Farming Cotton

FICTION

BY LISA GROEN BRANER

1.

Tonight the voices from the house are louder than usual. Daddy’s trying to convince Granddad of something. “You wait, it’s coming,” is all I hear before the radio blurs his voice again.

In the light of the moon, I lie in a field of tall grass not far from my grandparents’ house. The green blades sweep toward me with the night breezes and away again, tickling my face and bare chest. I smell the remains of fire, the last of the smoldering oak leaves I raked this morning. Nat “King” Cole’s voice fl oats from the living room windows, down the porch steps, around the pecan trees. Over chirping crickets, I hear Daddy singing along. He has a strong voice, as good as any singer on the radio, and a smile that can pull you from a mile away. When people see me in town, they know right away I’m his son. Spitting image, they say.

When it gets dark, I like to lie in this field. Underneath the music, crickets and conversation, I hear quiet—the kind of quiet that blows with the wind through the trees. Some people carry that kind of quiet with them, like Daddy when he’s concentrating real hard, fixing his truck or working outside. I hear it in Granddad’s house at the end of the day, when his tool belt hangs on a hook in the kitchen and Grandma sits in her soft chair.

But Daddy’s arguing again about “progress.” He can’t stop thinking about a new machine he read about in the paper, one that will harvest cotton faster than field hands. He showed it to me last week. I tried to feel his excitement. Truth is, I don’t. We harvest cotton faster than anyone in Valdosta. I don’t want a machine in my field.

“It’s a hot March night,” crackles the radio, “And you’re listening to the top songs of 1951.”

We usually come to Granddad’s at the end of the day, after our chores. Mama used to walk with us before Bailey was born. Now she stays home, feeding my baby sister and rocking her to sleep. Daddy’s fast but I keep up. Sometimes he races me to the big oak at the bend in the road. He gives me a head start, but he always catches up, laughing, glancing back as he runs by me. We stay at Granddad’s until dark, usually. But when the sun goes down, I sneak away from the adults and walk barefoot to my field. The stars shine overhead and the grass pokes between my toes.

I’m 13 years old and I’ve known this fi eld my whole life. Granddad used to play here when he was my age, and Daddy after him. I’m the fourth generation of Sterks to grow up on this farm. My great-granddad Joost came from Holland to settle here when he was a young man. He arrived by boat in Savannah not long after the Civil War. The South was poor then. Granddad says Joost worked on cotton farms, alongside freed slaves. He learned everything there was to know about the cotton trade.

Daddy says Joost was strong and tall, with huge hands. He could harvest and haul cotton to the gin faster than most men. On Sundays after church, he looked for old newspapers that had been thrown away in town. Taught himself English at night. He had a knack for raising cotton. Reading the paper, he also knew when prices were up or down. A landowner noticed how smart Joost was and asked him to manage his workers, then, after a few years, his plantation. He gave him a small house on that farm. That’s where Joost and my great-grandmother Eelke raised four children. Joost sent for Eelke in Holland when he had enough money. They saved money their whole lives to buy a farm themselves, where Granddad lives, where Daddy works. I’ll work and live here, too, one day. I like to imagine myself grown, working next to the Sterk men.

2.

The morning sun shines through my window. I’m careful getting out of bed so I don’t wake Bailey in a bassinet a few feet away from me. I hear Mama and Daddy in the kitchen talking over breakfast. A newspaper rustles and Mama asks if Daddy’s sure about something. About what? I wonder, pulling on my jeans. I hear Daddy laughing, teasing her.

“You trust me, don’t you?” he says, a smile in his voice.

I hear Mama’s chair scrape the floor as she stands up and walks to the stove. She cracks eggs into a pan before answering Daddy.

“I suppose,” she says, but her voice doesn’t match her words.

From the end of the hallway I see them. Mama stands at the stove while Daddy reads the paper. The gas fl ame fl ickers blue and gold under the skillet, and the smell of sizzling eggs stirs my stomach. She slides two fried eggs onto Daddy’s plate and sits down again. Mama rests her head on his shoulder. Her eyes stare at the newspaper, but she isn’t reading. When Mama hears my footsteps, she looks over.

“Good morning, Billy. You hungry?”

3.

Home from school, I see my father’s truck in the driveway. At 3 o’clock, he’s usually at work. I wonder why he’s here. I yell for him, dropping my books inside the front door.

“Are you here?” I call.

Of course, he yells from the kitchen. Didn’t I see his truck outside? His voice sounds fine, not sick, but he’s never home during the day. He’s usually with Granddad in the fields.

Running into the kitchen, I see Daddy sitting at the kitchen table with a pencil, ruler and compass. A big man with dark hair sits next to him, concentrating on the diagram Daddy’s sketching. When Daddy sees me, he sits up a little and smiles, telling the man I am his son, “my boy, Billy.” I pull my shoulders tall as he introduces me to Mr. Miller, who’s already too comfortable in our kitchen, like he owns a piece of it. Mr. Miller greets me in the kindest way, but that’s not good enough for me.

“How come you’re home?” I ask impatiently.

“You’re full of questions,” he answers. Daddy tells me he’s working on plans for an invention, a better way to pick cotton.

“Didn’t someone in Louisiana already invent one?”

“This machine is better.” Sure he’s a good mechanic, but Daddy’s a farmer, not an inventor. Why is Mr. Miller staring over his shoulder at his drawing? Daddy beams.

“It’ll make our lives easier,” he says. The kitchen air jumps with his excitement, with his plans for our future. The news bothers me, but I see my father smiling, and I want to trust him. Mr. Miller smiles, too.

“I’ve got to go, James,” he tells Daddy. “Why don’t you get me those drawings sometime tomorrow and we’ll go over them?” He stands up and grabs his hat from the table. His strides are long and quick. He doesn’t stop to say goodbye to me or shake Daddy’s hand before he leaves. He waves on his way out of the kitchen,  five steps ahead of Daddy who tries to see him outside. The air stirs and the screen door slams just as the 3 o’clock train wails in the distance. While Daddy watches Mr. Miller’s blue Buick pull away, I notice something steely and hopeful in his eyes.

“Mr. Miller likes my drawings,” he says, gazing at the pink dust rising from the road.

“Why does he care if we harvest our crops faster?” I ask.

“Mr. Miller’s a banker and a cotton buyer, son. Other farmers would want this machine, too. We could make a whole lot of money.”

Somehow I know Mr. Miller wasn’t thinking about our farm. I doubt he knows anything about harvesting cotton. But before I can find out, Daddy tells me he’s agreed to be Mr. Miller’s business partner.

The news slams me in the chest, heavy, like a train. He doesn’t ask me what I think. Daddy sees me as a kid, not the man who’ll eventually run the farm. I don’t like the idea of a machine doing the work. I want to tell him this, warn him about Mr. Miller, but when I open my mouth, Daddy just smiles.

4.

Bailey’s cries wake me up, just as I see my mother lift her from the crib.

“I’m sorry Billy,” she says when she hears me stir in bed. “Try to go back to sleep.”

But Bailey doesn’t stop crying. She screams louder. I still hear her even though Mama has carried her to the other side of the house. I grab the fl ashlight under my bed and shine it at the clock on my night stand. Four o’clock in the morning. An hour passes, but I don’t sleep. I think about my field so much, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I slip on my jeans and shirt and walk into the living room. Mama sleeps on the sofa with Bailey. I open the front door and close it quietly behind me.

The darkness is lifting but the moon still lights the ground. By the time I make it to the oak tree, the birds awaken and the sun streaks the sky with pink light. Granddad will be awake now too, tending to the farm before it gets too hot. There’s a light on in the kitchen, but rather than going in, I walk over and lie down in my field. The crickets have stopped chirping and the grass feels damp and cool against my neck. I watch the sky. Blue, gold, and pink colors fl oat above me. The quiet puts me to sleep. Suddenly the sky turns smoky black.

My eyelids fly open and my heart pounds. Just a dream. The sun is up, the air warm. No sign of storms. My stirring has startled a thrasher from the grass. I see its wings fl ap a few feet from me, and then open overhead on a morning draft. As the bird rises, I think about the workers’ songs that will fill the fields in a few months.

Bend down turn around,
Pick a bale of cotton.
Bend down turn around,
Pick a bale a day.
Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton,
Oh lordy, pick a bale a day.

In the fall, buses of workers will come to Valdosta. They’ll come after picking somewhere else, like Texas, where cotton matures faster. Most of the workers are black-skinned men, but sometimes there are whole families in the field—fathers, mothers and children. The laborers sing songs that fl oat across the rows when they work. I imagine my great-grandfather picking next to me when the workers sing. Their voices make the day go faster when the sun is hot.

Harvesting cotton is hard. It takes time and lots of hands to pull ripe white bolls from the stalks. Cotton grows inside a bur, and your fingers bleed if you pick it too quickly. I’ve seen men and women tie cloth to their pants to wipe the blood from their hands as they pick. Sometimes, when their hands are really raw, they’ll tie the cloth around their palms for protection. No one wants blood in the cotton. Granddad always says you have to be meticulous about it. Cotton doesn’t mature all at once. You pick a crop once, twice and sometimes three times before it’s finished. I pick cotton, too. I get out of school for the harvest.

A lot of folks in this town think they’re better than Negroes, but my family descended from these fields just like slaves. Our lives are connected. Seems to me, Georgia wouldn’t be what it is without those men and women who came here against their will. In Massachusetts, black children attend the same schools that white children do. That’s what my history teacher Mr. Sheldon told my class. He has blue eyes that burn through you when he asks a question. At a council meeting last spring, some parents wanted him fi red. They might have succeeded if Mr. Sheldon hadn’t agreed to leave politics alone and just teach history. I got an A in his class last semester.

“It’s going to happen.” Daddy’s words travel over the field. His voice startles me. It sounds urgent, like he’s trying to save someone from being hurt.

The screen door smacks. Granddad’s work boots clunk on the porch boards.

“Machines will replace them,” Daddy says.

Is he trying to persuade Granddad? Does Granddad worry about the farm, too?

Granddad promises Daddy that he trusts his mechanical skills, but his life is fine the way it is. He’s too old to go changing things now. He doesn’t see the future Daddy sees, but Daddy won’t let up. Think about Billy and his future, he says. I want to yell “No!”  I don’t want the machine any more than Granddad. But Daddy doesn’t give in. He keeps talking. Daddy’s voice grows quiet before he tells Granddad that Mr. Miller will finance the project.

They don’t know I’m here, hidden by the grass. I can almost see Daddy’s expression and the way my grandfather smiles in spite of himself. He can’t help but be proud of Daddy, even if he doesn’t agree.

5.

Lately, Daddy works with Granddad in the mornings, but in the afternoons, he drives to Savannah to meet with machinists who cast metal molds from his designs. He works on the machine whenever else he can, at all hours. Sometimes I wake up at night to the clink of Daddy’s tools in the garage. I want to be with him, so I wander in.

“Something I can do?” I say.

He bends over his workbench, staring at his designs, assembling a motor on the table in front of him. A bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling. He stands underneath it. The rest of the garage is dim. I have to be careful not to bump into things.

“Thanks, Billy,” he says, looking up. “I’ve got it handled. There’s not much to do.” He smiles at me, but I can tell by his eyes that his thoughts aren’t on me. They’re on the future. It’s mid-July, and the cotton harvest is two months away. Daddy hopes his machine will be ready in time. The workers are scheduled to arrive at our farm in mid-September. I don’t get to see him much. He leaves before I wake up in the morning, just like he always has, but instead of walking with me to the farm after dinner, he goes to work in the garage. Sometimes I sit with Mama and Bailey in the kitchen, and sometimes I walk to Granddad’s by myself. Like tonight. When he sees me, Granddad calls for me from the porch.

“I guess your dad’s still working on that machine?” he asks as I open the screen door. Grandma hands me a glass of tea and motions for me to sit in the porch
swing.

“Yes sir, he is,” I tell him as I push away from the fl oor with my feet, settling into the cushions behind me. The chain creaks.

“Oh that boy has been working so hard,” says Grandma, fanning herself with a magazine.

I stare at my shoes, sip my tea and feel a breeze blow through the porch screen. The air cools my skin. I catch Granddad studying me. He asks if Daddy’s been too busy for fun lately. I want to say how tired I am of the invention, but I don’t. Instead, I nod my head and swing higher. Tears sting the corners of my eyes, but I don’t let them fall.

My grandfather tells me there are people in this world who are born to do something different, just like his father. Joost left his wife in Holland and told her that he’d send for her once he was settled. Granddad says she didn’t get a letter from Joost for eight months. My great-grandmother wasn’t sure she would ever come to America, but she did, four years later. And look where we are now. I nod my head, like it’s a great thing, but much as I try, I can’t imagine Daddy packing a bag and sailing across the ocean to a country he’s never been to before. A place where he doesn’t even speak the language, having to find a place to work and live.

The crickets have started up, now that the sun’s gone down. Beyond the porch, the night settles on my grassy field.

“My time here’s shorter than your dad’s,” Granddad says. “I reckon he knows what he’s doing.”

My grandfather’s words sound like a betrayal, like he’s handing my field—this farm—over to Mr. Miller. Daddy’s convinced him. I want to argue with Granddad, persuade him to talk Daddy out of this plan, but the words just swim around in my brain and give me a headache. They think I don’t know anything, that I’m just a boy. After drinking my tea, I walk out to the field and lie down. Instead of listening for the wind or watching for the stars, I imagine Daddy in the garage, tinkering. In spite of myself, I hope that thing harvests cotton faster than all of the hands in Valdosta working at once. I can’t wait for it to be finished, so he can sit with us on the porch again at night.

6.

A gold September dawns over the farm, bursting white with cotton. I sit on the porch swing at my grandparents’ house, eating a bowl of oatmeal while Grandma and Mama laugh and work in the kitchen. They brew large thermoses of coffee and bake biscuits for the workers. The harvest is always exciting, and this year, more so. Daddy’s machine is ready, gleaming in a nearby fi eld. He’ll test it today for the fi rst time. Most of the cotton will still be picked by hand this year, but Daddy needs to know if his design works properly. Mr. Miller will be here Wheels rumble along the roads outside Granddad’s farm, two buses full of men, women, some children. From the porch, I notice their faces through the windows. Some are still asleep, and others are tired. In a couple hours, their singing will rise over the crops with the sun. It’s hard to imagine a harvest with machines and no people. When you’re working the land with others, especially in the morning, you can’t help but feel good, like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. As the workers step down from the buses, they help themselves to the biscuits and coffee. They carry the long cotton sacks over their shoulders, the same sacksthat they’ll fill and drag behind them in the fields. Children in diapers sometimes sit on sacks, and their parents drag them along while they work. Older children pick alongside their parents. As the laborers fan out into the fields, I walk with them. Rows of cotton stretch as far as I can see. I grasp the first soft flower, still damp with dew, and drop it intomy sack. Then I reach for the next. It will be a couple hours before my sack grows heavy. Standing with the plants, some taller than I am, I work in the quiet soil, sun and cotton.

Although I know it’s coming, the whir of a motor startles me. It’s time. I drop my sack and walk toward the sound. Along the edge of a fi eld close to Granddad’s house, the harvester whines as it works, ruining the quiet. I can no longer hear my feet as I walk, or the men who talk in rows near me. The closer I get, the louder it gets and the more I dislike it, until fi nally, I’m trembling with hate for Daddy’s invention.

“Well, boy?” yells Mr. Miller when he sees me, “What do you think?” He crosses his arms as he watches Daddy’s machine eat the cotton, his face smiling, as if he had worked on it every night over the last few months himself.

I don’t like it, but he doesn’t wait for my answer. Mr. Miller sets off running to congratulate Daddy. I stare back at the laborers in the field, heads down, moving slowly through the white rows. Hand-picked cotton is clean. Daddy’s machine picks the cotton and the burs at once. Metal spindles separate the fibers from the plant. Machine-picked cotton might be fast, but it’s not clean.

“Looks like he’s done it,” says Granddad, putting a hand on my shoulder. I can’t tell from his words if he’s proud or scared.

7.

I thought Daddy wouldn’t work late into the evenings once the harvest was over. When he comes home after work in town with Mr. Miller, he seems more tired than when he worked on the farm.

“We’re hurrying to bring this to the marketplace,” he tells Mama when he’s late for dinner one night. “It’s just like cotton. We want to be first ones to the gin. There are a few harvesters out there already and more to come. We have to find a factory that will manufacture them for us, and warehouses. Plus, we need to sell them to stores, and raise the money to do all of it.”

Daddy’s mind whirs even when he’s home. His work doesn’t end like it used to. I ask him to race me to Granddad’s one night after finishing my homework. “I can’t, Billy,” he says, closing his eyes while he lies on the couch. He holds a pad of paper with handwritten notes.

“Why not?” I demand. He opens his eyes and looks at me. Even as the words come out of my mouth, I wonder why I haven’t said them earlier. I’ve been waiting, hoping things will go back to the way they used to be. I’m not sure our farm will ever be the same again. My patience has worn too thin to keep quiet anymore.

“I’ve had a long day and I’m tired, Billy,” Daddy says sternly.

“You’re tired because you work too much,” I say, blood rising into my face, words spilling out of me. “You never do anything with me anymore. I hate Mr. Miller and your invention!” I yell, stumbling backwards toward the door.

Daddy stands up to say something, but I don’t stay. I slam the door behind me, run down the front stairs, the length of the driveway, onto the road. He doesn’t follow. I run until I see the big oak and wish Daddy was running behind me. I wonder if he could catch me now. I wonder if I’d still need a head start. Panting, I slow down and walk the rest of the way to the farm. I listen for his footsteps behind me, but they don’t come. It’s dark and the air is cold for early November. I climb the steps to my grandparents’ house, let the porch door slam behind me, and open the door to the house.

“Billy,” says Grandma, surprised to see me, “You must be freezing.” I watch for a sign that my parents have called her, but see none.

A fire leaps in the fireplace. The sudden warmth makes my face tingle.

Granddad’s at the neighbor’s, but he’ll be back in a couple minutes, she tells me. Have I eaten dinner? Would I like some hot chocolate?

Here, things never change. My grandmother treats me as she always has. Every night, she sits in the same chair, working a crossword puzzle or reading a magazine. She works every day, just like Granddad, who joins her after the sun goes down. These rhythms seem good enough to me. What difference does it make if the harvest takes three weeks instead of three days? It seems people would rather have machines do most everything. A machine can’t touch a plant or smell the rain after a thunderstorm. It will never know the earth like I do or feel the sun on its face.

I hear Grandma at the stove, pouring the milk into the pan and clicking on the burner. She’ll stir a large spoon of cocoa and sugar into the cup, and drop in two large marshmallows. I sit down on the brick hearth and stare at the blaze.

“Did you hear about the Churchwell’s barn?” she calls from the kitchen. “It burned clear to the ground last night. Tractor, all of their tools. Gone.”

“What happened?”

“No one knows. Probably arson.”

The fire curls and spits when I stir it. Barns burn sometimes. Ours could too, and the harvester with it. The dry wood would catch quickly, the flames rising above the trees. I could gather pine branches, stack them high in the middle of the barn and light them. Before long, the wood beams would catch fire, then the sides of the barn. Our containers of gasoline would explode eventually. That would be the end of it. The idea stays with me, curling around my thoughts like the fi re. A small box of matches sits on the edge of the bricks. I feel powerful slipping it into my pocket, watching the flames dance and devour the firewood.

Grandma brings me the hot chocolate, but I don’t drink much. I stand up to leave.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay a while? Granddad can’t be too much longer.”

I shake my head no and kiss her on the cheek. She grabs one of granddad’s coats for me from the closet. I pretend not to see the worry in her eyes.

8.

My mind buzzing, I walk through my cold brown fi eld and head for the barn. The matches jiggle in my pocket. Granddad’s coat sleeves hang well past my fingertips as I walk the path, worn to the earth by tractor tires and work boots. The moon shines along the sharp angles of the roof. I unzip the coat and lay it on the ground.

Standing in the doorway of the barn, I wonder if there’s enough gasoline inside to burn the future clear to the ground. I pull a match from the box and strike it. A small blaze lights up my hand. For a second, I see the work tables, Granddad’s tools hanging neatly on pegs. How many of those tools were passed down from Joost? How many years did he work to earn this land, to pass this farm down to me?

A cold wind blows, shaming me. The tiny fl ame turns to smoke. I feel the match box square in my palm, but I don’t strike another. I can’t. Shivering, I turn around. The path to my field glows in the moonlight. Enough light for me.

In addition to her first book, The Mother’s Book of Well-Being, Lisa Groen Braner’s writing has been featured on public radio, in literary and popular magazines, and in the anthology The Fourth Genre. For more information about Lisa or her work as a writing coach, visit her Web site at book-dreams.com.

Editor’s Note: This story was a semifinalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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