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Pale
Author: Edward A. Farmer

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.”

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