~This piece previously appeared in New Letters (2009)
Editor's note: This story contains offensive language.
Field Notes: Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) interview, Lottie Eppes, 97. Riverfield, Ala. September 12, 1936.
These be hard times, sure ’nough, but they ain’t hard like what us had before Freedom come. I was born on the Teclaw Place, and ain’t far from it now as the crow fly. Ain’t never been far from it in all my days.
Marster Will wasn’t no good marster, but I heard tell a worse. Us didn’t starve, but us got hungry some. Three pounds a meat, a peck of meal, and potatoes every week ’bout all we got. A little fatback and syrup. Maybe a chicken on Sunday if us picked enough cotton.
Most old folks like me, they tell some, but they ain’t gon’ tell all what could be tole, just what white folks wants to hear. In these hard times now, black folks needs what they can get from white folks and be scared somebody gon’ take it away. Me, my day soon to come. I ain’t got no worry ’bout nothin’. What anybody gon’ take from me?
They was plenty whippings. Marster had a pole out past us Quarters, by the nigger box. If you wasn’t whipped, it was the box they put you in. All you could do was stand up, just enough room to turn ’round inside. They was some air holes so you could suck in a little breath out the heat. Cornbread made without salt, and some water, was all you got, and not much a neither. Some stayed in long as a couple months. Me, a week, twiced, for stealing a biscuit and for not picking enough cotton when I’s sick.
But them whippings was worse. I seed plenty of ’em. Never did get no whippings myself. Not like I’s talking ’bout. Just the one, the one what brought out the haints.
I jumped the broom when I’s fifteen, me and Isaiah. He was a few years older than me, but come up on the Teclaw Place and always showed me his attentions. So it felt right and natural for us to marry up. Us had two childr’n, boy and a girl. Ella, I don’t know where she be now. Lord, I pray she live and well. My boy, Joshua, he send me letters from Memphis what the postmistress read for me. I right proud he learned his letters. He got childr’n too, and grandchildr’n. I ain’t never seed ’em.
Not long before the war, Isaiah started to take him a notion. I didn’t know what it be at first. All I knowed was he real quiet at night, hardly pay me no mind, or the childr’n neither. I thought he sick, maybe sick in his mind, and he near ’bout was. One day he say, “They a cave I found ’bove the river.” He mean the Tennahpush. “Big enough for a man to hide in, it look like.” Then I knew what notion took hold a him.
I got so scared. “What you mean?” I say. He ain’t never have talked like that in all his days. Sound like a stranger. He’d been dreaming too much, what it was. And dreaming never was no good thing for one a us back then.
So he say he got it all figured. We gon’ save back some food, store it in the cave. Then he gon’ hide in there, stay long enough till everything quiet down and the patterollers and Marster Will quit looking. After a few days, he gon’ head up North. Travel at night. “What ’bout me? And the childr’n?” I say. He gon’ send for us. That what he tell me. “How?” I wants to know. He say when he free, he gon’ work and buy our freedom.
He’d done dreamed hisself out a his mind, and made me sick in mine.
He stole him some rope, and late one night, us went to the river. He tied the rope to a tree at the top a that high chalk bank and let hisself down to the hole what he’d seen. Then he put the food in and climb back up, sayin’ it a little bigger inside than what he thought.
Some days and nights go by, and he don’t say when he leavin’. “How you gon’ make enough buy our freedom?” I tell him. “Marster Will ain’t gon’ sell anyway.” He don’t say nothin’, just look way off.
Then it come. “This the night,” he say. The childr’n was sleeping and he don’t wake ’em up. We gets to the river, and he tell me not to cry. Tell me when he get down there and call back up, for me to untie the rope and hide it. He don’t want no sign pointing where he hidin’. Say the hole low enough, he can jump in the river when it time and swim ’cross.
I watch him climb down, then hear him call out, knowing it the last time I ever hear his voice. The tears come. I couldn’t a stopped ’em.
Sleep never come take me that night. I kept thinking ’bout the childr’n and what us gon’ do without they daddy. Then a notion took hold a me, one what made my spirit shake and tremble inside, enough for it to ’bout turn loose. You got to remember, I’s young still, and scared. I done what I thought I had to.
Marster Will didn’t take no dogs. I watched all the white mens leave out, and thought, Lord, Isaiah gon’ know. Didn’t matter if I were with ’em or not. He’d see me standin’ there on the riverbank even if I wasn’t there.
When they come back with him, they went straight to the pole by the nigger box. Us all had to turn out, even the childr’n. He seen me, and then he wouldn’t look my way no more. The overseer the one what done it, with Marster Will looking on. He used the long whip, the one with the nine loose braids they kept locked up ’long with the good saddles. Every time Isaiah hollered out, I hollered out with him like it me they whipping. Us made a terrible sound, like a racket not even the devil could hardly a stood.
After they cut him loose, he fell down the way a empty sack would a done. Then the mens carried him to the house. He couldn’t talk, but he wouldn’t of anyway. I knew he wouldn’t have no words to say to me.
I made the childr’n stay outside and went to washing all them cuts. Was so many you couldn’t count ’em. Look like a butcher done chopped him up. He moan some, and moan some more when I put the salve to him. The hollerin’ didn’t start back till the next day when I washed them blisters with saltwater.
He let me work on him, but he still wouldn’t talk none, not a word. And wouldn’t look at me neither. He ain’t had never acted such a way. Always’d been good to me and the childr’n, gentle-like. But him not talking, seemed every word he didn’t say make me feel worse and worse. Got to where I couldn’t eat. Didn’t want no food. Felt like I done been put in the box for a month and wouldn’t never get out ’less I died. Thought ’bout going ahead on and gettin’ myself throwed in that thing. Knew it wouldn’t be hard.
But something else come to my mind. A little after dark, and after all us done ate, I snuck to the barn and reached off what hung on the peg beside a stall. I tipped back and sent the childr’n out, and when he come home I had that little old bullwhip laid out on top the table. When he seen it, that when he finally looked at me, steady-like, studyin’ on me, like he ain’t never have seen me before. He went to shaking his head real slow and closed his eyes. I didn’t say one word but took my dress part way down and got on the floor on my hands and knees.
I waited and waited, ready for it, but he didn’t move none. “This the way it got to be,” I finally say. “Please,” I’s beggin’ him, whispering low and moanin’ from way down inside, down where my spirit done start to come loose. I’s crying, “Please, Isaiah.”
He stay still, but then I hear his footsteps. Five times he done it, and then dropped the whip from out his hand and he fell down to the floor hisself, all in a heap, like he dead. And I thought, Lord, what I done done? I never get out that nigger box now. It nailed shut on every side.
He wash them cuts and put the salve to me, but us don’t talk none. I hurt too bad, and I reckon he did too. The childr’n come in, and they seed me cleaning blood from the leather and puttin’ oil to it. They too scared to ask me no questions. Whole house stay quiet as midnight.
Next day was Sunday. Every step hurt, but I’s walkin’ to the well, trying to keep my arms still while I moved ’long with the water bucket. The sun was straight up, and I seed Isaiah standin’ between the well and the barn. Look like he waitin’ on somebody, but he don’t look exactly right. Look mostly like a shadow of hisself. I almost call out, but I knowed he ain’t left the house. That put my mind to wonderin’. Then a cloud pass over and everything a shade. That when I seed myself. I knowed it was me right off. My spirit had done turned all the way loose, and I watched who I was walk right on up to Isaiah. Us stood there a minute. Didn’t look at me atall. Then us started to walk off into the field, and when the cloud pass away and the sun come again, us was gone.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“Haints at Noon” is part of collection of stories tentatively titled Pasture Art. In it, I’ve tried to take on some forms that are new for me, though none of them would be considered experimental. For example, I wrote an earlier version of this story as a short short called “Braided Leather” from the husband’s point of view, and then decided to revisit the story from the wife’s point of view in the form a Depression-era slave narrative. Many writers and researchers traveled the South during the Depression for an organization called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Their goal was to record, in print, the stories, history, culture, and voices of former slaves. Hundreds of these have been published in various volumes; the two I’ve read are Weren’t No Good Times, edited by Horace Randall Williams, and Gabr’l Blow Sof’, edited by Alan Brown and David Taylor. The researchers in the 1930s tired to capture the dialect of the former slaves by using misspellings and dropping letters when they wrote these narratives in an attempt to accurately portray the speech and word choices they heard. Some later-day editors have cleaned up the language, but the above editors I’ve named, like many others, chose to leave the language alone, trusting the accuracy of the researchers and wanting to honor their intent.
So in writing this story, I not only attempted to capture the character and voice of a former slave, I also had to think in terms of the way a researcher would have written the account in the 1930s. In turn, I’ve used more misspellings and dropped letters than I normally would when writing dialect. I hope the note in italics that begins the story is some hint to readers as to what I’m up to. I also tried to very accurately include details of daily life that crop up in these narratives, and I tried to capture their language even when it may sometimes sound offensive to modern ears. I would strongly encourage readers to seek out the books I’ve mentioned above, or other volumes of slave narratives. They are a fascinating look at our country before the Civil War and at the lives of survivors long after that war ended.
The story’s end can be read, I suppose, as either a moment of spiritual transcendence, or as a complete spiritual loss.
ABOUT MARLIN BARTON
Marlin Barton is from the Black Belt region of Alabama. He has published two novels, the most recent of which is The Cross Garden, and two collections of short stories. His stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He teaches creative writing to juvenile offenders in a program called Writing Our Stories, and he also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.