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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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“Paul say he goin' to make us a table and one more bench when he finish the chairs he makin' for George and Virginia.” She scooped up a spoonful of rice. “He say he have orders for tables and benches for over half the people here. Some of them payin' him money. Some givin' him a chicken or vegetables from their garden.”

Melissa picked up a piece of cornbread. “We have to make us some quilts before the cold weather hit this piece of a hut.”

Easter heard their talk as if from a distance. Jason had finished eating. He lay with his head in her lap, and as usual he'd fallen asleep. Then Sarah said something about
the meeting on Sunday, and Easter listened. Another idea began to form. She'd go to the meeting and ask the women to let her take care of their children. They could pay her, just as Paul was being paid for his carpentry.

Easter woke Jason and led him to his pallet. She kept her new idea to herself.

Between the scorching sun and keeping after Jason to do his work, Easter was worn out by the end of the week. A few times she was tempted to tell Rose about her new plan, but she remained silent.

When Sunday arrived, she started getting nervous about speaking at the meeting. Jason had pestered her into washing his britches and mending and washing his torn vest. He insisted on wearing the altered ruffled shirt. She'd also washed and mended her one dress.

Jason seemed to be carried somewhere else by the singing. His high, clear voice rang out. All Easter could think about was the meeting that was to follow their church service. Even though she didn't know what the proper amount of time for praying was, she believed that Brother Thomas prayed the longest prayer she'd ever heard.
Even God stop listenin' after all this time,
she thought. Eventually, a man shouted, “Amen, Brother. Save some for next Sunday.”

A big chorus of amens rose up to the pines. Brother Thomas wiped his forehead and pulled on the straps of his overalls. “It mighty rude to interrupt a man who speakin' to his God. Let the meeting begin, then.”

Rayford, Paul, and Elijah joined Thomas in front of the group. Easter listened attentively as people made their complaints and comments about what they wanted. She waited patiently for the right moment to speak.

“Mr. Reynolds is leavin' to run another plantation,” Thomas announced.

“Who they bringin' in here to boss us?” an old man asked.

“No one,” Thomas answered. “We tell him we can run
this place. We been runnin' it. Yankee don't know nothing about growin' cotton. We tell him we work hard and do the job like we know how to do it, as long as he don't bring no boss man over us.” Everyone was pleased.

Easter sighed.
I never get a chance to speak,
she said to herself.

Brother Thomas continued. “We tell Mr. Reynolds that we pick our own overseer from among us. And another thing, we ask him about the land again, and he say that we get the same amount of land we work.”

There was a lengthy debate over who should be chosen. Finally Rayford was picked. “Now Mr. Ray will be the boss man, holding all the keys to our kingdom here,” Brother Thomas laughed. When that was settled, the woman who'd spoken out the week before said, “It too much to work the fields, mind the babies, an' do our own cooking. We had a plantation cook where I come from.”

“Well, Mary,” Thomas said, bowing slightly in her direction, “you free now. So you does your own cooking.”

Easter had her chance now. She stood up shyly. “Excuse me, Brother Thomas, and everybody. I …” She hesitated as every head turned in her direction. “I can be the nurse for the young children and make the lunch for the mothers who want me to.”

“How can you do all that, daughter?” a woman asked her before Brother Thomas could answer.

Rose gazed at the sky, and Rayford glared at Easter.

“I could do it, ma'am. I know how to care for baby, and I know how to cook.”

Virginia said, “It usually the old women who take care of the babies.”

“And another thing,” Rayford said, “how're you going to get paid?”

Brother Thomas scanned the crowd. “This girl too young for that, but there ain't no real old woman on this place.”

“But I can do it,” Easter protested.

Everyone talked at once. Rose, biting her lips, shook her
head in Easter's direction. Then Isabel, holding Miriam, stood up. “Excuse me, please.”

Paul shushed the crowd so that his wife could speak.

“I know this girl, and she know how to handle the babies. When we run, she help me with my Miriam and she keep Miriam quiet when no one else could—not even me. I say let her do it.” Isabel then turned to Easter. “You can take care of Miriam when I in the field, and I pay you twenty-five cents a week.”

Easter smiled gratefully at Isabel. “Thank you,” she said.

“Well, maybe it ain't a bad idea, daughter, but what about this cookin'?” Mary asked.

“I cook for the women who have the babies. Make the lunch for them while they work.” Easter thought about how Mariah used to cook for the laborers in the camp.

Some of the women still looked skeptical. “Well, I don't know,” one of them mused. “I use to seein' them old nurses with the babies, not no girl young as you.”

“I know how to care for babies. I care for Jason since he was a baby. You could pay me whatever you want,” Easter blurted out quickly.

Mary spoke again. “You can mind my Charlotte. I pay you twenty-five cents a week, like Isabel is payin' you.”

Another woman stood up. “I'll let you take my two babies. I have some hens, and I been sellin' soldiers the eggs. I pay you twenty-five cents a week too. And I give you enough rice for you to fix my lunch when I workin'.”

“I do the same,” Mary called out.

Easter had to keep herself from grinning foolishly as the women agreed to let her take care of the children. Another woman rocked her baby. “I pay you with greens and yams from my garden and ten cent a week,” she said.

Easter's eyes sparkled. She wouldn't make the two dollars that the others got, but she'd be earning some money, and she'd be out of the fields. She flashed a wide smile at Rayford.

People began to talk, and Brother Thomas hushed them.
“I hope you women is happy now. Another thing I have to say is that the missionaries suppose to be sendin' teachers to all these plantation to open school for the children.”

Easter was too happy and excited to listen to any more discussions. She walked over to Rose. “You sure do know how to get what you want,” Rose said as Easter approached her.

“You not angry with me, Rose?”

“No. Why should you work in the field if you ain't workin' for your own land?”

“I make Jason do his task.”

“That be harder than pickin' cotton.”

“Jason know if he don't work he won't get pay. I let him keep the whole two dollars. He work then.”

Rayford walked over to them. “You're a clever gal, Easter. I hope you don't regret not trying to get a piece of land.”

Easter spent the rest of the day cleaning an open shed near the cabins, which had been the plantation cookhouse. She was satisfied, feeling that she'd gotten something for herself.

On Monday, instead of going into the field, Easter stood outside her hut and waited for the mothers to bring the children. There were the two infants, several three- and four-year-old boys, the girls who had been chasing butterflies, and two girls, a little older, with their baby sister.

“Good morning, Miss Easter,” the girls chorused when their mother brought them to her.

She let the children play in front of the cabin while she sat on the step and watched, as she'd seen the old nurse on the Phillips plantation do. Later on in the morning she went to the shed to prepare lunch. She put the infants on the floor near her. The other children played close by, where she could watch them while she prepared a lunch of rice and cow peas. When it was time to eat lunch, Isabel and the other young mother came to nurse their infants; afterward they took the lunch out to the fields for themselves
and the other women. Easter fed the rest of the children.

The infants were fast asleep, and Easter could tell that the older ones were tired. Carrying both babies, Easter took the children to a shady pine grove near the creek. They fell asleep under the trees. Easter was glad for the quiet and the chance to rest too. She spotted blades of sweet grass, almost the same kind of grass that she and Mariah had used to make their rugs and baskets. She pulled bunches of it out of the ground and found several palmetto fronds nearby. She wrapped a palmetto leaf around the grass. She'd make small rugs for all of the children to rest on, and baskets for the infants.

As she formed a pattern, one of the five-year-olds woke up. “What you doin', Miss Easter?”

“Thought you was asleep, Charlotte.” Easter showed her how to make the pattern, forming at that moment the pattern of their days together.

In the evening, when Rose and the others dragged in from the fields, Easter had supper prepared. Jason plopped down onto the floor as soon as he entered the cabin. “I really goin' to get two dollars?” he asked.

Sarah rubbed her feet. “Well, least we have our own cook now.”

Things were better than she'd hoped for. She got two new children when several more families came that week to live on the plantation. Since twenty-five cents seemed fair to her, she charged that amount for the new children. Even Jason was cooperating. “Anytime he slack up, I tell him he ain't gettin' his two dollars,” Rose informed her.

Everything went well the following week also, until Friday. After lunch Rose stormed over to the creek. “Easter, that Jason tell me he goin' to the outhouse ten minutes ago and he not back yet.”

“You watch the children. I find him for you.”

Easter was angry. The other boys and girls were working, and Jason was somewhere playing. She had no idea where
he was, but she walked toward the big house. Mr. Reynolds was there for inspection. A group of soldiers had come with him.

She heard laughter as she neared the house. The soldiers clapped, and one sang while another played a fife. Stepping closer to see what was happening, she spotted a little brown ankle among the long, blue-trousered legs of the soldiers.

Easter moved closer and saw Jason dancing. She pulled him by his ear, snatching him out of the circle. “Rose waitin' for you and you dancin'.” He yelled as she jerked his ear again.

“Don't do that to the little tyke, girlie,” one of the soldiers said, laughing. “Here's a penny for your dance, fella.” A few of the other soldiers threw coins at him too.

Easter pushed Jason back to the fields. “You suppose to be workin'.”

He held out his hands. “See, I made money dancing for the soldiers.”

“You supposed to be makin' money in the field,” she grumbled.

“You ain't in no field, Easter. Why I have to be in the field when I can get money dancing for the soldiers?”

“I take care of the children. That's my task. Dancing ain't no task.” Feeling a little guilty, she let go of his arm. In a way, Jason was right. She was making him do field work, but she had managed to figure out a way of not doing it herself. “Jason, all you get is a few pennies from them soldier. Now you get two whole dollars when you work with Rose.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “We leave here soon and find Obi, Jason. I promise.”

“What we do after we find Obi?”

She stared at him a moment, not knowing the answer to his question. She'd only been thinking about bringing them all together.

“We find work,” she said slowly, “and a place to live.” She rubbed his narrow shoulders. “And no field work, Jason. The most important thing for now is we find Obi.”
She kissed him impulsively on his forehead. “You go back in them fields and mind Rose.”

She watched him walk slowly back to work, feeling sorry for him and for herself.
He only a child, just want to play like other children,
she thought to herself.

The women paid Easter on Saturday when they received their wages. Easter earned one dollar and sixty cents. Maybe she'd buy a dress from the cook at the big house, who sold the homespun trousers and shifts that had been made for the slaves' once-a-year clothing allotment.

On Sunday, after their church service and meeting, one of the women said to Easter, “You been a real help to me. I been able to make over two dollars this week.”

Easter thanked the woman and tried not to look too proud as Rayford and Rose sat down next to her on a log. Rayford had a thin stick in his hand and began to make marks in the dirt.

“What you doin'?” Easter asked.

“Showing Rose how to write.” Rayford made three marks in the dirt. “You remember what I told you this letter was, Rose?”

“‘A,'” she answered.

He then drew more marks.

She pointed, dimples decorating her face when she smiled. “That's a ‘B.'”

Rayford wrote all the letters of the alphabet. “When you put these letters together you get words.” He wrote the word
tree,
making the sound of each letter.

Easter was amazed. It was like magic. Those marks she'd seen on boxes and papers had names. “Do another, Rayford,” she said. “Do my name.”

He wrote
Easter.

“Let me try,” she said excitedly, practically snatching the stick out of his hand. She slowly tried to copy the letters of her name. “I can't make them marks like you,” she said, looking at the crooked results. She handed him the stick.

He smiled slightly.

“Do Rose. How her name look?”

He wrote Rose's name.

Easter's brown, smiling eyes sparkled with excitement. “Now do Jason and then Obi and then Mariah and—”

“Easter, wait. You're too fast. You have to learn each letter first.”

BOOK: Out From This Place
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