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Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.
The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.
The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.
Tull’s wagon stands beside the spring, hitched to the rail, the reins wrapped about the seat stanchion. In the wagon bed are two chairs. Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks. I pass him and mount the path, beginning to hear Cash’s saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one, better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze.
So I saved out the eggs and baked yesterday. The cakes turned out right well. We depend a lot on our chickens. They are good layers, what few we have left after the possums and such. Snakes too, in the summer. A snake will break up a hen-house quicker than anything. So after they were going to cost so much more than Mr Tull thought, and after I promised that the difference in the number of eggs would make it up, I had to be more careful than ever because it was on my final say-so we took them. We could have stocked cheaper chickens, but I gave my promise as Miss Lawington said when she advised me to get a good breed, because Mr Tull himself admits that a good breed of cows or hogs pays in the long run. So when we lost so many of them we couldn’t afford to use the eggs ourselves, because I could not have had Mr Tull chide me when it was on my say-so we took them. So when Miss Lawington told me about the cakes I thought that I could bake them and earn enough, at one time to increase the net value of the flock the equivalent of two head. And that by saving the eggs out one at a time, even the eggs wouldn’t be costing anything. And that week they laid so well that I not only saved out enough eggs above what we had engaged to sell, to bake the cakes with, I had saved enough so that the flour and the sugar and the stove wood would not be costing anything. So I baked yesterday, more careful than ever I baked in my life, and the cakes turned out right well. But when we got to town this morning Miss Lawington told me the lady had changed her mind and was not going to have the party after all.
“She ought to taken those cakes anyway,” Kate says.
“Well,” I say, “I reckon she never had no use for them now.”
“She ought to taken them,” Kate says. “But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.”
Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart. “Maybe I can sell them at the bazaar Saturday,” I say. They turned out real well.
“You cant get two dollars a piece for them,” Kate says.
“Well, it isn’t like they cost me anything,” I say. I saved them out and swapped a dozen of them for the sugar and flour. It isn’t like the cakes cost me anything, as Mr Tull himself realises that the eggs I saved were over and beyond what we had engaged to sell, so it was like we had found the eggs or they had been given to us.
“She ought to taken those cakes when she same as gave you her word,” Kate says. The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree.
“I reckon she never had any use for them,” I say. They turned out real well, too.
The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her.
“They turned out real nice,” I say. “But not like the cakes Addie used to bake.” You can see that girl’s washing and ironing in the pillow-slip, if ironed it ever was. Maybe it will reveal her blindness to her, laying there at the mercy and the ministration of four men and a tom-boy girl. “There’s not a woman in this section could ever bake with Addie Bundren,” I say. “First thing we know she’ll be up and baking again, and then we wont have any sale for ours at all.” Under the quilt she makes no more of a hump than a rail would, and the only way you can tell she is breathing is by the sound of the mattress shucks. Even the hair, at her cheek does not move, even with that girl standing right over her, fanning her with the fan. While we watch she swaps the fan to the other hand without Stopping it.
“Is she sleeping?” Kate whispers.
“She’s just watching Cash yonder,” the girl says. We can hear the saw in the board. It sounds like snoring. Eula turns on the trunk and looks out the window. Her necklace looks real nice with her red hat. You wouldn’t think it only cost twenty-five cents.
“She ought to taken those cakes,” Kate says.
I could have used the money real well. But it’s not like they cost me anything except the baking. I can tell him that anybody is likely to make a miscue, but it’s not all of them that can get out of it without loss, I can tell him. It’s not everybody can eat their mistakes, I can tell him.
Someone comes through the hall. It is Darl. He does not look in as he passes the door. Eula watches him as he goes on and passes from sight again toward the back. Her hand rises and touches her beads lightly, and then her hair. When she finds me watching her, her eyes go blank.
Pa and Vernon are sitting on the back porch. Pa is tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger. They look around as I cross the porch and dip the gourd into the water bucket and drink.
“Where’s Jewel?” pa says. When I was a boy I first learned how much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket. Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells. It has to set at least six hours, and be drunk from a gourd. Water should never be drunk from metal.
And at night it is better still. I used to lie on the pallet in the hall, waiting until I could hear them all asleep, so I could get up and go back to the bucket. It would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness, where before I stirred it awake with the dipper I could see maybe a star or two in the bucket, and maybe in the dipper a star or two before I drank. After that I was bigger, older. Then I would wait until they all went to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two years before I could have wanted to or could have.
Pa’s feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy. Beside his chair his brogans sit. They look as though they had been hacked with a blunt axe out of pig-iron. Vernon has been to town. I have never seen him go to town in overalls. His wife, they say. She taught school too, once.
I fling the dipper dregs to the ground and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. It is going to rain before morning. Maybe before dark. “Down to the barn,” I say. “Harnessing the team.”
Down there fooling with that horse. He will go on through the barn, into the pasture. The horse will not be in sight: he is up there among the pine seedlings, in the cool. Jewel whistles, once and shrill. The horse snorts, then Jewel sees him, glinting for a gaudy instant among the blue shadows. Jewel whistles again; the horse comes dropping down the slope, stiff-legged, his ears cocking and flicking, his mis-matched eyes rolling, and fetches up twenty feet away, broadside on, watching Jewel over his shoulder in an attitude kittenish and alert.
“Come here, sir,” Jewel says. He moves. Moving that quick his coat, bunching, tongues swirling like so many flames. With tossing mane and tail and rolling eye the horse makes another short curvetting rush and stops again, feet bunched, watching Jewel. Jewel walks steadily toward him, his hands at his sides. Save for Jewel’s legs they are like two figures carved for a tableau savage in the sun.
When Jewel can almost touch him, the horse stands on his hind legs and slashes down at Jewel. Then Jewel is enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings; among them, beneath the up-reared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of a snake. For an instant before the jerk comes onto his arms he sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-umber, until he finds the horse’s nostrils and touches earth again. Then they are rigid, motionless, terrific, the horse back-thrust on stiffened, quivering legs, with lowered head; Jewel with dug heels, shutting off the horse’s wind with one hand, with the other patting the horse’s neck in short strokes myriad and caressing, cursing the horse with obscene
They stand in rigid terrific hiatus, the horse trembling and groaning. Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in midair shaped to the horse. For another moment the horse stands spraddled, with lowered head, before it bursts into motion. They descend the hill in a series of spine-jolting jumps, Jewel high, leech-like on the withers, to the fence where the horse bunches to a scuttering halt again.
“Well,” Jewel says, “you can quit now, if you got a-plenty.”
Inside the barn Jewel slides running to the ground before the horse stops. The horse enters the stall, Jewel following. Without looking back the horse kicks at him, slamming a single hoof into the wall with a pistol-like report. Jewel kicks him in the stomach; the horse arches his neck back, crop-toothed; Jewel strikes him across the face with his fist and slides on to the trough and mounts upon it. Clinging to the hay-rack he lowers his head and peers out across the stall tops and through the doorway. The path is empty; from here he cannot even hear Cash sawing. He reaches up and drags down hay in hurried armsful and crams it into the rack.
“Eat,” he says. “Get the goddamn stuff out of sight while’you got a chance, you pussel-gutted bastard. You sweet son of a bitch,” he says.
We watch him come around the corner and mount do steps. He does not look at us. “You ready?” he says.
“If you’re hitched up,” I say. I say “Wait.” He stops, looking at pa. Vernon spits, without moving. He spits With decorous and deliberate precision into the pocked dust below the porch. Pa rubs his hands slowly on his knees. He is gazing out beyond the crest of the bluff, out across the land. Jewel watches him a moment, then he goes on to the pail and drinks again. “I mislike undecision as much as ere a man,” pa
“It means three dollars,” I say. The shirt across pa’s hump is faded lighter than the rest of it. There is no sweat stain on his shirt. I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt. He was sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.
“But if she dont last until you get back,” he says. “She will be disappointed.”
Vernon spits into the dust. But it will rain before morning.
“She’s counted on it,” pa says. “She’ll- want to start right away. I know her. I promised her I’d keep the team here and ready, and she’s counting on it.”
“We’ll need that three dollars then, sure,” I say. He gazes out over the land, rubbing his hands on his knees. Since he lost his teeth his mouth collapses in slow repetition when he dips. The stubble gives his lower face that appearance that old dogs have. “You’d better make up your mind soon, so we can get there and get a load on before dark,” I say.
“Ma aint that sick,” Jewel says. “Shut up, Darl.”
That’s right,” Vernon says. “She seems more Wee herself today than she has in a week. Time you and Jewel get back, she’ll be setting up.”
“You ought to know,” Jewel says. “You been here often enough looking at her. You or your folks.” Vernon looks at him. Jewel’s eyes look like pale wood in his high-blooded face. He is a head taller than any of the rest of us, always was. I told them that’s why ma always whipped him and petted him more. Because he was peakling around the house more. That’s why she named him Jewel I told them.
“Shut up, Jewel,” pa says, but as though he is not listening much. He gazes out across the land, rubbing his knees.
“You could borrow the loan of Vernon’s team and we could catch up with you,” I say. “If she didn’t wait for us.”
“Ah, shut your goddamn mouth,” Jewel says. “She’ll want to go in ourn,” pa says. He rubs his knees. “Dont ere a man mislike it more.”
“It’s laying there, watching Cash whittle on that damn . . .” Jewel says. He says it harshly, savagely, but he does not say the word. Like a little boy in the dark to flail his courage and suddenly aghast into silence by his own noise.
“She wanted that like she wants to go in our own wagon,” pa says. “She’ll rest easier for knowing it’s a good one, and private. She was ever a private woman. You know it well.”
Then let it be private,” Jewel says. “But how the hell can you expect it to be” he looks at the back o£ pa’s head, his eyes like pale wooden eyes.
“Sho,” Vernon says, “she’ll hold on till it’s finished. She’ll hold on till everything’s ready, till her own good time. And with the roads like they are now, it wont take you no time to get her to town.”
“It’s fixing up to rain,” pa says. “I am a luckless man. I have ever been.” He rubs his hands on his knees. “It’s that durn doctor, liable to come at any time. I couldn’t get word to him till so late. If he was to come tomorrow and tell her the time was nigh, she wouldn’t wait, 1 know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn’t wait. Then she’d be upset, and I wouldn’t upset her for the living world. With that family burying-ground in Jefferson and them of her blood waiting for her there, she’ll be impatient. I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it, so she could rest quiet.” He rubs his hands on his knees. “No man ever misliked it more.”
“If everybody wasn’t burning hell to get her there,” Jewel says in that harsh, savage voice. “With Cash all day long right under the window, hammering and sawing at that”
“It was her wish,” pa says. “You. got no affection nor gentleness for her. You never had. We would be beholden to no man,” he says, “me and her. We have never yet been, and she will rest quieter for knowing it and that it was her own blood sawed out the boards and drove the nails. She was ever one to clean up after herself.”
It means three dollars,” I say. “Do you want us to go, or not?” Pa rubs his knees. “Well be back by tomorrow sundown.”
“Well …” pa says. He looks out over the land, awry-haired, mouthing the snuff slowly against, his gums.
“Come on,” Jewel says. He goes down the steps. Vernon spits neatly into the dust.
“By sundown, now,” pa says. “I would not keep her waiting.”
Jewel glances back, then he goes on around the house. I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.
It was the sweetest thing I ever saw. It was like he knew he would never see her again, that Anse Bundren was driving him from his mother’s death bed, never to see her in this world again. I always said Darl was different from those others. I always said he was the only one of them that had his mother’s nature, had any natural affection. Not that Jewel, the one she labored so to bear and coddled and petted so and him flinging into tantrums or sulking spells, inventing devilment to devil her until I would have trailed him time and time. Not him to come and tell her goodbye. Not him to miss a chance to make that extra three dollars at the price of his mother’s goodbye kiss. A Bundren through and through, loving nobody, caring for nothing except how to get something with the least amount of work. Mr Tull says Darl asked them to wait. He said Darl almost begged them on his knees not to force him to leave her in her condition. But nothing would do but Anse and Jewel must make that three dollars. Nobody that knows Anse could have expected different, but to think of that boy, that Jewel, selling all those years of self-denial and down-right partiality they couldn’t fool me: Mr Tull says Mrs Bundren liked Jewel the least of all, but I knew better. I knew she was partial to him, to the same quality in him that let her put up with Anse Bundren when Mr Tull said she ought to poisoned him for three dollars, denying his dying mother the goodbye Mss.
Why, for the last three weeks I have been coming over every time I could, coming sometimes when I shouldn’t have, neglecting my own family and duties so that somebody would be with her in her last moments and she would not have to face the Great Unknown without one familiar face to give her courage. Not that I deserve credit for it: I will expect the same for myself. But thank God it will be the faces of my loved kin, my blood and flesh, for in my husband and children I have been more blessed than most, trials though they have been at times.
She lived, a lonely woman, lonely with her pride, trying to make folks believe different, hiding the fact that they just suffered her, because she was not cold in the coffin before they were carting her forty miles away to bury her, flouting the will of God to do it. Refusing to let her lie in the same earth with those Bundrens.
“But she wanted to go,” Mr Tull said. ‘It was her own wish to lie among her own people.”
“Then why didn’t she go alive?” I said. “Not one of them would have stopped her, with even that little one almost old enough now to be selfish and stone-hearted like the rest of them.”
“It was her own wish,” Mr Tull said. “I heard Arise
say it was.”
“And you would believe Anse, of course,” I said. “A man like you would, Dont tell me.”
“I’d believe him about something he couldn’t expect to make anything off of me by not telling,” Mr Tull said.
“Dont tell me,” I said. “A woman’s place is with her husband and children, alive or dead. Would you expect me to want to go back to Alabama and leave you and the girls when my time comes, that I left of my own will to cast my lot with yours for better and worse, until death and after?”
“Well, folks are different,” he said. I should hope so. I have tried to live right in the sight of God and man, for the honor and comfort of my Christian husband and the love and respect of my Christian children. So that when I lay me down in the consciousness of my duty and reward I will be surrounded by loving faces, carrying the farewell kiss of each of my loved ones into my reward. Not like Addie Bundren dying alone, hiding her pride and her broken heart. Glad to go. Lying there with her head propped up so she could watch Cash building the coffin, having to watch him so he would not skimp on it, like as not, with those men not worrying about anything except if there was time to earn another three dollars
“before the rain come and the river got too high to get across it. Like as not, if they hadn’t decided to make that last load, they would have loaded her into the wagon on a quilt and crossed the river first and then stopped and give her time to die what Christian death they would let her.
Except Darl. It was the sweetest thing I ever saw. Sometimes I lose faith in human nature for a time; I am assailed by doubt. But always the Lord restores my faith and reveals to me His bounteous love for His creatures. Not Jewel, the one she had always cherished, not him. He was after that three extra dollars. It was Darl, the one that folks say is queer, lazy, pottering about the place no better than Anse, with Cash a good carpenter and always more building than he can get around to, and Jewel always doing something that made him some money or got him talked about, and that near-naked girl always standing over Addie with a fan so that every time a body tried to talk to her and cheer her up, would answer for her right quick, like she was trying to keep anybody from coming near her at all.
It was Darl. He come to the door and stood there, looking at his dying mother. He just looked at her, and I felt the bounteous love of the Lord again and His mercy. I saw that with Jewel she had just been pretending, but that it was between her and Darl that the understanding and the true love was. He just looked at her, not even coming in where she could see him and get upset, knowing that Anse was driving him away and he would never see her again. He said nothing, just looking at her.
“What you want, Darl?” Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up quick, keeping even him from her. He didn’t answer. He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words.
The first time me and Lafe picked on down the row. Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death from the sickness so everybody that comes to help us. And Jewel dont care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not care-kin. And Cash like sawing the long hot sad yellow days up into planks and nailing them to something. And pa thinks because neighbors will always treat one another that way because he has always been too busy letting neighbors do for him to find out. And I did not think that Darl would, that sits at the supper table with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his
skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land.
We picked on down the row, the woods getting closer and closer and the secret shade, picking on into the secret shade with my sack and Lafe’s sack. Because I said will I or wont I when the sack was half full because I said if the sack is full when we get to the woods it wont be me. I said if it dont mean for me to do it the sack will not be full and I will turn up the next row but if the sack is full, I cannot help it. It will be that I had to do it all the time and I cannot help it. And we picked on toward the secret shade and our eyes would drown together touching on his hands and my hands and I didn’t say anything. I said “What are you doing?” and he said “I am picking into your sack.” And so it was full when we came to the end of the row and I could not help it. )
And so it was because I could not help it. It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us. But he said he did know and I said “Are you going to tell pa are you going to kill him?” without the words I said it and he said “Why?” without the words. And that’s why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows.
He stands in the door, looking at her.
“What you want, Darl?” I say.
“She is going to die,” he says. And old turkey-buzzard Tull coming to watch her die but I can fool them.
“When is she going to die?” I say.
“Before we get back,” he says.
“Then why are you taking Jewel?” I say.
“I want him to help me load,” he says.
Anse keeps on rubbing his knees. His overalls are faded; on one knee a serge patch cut out of a pair of Sunday pants, wore iron-slick. “No man mislikes it more than me,” he says.
“A fellow’s got to guess ahead now and then,” I say. “But, come long and short, it wont be no harm done neither way.”
“She’ll want to get started right off,” he says. “It’s far enough to Jefferson at best.”
“But the roads is good now,” I say. It’s fixing to rain tonight, too. His folks buries at New Hope, too, not three miles away. But it’s just like him to marry a woman born a day’s hard ride away and have her die on him.
He looks out over the land, rubbing his knees. “No man so mislikes it,” he says.
“They’ll get back in plenty of time,” I say. “I wouldn’t worry none.”
“It means three dollars,” he says.
“Might be it wont be no need for them to rush back, noways,” I say. “I hope it.”
“She’s a-going,” he says. “Her mind is set on it.”
It’s a hard Me on women, for a fact. Some women. I mind my mammy lived to be seventy and more. Worked every day, rain or shine; never a sick day since her last chap was born until one day she kind of looked around her and then she went and taken that lace-trimmed night gown she had had forty-five years and never wore out of the chest and put it on and laid down on the bed and pulled the covers up and shut her eyes. “You all will have to look out for pa the best you can,” she said. “I’m tired.”
Anse rubs his hands on his knees. “The Lord giveth,” he says. We can hear Cash a-hammering and sawing beyond the corner.
It’s true. Never a truer breath was ever breathed. “The Lord giveth,” I say.
That boy comes up the hill. He is carrying a fish nigh long as he is. He slings it to the ground and grunts “Hah” and spits over his shoulder like a man. Durn nigh long as he is.
“What’s that?” I say. “A hog? Where’d you get it?”
“Down to the bridge,” he says. He turns it over, the under side caked over with dust where it is wet, the eye coated over, humped under the dirt.
“Are you aiming to leave it laying there?” Anse says.
“I aim to show it to ma,” Vardaman says. He looks toward the door. We can hear the talking, coming out on the draft. Cash, too, knocking and hammering at the boards. “There’s company in there,” he says. “Just my folks,” I say. “They’d enjoy to see it too.” He says nothing, watching the door. Then he looks down at the fish laying in the dust. He turns it over with his foot and prods at the eye-bump with his toe, gouging at it. Anse is looking out over the land. Vardaman looks at Anse’s face, then at the door. He turns, going toward the corner of the house, when Anse calls him without looking around. “You clean that fish,” Anse says. Vardaman stops. “Why cant Dewey Dell clean it?” he says.
“You clean that fish,” Anse says. “Aw, pa,” Vardaman says.
“You clean it,” Anse says. He dont look around. Vardaman comes back and picks up the fish. It slides out of his hands, smearing wet dirt onto him, and flops down, dirtying itself again, gapmouthed, goggle-eyed, hiding into the dust like it was ashamed of being dead, like it was in a hurry to get back hid again.’ Vardaman cusses it. He cusses it like a grown man, standing a-straddle of it. Anse dont look around. Vardaman picks it up again. He goes on around the house, toting it in both arms like a armful of wood, it overlapping him on both ends, head and tail. Durn nigh big as he is.
Anse’s wrists dangle out of his sleeves: I never see him with a shirt on that looked like it was his in all my life.
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