May 11, 2018

Fiction by Sharon Frame Gay: "July Clouds"

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She has been internationally published in many anthologies and magazines including BioStories, Gravel Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voice Journal, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, The Writing District, and Owl Hollow Press.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Amazon Author Central as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer.

Slave Cabin-Pixabay

July Clouds
"July clouds don't come up. They rain out where they are," Mama always said. Here in the low country of the Carolinas, summer days are hot as Hades, and nights feel like the Devil hisself is walking you home.  
My name is Phadre.  I live on this parched plantation with Mama and my sister Bo. All three of us were born and raised in the weathered one-room cabin we share. I have known nothing else. My Mama and sister work up at the house, cooking, cleaning, and serving food. I can't join them. I was born with a milky eye. It looks like an egg that hadn't cooked yet. Folks say they don't want to look at that eye when they're eatin' dinner, so I'm a field hand and been tussling with tobacco since I can remember.     
The rows of tobacco wave dark and dusty in neat lines stretching clear up to the sun. We stoop and pick, then straighten, move on to the next plant, do it all again. I  watch for snakes hiding under the leaves. Most times, they're harmless, but once in a while there's a Copperhead curled in the shade. If you get snake bit, you might thrash in your bed for days praying for the doctor. It depends on how valuable you are if they'll be sending for him. Me, I don't think I'd ever set my eye on that doctor, so I part the leaves slow, my fingers wet with fear, even though the rest of me is dry as kindling.
Every day, I'm drenched in sweat before the sun has barely risen. The sky is white, the blue boiled out by the heat. I don't wear shoes. Keep my one pair for winter.  My feet are calloused and hard as a goat, but still I feel the red clay beneath them like Satan is holding a match to my soles. I want to sink down under a tree and rest when that sun is straight overhead.  Even the crows are walking, trailing down the rows, their beaks open with thirst, hoping to peck at our sweat or spit as we work.
I looked up and saw Hutchins coming this way on his big black Tennessee Walker named General. General's so mean he'd think nothing of knocking you down with his big shoulder, then stepping right on you, or biting your arm like he was eating a cob. You'd be lucky he don't break any bones. Worse yet is the bullwhip Hutchins has coiled around the saddle horn, just waiting to strike, take a piece of your skin home for supper. When we see General, we keep our heads down and work faster.  
Life is the same here, nearly all the time. Except for Christmas day, we work in the fields, planting or harvesting. Once I got to go into town with two of the house workers, in the back of an old buckboard. Bo was ailing, so Hutchins said they should take me along. Somebody needed to go to the dry goods store and pick up a bolt of twill that the Missus had ordered. It wouldn't be fitting for the black men to go inside.   
I had never been in a store before. Stepping inside, I shrank back a little, my feet finding the worn wood floor with wobbly steps like a newborn calf. Looking up, I thought my eye was surely fooling me. I gazed around at all the fabrics and books, food and lace that lined the shelves and spilled down along the countertops.  "What would it be like," I thought, "to come in here and buy something pretty."
A white woman behind the counter with a face all stitched up like she'd eaten something sour turned her eyes to me. "What you want, girl?"
Straightening up, I mumbled "I'm Phadre from The Oaks. Missus ordered a bolt of fabric I'm supposed to fetch home for her."  
I felt all spent and flushed just saying those words out loud to a stranger. I was ashamed of my dirty dress and the clay on my feet and hung my head.  
"Just a minute. I'll go fetch it," she said and disappeared behind a curtain.
I inched my way along the counter, staring at all the colors, rows of books and spools of thread.   There was a big looking glass in the corner. That was the first time in my life I got a real hard look at my eye. It was nearly white, staring out of my face like a goblin, cloudy and wet.  My other eye got teary just looking at it. Nervous, I put my hand to my hair, all wiry and sticking out every which way, smoothed it down, then looked away before my heart clouded over.
Next to the mirror was a big jar of Horehound candy, filled to the brim. It looked like heaven seeing so much sweetness all together, like angels singing. When I drew a little closer, I saw that a piece had broken and fallen on to the floor. Lookin' around, I stooped and plucked it up, stuffed it in my mouth, never mind the dirt. It tasted like sunshine.
When I straightened back up, there was the pinched mouth lady standing right in front of me with a bolt of blue fabric. She held it out, and I took it, then turned to go.  
"Stop right there," she ordered, and I froze. She went over to the candy jar. Sweat trickled down my ribs. She opened that jar, drew out a scoop of candy, tossed them in a twist of paper and handed it to me.  
"For you," she said, then turned away.
I could hardly breathe. No white lady had ever been so kind before. I bobbed and curtsied like Bo showed me and hurried out the door before she asked for it back.
That night, I shared the candy with Mama and Bo. We laughed and talked out on our front stoop, so pleased with my bounty. It surely was a treat. Later, in the dark, I hung my head and told them about the looking glass. I told them I had seen my eye in that mirror and wondered why I was born such a sorry looking person.
Mama patted my head. "Phadre, you is very special and don't you ever forget that. God don't make mistakes. You're as beautiful as this night and your heart is pure as them stars."
Mama and Bo went to bed.  I sat out on that old stoop a bit longer, breathed in the night air. Thought about what Mama said. I looked up at the moon, a milky eye in the middle of the dark sky, and thought maybe God did okay after all.   
I am 17 years old.  An age to marry, or be sold. There's talk of war everywhere along the river, and a lot of rattling of sabers and big speeches down in town sayin' that we're gonna whup the Yankees.  Folks are getting restless, worrying about their crops and animals and wondering about the future. I don't know what they'll do with me. Marry me off or sell me. Either way I'll end up somewhere else, away from my family. It worries me nights, and nobody says much that can quiet the fretting. They're  worried too. I don't stand a chance to get a husband or do anything more than work in the fields until I die. Some days, it feels hopeless.
The next morning, the sun was ferocious. The plantation was quieter than usual. Children stayed inside, trying to keep cool. The mules stood under some trees, fighting off flies that landed on their faces, their flanks twitching. Even the dogs sprawled in the shade, panting. There was a stillness in the air, heavy and stifling. Nobody spoke on their way down to the fields. It took too much effort.  I wore an old poke bonnet to shield my eyes, and already sweat was runnin' down my face, itchy and uncomfortable.
I stopped to wipe my head with a wet rag when Big Joss came up on the other side of the row.  
He whispered, "There's a man some nights come down to the river. He's  looking to see if anybody wants to ride the train."
I stopped still for a second, then nodded as Joss moved on. Even talking about it can get you beat, or worse. I ain't seen many who run away ever come back. You never know what happens to them. Those that the big dogs find are sold off, beaten, or hanged. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it, even in all this heat. Am I brave enough to leave my mama and sister? How could a person find their way across all those miles to freedom? My mind kept rubbing up against it until it was chaffed and sore from thinking. Then I saw General bearing down on me, and I hustled up the row, guilt and fear keeping time with his steady trot.
That night, after the sun gave up, I took myself down to the river. I didn't know what to do, so I sat on a big rock and stared into the darkness. There were night sounds, singing crickets, an owl, but mostly silence. Even the river was tucked away for the night. Sitting there alone, I thought about the familiar smells and sounds of my home. I wondered if I could leave this land and head North where folks say it can be cold and harsh. There were great risks I'd have to take to get there alone, with no money or help. What if it was all a lie? What if I was running right into another slave owner up North, and end up working hard as I do here, shivering in some cold cabin, barefoot? I'd lived nowhere but this plantation. What was it like in the North?
Mama would tell me to stay. "Dance with the Devil you know, Phadre, and don't go looking for nothing more. At least you have food, a pair of shoes, and people who love you."
I'm sore afraid that I will be sold off to another plantation. If there's a war, The Oaks may not use as many field hands. Or maybe there would be a need for money. Like one of those mules under the trees, I'd have no say at all where I go next. I'm tired of having no say. Tired of worrying. I'm confused, lost and scared, but just a little hopeful, all at the same time. Through all my fretting, the night just moves ahead, moment by moment, settling into silence like winter. Finally, I came back to the cabin and tried to sleep. I was still awake when dawn streamed in through the cracks in our walls, and workers headed back to the field.  
I trekked down to that old river six times until one night there was a low voice in the thicket.  "Girl, you want to ride the train?"
My breath hitched in my chest.  I nodded. A short nod, like maybe not a nod at all, and braced for the sting of that old bullwhip of Hutchins' and hoped he wouldn't get my other eye.  
Instead, the voice said, "Come back in two day's time. That's when the moon is outta the sky.  Don't bring nothing with you. Rub your arms and legs with cow or pig shit so the dogs cain't smell you so good. Don't tell nobody." A rustle in the bushes, then silence.
The next two days were hard to bear. We climbed those rows up to the sun and back. My hands were bleeding and my back ached.  I prayed for rain even though it might ruin the crops. "Just rain on me, God" I prayed, "and let me cool off a bit." But the summer sky slapped the top of my head and the stones in the row rolled under my feet, just to make me fuss.
The next morning, Hutchins trotted up on General. "Phadre,  run on up to the garden and pick some onions, then bring them to the kitchen, ya hear?"  
I nodded and straightened, grateful to leave the field, stretch my legs. In the garden, I sampled a bite of lettuce, pulled a bunch of onions out of the ground, dusting them off on my skirt. They looked white and milky, just like my eye - staring back at me with accusations and secrets. I hid them behind my back, walked to the servant's door of the huge house and knocked.  
Mama answered, surprised.  "Phadre. What you doin' here?"  
I showed her the onions.
She took them in her hand like a bouquet of bitterness, then looked around and said,  "You best get back now. Hutchins be waiting for ya."
I looked into her eyes and said,  "I love you, Mama."
She smiled. "I love you, too, baby. Get along now. I'll  be seeing you tonight."
I turned and whispered  "Goodbye Mama," and a murder of crows followed me back along the dusty path, drinking up my tears.
That night, I lay in bed with my arms crossed over my chest like a dead person, my eyes wide open.  I heard my sister and Momma breathing, deep in sleep. I was wishing I was them. When the dark was full and the entire plantation deep in silence, I slipped from my bed and took my shoes, curled out the door like smoke, my shadow hugging the buildings down to the barn. I rubbed cow shit all over my arms and legs and set out on the moonless path towards the river.
"Where you going, Phadre?" a voice whispered in the gloom.
I stopped still, then stepped off into the bushes. Hiding behind a Loblolly Pine was Bo.
"You go on back to the cabin, Bo" I said, turning towards her in the darkness.
We touched fingers in the shadows. I reached up, found a tear on her cheek, wiped it with my thumb and put it to my lips. I'm already gone. I'm a ghost now. How can she even see me, I thought. My heart was pounding in my chest. All I could think of was General and that bullwhip and them big dogs.                                                                   
I turned and took a step into the pitch dark, grazing the bushes, leaving my scent for those dogs. I stopped, reached down, I pulled off my skirt and handed it to Bo. There I stood, lost and scared in ragged drawers with cow shit rubbed all over me.
 "Take this home with you," I whispered.  
Bo nodded, then whispered again, "Where you goin' Phadre?"
Somewhere in the darkness, there was the single cry of an owl, calling me to the river. I  wanted to turn back with Bo, settle into bed, wait for dawn and another day. But the clay beneath my feet no longer felt like home. I studied my sister's face in the starlight one last time.
"Don't you tell nobody you saw me, Bo. Don't you tell no single soul. I'm going North, where the clouds rain out."
Previously published in Crannog Magazine
~Sharon Frame Gay

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