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

            Smith wife tell me cook up tomatoes we peel day before.   I heat up pots, cook tomatoes.   Smith wife boilin glass jars for tomatoes, cryin all the time.  Noontime.   Smith wife and me fillin up glass jars, her next to me.   I decides to go ahead.   I ax her:   “Missus, smith papa need help now?”   She shake her head yes.   “I got big son, too.  Name Marton.  Gone be sold soon.  Smith papa buy Marton?   Marton smart, learn quick.”

            Smith wife stop cryin, look in my eyes.  “We don’t believe in slavery.  We never buy slaves.  Slavery ain’t right.”

            “But,” I says, “you rents me.   Den rents Marton.   Rents him for long time.  You says, rents not same as buys.”

            “Same thing if long time,” smith wife say.  “Not right.”

            “Maybe you ax smith papa to rents Marton?”

            “Maybe you shut up and do as I tell you!” smith wife say.  Smith wife eyes on fire.

            I does what she say and shuts up.   We keep fillin jars with tomatoes.   Maybe five rows of jars to do.   When smith wife not lookin, I drop one jar on floor.  Jar smash.   Smith wife start cryin again.   “How could you be so stupid?” she yell.   “My mama sent those jars all the way from Boston!”  

            “I so sorry, Missus.  I clean up,” I says.   Real quick I grab de broom and sweep up broken glass pieces, put all dem in bowl, put bowl outside.   She cryin real hard.   She go in other room.   I keep fillin glass jars, finish tomatoes.   I see she layin on da bed, cryin.  Baby wakes up, other baby runs in.   “I sets out supper, Missus,” I calls to her.   I gets out food from cupboard, slices up bread, makes milksop for little baby.   Smith papa comes in.   Sits at table, eats cold supper, says nothin.  I scairt, but I ax him anyways, “You wants to rent my son, Marton?   Not same as buy.  You needs help.”   Missus hear dat, come flyin out da room, yell at me, “I already told you we not doing that.  Now shut up about that son o yourn!”   Smith papa look at me.   “She’s right, you know,” he say to me.  “We not doin that.  Against our belief.”

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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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