The Labor of Her Hands

William Kelley Woolfitt

Three bad crop years, too much drought, too much soil-wash, smuts and Hessian flies on the small grain, and armies of worms nibbling holes in the tobacco-leaves. Olivia’s father said he could hear the grinding together of all those tiny worm-mouths, it was the sound of a low constant wind, a dry rattling cough, in his ears when Hubbard dressed him at sun-up, still in his ears that night when he dreamed. He said the turkeys he had deployed were a failure. He said all available hands must make a thorough inspection of the tobacco plants, find and destroy the worms, leave none alive—elderly, invalid, and all the children on plantation, white and black, his included. Olivia’s mother asked if meant to omit John Penny. That was just the thing to nettle Olivia’s father. John Penny was a Tutelo boy he’d won in a card game, along with a cider press and a hogshead of rum. You know what I mean, Olivia’s father said.

The one crop that thrived was the lima beans, dense leafy bushes weighted down with pods. In fields sun-scalded, shimmering from the heat, Olivia worked the tobacco, the lima beans. In the kitchen, her mother told Indian Nan to teach her how to put up the limas, then went to the springhouse to supervise the butter-churning. Indian Nan showed Olivia the kegs, the mounds of salt, the stone-weights. Olivia asked if she was a relation of John Penny’s, were they from the same tribe.

Olivia thought Indian Nan wasn’t going to reply, but eventually she said no, said her people had sometimes disputed the Tutelo.

Olivia said, but I see him with you all the time, as if you were his kin perhaps.

Another long silence, and then Indian Nan said that they shared a hut in the quarters, and in addition to that, they both knew the sadness of losing family.

Olivia said, did you have babies.

Indian Nan said, let me see your hands. She peered at Olivia’s grimy nails, the dirty green smudges on her palms, the fine scratches. She poured water into a basin, mixed in a sour-smelling liquid from a dark bottle. Soak your hands in this, said Indian Nan. It’s vinegar of the four thieves. It’ll smart but you’ll have lady hands again. Indian Nan clamped her long rough hands around Olivia’s hands and plunged them in.

William Kelley Woolfitt is the author of two forthcoming chapbooks: The Salvager’s Arts (poetry), co-winner of the Keystone Prize, and The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (fiction), winner of the Epiphany Editions contest. His writings have appeared in Threepenny Review, Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, and Shenandoah. He teaches at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.