فصل 16کتاب: Beloved / فصل 16
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Even the weather was getting to be too much for him. He was either too hot or freezing, and this day was a blister. He pressed his hat down to keep the sun from his neck, where heatstroke was a real possibility. Such thoughts of mortality were not new to him (he was over seventy now), but they still had the power to annoy. As he drew closer to the old homestead, the place that continued to surface in his dreams, he was even more aware of the way time moved. Measured by the wars he had lived through but not fought in (against the Miami, the Spaniards, the Secessionists), it was slow. But measured by the burial of his private things it was the blink of an eye.
Where, exactly, was the box of tin soldiers? The watch chain with no watch? And who was he hiding them from? His father, probably, a deeply religious man who knew what God knew and told everybody what it was. Edward Bodwin thought him an odd man, in so many ways, yet he had one clear directive: human life is holy, all of it. And that his son still believed, although he had less and less reason to.
Nothing since was as stimulating as the old days of letters, petitions, meetings, debates, recruitment, quarrels, rescue and downright sedition.
Yet it had worked, more or less, and when it had not, he and his sister made themselves available to circumvent obstacles. As they had when a runaway slavewoman lived in his homestead with her mother-in-law and got herself into a world of trouble. The Society managed to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around, and build a further case for abolishing slavery. Good years, they were, full of spit and conviction. Now he just wanted to know where his soldiers were and his watchless chain. That would be enough for this day of unbearable heat: bring back the new girl and recall exactly where his treasure lay. Then home, supper, and God willing, the sun would drop once more to give him the blessing of a good night’s sleep.
The road curved like an elbow, and as he approached it he heard the singers before he saw them.
When the women assembled outside 124, Sethe was breaking a lump of ice into chunks. She dropped the ice pick into her apron pocket to scoop the pieces into a basin of water. When the music entered the window she was wringing a cool cloth to put on Beloved’s forehead. Beloved, sweating profusely, was sprawled on the bed in the keeping room, a salt rock in her hand. Both women heard it at the same time and both lifted their heads. As the voices grew louder, Beloved sat up, licked the salt and went into the bigger room. Sethe and she exchanged glances and started toward the window. They saw Denver sitting on the steps and beyond her, where the yard met the road, they saw the rapt faces of thirty neighborhood women.
Some had their eyes closed; others looked at the hot, cloudless sky.
Sethe opened the door and reached for Beloved’s hand. Together they stood in the doorway. For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
The singing women recognized Sethe at once and surprised themselves by their absence of fear when they saw what stood next to her. The devil-child was clever, they thought. And beautiful. It had taken the shape of a pregnant woman, naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun. Thunderblack and glistening, she stood on long straight legs, her belly big and tight. Vines of hair twisted all over her head. Jesus. Her smile was dazzling.
Sethe feels her eyes burn and it may have been to keep them clear that she looks up. The sky is blue and clear. Not one touch of death in the definite green of the leaves. It is when she lowers her eyes to look again at the loving faces before her that she sees him. Guiding the mare, slowing down, his black hat wide-brimmed enough to hide his face but not his purpose. He is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing. She hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies.
The ice pick is not in her hand; it is her hand.
Standing alone on the porch, Beloved is smiling. But now her hand is empty. Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe has been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again. Then Denver, running too.
Away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all, rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.
Bare feet and chamomile sap.
Took off my shoes; took off my hat.
Bare feet and chamomile sap
Gimme back my shoes; gimme back my hat.
Lay my head on a potato sack,
Devil sneak up behind my back.
Steam engine got a lonesome whine;
Love that woman till you go stone blind.
Stone blind; stone blind.
Sweet Home gal make you lose your mind.
HIS COMING is the reverse route of his going. First the cold house, the storeroom, then the kitchen before he tackles the beds. Here Boy, feeble and shedding his coat in patches, is asleep by the pump, so Paul D knows Beloved is truly gone. Disappeared, some say, exploded right before their eyes. Ella is not so sure. “Maybe,” she says, “maybe not. Could be hiding in the trees waiting for another chance.” But when Paul D sees the ancient dog, eighteen years if a day, he is certain 124 is clear of her. But he opens the door to the cold house halfway expecting to hear her. “Touch me. Touch me. On the inside part and call me my name.”
There is the pallet spread with old newspapers gnawed at the edges by mice. The lard can. The potato sacks too, but empty now, they lie on the dirt floor in heaps. In daylight he can’t imagine it in darkness with moonlight seeping through the cracks. Nor the desire that drowned him there and forced him to struggle up, up into that girl like she was the clear air at the top of the sea. Coupling with her wasn’t even fun. It was more like a brainless urge to stay alive.
Each time she came, pulled up her skirts, a life hunger overwhelmed him and he had no more control over it than over his lungs. And afterward, beached and gobbling air, in the midst of repulsion and personal shame, he was thankful too for having been escorted to some ocean-deep place he once belonged to.
Sifting daylight dissolves the memory, turns it into dust motes floating in light. Paul D shuts the door. He looks toward the house and, surprisingly, it does not look back at him. Unloaded, 124 is just another weathered house needing repair. Quiet, just as Stamp Paid said.
“Used to be voices all round that place. Quiet, now,” Stamp said.
“I been past it a few times and I can’t hear a thing. Chastened, I reckon, ‘cause Mr. Bodwin say he selling it soon’s he can.”
“That the name of the one she tried to stab? That one?”
“Yep. His sister say it’s full of trouble. Told Janey she was going to get rid of it.”
“And him?” asked Paul D.
“Janey say he against it but won’t stop it.”
“Who they think want a house out there? Anybody got the money don’t want to live out there.”
“Beats me,” Stamp answered. “It’ll be a spell, I guess, before it get took off his hands.”
“He don’t plan on taking her to the law?”
“Don’t seem like it. Janey say all he wants to know is who was the naked blackwoman standing on the porch. He was looking at her so hard he didn’t notice what Sethe was up to. All he saw was some coloredwomen fighting. He thought Sethe was after one of them, Janey say.”
“Janey tell him any different?”
“No. She say she so glad her boss ain’t dead. If Ella hadn’t clipped her, she say she would have. Scared her to death have that woman kill her boss. She and Denver be looking for a job.”
“Who Janey tell him the naked woman was?”
“Told him she didn’t see none.”
“You believe they saw it?”
“Well, they saw something. I trust Ella anyway, and she say she looked it in the eye. It was standing right next to Sethe. But from the way they describe it, don’t seem like it was the girl I saw in there.
The girl I saw was narrow. This one was big. She say they was holding hands and Sethe looked like a little girl beside it.”
“Little girl with a ice pick. How close she get to him?”
“Right up on him, they say. Before Denver and them grabbed her and Ella put her fist in her jaw.”
“He got to know Sethe was after him. He got to.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. If he did think it, I reckon he decided not to. That be just like him, too. He’s somebody never turned us down.
Steady as a rock. I tell you something, if she had got to him, it’d be the worst thing in the world for us. You know, don’t you, he’s the main one kept Sethe from the gallows in the first place.”
“Yeah. Damn. That woman is crazy. Crazy.”
“Yeah, well, ain’t we all?”
They laughed then. A rusty chuckle at first and then more, louder and louder until Stamp took out his pocket handkerchief and wiped his eyes while Paul D pressed the heel of his hand in his own. As the scene neither one had witnessed took shape before them, its seriousness and its embarrassment made them shake with laughter.
“Every time a whiteman come to the door she got to kill somebody?”
“For all she know, the man could be coming for the rent.”
“Good thing they don’t deliver mail out that way.”
“Wouldn’t nobody get no letter.”
“Except the postman.”
“Be a mighty hard message.”
“And his last.”
When their laughter was spent, they took deep breaths and shook their heads.
“And he still going to let Denver spend the night in his house?
“Aw no. Hey. Lay off Denver, Paul D. That’s my heart. I’m proud of that girl. She was the first one wrestle her mother down. Before anybody knew what the devil was going on.”
“She saved his life then, you could say.”
“You could. You could,” said Stamp, thinking suddenly of the leap, the wide swing and snatch of his arm as he rescued the little curly-headed baby from within inches of a split skull. “I’m proud of her. She turning out fine. Fine.”
It was true. Paul D saw her the next morning when he was on his way to work and she was leaving hers. Thinner, steady in the eyes, she looked more like Halle than ever.
She was the first to smile. “Good morning, Mr. D.”
“Well, it is now.” Her smile, no longer the sneer he remembered, had welcome in it and strong traces of Sethe’s mouth. Paul D touched his cap. “How you getting along?”
“Don’t pay to complain.”
“You on your way home?”
She said no. She had heard about an afternoon job at the shirt factory. She hoped that with her night work at the Bodwins’ and another one, she could put away something and help her mother too.
When he asked her if they treated her all right over there, she said more than all right. Miss Bodwin taught her stuff. He asked her what stuff and she laughed and said book stuff. “She says I might go to Oberlin. She’s experimenting on me.” And he didn’t say, “Watch out. Watch out. Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white schoolteacher.” Instead he nodded and asked the question he wanted to.
“Your mother all right?”
“No,” said Denver. “No. No, not a bit all right.”
“You think I should stop by? Would she welcome it?”
“I don’t know,” said Denver. “I think I’ve lost my mother, Paul D.”
They were both silent for a moment and then he said, “Uh, that girl. You know. Beloved?”
“You think she sure ‘nough your sister?”
Denver looked at her shoes. “At times. At times I think she was– more.” She fiddled with her shirtwaist, rubbing a spot of something.
Suddenly she leveled her eyes at his. “But who would know that better than you, Paul D? I mean, you sure ‘nough knew her.”
He licked his lips. “Well, if you want my opinion–”
“I don’t,” she said. “I have my own.”
“You grown,” he said.
“Well. Well, good luck with the job.”
“Thank you. And, Paul D, you don’t have to stay ‘way, but be careful how you talk to my ma’am, hear?”
“Don’t worry,” he said and left her then, or rather she left him because a young man was running toward her, saying, “Hey, Miss Denver. Wait up.”
She turned to him, her face looking like someone had turned up the gas jet.
He left her unwillingly because he wanted to talk more, make sense out of the stories he had been hearing: whiteman came to take Denver to work and Sethe cut him. Baby ghost came back evil and sent Sethe out to get the man who kept her from hanging. One point of agreement is: first they saw it and then they didn’t. When they got Sethe down on the ground and the ice pick out of her hands and looked back to the house, it was gone. Later, a little boy put it out how he had been looking for bait back of 124, down by the stream, and saw, cutting through the woods, a naked woman with fish for hair.
As a matter of fact, Paul D doesn’t care how It went or even why. He cares about how he left and why. Then he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another.
One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed. Like the time he worked both sides of the War. Running away from the Northpoint Bank and Railway to join the 44th Colored Regiment in Tennessee, he thought he had made it, only to discover he had arrived at another colored regiment forming under a commander in New Jersey. He stayed there four weeks. The regiment fell apart before it got started on the question of whether the soldiers should have weapons or not. Not, it was decided, and the white commander had to figure out what to command them to do instead of kill other white men. Some of the ten thousand stayed there to clean, haul and build things; others drifted away to another regiment; most were abandoned, left to their own devices with bitterness for pay. He was trying to make up his mind what to do when an agent from Northpoint Bank caught up with him and took him back to Delaware, where he slave-worked a year. Then Northpoint took $300 in exchange for his services in Alabama, where he worked for the Rebellers, first sorting the dead and then smelting iron. When he and his group combed the battlefields, their job was to pull the Confederate wounded away from the Confederate dead. Care, they told them. Take good care. Coloredmen and white, their faces wrapped to their eyes, picked their way through the meadows with lamps, listening in the dark for groans of life in the indifferent silence of the dead. Mostly young men, some children, and it shamed him a little to feel pity for what he imagined were the sons of the guards in Alfred, Georgia.
In five tries he had not had one permanent success. Every one of his escapes (from Sweet Home, from Brandywine, from Alfred, Georgia, from Wilmington, from Northpoint) had been frustrated. Alone, undisguised, with visible skin, memorable hair and no whiteman to protect him, he never stayed uncaught. The longest had been when he ran with the convicts, stayed with the Cherokee, followed their advice and lived in hiding with the weaver woman in Wilmington, Delaware: three years. And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its graveyards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.
After a few months on the battlefields of Alabama, he was impressed to a foundry in Selma along with three hundred captured, lent or taken coloredmen. That’s where the War’s end found him, and leaving Alabama when he had been declared free should have been a snap. He should have been able to walk from the foundry in Selma straight to Philadelphia, taking the main roads, a train if he wanted to, or passage on a boat. But it wasn’t like that. When he and two colored soldiers (who had been captured from the 44th he had looked for) walked from Selma to Mobile, they saw twelve dead blacks in the first eighteen miles. Two were women, four were little boys. He thought this, for sure, would be the walk of his life.
The Yankees in control left the Rebels out of control. They got to the outskirts of Mobile, where blacks were putting down tracks for the Union that, earlier, they had torn up for the Rebels. One of the men with him, a private called Keane, had been with the Massachusetts 54th. He told Paul D they had been paid less than white soldiers. It was a sore point with him that, as a group, they had refused the offer Massachusetts made to make up the difference in pay. Paul D was so impressed by the idea of being paid money to fight he looked at the private with wonder and envy.
Keane and his friend, a Sergeant Rossiter, confiscated a skiff and the three of them floated in Mobile Bay. There the private hailed a Union gunboat, which took all three aboard. Keane and Rossiter disembarked at Memphis to look for their commanders. The captain of the gunboat let Paul D stay aboard all the way to Wheeling, West Virginia. He made his own way to New Jersey.
By the time he got to Mobile, he had seen more dead people than living ones, but when he got to Trenton the crowds of alive people, neither hunting nor hunted, gave him a measure of free life so tasty he never forgot it. Moving down a busy street full of whitepeople who needed no explanation for his presence, the glances he got had to do with his disgusting clothes and unforgivable hair. Still, nobody raised an alarm. Then came the miracle. Standing in a street in front of a row of brick houses, he heard a whiteman call him (“Say there!
Yo!”) to help unload two trunks from a coach cab. Afterward the whiteman gave him a coin. Paul D walked around with it for hours– not sure what it could buy (a suit? a meal? a horse?) and if anybody would sell him anything. Finally he saw a greengrocer selling vegetables from a wagon. Paul D pointed to a bunch of turnips. The grocer handed them to him, took his one coin and gave him several more. Stunned, he backed away. Looking around, he saw that nobody seemed interested in the “mistake” or him, so he walked along, happily chewing turnips. Only a few women looked vaguely repelled as they passed. His first earned purchase made him glow, never mind the turnips were withered dry. That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.
Now his coming is the reverse of his going. First he stands in the back, near the cold house, amazed by the riot of late-summer flowers where vegetables should be growing. Sweet william, morning glory, chrysanthemums. The odd placement of cans jammed with the rotting stems of things, the blossoms shriveled like sores. Dead ivy twines around bean poles and door handles. Faded newspaper pictures are nailed to the outhouse and on trees. A rope too short for anything but skip-jumping lies discarded near the washtub; and jars and jars of dead lightning bugs. Like a child’s house; the house of a very tall child.
He walks to the front door and opens it. It is stone quiet. In the place where once a shaft of sad red light had bathed him, locking him where he stood, is nothing. A bleak and minus nothing. More like absence, but an absence he had to get through with the same determination he had when he trusted Sethe and stepped through the pulsing light. He glances quickly at the lightning-white stairs. The entire railing is wound with ribbons, bows, bouquets. Paul D steps inside. The outdoor breeze he brings with him stirs the ribbons.
Carefully, not quite in a hurry but losing no time, he climbs the luminous stairs. He enters Sethe’s room. She isn’t there and the bed looks so small he wonders how the two of them had lain there. It has no sheets, and because the roof windows do not open the room is stifling. Brightly colored clothes lie on the floor. Hanging from a wall peg is the dress Beloved wore when he first saw her. A pair of ice skates nestles in a basket in the corner. He turns his eyes back to the bed and keeps looking at it. It seems to him a place he is not.
With an effort that makes him sweat he forces a picture of himself lying there, and when he sees it, it lifts his spirit. He goes to the other bedroom. Denver’s is as neat as the other is messy. But still no Sethe.
Maybe she has gone back to work, gotten better in the days since he talked to Denver. He goes back down the stairs, leaving the image of himself firmly in place on the narrow bed. At the kitchen table he sits down. Something is missing from 124. Something larger than the people who lived there. Something more than Beloved or the red light. He can’t put his finger on it, but it seems, for a moment, that just beyond his knowing is the glare of an outside thing that embraces while it accuses.
To the right of him, where the door to the keeping room is ajar, he hears humming. Someone is humming a tune. Something soft and sweet, like a lullaby. Then a few words. Sounds like “high Johnny, wide Johnny. Sweet William bend down low.” Of course, he thinks.
That’s where she is–and she is. Lying under a quilt of merry colors.
Her hair, like the dark delicate roots of good plants, spreads and curves on the pillow. Her eyes, fixed on the window, are so expressionless he is not sure she will know who he is. There is too much light here in this room. Things look sold.
“Jackweed raise up high,” she sings. “Lambswool over my shoulder, buttercup and clover fly.” She is fingering a long clump of her hair.
Paul D clears his throat to interrupt her. “Sethe?”
She turns her head. “Paul D.”
“I made the ink, Paul D. He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink.”
“What ink? Who?”
“Yeah. Look bad?”
“No. You looking good.”
“Devil’s confusion. What’s this I hear about you not getting out of bed?”
She smiles, lets it fade and turns her eyes back to the window.
“I need to talk to you,” he tells her.
She doesn’t answer.
“I saw Denver. She tell you?”
“She comes in the daytime. Denver. She’s still with me, my Denver.”
“You got to get up from here, girl.” He is nervous. This reminds him of something.
“I’m tired, Paul D. So tired. I have to rest a while.”
Now he knows what he is reminded of and he shouts at her, “Don’t you die on me! This is Baby Suggs’ bed! Is that what you planning?” He is so angry he could kill her. He checks himself, remembering Denver’s warning, and whispers, “What you planning, Sethe?”
“Oh, I don’t have no plans. No plans at all.”
“Look,” he says, “Denver be here in the day. I be here in the night. I’m a take care of you, you hear? Starting now. First off, you don’t smell right. Stay there. Don’t move. Let me heat up some water.” He stops. “Is it all right, Sethe, if I heat up some water?”
“And count my feet?” she asks him.
He steps closer. “Rub your feet.”
Sethe closes her eyes and presses her lips together. She is thinking: No. This little place by a window is what I want. And rest. There’s nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how. Will he do it in sections? First her face, then her hands, her thighs, her feet, her back? Ending with her exhausted breasts? And if he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold? She opens her eyes, knowing the danger of looking at him. She looks at him. The peachstone skin, the crease between his ready, waiting eyes and sees it–the thing in him, the blessedness, that has made him the kind of man who can walk in a house and make the women cry.
Because with him, in his presence, they could. Cry and tell him things they only told each other: that time didn’t stay put; that she called, but Howard and Buglar walked on down the railroad track and couldn’t hear her; that Amy was scared to stay with her because her feet were ugly and her back looked so bad; that her ma’am had hurt her feelings and she couldn’t find her hat anywhere and “Paul D?”
“She left me.”
“Aw, girl. Don’t cry.”
“She was my best thing.”
Paul D sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. His hands are limp between his knees.
There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts.
Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
He is staring at the quilt but he is thinking about her wrought iron back; the delicious mouth still puffy at the corner from Ella’s fist. The mean black eyes. The wet dress steaming before the fire.
Her tenderness about his neck jewelry–its three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curving two feet into the air. How she never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.
“Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.
We need some kind of tomorrow.”
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.
THERE IS a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin.
Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down.
It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
It was not a story to pass on.
They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn’t said anything at all. So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise. They never knew where or why she crouched, or whose was the underwater face she needed like that. Where the memory of the smile under her chin might have been and was not, a latch latched and lichen attached its apple-green bloom to the metal. What made her think her fingernails could open locks the rain rained on?
It was not a story to pass on.
So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep. Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative–looked at too long–shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but don’t, because they know things will never be the same if they do.
This is not a story to pass on.
Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.
Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
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