فصل 14کتاب: Beloved / فصل 14
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By the light of the hominy fire Sixo straightens. He is through with his song. He laughs. A rippling sound like Sethe’s sons make when they tumble in hay or splash in rainwater. His feet are cooking; the cloth of his trousers smokes. He laughs. Something is funny. Paul D guesses what it is when Sixo interrupts his laughter to call out, “Seven-O! Seven-O!”
Smoky, stubborn fire. They shoot him to shut him up. Have to.
Shackled, walking through the perfumed things honeybees love, Paul D hears the men talking and for the first time learns his worth.
He has always known, or believed he did, his value–as a hand, a laborer who could make profit on a farm–but now he discovers his worth, which is to say he learns his price. The dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future.
As soon as the whitemen get to where they have tied their horses and mount them, they are calmer, talking among themselves about the difficulty they face. The problems. Voices remind schoolteacher about the spoiling these particular slaves have had at Garner’s hands.
There’s laws against what he done: letting niggers hire out their own time to buy themselves. He even let em have guns! And you think he mated them niggers to get him some more? Hell no! He planned for them to marry! if that don’t beat all! Schoolteacher sighs, and says doesn’t he know it? He had come to put the place aright. Now it faced greater ruin than what Garner left for it, because of the loss of two niggers, at the least, and maybe three because he is not sure they will find the one called Halle. The sister-in-law is too weak to help out and doggone if now there ain’t a full-scale stampede on his hands. He would have to trade this here one for $900 if he could get it, and set out to secure the breeding one, her foal and the other one, if he found him. With the money from “this here one” he could get two young ones, twelve or fifteen years old. And maybe with the breeding one, her three pickaninnies and whatever the foal might be, he and his nephews would have seven niggers and Sweet Home would be worth the trouble it was causing him.
“Look to you like Lillian gonna make it?”
“Touch and go. Touch and go.”
“You was married to her sister-in-law, wasn’t you?”
“She frail too?”
“A bit. Fever took her.”
“Well, you don’t need to stay no widower in these parts.”
“My cogitation right now is Sweet Home.”
“Can’t say as I blame you. That’s some spread.”
They put a three-spoke collar on him so he can’t lie down and they chain his ankles together. The number he heard with his ear is now in his head. Two. Two? Two niggers lost? Paul D thinks his heart is jumping. They are going to look for Halle, not Paul A. They must have found Paul A and if a whiteman finds you it means you are surely lost.
Schoolteacher looks at him for a long time before he closes the door of the cabin. Carefully, he looks. Paul D does not look back.
It is sprinkling now. A teasing August rain that raises expectations it cannot fill. He thinks he should have sung along. Loud something loud and rolling to go with Sixo’s tune, but the words put him off– he didn’t understand the words. Although it shouldn’t have mattered because he understood the sound: hatred so loose it was juba.
The warm sprinkle comes and goes, comes and goes. He thinks he hears sobbing that seems to come from Mrs. Garner’s window, but it could be anything, anyone, even a she-cat making her yearning known. Tired of holding his head up, he lets his chin rest on the collar and speculates on how he can hobble over to the grate, boil a little water and throw in a handful of meal. That’s what he is doing when Sethe comes in, rain-wet and big-bellied, saying she is going to cut. She has just come back from taking her children to the corn.
The whites were not around. She couldn’t find Halle. Who was caught? Did Sixo get away? Paul A?
He tells her what he knows: Sixo is dead; the Thirty-Mile Woman ran, and he doesn’t know what happened to Paul A or Halle. “Where could he be?” she asks.
Paul D shrugs because he can’t shake his head.
“You saw Sixo die? You sure?”
“Was he woke when it happened? Did he see it coming?”
“He was woke. Woke and laughing.”
“You should have heard him, Sethe.”
Sethe’s dress steams before the little fire over which he is boiling water. It is hard to move about with shackled ankles and the neck jewelry embarrasses him. In his shame he avoids her eyes, but when he doesn’t he sees only black in them–no whites. She says she is going, and he thinks she will never make it to the gate, but he doesn’t dissuade her. He knows he will never see her again, and right then and there his heart stopped.
The pupils must have taken her to the barn for sport right afterward, and when she told Mrs. Garner, they took down the cowhide.
Who in hell or on this earth would have thought that she would cut anyway? They must have believed, what with her belly and her back, that she wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t surprised to learn that they had tracked her down in Cincinnati, because, when he thought about it now, her price was greater than his; property that reproduced itself without cost.
Remembering his own price, down to the cent, that schoolteacher was able to get for him, he wondered what Sethe’s would have been.
What had Baby Suggs’ been? How much did Halle owe, still, besides his labor? What did Mrs. Garner get for Paul F? More than nine hundred dollars? How much more? Ten dollars? Twenty? Schoolteacher would know. He knew the worth of everything. It accounted for the real sorrow in his voice when he pronounced Sixo unsuitable.
Who could be fooled into buying a singing nigger with a gun? Shouting Seven-O! Seven-O! because his Thirty-Mile Woman got away with his blossoming seed. What a laugh. So rippling and full of glee it put out the fire. And it was Sixo’s laughter that was on his mind, not the bit in his mouth, when they hitched him to the buckboard.
Then he saw Halle, then the rooster, smiling as if to say, You ain’t seen nothing yet. How could a rooster know about Alfred, Georgia?
Stamp Paid was still fingering the ribbon and it made a little motion in his pants pocket.
Paul D looked up, noticed the side pocket agitation and snorted.
“I can’t read. You got any more newspaper for me, just a waste of time.”
Stamp withdrew the ribbon and sat down on the steps.
“No. This here’s something else.” He stroked the red cloth between forefinger and thumb. “Something else.”
Paul D didn’t say anything so the two men sat in silence for a few moments.
“This is hard for me,” said Stamp. “But I got to do it. Two things I got to say to you. I’m a take the easy one first.”
Paul D chuckled. “If it’s hard for you, might kill me dead.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I come looking for you to ask your pardon. Apologize.”
“For what?” Paul D reached in his coat pocket for his bottle.
“You pick any house, any house where colored live. In all of Cincinnati. Pick any one and you welcome to stay there. I’m apologizing because they didn’t offer or tell you. But you welcome anywhere you want to be. My house is your house too. John and Ella, Miss Lady, Able Woodruff, Willie Pike–anybody. You choose. You ain’t got to sleep in no cellar, and I apologize for each and every night you did. I don’t know how that preacher let you do it. I knowed him since he was a boy.”
“Whoa, Stamp. He offered.”
“Well. I wanted, I didn’t want to, I just wanted to be off by myself a spell. He offered. Every time I see him he offers again.”
“That’s a load off. I thought everybody gone crazy.”
Paul D shook his head. “Just me.”
“You planning to do anything about it?”
“Oh, yeah. I got big plans.” He swallowed twice from the bottle.
Any planning in a bottle is short, thought Stamp, but he knew from personal experience the pointlessness of telling a drinking man not to. He cleared his sinuses and began to think how to get to the second thing he had come to say. Very few people were out today.
The canal was frozen so that traffic too had stopped. They heard the dop of a horse approaching. Its rider sat a high Eastern saddle but everything else about him was Ohio Valley. As he rode by he looked at them and suddenly reined his horse, and came up to the path leading to the church. He leaned forward.
“Hey,” he said.
Stamp put his ribbon in his pocket. “Yes, sir?”
“I’m looking for a gal name of Judy. Works over by the slaughterhouse.”
“Don’t believe I know her. No, sir.”
“Said she lived on Plank Road.”
“Plank Road. Yes, sir. That’s up a ways. Mile, maybe.”
“You don’t know her? Judy. Works in the slaughterhouse.”
“No, sir, but I know Plank Road. ‘Bout a mile up thataway.”
Paul D lifted his bottle and swallowed. The rider looked at him and then back at Stamp Paid. Loosening the right rein, he turned his horse toward the road, then changed his mind and came back.
“Look here,” he said to Paul D. “There’s a cross up there, so I guess this here’s a church or used to be. Seems to me like you ought to show it some respect, you follow me?”
“Yes, sir,” said Stamp. “You right about that. That’s just what I come over to talk to him about. Just that.”
The rider clicked his tongue and trotted off. Stamp made small circles in the palm of his left hand with two fingers of his right. “You got to choose,” he said. “Choose anyone. They let you be if you want em to. My house. Ella. Willie Pike. None of us got much, but all of us got room for one more. Pay a little something when you can, don’t when you can’t. Think about it. You grown. I can’t make you do what you won’t, but think about it.”
Paul D said nothing.
“If I did you harm, I’m here to rectify it.”
“No need for that. No need at all.”
A woman with four children walked by on the other side of the road. She waved, smiling. “Hoo-oo. I can’t stop. See you at meeting.”
“I be there,” Stamp returned her greeting. “There’s another one,” he said to Paul D. “Scripture Woodruff, Able’s sister. Works at the brush and tallow factory. You’ll see. Stay around here long enough, you’ll see ain’t a sweeter bunch of colored anywhere than what’s right here. Pride, well, that bothers em a bit. They can get messy when they think somebody’s too proud, but when it comes right down to it, they good people and anyone will take you in.”
“What about Judy? She take me in?”
“Depends. What you got in mind?”
“You know Judy?”
“Judith. I know everybody.”
“Out on Plank Road?”
“Well? She take me in?”
Stamp leaned down and untied his shoe. Twelve black buttonhooks, six on each side at the bottom, led to four pairs of eyes at the top. He loosened the laces all the way down, adjusted the tongue carefully and wound them back again. When he got to the eyes he rolled the lace tips with his fingers before inserting them.
“Let me tell you how I got my name.” The knot was tight and so was the bow. “They called me Joshua,” he said. “I renamed myself,” he said, “and I’m going to tell you why I did it,” and he told him about Vashti. “I never touched her all that time. Not once.
Almost a year. We was planting when it started and picking when it stopped. Seemed longer. I should have killed him. She said no, but I should have. I didn’t have the patience I got now, but I figured maybe somebody else didn’t have much patience either–his own wife. Took it in my head to see if she was taking it any better than I was. Vashti and me was in the fields together in the day and every now and then she be gone all night. I never touched her and damn me if I spoke three words to her a day. I took any chance I had to get near the great house to see her, the young master’s wife. Nothing but a boy. Seventeen, twenty maybe. I caught sight of her finally, standing in the backyard by the fence with a glass of water. She was drinking out of it and just gazing out over the yard. I went over.
Stood back a ways and took off my hat. I said, ‘Scuse me, miss. Scuse me?’ She turned to look. I’m smiling. ‘Scuse me. You seen Vashti?
My wife Vashti?’ A little bitty thing, she was. Black hair. Face no bigger than my hand. She said, “What? Vashti?’ I say, ‘Yes’m, Vashti.
My wife. She say she owe you all some eggs. You know if she brung em? You know her if you see her. Wear a black ribbon on her neck.’
She got rosy then and I knowed she knowed. He give Vashti that to wear. A cameo on a black ribbon. She used to put it on every time she went to him. I put my hat back on. ‘You see her tell her I need her. Thank you. Thank you, ma’am.’ I backed off before she could say something. I didn’t dare look back till I got behind some trees.
She was standing just as I left her, looking in her water glass. I thought it would give me more satisfaction than it did. I also thought she might stop it, but it went right on. Till one morning Vashti came in and sat by the window. A Sunday. We worked our own patches on Sunday. She sat by the window looking out of it. ‘I’m back,’ she said.
‘I’m back, Josh.’ I looked at the back of her neck. She had a real small neck. I decided to break it. You know, like a twig–just snap it. I been low but that was as low as I ever got.”
“Did you? Snap it?”
“Uh uh. I changed my name.”
“How you get out of there? How you get up here?”
“Boat. On up the Mississippi to Memphis. Walked from Memphis to Cumberland.”
“No. She died.”
“Aw, man. Tie your other shoe!”
“Tie your goddamn shoe! It’s sitting right in front of you!
“That make you feel better?”
“No.” Paul D tossed the bottle on the ground and stared at the golden chariot on its label. No horses. Just a golden coach draped in blue cloth.
“I said I had two things to say to you. I only told you one. I have to tell you the other.”
“I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to know nothing. Just if Judy will take me in or won’t she.”
“I was there, Paul D.”
“You was where?”
“There in the yard. When she did it.”
“It ain’t what you think.”
“You don’t know what I think.”
“She ain’t crazy. She love those children. She was trying to out hurt the hurter.”
“And spread it.”
“Stamp, let me off. I knew her when she was a girl. She scares me and I knew her when she was a girl.”
“You ain’t scared of Sethe. I don’t believe you.”
“Sethe scares me. I scare me. And that girl in her house scares me the most.”
“Who is that girl? Where she come from?”
“I don’t know. Just shot up one day sitting on a stump.”
“Huh. Look like you and me the only ones outside 124 lay eyes on her.”
“She don’t go nowhere. Where’d you see her?”
“Sleeping on the kitchen floor. I peeped in.”
“First minute I saw her I didn’t want to be nowhere around her.
Something funny about her. Talks funny. Acts funny.” Paul D dug his fingers underneath his cap and rubbed the scalp over his temple.
“She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I’m supposed to remember.”
“She never say where she was from? Where’s her people?”
“She don’t know, or says she don’t. All I ever heard her say was something about stealing her clothes and living on a bridge.”
“What kind of bridge?”
“Who you asking?”
“No bridges around here I don’t know about. But don’t nobody live on em. Under em neither. How long she been over there with Sethe?”
“Last August. Day of the carnival.”
“That’s a bad sign. Was she at the carnival?”
“No. When we got back, there she was–‘sleep on a stump. Silk dress. Brand-new shoes. Black as oil.”
“You don’t say? Huh. Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that’s her. Folks say he had her in there since she was a pup.”
“Well, now she’s a bitch.”
“Is she what run you off? Not what I told you ‘bout Sethe?”
A shudder ran through Paul D. A bone-cold spasm that made him clutch his knees. He didn’t know if it was bad whiskey, nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the slaughterhouse, Halle in the butter, ghost-white stairs, chokecherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul A’s face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart.
“Tell me something, Stamp.” Paul D’s eyes were rheumy. “Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me.
“All he can,” said Stamp Paid. “All he can.”
“why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” Three
124 WAS QUIET. Denver, who thought she knew all about silence, was surprised to learn hunger could do that: quiet you down and wear you out. Neither Sethe nor Beloved knew or cared about it one way or another. They were too busy rationing their strength to fight each other. So it was she who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn’t, they all would. The flesh between her mother’s forefinger and thumb was thin as china silk and there wasn’t a piece of clothing in the house that didn’t sag on her. Beloved held her head up with the palms of her hands, slept wherever she happened to be, and whined for sweets although she was getting bigger, plumper by the day. Everything was gone except two laying hens, and somebody would soon have to decide whether an egg every now and then was worth more than two fried chickens. The hungrier they got, the weaker; the weaker they got, the quieter they were–which was better than the furious arguments, the poker slammed up against the wall, all the shouting and crying that followed that one happy January when they played. Denver had joined in the play, holding back a bit out of habit, even though it was the most fun she had ever known.
But once Sethe had seen the scar, the tip of which Denver had been looking at whenever Beloved undressed–the little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin–once Sethe saw it, fingered it and closed her eyes for a long time, the two of them cut Denver out of the games. The cooking games, the sewing games, the hair and dressing-up games. Games her mother loved so well she took to going to work later and later each day until the predictable happened: Sawyer told her not to come back. And instead of looking for another job, Sethe played all the harder with Beloved, who never got enough of anything: lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk. If the hen had only two eggs, she got both. It was as though her mother had lost her mind, like Grandma Baby calling for pink and not doing the things she used to. But different because, unlike Baby Suggs, she cut Denver out completely. Even the song that she used to sing to Denver she sang for Beloved alone: “High Johnny, wide Johnny, don’t you leave my side, Johnny.”
At first they played together. A whole month and Denver loved it. From the night they ice-skated under a star-loaded sky and drank sweet milk by the stove, to the string puzzles Sethe did for them in afternoon light, and shadow pictures in the gloaming. In the very teeth of winter and Sethe, her eyes fever bright, was plotting a garden of vegetables and flowers–talking, talking about what colors it would have. She played with Beloved’s hair, braiding, puffing, tying, oiling it until it made Denver nervous to watch her They changed beds and exchanged clothes. Walked arm in arm and smiled all the time.
When the weather broke, they were on their knees in the backyard designing a garden in dirt too hard to chop. The thirty-eight dollars of life savings went to feed themselves with fancy food and decorate themselves with ribbon and dress goods, which Sethe cut and sewed like they were going somewhere in a hurry. Bright clothes–with blue stripes and sassy prints. She walked the four miles to John Shillito’s to buy yellow ribbon, shiny buttons and bits of black lace. By the end of March the three of them looked like carnival women with nothing to do. When it became clear that they were only interested in each other, Denver began to drift from the play, but she watched it, alert for any sign that Beloved was in danger. Finally convinced there was none, and seeing her mother that happy, that smiling–how could it go wrong?–she let down her guard and it did. Her problem at first was trying to find out who was to blame. Her eye was on her mother, for a signal that the thing that was in her was out, and she would kill again. But it was Beloved who made demands.
Anything she wanted she got, and when Sethe ran out of things to give her, Beloved invented desire. She wanted Sethe’s company for hours to watch the layer of brown leaves waving at them from the bottom of the creek, in the same place where, as a little girl, Denver played in the silence with her. Now the players were altered. As soon as the thaw was complete Beloved gazed at her gazing face, rippling, folding, spreading, disappearing into the leaves below. She flattened herself on the ground, dirtying her bold stripes, and touched the rocking faces with her own. She filled basket after basket with the first things warmer weather let loose in the ground–dandelions, violets, forsythia–presenting them to Sethe, who arranged them, stuck them, wound them all over the house. Dressed in Sethe’s dresses, she stroked her skin with the palm of her hand. She imitated Sethe, talked the way she did, laughed her laugh and used her body the same way down to the walk, the way Sethe moved her hands, sighed through her nose, held her head. Sometimes coming upon them making men and women cookies or tacking scraps of cloth on Baby Suggs’ old quilt, it was difficult for Denver to tell who was who.
Then the mood changed and the arguments began. Slowly at first.
A complaint from Beloved, an apology from Sethe. A reduction of pleasure at some special effort the older woman made. Wasn’t it too cold to stay outside? Beloved gave a look that said, So what? Was it past bedtime, the light no good for sewing? Beloved didn’t move; said, “Do it,” and Sethe complied. She took the best of everything–first. The best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate, the brightest ribbon for her hair, and the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered, been through, for her children, waving away flies in grape arbors, crawling on her knees to a lean-to. None of which made the impression it was supposed to. Beloved accused her of leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her. She said they were the same, had the same face, how could she have left her? And Sethe cried, saying she never did, or meant to—that she had to get them out, away, that she had the milk all the time and had the money too for the stone but not enough. That her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side, forever. Beloved wasn’t interested. She said when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat. Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light. Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life.
That she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved’s tears. Did she know it hurt her when mosquitoes bit her baby? That to leave her on the ground to run into the big house drove her crazy? That before leaving Sweet Home Beloved slept every night on her chest or curled on her back? Beloved denied it. Sethe never came to her, never said a word to her, never smiled and worst of all never waved goodbye or even looked her way before running away from her.
When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself–be the unquestioned mother whose word was law and who knew what was best–Beloved slammed things, wiped the table clean of plates, threw salt on the floor, broke a windowpane.
She was not like them. She was wild game, and nobody said, Get on out of here, girl, and come back when you get some sense. Nobody said, You raise your hand to me and I will knock you into the middle of next week. Ax the trunk, the limb will die. Honor thy mother and father that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. I will wrap you round that doorknob, don’t nobody work for you and God don’t love ugly ways.
No, no. They mended the plates, swept the salt, and little by little it dawned on Denver that if Sethe didn’t wake up one morning and pick up a knife, Beloved might. Frightened as she was by the thing in Sethe that could come out, it shamed her to see her mother serving a girl not much older than herself. When she saw her carrying out Beloved’s night bucket, Denver raced to relieve her of it. But the pain was unbearable when they ran low on food, and Denver watched her mother go without–pick-eating around the edges of the table and stove: the hominy that stuck on the bottom; the crusts and rinds and peelings of things. Once she saw her run her longest finger deep in an empty jam jar before rinsing and putting it away.
They grew tired, and even Beloved, who was getting bigger, seemed nevertheless as exhausted as they were. In any case she substituted a snarl or a tooth-suck for waving a poker around and 124 was quiet.
Listless and sleepy with hunger Denver saw the flesh between her mother’s forefinger and thumb fade. Saw Sethe’s eyes bright but dead, alert but vacant, paying attention to everything about Beloved–her lineless palms, her forehead, the smile under her jaw, crooked and much too long–everything except her basket-fat stomach. She also saw the sleeves of her own carnival shirtwaist cover her fingers; hems that once showed her ankles now swept the floor. She saw themselves beribboned, decked-out, limp and starving but locked in a love that wore everybody out. Then Sethe spit up something she had not eaten and it rocked Denver like gunshot. The job she started out with, protecting Beloved from Sethe, changed to protecting her mother from Beloved. Now it was obvious that her mother could die and leave them both and what would Beloved do then? Whatever was happening, it only worked with three–not two–and since neither Beloved nor Sethe seemed to care what the next day might bring (Sethe happy when Beloved was; Beloved lapping devotion like cream), Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help.
Who would it be? Who could she stand in front of who wouldn’t shame her on learning that her mother sat around like a rag doll, broke down, finally, from trying to take care of and make up for.
Denver knew about several people, from hearing her mother and grandmother talk. But she knew, personally, only two: an old man with white hair called Stamp and Lady Jones. Well, Paul D, of course.
And that boy who told her about Sethe. But they wouldn’t do at all.
Her heart kicked and an itchy burning in her throat made her swallow all her saliva away. She didn’t even know which way to go. When Sethe used to work at the restaurant and when she still had money to shop, she turned right. Back when Denver went to Lady Jones’ school, it was left.
The weather was warm; the day beautiful. It was April and everything alive was tentative. Denver wrapped her hair and her shoulders.
In the brightest of the carnival dresses and wearing a stranger’s shoes, she stood on the porch of 124 ready to be swallowed up in the world beyond the edge of the porch. Out there where small things scratched and sometimes touched. Where words could be spoken that would close your ears shut. Where, if you were alone, feeling could overtake you and stick to you like a shadow. Out there where there were places in which things so bad had happened that when you went near them it would happen again. Like Sweet Home where time didn’t pass and where, like her mother said, the bad was waiting for her as well. How would she know these places? What was more–much more—out there were whitepeople and how could you tell about them? Sethe said the mouth and sometimes the hands. Grandma Baby said there was no defense–they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did.
“They got me out of jail,” Sethe once told Baby Suggs.
“They also put you in it,” she answered.
“They drove you ‘cross the river.”
“On my son’s back.”
“They gave you this house.”
“Nobody gave me nothing.”
“I got a job from them.”
“He got a cook from them, girl.”
“Oh, some of them do all right by us.”
“And every time it’s a surprise, ain’t it?”
“You didn’t used to talk this way.”
“Don’t box with me. There’s more of us they drowned than there is all of them ever lived from the start of time. Lay down your sword.
This ain’t a battle; it’s a rout.”
Remembering those conversations and her grandmother’s last and final words, Denver stood on the porch in the sun and couldn’t leave it. Her throat itched; her heart kicked–and then Baby Suggs laughed, clear as anything. “You mean I never told you nothing about Carolina?
About your daddy? You don’t remember nothing about how come I walk the way I do and about your mother’s feet, not to speak of her back? I never told you all that? Is that why you can’t walk down the steps? My Jesus my.”
But you said there was no defense.
Then what do I do?
“Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.”
It came back. A dozen years had passed and the way came back.
Four houses on the right, sitting close together in a line like wrens.
The first house had two steps and a rocking chair on the porch; the second had three steps, a broom propped on the porch beam, two broken chairs and a clump of forsythia at the side. No window at the front. A little boy sat on the ground chewing a stick. The third house had yellow shutters on its two front windows and pot after pot of green leaves with white hearts or red. Denver could hear chickens and the knock of a badly hinged gate. At the fourth house the buds of a sycamore tree had rained down on the roof and made the yard look as though grass grew there. A woman, standing at the open door, lifted her hand halfway in greeting, then froze it near her shoulder as she leaned forward to see whom she waved to. Denver lowered her head. Next was a tiny fenced plot with a cow in it. She remembered the plot but not the cow. Under her headcloth her scalp was wet with tension. Beyond her, voices, male voices, floated, coming closer with each step she took. Denver kept her eyes on the road in case they were whitemen; in case she was walking where they wanted to; in case they said something and she would have to answer them. Suppose they flung out at her, grabbed her, tied her. They were getting closer. Maybe she should cross the road–now. Was the woman who half waved at her still there in the open door? Would she come to her rescue, or, angry at Denver for not waving back, would she withhold her help? Maybe she should turn around, get closer to the waving woman’s house. Before she could make up her mind, it was too late–they were right in front of her. Two men, Negro. Denver breathed. Both men touched their caps and murmured, “Morning. Morning.” Denver believed her eyes spoke gratitude but she never got her mouth open in time to reply. They moved left of her and passed on.
Braced and heartened by that easy encounter, she picked up speed and began to look deliberately at the neighborhood surrounding her.
She was shocked to see how small the big things were: the boulder by the edge of the road she once couldn’t see over was a sitting-on rock. Paths leading to houses weren’t miles long. Dogs didn’t even reach her knees. Letters cut into beeches and oaks by giants were eye level now.
She would have known it anywhere. The post and scrap-lumber fence was gray now, not white, but she would have known it anywhere.
The stone porch sitting in a skirt of ivy, pale yellow curtains at the windows; the laid brick path to the front door and wood planks leading around to the back, passing under the windows where she had stood on tiptoe to see above the sill. Denver was about to do it again, when she realized how silly it would be to be found once more staring into the parlor of Mrs. Lady Jones. The pleasure she felt at having found the house dissolved, suddenly, in doubt. Suppose she didn’t live there anymore? Or remember her former student after all this time? What would she say? Denver shivered inside, wiped the perspiration from her forehead and knocked.
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