By EF Sweetman
My dear Mama passed on while bringing me into this world-her one baby girl. Nine strapping boys couldn’t kill her, it was me, her tiniest baby. Nannie and Poppy came to help take care of us and run the farm when Mama died. Nannie always said Daddy was just so broken hearted, ready to give up, but I was only thing that could make him smile.
We fell on lean times, barely scraping by some years. My older brothers, Brooks, Wendell, Orly, Jeb, they scattered off to big cities or the military before I started schooling at Miss Duffay’s. The younger ones, Wylie, Emmett, Marcus, and Job left, one-by-one, just as soon as they could. Duke was the last to go, just last spring. He stayed to help with seeding. Daddy wasn’t bitter, he knewn the town felt too small, too oppressive to make anything of themselves in it, and there was little money. The boys should discover the great, wide world beyond.
Daddy and Poppy were left with the poor option of hiring help on the farm from the town, which was wanting in the quality and reliability of the work. Relief came in one Mr. Abner Clanton, a descendent of the first family to settle in these parts. The Clantons owned forty acres down by the creek. They left, because a fire destroyed their house and barn. The only structure standing was an old outbuilding. Young Mr. Clanton and his bride settled in that tumbledown shack, which was no place for habitation, let alone a home for newly wed.
The town women decided to investigate by organizing welcoming parties which were soundly rebuffed. Mrs. Clanton would not come to the door, nor would she respond to any invitations to tea and potluck, so town children were dispatched to throw rocks at the shack’s windows. When Nannie learned this, she sent Poppy to chase those kids off, and gave Abner Clanton a basket of provisions once a week.
As summer progressed, town folk whipped the rumor mill into a frenzy with new hateful stories, all of which Nannie recounted from her errands to town. Abner Clanton was a drunk, the entire Clanton clan turned to robbing and mayhem after they were run out (the tragedy of the fire was no longer the account for their leaving). The Clantons excommunicated-although they weren’t Catholics-and they moved down to Mexico to practice dark arts. Abner Clanton wasn’t a farmer at all, he was looking to rob Daddy. The gossip on Mrs. Clanton was equally dispicable: her kin were from up north, maybe England. She had extra fingers and toes. She was a working girl from Kansas City, and got Abner to marry her by poisoning his drink.
I warned Nannie to hush up about all that, and not to a word to Daddy’s ears, although honestly, the stories unnerved me. Something about the way Mr. Clanton just stood out in the middle of the field. He never took any samples, he just ran his hand along the tops of the bols. Strange.
One fine June evening Mrs. Ibrahim from came to sit out on the porch with Nannie, and tell the strangest story about Mrs. Clanton-that she only left the house at night, accompanied by, of all things, a few young children! The Clanton’s had no children, rumors were that was she was barren after an illegal procedure as a working girl. Mrs. Ibrihim asserted these “night children” weren’t normal, they were pale as ghosts with great shocks of white hair and white eyes. Then Daddy came out which shut her down before she could finish, however that tale scared Nannie, but good.
Next morning Nannie declared she would not go outside when Mr. Clanton was in the field. No amount of rationalization would bring about any change of heart, so our outdoor chores and kitchen garden got done before breakfast and after dinner. She still made up a basket, but she would not carry it to Mr. Clanton. Daddy laughed, but said he was fine with however she wanted to run her affairs, as long as Nannie promised to stop listening to trash talk that scared her from going outside. I convinced Daddy to stop making fun, Nannie was better off working outside in the cooler time of day. Besides, I won’t lie, Mr. Clanton made me feel uneasy too.
Nannie didn’t mind her promise. She kept coming home from her errands with more bizarre tales about the Clantons. Long forgotten was the real reason the family moved off their land: they left in abject poverty because of the devastating fire. No one seemed to recall that fact, because the newest talk was they poisoned the creek, unsubstantiated! No animals or humans suffered from drinking the water, which was pumped into our homes every day.
The stories grew more dark and eerie: both Mr. and Mrs. Clanton wandered around with a passel of children at night, children with white faces with white eyes, who peered into windows, and if you saw them, you would die. For whatever reason, there was a determination for people to frighten themselves senseless over the young couple. A growing number of folks who wanted to run them off their land, despite the fact that no one turned up mysteriously poisoned or dead.
As the strange summer wound down, anyone could see it was our best cotton year ever. We got visits to our porch every evening, Our guests, clutched their glasses of sweet tea while they eagle-eyed the field. These were thinly veiled reconnoiterings to feed the rumor mill about the Clantons. Daddy had a good laugh over the shenanigans, and always shooed visitors off once they got an eyeful of his beautiful field and barely a sip of tea.
It was magnificent-fluffy and white-a perfect harvest. One morning, in late August, Daddy and Mr. Clanton discussed when they would start ginning and baling. They agreed it would be soon, and shook on it. After they talked, I watched Mr. Clanton as he stood in the middle of the fluff. I could almost swear he was talking or singing to the cotton, but decided it was the heat shimmers that played on my eyes.
The next day we got rain which turned into three days of solid, soaking, heavy rain. Daddy despaired at the edge of the field, watching the stalks bend under the weight of the water. Mr. Clanton did not show up on those days, which worried Daddy even more than rain. He would not speak of it, fear that he had been duped, but I could read it on the lines of his face.
The fourth morning dawned bright and sunny. I woke to Daddy yelling from the yard, then I heard Poppy run out and begin whooping and hollering. I jumped out of bed, and ran outside, dreading to know the harvest was ruined. It was anything but. The field was picked clean, bales and bales stood in the sun, along with sacks of seed for oil and next year’s crop. After daddy yelled himself out, he was dumbstruck. There was no sign of any equipment or machinery, it looked like a massive army had been through, leaving tracks, as if they marched along the cotton stalks and did the work by hand. A double line of tracks left the field toward the creek. When Daddy got his voice back, he told me to go on in the house with Nannie, and not come out until he and Poppy returned, which terrified me more than anything that summer.
Nannie was sitting at the table. She looked petrified, but could say nothing other than, “It’s a beautiful day” “Praise heaven” “We have much to be thankful for”, which she repeated over and over. I was convinced she had a stroke, and needed medical attention, although other than looking scared and repeating herself senseless, she appeared to be healthy as a horse.
Daddy and Poppy returned within an hour, looking so shocked or amazed that I forgot tell them we needed to bring Nannie to Doctor Trout. I brought them glasses of water to help move them along to tell me what they saw.
Daddy finally spoke. Said they followed the tracks to Clanton’s place.The truck was gone, the shack was empty, abandoned, no sign of Abner or his wife. They saw that those tracks lead to town, so Daddy and Poppy followed them with growing dread. The town was quiet, too quiet. But folks were up and out, although it wasn’t the usual activity and bustle. People moved slowly and carefully. As Daddy approached, he saw they looked like they all saw some kind of ghost or horror, but otherwise looked fine. They greeted him with the same nonsense phrases, “It’s a beautiful day” and “We have much to be thankful for”
Nannie fainted on the table when she heard that. I revived her with a cool cloth, and she woke right up, but did not recover from her strange speech affliction for several weeks. It took nearly a month for her to resume regular conversation, and she continued to become tongue-tied at any attempt to malign the Clanton’s for the phenomenon of her inability to speak of certain subjects. Daddy reported the same happening in town with similar symptoms.
The profit from the cotton crop that year made us rich. I decided I to stay put instead of going off into the big world. We are very comfortable now. I guess you could call me a spinster, even at my young age, which is not a terrible thing, but I prefer to think of myself as unattached, and the paragon of restraint and civility. Things are far more interesting here now, especially if Mr. and Mrs. Clanton decide to come back. Besides, I do believe Daddy, Nannie, Poppy need me.