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Elizabeth Spencer is the author of more than a dozen collections of stories and novels. Born in 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi, she currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir Fire in the Morning (1948)
This Crooked Way (1952)
Voice at the Back Door (1956)
"Light in the Piazza" (1960) short fiction
The Knights and Dragons (1965) novel
No Place for An Angel (1967) novel
Ship Island and Other Stories (1968)
The Snare (1972) novel
Marilee (1981) short stories
The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981)
The Mules (1982)
The Salt Line (1984)
Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories (1988)
Innocence Betrayed (1989) novel
Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer (1991)
On the Gulf (1991)
The Night Travellers (1991) war stories
Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir (1997)
The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction (2001)
From The Southern Woman
published in 2001 by Random House's Modern Library
Excerpt from "The Little Brown Girl"
Maybeth's father had a business in the town, which was about a mile from where they lived, but he had about forty acres of land below the house that he planted in cotton and corn. The land was down the hill from the house and it was on two levels of ground: twenty acres, then a bluff covered with oak sprouts and vines, then a lower level, which stretched to the property line at the small creek. You could see it all from the house-the two fields and the creek, and other fields beyond the creek-but from the upper field you could just see as far as the willows along the creek bank.
For nine months of the year, Maybeth's father hired a Negro named Jim Williams to make the crop. Jim would work uptown in the mornings and come in the afternoons around two o'clock-a black, strapping Negro in blue overalls, stepping light and free and powerful on the road from town. He would go around the house to the back to hitch up the black mule in spring, or file on the hoe blade in summer, or drag a great dirty-white cotton sack to the field in the fall. Spring, summer, and fall they saw him come, until he became as much a part of the household as Maybeth or Brother or Lester Junior or Snookums, the cook; then, after the last pound of cotton was weighed in the cold fall twilight, the Jim they knew would vanish. In winter, they sometimes spoke to a town Negro as Jim, and he would answer back, pleasant as you please, but it was no use pretending he was the same. The cotton stalks stood black and sodden in the field, and the cornstalks broke from the top, and there was nothing for a little girl to do in the afternoons but grow all hot and stuffy by the fire or pester Mother for things to eat or study schoolbooks sometimes. There wasn't anybody much to play with out where they lived.
At last, the spring day would come when Maybeth could leap away from the school bus and the ugly children in the bus, and run up the drive to the house, then down the hill, under the maple trees, to the field. Jim would be in the field, plowing with the middlebuster, and she would get to follow behind him for the first time in the year. Jim did a lot of funny things out there in the field. Up ahead, where the rows ended at the top of the bluff, Jim sometimes stopped when he had pulled the plow out of the ground, and while the black mule circled in the trace chains he would fling up his head and sing out, rich and full, as loud as he could sing, "Ama-a-zi-in' grace-" The air would quiver for the next line to come, but Jim would be well into the field by then, driving the plow down the furrow with a long, swinging stride.
Once, Maybeth tried to tell him the next line. "It goes 'How sweet the sound,' Jim," she said, trying to put her little shoes in Jim's broad tracks.
But all Jim Williams said was, "Git up, Jimson Weed!" Other times, he called the mule Daisy Bell, and that was funny, too, because the mule's name was Dick, and Dick was a man mule, Maybeth was sure. But when she told Jim that, he only said, "Lawd, Lawd," as though she had told him something he had never heard before, or something he had only half heard when she said it. You couldn't tell which.
But most of the time Maybeth was asking Jim questions. When she got like that with Mother, Mother would finally say, "Now, what on earth made you think of that?" Daddy would laugh at her questions and say, "I don't know, honey." But Jim knew the answer to everything. He knew why the jaybird bounced on the air when he flew and why the mule swept his nose along the ground when he turned and why the steel plow slid out of the earth as clean as when it entered. Sometimes Maybeth knew that Jim was making up, but most of the time she believed him word for word, like the catechism in Sunday School.
Excerpted from The Southern Woman by Elizabeth Spencer Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.