Saturday, May 23, 2009

Minding Chickens

This chapter used to introduce my female protagonist, Seona (pronounced Sho-nuh). Several edits ago I took it out, even though I still like it a lot. Why'd I take it out? Well, mainly because all it did was introduce Seona. As well as a few other characters, and the setting, and gave a little backstory and a sense of her present circumstances... right before the last line, when her status quo changes. I was starting the story over again from her POV, about 5 chapters in, which halted the novel's forward momentum.

What I've chosen to do instead is present the same elements in different ways, scattered throughout scenes that are pushing the story forward. Aside from the prologue, which is very brief and in her voice, we now meet Seona through my male protag Ian's eyes. I think it's better that way.

Copyright 2009 Lori L. Benton
All Rights Reserved

Minding Chickens

9 September, 1793

I was minding chickens the day Master Hugh’s nephew rode back north with his daddy, and I was minding chickens the day he rode up again. The tobacco had been suckered and we were days from cutting, which meant near every morning the mistress told me save the washing and hoeing for later and go with Esther out into those long green rows to pick the worms off the leaves.

Some folk let turkeys at their tobacco. Master Hugh didn’t keep turkeys so we made do with chickens—and me and Esther and a couple of the field hands to tend the worms the chickens couldn’t reach.

“Eee-ew! Seona, will you look at this nasty thing?”

The crinkly leaf I’d been peering under sprang back as I straightened and rubbed my back. Some of the plants topped my head, but it took a deal of stooping to be sure the chickens didn’t miss any worms down low. We’d hear about it come cutting time if the worms ruined those precious leaves. Master Hugh didn’t hold with beating his slaves but the overseer, Jackson Dawes, had been known to take a lash to a back on the sly. Never to me or Mama, but it was a thing to bear in mind. Worse than having to bite the heads off worms we overlooked.

I was made to do that once, the year Lucinda Prescott Bell became Miz Lucinda Cameron and took the running of the big house away from Mama. The overseer found two worms I missed. He shoved them under my nose and made me choke them down.

Choke I did. I lost my supper and those worms directly on the overseer’s boots. Master Hugh got word of it—from Mama, I expect—and it never happened again. I was nine years old then, maybe ten, same as Esther was now. I spied her squatting down among the plants. Most I could see of her was the straw hat, twin to mine, that kept the sun off her face.

“Quit thinking on it, Esther. Just pick it off and stomp it.”

“I can't, Seona. It’s the king-granddaddy of the lot.” Her narrow brown face popped up between the plants. She pushed her skinny shoulders through and scrambled down the mound, mischief in her eyes. “What you reckon Miss Rosalyn do was I to slip that nasty thing into her bed?”

I tried not to smile, but my mouth got away from me. Miss Rosalyn Bell, Master Hugh’s eldest stepdaughter, thought right high of her clean bed sheets and fine white skin. Not that my skin was much darker than hers. Or it wouldn’t have been if I spent as much time as she did tatting lace and embroidering slipcovers and arranging her shiny blond hair.

“I’ll tell you what she’d do. She’d screech like a painter cat, grab one of them pretty shoes of hers and squash it flat.”

Esther giggled, then flipped the hem of her skirt up to fan her shining face. “How much longer we got to do this, Seona?”

“Till it’s done, what do you think?”

Esther rolled her eyes.

"Just wait ’til time come for cutting this mess and getting it put up to cure.”

That got me a look at Esther’s tongue. The girl wasn’t used to field work. Miz Lucinda had finally judged her old enough to be lending a hand beyond the house and yard. That didn’t mean she’d have to put in a full day’s work in the tobacco or the corn, like the men. Early on, the mistress tried to force that on me and Mama, but Master Hugh put an end to it quick. Mama was a sempstress. She spun flax from the fields and wool from the sheep we kept, and wove cloth and then made the clothes for everyone. Even some for white folk when the mistress bought the fancy satin and dyed-pretty stuffs they favored.

Mama also tended the ailing for miles about. She mixed healing herbs in a shed out back of the kitchen, and helped Naomi with the cooking, breakfast and supper—which taken altogether was enough for one slave to be getting on with.

Still, when harvest came round the extra work got parceled out to everyone, even Old Malcolm, Naomi’s daddy, whose hands were twisted up with the rheumatism.

“House-spoiled is what you are,” I told Esther, but I didn’t say it meanly. She wasn’t to blame. Her mama and daddy were dower slaves, come to Mountain Laurel with Lucinda Cameron and her daughters, and were favored. Since Esther had been born to them, she got favored too.

Sweat tickled down my neck. The stink of ripe tobacco lay over us like a blanket in the heat. It felt like getting on to noon. We’d been at the job since breakfast, with no pausing save to grab a swallow of water from the bucket set in the oak shade between the orchard and the lower fields. A couple of the hands were working toward us from the far end—I could hear the chant of their work song—but there was a fair piece to go before anyone reached the middle. And I still had the wash waiting on me.

“Wish I could put worms in all their beds.” Esther squatted in the dirt between the rows, lips pursed. “Maybe not Miss Judith’s. She like to make a pet of it after she get over the fright. But I hanker to see the look on Miss Rosalyn’s face after she puts her clean white toes all over this mess.” The girl stood and turned the bottom of her foot up, pulling a grimace at the worm slime mashed into the dirty sole.

She’d done it again. Esther had the knack of waylaying a body into nattering whenever unpleasant work waited. I twisted my smile away, trying to look serious.

“Have your snicker. But directly after Miss Rosalyn sends that worm on to Glory she’ll come looking to give you the back of her hand. And guess who’s gonna have to wash those wormy sheets?”


“That’s right, me. So put the notion out of your head—and mind those chickens.”

Esther scuffed a grimy toe in the dirt, wrinkling her nose as the hen perched on the mound beside me pecked a fat green worm in half and swallowed the pieces. The hen was a scrawny, speckled creature, unlike most of the other chickens, which were shiny-black and plump. It had come as payment for a baby Mama helped birth two weeks back, on a farm up-creek.

I bent to turn a leaf of the plant under which the hen was feeding. Lightning quick it darted at me, neck stretched low. I kicked out and sent that chicken squawking down the row, leaving a cloud of feathers and me, sitting on the ground with my fingers pressed over the sting at the base of my thumb.

Esther rushed to my side. “Wicked ol’ biddy-hen! That one’s pecked me afore. You hurt bad, Seona?”

"Just a nip.” I put the heel of my thumb in my mouth. My skin tasted bitter with tobacco juice and blood.

Esther slapped a mosquito that landed on her arm, then lifted her hat to scratch beneath it. Her wiry hair was plaited tight to her head and covered with a head-rag, darkened with sweat. My braid hung heavy down my back. I wound it up and tucked it under my hat, hoping it would stay. Mama and Naomi were forever after me to cover my head. My hair seemed to consternate folk. It wasn’t sleek-straight like Mama’s crow-black Indian hair, or wiry like the other slaves’. It was somewhere between—long springy curls that defied brush, braid and head-rag. No matter what I did with it, my hair went the contrary way.

I got up off the ground, thinking how Mr. Dawes would be making his rounds to see we wasn’t sitting idle. I tucked a damp curl back from my face and bent to the picking.

That’s when the shouting started up. I shielded my eyes and spotted Alasdair gallumping through the oaks, calling to me and Esther and waving us in.

“We ain’t near done yet, Ally,” Esther called back.

From a distance I could see the grin split a gleam in Ally’s face. Naomi’s son was a great ox of a man, about Mama’s age. But inside he was still the age he’d been when a mule kicked him in the head and he didn’t wake up for a night and a day.

When I was small, Ally used to wade the creek with me or go tree-climbing, on a Sunday when the slaves had time to themselves. Sometimes he’d make a present out of something he found—a cardinal’s feather or a shiny rock from the stream, or an arrowhead he turned up with the plow. Now when he wasn’t working the fields or helping Jubal with the stock, he liked to be with Esther.

“Maisy want you cleaned up to serve, Esther. Seona—you needed in the kitchen!”

Esther turned to me. “What for? It ain’t hardly noon yet.”

When we didn’t budge, Ally broke into a run, heading toward us like a charging bull. We stood and waited. It was too hot to move more than was needful—unless you were Ally, who didn’t notice things like cold and hot. He lumbered to a halt, and bent over between the tobacco plants, big hands splayed on his knees, gulping breath.

“We… gots… company.”

The way he said the word, a coldness seized my spine. Bound to be someone important, if we were being called in to help with dinner.

“Hope it ain’t them uppity folk from over Chesterfield,” Esther said, and with all my heart I said a silent Amen. Chesterfield was the biggest plantation for miles. The mistress and her daughters went visiting there more than to any other place. “Like moths to a flame,” I’d heard Naomi grumble. It was something rarer for the flame to come to the moths.

Ally wagged his big head. “Naw… ain’t them. You never guess… who it be!”

I was too relieved over who it wasn’t to guess.

Ally caught his breath at last and straightened. “It the boy what was here before. He done said yes to Master Hugh’s letter and come back, all growed up. He got hisself a roan horse, red as strawberries with cream on the side and he come right when our mare done dropped the prettiest brown filly you ever see!”

Esther planted her hands on her hips. “You was meant to tell me when that foal was coming. Now I missed it!”

Ally’s head drooped. “Sorry, Esther. You was way out here and I got caught up and then Mr. Ian come,” words tumbled like rocks downhill, “wearin’ this coat-o’-many-colors just like ol’ Joseph from the Good Book, with his own slave set up on a horse black as crow feathers, leading another horse loaded down with I-don’t-know-what-all. Guess he here to stay.”

All the while I’d stood, mute as a scarecrow, reeling from this rush of news about foals and horses and colored coats and… him.

The boy with the angel-halo hair was back.


This must be addendum week. In glancing over this scene, I realized what I posted is the shortened version. It used to go on a bit about Naomi needing a couple chickens to roast, the girls telling Ally to go on, they'll take care of it (because he gets blubbery when animals are hurt) and Seona setting her sights on the skinny hen that pecked her. I snipped that bit off because the final line above about the boy who's come back was a better hook to end a chapter on.

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