“The Cotton Breath” By: Robin Throne

By 1920, Martha’s brothers had sold their last share-crop of sea island cotton and some loyal civil servant had failed to save the seeds of the most precious gold ever seen in the sea islands. The inland-grown plant was no match for what had been on water, and weevil came and brought a smothering death to the silky long fiber that had clothed the queen and Martha’s own night shirts. The brothers left then, off to find their own cotton in whatever better form it took, but she could never find it to leave the island parcel. It was her temporary home, just a tenant, she would say, but it was really because she just had too much of Cypress in her. They all had told her so when they left, hats in hand, fear of the unknown pumping up their blood and visions beyond for better, dry ground—landlocked—laughing at the mockery of words that did not fit. They had run north till they found work-for-hire that lasted more than a week, and dug in to blend with a place not named for captains, and planters, or even old trails of false cotton hope. There were no reminders of those acres given and taken back, begged and procured, then taken again. They bought their plats with clean titles and kept them till they were dead, buried, and had cleanly passed them on to heirs who had no idea of the true value of such gifts. Only they knew what it meant to see a singular deed, but it was together they had burned their mortgages as only they could understand the sentiment of these solemn fire-centered ceremonies that reminded them of the burnings from before, hid away in that boarded-up place on the inside, soaked by old gin and deep self-laceration that cut faint pallid ghosts now not even heard or fully remembered. Yet there, always there. That old south would not be revisited in the sober, waking hours: discontent dormant only until her nephew’s day when all hell broke loose and the spirit of the grandmothers wrested free of the edge water (as ol conjur had predicted) and hovered high to feed them all. Sea island cotton would never return like in the old days for something so precious can only be dreamed of now like that first breath of freedom that comes just before you think it’s your last.

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