فصل 12

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فصل 12

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When I got back I could hear Howard and Buglar laughing down by the quarters. I put my hoe down and cut across the side yard to get to you. The shade moved so by the time I got back the sun was shining right on you.

Right in your face, but you wasn’t woke at all. Still asleep. I wanted to pick you up in my arms and I wanted to look at you sleeping too.

Didn’t know which; you had the sweetest face. Yonder, not far, was a grape arbor Mr. Garner made. Always full of big plans, he wanted to make his own wine to get drunk off. Never did get more than a kettle of jelly from it. I don’t think the soil was right for grapes. Your daddy believed it was the rain, not the soil. Sixo said it was bugs.

The grapes so little and tight. Sour as vinegar too. But there was a little table in there. So I picked up your basket and carried you over to the grape arbor. Cool in there and shady. I set you down on the little table and figured if I got a piece of muslin the bugs and things wouldn’t get to you. And if Mrs. Garner didn’t need me right there in the kitchen, I could get a chair and you and me could set out there while I did the vegetables. I headed for the back door to get the clean muslin we kept in the kitchen press. The grass felt good on my feet.

I got near the door and I heard voices. Schoolteacher made his pupils sit and learn books for a spell every afternoon. If it was nice enough weather, they’d sit on the side porch. All three of em. He’d talk and they’d write. Or he would read and they would write down what he said. I never told nobody this. Not your pap, not nobody. I almost told Mrs. Garner, but she was so weak then and getting weaker. This is the first time I’m telling it and I’m telling it to you because it might help explain something to you although I know you don’t need me to do it. To tell it or even think over it. You don’t have to listen either, if you don’t want to. But I couldn’t help listening to what I heard that day. He was talking to his pupils and I heard him say, “Which one are you doing?” And one of the boys said, “Sethe.”

That’s when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to where I could see what they was doing. Schoolteacher was standing over one of them with one hand behind his back. He licked a forefinger a couple of times and turned a few pages. Slow.

I was about to turn around and keep on my way to where the muslin was, when I heard him say, “No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.” I commenced to walk backward, didn’t even look behind me to find out where I was headed.

I just kept lifting my feet and pushing back. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly. One of the dogs was licking out a pan in the yard. I got to the grape arbor fast enough, but I didn’t have the muslin. Flies settled all over your face, rubbing their hands.

My head itched like the devil. Like somebody was sticking fine needles in my scalp. I never told Halle or nobody. But that very day I asked Mrs. Garner a part of it. She was low then. Not as low as she ended up, but failing. A kind of bag grew under her jaw. It didn’t seem to hurt her, but it made her weak. First she’d be up and spry in the morning and by the second milking she couldn’t stand up. Next she took to sleeping late. The day I went up there she was in bed the whole day, and I thought to carry her some bean soup and ask her then. When I opened the bedroom door she looked at me from underneath her nightcap. Already it was hard to catch life in her eyes. Her shoes and stockings were on the floor so I knew she had tried to get dressed.

“I brung you some bean soup,” I said.

She said, “I don’t think I can swallow that.”

“Try a bit,” I told her.

“Too thick. I’m sure it’s too thick.”

“Want me to loosen it up with a little water?”

“No. Take it away. Bring me some cool water, that’s all.”

“Yes, ma’am. Ma’am? Could I ask you something?”

“What is it, Sethe?”

“What do characteristics mean?”


“A word. Characteristics.”

“Oh.” She moved her head around on the pillow. “Features. Who taught you that?”

“I heard the schoolteacher say it.”

“Change the water, Sethe. This is warm.”

“Yes, ma’am. Features?”

“Water, Sethe. Cool water.”

I put the pitcher on the tray with the white bean soup and went downstairs. When I got back with the fresh water I held her head while she drank. It took her a while because that lump made it hard to swallow. She laid back and wiped her mouth. The drinking seemed to satisfy her but she frowned and said, “I don’t seem able to wake up, Sethe. All I seem to want is sleep.”

“Then do it,” I told her. “I’m take care of things.”

Then she went on: what about this? what about that? Said she knew Halle was no trouble, but she wanted to know if schoolteacher was handling the Pauls all right and Sixo.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Look like it.”

“Do they do what he tells them?”

“They don’t need telling.”

“Good. That’s a mercy. I should be back downstairs in a day or two. I just need more rest. Doctor’s due back. Tomorrow, is it?”

“You said features, ma’am?”



“Umm. Like, a feature of summer is heat. A characteristic is a feature. A thing that’s natural to a thing.”

“Can you have more than one?”

“You can have quite a few. You know. Say a baby sucks its thumb. That’s one, but it has others too. Keep Billy away from Red Corn. Mr. Garner never let her calve every other year. Sethe, you hear me? Come away from that window and listen.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ask my brother-in-law to come up after supper.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If you’d wash your hair you could get rid of that lice.”

“Ain’t no lice in my head, ma’am.”

“Whatever it is, a good scrubbing is what it needs, not scratching.

Don’t tell me we’re out of soap.”

“No, ma’am.”

“All right now. I’m through. Talking makes me tired.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And thank you, Sethe.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

You was too little to remember the quarters. Your brothers slept under the window. Me, you and your daddy slept by the wall. The night after I heard why schoolteacher measured me, I had trouble sleeping. When Halle came in I asked him what he thought about schoolteacher. He said there wasn’t nothing to think about. Said, He’s white, ain’t he? I said, But I mean is he like Mr. Garner?

“What you want to know, Sethe?”

“Him and her,” I said, “they ain’t like the whites I seen before.

The ones in the big place I was before I came here.”

“How these different?” he asked me.

“Well,” I said, “they talk soft for one thing.”

“It don’t matter, Sethe. What they say is the same. Loud or soft.”

“Mr. Garner let you buy out your mother,” I said.

“Yep. He did.”


“If he hadn’t of, she would of dropped in his cooking stove.”

“Still, he did it. Let you work it off.”

“Uh huh.”

“Wake up, Halle.”

“I said, Uh huh.”

“He could of said no. He didn’t tell you no.”

“No, he didn’t tell me no. She worked here for ten years. If she worked another ten you think she would’ve made it out? I pay him for her last years and in return he got you, me and three more coming up. I got one more year of debt work; one more. Schoolteacher in there told me to quit it. Said the reason for doing it don’t hold. I should do the extra but here at Sweet Home.”

“Is he going to pay you for the extra?”


“Then how you going to pay it off? How much is it?”


“Don’t he want it back?”

“He want something.”


“I don’t know. Something, But he don’t want me off Sweet Home no more. Say it don’t pay to have my labor somewhere else while the boys is small.”

“What about the money you owe?”

“He must have another way of getting it.”

“What way?”

“I don’t know, Sethe.”

“Then the only question is how? How he going get it?”

“No. That’s one question. There’s one more.”

“What’s that?”

He leaned up and turned over, touching my cheek with his knuckles.

“The question now is, Who’s going buy you out? Or me? Or her?” He pointed over to where you was laying.


“If all my labor is Sweet Home, including the extra, what I got left to sell?”

He turned over then and went back to sleep and I thought I wouldn’t but I did too for a while. Something he said, maybe, or something he didn’t say woke me. I sat up like somebody hit me, and you woke up too and commenced to cry. I rocked you some, but there wasn’t much room, so I stepped outside the door to walk you. Up and down I went. Up and down. Everything dark but lamplight in the top window of the house. She must’ve been up still. I couldn’t get out of my head the thing that woke me up: “While the boys is small.” That’s what he said and it snapped me awake. They tagged after me the whole day weeding, milking, getting firewood.

For now. For now.

That’s when we should have begun to plan. But we didn’t. I don’t know what we thought–but getting away was a money thing to us.

Buy out. Running was nowhere on our minds. All of us? Some?

Where to? How to go? It was Sixo who brought it up, finally, after Paul F. Mrs. Garner sold him, trying to keep things up. Already she lived two years off his price. But it ran out, I guess, so she wrote schoolteacher to come take over. Four Sweet Home men and she still believed she needed her brother-in-law and two boys ‘cause people said she shouldn’t be alone out there with nothing but Negroes. So he came with a big hat and spectacles and a coach box full of paper.

Talking soft and watching hard. He beat Paul A. Not hard and not long, but it was the first time anyone had, because Mr. Garner disallowed it. Next time I saw him he had company in the prettiest trees you ever saw. Sixo started watching the sky. He was the only one who crept at night and Halle said that’s how he learned about the train.

“That way.” Halle was pointing over the stable. “Where he took my ma’am. Sixo say freedom is that way. A whole train is going and if we can get there, don’t need to be no buyout.”

“Train? What’s that?” I asked him.

They stopped talking in front of me then. Even Halle. But they whispered among themselves and Sixo watched the sky. Not the high part, the low part where it touched the trees. You could tell his mind was gone from Sweet Home.

The plan was a good one, but when it came time, I was big with Denver. So we changed it a little. A little. Just enough to butter Halle’s face, so Paul D tells me, and make Sixo laugh at last.

But I got you out, baby. And the boys too. When the signal for the train come, you all was the only ones ready. I couldn’t find Halle or nobody. I didn’t know Sixo was burned up and Paul D dressed in a collar you wouldn’t believe. Not till later. So I sent you all to the wagon with the woman who waited in the corn. Ha ha. No notebook for my babies and no measuring string neither. What I had to get through later I got through because of you. Passed right by those boys hanging in the trees. One had Paul A’s shirt on but not his feet or his head. I walked right on by because only me had your milk, and God do what He would, I was going to get it to you. You remember that, don’t you; that I did? That when I got here I had milk enough for all?

One more curve in the road, and Sethe could see her chimney; it wasn’t lonely-looking anymore. The ribbon of smoke was from a fire that warmed a body returned to her–just like it never went away, never needed a headstone. And the heart that beat inside it had not for a single moment stopped in her hands.

She opened the door, walked in and locked it tight behind her.

The day Stamp Paid saw the two backs through the window and then hurried down the steps, he believed the undecipherable language clamoring around the house was the mumbling of the black and angry dead. Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place.

It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread.

In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them.

Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

Meantime, the secret spread of this new kind of whitefolks’ jungle was hidden, silent, except once in a while when you could hear its mumbling in places like 124.

Stamp Paid abandoned his efforts to see about Sethe, after the pain of knocking and not gaining entrance, and when he did, 124 was left to its own devices. When Sethe locked the door, the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds.

Almost. Mixed in with the voices surrounding the house, recognizable but undecipherable to Stamp Paid, were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken. of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be. Paul D ran her off so she had no choice but to come back to me in the flesh. I bet you Baby Suggs, on the other side, helped. I won’t never let her go. I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her. When I explain it she’ll understand, because she understands everything already. I’ll tend her as no mother ever tended a child, a daughter. Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children. I never had to give it to nobody else– and the one time I did it was took from me–they held me down and took it. Milk that belonged to my baby. Nan had to nurse whitebabies and me too because Ma’am was in the rice. The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left. Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left. i’ll tell Beloved about that; she’ll understand. She my daughter. The one I managed to have milk for and to get it to her even after they stole it; after they handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses. But I wasn’t too nasty to cook their food or take care of Mrs. Garner. I tended her like I would have tended my own mother if she needed me. If they had let her out the rice field, because I was the one she didn’t throw away. I couldn’t have done more for that woman than I would my own ma’am if she was to take sick and need me and I’d have stayed with her till she got well or died.

And I would have stayed after that except Nan snatched me back.

Before I could check for the sign. It was her all right, but for a long time I didn’t believe it. I looked everywhere for that hat. Stuttered after that. Didn’t stop it till I saw Halle. Oh, but that’s all over now.

I’m here. I lasted. And my girl come home. Now I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too. After the shed, I stopped.

Now, in the morning, when I light the fire I mean to look out the window to see what the sun is doing to the day. Does it hit the pump handle first or the spigot? See if the grass is gray-green or brown or what. Now I know why Baby Suggs pondered color her last years.

She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before. Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died. I don’t believe she wanted to get to red and I understand why because me and Beloved outdid ourselves with it.

Matter of fact, that and her pinkish headstone was the last color I recall. Now I’ll be on the lookout. Think what spring will he for us!

I’ll plant carrots just so she can see them, and turnips. Have you ever seen one, baby? A prettier thing God never made. White and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods, bitter but happy.

We’ll smell them together, Beloved. Beloved. Because you mine and I have to show you these things, and teach you what a mother should.

Funny how you lose sight of some things and memory others. I never will forget that whitegirl’s hands. Amy. But I forget the color of all that hair on her head. Eyes must have been gray, though. Seem like I do rememory that. Mrs. Garner’s was light brown–while she was well. Got dark when she took sick. A strong woman, used to be.

And when she talked off her head, she’d say it. “I used to be strong as a mule, Jenny.” Called me “Jenny” when she was babbling, and I can bear witness to that. Tall and strong. The two of us on a cord of wood was as good as two men. Hurt her like the devil not to be able to raise her head off the pillow. Still can’t figure why she thought she needed schoolteacher, though. I wonder if she lasted, like I did.

Last time I saw her she couldn’t do nothing but cry, and I couldn’t do a thing for her but wipe her face when I told her what they done to me. Somebody had to know it. Hear it. Somebody. Maybe she lasted. Schoolteacher wouldn’t treat her the way he treated me. First beating I took was the last. Nobody going to keep me from my children. Hadn’t been for me taking care of her maybe I would have known what happened. Maybe Halle was trying to get to me. I stood by her bed waiting for her to finish with the slop jar. Then I got her back in the bed she said she was cold. Hot as blazes and she wanted quilts. Said to shut the window. I told her no. She needed the cover; I needed the breeze. Long as those yellow curtains flapped, I was all right. Should have heeded her. Maybe what sounded like shots really was. Maybe I would have seen somebody or something.

Maybe. Anyhow I took my babies to the corn, Halle or no. Jesus. then I heard that woman’s rattle. She said, Any more? I told her I didn’t know. She said, I been here all night. Can’t wait. I tried to make her. She said, Can’t do it. Come on. Hoo! Not a man around.

Boys scared. You asleep on my back. Denver sleep in my stomach.

Felt like I was split in two. I told her to take you all; I had to go back. In case. She just looked at me. Said, Woman? Bit a piece of my tongue off when they opened my back. It was hanging by a shred.

I didn’t mean to. Clamped down on it, it come right off. I thought, Good God, I’m going to eat myself up. They dug a hole for my stomach so as not to hurt the baby. Denver don’t like for me to talk about it. She hates anything about Sweet Home except how she was born. But you was there and even if you too young to memory it, I can tell it to you. The grape arbor. You memory that? I ran so fast.

Flies beat me to you. I would have known right away who you was when the sun blotted out your face the way it did when I took you to the grape arbor. I would have known at once when my water broke. The minute I saw you sitting on the stump, it broke. And when I did see your face it had more than a hint of what you would look like after all these years. I would have known who you were right away because the cup after cup of water you drank proved and connected to the fact that you dribbled clear spit on my face the day I got to 124. I would have known right off, but Paul D distracted me. Otherwise I would have seen my fingernail prints right there on your forehead for all the world to see. From when I held your head up, out in the shed. And later on, when you asked me about the earrings I used to dangle for you to play with, I would have recognized you right off, except for Paul D. Seems to me he wanted you out from the beginning, but I wouldn’t let him. What you think? And look how he ran when he found out about me and you in the shed.

Too rough for him to listen to. Too thick, he said. My love was too thick. What he know about it? Who in the world is he willing to die for? Would he give his privates to a stranger in return for a carving?

Some other way, he said. There must have been some other way. Let schoolteacher haul us away, I guess, to measure your behind before he tore it up? I have felt what it felt like and nobody walking or stretched out is going to make you feel it too. Not you, not none of mine, and when I tell you you mine, I also mean I’m yours I wouldn’t draw breath without my children. I told Baby Suggs that and she got down on her knees to beg God’s pardon for me. Still, it’s so. My plan was to take us all to the other side where my own ma’am is.

They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn’t stop you from getting here. Ha ha. You came right on back like a good girl, like a daughter which is what I wanted to be and would have been if my ma’am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one. You know what? She’d had the bit so many times she smiled. When she wasn’t smiling she smiled, and I never saw her own smile. I wonder what they was doing when they was caught. Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma’am and nobody’s ma’am would run off and leave her daughter, would she? Would she, now? Leave her in the yard with a one-armed woman? Even if she hadn’t been able to suckle the daughter for more than a week or two and had to turn her over to another woman’s tit that never had enough for all. They said it was the bit that made her smile when she didn’t want to. Like the Saturday girls working the slaughterhouse yard. When I came out of jail I saw them plain.

They came when the shift changed on Saturday when the men got paid and worked behind the fences, back of the outhouse. Some worked standing up, leaning on the toolhouse door. They gave some of their nickels and dimes to the foreman as they left but by then their smiles was over. Some of them drank liquor to keep from feeling what they felt. Some didn’t drink a drop–just beat it on over to Phelps to pay for what their children needed, or their ma’ammies.

Working a pig yard. That has got to be something for a woman to do, and I got close to it myself when I got out of jail and bought, so to speak, your name. But the Bodwins got me the cooking job at Sawyer’s and left me able to smile on my own like now when I think about you.

But you know all that because you smart like everybody said because when I got here you was crawling already. Trying to get up the stairs. Baby Suggs had them painted white so you could see your way to the top in the dark where lamplight didn’t reach. Lord, you loved the stairsteps.

I got close. I got close. To being a Saturday girl. I had already worked a stone mason’s shop. A step to the slaughterhouse would have been a short one. When I put that headstone up I wanted to lay in there with you, put your head on my shoulder and keep you warm, and I would have if Buglar and Howard and Denver didn’t need me, because my mind was homeless then. I couldn’t lay down with you then. No matter how much I wanted to. I couldn’t lay down nowhere in peace, back then. Now I can. I can sleep like the drowned, have mercy. She come back to me, my daughter, and she is mine. mother’s milk. The first thing I heard after not hearing anything was the sound of her crawling up the stairs. She was my secret company until Paul D came. He threw her out. Ever since I was little she was my company and she helped me wait for my daddy. Me and her waited for him. I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it. She missed killing my brothers and they knew it. They told me die-witch! stories to show me the way to do it, if ever I needed to.

Maybe it was getting that close to dying made them want to fight the War. That’s what they told me they were going to do. I guess they rather be around killing men than killing women, and there sure is something in her that makes it all right to kill her own. All the time, I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again. I need to know what that thing might be, but I don’t want to. Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard, and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to. So I never leave this house and I watch over the yard, so it can’t happen again and my mother won’t have to kill me too.

Not since Miss Lady Jones’ house have I left 124 by myself. Never.

The only other times–two times in all–I was with my mother. Once to see Grandma Baby put down next to Beloved, she’s my sister. The other time Paul D went too and when we came back I thought the house would still be empty from when he threw my sister’s ghost out. But no. When I came back to 124, there she was. Beloved.

Waiting for me. Tired from her long journey back. Ready to be taken care of; ready for me to protect her. This time I have to keep my mother away from her. That’s hard, but I have to. It’s all on me.

I’ve seen my mother in a dark place, with scratching noises. A smell coming from her dress. I have been with her where something little watched us from the corners. And touched. Sometimes they touched.

I didn’t remember it for a long time until Nelson Lord made me. I asked her if it was true but couldn’t hear what she said and there was no point in going back to Lady Jones if you couldn’t hear what anybody said. So quiet. Made me have to read faces and learn how to figure out what people were thinking, so I didn’t need to hear what they said. That’s how come me and Beloved could play together.

Not talking. On the porch. By the creek. In the secret house. It’s all on me, now, but she can count on me. I thought she was trying to kill her that day in the Clearing. Kill her back. But then she kissed her neck and I have to warn her about that. Don’t love her too much.

Don’t. Maybe it’s still in her the thing that makes it all right to kill her children. I have to tell her. I have to protect her.

She cut my head off every night. Buglar and Howard told me she would and she did. Her pretty eyes looking at me like I was a stranger.

Not mean or anything, but like I was somebody she found and felt sorry for. Like she didn’t want to do it but she had to and it wasn’t going to hurt. That it was just a thing grown-up people do–like pull a splinter out your hand; touch the corner of a towel in your eye if you get a cinder in it. She looks over at Buglar and Howard–see if they all right. Then she comes over to my side. I know she’ll be good at it, careful. That when she cuts it off it’ll be done right; it won’t hurt. After she does it I lie there for a minute with just my head.

Then she carries it downstairs to braid my hair. I try not to cry but it hurts so much to comb it. When she finishes the combing and starts the braiding, I get sleepy. I want to go to sleep but I know if I do I won’t wake up. So I have to stay awake while she finishes my hair, then I can sleep. The scary part is waiting for her to come in and do it. Not when she does it, but when I wait for her to. Only place she can’t get to me in the night is Grandma Baby’s room. The room we sleep in upstairs used to be where the help slept when whitepeople lived here. They had a kitchen outside, too. But Grandma Baby turned it into a woodshed and toolroom when she moved in.

And she boarded up the back door that led to it because she said she didn’t want to make that journey no more. She built around it to make a storeroom, so if you want to get in 124 you have to come by her. Said she didn’t care what folks said about her fixing a two story house up like a cabin where you cook inside. She said they told her visitors with nice dresses don’t want to sit in the same room with the cook stove and the peelings and the grease and the smoke. She wouldn’t pay them no mind, she said. I was safe at night in there with her. All I could hear was me breathing but sometimes in the day I couldn’t tell whether it was me breathing or somebody next to me. I used to watch Here Boy’s stomach go in and out, in and out, to see if it matched mine, holding my breath to get off his rhythm, releasing it to get on. Just to see whose it was–that sound like when you blow soft in a bottle only regular, regular. Am I making that sound? Is Howard? Who is? That was when everybody was quiet and I couldn’t hear anything they said. I didn’t care either because the quiet let me dream my daddy better. I always knew he was coming. Something was holding him up. He had a problem with the horse. The river flooded; the boat sank and he had to make a new one. Sometimes it was a lynch mob or a windstorm. He was coming and it was a secret. I spent all of my outside self loving Ma’am so she wouldn’t kill me, loving her even when she braided my head at night. I never let her know my daddy was coming for me. Grandma Baby thought he was coming, too. For a while she thought so, then she stopped. I never did. Even when Buglar and Howard ran away.

Then Paul D came in here. I heard his voice downstairs, and Ma’am laughing, so I thought it was him, my daddy. Nobody comes to this house anymore. But when I got downstairs it was Paul D and he didn’t come for me; he wanted my mother. At first. Then he wanted my sister, too, but she got him out of here and I’m so glad he’s gone.

Now it’s just us and I can protect her till my daddy gets here to help me watch out for Ma’am and anything come in the yard.

My daddy do anything for runny fried eggs. Dip his bread in it.

Grandma used to tell me his things. She said anytime she could make him a plate of soft fried eggs was Christmas, made him so happy.

She said she was always a little scared of my daddy. He was too good, she said. From the beginning, she said, he was too good for the world. Scared her. She thought, He’ll never make it through nothing. Whitepeople must have thought so too, because they never got split up. So she got the chance to know him, look after him, and he scared her the way he loved things. Animals and tools and crops and the alphabet. He could count on paper. The boss taught him.

Offered to teach the other boys but only my daddy wanted it. She said the other boys said no. One of them with a number for a name said it would change his mind–make him forget things he shouldn’t and memorize things he shouldn’t and he didn’t want his mind messed up. But my daddy said, If you can’t count they can cheat you. If you can’t read they can beat you. They thought that was funny. Grandma said she didn’t know, but it was because my daddy could count on paper and figure that he bought her away from there. And she said she always wished she could read the Bible like real preachers. So it was good for me to learn how, and I did until it got quiet and all I could hear was my own breathing and one other who knocked over the milk jug while it was sitting on the table. Nobody near it. Ma’am whipped Buglar but he didn’t touch it. Then it messed up all the ironed clothes and put its hands in the cake. Look like I was the only one who knew right away who it was. Just like when she came back I knew who she was too. Not right away, but soon as she spelled her name–not her given name, but the one Ma’am paid the stonecutter for–I knew. And when she wondered about Ma’am’s earrings–something I didn’t know about–well, that just made the cheese more binding: my sister come to help me wait for my daddy.

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