I am tall, thin, and worn. I do my job, don’t cause no trouble and hope to get outta this life as quickly and painlessly as possible. Best to do that—get through, forget the past, and hope for something better on the other side.
I pick apples. It’s the main thing all us women do on the plantation. I carry baskets full of ’em, as many as I can lift, and believe me, after doing this my whole life, I can lift quite a heft of ’em. We got reds, greens, golden yellows—and more varietals than I can say. They’re sweet, these apples, and crunchy. The best of ’em are still very hard, and there’s nothin’ more satisfying than that deep, sharp bite into a good one that sends juice dribbling down your chin, and the sweet into the roots of your teeth. They’re cheap, for a treat, and the children love ’em, they do. I don’t eat apples anymore, though. I don’t ever want to taste that sweet, drippy juice again.
Our house is fulla kids—my own, and a few extra that live with us in our shed ’cause their own mamas and daddies aren’t around here anymore. Myself, I have six daughters, all grown, and some with their own babies now. Had a son once.
My girls, they work pretty hard. Not as hard as my Momma had us workin, but the white folks that owned us was tougher then. Now, the younger Milstones, they much nicer, but it don’t matter anymore. Not much does. So the girls, they keep up with the cleaning and laundry and stuff, and the garden work too. My Alice and Ellie and Celia, they pick apples with me. My youngest, Dorrie, she can’t pick ’cause she lame in the leg, so she stay with the grandkids in the house and supervise.
There was a time once when I didn’t mind my work. We was a community, all of us, and a family. Not a regular family, but one with lots of mamas, more kids than we could count, and some daddies here and there. We was treated pretty good—better’n lotsa others I heard of. I was one a the luckier ones—I had a husband who was around, a hard worker the owners always liked, and daddy to my children too. Since we was kids, Robby and me were together—grew up on the Milstone plantation, and always knew we was for each other. Robby and Penny, Penny and Robby. He was always a favorite—took special care of the Milstone’s horses, and often went with them when they traveled. Years ago, Robby got sent out to fight in the war. He was gone a long time, but when he came back, everything was changed. He didn’t deserve it. Wasn’t his fault, and he was more of a man about it than anyone should ever have to be. Took care a me, a all of us. Neither of us gonna be right again. Now we just goin’ through day by day, working the field and pickin’ the apples and watching the kids raisin’ up each other.
A few nights back, I saw my favorite picture in my head. I was dreamin’ bout a tornado. I never seen a real tornado, but they come to me in my dreams a lot. There was a big, white, swirly cloud that swept around me and lifted me up into the sky. It was like cotton, airy but strong too. I wasn’t scared—I don’t scare anymore. I wanted to be in the cloud—it was soft and peaceful. Inside the cloud I could rest. I felt like it was taking me somewhere I knew, somewhere I’d been before, but couldn’t put a name on it. The cloud was warm and smelled like buttered toast with cinnamon. I liked it there—I felt unslaved—and I coulda stayed there forever, but after spinning me around awhile, the cloud lowered me back down to the ground and placed me gently in the dirt. When I woke up, I was in my bed, same as I left it before, and that’s when I realized it was just a dream again. The disappointment is deep. Never feels like a dream, though. Feels familiar. After awhile, I try to let go of the dream, but there’s something about that tornado cloud that keeps sticking in my mind. Must be the craziness that’s set into me. I like it better in the craziness, and sometimes I go there on purpose—just close my eyes and shut out everything around me. Just go inside Penny’s head, away from all the people and noise and reminders of everything that happens in this life. When I gotta be here, with my eyes open, I’m like a block of cement—scratchy and hard and gray.
I didn’t used to be so hard. Used to be too soft, soft enough that I got myself in a kinda trouble that ruined me forever. Many years ago now. Hard to believe it was even in the same life as this. Maybe it wasn’t. Picking apples in the orchards, sunny day, autumn. Bees dancing around us, not stinging, just buzzing around the same pungent sweetness, like we and the bees and the orchards and the sun and sky were all part of the same thing. We was laughing, the other women and my older girls and I, and gathering and lifting those apple baskets high on our heads, feeling the sun across the bridges of our noses and the sweat dripping down between our shoulder blades and pooling into the small of our backs. We sang a song to keep us moving forward through the fields, something about good work and the Lord and feeling alive.
From behind, the other women and I heard footsteps marching like a faraway drummer, soft crunches against the dry grass in the fields. Even hearing the footsteps, I still felt happy, the last happy day. Felt young, even though I wasn’t, never been young. Turned around to see the soldiers, still with the song on my lips, and saw the devil looking at me. I didn’t recognize him at first, and now I can’t get him outta my mind’s eye. White devil, skinny, pale, empty eyes that turned to the right and left, scanning across all us women until he stopped at me. He stared hard, looked my body up and down like I didn’t even have a face, then turned to the soldier to his side, pointed right at me. Smiled a horrible devil grin with nasty teeth. I knew I was in trouble—that once he chose me, my life was over.
It was maybe a few times or maybe dozens, I’m not sure. It didn’t matter, ’cause I had nothing to do with it, and couldn’t have stopped it anyway. The different times all ran together in my mind, except once in the middle of the winter when there was snow everywhere—snow under me, and around, and cold, cold, icy inbetween my legs, icy in my heart. I remember how it hurt, the sun glinting off the brilliant snow and into my eyes so I shut them hard, squeezed my eyes so tight that I saw colors behind them, bursts of light. That was the last time, because the devil-soldier went back to war after that.
I was grateful, so grateful when the devil left. I prayed that Robby would never know—he was away fighting then—and we could push it away, pretend it didn’t happen. But history is bigger than we are. Our little stories are nothing compared to the bigger one. Maybe history comes first, and we just follow it, figuring it out as we go. I can’t even tell you whether who I am came before what happened, or if what happened made me who I am. When I think on it too much, my mind swirls like the cotton tornado and I have to let it go because it’s just too much feeling.
My belly was round to the point of bursting when Robby came back, and when he looked at me, I saw tears in his eyes. We didn’t speak at all—he knew what this meant—and he just held me and rubbed my strange belly. I pulled back—I didn’t deserve my Robby any more. But I let him hold onto me, and brought as much of myself to him as I could find. It was only a matter of weeks until the baby came, faster and easier than any of the girls had been. He started out pale but deepened like a perfectly aged birch, darkening in the summer months to shades nearer ours. We named him Robert but called him Birch because of the different colors we could see in him.
Robby loved that boy. He was gentle with him, like he was borrowed and not his for always. He had always talked to the girls in a gruff sort of way, brushing them off like flies when they got on his nerves, but Birch brought out Robby’s soft side. Woulda thought it’d be different, this boy who came from someone else’s seed, but Robby knew there was something magical in Birch. Sometimes I’d see Robby looking at him, stroking the side of his round baby face, and I’d see the awe he had for this baby boy. Now Robby’s like an old man, and after all that happened, I don’t see his softness too much, but if someone mentions Birch, Robby’s face opens up in a way that breaks my heart.
Robby got sent away again. It was autumn, and Birch was four years old. We was gathering apples together—he never left my side if he could help it—and we had baskets slung over our arms. Birch had found a grove just a small ways down from the main orchard that he called his own. The trees were closer together there than in the rest of the fields and they had a wilderness feel to them—stray branches and leaves tripped us up between the rows. We’d been there several times that week, and Birch proclaimed those apples the best in all the fields.
We was headed home an hour before the sun would set. The breeze picked up when the sun went down, and the sweat from working cooled to a chill on our goose-pimpled skin. Birch was getting tired—his four-year-old legs pumped twice as hard to keep stride with mine—and we looked forward to dinner and bed. Across the way I noticed a few bodies approaching. I knew they were white from the jerk in their steps—no glide to their movements, the way we walked—and the stiffness in their shoulders told me they were soldiers. Devil was back.
“Whatchya got there, Whore?” Devil was talking to me but looking at Birch. Vomit rose in my mouth and I swallowed it back.
“Just the usual apples, Sir. I’m sure you can see that.” I stared right into his face, and waited for him shift his gaze. Eventually his pale eyes lifted, bore into mine, and I looked down, shocked at my own impudence.
“Handsome boy, there. What’s your name, Boy?”
I felt Birch’s hand grip mine. “Birch, Sir.”
“Birch?” Devil laughed. “What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s my pet name, Sir. I’m Robert, after my father, but called Birch for my color.”
From beneath my lashes I looked up to see the soldiers slapping Devil on the back, teasing him. His laugh sounded like the single bark of an angry German Shepherd.
“Where’d you get those apples, Birch?” Spittle flew from Devil’s mouth as he spoke my son’s name, and I leaned back an inch or two.
“Those fields there,” Birch pointed to the distant orchard. “Milstone’s fields.”
Devil looked across the way to the fields and stared at them for a time that stretched into forever before turning back.
“Those fields aren’t Milstone’s, Boy.” He stepped closer to Birch and stood over him, casting a shadow. “They’re mine.” He took an apple out of Birch’s basket and tossed it to the soldiers behind him. “Don’t your mama teach you it’s wrong to steal?”
I heard my quivering voice before I knew I had spoken. “We didn’t know they was your—”
“Shut your mouth, Whore.”
I remembered the icy snow beneath me and shut my mouth. The Devil turned away and his soldiers followed. Birch and I stood motionless until they was out of sight.
Days passed. Every hour was a thousand minutes, and every day an eternity. I imagined I saw Devil everywhere. I forgot to breathe, I lost my way from chore to chore. Fear became my companion. I wouldn’t allow Birch out of my sight—took him with me even to the outhouse and made him turn away ‘til I finished my business. He asked me again and again about the white soldier who said we took his apples.
“We did wrong, Mama? Those were his apples? We made him mad, Mama.”
I shushed him, rocked him in my lap and stroked his beautiful head. I’d watch him nod off to sleep, the tips of his eyelashes golden against caramel skin. He radiated heat like it was stored up in his little body. I slept sitting up with him in my lap, praying while I was awake and even in my sleep that Devil would stay away.
The night before my life changed forever, Birch came to me in my sleep. His face was round as a perfect apple and his eyes were clear and wise. Birch had eyes the color of pine needles on evergreen trees—a shade you only see in mixed people. He floated above my reach, smiling deeply at me and nodding. It’s okay, Mama, he said over and over again. I wanted to stop him from speaking—his words sent terror through me. It will all work out. It’s not your fault. It will be okay. I jerked awake, horrified, and pulled his body closer to me. His warm body was the only thing that brought me any peace.
It was late afternoon when the doom started to settle on me. Birch and I walked from the orchards through the oldest Milstone fields. The apples were almost done—bruised and rotting ones had fallen during the night, and we picked those up to feed them to the livestock. It was going to be a long winter. The chill hit the air before its season. Steadily, Birch and I made our way in silence toward the large oak where we often rested. I could hear our feet padding softly against the dying leaves.
The oak stood tall and strong against the gray sky. As we drew closer, we could see the shapes of three men leaning against its trunk. One of them came to us—a huge man I didn’t recognize—and without words lifted Birch right off the ground. He ignored me, even as I started to scream and grab for my son, and headed toward the tree. I ran after him, but my slaps and scratches against his enormous arms and trunk did nothing. Then we were at the tree, Devil showing his horrid teeth like a rabid dog.
“Stand there, Whore. It’s time for some schoolin’. You need to learn about stealing things that ain’t yours.”
The third man must have walked around me without my noticing, because my hands were pinned behind me and my back was tight against his knee so I couldn’t move, not even to turn side to side. I think I struggled—I hope, dear God, I struggled with all the power in me, but I failed. Birch, my sweet Birch, was pulled up into that tree with a dirty, yellow rope around his precious, sweet neck. The huge man held him still, and the noose was loose. Birch nodded at me just enough that I could see it was a peaceful, calm face, the same face that came to me the night before. It’s alright, Mama. We will see each other soon. It’s not your fault. We will be fine.
“Nooooo!” I heard my voice echo against the wide open sky, a call that went on forever and ever, as far and wide as the fields. Birch kept focused on me, searching for my face, whispering silently to me.
“Birch!” I tore as hard as I could against the evil man who held me.
“Shut up, Whore.” The Devil stepped in front of me, blocking my view of Birch, and hissed. “Shut up and watch. It’s time to learn your lesson.”
I heard the snap of the rope and yanked my head to the side, leaning against my restraints like a wild mare.
I didn’t feel the slap of the Devil’s hand against my face but the print stayed for days. That’s what Robby told me. In the days after, everything got jumbled in my mind. Saw fields and faces and apples and rope all swaying. Saw Birch’s face in my mind, head spinning on the rope, not attached to a body, just spinning. Felt my arms pinned back behind me, worthless. I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t save my Birch. My baby. Tears ran ’til there wasn’t any more to cry. I just closed my eyes, let myself go crazy.
Long time passed. Months, I guess. All I could do was shut down, silence the pain. Eventually, I got back to work—even crazies gotta work.
Now every day’s the same. Every day, every month, every year. I live in the crazy. Time don’t make no sense no more, and I couldn’t care if it did. Every morning I drag my worn body out to the fields to pick apples. Every day I yearn for nighttime when I can go to bed, hoping to see the tornado cloud again. It’s coming more often now, and feels more like home each time. Sometimes feels more real than what really real.
Last night I thought I saw Birch in the clouds again. He wasn’t four anymore—he was a great, tall boy with a kind smile and a hand reaching out to hold me. His pine-green eyes told me I was on my way. I can only pray he’s right.
“Silenced” was published in The MacGuffin, which is not available online.