Back to the Fields

Cotton Fields

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ken Lund

They take you when you’re young. The developmental years, when little, little minds are still malleable like warm copper, empty buckets for the filling, wide eyes glancing around and stubby fingers grab-grasping for everything in reach. When you’re still young enough for ghost stories to leave an impact. This is when they take you.

You step off the bus and into the shade, sunshine streaking through the leaves and falling like golden acorns in the grass. The cypresses – the oaks – they stretch high overhead, backs arched in sweet, ballet curves, their limbs draped in lumpy mats of pale, Spanish moss. You take a deep breath, itty nostrils flaring, and it’s all dew, and dirt, and rusted wrought iron.

The plantation house sits up ahead. Tall, quiet, vaulted mansions with windows propped open and the wide, French doors splayed, welcoming. The granite columns at the front, the corkscrew railing on the porches, the number of floors and windows you count – these all change each year depending on the house you visit. All but the color. Every plantation house you’ve ever seen has been white. Every single one.

They take you up to it in a neat, single file line. The docent or owner or owner’s child comes out to meet you, smiling sweetly, endeared and indulging and patiently guiding your class inside. They begin to talk, about the owners and the history and the renovations. You stop listening (the speech so glossy, so curated, it bores you to death) and look around instead.

These old houses always smell like lacquered wood and ammonia. Worn, Persian rugs and gobs of sunbaked, black-tar tobacco. You hate the Victorian-Greek-Roman styled furniture, all embroidered throw pillows and claw-footed chairs and floor-length, billowing curtains, because you can see the ghosts. The posh, poufy people who used to lived here: big-gowned Southern belles flapping their frilly fans and mustached military men poised regally by the mantle, watching you move by with dark, narrowed eyes. You shuffle past the parlors faster than all the other rooms.

You step out of the back door and into the warm, wet air. You follow the line of children through the backyard, yanking handfuls of gnat-filled moss off trees and stuffing them into your overalls.

The building you come to is small, thatched roof, usually cream-colored, a few windows and two doors with three or four slanted steps going up to them. They tell you each time that it isn’t large enough for the whole class to fit – that you’ll have to break into groups and take turns going inside. You wait at the back, flanked by your friends, inching up in the line every time a new group goes in.

The world grows quieter around you the closer you get to the house. You grow quiet with it. You know what’s coming.

When it’s finally your turn, you step inside. It’s little (like you), wooden from walls to floor to ceiling, with thin-framed beds and bunks pushed up against the walls. Sunlight seeps through cracks in the floorboards below your feet, through mud-speckled windows to your left and right, and it gives the room a stuffy sort of glow.

Slaves’ quarters, the guide says. Their tone is softer now, solemn, like the low-note bell that rings above some of the older churches you’ve been to.

The guide starts off on talks of crops and trade and humanity (words still so practiced, so proper, tip-toeing on porcelain egg shells), and you move around the room. Your palms hover whisper-soft over splintered frames, fingers brushing streaks over the window glass. Every step creaks, drops a sprinkling of something from the ceiling above that glitters in the window light. You can smell the ammonia, the dirt, the sweat, ground into the walls here. You can see the uneven, scrubbing spirals sanded into the floor.

You can hear the sobs carried on the dust.

You go outside then, and stand with the rest of the children, and you don’t say a word.

They take you to the cotton fields next, always. Dirt the color of burnt gold and pencil-thin brambles tipped off by fluffy, white poms. You’ve seen plenty of these so far, but you’ve never gotten over the color of the cotton stalks, the shade of the thorns. A deep, dark crimson.

During the winters, they look like fields of blood.

You squat at the edge of the rows, tucking a few wisps of raw cotton into your pockets alongside the moss, your eyes searching out across the ground and sweeping. The sun comes down in heavy, hot pulses, and the wind just can’t wiggle through the tree cover to get to you, so you sit there. You sweat. You stare.

You see the ghosts here, too. Kneeling hunched back over the brambles, baskets at their sides, sweat on their dark brows, cracked lips tugged down. You see the military men prowling along the edges, their starch, leather boots sunk ankle-deep in the dirt. You see the belles peering out from the windows of the house.

This, you think to yourself. I came from this.

The thought is quiet but true. So true it ties you up inside, knots and knots and knots. Seems unreal, even while you hold palmfuls of cotton in your little hands.

You resolve yourself to hold onto this. To never let these ghosts leave you, like they can never leave this field – those quarters – that house. Something so deeply, innately a part of you that you never before realized, are determined never to lose sight of again.

This. I came from this.

By: Claire Pillsbury