By John Thomas Tuft

Cottonheart started every day the same: two biscuits with apple butter. Except the Lord’s Day. Then she added fatback and grits just to keep it special. Cottonheart was all about finding the special. Those passing by her shack at the edge of the fields saw only what they wanted to see. What they didn’t know was that for Cottonheart, on the inside, and always on the inside, was where she made a home. Mama named her Cottonheart, she said, because she knew her girl had a heart that could not be easily broken, soft but courageous. Cottonheart prayed every night to the Good Lord for a man who would come along and make her feel that way, that when they were together, wherever that happened to be, it was home. Being with him would be home. Until then, she had everything she needed.

Six days a week she worked hard, sunrise to sunset, following her nimble fingers as they pulled cloth through the big machines, stitching together clothes she could never afford. Dreams can be expensive while hope can arrive on a breeze. She tried to get through town before dark each night because there was danger all about, and she had to walk alone. More than once as she wound her way through the Settlement section of town she had to skirt around mobs of people, gathered around a burning cross, its flames sending the heat of hate towards heaven. All she wanted was to reach her home, rinse out her dress for tomorrow, eat a simple meal, then pass the time reading her Bible. She liked the stories of Ruth, along with the one about baby Moses in the bullrushes, and the one about Jesus and the woman at the well.

Cottonheart loved her church home. On Sundays, she walked the few miles to the church, back under the dogwoods, for a daylong marathon of preachin’ and prayin,’ eatin’ and singin’, may the Good Lord’s name be praised and lifted up, our One True Hope! Drenched in the pure sweat of being slain in the Spirit, the good folks gathered outside for dinner in the midafternoon. Cold drinks, fried chicken, ribs, potato salad, sweet potato pie—a true feast of the Kingdom. And among them all, a shared grief, a burden none could lift alone, other than the beseeching of their voices in song to be delivered from a fate thrust upon them, mixed with the hope of angels that could make the very stars weep and the trees catch their tears, forever nourishing the roots of a land that only grudgingly offered them lodging, rather than a true home.

Cottonheart saved what little money she could so that one day she could get a record player. People were talking about Chuck Berry and his new music and she knew that would surely brighten her home. She grew distracted by this plan, trying to figure how much more she needed to save one night as she was walking home. The car was upon her before she had a chance to run. Three white boys pulled her inside…and when they were finished with her, they dumped her out down near the river. She dragged herself home, and even went to work the next morning. Without being able to eat her two biscuits. She felt broken inside. Then one day not long after, she realized that she was pregnant.

Cottonheart sat alone in her home after work for days and days, not sure what to do. Finally, she summoned Miss Gracie, the midwife from the Settlement. Miss Gracie told Cottonheart what to do and what to expect. The foreman at the factory started to give her more and more work, always threatening to fire her for having the nerve to get pregnant. He called her slow and awkward, just like “the rest of you people” except he didn’t put it in so many words. It only takes one. Cottonheart was terrified she would lose her job, and then her home. Finally, the time came for the baby to be delivered. Cottonheart strained and struggled as Miss Gracie guided the birthing. She presented a squalling little boy and asked her about a name. “Jesus,” said Cottonheart, “his name is Jesus Moses Cottonheart.”

Cottonheart loved her son dearly. But his heart was not strong. And one night in his sleep, Jesus Moses Cottonheart slipped away at the age of one month. A shattered Cottonheart, gathered up all the money she had saved for the record player and Chuck Berry records in order to buy a small coffin in which to bury her son. The Settlement folks all gathered at the church under the dogwoods to say farewell to little Jesus Moses Cottonheart. For some reason, grief is often rewarded with more grief. And it can serve to be too much.

The next morning, Cottonheart started the day with two biscuits with apple butter. Then she carefully locked the door to her beloved home. She walked to the banks of the river and kept walking. Into the darkness and the bullrushes…wondering if there would ever be a pharaoh’s daughter to give her a home.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.