Newton County, Mississippi, 1874
She’d been daydreaming again, that was the trouble. Mama always said someday her future would pass her by while she was lollygagging, and Exah hated it when Mama was right. She knew her brother J. J. was coming home today, and just possibly bringing his friend Jesse Smith to stay, and she’d planned to be scrubbed and changed into her clean dress and greeting them in the front hall, fresh as a peach.
It was hard being the last child left at home. Not that she was a child anymore. She was nineteen — perfectly old enough to be moving on into a home of her own. But that required a husband. Plenty of young men had come calling, of course. Poor as they were, her people were better off than most, and the local families would have been pleased to have a son married into the (comparatively) prosperous Haralsons. But the suitors thus far were all farm boys, most of whom she’d known since they were runny-nosed toddlers, and whom she couldn’t imagine staring at across the kitchen table in some ramshackle farmhouse for the rest of her life.
She knew what that life would be like. She’d seen it already. Even before the war, farming had seemed a particularly sweaty way to make a living. She’d watched her mother work nonstop from dawn ’til long past dusk, straining her eyes to squint at her mending by the firelight in the evenings. It was a life of monotony studded with unpleasant surprise, and it was a fate Exah wanted desperately to avoid. Which is why the ambitious Mr. Smith, training to be a pharmacist and with absolutely no interest in farming, had been such promising fodder for her daydreams.
Daydreams that had made her late with her chores, and left her to greet her brother and his friend looking wrung-out as a dishrag. Exah darted behind the shed and then peered around the side, trying to get a good view of the front yard where her brother J. J.’s wagon and mule had just pulled up. She was certain she had seen two heads bobbing atop the wagon, and sure enough, she heard a strange male voice in addition to J. J.’s. She could also make out Mama’s voice extending welcome to the newcomer as she embraced her son. “Mr. Smith, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Haralson. Please — call me Jesse. I do hope it’s no trouble…”
“Nonsense, always happy to entertain a friend of J. J.’s,” replied Mama.
Exah could barely make out this conversation from her scouting position beside the shed. She leaned out to see if she could make out the stranger’s face, and J. J. spotted her.
He smiled, and started to give her a wave of acknowledgement, but Exah shook her head forcefully. She put her finger to her lips to shush him. Then she gestured down at her chore-filthy dress, pointed to her disheveled hair frizzling out from its hasty bun, and gave her brother a chilling look.
She darted back behind the shed, hoping that J. J. had heard her silent message — James Jordan Haralson, if you dare to present me to your friend Jesse while I am in this state, I swear I shall cease to call you brother, but I may see fit to call you a number of other less affectionate things. She heard footsteps climbing up the porch, and the squeak of the front door’s hinges. She let out her breath. They were going inside. Now, if she could sneak in through the back door and get upstairs to wash. She leaned down to beat some of the dust and mud off her skirts first.
“Oh, pardon me, miss, I didn’t see you there,” came a voice beside her.
Exah froze. Oh, no. That could only be the voice of…
“Jesse Franklin Smith,” said the young man quietly. “At your service.”
Exah slowly straightened up. She saw a young man about her age, in a fine but travel-worn suit, holding J. J.’s mule by a lead. She had time to notice his gray eyes crinkling with amusement before she darted her eyes away. Some introduction! Her cheeks burned.
“J. J. said I would find a shed for the mule back this way,” said the young man hesitantly. He gestured toward the mule.
“Of course,” Exah sighed. “Right back here.” Still not looking at the young man directly, she came to the mule’s head. “Hey there, Nellie… how’d you like the big city, hmm? You eat fancy meals like oats and apples up there in Meridian?” The mule nuzzled Exah affectionately.
“I’ll take her from here, sir,” she said, her back to the young man. “You go on in the house and find some refreshment. My dear brother will surely be looking for you.” The words came out from between clenched teeth, as Exah thought about the much more colorful things she would like to call him.
Her heart was pounding, but she was hoping that the young man would go inside and when she presented herself later, she would be so transformed that he wouldn’t recognize her and would put the image of the filthy, disheveled girl behind the shed out of his mind. Holding Nellie by the bridle, she began walking around the side of the shed, head held high, exuding dignity with every step.
That is, until she tripped over the bucket and landed face-first in the mud. She tumbled, the mule startled, and before she could stop herself, Exah had let loose a stream of curses that she certainly hadn’t learned in Sunday School. She was alight with fury. It wasn’t just that she had embarrassed herself in front of a stranger, but this particular stranger. The boy her brother brought home specifically to introduce to her. Her face burned with angry tears.
Mr. Jesse Franklin Smith had calmed the mule and was extending a hand to help her up off the ground. Exah sighed, and took the proffered arm.
“That’s quite a vocabulary you’ve got there,” he said mildly. “Where did a gentle young lady such as yourself learn such rich and… descriptive language?” He didn’t sound disapproving. Exah thought he sounded a bit impressed.
Exah stopped trying to beat the dust off her filthy dress and squared her shoulders. “I haven’t had much opportunity for a genteel education, Mr. Smith. I spend most of my time with farm hands and animals.” She might as well give it up. There was absolutely no way for her to make a positive impression on the young man at this point, so she shrugged her shoulders and took Nellie’s lead again. “I’ve got the mule, you go on in,” she said.
Despite having made what was certainly the worst first impression in history, Exah did sneak upstairs to wash and change before joining the boys and Mama in the parlor. It was clearly not worth making an effort at this point, but she felt an obligation to her brother to at least pretend to be doing her best.
She shook her head at her own foolishness, hastily pinning up her hair. On her way downstairs, she paused at the mirror on the landing, checking to make sure she’d gotten all the mud. Her ears strained to hear the voices from the parlor below. Then she froze, hearing her own name.
J. J. was laughing. “Well, Jesse, that’s all Exah’s doing. Be sure to ask her about her prowess in military strategy when she gets downstairs.” Oh, sweet Lord. Was she to have no peace? She swept down the stairs as fast as her skirts would allow, fairly bursting into the parlor just in time to hear Mama’s reply.
“You can joke about it all you want, James Jordan, but your sister is the only reason you have a roof over your head this minute — oh, there you are, Exah!”
Mr. Smith stood as she entered the room.
“Allow me to present my sister, Exah,” J. J. said without rising from his seat. “Exah, this is my friend, Mr. Jesse Franklin Smith.”
Exah nodded to Mr. Smith. “We’re already acquainted,” she said with a sigh. The mud, the mule, the cursing. But when she caught his eye, she found him smiling, a small smile she felt surely was meant only for her. As if that disastrous meeting behind the shed had already become a private memory shared by the two of them, as silent and precious as a pearl. He reached out his hand.
“Delighted all the same,” he said, and Exah felt her cheeks warm from the sincerity in his voice.
“I was just telling Mr. Smith about your negotiations with General Sherman,” J. J. said. Exah remembered vaguely that she had been irritated by her brother just moments ago for bringing up this story, but she couldn’t seem to gather her thoughts. She had a queer feeling, not unlike vertigo, as if her life had just tipped in a new direction. She sunk into a chair and listened as J. J. and Mama took it in turns to spin the story. Her story.
“As I was saying, Union troops cut right through our land in 1864, with old William Tecumseh Sherman himself leading the way,” J. J. began.
Jesse nodded. “You’re not too far from the railroad then. Didn’t they follow the rail lines? Trying to disrupt our transportation of troops and supplies.”
“That’s right, Mr. Smith,” said Mama. “From Vicksburg all the way to Meridian and back. But it wasn’t just about tearing up the railroad.” She shook her head and rocked her body back and forth in her chair a little, as if overcome by the audacity and cruelty of those Union soldiers all over again. It’s been ten years, thought Exah, watching her. I wonder how long it will take people to forget.
“It was about provisioning his troops too, of course,” continued J. J. “Sherman had exhausted the area around Vicksburg by then, and plenty of winter left. He and his men came raiding the root cellars and corn cribs of the farms all through here, and us already stretched and wondering how we’d make it through the winter.” J. J. spoke with authority, despite being a boy of eleven at the time.
Mama put up a hand. “That wasn’t his real aim, though,” she said darkly. “No, he was trying to break the will of the Southern people, to sicken them for the taste of war. His mightiest adversary was the strength of our spirit.” She paused for dramatic effect. “After his men had stolen everything they could carry, he ordered them to burn the rest.”
Exah kept her eyes on Mr. Smith. The young man nodded, as if to a familiar tune. His eyes were attentive and respectful, but faraway too. Exah wondered what it was he’d lost. The war had torn something from all of them.
“You could see the smoke for miles,” said J. J. “By the time soldiers rode onto our property, we were huddled on the front porch, the silver already buried in the back pasture, and the last of the hogs let loose into the forest.”
“They were good pigs, we knew we’d be able to call them back,” Mama put in. Good pigs wouldn’t let themselves be slaughtered by Yankees.
“We’d done what we could. But seeing those Union soldiers ride right on up to our own house?” J. J. whistled. “That was a level of fearful I hope never to feel again.”
Exah listened with anticipation as they got closer to her part of the story. It was always this way: J. J. and Mama passing the story back and forth in a dance they’d honed over years of practice. The day was fine and there were hours of sunlight left, so Daddy was in the fields instead of taking tea with them in the parlor. But even if he’d been present, he wouldn’t have said a word. He left the storytelling to others.
“We knew right away someone important was leading the group,” said Mama. “You could tell by the way he sat up in his saddle, haughty and overly pleased with himself. Not to mention the amount of decoration on his hat and coat.” She shook her head, as if William Sherman’s finery was a measure of his weak character. “We held our breath, wondering what was going to happen. Mr. Haralson stepped forward, ready to face the general. But then, before anyone could stop her, little Exah, all of nine years old, strode down the porch steps like a little general herself. We called her back, but she paid us no heed. She was waiting in the yard, hands on her hips, that red hair loose and flying, when Sherman brought his horse to a halt.”
“One of us should have gone after her and brought her on back,” J. J. said. “But we were too stunned.”
“Stunned, sure,” said Mama. “But also — she just seemed so capable, so commanding. We trusted her somehow, to know the right thing to do. I’m sure that sounds foolish to you, Mr. Smith.”
Jesse’s gaze swept from Mama to Exah. His eyes were full of gravity, and Exah felt a pull, like she might rise right out of her chair from the strength of his look. He turned back to Mama and said, “Not foolish at all, Mrs. Haralson.”
J. J. paused for a moment before continuing, looking from his friend to Exah. Could he sense something? “The general slid from his horse and walked up to Exah, smiling down at her like an indulgent father. Maybe he was thinking of his own children back home. Or maybe our Exah just had him caught in her spell.”
At this, Jesse coughed suddenly, his face turning red. He brought out a handkerchief and then waved at J. J. to continue.
“We watched from the porch with some trepidation as the general offered her his hand, and then proceeded to converse with her for some time. They kept their voices low, none of us could hear what they were saying. After a goodly while, Exah nodded once to old Sherman, as if dismissing a servant, and climbed back up the porch steps just as satisfied as a hunting dog with a duck in its teeth.” J. J. sat back and let Mama take over.
“We were so relieved she was all right, I just hugged her until she was like to pop,” Mama said, eyes cast heavenward as if for divine assistance. She never tells the part where she threatened to stripe my hide. “But then her father took her by the shoulders and asked her what she’d said to old Sherman. Exah shook her head. She wouldn’t tell.”
“The soldiers were riding off, and Sherman took off his hat and waved it at us in farewell,” J. J. said. “But Exah stood there, stubborn as a locked door. She wouldn’t say a word about what they’d talked about. Not a word!” J. J. threw his hands up as if still amazed by this act of defiance.
Everyone in the family had their theories. Perhaps she had appealed to the man’s Christian nature. Perhaps she listed all the many families in the neighborhood who depended upon her own, Mr. Haralson being the only able-bodied farmer for miles who hadn’t joined the Confederate cause and left his family to fend for themselves. Perhaps she claimed Union sympathies. Exah liked to listen to their speculations. J. J. offered up some of them now.
“But whatever it was she said,” Mama said, leaning forward with her hands on her knees, “This house didn’t burn.”
Mama’s words hung in the air like smoke lingering over a snuffed candle.
How many times had they been called upon to explain why their house, alone in the whole neighborhood, had survived Sherman’s raid unscathed? And how many times had the listener then turned to Exah and inquired, demanded, pleaded to know just what she had said to the general? Exah waited to see if Mr. Smith would be one of them.
Most people’s lives are anchored by a central story, the creation myth of their personhood. Such myths are usually only recognizable at a distance, once enough time has passed to identify them as the color that has bled through a person’s entire life. Not so for Exah Haralson. She knew as it was happening that her meeting with General William Tecumseh Sherman was going to be the defining moment of her life.
Ten years had passed since that bright February morning in the dooryard, and she still kept her conversation with the general locked in her heart. Why shouldn’t she keep some part of her story all to herself? People were greedy; they’d take everything you offered of yourself and still nibble at your heels for the scraps. Maybe it had started as stubbornness, but as the years wore on, she’d become determined to keep this one thing of hers whole.
She realized Jesse was studying her, and she raised her chin and met his gaze.
“Why did you go out to meet the general?” he asked softly.
It wasn’t the question others asked. She squirmed a bit in her seat, like a young girl adjusting a scratchy petticoat. They always asked what she’d said. They never asked her why.
“To protect my family,” she answered at last.
Jesse Franklin Smith nodded. “Seems you did,” he said, and that was that.
As Exah gazed across the room at the flush-faced Jesse, ghostly shapes moved through the parlor, keeping to the shadows in the corners of the room. A son who would one day break his mother’s heart; three red-headed daughters; a beloved paper pecan tree shading a wide porch; children laughing and calling them Big Mama and Big Papa. Visions flickered through the room, as Exah and Jesse came awake to the possibility being conjured in the air between them.
That afternoon in the parlor, Exah couldn’t see the details of the life they would build together, but she could feel their future the way you can feel a coming rainstorm through an open window on a summer night. She didn’t know which senses had prophesied its coming — the scent of dust in the air? a distant pattering sound? — but she could feel Jesse Franklin Smith’s life bending towards hers. Someday he would tell the grandchildren about Big Mama falling in the mud and cursing a blue streak the first day he laid eyes upon her — And that’s how your grandmother won my heart — but it was there in the parlor, the echoes of Exah’s story still rippling through the room, that the spark caught. She could almost see the image of the wild-haired girl with her hands on her hips, standing in the way of history itself to protect her family, lodging itself in his soul. Her own myth had just grown, expanded to the size of a young man’s heart.
Many miles and years from that parlor in Newton County, a daughter would come to them, color high and eyes flashing, and declare that she was going to be a journalist. She would raise her chin and stand before her parents, hands on hips, righteous and immovable. The girl wouldn’t be conscious of mirroring her mother. But this is how it is with myths; we fit ourselves into their shapes unknowingly. Exah’s myth, told and retold by Jesse over the years, would color her daughter’s life, and open up realms unimaginable. Their daughter would raise herself to her full height, defiant, bracing herself for a fight. Jesse would smile and nod, his daughter’s future career a foregone conclusion.
“Well now, I reckon if you’ve a mind to become a journalist, that’s just what you’ll do. You know why?”
His daughter would respond in practiced tones, like the congregation down at the Baptist church during call-and-response prayers: “Because I’m Exah’s daughter.”
Years later, in another world, a young woman would sit cross-legged on the floor by her grandmother’s chair. The young woman had holes in her jeans and purple streaks in her hair, and her grandmother disapproved of her clunky black boots. But the girl was brave and spirited, and something about her would remind the grandmother of a story she’d been told.
“Did I ever tell you,” the grandmother would begin, “about my aunt, the famous journalist? One of the first newspaperwomen in Mississippi — she had quite the career. Never had children of her own, but always made time for her nieces and nephews. She liked me especially.” And the grandmother would smile, picturing her girlhood self, red hair flying, hands on hips.
“I want to tell you a story she told me, about my grandmother Big Mama. Her name was Exah.”
This story is a work of fiction, a speculation on the imagined meeting of my great-great-grandparents in Mississippi nearly 150 years ago. I cannot possibly know what was in their minds or hearts. But I do know that a legend was passed down through the family about Exah and General Sherman, and that Exah’s daughter Ligon did become a journalist. I heard these stories from my grandmother, who had fire-red hair.