Everybody likes sugar.
Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry pie. Yellow cake.
But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.
“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.
There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.
In the mill, there’re mountains of sugar ready to be shipped from Louisiana to the whole wide world.
Ma would say , “Most folks think sugar is something in a tin cup or a china bowl. They don’t know sugar is hard.”
“Hard,” I’d echo as she poured well water into a bowl.
“Months of planting, hoeing, harvesting. Bones aching , sweat stinging your eyes. Dirt clings everywhere.”
“Beneath nails, toes. Even in my hair,” I’d complain before splashing my face with water.
Me and Ma always smelled of sugar, sweat, and dirt.
“What did I smell like when I was born?”
“Spring,” she’d whisper, wiping my face dry. “Not Planting-Day spring. Just spring. Blooming, lemony, and fresh.”
I wish I could remember that clean smell.
When I was two days old, Ma strapped me to her back and cut cane.
Nights, we ate cornmeal cakes. Then me and Ma would lie on our hay mattress on the packed-dirt floor.
“Sugar’s hard,” she’d sigh, kissing my cheek, twice, before sleep.
Before another day tending cane.
River Road is almost nothing but cane. There’re two rows of slave shacks. Mostly empty now. There’s the big plantation house where the Willses live. The mill where cane is boiled and dried into crystals. The stable and henhouse.
The rest is cane . Growing ten feet high, row after row, as far as the eye can see. When wind blows, cane hisses, comes alive, swaying like a dancing forest. Thin, pointy leaves lick the air, flapping like streamers. It’s pretty. ’Til you get close. Then sugar gets nastier than any gator.
Sugar bites a hundred times , breaking skin and making you bleed. Each leaf has baby teeth on all its edges. Even with work gloves, tiny red pricks itch everywhere. My cheeks get smacked. By harvest’s end, my face, hands, and arms are all cut up.
Outside River Road Plantation, nobody cares who cuts cane. Nobody cares my hand swings the machete, bundles, drags stalks onto the cart.
At River Road, my hands are the youngest. Everyone else’s hands, except Lizzie’s (she’s two years older than me), are old and wrinkled. Grown hands, stiff and scarred. Sometimes the old folks put their hands in warm water with peppermint to heal. Or rub them with fatback sprinkled with cayenne.
I’ve lived at River Road my entire life. Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. My back hurts. Feet hurt. Hands get syrupy. Bugs come. Sugar calls— all kinds of bugs, crawling, inching, flying. Nasty, icky bugs.
I hate, hate, hate sugar.
During harvest, Mister Wills sets lamps so folks can cut cane all night. “Cane won’t wait,” he says. He shouts, “Cane time, cuttin’ time.” Or he snarls, “Two bits extra for the most cane cut.” Then, everybody speeds up and there’re more tiny bites. Just like teeth chew rows of corn, sugar-teeth chew on you.
Mister Wills keeps complaining, “Not enough cane workers.”
I think, Why isn’t he helping, then?
Mister Wills just walks and watches everyone work. Behind him, Tom, the Overseer, cracks the whip, spraying dirt.
Since Emancipation, there’re not enough workers. Almost everyone young enough, without gnarled, crinkly brown hands, has gone north.
“Some folks are scared to leave,” said Ma. “They say, ‘The bad I know is better than the bad I don’t.’ They don’t believe they have strength left for adventure.”
“We’re ready for adventure. We’re strong.”
“That’s right,” said Ma, hugging me close.
We waited for Pa, who was sold right after I was born, to come back for us. We were going to run away. Head north. We waited and waited. When the war started, Ma whispered, “Pa’s fighting for the Union. I just know it. Helping to free us.” We waited for him, proud, hoping. The war ended. President Lincoln won. Still, we waited. Five years of freedom and Pa still didn’t come.
Then Ma got sick and died. Her strength drained like water.
I’m ten now. ’m not a slave anymore.
Except from sugar.