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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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Rose traced over Rayford's letters with the stick. “This writin' make you happier than figurin' a way to get out of field work,” she said.

“She wants to write herself a pass,” Rayford commented.

“I want to write everything. M—everything that come in my head. Can I do that?”

“In time, Easter. In time.”

Chapter
Seven

Before the missionary societies had dispatched their first schoolmarms to the South … southern blacks had taken the first step to teach themselves.

Leon F. Litwack

August 1862
By the first week in August ivory-colored petals covered the fields as the cotton flowers began to bloom. In a day the ivory petals would turn pink and start falling. Several days later the cotton bolls would burst out of their pods, and the grueling picking season would begin.

Men and women hauled the marsh mud to the field so that once all of the cotton was picked, the land would be fertilized for the winter. The rest of the hands, including the older children, worked in the vegetable garden until the cotton was ready for picking.

Easter gazed at the field while sitting at her usual shady spot by the creek. The children were having their naps. Several slept on the mats she'd made, and the infants slept in the baskets she'd coiled out of the sweet grass and palmetto fronds. When they woke, they'd help her collect more grass and palmetto leaves so that she could make additional mats.

In the meantime she was glad that they were asleep so that she could practice her letters. She picked up the stick
that Julius had whittled into a sharp point at one end and scratched the letters of the alphabet in the dirt. She loved the way she could now almost form the letters as straight and pretty as Rayford did. She practiced writing her name and Rose's name and some of the words she knew:
from, house, the, is, am, tree, be, this, out, day,
and a few others.

Suddenly Jason ran over to her, his arms and legs covered with dirt. He was picking corn with the other youngsters because hauling mud was too heavy a job for them. “Easter! Easter!” he shouted.

She stood up quickly. “Not so loud. You wake the children. What happen?”

“Julius goin' to the town tomorrow to sell his corn and eggs. He say I can go with him if you say yes.”

She sighed and sat down again. “You scare me. I think something terrible happen. I guess it okay. You do all your tasks?”

“Yes. Even more than I suppose to.”

“You lyin' now, Jason.” She smiled. “Maybe I come with you tomorrow. I never been to the town.”

Easter had only left the plantation once since she'd been there. She'd accompanied Anna, Brother Thomas's wife, to the neighboring Riverview plantation. Anna went there to sell the indigo-dyed cloth she'd woven.

Jason sat down next to her, putting his arms around her neck. “Maybe we see Obi there.”

Easter rested her stick on the ground. “Yes, Jason. He may be right in the town thinkin' about us.”

“I have to tell Julius I goin' with him tomorrow.” Jason stood up and headed toward the small wooden bridge that would take him to the other side of the creek, where the field hands were shoveling the marsh mud onto oxcarts.

As the day wore on, Easter wove daydreams about finding Obi in town. The best part of the daydreams was when he held her around her waist and kissed her like he had when he left the Confederate camp.

That evening, while she cooked their usual dinner of
cow peas and rice, she told the others about her trip to town. “Me and Jason goin' with Julius.”

Melissa looked at her as if she were crazy. “Tomorrow Saturday. We suppose to be workin' on the quilt,” she reminded Easter.

“Remember you say you help me in the field tomorrow?” Rose called from outside of the hut as she cleaned off her muddy arms and legs. “I have two more cart of mud to fill, then I finish my task.”

Easter had forgotten that yesterday she'd promised to help Rose when Rose had come in tired and complaining that she could not finish her work without some help. “What about Rayford?” Easter asked. “He can't help you?”

“Rayford have he own fields to work.”

“But I finish all my tasks, so I can go,” Jason squeaked from the corner.

Easter narrowed her eyes at him. “I have to stay and do chores, and you have chores too,” she said.

“But you promise me, Easter. You bein' evil 'cause you can't go,” he shouted, tears trickling down his cheeks.

Easter wanted to cry also. Instead she shouted back, “That's right. I have to do chores and so do you. Keep sassin' me and I give you a spanking.”

“That old town ain't movin' nowhere,” Sarah said. “You go some other time.”

“Seem like Julius ought to have something to do besides go to the town,” Rose added as she entered the room. She stared at Jason. “What you cryin' like a baby for? Easter be right. You have chores to do.”

Jason stood up quickly and dashed outside as Rayford entered the room. “What's wrong with him?” Rayford asked.

Easter uncovered the three-legged iron pot in which the rice was cooking. “Food ready now,” she said. “Y'all eat. I goin' to find Jason.”

Rayford stopped her. “Wait, Easter. I have some good
news. The missionaries are sending a teacher. We're going to have a school right on this plantation.”

“That's wonderful,” Melissa said, her broad face breaking out into a large smile. “These children learn how to read and write.”

Rayford sat down on the bench. “Adults too. There'll be a night class for adults.”

“Where they goin' to have class?” Sarah asked. “In the cotton field?”

“We're going to build a schoolhouse and church in one. Mr. Reynolds said we can cut down some of those trees near the end of the fields for lumber.”

Easter's heavy mood lightened at the thought of going to school. “Guess I learn how to read and write fast now,” she said.

“Yes,” Rayford said. “I hope the missionaries send books with the teachers.” Rayford had been bringing in old newspapers when he found them, so that Easter could practice her reading.

“Let me tell Jason,” she said. She left the hut. But as she searched for Jason, she softened, and in the end she decided to let him go to town with Julius.

Easter and Rose were ankle deep in marsh mud on the other side of the creek. Easter's loathing of field work reached new depths as she threw a shovelful of mud into the oxcart, breathing in the scent of what seemed to be rotten eggs each time they lifted the mud. Rose stopped for a moment, staring at Easter's unhappy face as if she were reading her thoughts. “Least we gettin' pay,” she said.

“Rose, they ain't payin' us enough for this work.”

“Well, at least we getting' our own land, then.”

“You sound like a Rayford echo,” Easter answered sarcastically.

They finished by the afternoon. Easter bathed in the tin tub and put on her one other dress, a blue and white checked gingham purchased from the cook. “One dollar
too much to pay for that old dress. It ain't new,” Rose had said. “The cook settin' up there in the big house gettin' rich, sellin' everything the Yankee didn't take.” After Easter removed the dirty scarf from around her head and braided her thick black hair, she felt better.

The women brought the bench out of the hut and put it under a shady tree near the cabin. They sat there working steadily on the quilt. Easter felt a kind of peacefulness come over her spirit as she listened to their talk. Rose related the week's news, and Easter smiled slightly to herself, wondering how Rose could get so much information about folks' business when she was in a cotton field all day.

Easter's mind began to drift away from their talk. Once the winter came, she'd find a little more time to move around. Next Saturday she'd go to the town. She'd make sure not to promise to help with anything. She and Jason would go and look around for Obi. She'd also find out where every plantation on the island was located, and she'd visit them all in search of Obi.

They worked on the quilt until the sun started to slide behind the tops of the trees and the sound of the men's chopping stopped. “Guess Jason and Julius be along soon,” she said as she and Melissa dragged the bench back inside the cabin.

They all helped to prepare supper, and Easter expected Jason to come bursting through the door any minute with a lot of talk and excitement. It was Rayford, though, who walked in. “Jason and Julius not back yet?” he asked. “Julius probably walked in the wrong direction. This is an island, so they can't get lost,” he said reassuringly.

Jason and Julius hadn't returned when the food was ready. “We eat now and save Jason his meal,” Easter said.

Easter took her plate and sat cross-legged on Mariah's mat. “I hope Jason behave. Hope he an' Julius ain't get separated.”

Rayford took a long swallow of water. “Don't worry. The
town isn't that big,” he said. “Brother Thomas took me there last week.”

Easter detected that even though Rayford tried to sound calm, he was somewhat worried. When another hour passed and Jason and Julius still hadn't returned, Rayford walked to the door. “I'm getting Brother Thomas, and we're going to look for them.”

“I want to go too, Rayford,” Easter said.

“No. You stay here. We'll find them.”

Rayford left; in a few minutes he returned with Brother Thomas, George, Paul, and some of the other men, all carrying their shotguns and rifles. Brother Thomas's heavy frame seemed to fill up the hut. “I wish I know they was goin' to the town. I send my son, James, with them. They should never stay there after dark. These woods be dangerous. When the rich rice planters leave, them poor whites take to hidin' in the woods from the Yankee. White and colored people have some mighty wars goin' on amongst them trees and—”

“Brother,” Rayford said, cutting off Thomas's speech, “think we better get going.”

Rose put her arm around Easter's shoulders. “They'll find them.”

Easter wasn't so sure. She wanted to run outside and look for Jason herself.
Why did I let him go?
she asked herself over and over.

The men were about to leave the hut when suddenly one shouted, “Someone's comin'!”

Jason came dashing into the cabin, and Julius rushed in breathlessly behind him. They all crowded around them, everyone asking questions at once. Easter was so relieved that she collapsed weakly onto the rug, letting the tension leave her body.

Julius sat on the bench and wiped his high forehead with a handkerchief. “Let me catch a breath,” he said.

While Julius calmed himself, Jason rattled out the story. “We had a time. The town is the biggest thing I ever see.
Julius sell all he corn and egg, and I make three dollar dancin' for the Yankee soldiers.” He held out a fistful of change to show them all. “Then when we was comin' back, the hants chase us.”

Rayford looked disgusted. “Boy, there ain't no such thing as hants and ghosts.”

The other men laughed. “That weren't no ghosts you saw,” Brother Thomas said. “It was them whites livin' in the woods.”

“That's what I try to tell him,” Julius said, still gasping for breath. “Everything was fine until we head home. We in the woods way 'cross from the other side of the creek when these white men come from nowhere.”

“That's right,” Jason said. “They fly out the trees.”

“Jason, hush your foolishness,” Julius said. “The men try, but they can't catch us. We out run them.”

Brother Thomas took the floor. “Listen, y'all. First, you don't know this island like we people who been livin' here do. Second, them woods be dangerous. Even the road be dangerous. Them buckra like to catch some unsuspecting one of us. Colored people even been rob and killed.” His voice started to rise as if he were preaching. “There be runaway Rebel soldier in them woods, and I reckon even some runaway Yankee. No one better leave this plantation,” he warned gravely. “We almost lose Jason and Julius. Nobody go farther than the Riverview plantation.”

Easter's heart sank. How would she ever find Obi if she couldn't go any farther than the Riverview plantation? Maybe Brother Thomas was just making things sound worse than they really were.

“Excuse me Brother Thomas,” she said. “But is things really dangerous like you say?”

“Daughter, I warning you. Better take heed.” He paused and stared at Jason. “You too young man take heed. A lot of these buckra want to see us colored people dead. They blaming this war on us. If you roam about this place you 'bout as safe as a lamb in a lion's den.”

Chapter
Eight

The whole world opened to me when I learned to read. As soon as I understood something, I rushed back and taught it to the others at home.

Mary McLeod Bethune

May 1863
“‘Rem … re … re—' I mean, ‘Remem—mem—' Oh, Miss Grantley, I can't read this,” Easter said.

Miss Grantley was the young white teacher sent to the plantation by the Northern Missionary Society. On Sundays the teacher's pine table became an altar for either Brother Thomas or a visiting preacher.

“Come now, Easter,” Miss Grantley said. “Try again. The word is ‘remember.'”

Easter sighed loudly and clutched the Bible tightly as she stood in front of the combination classroom and church that the men on the plantation had built.

“‘Remem—remember this day in which ye came out from …'” She stared blankly at the teacher.

“Egypt,” Miss Grantley said. “Now try to read it without stumbling. Take your time.”

“‘Remember this day in which ye came out from E … E … Egypt, out of the house of bond … bondage.'”

BOOK: Out From This Place
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