The Reaper is a continuation of “To Mary” written by Ron Brown.
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
All along the way, other sharecroppers could be seen laboring in their rented fields; men in torn, tattered overalls, and summer hats of plaited straw; women in patched osnaburg, cotton, and “plains” dresses with aprons; their heads covered with a rainbow of colored head wraps. The children were dressed as miniature versions of their parents. Everyone could be seen, swinging hoes and chopping cotton; dripping in sweat beneath the relentless Alabama sun.
As the old wagon crested the hill, Mary gave an ear-shattering shout to the figure below, toiling tediously in their own field. The weather-beaten house; with its small smokehouse, creaky corn crib, old outhouse, battered barn, and shady old oak, with the rope swing hanging from one of its strong, gnarled limbs; all surrounded by the slate-grey soil, now being tended by Jim; looked inviting, despite the fact that it was hardly large enough to accommodate Mary’s brood.
Jim ceased his tireless striving, as the wagon rattled to a halt in front of the house. Coley, disembarked the wagon and hitched the mules to the hitching post while the rest of the rest of the rowdy remnant, dismounted in a din of disorderliness. However, the confusion and chaos, almost magically, morphed into the apotheosis of order and the definition of discipline when Mary commanded, “Unload these supplies chillun!”
Lula, however, was exempt from this chore because her beautiful baby, little Leroy, needed tending to, immediately!
After receiving a briefing from Jim, on his progress—or lack thereof (due to no fault of his own, of course)—Mary declared the day’s work done and they all retired into the small house as the sun sank low. It was getting late in the evening.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides
Ella and Lula—who was now, temporarily relieved of baby business by Mary—prepared the evenings fare, while Mary—sitting in her old rocker—gently rocked Leroy to sleep. The rhythmic creak of the rocker curiously comforting to all, as they sat about and listened as Mary lamented the lack of fairness, wrapped in the hardship of the system, that was “sharecropping”.
She recounted the events of April, a year ago, when the notorious “Cyclone of 1909” struck the Southeastern states, including Barbour County Alabama, with a fierceness that fazed even the most stout-hearted of Southerners. She recalled being “summoned” up to the “big house” by ole Marse Hatfield.
‘“Mary’, he’d said, as he pulled on that old corncob pipe and blowed out that smoke in swirlin streams, like he wuz tryin’ to shape his words with it, ‘I know you don’t have no man’—like he ain’t tried to be my “man” evry since old man Harrell let me loose—anyways he went on; ‘even though your boy Jim is nigh grown’, then he blowed more smoke ‘I’ve got a proposition fer ya. Iffen you and yo young’uns wuz to gather up all of that corn, that the storm done blowed down up d’ere in the noff field, I’ll haul it to market fer ya and sell it fer you and give ya half the proceedin’s.
Natchully I seen that as a good deal. Ya’ll remember how we labored in that noff field fom sun-up, ta sundown. My po back ached me a’plenty. Ya’ll chilluns wuz so tied that ya’ll went off to bed without eatin’ a thing.
We’uns stacked that corn in piles taller than what Jim is, so’s Marse Hatfield’s big old wagons could just roll up to the piles and we toss the corn in ‘em till day wuz full. We worked for eight days straight! When finally, we wuz done, and ole Marse’s wagons was filled, I couln’t help but smile, watching them wagons ride off towards the settin’ sun. I knowed day would be money comin’ back to us, that is, if ole Marse wuz true to his word. But he wuzn’t!
We waited weeks and months for ole Marse to send our share of the proceedin’s for the sellin’ of the corn we’d picked, but nothin’ come. Bye and bye, I went up yonder on that hill and waited six hours fo ole Marse would see me. When he finally come a stalkin’ outta his liberry, he looked at me and say in his gruff voice, ‘What chu want gal?’
I say, Marse, I come for the money from the sellin’ of the corn. Ole Marse say, wit his eyes squinched and his pipe ‘tween his teef, “What corn?” I say, the corn we picked up that wuz knocked down by the cyclone, but he jest shake his big head and say, “I don’t know nuffin’ bout no corn!” and walked away.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
See, that how dey do us Colored folks, don’t matter how light yo skin is. So, ya better have sum else goin’ fer ya!’”
As Mary finished her story, she looked around to see that everyone was asleep, except little Leroy. He was listening!
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more
Poem, “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth
…to be continued