فصل 11

کتاب: Beloved / فصل 11

فصل 11

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11

It was then, when Beloved finished humming, that Sethe recalled the click–the settling of pieces into places designed and made especially for them. No milk spilled from her cup because her hand was not shaking. She simply turned her head and looked at Beloved’s profile: the chin, mouth, nose, forehead, copied and exaggerated in the huge shadow the fire threw on the wall behind her. Her hair, which Denver had braided into twenty or thirty plaits, curved toward her shoulders like arms. From where she sat Sethe could not examine it, not the hairline, nor the eyebrows, the lips, nor…

“All I remember,” Baby Suggs had said, “is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Her little hands I wouldn’t know em if they slapped me.”

.. the birthmark, nor the color of the gums, the shape of her ears, nor…

“Here. Look here. This is your ma’am. If you can’t tell me by my face, look here.”

.. the fingers, nor their nails, nor even…

But there would be time. The click had clicked; things were where they ought to be or poised and ready to glide in.

“I made that song up,” said Sethe. “I made it up and sang it to my children. Nobody knows that song but me and my children.”

Beloved turned to look at Sethe. “I know it,” she said.

A hobnail casket of jewels found in a tree hollow should be fondled before it is opened. Its lock may have rusted or broken away from the clasp. Still you should touch the nail heads, and test its weight. No smashing with an ax head before it is decently exhumed from the grave that has hidden it all this time. No gasp at a miracle that is truly miraculous because the magic lies in the fact that you knew it was there for you all along.

Sethe wiped the white satin coat from the inside of the pan, brought pillows from the keeping room for the girls’ heads. There was no tremor in her voice as she instructed them to keep the fire— if not, come on upstairs.

With that, she gathered her blanket around her elbows and asc. ended the lily-white stairs like a bride. Outside, snow solidified itself into graceful forms. The peace of winter stars seemed permanent.

Fingering a ribbon and smelling skin, Stamp Paid approached 12 4 again.

“My marrow is tired,” he thought. “I been tired all my days, bone-tired, but now it’s in the marrow. Must be what Baby Suggs felt when she lay down and thought about color for the rest of her life.” When she told him what her aim was, he thought she was ashamed and too shamed to say so. Her authority in the pulpit, her dance in the Clearing, her powerful Call (she didn’t deliver sermons or preach–insisting she was too ignorant for that–she called and the hearing heard)–all that had been mocked and rebuked by the bloodspill in her backyard. God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of Him to say so. Instead she told Stamp she was going to bed to think about the colors of things. He tried to dissuade her. Sethe was in jail with her nursing baby, the one he had saved. Her sons were holding hands in the yard, terrified of letting go. Strangers and familiars were stopping by to hear how it went one more time, and suddenly Baby declared peace. She just up and quit. By the time Sethe was released she had exhausted blue and was well on her way to yellow.

At first he would see her in the yard occasionally, or delivering food to the jail, or shoes in town. Then less and less. He believed then that shame put her in the bed. Now, eight years after her contentious funeral and eighteen years after the Misery, he changed his mind. Her marrow was tired and it was a testimony to the heart that fed it that it took eight years to meet finally the color she was hankering after. The onslaught of her fatigue, like his, was sudden, but lasted for years. After sixty years of losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone; after five years of freedom given to her by her last child, who bought her future with his, exchanged it, so to speak, so she could have one whether he did or not–to lose him too; to acquire a daughter and grandchildren and see that daughter slay the children (or try to); to belong to a community of other free Negroes–to love and be loved by them, to counsel and be counseled, protect and be protected, feed and be fed–and then to have that community step back and hold itself at a distance—well, it could wear out even a Baby Suggs, holy.

“Listen here, girl,” he told her, “you can’t quit the Word. It’s given to you to speak. You can’t quit the Word, I don’t care what all happen to you.”

They were standing in Richmond Street, ankle deep in leaves.

Lamps lit the downstairs windows of spacious houses and made the early evening look darker than it was. The odor of burning leaves was brilliant. Quite by chance, as he pocketed a penny tip for a delivery, he had glanced across the street and recognized the skipping woman as his old friend. He had not seen her in weeks. Quickly he crossed the street, scuffing red leaves as he went. When he stopped her with a greeting, she returned it with a face knocked clean of interest. She could have been a plate. A carpetbag full of shoes in her hand, she waited for him to begin, lead or share a conversation.

If there had been sadness in her eyes he would have understood it; but indifference lodged where sadness should have been.

“You missed the Clearing three Saturdays running,” he told her.

She turned her head away and scanned the houses along the street.

“Folks came,” he said.

“Folks come; folks go,” she answered.

“Here, let me carry that.” He tried to take her bag from her but she wouldn’t let him.

“I got a delivery someplace long in here,” she said. “Name of Tucker.”

“Yonder,” he said. “Twin chestnuts in the yard. Sick, too.”

They walked a bit, his pace slowed to accommodate her skip.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Saturday coming. You going to Call or what?”

“If I call them and they come, what on earth I’m going to say?”

“Say the Word!” He checked his shout too late. Two whitemen burning leaves turned their heads in his direction. Bending low he whispered into her ear, “The Word. The Word.”

“That’s one other thing took away from me,” she said, and that was when he exhorted her, pleaded with her not to quit, no matter what. The Word had been given to her and she had to speak it.

Had to.

They had reached the twin chestnuts and the white house that stood behind them.

“See what I mean?” he said. “Big trees like that, both of em together ain’t got the leaves of a young birch.”

“I see what you mean,” she said, but she peered instead at the white house.

“You got to do it,” he said. “You got to. Can’t nobody Call like you. You have to be there.”

“What I have to do is get in my bed and lay down. I want to fix on something harmless in this world.”

“What world you talking about? Ain’t nothing harmless down here.”

“Yes it is. Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither.”

“You getting in the bed to think about yellow?”

“I likes yellow.”

“Then what? When you get through with blue and yellow, then what?”

“Can’t say. It’s something can’t be planned.”

“You blaming God,” he said. “That’s what you doing.”

“No, Stamp. I ain’t.”

“You saying the whitefolks won? That what you saying?”

“I’m saying they came in my yard.”

“You saying nothing counts.”

“I’m saying they came in my yard.”

“Sethe’s the one did it.”

“And if she hadn’t?”

“You saying God give up? Nothing left for us but pour out our own blood?”

“I’m saying they came in my yard.”

“You punishing Him, ain’t you.”

“Not like He punish me.”

“You can’t do that, Baby. It ain’t right.”

“Was a time I knew what that was.”

“You still know.”

“What I know is what I see: a nigger woman hauling shoes.”

“Aw, Baby.” He licked his lips searching with his tongue for the words that would turn her around, lighten her load. “We have to be steady. ‘These things too will pass.’ What you looking for? A miracle?”

“No,” she said. “I’m looking for what I was put here to look for: the back door,” and skipped right to it. They didn’t let her in.

They took the shoes from her as she stood on the steps and she rested her hip on the railing while the whitewoman went looking for the dime.

Stamp Paid rearranged his way. Too angry to walk her home and listen to more, he watched her for a moment and turned to go before the alert white face at the window next door had come to any conclusion.

Trying to get to 124 for the second time now, he regretted that conversation: the high tone he took; his refusal to see the effect of marrow weariness in a woman he believed was a mountain. Now, too late, he understood her. The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice.

One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed. The whitefolks had tired her out at last.

And him. Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken.

He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing.

The stench stank. Stank up off the pages of the North Star, out of the mouths of witnesses, etched in crooked handwriting in letters delivered by hand. Detailed in documents and petitions full of whereas and presented to any legal body who’d read it, it stank. But none of that had worn out his marrow. None of that. It was the ribbon. Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red on its bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. He untied the ribbon and put it in his pocket, dropped the curl in the weeds. On the way home, he stopped, short of breath and dizzy. He waited until the spell passed before continuing on his way. A moment later, his breath left him again. This time he sat down by a fence.

Rested, he got to his feet, but before he took a step he turned to look back down the road he was traveling and said, to its frozen mud and the river beyond, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?”

When he got to his house he was too tired to eat the food his sister and nephews had prepared. He sat on the porch in the cold till way past dark and went to his bed only because his sister’s voice calling him was getting nervous. He kept the ribbon; the skin smell nagged him, and his weakened marrow made him dwell on Baby Suggs’ wish to consider what in the world was harmless. He hoped she stuck to blue, yellow, maybe green, and never fixed on red.

Mistaking her, upbraiding her, owing her, now he needed to let her know he knew, and to get right with her and her kin. So, in spite of his exhausted marrow, he kept on through the voices and tried once more to knock at the door of 124. This time, although he couldn’t cipher but one word, he believed he knew who spoke them.

The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.

What a roaring.

Sethe had gone to bed smiling, eager to lie down and unravel the proof for the conclusion she had already leapt to. Fondle the day and circumstances of Beloved’s arrival and the meaning of that kiss in the Clearing. She slept instead and woke, still smiling, to a snow bright morning, cold enough to see her breath. She lingered a moment to collect the courage to throw off the blankets and hit a chilly floor.

For the first time, she was going to be late for work.

Downstairs she saw the girls sleeping where she’d left them, but back to back now, each wrapped tight in blankets, breathing into their pillows. The pair and a half of skates were lying by the front door, the stockings hung on a nail behind the cooking stove to dry had not.

Sethe looked at Beloved’s face and smiled.

Quietly, carefully she stepped around her to wake the fire. First a bit of paper, then a little kindlin–not too much–just a taste until it was strong enough for more. She fed its dance until it was wild and fast. When she went outside to collect more wood from the shed, she did not notice the man’s frozen footprints. She crunched around to the back, to the cord piled high with snow. After scraping it clean, she filled her arms with as much dry wood as she could. She even looked straight at the shed, smiling, smiling at the things she would not have to remember now. Thinking, “She ain’t even mad with me.

Not a bit.”

Obviously the hand-holding shadows she had seen on the road were not Paul D, Denver and herself, but “us three.” The three holding on to each other skating the night before; the three sipping flavored milk. And since that was so–if her daughter could come back home from the timeless place–certainly her sons could, and would, come back from wherever they had gone to.

Sethe covered her front teeth with her tongue against the cold.

Hunched forward by the burden in her arms, she walked back around the house to the porch–not once noticing the frozen tracks she stepped in.

Inside, the girls were still sleeping, although they had changed positions while she was gone, both drawn to the fire. Dumping the armload into the woodbox made them stir but not wake. Sethe started the cooking stove as quietly as she could, reluctant to wake the sisters, happy to have them asleep at her feet while she made breakfast. Too bad she would be late for work—too, too bad. Once in sixteen years?

That’s just too bad.

She had beaten two eggs into yesterday’s hominy, formed it into patties and fried them with some ham pieces before Denver woke completely and groaned.

“Back stiff?”

“Ooh yeah.”

“Sleeping on the floor’s supposed to be good for you.”

“Hurts like the devil,” said Denver.

“Could be that fall you took.”

Denver smiled. “That was fun.” She turned to look down at

Beloved snoring lightly. “Should I wake her?”

“No, let her rest.”

“She likes to see you off in the morning.”

I’ll make sure she does,” said Sethe, and thought, Be nice to think first, before I talk to her, let her know I know. Think about all I ain’t got to remember no more. Do like Baby said: Think on it then lay it down–for good. Paul D convinced me there was a world out there and that I could live in it. Should have known better. Did know better. Whatever is going on outside my door ain’t for me.

The world is in this room. This here’s all there is and all there needs to be.

They ate like men, ravenous and intent. Saying little, content with the company of the other and the opportunity to look in her eyes.

When Sethe wrapped her head and bundled up to go to town, it was already midmorning. And when she left the house she neither saw the prints nor heard the voices that ringed 124 like a noose.

Trudging in the ruts left earlier by wheels, Sethe was excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember.

I don’t have to remember nothing. I don’t even have to explain.

She understands it all. I can forget how Baby Suggs’ heart collapsed; how we agreed it was consumption without a sign of it in the world.

Her eyes when she brought my food, I can forget that, and how she told me that Howard and Buglar were all right but wouldn’t let go each other’s hands. Played that way: stayed that way especially in their sleep. She handed me the food from a basket; things wrapped small enough to get through the bars, whispering news: Mr. Bodwin going to see the judge–in chambers, she kept on saying, in chambers, like I knew what it meant or she did. The Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio, had drawn up a petition to keep me from being hanged. That two white preachers had come round and wanted to talk to me, pray for me. That a newspaperman came too. She told me the news and I told her I needed something for the rats. She wanted Denver out and slapped her palms when I wouldn’t let her go. “Where your earrings?” she said. I’ll hold em for you.” I told her the jailer took them, to protect me from myself. He thought I could do some harm with the wire. Baby Suggs covered her mouth with her hand. “Schoolteacher left town,” she said. “Filed a claim and rode on off. They going to let you out for the burial,” she said, “not the funeral, just the burial,” and they did. The sheriff came with me and looked away when I fed Denver in the wagon. Neither Howard nor Buglar would let me near them, not even to touch their hair. I believe a lot of folks were there, but I just saw the box. Reverend Pike spoke in a real loud voice, but I didn’t catch a word—except the first two, and three months later when Denver was ready for solid food and they let me out for good, I went and got you a gravestone, but I didn’t have money enough for the carving so I exchanged (bartered, you might say) what I did have and I’m sorry to this day I never thought to ask him for the whole thing: all I heard of what Reverend Pike said.

Dearly Beloved, which is what you are to me and I don’t have to be sorry about getting only one word, and I don’t have to remember the slaughterhouse and the Saturday girls who worked its yard. I can forget that what I did changed Baby Suggs’ life. No Clearing, no company. Just laundry and shoes. I can forget it all now because as soon as I got the gravestone in place you made your presence known in the house and worried us all to distraction. I didn’t understand it then. I thought you were mad with me. And now I know that if you was, you ain’t now because you came back here to me and I was right all along: there is no world outside my door. I only need to know one thing. How bad is the scar?

As Sethe walked to work, late for the first time in sixteen years and wrapped in a timeless present, Stamp Paid fought fatigue and the habit of a lifetime. Baby Suggs refused to go to the Clearing because she believed they had won; he refused to acknowledge any such victory. Baby had no back door; so he braved the cold and a wall of talk to knock on the one she did have. He clutched the red ribbon in his pocket for strength. Softly at first, then harder. At the last he banged furiously-disbelieving it could happen. That the door of a house with coloredpeople in it did not fly open in his presence.

He went to the window and wanted to cry. Sure enough, there they were, not a one of them heading for the door. Worrying his scrap of ribbon to shreds, the old man turned and went down the steps.

Now curiosity joined his shame and his debt. Two backs curled away from him as he looked in the window. One had a head he recognized; the other troubled him. He didn’t know her and didn’t know anybody it could be. Nobody, but nobody visited that house.

After a disagreeable breakfast he went to see Ella and John to find out what they knew. Perhaps there he could find out if, after all these years of clarity, he had misnamed himself and there was yet another debt he owed. Born Joshua, he renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master’s son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything. Whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off. He thought it would make him rambunctious, renegade–a drunkard even, the debtlessness, and in a way it did.

But there was nothing to do with it. Work well; work poorly. Work a little; work not at all. Make sense; make none. Sleep, wake up; like somebody, dislike others. It didn’t seem much of a way to live and it brought him no satisfaction. So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. Beaten runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. “You paid it; now life owes you.” And the receipt, as it were, was a welcome door that he never had to knock on, like John and Ella’s in front of which he stood and said, “Who in there?” only once and she was pulling on the hinge.

“where you been keeping yourself? I told John must be cold if Stamp stay inside.”

“Oh, I been out.” He took off his cap and massaged his scalp.

“Out where? Not by here.” Ella hung two suits of underwear on a line behind the stove.

“Was over to Baby Suggs’ this morning.”

“What you want in there?” asked Ella. “Somebody invite you in?”

“That’s Baby’s kin. I don’t need no invite to look after her people.”

“Sth.” Ella was unmoved. She had been Baby Suggs’ friend and Sethe’s too till the rough time. Except for a nod at the carnival, she hadn’t given Sethe the time of day.

“Somebody new in there. A woman. Thought you might know who is she.”

“Ain’t no new Negroes in this town I don’t know about,” she said. “what she look like? You sure that wasn’t Denver?”

“I know Denver. This girl’s narrow.”

“You sure?”

“I know what I see.”

“Might see anything at all at 124.”

“True.”

“Better ask Paul D,” she said.

“Can’t locate him,” said Stamp, which was the truth although his efforts to find Paul D had been feeble. He wasn’t ready to confront the man whose life he had altered with his graveyard information.

“He’s sleeping in the church,” said Ella.

“The church!” Stamp was shocked and very hurt.

“Yeah. Asked Reverend Pike if he could stay in the cellar.”

“It’s cold as charity in there!”

“I expect he knows that.”

“What he do that for?”

“Hes a touch proud, seem like.”

“He don’t have to do that! Any number’ll take him in.”

Ella turned around to look at Stamp Paid. “Can’t nobody read minds long distance. All he have to do is ask somebody.”

“Why? Why he have to ask? Can’t nobody offer? What’s going on? Since when a blackman come to town have to sleep in a cellar like a dog?”

“Unrile yourself, Stamp.”

“Not me. I’m going to stay riled till somebody gets some sense and leastway act like a Christian.”

“It’s only a few days he been there.”

“Shouldn’t be no days! You know all about it and don’t give him a hand? That don’t sound like you, Ella. Me and you been pulling coloredfolk out the water more’n twenty years. Now you tell me you can’t offer a man a bed? A working man, too! A man what can pay his own way.”

“He ask, I give him anything.”

“Why’s that necessary all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know him all that well.”

“You know he’s colored!”

“Stamp, don’t tear me up this morning. I don’t feel like it.”

“It’s her, ain’t it?”

“Her who?”

“Sethe. He took up with her and stayed in there and you don’t want nothing to–”

“Hold on. Don’t jump if you can’t see bottom.”

“Girl, give it up. We been friends too long to act like this.”

“Well, who can tell what all went on in there? Look here, I don’t know who Sethe is or none of her people.”

“What?!”

“All I know is she married Baby Suggs’ boy and I ain’t sure I know that. Where is he, huh? Baby never laid eyes on her till John carried her to the door with a baby I strapped on her chest.”

“I strapped that baby! And you way off the track with that wagon.

Her children know who she was even if you don’t.”

“So what? I ain’t saying she wasn’t their ma’ammy, but who’s to say they was Baby Suggs’ grandchildren? How she get on board and her husband didn’t? And tell me this, how she have that baby in the woods by herself? Said a whitewoman come out the trees and helped her. Shoot. You believe that? A whitewoman? Well, I know what kind of white that was.”

“Aw, no, Ella.”

“Anything white floating around in the woods—if it ain’t got a shotgun, it’s something I don’t want no part of!”

“You all was friends.”

“Yeah, till she showed herself.”

“Ella.”

“I ain’t got no friends take a handsaw to their own children.”

“You in deep water, girl.”

“Uh uh. I’m on dry land and I’m going to stay there. You the one wet.”

“What’s any of what you talking got to do with Paul D?”

“What run him off? Tell me that.”

“I run him off.”

“You?”

“I told him about–I showed him the newspaper, about the– what Sethe did. Read it to him. He left that very day.”

“You didn’t tell me that. I thought he knew.”

“He didn’t know nothing. Except her, from when they was at that place Baby Suggs was at.”

“He knew Baby Suggs?”

“Sure he knew her. Her boy Halle too.”

“And left when he found out what Sethe did?”

“Look like he might have a place to stay after all.”

“What you say casts a different light. I thought–”

But Stamp Paid knew what she thought.

“You didn’t come here asking about him,” Ela said. “You came about some new girl.”

“That’s so.”

“Well, Paul D must know who she is. Or what she is.”

“Your mind is loaded with spirits. Everywhere you look you see one.”

“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground.”

He couldn’t deny it. Jesus Christ Himself didn’t, so Stamp ate a piece of Ella’s head cheese to show there were no bad feelings and set out to find Paul D. He found him on the steps of Holy Redeemer, holding his wrists between his knees and looking red-eyed.

Sawyer shouted at her when she entered the kitchen, but she just turned her back and reached for her apron. There was no entry now.

No crack or crevice available. She had taken pains to keep them out, but knew full well that at any moment they could rock her, rip her from her moorings, send the birds twittering back into her hair. Drain her mother’s milk, they had already done. Divided her back into plant life–that too. Driven her fat-bellied into the woods–they had done that. All news of them was rot. They buttered Halle’s face; gave Paul D iron to eat; crisped Sixo; hanged her own mother. She didn’t want any more news about whitefolks; didn’t want to know what Ella knew and John and Stamp Paid, about the world done up the way whitefolks loved it. All news of them should have stopped with the birds in her hair.

Once, long ago, she was soft, trusting. She trusted Mrs. Garner and her husband too. She knotted the earrings into her underskirt to take along, not so much to wear but to hold. Earrings that made her believe she could discriminate among them. That for every schoolteacher there would be an Amy; that for every pupil there was a Garner, or Bodwin, or even a sheriff, whose touch at her elbow was gentle and who looked away when she nursed. But she had come to believe every one of Baby Suggs’ last words and buried all recollection of them and luck. Paul D dug it up, gave her back her body, kissed her divided back, stirred her rememory and brought her more news: of clabber, of iron, of roosters’ smiling, but when he heard her news, he counted her feet and didn’t even say goodbye.

“Don’t talk to me, Mr. Sawyer. Don’t say nothing to me this morning.”

“What? What? What? You talking back to me?”

“I’m telling you don’t say nothing to me.”

“You better get them pies made.”

Sethe touched the fruit and picked up the paring knife.

When pie juice hit the bottom of the oven and hissed, Sethe was well into the potato salad. Sawyer came in and said, “Not too sweet.

You make it too sweet they don’t eat it.”

“Make it the way I always did.”

“Yeah. Too sweet.”

None of the sausages came back. The cook had a way with them and Sawyer’s Restaurant never had leftover sausage. If Sethe wanted any, she put them aside soon as they were ready. But there was some passable stew. Problem was, all her pies were sold too. Only rice pudding left and half a pan of gingerbread that didn’t come out right.

Had she been paying attention instead of daydreaming all morning, she wouldn’t be picking around looking for her dinner like a crab.

She couldn’t read clock time very well, but she knew when the hands were closed in prayer at the top of the face she was through for the day. She got a metal-top jar, filled it with stew and wrapped the gingerbread in butcher paper. These she dropped in her outer skirt pockets and began washing up. None of it was anything like what the cook and the two waiters walked off with. Mr. Sawyer included midday dinner in the terms of the job–along with $3 .4o a week– and she made him understand from the beginning she would take her dinner home. But matches, sometimes a bit of kerosene, a little salt, butter too–these things she took also, once in a while, and felt ashamed because she could afford to buy them; she just didn’t want the embarrassment of waiting out back of Phelps store with the others till every white in Ohio was served before the keeper turned to the cluster of Negro faces looking through a hole in his back door. She was ashamed, too, because it was stealing and Sixo’s argument on the subject amused her but didn’t change the way she felt; just as it didn’t change schoolteacher’s mind.

“Did you steal that shoat? You stole that shoat.” Schoolteacher was quiet but firm, like he was just going through the motions–not expecting an answer that mattered. Sixo sat there, not even getting up to plead or deny. He just sat there, the streak-of-lean in his hand, the gristle clustered in the tin plate like gemstones—rough, unpolished, but loot nevertheless.

“You stole that shoat, didn’t you?”

“No. Sir.” said Sixo, but he had the decency, to keep his eyes on the meat.

“You telling me you didn’t steal it, and I’m looking right at you?”

“No, sir. I didn’t steal it.”

Schoolteacher smiled. “Did you kill it?”

“Yes, sir. I killed it.”

“Did you butcher it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you cook it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, then. Did you eat it?”

“Yes, sir. I sure did.”

“And you telling me that’s not stealing?”

“No, sir. It ain’t.”

“What is it then?”

“Improving your property, sir.”

“What?”

“Sixo plant rye to give the high piece a better chance. Sixo take and feed the soil, give you more crop. Sixo take and feed Sixo give you more work.”

Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers–not the defined. After Mr. Garner died with a hole in his ear that Mrs. Garner said was an exploded ear drum brought on by stroke and Sixo said was gunpowder, everything they touched was looked on as stealing. Not just a rifle of corn, or two yard eggs the hen herself didn’t even remember, everything.

Schoolteacher took away the guns from the Sweet Home men and, deprived of game to round out their diet of bread, beans, hominy, vegetables and a little extra at slaughter time, they began to pilfer in earnest, and it became not only their right but their obligation.

Sethe understood it then, but now with a paying job and an employer who was kind enough to hire an ex-convict, she despised herself for the pride that made pilfering better than standing in line at the window of the general store with all the other Negroes. She didn’t want to jostle them or be jostled by them. Feel their judgment or their pity, especially now. She touched her forehead with the back of her wrist and blotted the perspiration. The workday had come to a close and already she was feeling the excitement. Not since that other escape had she felt so alive. Slopping the alley dogs, watching their frenzy, she pressed her lips. Today would be a day she would accept a lift, if anybody on a wagon offered it. No one would, and for sixteen years her pride had not let her ask. But today. Oh, today.

Now she wanted speed, to skip over the long walk home and be there.

When Sawyer warned her about being late again, she barely heard him. He used to be a sweet man. Patient, tender in his dealings with his help. But each year, following the death of his son in the War, he grew more and more crotchety. As though Sethe’s dark face was to blame.

“Un huh,” she said, wondering how she could hurry tine along and get to the no-time waiting for her.

She needn’t have worried. Wrapped tight, hunched forward, as she started home her mind was busy with the things she could forget.

Thank God I don’t have to rememory or say a thing because you know it. All. You know I never would a left you. Never. It was all I could think of to do. When the train came I had to be ready.

Schoolteacher was teaching us things we couldn’t learn. I didn’t care nothing about the measuring string. We all laughed about that– except Sixo. He didn’t laugh at nothing. But I didn’t care. Schoolteacher’d wrap that string all over my head, ‘cross my nose, around my behind. Number my teeth. I thought he was a fool. And the questions he asked was the biggest foolishness of all.

Then me and your brothers come up from the second patch. The first one was close to the house where the quick things grew: beans, onions, sweet peas. The other one was further down for long-lasting things, potatoes, pumpkin, okra, pork salad. Not much was up yet down there. It was early still. Some young salad maybe, but that was all. We pulled weeds and hoed a little to give everything a good start.

After that we hit out for the house. The ground raised up from the second patch. Not a hill exactly but kind of. Enough for Buglar and Howard to run up and roll down, run up and roll down. That’s the way I used to see them in my dreams, laughing, their short fat legs running up the hill. Now all I see is their backs walking down the railroad tracks. Away from me. Always away from me. But that day they was happy, running up and rolling down. It was early still– the growing season had took hold but not much was up. I remember the peas still had flowers. The grass was long though, full of white buds and those tall red blossoms people call Diane and something there with the leastest little bit of blue—light, like a cornflower but pale, pale. Real pale. I maybe should have hurried because I left you back at the house in a basket in the yard. Away from where the chickens scratched but you never know. Anyway I took my time getting back but your brothers didn’t have patience with me staring at flowers and sky every two or three steps. They ran on ahead and I let em. Something sweet lives in the air that time of year, and if the breeze is right, it’s hard to stay indoors.

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