A long black train scrapes across Mr. Sutton’s fields. His horses don’t bother lifting their heads. They aren’t afraid of the metal wheels, the smoking engine. The trains come every day, in straight lines like the hems Mama stitches across rich people’s pants. Ironing and sewing, washing and mending. That’s what Mama does for cash. As for me, I sit in Mr. Sutton’s trees, live in one of Mr. Sutton’s cabins, sell Mr. Sutton’s pecans, and dream about riding Mr. Sutton’s horses, all in the shadow of Mr. Sutton’s big house.
“He owns the whole planet. Every inch and acre. From sea to shining sea!” I lean over the branch of my favorite sweet gum tree and yell my thoughts down to Sloth, my neighbor. His cabin is next to ours in the row of servants’ quarters on Mr. Sutton’s place. Three small shotgun shacks with rickety porches and leaky roofs. Ours is Cabin two, held tight by the others that squat like bookends on either side. All three are packed so close together I could spit and hit any of them.
Sloth kneels in the shade around the back corner of Cabin one. He is digging night crawlers for an afternoon trip to the river. With wrinkled hands, he drops a few thick worms into a dented can of dirt and says, “he don’t own the trains.”
I can only guess where the boxcars are going and where they’ve been. I pretend they carry “limber lions, testy tigers, and miniature horses wearing tall turquoise hats.” It says that in Fables and Fairy Tales, the tattered book Mama used to read to me until I learned to read by myself.
I count cars as the train roars past. Fifteen … nineteen.
“Where you think it’s going?” I ask Sloth.
“Into the free,” he says, dropping another long, slick worm into the can and standing to dust dirt from his pants. He limps back to his porch, slow as honey. About six years back, he shot clear through his own shoe while cleaning his hunting rifle. Left him with only two toes on his right foot. He’s walked all hunched over and crooked ever since. He started calling himself an old sloth, on account of having just two toes. The name stuck, and even though Mama still calls him Mr. Michaels, I can’t remember ever calling him anything but Sloth.
I keep counting to twenty-seven cars and watch the train until its tail becomes a tiny black flea on the shoulder of one of Mr. Sutton’s pecan trees. Seventeen of those trees stand like soldiers between the cabins and the big house, guarding the line between my world and his. It’s a good thing Mr. Sutton doesn’t care much for pecans. He lets me keep the money from any that I sell.
I watch the train until it disappears completely. I don’t know what Sloth thinks free looks like, but I imagine it’s a place where nine-year-old girls like me aren’t afraid of their fathers. Where mothers don’t get the blues. Where Mr. Sutton doesn’t own the whole wide world.
I can’t help but wonder if free is where Jack goes when he packs his bags and heads out with the Cauy tucker rodeo crew.
Jack is my father, only I can’t bring myself to call him that.
Sloth wobbles up three slanted steps to his porch. Mama sings sad songs from our kitchen. Mr. Sutton’s horses eat grass without a care, as if they know they aren’t mine to saddle. I climb higher in the sweet gum and hope the engineer will turn that train around and come back to get me. Take me away, to the place Sloth calls the free.
“Can’t believe you snapped my line,” Sloth teases, reminding me about our fishing trip last week when I hooked the biggest catfish I’ve ever seen. He stretches string around a hook to repair the cane pole. Shaking his head, he says, “I woulda never let that cat get away.”
I climb higher in my tree and watch him get ready for today’s trip to the river. It’s just after lunch and, if I squint, I can see all sorts of fancy hats scattering into shops around the square. I figure most of those people have never seen a catfish snap their line or pulled wig- gling worms from a shady spot of soil. “Aren’t you glad it’s Saturday?”
Sloth nods. He knows I’m happy not to have school today. Between helping Mama with her clients’ laundry and helping Sloth
with his chores, it’s all I can do to squeeze school into my weeks.
I turn back toward town, where families leave the diners. They look like ants, moving back to their nests right on schedule. “All that time wasted sitting inside,” I tell Sloth. “They probably can’t even hear the trees.”
Sloth laughs. But it’s a gentle laugh. One that means he’s on my side. In our town, the trees sing. I’m not the first to hear them. The Choctaw named this area Iti Taloa, which means “the song trees.” Then some rich Virginian bought up all the land. He built railroads and brought
in a carousel all the way from Europe. I guess he fig- ured if colorful mermaids could spin round and round to music, right in the middle of the park, no one would care when he forced most of the Choctaw out and planted a big white sign on each end of town: Welcome to Millerville. The new name never took. Most people still call it Iti Taloa, and the postmaster will accept mail both ways.
Regardless of what folks write on their envelopes, I just
call it home.
More than once I’ve heard Jack say to Mama, “I don’t guess your people mind livin’ on stolen land.” There’s always a bitter sting in his voice when he spits out your people. I figure it’s because his mother was Choctaw.
“Your people too,” Mama argued once. “Your father was Irish, wasn’t he?” I’m pretty sure that was the last time she dared to disagree with Jack.
Another thing Jack says about Iti Taloa is “We may not have gold or diamonds, but we do have good dirt.” Because of that dirt, three railroads cross through town to load cotton and corn, so even when the rest of the country has sunk into the Great Depression, jobs here still pay people enough to splurge at Millerville General, Boel’s Department Store, or even the rodeo, which is based smack- dab in the center of town.
If you could look down from the heavens to steal a glance of Iti Taloa, you would need to look just above the Jackson Prairie, nearly to the Alabama border. Here, you’ll find tree-covered slopes that rise six hundred feet with deep river valleys carved in between. Here, where farmland spreads like an apron around the curves of the waterways, you’ll find pines, oaks, magnolias, and cedars. And here, in the limbs of those trees, is where you’ll likely find me, a child of this warm, wild space.
When I’m not stuck in school or helping Mama and Sloth, I roam barefoot, climbing red river bluffs and drinking straight from the cool-water springs. Each day, I scramble through old- growth hardwoods and fertile fields, pretending I am scouting for a lost tribe or exploring ancient ruins. Other kids in town play with dolls and practice piano. I don’t care much for that. My friends are the trees, and my favorite is this sweet gum. Mostly because she’s planted right in front of our porch, so close I can see Mama’s wed- ding ring slip loose around her bony finger while she drops carrots into a black iron pot. When I was too small to climb, I named my tree Sweetie. Now, every day, I climb Sweetie’s limbs and listen for her songs.
Right now my tree is not singing. But Mama is. I watch her tie her blonde hair back from her long, thin face. I try to hear the lyrics, but all I hear is the thunder that howls across Mr. Sutton’s horse pas- ture. I pretend it is the sound of a stomach rumbling. That a dragon needs lunch. Mama watches me from the open kitchen window as she slices more carrots for a pot roast. She stops singing and smiles at me. “Jack’s favorite,” she says, and I don’t think I like pot roast so much anymore.