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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections


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