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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Excerpt From New Novel, HUSH, BOY

Here's preview my new novel, HUSH, BOY. I'm in the final review and revision stage of preparing for publication in July or August. The protagonist, the young boy who later becomes Dr. Jonathan Harding, is about twelve years old and in the seventh grade at the time of this scene from Chapter 23. He is living with his family at Twin Lakes in southern Georgia.

          We had a cold snap just before Halloween, and around that time I heard some of the farm workers were squeezin’ sugar cane to make syrup at a place over on the other side of the Pavilion, so I went over there one Saturday to see what that was all about. It turned out to be one of the most amazin’ days of my life.

          I got up real early that Saturday and put on my heavy jacket, then a wool hat with ear flaps, and even my gloves—things Mother got for me to walk to the school bus on the coldest days of the year. I stayed quiet when I went out the back door ’cause everybody else was still asleep. The light was dim outside, but the air was clean and cool, and I caught a faint smell of smoke, like leaves burnin’ or a woods fire somewhere close by. I opened the back gate just enough to slip through, then headed down the dirt road past the Pavilion and on toward that smoke I smelled.

           It wasn’t far, so real soon I found what I was lookin’ for. I came to a cluster of unpainted farm buildings, wood buildings that had weathered to dark brown. Most of ’em were just sheds with a tin roof, no walls or anything. In the middle of the cluster I spotted somethin’ I’d never seen before: some kinda tall machine, a good bit taller than me. The machine had a long pole stickin’ out to one side from the top of it, and the far end of that pole was hooked onto a harness fastened on a great big brown mule. The mule trudged round and round the tall machine in the center, his breath smokin’ in the cool air as he walked. Two men stood next to the machine, feedin’ long stalks of sugar cane into it, Negro men wearing thin pants and shirts and flimsy lookin’ shoes. One of ’em saw me standin’ there, watchin’ what they were doin’. He grinned and waved to me. “Come on over here, white boy. Lemme show you how this cane press works.”

          White boy! I was the only white person, boy, girl, or grownup, in the whole place. A bunch of other black men were drivin’ their mules to pull wagons of sugar cane close to the press. Others, women and men and a few young boys, were standin’ around watchin’ the press, same as me. Finally I spotted the source of that smoke I’d smelled, and a different sweet smell floated up through it. Over at one side under one of the sheds, three or four old Negro women were sittin’ on cane-bottom chairs around a huge iron tub full of somethin’ that looked like water. A wood fire burned all around the iron tub.

          The women had wood paddles, almost like the ones you’d use for a boat, and they were stirrin’ whatever was in that iron tub—just stirrin’ it real slow, round and round, back and forth. One of the women pushed at a boy standing close to her. “Bring us some more firewood, Leroy. Hurry up with it. This fire ain’t hot enough to cook nothing. We shore cain’t cook up syrup with this piddlin’ fire—we got to put more heat to it. Go on, now, before I take a switch to your legs.”

          The boy was wearin’ short pants and no coat. He acted like he wanted to stay close to the fire, but he mumbled, “Yes’m,” then did what he was told.

          I watched the mule ploddin’ round and round in his track to turn the sugar cane press, then I stepped in behind that mule to go over to the man who’d called out to me earlier. He was a tall man, and he put his arm on my shoulder and pulled me closer. “Hey, boy. My name’s Big Al. You stay right here next to me. You don’t wanta get in the way of that ol’ mule. And leave plenty a room for the others to bring in that cane for us to feed the press.”

          I did what he said and he smiled. His big white teeth were set off by dark brown skin as smooth as a moonless night sky. I smiled back, and Big Al said, “Here, let me show you how we press the cane.” He picked up a whole stalk of green sugar cane and fed it, leaves and all, right in between the turnin’ gears of the press, which were just about shoulder height to him. Clear juice from the cane ran down into a bucket, and a flattened stalk of used cane came out the other side of the press. Big Al picked up a dirty looking glass from one side of the press and caught some of the cane juice. He took a sip and said, “Uh huh, that’s real good. Sweet as a baby’s breath.” Then he passed the glass to me. “See what you think of it.”

          For a minute I thought about those White and Colored drinking fountains I’d seen in town, but I took the glass anyway and raised it to my lips. I thought that cane juice tasted somethin’ like pure nectar would taste—sweet as sweet could be. I tipped the glass back and drank the whole thing. “Man, that really is good,” I said. “Thank you.” I gave the glass back to Big Al, and he handed me a long stalk of cane. “You wanta feed the press? Just stick in there like you saw me do it.” He grinned, showin’ his big white teeth again. “You know how to do that don’t you? Stick it in there?” Both men laughed real loud, and I blushed when I figured out Big Al’s joke. I wasn’t used to talkin’ about stuff like that with grown men.

           The mule lumbered on and on, round and round in a never-endin’ circle. I fed a few more stalks of sugar cane into the press, then decided I wanted to go see what the women were doin’ over at that big iron tub. I started to run past the mule, then turned back and reached up to touch Al’s shoulder. “Thanks, Big Al. Thanks a lot for showin’ me the press and all.”

          “Any time, boy. Any time at all. We’re gonna be here another week or two.”

          Then, for the first time, I saw one of the young boys carryin’ buckets of sweet cane juice from the press over to the women. He was a small boy and the bucket looked heavy, so I took one side of the handle to help him carry it. He smiled big—everybody there smiled at me all the time, like I belonged to their group or somethin’. I liked that. I liked all those people, and I was real happy to feel like part of their cane squeezin’ group.

          The boy showed me how to pour our bucket of cane juice into the iron tub, then he looked up at me and said, “Thanks for helpin’ me.” One of the women reached over from her chair and put an arm around my shoulders. “Stand over here close to me, boy. Be careful of that iron tub—it’s hot as a firecracker.”

          I was pretty warm standing next to the fire like that, so I slipped off my coat and put in on the shoulders of that boy who’d brought the firewood, the little boy wearin’ short pants. He grinned like the rest of the group, and the woman pulled me closer. “That’s real nice of you. That boy’s mama oughta be ’shamed of herself, dressin’ him like that on a cold day.” She gave the tub a stir and a strong, sweet smell rose up from the hot liquid. “Do you like syrup? Do you ever eat it on pancakes, or on your mama’s hot biscuits.”

          “Yes ma’am,” I said. “I like syrup a lot.”

          “Well, that’s what we’re makin’ right here in this ol’ iron tub. We cook that cane juice ’til it thickens up. Then, when it’s jus’ right, we bottle it up for syrup. After we have enough syrup, we keep on cooking whatever juice is left ’til it turns into the best sugar you ever tasted. Brown sugar. How ‘bout that? Would you like a bottle of syrup to take home for your mama?”

          “Yes ma’am, I sure would. When will the cane juice turn into syrup?”

          “Oh, it takes a while. Jus’ hang ’round here ‘til later in the mornin’ and help me keep the fire goin’, then I’ll fix you a nice bottle to take home.”

          The pile of squeezed cane waste was getting’ pretty big on the other side of the press, so I asked the syrup woman what they were gonna do with that stuff. “Well, hon, every now and then the boss man, the white boss man ya know, he comes by and hauls it away. I hear he sells it to some factory to make ropes or croker sacks or somethin’ like that.”

          I did stay at that cane squeezin’ for most of the mornin’, lookin’ around, talkin’ to different ones of the group, and all that. They were nice, friendly people and I liked every one of ’em. Even though I was the only white person there, I never felt like an outsider, not for a single minute. It was like we were all the same color, and it didn’t matter anyway what color we were.

          When I went to get my coat from the firewood boy, the woman I’d talked to ladled up a pint bottle of syrup from the iron tub, a thin necked bottle with a cork stopper. She handed it to me and said, “You tell your mama where this syrup came from, hear? Her and her friends can buy plenty more of it from us if they want to.” From her chair the woman gave me a tight hug and sent me on my way.

          That woman and all the others—shoot, everything that happened that whole mornin'—taught me an awful lot about growin’ up with other people. Thinkin’ about all of it, I figured out some of those hush-boy things nobody in my everyday world wanted to talk to me about.

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