my
affair with Mary, they say, is an outrage. Marriage may have
made it right, respectable. But they can take to hell that
high-horse nonsense. I don't take to misery easily. . . . I too
never had a daddy except in blood. Will Rodgers, a man out for a
night of play. George Anna Graves, my mama, his available wench.
do not mind the talk so much. That can be lived with. I am deaf
in one ear and it's a fact people always gone talk. And much of
the time don't know what in the hell they talking about. They
talking for fun and spite, and mean nobody any good..
you know Ella, Mary's sons are about a year apart. How could I
marry her after Arthur came? Deacon Robinson's boy. And damn if
I was going to marry her after Percy, the pink spitting image of
Marvin Owen. I got some pride, too.
* * * *
get up from the chair and stretch my back. "Ella, I know
you need to get back to the house. Pompsie waits for his
supper." She said goodnight and marched up the hill. A
sixteen-year old woman, a child strong as a man. My fool son
doesn't know he already got much more than I ever had.
light the lamp on the shelf. Turn the wick high. I hammer a few
nails straight. Put them all in my apron. I roll the wheel into
the shed. The metal is loose in several places. I spin the
wheel. A mosquito takes a little blood. I swat it away.
so easy to slide down from one's perch. Is my life to be summed
up by the epitaph: "A reverend and a fool are two sides of
a coin." Or "Here lies a cuckold."
"Hypocrites wear strange masks." What a tangle!
the lamplight the nail goes true. The metal band tightens.
Again, I nail. Again. My work is near done. It slips me now how
Mary Lewis and her hair became entangled in my arms.
* * * *
first born named for my son Edward. Little Eddie, I call him.
Edward, my son and a city man, was too busy to stay in touch
with Mary or his son. And then he disappears. Dead as far as
anyone knows. I helped Mary with the child. I wanted to do the
right thing. It was a joy to sit with Miss Betty, Mary's mama,
and play with the child, our grandson. And Mary liked that,
respected that, admired me that I took an interest in Eddie. And
took me for a fool, I believe.
good-looking black-black woman around can make a man change his
mind, how strong his mind is or how good his religion is. It is
David's sin. I am a witness to that old saying -- A woman who
opens herself so readily to men has a charm. The Scott boy, a
married man, came after Edward's neglect of Mary. And then she
had three chillun. Charlie Scott was purely a case of
over-reaching, of a kind of spite. Mary believed she could make
the man leave his wife.
was young with what folks called an old soul. She was young
enough to be my own daughter. But I didn't feel like an old man
and I didnít feel like I robbed no cradle neither. She was a
woman beyond her years. Quite experienced in deceit. Maybe
thatís how she created her excitement. She knows men like
Marvin Owen knows customers in his store. Knows their need and
how to satisfy it. But always holding back.
* * * *
worked sixteen hours a day, even into my sixties. How many young
men could last me in the sun and the thick heat of the day? I
knew how to work and I knew how to live. What was sixty years to
me? I only began to live forty years ago when freedom came like
a whirlwind out of a blue sky.
was not dead, waiting to be buried. I still felt the fire and
urge of youth. And I responded.
more I was around the child. The more I wanted Mary
then came the moment. I felt the way a man feels when he doesn't
want to be alone. I felt edgy.
was a spring evening. Flowers were abloom, trees were in the
bud. A light breeze of freshness and the calls of birds one to
another. I invited Mary into the kitchen for tea. She knew I
wanted her. She had worked hard, though subtly, to get me to my
state of desire.
can't recall all that happened. . . . Mary
was in my arms her tongue
searching. In bed her energy and excitement . . . turning,
insinuating in my arms. She was mine. My strength matched her
passion . . . we a
tangled web of sweat, pleasure, and desire.
storm of our lovemaking shocked me and made me feel more alive
than memory. Only later, did I realize how much I needed and
wanted her. All of her.
years alone I felt good with a woman in my house. A young woman
beautiful and strong, like a morning hot coffee. To cook my meals, to clean
my house, to set things right, more often than I wanted or
needed. In sickness or health, a woman is God's blessing.
dropped by regularly, and stayed longer each time than I wanted. I began to
want more and more time alone, more time to sort things out. I
kept silent and did only what needed to be done.
* * * *
was weighed down by my choices. But the night was purple bright,
blanketed with stars. I stood there alone. My vision passed from
the sky to the light at Mary's window, back to the ground I
and Deacon Robinson. . . . And at that moment I was weak in my legs,
weaker than I had felt for a long time. Weaker than after you've
slaughtered a man for the first time. And I cried out, "O
God, hold me up."
know Mary Lewis will strut up and down in my mind and conscience,
ever and a day. Thatís my destiny and I canít get around
that. I'd never be free of her insinuations and indictments. My passion for her
was more than the lust of an old man, rather a craving for a new
a man who lives in the world, there is never enough time to set
things right. A man still has to live until God calls him home.
. . . And he should live with all the joy he can master. When Pompsie
learns that lesson he'll understand.
written about 1997
* * *
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mannís previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. Itís exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that itís
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, Iím
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
ďsouthern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.Ē We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammyís behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folksí domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own familyís needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * *
update 16 June 2008