I’d stood up too quickly, machete in hand, dizzied by a head rush, sweat raining down my sides. This dream woman, I tell you, she wore a long skirt and floated like a ghost between the rows, her blond tresses shimmering as she danced over wide green fronds.
There hadn’t been a message from her. She was the message, and made of the windswept ashy light that I’d sometimes see misting the late dawn across hollows in Cullowhee Mountain. That silver patina of allure gleaming out of pines so frail and translucent, and ever so temporal – like the past, like any moment of certainty. Here one minute, gone the next.
I stood in that field and I gasped at my dream woman. She’d locked me within the pearly shine of her lips. I embraced her, and the two of us gleamed like smooth pebbles under a creek’s surface. She was water for my thirst, shaping damp beads of speech I couldn’t shake off my lips.
Wiping my brow, sucking in deep breaths, I resumed bending over to swing my machete again. I struck the tobacco stalk two inches off the black earth, perfect swipe, one clean gash into a stalk that snapped like green bamboo crackling as I tilted it, the whole of the plant, breaking it free at the gash, lifting, wrestling with it, dodging all leaves as they swiped across my face, tar burning in my eyes, sweat stinging as I turned and twisted until I’d mastered the plant. They were six feet tall in some cases, no small bit of vegetation. Tangle on, I told myself. No end to this ‘backer until Harlan’s field is cleared. Harlan and his brother, based in Franklin, handled more allotments than anyone else in Macon County. I took it as an honor to be in their employ. Jolene saw things differently, but there was more to her leaving me. There just had to be.
Impossible, I thought, but my dream woman had come. I’d seen her happening. I felt a kind of thrill, but I was so tired it hurt just to keep arms at my sides.
I drove the plant sideways over a conical steel tip fixed to a wooden stake, watching that green stalk splinter but not break completely. That is the trick. Get it on the stake but do not destroy its stalk. Then push the stalk down all the way, and think repeatedly of the word: impaled.
I tilted the plant in the same direction as the others, already impaled, four of them on each tall wooden stake. Four was enough. They’d be left one after another, each like a little pup tent to dry in the field for a few days until their leaves started to yellow, or else it looked like rain. Then we’d hang ‘em in the trucks and spend longs days moving them to Harlan’s barns to cure.
I removed the conical steel tip, and dropped it like a tin-man’s cap on to the next stake. Harlan got a rise out of seeing a field done, and so did I, with all that staked tobacco tilted like leafy tents stretched row after row as far as the eye could see. All the little nubby cut stalks like busted teeth in the loam. All the money Harlan was due to make once his harvest was cured, baled, sold at Winston-Salem, and stored for three years in Kentucky warehouses.
The trick was to establish a rhythm, economical use of the body, control of breathing, slow air singing a humid opera in my nostrils, a tarry tobacco reek, so heavy, so piquant at times. I took that conical tip off one stake and fit it on to another, row after row: plants, stalks, leaves and wooden stakes. Nothing soft, easy, or slick about it.
Hot heathen labor in the restless sun. What early settlers bought slaves for, shipping them over, whipping them into the earth, making their fortunes on a leaf that couldn’t be eaten.
All kinds of rabbit-crazy thinking went on in my head under that raving sun.
I sucked in another breath, kept my rhythm, and when I needed a jolt, I looked for that woman again. I didn’t always see her. Sometimes, I saw stray mist – or was it smoke? I saw it rising and falling from breezes that pushed the verdant fronds; lifting them so high that for a moment they’d whiten with the horizon in front of me, the whole field buzzing like a white-hot insect. Yellow winds shifting gently, syrupy, sweat boiling from my forehead, and the leaves, those fronds so lovely to watch, white, yellow, silverfish at times – and such a lovely word: fronds. I kept mumbling it. Frond, fronds, fronds….
Sharp yellows and greens. That taut tobacco aroma lacing hot heavy winds that lay like bath waters in a sea of soft green, bottle-green, and then turning on a dime into limeade green and flashing brilliant velveteen green peppered with high occasional golden yellows.
My head, my head – full of purple prose for my laborer’s brain, nothing edited about it. Jolene, Jolene, why’d you leave me? I’m coming to you, Jolene. I’m having visions. Once this is done, once I’m free and paid, we’ll be together. I’ll be riding a Greyhound due north to Manhattan to be with you. I miss you like I’m a character out of an old song.
Dang. This heathen work. Gonna kill me by the time I’m thirty.
But my vision wasn’t of Jolene. She was a blonde. What did that mean? Not now, I thought. Not on this day when I had finally made up my mind.
I saw the two of us thirty years on. Nope. She wasn’t Jolene. She was someone else, the next woman I was destined to meet. I knew this, somehow, just as I knew my days of heathen work were not over.
At least, I wouldn’t realize my fear of dying as a lonely bachelor. Was I insane? I knew nothing. I was driven by hope, delusions, wishful thinking. Just shut up, I told myself, and keep chopping ‘backer.
Once sure that conical steel tip was secure on the next stake, I bent again and swung back my arm like old John Henry with hammer. I brought down my machete with aim and purpose true. Thwack. Nothing more satisfying than learning to use an effective tool well. Thwack. A machete, if anything, can be effective, and that ain’t no lie. Thwack.
All this work, I told myself, the way I hold this long heavy blade, the way I grip its handle – it’s all making a man of me. All my fathers – and I had many – would be proud.
After so much time in tobacco fields, I never took a cigarette for granted, no matter how harmful they were to one’s lungs. I needed one and so I lit up and damn near lost my lighter in my slippery tar-black sweaty hands. If I ran north to Jolene, none of those urban sophisticates in Manhattan would want to hear about this kind of work, this life here, and how beautiful it was to take a smoke break and look around. To smell the soil. To feel the cutting breeze as it swept in to carve away the settled heavier winds and heat. To see over the tops of all those fronds how the distant hills remained still. My eyes followed them. They rose and dipped and moment by moment changed their soft benign colors.
Better I kept my mouth shut once I got up there. Let Jolene do the talking.
Nothing was impossible. I could handle Manhattan. A smile glowed across my face as I thought of how Jolene was going to pleasure me once I got there.
I heard someone yelling. I couldn’t see him. He was yelling at me to hurry up, to keep moving, to get it done. It was Harlan’s nephew, all right, no surprise there.
I put out my cigarette and looked around for my blonde. She wasn’t there. She’d left me.
I saw a snake move toward my boot. Startled, panting, I jerked away. Eyeballed that skinny thing, gripped my machete and raised it. I let it sing down through the air, sounding a chink when it hit soft dirt, cleaving that snake in half.
Wasn’t no copperhead or eastern rattler, that’s all I knew. I watched its cleaved rope of a corpse as it twitched. Maybe wasn’t no snake, at all. Maybe it was some part of my soul. In the fields, the mind turns to gruel. Jungle instinct takes over. More than once I’d started babbling.
Jolene, Jolene, what’s a poor boy like me gonna do in that big city?
Running on fumes, I resumed getting my rows done. I ignored Harlan’s bellowing nephew. I knew I had to change myself. Nothing was gonna stop me.