Poor Sandy

This is a tragic love story with a rather horrible end, set in slavery days in North Carolina. I adapted it from Ch. 2 “Po Sandy” from “The Conjure Woman” by African-American fiction writer, essayist, and activist Charles Chesnutt, first published in 1888. I stayed (mostly) true to the story but altered the slave-vernacular language that it originally had.

About 10 years following the end of the Civil War, my wife and I decided to move from Ohio to the warmer climate of North Carolina, where we hoped to have a vineyard. The northern winters had become tiresome and we supposed that enough time had elapsed after the war for things to have settled and returned to a sense of normalcy in the South. The fact that land was very cheap in North Carolina was a further incentive for us and we located an old plantation site near Fayetteville that had previously had a small vineyard in production before the War.

The previous owner had joined the Southern cause and never made it home. Sherman’s army had fired the main house on their passage through the area, leaving only two brick chimneys which book-ended the previous structure, and piles of rubble overgrown with greenbrier, blackberries, morning glories, with a few sweetgum saplings sprouting here and there between. The estate had been in probate for quite some time but had finally settled and the heirs were ready to rid themselves of it, which worked to our benefit.

In short order we had built a modern farmhouse that was undoubtedly much more modest than the previous mansion had been. It suited us, mostly, but for some reason my wife took it into her head that she wanted a separate kitchen out-back of the main house, in the old Southern style. Of course, I had to build it.

On the northeast corner of my vineyard, and fronting the Lumberton plank-road, there stood a small frame house, of the simplest construction. It was built of pine lumber, and contained but one room, to which one window gave light and one door admission. Its weather-beaten sides revealed a virgin innocence of paint. Against one end of the house, and occupying half its width, there stood a huge brick chimney: the crumbling mortar had left large cracks between the bricks; the bricks themselves had begun to scale off in large flakes, leaving the chimney sprinkled with unsightly blotches. These evidences of decay were but partially concealed by a creeping vine, which extended its slender branches hither and thither in an ambitious but futile attempt to cover the whole chimney. The wooden shutter, which had once protected the unglazed window, had fallen from its hinges, and lay rotting in the rank grass and jimson-weeds beneath. This building, I learned when I bought the place, had been used as a schoolhouse for several years prior to the breaking out of the war, since which time it had remained unoccupied, save when some stray cow or vagrant hog had sought shelter within its walls from the chill rains and nipping winds of winter.

To save expense, I decided to tear down the old schoolhouse, and use the lumber, some of which was in a good state of preservation, in the construction of the new kitchen. Before demolishing the old house, however, I made an estimate of the amount of material contained in it and found that I would have to buy several hundred feet of lumber additional in order to build the new kitchen according to my wife’s plan.

One morning old Julius McAdoo, a former slave of the old plantation, who having nowhere to go had stayed on the property and remained after we bought it, harnessed the gray mare to the rockaway, and drove my wife and me over to the sawmill from which I meant to order the new lumber. We drove down the long lane which led from our house to the plank-road; following the plank-road for about a mile, we turned into a road running through the forest and across the swamp to the sawmill beyond. Our carriage jolted over the half-rotted corduroy road which traversed the swamp, and then climbed the long hill leading to the sawmill. When we reached the mill, the foreman had gone over to a neighboring farmhouse, probably to smoke or gossip, and we were compelled to await his return before we could transact our business. We remained seated in the carriage, a few rods from the mill, and watched the leisurely movements of the mill-hands. We had not waited long before a huge pine log was placed in position, the machinery of the mill was set in motion, and the circular saw began to eat its way through the log, with a loud whir which resounded throughout the vicinity of the mill. The sound rose and fell in a sort of rhythmic cadence, which, heard from where we sat, was not unpleasing, and not loud enough to prevent conversation. When the saw started on its second journey through the log, Julius observed, in a lugubrious tone, and with a perceptible shudder:—

“Ugh! That curdles my blood!”

“What’s the matter, Uncle Julius?” inquired my wife, who is of a very sympathetic turn of mind. “Does the noise affect your nerves?”

“No, Miss Annie,” replied the old man, with emotion, “I ain’t nervous; but that saw, cuttin’ an grindin’ through that stick of timber, an moanin’, an groanin,’ an squeekin’, makes me remember some of the old times and reminds me of poor Sandy.“ The pathetic intonation with which he lengthened out the “poor Sandy” touched a responsive chord in our own hearts.

“And who was poor Sandy?” asked my wife, who takes a deep interest in the stories of plantation life which she hears from the lips of the older people. Some of these stories are quaintly humorous; others wildly extravagant; while others, poured freely into the sympathetic ear of a Northern-bred woman, disclosed many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery.

“Sandy,” said Julius, in reply to my wife’s question, “was a man that used to belong to old Mr. Marrabo McSwayne. Mr. Marrabo’s place was on the other side of the swamp, right next to your place. Sandy was a good man and could do so many things around about the plantation, and always tended to his work so well, that when Mr. Marrabo’s children grew up and married off, they all wanted their daddy to give them Sandy for a wedding present. But Mr. Marrabo knew the rest wouldn’t be satisfied if he gave Sandy to one of them; so when they were all married, he fixed it by allowing one of his children to take Sandy for a month or so, and then another for a month or so, and so on that way until they had all had him the same length of time; and then they would all take him around again, except once in a while when Mr. Marrabo would lend him to some of his other kinfolks around the country when they were short of hands; ‘til eventually it got so Sandy didn’t hardly know where he was going to stay from one week to the next.”

“One time, when Sandy was lent out as usual, a speculator came along with a lot of slaves, and Mr. Marrabo swapped Sandy’s wife off for a new woman. When Sandy came back, Mr. Marrabo gave him a dollar, and told Sandy he was very sorry to break up his family, but the speculator had given him top dollar, and times were hard and money scarce, and so he was blessed to make the trade. Sandy complained some about losing his wife, but he soon saw there wasn’t any use in cryin’ over spilt molasses; and being as he liked the looks of the new woman, he took up with her after she’d been on the plantation a month or so.”

“Sandy and his new wife got on mighty well together, and everyone started talking about how loving they were. When Tennie got sick once, Sandy sat up all night with her, and then went to work in the morning just like he had his regular sleep; and Tennie would have done anything in the world for her Sandy.”

“Sandy and Tennie hadn’t been living together for more than two months before Mr. Marrabo’s old uncle that lived down in Robeson County sent up to find out if Mr. Marrabo could lend him, or hire him, a good man for a month or so. Mr. Marrabo was one of these-here easy-going folks that wanted to please everybody, and he says yes, he could lend him Sandy. Then Mr. Marrabo told Sandy to get ready to go down to Robeson next day, to stay a month or so.”

“It was monstrously hard on Sandy to take him away from Tennie. It was so far down to Robeson that he didn’t have any chance of coming back to see her until the time was up; he wouldn’t have minded coming ten or fifteen miles at night to see Tennie, but Mr. Marrabo’s uncle’s plantation was more than forty miles off. Sandy was mighty sad and cast down after what Mr. Marrabo told him and he told Tennie:

“‘I’m getting monstrously tired of this going around so much. Here I am lent to Mr. Jim’s this month, and I’ve got to do so-and-so; and to Mr. Archie the next month, and I’ve got to do so-and-so; then I’ve got to go to Miss Jennie’s: and it’s Sandy this and Sandy that, and Sandy here and Sandy there, ‘til it appears to me I ain’t got no home, no master, no mistress, no nothing. I can’t even keep a wife: my other ol’ woman was sold away without my getting a chance to even tell her good-bye; and now I’ve got to go off and leave you, Tennie, and I don’t know whether I’m ever going to see you again or not. I wish I was a tree, or a stump, or a rock, or something that could stay on the plantation for a while.”

“After Sandy got through talking, Tennie didn’t say a word, but just sat there by the fire, studying and studying. In a little bit, she up and says:

“‘Sandy, did I ever tell you I was a conjure woman?’

“Of course, Sandy hadn’t ever dreamt of anything like that, and he had a great admiration for her when he heard what Tennie said. By and by Tennie went on:

“‘I ain’t gophered nobody, or done any conjure work, for fifteen years or more; and when I got religion, I made up my mind I wouldn’t work no more gopher. But there are some things I don’t believe it’s a sin to do; and if you don’t want to be sent around from pillar to post, and if you don’t want to go down to Robeson, I can fix things so you won’t have to. If you’ll just say the word, I can turn you to whatever you want to be, and you can stay right where you want to, as long as you’ve a mind to.’

“Sandy said he didn’t care; he was willing to do anything to stay close to Tennie. Then Tennie asked him if he didn’t want to be turned into a rabbit.

“Sandy said, ‘No, the dogs might get after me.’

“‘Shall I turn you to a wolf?’ asked Tennie.

“‘No, everybody’s scared of a wolf, and I don’t want anybody to be scared of me.’

“‘Shall I turn you to a mockingbird?’

“‘No, a hawk might catch me. I want to be turned into something that will stay in one place.’

“‘I can turn you to a tree,’ says Tennie. ‘You won’t have a mouth or ears, but I can turn you back once in a while, so you can get something to eat, and hear what’s going on.’

“’Well,’ Sandy says, ‘that’ll do.’ And so, Tennie took him down by the edge of the swamp, not far from the quarters, and turned him into a big pine tree, and set him out amongst some other trees. And the next morning, as some of the field-hands were going along there, they saw a tree that they didn’t remember having seen before; it was monstrously queer, and they were blessed to admit that they hadn’t remembered right, or else one of the saplings had been growing monstrously fast.

“When Mr. Marrabo discovered that Sandy was gone, he figured Sandy had run away. He got the dogs out, but the last place they could track Sandy to was the foot of that pine tree. And there the dogs stood and barked, and bayed, and pawed at the tree, and tried to climb up on it; and when they were taken around through the swamp to look for scent, they broke loose and made for that tree again. It was the most bewildering thing they ever heard of, and Mr. Marrabo allowed that Sandy must have climbed up on the tree and jumped off on a mule or something, and rode far enough to spoil the scent. Mr. Marrabo wanted to accuse some of the other field hands for helping Sandy off, but they all denied it to the last; and everybody knew Tennie was too attached to Sandy to help him run away where she couldn’t ever see him anymore.

“When Sandy had been gone long enough for folks to think he had gotten clean away, Tennie used to go down to the woods at night and turn him back, and then they’d slip up to the cabin and sit by the fire and talk. But they had to be monstrously careful, or else somebody would have seen them, and that would have spoiled the whole thing; so Tennie always turned Sandy back in the morning early, before anybody was stirring.

“But Sandy didn’t get along without his trials and tribulations. One day a woodpecker came along and commenced to peck at the tree; and the next time Sandy was turned back he had a little round hole in his arm, just like a sharp stick had been stuck in it. After that Tennie set a sparrow-hawk to watch the tree; and when the woodpecker came along next morning to finish his nest, he got gobbled up almost before he stuck his bill in the bark.

“Another time, Mr. Marrabo sent a man out to the woods to chop turpentine boxes. The man chopped a box in Sandy’s tree, and hacked the bark up two or three feet, to let thee turpentine run. The next time Sandy was turned back he had a big scar on his left leg, just like it had been skinned; and it took Tennie all night to fix a mixture to cure it up. After that, Tennie set a hornet to watch the tree; and when the man came back again to cut another box on the other side of the tree, the hornet stung him so hard that the ax slipped and cut his foot nearly off.

“When Tennie saw so many things happening to the tree, she figured she’d have to turn Sandy to somethin else; and after studying the matter over, and talking with Sandy one evening, she made up her mine to fix up a gopher mixture that would turn herself and Sandy to foxes, or something, so they could run away and go somewhere they could be free to live the way they wanted.

“But there’s no telling what’s going to happen in this world. Tennie had gotten the night set for her and Sandy to run away, when that very day one of Mr. Marrabo’s sons, Duncan, rode up to the big house in his buggy, and said his wife was monstrous sick, and he wanted his mother to lend him a woman to nurse his wife. Tennie’s mistress said send Tennie; she’s a good nurse. Mr. Duncan was in a terrible hurry to get back home. Tennie was washing at the big house that day, and her mistress said she should go right along with Mr. Duncan. Tennie tried to make some excuse to get away and hide ‘til night when she would have everything fixed up for her and Sandy; she said she wanted to go to her cabin to get her bonnet, but her mistress said it didn’t matter about the bonnet; her head-handkerchief was good enough. Then Tennie said she wanted to get her best frock, but her mistress said no, she didn’t need another frock, and when that one got dirty, she could get a clean one where she was going. So Tennie had to get in the buggy and go along with young Mr. Dunkin to his plantation, which was more than twenty miles away; and there wasn’t a chance of her seeing Sandy anymore until she came back home. The poor gal felt monstrous bad about the way things were going, and she knew Sandy must be a wondering why she didn’t come and turn him back anymore.

“While Tennie was away nursing young Mr. Dunkin’s wife, Mr. Marrabo took a notion to build a new kitchen; and since he had lots of timber on his place, he began to look around for a tree to have the lumber cut. And I don’t know how it came to be so, but he happened to hit on the very tree that Sandy was turned into. Tennie was gone, and there wasn’t anyone who knew anything to watch the tree.

“The two men that cut the tree down said they never had such a time with a tree before: their axes would glance off, and didn’t appear to make any progress through the wood; and of all the creakin’, and shakin’, and wobblin’ you ever see, that tree did it when it commenced to fall. It was the blamedest thing!

“When they got the tree all trimmed up, they chained it up to a timber wagon and started for the sawmill. But they had a hard time getting the log there: first they got stuck in the mud when they were going across the swamp, and it was two or three hours before they could get out. When they started on again, the chain kept coming loose, and they had to keep stopping to hitch the log up again. When they commenced to climb the hill to the sawmill, the log broke loose, and rolled down the hill and in amongst the trees, and it took near half a day more to get it hauled up to the sawmill.

“The next morning after the day the tree was hauled to the sawmill, Tennie came home. When she got back to her cabin, the first thing she did was to run down to the woods and see how Sandy was getting along. When she saw the stump standing there, with the sap running out of it, and the limbs laying scattered around, she nearly went out of her mind. She ran to her cabin, and got her gopher mixture, and then followed the track of the timber wagon to the sawmill. She knew Sandy couldn’t live more than a minute or so if she turned him back, for he was all chopped up, so he’d be bleeding to death. But she wanted to turn him back long enough to explain to him that she hadn’t gone off on purpose and left him to be chopped down and sawed up. She didn’t want Sandy to die with any hard feelings towards her.

“The hands at the sawmill had just got the big log on the carriage, and were starting up the saw, when they saw a woman running up the hill, all out of breath, crying and going on just like she was a lunatic. It was Tennie; she came right into the mill and threw herself on the log, right in front of the saw, hollering and crying to her Sandy to forgive her, and not to think hard of her, for it wasn’t any fault of her own. Then Tennie remembered the tree didn’t have any ears, and she was getting ready to work her gopher mixture to turn Sandy back, when the mill-hands caught hold of her and tied her arms with a rope, and fastened her to one of the posts in the sawmill; and then they started the saw up again, and cut the log up into boards right before her eyes. But it was mighty hard work; for of all the squawkin’, and moanin’, and groanin’, that log did while the saw was cutting through it. The saw was one of those old-timey, up-and-down saws, and it took longer those days to saw a log than it does now. They greased the saw, but that didn’t stop the noise; it kept right on, until finally they got the log all sawn up.

“When the overseer that ran the sawmill came from breakfast, thee hands told him about the crazy woman—as they supposed she was—that had come running into the sawmill, hollering and going on, and tried to throw herself before the saw. And the overseer sent two or three of the hands to take Tennie back to her master’s plantation.

“Tennie appeared to be out of her mind fer a long time, and her master had to lock her up in the smokehouse until she got over her spells. Mr. Marrabo was monstrous mad, and it would have made your flesh crawl to hear him cuss, because, he said, the speculator that he got Tennie from had fooled hm by putting a crazy woman off on him. While Tennie was locked up in the smokehouse, Mr. Marrabo hauled the lumber from the sawmill, and put up his new kitchen.

“When Tennie got quieted down enough that she could be allowed to go around the plantation, she worked up her courage and told Mr. Marrabo all about Sandy and the pine tree; and when Mr. Marrabo heard it, he allowed she had the worst judgement of anyone he ever heard of. He didn’t know what to do with Tennie: first he thought he’d put her in the poorhouse; but finally, seeing as she didn’t do any harm to anybody or nothing, but just went around moanin’, an groanin’, an shakin’ her head, he concluded to let her stay on the plantation to nurse the little children when their mothers worked the cotton field.

“The new kitchen Mr. Marrabo built wasn’t much use. It hadn’t been put up long before the workers commenced to notice queer things about it. They could hear something moanin’ and groanin’ about the kitchen in the night-time, and when the wind would blow they could hear something hollering and squeeking like it was in great pain and suffering. And it got so after a while that it was all Mr. Marrabo’s wife could do to get a woman to stay in the kitchen in the daytime long enough to do the cooking; and there wasn’t anyone on the plantation that wouldn’t rather take forty lashes than to go about that kitchen after dark, —that is, except Tennie; she didn’t appear to mind the haunts. She used to slip around at night, and sit on the kitchen steps, and lean up against the door-jam, and run on to herself with some kind of foolishness that nobody could make out; for Mr. Marrabo had threatened to send her off the plantation if she said anything to anyone else about the pine-tree. But somehow or another the others found out all about it, and they all knew the kitchen was haunted by Sandy’s spirit. And by and by it got so Mr. Marrabo’s wife herself was scared to go out in the yard after dark.

“When it came to that, Mr. Marrabo took the kitchen down and used the lumber to build that old schoolhouse that you’re talking about pulling down. The schoolhouse wasn’t used except in the daytime, and on dark nights folks going along the road would hear queer sounds and see queer things. Poor old Tennie used to go down there at night, and wander around the schoolhouse; and everybody allowed she went to talk with Sandy’s spirit. And one winter morning, when one of the boys went to school early to start the fire, what should he find but poor old Tennie, laying on the floor, stiff and cold, and dead. There didn’t appear to be nothing particularly the matter with her,—she had just grieved herself to death for her Sandy. Mr. Marrabo didn’t shed any tears. He thought Tennie was crazy, and there wasn’t any telling what she might do next; and there ain’t much room in this world for crazy.

“It wasn’t long after that before Mr. Marrabo sold a piece of his tract of land to Mr. Dugal McAdoo, —my old master,—and that’s how the old schoolhouse happens to be on your place. When the war broke out, the school stopped, and the old schoolhouse has been standing empty ever since, —that is, except for the haints. And folks say that de old schoolhouse, or any other house that got any of that lumber in it that was sawed out of the tree that Sandy was turned into, is going to be haunted until the last piece of plank is rotted and crumbles into dust.”

Annie had listened to this gruesome narrative with strained attention.

“What a system it was,” she exclaimed, when Julius had finished, “under which such things were possible!”

“What things?” I asked, in amazement. “Are you seriously considering the possibility of a man’s being turned into a tree?”

“Oh, no,” she replied quickly, “not that.” and then she murmured absently, and with a dim look in her fine eyes, “Poor Tennie!”

We ordered the lumber, and returned home. That night, after we had gone to bed, and my wife had to all appearances been sound asleep for half an hour. She startled me out of an incipient doze by exclaiming suddenly,—

“John, I don’t believe I want my new kitchen built out of the lumber in that old schoolhouse.”

“You wouldn’t for a moment allow yourself,” I replied, with some asperity, “to be influenced by that absurdly impossible yarn which Julius was spinning today?”

“I know the story is absurd,” she replied dreamily, “and I am not so silly as to believe it. But I don’t think I should ever be able to take any pleasure in that kitchen if it were built out of that lumber. Besides, I think the kitchen would look better and last longer if the lumber were all new.”

Of course she had her way. I bought the new lumber, though not without grumbling. A week or two later I was called away from home on business. On my return, after an absence of several days, my wife remarked to me, —

“John, there has been a split in the Sandy Run Baptist Church, on the temperance question. About half the members have come out from the main body and set up for themselves. Uncle Julius is one of the seceders, and he came to me yesterday and asked if they might not hold their meetings in the old schoolhouse for the present.”

“I hope you didn’t let the old rascal have it,” I returned, with some warmth. I had just received a bill for the new lumber I had bought.

“Well,” she replied, “I couldn’t refuse him the use of the house for so good a purpose.”

“And I’ll venture to say,” I continued, “that you subscribed something toward the support of the new church?”

She did not attempt to deny it.

“What are they going to do about the ghost?” I asked, somewhat curious to know how Julius would get around this obstacle.

“Oh,” replied Annie, “Uncle Julius says that ghosts never disturb religious worship, but that if Sandy’s spirit should happen to stray into meeting by mistake, no doubt the preaching would do it good.”

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