فصل 10

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فصل 10

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10

Stamp Paid looked at him. He was going to tell him about how restless Baby Suggs was that morning, how she had a listening way about her; how she kept looking down past the corn to the stream so much he looked too. In between ax swings, he watched where Baby was watching. Which is why they both missed it: they were looking the wrong way–toward water–and all the while it was coming down the road. Four. Riding close together, bunched-up like, and righteous. He was going to tell him that, because he thought it was important: why he and Baby Suggs both missed it. And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead; why nobody sent a fleet-footed son to cut ‘cross a field soon as they saw the four horses in town hitched for watering while the riders asked questions. Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them, and he’d always believed it wasn’t the exhaustion from a long day’s gorging that dulled them, but some other thing–like, well, like meanness–that let them stand aside, or not pay attention, or tell themselves somebody else was probably bearing the news already to the house on Bluestone Road where a pretty woman had been living for almost a month. Young and deft with four children one of which she delivered herself the day before she got there and who now had the full benefit of Baby Suggs’ bounty and her big old heart. Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not. He was going to tell him that, but Paul D was laughing, saying, “Uh uh. No way. A little semblance round the forehead maybe, but this ain’t her mouth.”

So Stamp Paid did not tell him how she flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws, how she collected them every which way: one on her shoulder, one under her arm, one by the hand, the other shouted forward into the woodshed filled with just sunlight and shavings now because there wasn’t any wood. The party had used it all, which is why he was chopping some. Nothing was in that shed, he knew, having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight.

Sunlight, shavings, a shovel. The ax he himself took out. Nothing else was in there except the shovel–and of course the saw.

“You forgetting I knew her before,” Paul D was saying. “Back in Kentucky. When she was a girl. I didn’t just make her acquaintance a few months ago. I been knowing her a long time. And I can tell you for sure: this ain’t her mouth. May look like it, but it ain’t.”

So Stamp Paid didn’t say it all. Instead he took a breath and leaned toward the mouth that was not hers and slowly read out the words Paul D couldn’t. And when he finished, Paul D said with a vigor fresher than the first time, “I’m sorry, Stamp. It’s a mistake somewhere ‘cause that ain’t her mouth.”

Stamp looked into Paul D’s eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children.

“SHE WAS crawling already when I got here. One week, less, and the baby who was sitting up and turning over when I put her on the wagon was crawling already. Devil of a time keeping her off the stairs. Nowadays babies get up and walk soon’s you drop em, but twenty years ago when I was a girl, babies stayed babies longer.

Howard didn’t pick up his own head till he was nine months. Baby Suggs said it was the food, you know. If you ain’t got nothing but milk to give em, well they don’t do things so quick. Milk was all I ever had. I thought teeth meant they was ready to chew. Wasn’t nobody to ask. Mrs. Garner never had no children and we was the only women there.”

She was spinning. Round and round the room. Past the jelly cupboard, past the window, past the front door, another window, the sideboard, the keeping-room door, the dry sink, the stove–back to the jelly cupboard. Paul D sat at the table watching her drift into view then disappear behind his back, turning like a slow but steady wheel. Sometimes she crossed her hands behind her back. Other times she held her ears, covered her mouth or folded her arms across her breasts. Once in a while she rubbed her hips as she turned, but the wheel never stopped.

“Remember Aunt Phyllis? From out by Minnoveville? Mr. Garner sent one a you all to get her for each and every one of my babies.

That’d be the only time I saw her. Many’s the time I wanted to get over to where she was. Just to talk. My plan was to ask Mrs. Garner to let me off at Minnowville whilst she went to meeting. Pick me up on her way back. I believe she would a done that if I was to ask her.

I never did, ‘cause that’s the only day Halle and me had with sunlight in it for the both of us to see each other by. So there wasn’t nobody.

To talk to, I mean, who’d know when it was time to chew up a little something and give it to em. Is that what make the teeth come on out, or should you wait till the teeth came and then solid food? Well, I know now, because Baby Suggs fed her right, and a week later, when I got here she was crawling already. No stopping her either.

She loved those steps so much we painted them so she could see her way to the top.”

Sethe smiled then, at the memory of it. The smile broke in two and became a sudden suck of air, but she did not shudder or close her eyes. She wheeled.

“I wish I’d a known more, but, like I say, there wasn’t nobody to talk to. Woman, I mean. So I tried to recollect what I’d seen back where I was before Sweet Home. How the women did there. Oh they knew all about it. How to make that thing you use to hang the babies in the trees–so you could see them out of harm’s way while you worked the fields. Was a leaf thing too they gave em to chew on.

Mint, I believe, or sassafras. Comfrey, maybe. I still don’t know how they constructed that basket thing, but I didn’t need it anyway, because all my work was in the barn and the house, but I forgot what the leaf was. I could have used that. I tied Buglar when we had all that pork to smoke. Fire everywhere and he was getting into everything.

I liked to lost him so many times. Once he got up on the well, right on it. I flew. Snatched him just in time. So when I knew we’d be rendering and smoking and I couldn’t see after him, well, I got a rope and tied it round his ankle. Just long enough to play round a little, but not long enough to reach the well or the fire. I didn’t like the look of it, but I didn’t know what else to do. It’s hard, you know what I mean? by yourself and no woman to help you get through.

Halle was good, but he was debt-working all over the place. And when he did get down to a little sleep, I didn’t want to be bothering him with all that. Sixo was the biggest help. I don’t ‘spect you rememory this, but Howard got in the milk parlor and Red Cora I believe it was mashed his hand. Turned his thumb backwards. When I got to him, she was getting ready to bite it. I don’t know to this day how I got him out. Sixo heard him screaming and come running.

Know what he did? Turned the thumb right back and tied it cross his palm to his little finger. See, I never would have thought of that.

Never. Taught me a lot, Sixo.”

It made him dizzy. At first he thought it was her spinning. Circling him the way she was circling the subject. Round and round, never changing direction, which might have helped his head. Then he thought, No, it’s the sound of her voice; it’s too near. Each turn she made was at least three yards from where he sat, but listening to her was like having a child whisper into your ear so close you could feel its lips form the words you couldn’t make out because they were too close. He caught only pieces of what she said–which was fine, because she hadn’t gotten to the main part–the answer to the question he had not asked outright, but which lay in the clipping he showed her. And lay in the smile as well. Because he smiled too, when he showed it to her, so when she burst out laughing at the joke–the mix-up of her face put where some other coloredwoman’s ought to be–well, he’d be ready to laugh right along with her. “Can you beat it?” he would ask. And “Stamp done lost his mind,” she would giggle.

“Plumb lost it.”

But his smile never got a chance to grow. It hung there, small and alone, while she examined the clipping and then handed it back.

Perhaps it was the smile, or maybe the ever-ready love she saw in his eyes–easy and upfront, the way colts, evangelists and children look at you: with love you don’t have to deserve–that made her go ahead and tell him what she had not told Baby Suggs, the only person she felt obliged to explain anything to. Otherwise she would have said what the newspaper said she said and no more. Sethe could recognize only seventy-five printed words (half of which appeared in the newspaper clipping), but she knew that the words she did not understand hadn’t any more power than she had to explain. It was the smile and the upfront love that made her try.

“I don’t have to tell you about Sweet Home–what it was–but maybe you don’t know what it was like for me to get away from there.”

Covering the lower half of her face with her palms, she paused to consider again the size of the miracle; its flavor.

“I did it. I got us all out. Without Halle too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided. And it came off right, like it was supposed to. We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident. I did that. I had help, of course, lots of that, but still it was me doing it; me saying, Go on, and Now. Me having to look out.

Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide.

Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon–there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?”

Paul D did not answer because she didn’t expect or want him to, but he did know what she meant. Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon—every thing belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept.

Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother–a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose–not to need permission for desire–well now, that was freedom.

Circling, circling, now she was gnawing something else instead of getting to the point.

“There was this piece of goods Mrs. Garner gave me. Calico.

Stripes it had with little flowers in between. ‘Bout a yard–not enough for more ‘n a head tie. But I been wanting to make a shift for my girl with it. Had the prettiest colors. I don’t even know what you call that color: a rose but with yellow in it. For the longest time I been meaning to make it for her and do you know like a fool I left it behind? No more than a yard, and I kept putting it off because I was tired or didn’t have the time. So when I got here, even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from a piece of cloth Baby Suggs had. Well, all I’m saying is that’s a selfish pleasure I never had before. I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn’t let her nor any of em live under schoolteacher.

That was out.”

Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it right off– she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew.

Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them.

Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on. Sethe paused in her circle again and looked out the window. She remembered when the yard had a fence with a gate that somebody was always latching and unlatching in the. time when 124 was busy as a way station. She did not see the whiteboys who pulled it down, yanked up the posts and smashed the gate leaving 124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by. The shoulder weeds of Bluestone Road were all that came toward the house.

When she got back from the jail house, she was glad the fence was gone. That’s where they had hitched their horses–where she saw, floating above the railing as she squatted in the garden, school- teacher’s hat. By the time she faced him, looked him dead in the eye, she had something in her arms that stopped him in his tracks. He took a backward step with each jump of the baby heart until finally there were none.

“I stopped him,” she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”

The roaring in Paul D’s head did not prevent him from hearing the pat she gave to the last word, and it occurred to him that what she wanted for her children was exactly what was missing in 124: safety. Which was the very first message he got the day he walked through the door. He thought he had made it safe, had gotten rid of the danger; beat the shit out of it; run it off the place and showed it and everybody else the difference between a mule and a plow. And because she had not done it before he got there her own self, he thought it was because she could not do it. That she lived with 124 in helpless, apologetic resignation because she had no choice; that minus husband, sons, mother-in-law, she and her slow-witted daughter had to live there all alone making do. The prickly, mean-eyed Sweet Home girl he knew as Halle’s girl was obedient (like Halle), shy (like Halle), and work-crazy (like Halle). He was wrong. This here Sethe was new. The ghost in her house didn’t bother her for the very same reason a room-and-board witch with new shoes was welcome.

This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw.

This here new Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him.

“Your love is too thick,” he said, thinking, That bitch is looking at me; she is right over my head looking down through the floor at me.

“Too thick?” she said, thinking of the Clearing where Baby Suggs’ commands knocked the pods off horse chestnuts. “Love is or it ain’t.

Thin love ain’t love at all.”

“Yeah. It didn’t work, did it? Did it work?” he asked.

“It worked,” she said.

“How? Your boys gone you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard. How did it work?”

“They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got em.”

“Maybe there’s worse.”

“It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.”

“What you did was wrong, Sethe.”

“I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?”

“There could have been a way. Some other way.”

“What way?”

“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet.

Later he would wonder what made him say it. The calves of his youth? or the conviction that he was being observed through the ceiling? How fast he had moved from his shame to hers. From his cold-house secret straight to her too-thick love.

Meanwhile the forest was locking the distance between them, giving it shape and heft.

He did not put his hat on right away. First he fingered it, deciding how his going would be, how to make it an exit not an escape. And it was very important not to leave without looking. He stood up, turned and looked up the white stairs. She was there all right. Standing straight as a line with her back to him. He didn’t rush to the door. He moved slowly and when he got there he opened it before asking Sethe to put supper aside for him because he might be a little late getting back. Only then did he put on his hat.

Sweet, she thought. He must think I can’t bear to hear him say it. That after all I have told him and after telling me how many feet I have, “goodbye” would break me to pieces. Ain’t that sweet.

“So long,” she murmured from the far side of the trees. Two

124 WAS LOUD. Stamp Paid could hear it even from the road.

He walked toward the house holding his head as high as possible so nobody looking could call him a sneak, although his worried mind made him feel like one. Ever since he showed that newspaper clipping to Paul D and learned that he’d moved out of 124 that very day, Stamp felt uneasy. Having wrestled with the question of whether or not to tell a man about his woman, and having convinced himself that he should, he then began to worry about Sethe. Had he stopped the one shot she had of the happiness a good man could bring her?

Was she vexed by the loss, the free and unasked-for revival of gossip by the man who had helped her cross the river and who was her friend as well as Baby Suggs’?

“I’m too old,” he thought, “for clear thinking. I’m too old and I seen too much.” He had insisted on privacy during the revelation at the slaughter yard–now he wondered whom he was protecting.

Paul D was the only one in town who didn’t know. How did information that had been in the newspaper become a secret that needed to be whispered in a pig yard? A secret from whom? Sethe, that’s who. He’d gone behind her back, like a sneak. But sneaking was his job–his life; though always for a clear and holy purpose. Before the War all he did was sneak: runaways into hidden places, secret information to public places. Underneath his legal vegetables were the contraband humans that he ferried across the river. Even the pigs he worked in the spring served his purposes. Whole families lived on the bones and guts he distributed to them. He wrote their letters and read to them the ones they received. He knew who had dropsy and who needed stovewood; which children had a gift and which needed correction. He knew the secrets of the Ohio River and its banks; empty houses and full; the best dancers, the worst speakers, those with beautiful voices and those who could not carry a tune. There was nothing interesting between his legs, but he remembered when there had been–when that drive drove the driven–and that was why he considered long and hard before opening his wooden box and searching for the eighteen-year-old clipping to show Paul D as proof.

Afterward–not before–he considered Sethe’s feelings in the matter.

And it was the lateness of this consideration that made him feel so bad. Maybe he should have left it alone; maybe Sethe would have gotten around to telling him herself; maybe he was not the high minded Soldier of Christ he thought he was, but an ordinary, plain meddler who had interrupted something going along just fine for the sake of truth and forewarning, things he set much store by. Now 124 was back like it was before Paul D came to town–worrying Sethe and Denver with a pack of haunts he could hear from the road.

Even if Sethe could deal with the return of the spirit, Stamp didn’t believe her daughter could. Denver needed somebody normal in her life. By luck he had been there at her very birth almost–before she knew she was alive–and it made him partial to her. It was seeing her, alive, don’t you know, and looking healthy four weeks later that pleased him so much he gathered all he could carry of the best blackberries in the county and stuck two in her mouth first, before he presented the difficult harvest to Baby Suggs. To this day he believed his berries (which sparked the feast and the wood chopping that followed) were the reason Denver was still alive. Had he not been there, chopping firewood, Sethe would have spread her baby brains on the planking. Maybe he should have thought of Denver, if not Sethe, before he gave Paul D the news that ran him off, the one normal somebody in the girl’s life since Baby Suggs died. And right there was the thorn.

Deeper and more painful than his belated concern for Denver or Sethe, scorching his soul like a silver dollar in a fool’s pocket, was the memory of Baby Suggs–the mountain to his sky. It was the memory of her and the honor that was her due that made him walk straight-necked into the yard of 124, although he heard its voices from the road.

He had stepped foot in this house only once after the Misery (which is what he called Sethe’s rough response to the Fugitive Bill) and that was to carry Baby Suggs, holy, out of it. When he picked her up in his arms, she looked to him like a gift, and he took the pleasure she would have knowing she didn’t have to grind her hipbone anymore–that at last somebody carried bar. Had she waited just a little she would have seen the end of the War, its short, flashy results. They could have celebrated together; gone to hear the great sermons preached on the occasion. As it was, he went alone from house to joyous house drinking what was offered. But she hadn’t waited and he attended her funeral more put out with her than bereaved. Sethe and her daughter were dry-eyed on that occasion.

Sethe had no instructions except “Take her to the Clearing,” which he tried to do, but was prevented by some rule the whites had invented about where the dead should rest. Baby Suggs went down next to the baby with its throat cut–a neighborliness that Stamp wasn’t sure had Baby Suggs’ approval.

The setting-up was held in the yard because nobody besides himself would enter 124–an injury Sethe answered with another by refusing to attend the service Reverend Pike presided over. She went instead to the gravesite, whose silence she competed with as she stood there not joining in the hymns the others sang with all their hearts.

That insult spawned another by the mourners: back in the yard of 124, they ate the food they brought and did not touch Sethe’s, who did not touch theirs and forbade Denver to. So Baby Suggs, holy, having devoted her freed life to harmony, was buried amid a regular dance of pride, fear, condemnation and spite. Just about everybody in town was longing for Sethe to come on difficult times. Her outrageous claims, her self-sufficiency seemed to demand it, and Stamp Paid, who had not felt a trickle of meanness his whole adult life, wondered if some of the “pride goeth before a fall” expectations of the townsfolk had rubbed off on him anyhow–which would explain why he had not considered Sethe’s feelings or Denver’s needs when he showed Paul D the clipping.

He hadn’t the vaguest notion of what he would do or say when and if Sethe opened the door and turned her eyes on his. He was willing to offer her help, if she wanted any from him, or receive her anger, if she harbored any against him. Beyond that, he trusted his instincts to right what he may have done wrong to Baby Suggs’ kin, and to guide him in and through the stepped-up haunting 124 was subject to, as evidenced by the voices he heard from the road. Other than that, he would rely on the power of Jesus Christ to deal with things older, but not stronger, than He Himself was.

What he heard, as he moved toward the porch, he didn’t understand.

Out on Bluestone Road he thought he heard a conflagration of hasty voices–loud, urgent, all speaking at once so he could not make out what they were talking about or to whom. The speech wasn’t nonsensical, exactly, nor was it tongues. But something was wrong with the order of the words and he couldn’t describe or cipher it to save his life. All he could make out was the word mine. The rest of it stayed outside his mind’s reach. Yet he went on through.

When he got to the steps, the voices drained suddenly to less than a whisper. It gave him pause. They had become an occasional mutter– like the interior sounds a woman makes when she believes she is alone and unobserved at her work: a sth when she misses the needle’s eye; a soft moan when she sees another chip in her one good platter; the low, friendly argument with which she greets the hens. Nothing fierce or startling. Just that eternal, private conversation that takes place between women and their tasks.

Stamp Paid raised his fist to knock on the door he had never knocked on (because it was always open to or for him) and could not do it. Dispensing with that formality was all the pay he expected from Negroes in his debt. Once Stamp Paid brought you a coat, got the message to you, saved your life, or fixed the cistern he took the liberty of walking in your door as though it were his own. Since all his visits were beneficial, his step or holler through a doorway got a bright welcome. Rather than forfeit the one privilege he claimed for himself, he lowered his hand and left the porch.

Over and over again he tried it: made up his mind to visit Sethe; broke through the loud hasty voices to the mumbling beyond it and stopped, trying to figure out what to do at the door. Six times in as many days he abandoned his normal route and tried to knock at 124. But the coldness of the gesture–its sign that he was indeed a stranger at the gate–overwhelmed him. Retracing his steps in the snow, he sighed. Spirit willing; flesh weak.

While Stamp Paid was making up his mind to visit 124 for Baby Suggs’ sake, Sethe was trying to take her advice: to lay it all down, sword and shield. Not just to acknowledge the advice Baby Suggs gave her, but actually to take it. Four days after Paul D reminded her of how many feet she had, Sethe rummaged among the shoes of strangers to find the ice skates she was sure were there. Digging in the heap she despised herself for having been so trusting, so quick to surrender at the stove while Paul D kissed her back. She should have known that he would behave like everybody else in town once he knew. The twenty-eight days of having women friends, a mother in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood; of, in fact, having neighbors at all to call her own–all that was long gone and would never come back. No more dancing in the Clearing or happy feeds. No more discussions, stormy or quiet, about the true meaning of the Fugitive Bill, the Settlement Fee, God’s Ways and Negro pews; antislavery, manumission, skin voting, Republicans, Dred Scott, book learning, Sojourner’s high-wheeled buggy, the Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio, and the other weighty issues that held them in chairs, scraping the floorboards or pacing them in agony or exhilaration. No anxious wait for the North Star or news of a beat-off. No sighing at a new betrayal or handclapping at a small victory.

Those twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life. Then a few months of the sun splashed life that the shadows holding hands on the road promised her; tentative greetings from other coloredpeople in Paul D’s company; a bed life for herself. Except for Denver’s friend, every bit of it had disappeared. Was that the pattern? she wondered. Every eighteen or twenty years her unlivable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory?

Well, if that’s the way it was–that’s the way it was.

She had been on her knees, scrubbing the floor, Denver trailing her with the drying rags, when Beloved appeared saying, “What these do?” On her knees, scrub brush in hand, she looked at the girl and the skates she held up. Sethe couldn’t skate a lick but then and there she decided to take Baby Suggs’ advice: lay it all down. She left the bucket where it was. Told Denver to get out the shawls and started searching for the other skates she was certain were in that heap somewhere. Anybody feeling sorry for her, anybody wandering by to peep in and see how she was getting on (including Paul D) would discover that the woman junkheaped for the third time because she loved her children–that woman was sailing happily on a frozen creek.

Hurriedly, carelessly she threw the shoes about. She found one blade–a man’s.

“Well,” she said. “We’ll take turns. Two skates on one; one skate on one; and shoe slide for the other.”

Nobody saw them falling.

Holding hands, bracing each other, they swirled over the ice.

Beloved wore the pair; Denver wore one, step-gliding over the treacherous ice. Sethe thought her two shoes would hold and anchor her.

She was wrong. Two paces onto the creek, she lost her balance and landed on her behind. The girls, screaming with laughter, joined her on the ice. Sethe struggled to stand and discovered not only that she could do a split, but that it hurt. Her bones surfaced in unexpected places and so did laughter. Making a circle or a line, the three of them could not stay upright for one whole minute, but nobody saw them falling.

Each seemed to be helping the other two stay upright, yet every tumble doubled their delight. The live oak and soughing pine on the banks enclosed them and absorbed their laughter while they fought gravity for each other’s hands. Their skirts flew like wings and their skin turned pewter in the cold and dying light.

Nobody saw them falling.

Exhausted finally they lay down on their backs to recover breath.

The sky above them was another country. Winter stars, close enough to lick, had come out before sunset. For a moment, looking up, Sethe entered the perfect peace they offered. Then Denver stood up and tried for a long, independent glide. The tip of her single skate hit an ice bump, and as she fell, the flapping of her arms was so wild and hopeless that all three–Sethe, Beloved and Denver herself–laughed till they coughed. Sethe rose to her hands and knees, laughter still shaking her chest, making her eyes wet. She stayed that way for a while, on all fours. But when her laughter died, the tears did not and it was some time before Beloved or Denver knew the difference. When they did they touched her lightly on the shoulders.

Walking back through the woods, Sethe put an arm around each girl at her side. Both of them had an arm around her waist. Making their way over hard snow, they stumbled and had to hold on tight, but nobody saw them fall.

Inside the house they found out they were cold. They took off their shoes, wet stockings, and put on dry woolen ones. Denver fed the fire. Sethe warmed a pan of milk and stirred cane syrup and vanilla into it. Wrapped in quilts and blankets before the cooking stove, they drank, wiped their noses, and drank again.

“We could roast some taters,” said Denver.

“Tomorrow,” said Sethe. “Time to sleep.”

She poured them each a bit more of the hot sweet milk. The stovefire roared.

“You finished with your eyes?” asked Beloved.

Sethe smiled. “Yes, I’m finished with my eyes. Drink up. Time for bed.”

But none of them wanted to leave the warmth of the blankets, the fire and the cups for the chill of an unheated bed. They went on sipping and watching the fire.

When the click came Sethe didn’t know what it was. Afterward it was clear as daylight that the click came at the very beginning– a beat, almost, before it started; before she heard three notes; before the melody was even clear. Leaning forward a little, Beloved was humming softly.

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