Excerpt from Ashes on the Water

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Saturday, April 1, 1854, Caledonia Plantation, Mardalwil County, Alabama:

    It was cloudy that morning; it would be raining by that afternoon.
    Inside Highland House, in the office off the piano parlor, Jonis,
                25, house foreman. Personal servant.   Well made. 
                Prime young man.  Reads & ciphers

waited for  Mack to come with the head  count of Bottom hands so he could fill out the morning report;  what was what in the quarters.  Which of the hands was sick?  Who had committed infractions yesterday?   Amount of progress made toward the coming crop —to enter in the official log of Caledonia’s daybook for Goodsire to read on his return.  Instead of attending to other matters of plantation business Jonis fingered the arrowhead in his pocket as he read.
    In the drape-shrouded parlor Sophy’s boy baby, Cretia’s Gal’s charge, crawled in random patterns through the thick legs of the pianoforte.  Cretia's Gal,
                -12, active, intelligent, ladies' maid, accustomed to cleaning,
                  waiting on table, sewing.
sat straight back at M’s Esme’s shiny instrument.
     The child's dark fingers choreographed by the echoing in her head of the French man's music from last night, danced in capering patterns above keys.  Untutored, she did not know the melody's names, origins, nor their forms.   Being under strict & direct orders from M’s she had never touched the piano keys.
     Her eyes closed; her fingers rollicked in the air in an exact replica of the motifs reflecting in her mind.      
    Sophy's boy baby, Cretia's Gal's charge & inattentive audience, crawled in random patterns through the piano’s legs.
    At the rear of Hilltop House, Caledonia’ Plantations central structure,
through the kitchen house, through the kitchen garden, or kailyaird, & a few yards east of the cemetery & the clump of pecan trees in the yard, was Cretia,
                -smart, doctress, is an first rate & trustworthy
                nurse for the sick, a seamstress, excellent general
                house servant.  Washer & ironer, excelent lace work. 
                Tailoress.  Good ladies maid.  27 years of age. 
                Accustomed to the culture of the Caribbean.
                Speaks French.    
       In the formal garden outside the front of Highland House the boy, Jube,
                      Can not speak, good house boy,
                      excellent gardener 13 years old
                      well made, of yellowish complexion-
was being severely supervised by M’s Esme as he raked & pruned.   Some of the flowers had begun to bloom in January.  In February & March he had cut back the winter damaged perennials & weeded.  Now was the fertilizing of camellias & azaleas, inspecting for insects on the camellias, hollies & roses, the pinching back the tips of new shoots, planting of gladiolus & lilies.

    No, no, she said, stepping forward onto the edge of the roses, & pointing with her switch, There.  There.  He went where directed, did as ordered. 
    -Dumb lazy billie, his Mistress complained, -idle as a cat.  Enough to make her weep.
    West of Highland House, in the field, the hands hollered as they worked.  Beneath their feet the chopped & plowed-under stalks left from last season’s cotton harvest were sharp, the lumps of up-turned earth were cool, & the worms, whole or plow blade severed were fat & slimy.
    It was dark in the distance as it was overhead.  McCready the overseer, or, the grieve, as Goodsire called him, was anxious to get in the last day of plowing before the rain in the low rolling clouds began.   As in the first days of every platting season, McCready thought, the field hands hollered like a sea of churning & whirring storm-stirred Atlantic brine.
    From the fields pass the slave quarters in the bottom, & the cornfields & pig pens, where Odum
                 Negro man, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, small frame, dark complexion, walks with a limp.
slopped the several hundred hogs.
    In the workers' quarters in the bottom, Red Stick, the only one not listed in the Caledonia records, struck a deal.
    Pass the pasture the cattle lulling & mewling low in their throats awaiting the rain, & the mechanics work house up the hill where Ashe,
                30, fine smiddie, blacksmith, carpenter.  Prime man. Has a weak left eye from a spark.   
& Caesar
                33. mechanic, blaksmith assistant.  Prime man. 
                4 fingers on left hand.
his helper, built the forge fire.  Pass the adjacent building where Eph, the carpenter or Goodsire’s Scottish word, jyner,
                -25 years old, well built, about five feet
                8 or 9 inches high.  Prime man.  Skiled carpenter.
                Scars about his face neck body& back
                much marked occasioned by the whip.
sharpened his tools, & continuing southwest back pass the smokehouse, the dairy, & hen house & up the to the highest point on the plantation, Highland House.
     Cretia daydreaming waves of gold, river water, herself looking at herself, & a child & an old man on either end of a hickory stick.
The first part, the color part, she thought, was because it was time for the yellow-patched migrating warblers to pass through heading north.  The rest of it she could not reckon.  Did not try.
     Cretia’s Gal’s fingers danced above the keys as Sophy’s boy baby cooed & crawled.                                                       
    Jonis waited; wondering, an uneasy feeling about Moon’s being late. 
    -Enough to make me weep, M’s Esme complained.  Worthless boy, rather than doing what he's told its like he was studying a sprout—reading & reckoning the reason of its blooming.
     The hands, in the endless cycle of another day too slow & work too long & hard, felt their joints & bones balk at acceptance of the rote drudgery.  They hollered as they toiled under the watch of McCready, the man who worked for the man who had the papers on their life & labor, labor & life, & Beasley, McCready’s deputy.  Beasley, short little bastard carried a long skint sapling stunk like hell & raised a whelp the size of a rope.  Like a well-trained herding dog, working opposite McCready, circling, keeping an eye on them for the least little signs of slacking. 
    Knowing neither of the men cared any more about them than a duck cared for a turnip, or than they cared for the work or the men.  So to keep from falling down weeping, or taking off running, or standing there & losing their minds, they did their best to combat the senseless reality of it by doing what McCready & Bealsey heard only as hollering.   
     McCready had taught them a song, a sea shanty, Patty, Get Back, from his before Caladonia days on the sea.
     Adieu my fair young maidens,
     Thousand times adieu
      We must bid goodbye to the Holy Ground,
     The place that we love true

      When they sang it he barely recognized the tune the way they stacked voice on voice & drug it out and broke it up.  

      We’ll sail the salt seas ov’r
      But return again for sure
      To seek the girls that wait for us,
      In the Holy Ground once more.

      It unnerved him but pleased him, because, he thought, the louder a hand hollered the more work he would do.
    The fire in Asch's coal forge glowed red orange in the gray dawn’s light of the workhouse.  Caledonia’s three main mechanics Asch, Caesar & Eph, shouted to each other & laughed back & forth between their adjacent workshops.       
     Eph, sharpening his awl, sat at the grinding wheel patting his foot in a steady rhythm against the pedal that made the stone wheel go around.  The sparks leapt from the high pitched whining union of blade & wet rotating stone.  As he tested its sharpness with his callused thumb he heard Ashe's hammer ring.  Satisfied with the ax’s edge Eph stood.  He moved to the doorway & looked up at the clouds.