A story from 1820’s Charleston, South Carolina, in which a fine balance of justice is maintained.

I

            Morning cool when Mista carry me to blacksmith house.   Hawks flyin low.  Time to bring in garden crop.   Smith wife haves me five days to put up garden for winter.   I sees her give Mista money for me.  

            She look tired.  Two babies, one in da cradle.   She got pale hair.  

            My baby growed now.  Marton his name.   Near ready for sale.   Can’t think of him bein sold. 

            Smith wife tell me they got no slaves.   She don’t believe in slaves.  But she gots me five days!  She say she rents me.   She say dat different.  Friends can’t help her no more.  She need help.

            We boils water for peelin garden things for jars and crocks.  We boils outside.   Sun hotter.   She in garden while I tends pot.   Big son come in.  He darker.  He work with papa in smithy.  He ax me where is mama.  I tells him.  He smell like smoke, rain, horse things.  He go out but he look back, smile.

            First day not over til way long after sun goes down.  Smith wife make us supper but I keeps peelin out da garden.   I eats after.   Smith wife show me blanket near stove for my bed.  I tired.   Sleeps good.

II

            Second day more peelin, choppin garden things.   More boilin.   We cooks everything we gonna put up.   Squashes, dark and light.   Beans, dark and light.  Sweet onion.  Peelin tomatoes.  Okra, corn.   Smith wife got cloves, cinnamon stick, dill for picklin.  Plenty salt.

Sun hot but days better here den back at home place.   Smith wife kindly, work hard.   Today she let me help with babies.   All babies sweet.   I show smith wife how to bundle baby on her back, keep choppin, boilin while baby sleep.   Big son come in, out three times.   Hims mama ax why he in house.  He turn red.   Smith papa come in after him one time.   Smith papa big man, dark like soot.   Not talk at supper time, just eat fast.  

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  • David Flesher on Jul 28, 2011

    For Janice:
    (A Fine Balance)

    * “All babies sweet.”
    -And, my eyes are moistening. Not just babies are sweet- some folks who’s babies are grown are still sweet like babies.

    *”She look tired.”
    *”She don’t believe in slaves.”
    *“Pale hair.”
    *”Trees yellow leafin.”
    *”Smithy makin money.”
    -This girl reminds me of Ann Frank. She’s not just documenting, she’s not just journaling. She’s a writer. A poetic, talented, observant and ambitious writer. She could have taught Hemingstein how to shorten a sentence.

    She challenges me by the end, but then, she didn’t live in a world of justice. Yes they rent slaves, which is really the same as owning them, except that they help slaves owners turn a profit, but they don’t abuse her- at least not in the time I know her. So she really comes to represent a larger issue- slavery, which itself, perhaps especially to “renters,” is benign when viewed from a distance, but really is poison which will deteriorate their “health” idiopathically (sp?), even as it provides “food” for them.
    That might be a long-winded way of saying, “This girl’s name is Kharma.” …(sp?)
    …That might be a long-winded way of simply saying, “She’s Kharma.”

    The language slowed me down, but worked to make me feel distant from this girl’s world and her daily life. But by the end, I’m noticing her, not the words. There’s a lesson in that as well- about how the way people speak, no matter how “different,” says potentially very little about the difference between “them” and “us.”
    Oh, now I get it! “A FINE Balance,” as in, “Fine as glass ground to stardust in the winter stores.”

    You must have practice at this writing thing. I’ve now spent more time thinking and talking about this story then I did reading it, which really is more of a compliment to myself about how I can read a page every ten minutes, now.
    PS- Too bad Anne Frank never got a chance to cook for the Nazis.

    David F.

  • ward on Sep 14, 2011

    I\’m thinking of Papa smith and how he is always eating fast and never talking during dinner. He works all day, comes in and scarfs down his food. He will probably swallow those tiny bits of glass whole and never know it…I wonder what kind of damage they will do to his insides…

    I like the relationship you show between mama smith and the woman as they are working together. Mama smith says she doesn\’t believe in slavery, but her attitude towards the slave and the way she talks down to her shows how the woman really feels. She may say she does not believe in slavery, but she still believes that this woman is beneath her, which is the premise for slavery.

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