An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • The Change

    FOR THE SHARECROPPER I LEFT BEHIND IN '79

    Thirteen years ago,   before bulk barns and
    fifth gear diesel tractors, we rode royal blue tractors with
    tool boxes big enough   to hold a six pack on ice.
    In the one hundred, fifteen degree   summer
    heat   with air   so thick with moisture
    you drink as you breathe.
    Before the year dusters sprayed
    malathion over our clustered bodies,   perspiring
    while we primed bottom lugs,
    those ground level leaves of tobacco,
    and it clung to us with black tar so sticky we rolled
    eight inch balls off our arms at night and
    cloroxed our clothes for hours and hours.
    Before we were poisoned and
    the hospital thought we had been burned in fires,
    at least to the third degree,
    when the raw, oozing, hives that
    covered ninety-eight percent of our bodies
    from the sprays ordered by the FDA
    and spread by landowners,
    before anyone had seen
    automated machines that top and prime.
    While we topped the lavender
    blooms of many tiny flowers
    gathered into one,   gorgeous.
    By grasping hold below the petals
    with our bare, calloused, hands
    and twisting downward, quick, hard,
    only one time,   snapped them off.
    Before edgers and herbicides took
    what they call weeds,
    when we walked for days
    through thirty acres   and
    chopped them out with hoes.
    Hoes,   made long before   from wood and steel
    and sometimes (even longer ago)
    from wood and deer scapula.
    Before the bulk primers came
    and we primed all the leaves by hand,
    stooped over at the waist for the
    lower ones and through the season
    gradually   rising higher   until we stood
    and worked simultaneously,
    as married to the fields as we were to each other,
    carrying up to fifty pounds of fresh
    leaves under each arm and sewing them onto
    sticks four feet long on a looper
    under the shade of a tin-roofed barn,   made of shingle,
    and poking it up through the rafters inside
    to be caught by a hanger who
    poked it up higher in the rafters to another
    who held a higher position
    and  so  they filled the barn.
    And the leaves hung down
    like butterfly wings, though
    sometimes the color of
    luna moths,   or Carolina parakeets,   when just
    an hour ago they had been
    laid upon the old wooden
    cart trailers pulled behind
    the orange Allis-Chalmers tractor
    with huge, round fenders and only
    a screwdriver and salt in the tool box,
    picked by primers  so hot
    we would race through the rows
    to reach the twenty-five gallon
    jugs of water placed throughout
    the field to encourage   and   in attempt to
    satisfy our insatiable thirsts
    from drinking air which poured
    through our pores without breaking
    through to our need for more
    water   in the sun.
    Sun we imagined to disappear
    yet respected   for growing all things on earth
    when quenched with rains called forth
    by our song and drumming.
    Leaves, which weeks later,   would be
    taken down and the strings pulled
    like string on top of a large dog food bag
    and sheeted up into burlap sheets
    that bundled over a hundred pounds
    when we smashed down with our feet,
    but gently smashing,
    then thrown up high to
    a catcher   on a big clapboard trailer
    pulled behind two ton trucks and
    taken to market in Fuquay-Varina
    and sold to Philip Morris and
    Winston-Salem   for around   a buck a pound.
    Leaves cured to a bright leaf,
    a golden yellow with the strongest
    aroma of tobacco barn curing
    and hand grown quality
    before the encroachment of
    big business in the Reagan era
    and the slow murder of method
    from a hundred years before.
    When the loons cried out in
    laughter by the springs and
    the bass popped the surface on
    the pond, early on, next to
    the fields, before that time
    when it was unfashionable to
    transplant each individual baby plant,
    the infant tobacco we nurtured, to
    transplant those seedlings to each hill
    in the field, the space for that particular plant
    and we watched as they would grow.
    Before all of this new age, new way,
    I was a sharecropper in Willow Springs, North Carolina
    as were you   and we were proud to be Tsa la gi
    wishing for winter   so we could make camp
    at Qualla Boundary     and the Oconaluftee
    would be free of tourists and filled with snow
    and those of us who held out forever
    and had no CIBs would be home again
    with our people, while the BIA forgot to watch.
    When we still remembered before even the Europeans,
    working now shoulder to shoulder with descendants
    of their slaves they brought from Africa
    when they sold our ancestors as slaves in the Middle East,
    that then the tobacco was sacred to all of us and we
    prayed whenever we smoked and
    did not smoke for pleasure and
    I  was content and free.
    Then they came and changed things
    and you left me for a fancy white girl
    and I waited on the land
    until you brought her back
    in that brand new white Trans Am,
    purchased from our crop,     you gave her
    and left her waiting in a motel,
    the nearest one was forty miles away,
    but   near enough   for you
    and   for her    and I knew    though
    I never spoke a word to you
    about it, I knew and I kept it to
    myself to this day and time and
    I never let on
    until I left    on our anniversary.
    I drove the pick up
    down the dirt path   by the empty fields
    and rented a shack for eighty dollars,
    the one with cardboard windows
    and a Gillespie house floor design,
    with torn and faded floral paper on walls
    and linoleum so thin over rotted board
    that the floor gave if you weighed over
    a hundred pounds,    I did not.
    And with no running water of any kind,   or bathroom.
    The one at hilltop,    where I could
    see out across all the fields
    and hunt for meat when I wanted
    and find peace.
    I heard you remarried
    and went into automated farming
    and kept up with America.
    I watched all of you from the hill
    and I waited for the lavender blooms
    to return and when it was spring
    even the blooms    had turned white.
    I rolled up my bedroll,    remembering before,
    when the fields were like waves on a green ocean,
    and turned away,    away from the change
    and corruption of big business on small farms
    of traditional agricultural people,    and sharecroppers.
    Away, so that I could always   hold this concise image
    of before that    time    and it
    floods    my memory.

     

    Published in Off Season City Pipe: Work (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2005).

    Published: 14 October 2010
    © 2010 Allison Hedge Coke and Southern Spaces