Them Cotton Fields Back Home: A Short Story
By: Stephanie L. Robertson
“Why don’t you sit right here and play us a nice song,” said Samantha, leading Ruthie to the black piano bench.Ruthie sat down at the dark baby grand and flipped to a favorite old song her grandmother used to sing to her and her sisters.
Ruthie’s long fingers stretched across ivory and black keys to play the introductory measures.
Then she began to sing:
When I was a wee li’l baby,
My mama used ta rock me in the cradle;
In them o-ld cotton fields back ho-me…
The lines on the staff blurred before her eyes, and the notes began to dance on their ledgers. Eighth notes blended into ties, and the ties slipped off the edge of the music.
Ruthie blinked at the blurring song book. Suddenly she wasn’t seated on the firm bench but was staring down at a canopy of green and white.
“Ruthie!” a voice called from a long row up from her. “You best be pickin’ that cotton and not just standing around.”
It was her oldest sister, Betty Sue. But Betty Sue had died back in the nineties.
Something pegged the back of Ruthie’s head.
“Ouch!” she yelled, but her voice wasn’t worn out and strained. It was childlike and pitched high.
“Wake up, numbskull!”
It was her other older sister, LuAnne, who used to throw everything from pecans to small rocks to get Ruthie’s attention.
“LuAnne?” Ruthie whispered.
“Get to work, foolish girl! You want Uncle Mick to beat us both?”
Ruthie twisted her head around in search for her cruel uncle who had taken the girls in after their parents passed. Lucky for her, Uncle Mick had his back to the girls.Without another word, Ruthie reached down and extracted a piece of fluff from the cotton boll.
As if she hadn’t missed a day of picking cotton in 72 years, Ruthie found herself back at the job she had loathed as a child.Sharp spurs tore at her hands, no matter how carefully she tried to avoid them, and her bare feet padded down the dusty rows as she tossed the cotton into her sack.
How did I get here? She wondered as she plodded along, the sun’s beams burned through the thin flour sack dress she was wearing—the one that her three older sisters had passed down to her.
Had the past 72 years simply been a dream?
If so, it had been a very lovely dream….By shear will, she had escaped the farm, worked her way to a bachelor’s degree at the state university. Met and married her dear William, earned a master’s degree in physics, taught at the college level, had 2.5 children, earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and traveled extensively.
But is that correct? She asked herself. If so, what am I doing back here?
“Stop that lollygagging!” a voice came from behind her. She looked up into the malevolent eyes of Uncle Mick. Then she felt the blow to her head, which was very real. It knocked her off her feet,
and she was falling…
“Did you see the look she gave me before the Ativan took effect, Doctor?” asked Samantha as she held Ruthie’s body, which had slumped over the piano bench.
The doctor sighed. “I did, indeed.”
“As you suggested, we tried to distract her…But she gave the same reaction. Just like every day at the exact same time. None of us are sure where she goes.”
Looking back at his notes, the doctor said, “Then let’s schedule the MRI at that time, tomorrow.”
Somewhere in depths of Ruthie’s tangled mind, she felt herself being carried out of the room and on to a bed. Once again, she was safe in her present world.Until the next day when the song took her back to the past….
Thanks to Writer’s Digest for the creative writing prompt which inspired this short story…”The Prompt: You’re absent-mindedly singing to yourself, when suddenly the topic of the song comes true. Post your response in 500 words or fewer in the comments below.” I used to sing “Them Cotton Fields Back Home” when I was a child growing up in rural south Alabama. Although I’ve never picked cotton myself, I’ve heard plenty of stories of those who did that back-breaking work.
I hope you enjoy this short story and let me know what you think!