March 21, 1914
I don’t like the brown-haired, blue-eyed girl watching me; never have.
She looks too young and naïve for her seventeen years.
And why does she have those specks of brown dotting the bridge of her nose? Why can’t she be pretty like her sisters?
I lean forward, almost touching the mirror with my forehead, and rub the light-brown constellation with my finger, but it won’t come off.
I can’t count the many times I’ve tried to rub, scratch, wipe, and scrub the little specks until my nose turned bright red, but they’re stuck for good. No getting rid of them; at least I only have a handful of them.
I straighten and bite the inside of my cheek, giving the girl in the mirror one more hard glare when she touches the white ribbons holding her braids together.
“It’ll just have to do,” I mutter.
With a sigh, I walk out of the room I share with my three sisters.
Thomas and Samuel’s pallet is lying in the middle of the living-room floor. I shake my head and pick up the blankets, fold them, and drop them in the corner.
It’s the least I can do since I’ll be at the auction with Daddy while my siblings are working on the farm all day. They’re already out in the field, throwing seeds in holes and covering them back up again.
I’m the lucky one.
Mama’s pouring a bucket of well water into the sink, getting ready to clean the breakfast dishes, when she hears me and turns.
She sets the bucket on the counter and wipes her wet hands on the flour-coated apron tied around her baby bump. “Now remember, one pig, that’s it. Don’t let your father buy nothin’ else. You hear me?”
She straightens my collar and touches my braids. “Why do you wear your hair like this? It makes you look younger than you are. With your height, you don’t need any help with that.”
My eyes drop to the floor and my lips chase after them. “I like it this way,” I mumble and run my hands down the front of my white dress.
I only have a few dresses: a blue Sunday dress, a blackwork dress, and a white school dress. We’re poor, so we sew our own dresses, but with four girls, buying fabric is expensive.
Even though I’m the oldest, at only five feet, my sisters are taller than me. They’re able to share their dresses, but I can’t wear theirs. I’m stuck with the same three.
She lifts my chin.
“If you make sure your father buys only one pig and nothin’ else, I may have enough money to buy another piece of fabric, so you can make a new dress,” she whispers, wiping dust off my shoulder.
“I sure would like a new dress.”
Our heads whip toward the back door when it opens. “Ready, Pearl? Let’s go git us some animals,” Daddy says, and then he’s gone, leaving the door open.
My grin fades, and I turn back to Mama.
She raises a brow and folds her arms over her chest.
“I’ll watch him. Only one pig,” I say before stepping out the door, knowing good and well I can’t promise that. Daddy’s the man of the house, and he does what he wants.
The auction is across town, and it takes almost two hours to get there traveling by horse and wagon, but it beats working in the fields all day.
A shiny black roadster with its top-down screams by, kicking up dirt in its wake. I cough and wave my hand in front of my face.
The woman’s blond hair flies in the wind, and the couple’s laughter is heard over the roar of the engine.
“It would be nice to have one of those,” I say.
Daddy’s quiet as he stares at the road ahead.
My eyes widen, and I point to the metal plate on the back, which reads 1913-258-GEORGIA. “Does that mean they’re from Georgia?” I ask with excitement.
He turns his head to the side. Ptuh.
Brown sludge flies out his mouth and onto the passing road, leaving some behind on his lips. He wipes it off with his sleeve. “I reckon.”
“Oh, it would be nice to visit there one day, wouldn’t it?”
I ask, doing my best not to grimace.
Daddy leans away from me, and his forehead wrinkles as he gawks at me. “How the hell am I supposed to know? I ain’t never left the state of South Carolina, and I ain’t plannin’ on it neither.”
He shakes his head and turns back forward. “I got everythin’ I need right here.”
I look down at my hands, scraping under my fingernails.
“Mama’s expecting you to bring back only one pig and nothing else,” I mumble without looking up.
“We’ll see,” he says and spits again. Ptuh.
I roll my eyes, but I look in the opposite direction before I do.
If he catches me rolling my eyes at him, he’d whup me for sure. I can hear it now: “You’re not too old to pick a switch. I’ll learn you a thing or two.”
I’ve picked my share. Picking the wrong switch only gets you more licks.
He likes the skinny ones, the ones that leave the sting a little longer than the others. I love Daddy, but he’s a strict man; he doesn’t tolerate disrespect.
We arrive at the auction near the edge of a deserted cotton field.
The rows and rows of green plants are missing their little balls of clouds, not ready to be harvested yet.
Empty wagons line the front of a rickety wooden fence that looks like it’ll fall if the wind blows too hard.
Trucks with metal cages filled with animals waiting to be sold are parked around the back of the old weathered barn set up for the auction.
We stop at a vacant spot, and Daddy pulls the brake on the side of the wagon.
“Dagnabbit,” he mutters as he jumps out, quickly ties the horse to a post, and hurries away, following the droves of men already heading toward the barn.
I sigh, climb down, and follow him inside.
When I get inside, my hand flies to my nose, pinching it. My eyes burn, and my mouth thickens with saliva.
Without a breeze, the stench from animal droppings and body odor loiter in the air, making my stomach churn.
I drop my hand to my side and take a few short breaths through my mouth, so I don’t embarrass myself or Daddy. He wouldn’t be happy.
Sunlight casts through the opened doors and the distorted wooden planks on the roof and walls, making it bright enough to see in here.
With no chairs to sit on, other than a few bales of hay around the edges and hayloft, it’s standing room only.
A group of men stands near the door collecting their numbers, but Daddy isn’t among them.
I step up on one of the hay bales and stand on tippy toes.
I look over wide-brim hats and balding heads and find him near the front of the crowd, so I hop down.
“Excuse me,” I say, squeezing through a cluster of hard shoulders and bony elbows. The heavy scent of sweaty armpits and stale cigars assaults my nose. Blech. I hold my breath and move faster.
“Watch it!” one man snarls.
“Where you off to, li’l lady?” another asks, banter in his voice.
“You can stand by me, darlin’,” a third says lecherously.
I gasp and jump when a hand grabs my bottom.
Too mortified to look back, I swat it away and keep moving.
When I get to Daddy, he’s staring at the empty circle framed by men, waiting for the auctioneer.
His hand twitches, whipping the lucky number fourteen card attached to a stick against the side of his leg, without looking in my direction.
I look through the smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and notice I’m the only woman here. Old men, stroking their long gray beards with grimy hands and wearing filthy coveralls, pack the room.
Some glower at me.
Others stare at me with lustful eyes, grinning, showing more missing teeth than not.
I scoot closer to Daddy and run my hands along the front of my white dress, feeling a bit overdressed. I should’ve worn the black one.
“One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, now two. Who’ll give me two dollar, two dollar—”
The auctioneer grabs my attention when he begins his call.
His rhythmic monotone chant is mesmerizing to watch, but my eyes keep wandering back to the number fourteen beside me going up with each bid.
A bid that’s not on a pig! Every time it goes up, my stomach shifts.
I drop my head with a frown and pinch the orange flowers on my dress, torturing them between two fingers. I really wanted a new dress.
“Four dollar, four dollar, four—”
Up it goes.
“Daddy,” I whisper.
Up it goes…again.
My bottom lip disappears behind my teeth, fighting back the urge to repeat myself. I can’t let him get mad at me for interrupting. He’ll just have to deal with Mama when we get home.
I stay silent for the rest of the auction and let him do what he wants to do. He’ll do it anyway without my blessing—that’s for sure.
I shake my head and cross my arms over my chest as I watch Daddy guide two pigs up the plank. “Mama won’t like this.”
Ptuh. “Don’t care. My money, my ~bizness~.”
He slams the wooden slat in place, closing the pigs in, and picks up the chicken crate with four chickens and places it in the back of the wagon.
My shoulders slouch and when I turn, the world fades away and the only person left is a tall, lean, rugged man in Levi’s stalking this way.
His red-and-white flannel shirt is rolled up at the elbows, showing off his tanned muscular arms.
His intense brown eyes are focused, and his strides are long and vigorous as he walks toward Daddy with his hands tapping the sides of his long legs with each step.
He rakes a hand through his already ruffled nut-brown hair like it isn’t the first time he’s done so today.
My heart flutters while butterflies take flight in my stomach, and I realize my mouth is hanging open.
I close my mouth and touch my stomach, but the darn butterflies won’t land.
My knees weaken, so I grab ahold of the wagon with my sweaty palms and step around to the other side. I need to get away from him.
I’ve never felt like this before, and it terrifies me.
He stops behind Daddy and scratches his light stubble.
My eyes drift to his plump, desirable lips, and my finger strokes mine of its own accord.
What would it be like to kiss him?
He wipes his hands down the sides of his Levi’s before he fists his mouth, covering those tantalizing lips, and clears his throat. “Excuse me, sir.”
Daddy turns and looks at the stranger up and down, giving him a once-over. Ptuh. “Yes, what you want?”
The stranger extends his hand with a slight tremor. “Pierce Hayes.”
After a solid few seconds of eyeing the hand, Daddy shakes it. “Henry Rutherford.”
“I was noticin’ the girl inside.” Pierce tilts his head in my direction, but keeps his eyes on the man in front of him.
What—he noticed me?
My cheeks burn, and my eyes dart all around, looking anywhere other than at him. Old grizzly men load squealing livestock in wagons, and others chat over the haze of smoky cigars.
Their lips move, but I cannot hear their voices, because all the sound has dissolved around me. I pinch the collar of my dress out of habit, and I see both men turn in my direction out of the corner of my eye.
When my eyes find theirs again, they both jerk their heads toward each other.
Daddy hooks a finger inside his mouth and chucks out the brown glob he had hidden behind his lip, almost hitting Pierce’s dirty work boot. Ptuh.
“My daughter? Wottabout her?” He crosses his arms over his chest.
Pierce lets out a long breath, and his shoulders relax.
“I was a wonderin’…” He grabs a bandana from his back pocket, wipes his glistened forehead, and pockets it again. “Is she…is she spoken for?”
I gasp, hiding my mouth with my hand.
“Nope. Whatcha askin’, son?”
Daddy asks with a creased forehead.
Pierce looks at the ground while his fingers scratch his disheveled hair. “Her hand. How old is she?” he asks, before looking back at Daddy.
My stomach drops, and my heart bangs against the walls of my chest.
Daddy squints, eyeing the sky, and finally says, “Nearly eighteen, old ’nough, I reckon.”
“I got a place, a farm, set up on ten acres in the next town over, Walterboro. I’m doin’ fairly well. All the land ain’t cleared yet, but I’m workin’ on it.” He inhales.
“I’d sure like to marry your daughter. I’d like to do it right away, if that’s all right with you.” He glances at me and exhales.
I glare back at him with tight lips. This isn’t happening. I shouldn’t have come today!
“What’s the hurry?” Daddy asks.
Pierce’s shoulders lift. “I need the extra hand. It’s plantin’ season.”
“But I’ll be losin’ one of my hands. Wottam I gittin’ out of this?”
Pierce doesn’t speak for a good minute while he stares at Daddy.
His bottom lip disappears behind his teeth, and he shifts from one foot to the other.
“Well, I gotta extra cow I can spare,” he says. “I’ll bring it by tomorrow if you set up the preacher to marry us. Would that be all right?”
What? I’m getting traded for a cow? A cow? I can’t breathe. My heart beats faster, my mouth gapes, and my hand rubs the pain in my chest.
I want to speak my mind, but I know better.
Heat flashes through me as my temper rises, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
Daddy looks at the ground, kicking a pebble back and forth with the side of his boot.
There’s silence around us, like we’re the only three people here, even though people are mingling about.
After a moment without an answer, Pierce adds, “Sir, I’m an honest, decent, hard-workin’ man. I’ll take right good care of your daughter. You got my word.”
Daddy glances at me and sighs before sticking out his hand. “I reckon we got us a deal. She’ll be ready to leave after the ‘I do’s’ tomorrow.”
My shoulders drop when my heart sinks into my shoes, and all I can do is watch.
Pierce lets out a deep breath and shakes his hand. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do right by her, I swear.”
Daddy beckons me to join them in my marriage proposal with a flick of the wrist. “Pearl.”
My feet shuffle, kicking up dirt as I mosey over to them, astounded.
“Hurry it up, girl. We ain’t got all day.”
Once I’m in reaching distance, he grabs my shoulder and pulls me into a sideways hug. “Pearl, this here’s Pierce Hayes, your soon-to-be husband.”
“But Daddy, I want to graduate. Please, Daddy,” I whine.
“When does school let out?”
“May. May 5th,” I say.
He nods at me and then looks at Pierce. “Can you wait ‘til after her schoolin’ is done?”
I give him a hopeful smile before I see Pierce out the corner of my eye shaking his head.
My smile drops.
“I need her now. I’m already workin’ my fields and need the extra hand. I’m twenty-eight and ready to start a family of my own. She looks like she’ll do.”
Pierce looks at me with apologetic eyes before turning them back at Daddy. “I’m sure you understand, sir.”
Daddy glances at me, and his arm tightens. “I’m sorry, Pearl.”
He locks eyes with Pierce.
“All right, be at the Grace Advent Christian Church on Cedar after service tomorrow, ‘round noon. We’ll do the weddin’ there, then she’ll be all yours.”
With a wide grin, Pierce shakes Daddy’s hand vigorously. “Yes, sir. I won’t be late.” Then he nods before he trots to his wagon and leaves without a glance back at his future wife. Me.
I watch the back of Pierce’s head disappear down the dirt road with blurry vision. What just happened?
I haven’t moved from my spot, and I’m now standing alone.
“Come on, Pearl. Don’t just stand there like a bump on a log. Let’s git home.” Daddy’s in the wagon with reins in hand.
I wipe my eyes before I turn around and climb into the wagon. I don’t speak. This is the worst day of my life—things couldn’t get any worse.
This is not what I expected when I woke this morning.
I should’ve stayed home instead.
“You understand, doncha, Pearl?” he says, pulling onto the road.
My lips jut out, and I look down. This isn’t fair.
“Don’t worry, Pearl. You’ll adjust, just like your mama did.”
My eyes focus on a piece of wood shaving I’m picking at on the side of the wagon with my fingernail. “But I wanted to be a teacher,” I moan.
“Ha, you can’t be no teacher. Don’t you got to go off to some special school for trainin’ or somethin’?”
“Yes, sir,” I mumble.
“And how you plan on payin’ for this special school? I sure as hell can’t pay for it. I can hardly keep you kids fed and clothed, let alone pay for some more schoolin’.
“The crops ain’t payin’ like they was, and we don’t got the land like some folks ‘round heres got. We hurtin’, Pearl. Hurtin’. I’m not sure what we gonna do when the baby comes.”
He sighs and slumps. “We is barely survivin’.”
I look at him with depressed eyes.
“Pearl, I tried to be a good daddy to you. Lord knows I didn’t have one.”
He glances at me and hesitates like he’s unsure whether to proceed.
He finally looks at the reins in his hands.
“My mama was fourteen when the war come along. Those northern boys”—he scrunches his nose in disgust—“marched through town like they owned the place, takin’ what they wanted,” he says through clenched teeth.
He doesn’t look at me, avoiding my questioning eyes.
“Pappy said he found her in the woods soaked in pee, blood, and—” He shakes his head and his jaw twitches.
“They did things to her that… Well, the point I’m tryin’ to make, Pearl, is you need a man to protect you. So you’ll be safe from men like that.” He leans over and spits.
“You never told me that story.”
He glances at me and shrugs. “I don’t like talkin’ about it. I don’t like knowin’ where I come from.”
I swallow with a gulp.
“That’s how you—”
He nods. “Mama died havin’ me, and I didn’t have a daddy. Pappy and Mamma was all I had. They was good, though.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I say, understanding now.
“Listen, the only future you got is to git married. How many boys have courted you?”
I shake my head.
“I figured as much. This is your best opportunity to make somethin’ of yourself. Shoot, you can be a good wife and a mother one day, just like your mama.
“Pierce seems like a gudnuf fella. I’m sure he’ll treatcha right.” He grins, but it’s strained, I can tell. “Him comin’ along is a blessin’.”
I look straight ahead. He’s right, as much as I don’t like to admit it.
Pierce may be my only chance to be a wife and mother, and maybe he’ll be a good husband.
I do want a family of my own, just as much as I want—wanted—to be a teacher.
I don’t want to die alone.
He pulls out his chew bag from his pocket, letting me know the conversation has come to an end.
The rest of the journey home is in silence other than the sound of the wheels rolling along on the dirt, kicking up loose rocks, and a ptuh every now and then.
The birds have even gone quiet.
They must realize now is not a good time to sing.
When we get home, Mama greets us with hands on her hips and shaking her head.
“What happened to the one pig you was supposed to buy?” she asks, her small round belly protruding, barely showing she’s three months pregnant.
“Don’t go sassin’ me, woman. They was a good deal I couldn’t pass up.” He plants a kiss on her cheek.
She pushes him away.
“Urgh, you stink to high heaven. You smell like those filthy animals.”
He shrugs, turns, and strolls back to the wagon. “We got a cow comin’ after church tomorrow.”
“You bought another cow? We can’t afford that!” she says in a raised voice.
“Didn’t. I traded.” He takes the pigs to the pigpen, shutting the door behind them.
“What did you trade? We got nothin’ to trade.”
He comes back, getting the crate out the wagon.
“Pearl,” is all he says before taking the crate to the chicken coop.
She whirls around, facing me with an opened mouth and arched brow. “Pearl?”
With my head bent, I focus on my finger, which is tracing an orange flower on my dress. I can’t meet her eyes.
He comes back, unhitching the horse. “Yep, she’s gittin’ married tomorrow after church. Make sure she knows what’s expected of her. She’s movin’ to Walterboro.” He walks to the barn, the horse trailing behind him.
Her hand covers her mouth. “Walterboro? Who you marryin’, child?”
“Pierce Hayes,” I mumble.
She looks up and rubs her chin. “Hayes, I don’t know any Hayes. Is he a good man?”
“I don’t know about this, Henry,” she says when Daddy ambles back toward us.
“Don’t go pitchin’ a hissy fit. It’s a done deal, and I ain’t goin’ back on my word. Supper ready?” he asks and disappears into the house without waiting for an answer.
She wraps her arm around my shoulder as we watch the door shut behind him.
“This ain’t what I expected when you left this mornin’.”
She sighs. “It’ll be fine, Pearl. You just do the best you can to be a good wife.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, trying in vain to hide the tremor in my voice.
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