September 23, 2022 by The Citron Review
by William Woolfit
In the woods behind our houses, we were boys crashing through briars, we were girls pressing ourselves against tree trunks, praying we would fade. We were running from the welfare agents and the school supervisors, the district nurses and the sheriff’s deputies who swept through the mountains, looking for us. When our legs burned and our sides ached and we were out of breath, when we couldn’t run anymore, we hid, using whatever was at hand. A rotten log to crouch behind. A clump of rhododendron for a screen. The crack in a mossy boulder to squeeze into. We heard them coming for us, heard the dead leaves crackle beneath their heavy feet. We wished that we could run as fast as the deer, or vanish like wisps of smoke. When the agents and the deputies found us, we clung to branches, threw ourselves on the ground, scuffed our feet as they dragged us away.
In the police cars, we were towheaded boys frozen with fear, we were spitfire girls thrashing about like trapped animals. We were fifteen years old, or thirteen, or nine. We were accused of truancy, stealing five dollars, begging for food, setting Doubletop Mountain on fire, running around shoeless, seducing an uncle, wearing feed sacks, stealing a chicken, stealing a postage stamp. I swear that wasn’t me. We were dark-eyed boys with bad teeth, slender girls with wavy hair. Sometimes, they took our brothers and sisters too, just in case. Sometimes, three or four of us were pushed into the back seats of police cars. People said we were the worst kind; neighbors and store owners and relatives and stepfathers called for us to be moved out, colonized. Everybody who was drawing welfare was scared they were going to have it done on their children. People said we were hillbillies, rag tags, dirt eaters, white trash, hollow folk. We lived in shacks with no curtains, or we lived in cabins under the blighted chestnuts, or we lived in weathered houses at the end of rough lanes. Some of us didn’t have enough corn bread and salt pork to eat, and some of us had too many brothers and sisters.
Some of us didn’t know where the police cars were taking us. Some of us worried that our parents wouldn’t be told that we had been taken, would look for us and not find us, would be sick with worry. Some of us had babies of our own, and we never saw them again. We pounded the windows, we kicked the seats, we screamed. Take me home. We were accused of degeneracy, pauperism, funny-looking skulls, misshapen faces. We were accused of pregnancy. We were ragamuffins in ripped denim, no underwear. We were unruly children from Brush Mountain, from the hemlock coves below Thunder Knob. We were delinquents from the dark interior of the Blue Ridge, where the national park and the tourist road would be, after our families were made to leave.
We were committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg. We were locked in brick cottages, in dormitories. At night, we sang all the songs we knew. At night, we told each other that our mothers and fathers would come for us soon, or that we would be sent to live with kind families. We slept in iron beds, under scratchy blankets, on mattresses that smelled like sour milk. When we woke in the morning, we saw ceiling stains, cobwebs, dead flies, red linoleum on the floors, dogs painted on the walls. At night, we gave each other elm leaves and magnolia petals that we had picked that day, that we had smuggled in our shirts. So your pillow won’t stink.
The doctors at the colony treated us with kitchen chores and laundry chores, barn work and field work. The doctors ordered us to pick strawberries, weave rugs, push brooms tied to twenty-pound weights. The attendants cut our hair with dull scissors, fed us beans and hash. The attendants frisked us twice a day. The doctors diagnosed us as immoral, or low-grade, or furtive, or sullen, or anti-social, or disobedient, or syphilitic, or mentally defective.
When we ran from the colony, the deputies came after us, and caught us, and locked us in solitary, in the blind room, locked us in for thirty days, sixty days. Some of us were kept in the colony for twenty years. Some of us died of fevers, tuberculosis, pneumonia, the flu. Some of us were buried in the colony’s unmarked graves.
The doctors gave us shots to numb us from the waist down, ordered us to take pills that made us sleepy. They told me the operation was for an appendix and rupture. Some of us kicked against it. They cut into our bellies, cut into our scrotums, clamped off our fallopian tubes, seared our sperm ducts, said they were helping us, said it was for our health. We thought they were experimenting on us, taking us and butchering us up like hogs.
We were released on work furloughs, bonded out to cattle farms, boardinghouses, apple orchards, lumberyards, gas pipelines. We were told to please our new employers, to please our new families, to not make a scene, to earn an honest living. Sometimes, we were paid five dollars a month; sometimes we worked but were not paid. We were ashamed. We lied and said we had never been at the colony. Some of us married. Some of us went back to the colony when we had nowhere else to go. Some of us opened our homes to unwanted children, raised them as our own. We didn’t talk to newspaper reporters until we were in our seventies. Finally, we could say that our stories ought to be told. We had been children. We had been the rugs they beat to keep whiteness rich and clean.
Author note: An early version of this essay was previously published (as a poem!) in Western Humanities Review in 2017. This version is significantly revised and about 700 words longer.
William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His essay collection Eyes Moving Through the Dark is forthcoming from Orison Books.