41. Chopping Cotton

You picked up the hoe.
You brought it down.
You chopped a cotton plant.

You picked up the hoe.
You brought it down.
You chopped a cotton plant.

You did this from dawn to dusk,
From can to can’t.
Fewer sprouts
Meant more moisture for each.
Each year too many plants,
Too little rain.

The trick, she knew,
Was to forget yourself.
After breakfast
Make it all a blur–
Hoe swinging up and down,
Shrugging motion of the shoulders,
Reaching out and in, again,
Blade, thud, scrape–
Nothing new to do
As hours passed.
And no hours, for
The brain would hold its breath,
Not measuring the minutes
Or the rows.
If you let it,
You became your body;
The sun lulled,
Mind dozed.
One day last fall
Riah’d done her best:
Six to noon,
She had no memory of.
Someone shook her
To eat lunch.

Now she picked up the hoe.
She chopped again.
Plants were scarce,
But rain was scarcer still.
Only fools would get roused
For noon meal–that, or a child–
Then it was that much harder
To fall back.
She knew to taste
But not to notice tasting.
There lay before them
The whole afternoon.

She thought, it’s the last time
We’ll be out:
Though the crop was thinned,
The sprouts were dying–
Nearly dead. Eyes on
James and Tom, she traced
The crisscross mazes, sweat
On shirts and legs.
With her hoe, she
Turned back to the plants,
Slight oddities, how
This leaf bent, or that–
Till the browns and greens
Blocked all her sight,
Leaden as pennies
On a dead man’s eyes.
She chopped,
Worked her row.

At dinner she could wake,
But chose not to.

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