Roseberry Plantation – The Story of Cally, and How She Changed the Color of Her Eyes
Cally was born with blue eyes, daughter of both black and white, but white did not claim her, except as property. Born a slave to a slave mother, Cally became a slave herself and when she was big enough she hauled water to the big house for cooking and cleaning. She hauled water to the laundress where a fire was roaring and spitting and clothes were bubbling in a big iron pot. She hauled water to stables and filled the troughs. She hauled water to the overseer in the field and finally she was allowed to carry a bucket down the rows of cotton and give a dipperful to each field hand, her momma being one of them and the man her momma was married to.
When Cally was big enough she lined up before sunrise with the rest of them and she took the hoe in her hand and followed them out into the fields where she chopped cotton and trailed behind the plow picking up rocks. There were never more rocks than in Chatham County and the field hands wondered that there were fields at all in such a place.
But there were fields and they were created by them and those that went before them and Cally spent all her life in one, except for Sundays and a few days around the time her babies were born.
She got married to a man named Tom. He said he was her husband and she believed him, even though they both knew either of them might be sold away and then there might be another wife or a another husband. There was nothing to be done for that but pray.
And pray Cally did. Every night and every day. Every rock picked up and tossed into the back of a wagon was a prayer. Every weed pulled was a prayer. The feel of the rough wooden-handled hoe was a prayer that got offered down every row, in every field, beside every well-tended plant. Cally prayed the hardest after Tom moved into the cabin with her. She prayed that Master Redd would stop his visiting but her didn’t.
He still came around, knocking on the door and sending Tom away for something and stepping inside with a cold smirk on his face. Cally would close her own blue eyes and pray to make it quick and when Tom came back to the cabin, there wouldnï¿½t be a word said between them. He would pull the old hickory stump up close to the fire and poke at a log with his foot and spark would go flying up the chimney.
This alone could have been enough to change the color of a woman’s eyes, but Cally’s eyes didn’t turn until after her first live child was born.
There was no telling whose the first two were. They both miscarried early on but it was easy to tell that third one wasn’t Tom’s. All the same he took it up in his arms and said, “You’re more mine than his.”
They named the baby Cleavis, after Tom’s granddaddy, a man who got too old to work and was said by the white folks to be staying alive just for spite.
Cally was hurting from childbirth. Her insides felt like they had been ripped out, but it was spring and there was too much work to do. Cally wrapped the cloths between her legs to catch the blood. She got up early in the morning and followed her husband out into the fields and the second most beautiful thing she saw that day was the sunrise splaying its pink fingers across the sky.
The first most beautiful thing she saw was her baby and come noontime Cally rushed back to the hut where Miss Liza kept the children and she nursed Cleavis as long as she could and the white man recorded the name of the newborn in a leather-bound journal. “Cleavis. Born to Cally. April 1855.”
The white man was named Jennis Redd and he had a wife and a baby too. The wife’s name was Lula Anne and the baby’s name was William Lars Redd and he and Cleavis grew up playing together. In 1861, they were both six years old and it had been Cleavis’s job to haul water for over a year now, just like it had been Cally’s when she was his age.
One day Cleavis was drawing the bucket up from the well. He was trying to hurry because this was the trip to the fields for the hands and his momma was pregnant and Cleavis wanted to bring her water. He was pulling on the ropes and trying to blow a fly out of his face when he heard William Lars Redd saying, “I got something to show you.”
Cleavis set the bucket on the edge of the well and watched and William opened his palm to show his friend the earrings he had stolen from his own momma. They were not like anything that Cleavis had ever seen. They had swirls of color in them, blues and greens and grays, and William Lars Redd said, “It’s a shell called abolene [sic]. Here you can hold them.”
Cleavis wiped his hands on his pants and held out one palm and William laid the earrings there like they were tiny robinï¿½s eggs and might break at the slightest pressure. Cleavis ran his hands along the teardrops of swirls and they were as slick and smooth as the glass in the windows of the big house that he had snuck up one time and touched. Cleavis pinched the earrings and let them dangle in the sunlight. “Abolene,” he repeated.
It was right then that Lula Anne stepped out the back door and saw her son playing with the little black boy again and saw her own earrings in the hands of that boy and saw for the thousandth time that the features of the boy resembled those of her own husband. That thieving boy. Lula Anne had him sold and William Lars Redd did not say a thing.
Jennis Redd wasn’t there. He was gone to Wake County. Gone to talk to important men about a new government for the South, gone so far away that he couldn’t argue that Cleavis was going to grow up to a strong field hand and it didn’t make sense to go selling him now.
Jennis Redd was gone for a week and the slave trader came by the very next day and hauled Cleavis off in a wagon and that was the last Cally ever saw of her boy.
When he didn’t bring the water that day she knew that something was wrong and she prayed and kept on pounding her hoe against the dusty Chatham County dirt. The only sounds were the hard thumping of fifty hoes against the earth and the whinny of the overseer’s horse and Cally knew and Tom knew than something had happened to their boy.
He was locked in the barn and she was allowed visit him that night and he cried and leaned against her. He knew the word “sold.” He’d seen the slave trader come through with a wagonload of black people, shackled and chained and wondering where they were going and would they see their families again.
Cleavis told his momma about the earrings called abolene. “I didn’t steal them,” he said. “I didn’t steal them. How could I? I’m not allowed inside the big house.”
Cally held her boy’s head against the round of her belly. She didn’t lie to him. She said it plain as day and then choked down crying. “I may never see you again,”she said.
There were no words of comfort, nothing in a mother’s heart to prepare her for this, even though all her life she’d known that this might be the very thing that could happen.
“Pray,” was all that Cally could tell him. “You got to pray every day,” she said. “You got to pray with all your heart. Promise me you will.”
Cleavis nodded, tears running down his cheeks, and there was a knock on the door and the overseer stepped in a dragged Cally out of the barn and, working in the fields the next day, she sobbed and chopped and listened for the rattle of the wagon that would take her boy away.
After three weeks of crying and hoeing Cally felt like she could cry anymore and she got quiet. Tom begged her, “Talk to me, Honey. Just talk to me.”
But Cally wouldn’t talk. She lay her hands on her belly, five months along now, and she shook her head from side to side and she hated white folks so bad right then that she willed the white blood right out of her and changed the color of her eyes from blue to slate gray.
Tom saw it and by the light of the firelight he rubbed his thumbs across her eyelids and then held her close to him and said, “You talk when you’re ready, Cally. I ain’t going nowhere.”
Cally wasn’t ready for another month, and the cabin was quiet every night. The only light was by the moon and the stars because it was summer now and there was no need of a fire. Lying beside her husband in their dark cabin one night, a whippoorwill calling at the edge of the fields they worked by day, Cally suddenly broke her quiet and said, “I want those earrings.”
Tom sighed. He reached over and grabbed his wife’s hand and said, “I can’t get you those earrings, Darling.”
Cally stayed on her back looking up at the moon shining through a crack in the ceiling and she said, “If I am going to lose my boy to a pair of earrings, then I am damn well going to have those earrings.”
Cally laid her hand on her husband’s chest and felt his breath. She felt him sigh again and Tom sighed so big and so heavy this time that he breath leaked out of the drafty cabin and crossed the fields of cotton and circled Roseberry like wind. Tom’s sigh caused a chill all across Chatham County and the white folks inside the big house rubbed their hands across their arms and called for the servants to close the shutters. And even so, Tom’s sigh was a bitter wind they could not keep out. Tom’s sigh was a coldness that crept inside their bones.