فصل 04

کتاب: Beloved / فصل 4

فصل 04

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4

“You from around here?” Sethe asked her.

She shook her head no and reached down to take off her shoes.

She pulled her dress up to the knees and rolled down her stockings.

When the hosiery was tucked into the shoes, Sethe saw that her feet were like her hands, soft and new. She must have hitched a wagon ride, thought Sethe. Probably one of those West Virginia girls looking for something to beat a life of tobacco and sorghum. Sethe bent to pick up the shoes.

“What might your name be?” asked Paul D.

“Beloved,” she said, and her voice was so low and rough each one looked at the other two. They heard the voice first–later the name.

“Beloved. You use a last name, Beloved?” Paul D asked her.

“Last?” She seemed puzzled. Then “No,” and she spelled it for them, slowly as though the letters were being formed as she spoke them.

Sethe dropped the shoes; Denver sat down and Paul D smiled.

He recognized the careful enunciation of letters by those, like himself, who could not read but had memorized the letters of their name. He was about to ask who her people were but thought better of it. A young coloredwoman drifting was drifting from ruin. He had been in Rochester four years ago and seen five women arriving with fourteen female children. All their men–brothers, uncles, fathers, husbands, sons–had been picked off one by one by one. They had a single piece of paper directing them to a preacher on DeVore Street.

The War had been over four or five years then, but nobody white or black seemed to know it. Odd clusters and strays of Negroes wandered the back roads and cowpaths from Schenectady to Jackson.

Dazed but insistent, they searched each other out for word of a cousin, an aunt, a friend who once said, “Call on me. Anytime you get near Chicago, just call on me.” Some of them were running from family that could not support them, some to family; some were running from dead crops, dead kin, life threats, and took-over land. Boys younger than Buglar and Howard; configurations and blends of families of women and children, while elsewhere, solitary, hunted and hunting for, were men, men, men. Forbidden public transportation, chased by debt and filthy “talking sheets,” they followed secondary routes, scanned the horizon for signs and counted heavily on each other. Silent, except for social courtesies, when they met one another they neither described nor asked about the sorrow that drove them from one place to another. The whites didn’t bear speaking on. Everybody knew.

So he did not press the young woman with the broken hat about where from or how come. If she wanted them to know and was strong enough to get through the telling, she would. What occupied them at the moment was what it might be that she needed. Underneath the major question, each harbored another. Paul D wondered at the newness of her shoes. Sethe was deeply touched by her sweet name; the remembrance of glittering headstone made her feel especially kindly toward her. Denver, however, was shaking. She looked at this sleepy beauty and wanted more.

Sethe hung her hat on a peg and turned graciously toward the girl. “That’s a pretty name, Beloved. Take off your hat, why don’t you, and I’ll make us something. We just got back from the carnival over near Cincinnati. Everything in there is something to see.”

Bolt upright in the chair, in the middle of Sethe’s welcome, Beloved had fallen asleep again.

“Miss. Miss.” Paul D shook her gently. “You want to lay down a spell?”

She opened her eyes to slits and stood up on her soft new feet which, barely capable of their job, slowly bore her to the keeping room. Once there, she collapsed on Baby Suggs’ bed. Denver removed her hat and put the quilt with two squares of color over her feet.

She was breathing like a steam engine.

“Sounds like croup,” said Paul D, closing the door.

“Is she feverish? Denver, could you tell?”

“No. She’s cold.”

“Then she is. Fever goes from hot to cold.”

“Could have the cholera,” said Paul D.

“Reckon?”

“All that water. Sure sign.”

“Poor thing. And nothing in this house to give her for it. She’ll just have to ride it out. That’s a hateful sickness if ever there was one.”

“She’s not sick!” said Denver, and the passion in her voice made them smile.

Four days she slept, waking and sitting up only for water. Denver tended her, watched her sound sleep, listened to her labored breathing and, out of love and a breakneck possessiveness that charged her, hid like a personal blemish Beloved’s incontinence. She rinsed the sheets secretly, after Sethe went to the restaurant and Paul D went scrounging for barges to help unload. She boiled the underwear and soaked it in bluing, praying the fever would pass without damage.

So intent was her nursing, she forgot to eat or visit the emerald closet.

“Beloved?” Denver would whisper. “Beloved?” and when the black eyes opened a slice all she could say was “I’m here. I’m still here.”

Sometimes, when Beloved lay dreamy-eyed for a very long time, saying nothing, licking her lips and heaving deep sighs, Denver panicked.

“What is it?” she would ask.

“Heavy,” murmured Beloved. “This place is heavy.”

“Would you like to sit up?”

“No,” said the raspy voice.

It took three days for Beloved to notice the orange patches in the darkness of the quilt. Denver was pleased because it kept her patient awake longer. She seemed totally taken with those faded scraps of orange, even made the effort to lean on her elbow and stroke them.

An effort that quickly exhausted her, so Denver rearranged the quilt so its cheeriest part was in the sick girl’s sight line.

Patience, something Denver had never known, overtook her. As long as her mother did not interfere, she was a model of compassion, turning waspish, though, when Sethe tried to help.

“Did she take a spoonful of anything today?” Sethe inquired.

“She shouldn’t eat with cholera.”

“You sure that’s it? Was just a hunch of Paul D’s.”

“I don’t know, but she shouldn’t eat anyway just yet.”

“I think cholera people puke all the time.”

“That’s even more reason, ain’t it?”

“Well she shouldn’t starve to death either, Denver.”

“Leave us alone, Ma’am. I’m taking care of her.”

“She say anything?”

“I’d let you know if she did.”

Sethe looked at her daughter and thought, Yes, she has been lonesome. Very lonesome.

“Wonder where Here Boy got off to?” Sethe thought a change of subject was needed.

“He won’t be back,” said Denver.

“How you know?”

“I just know.” Denver took a square of sweet bread off the plate.

Back in the keeping room, Denver was about to sit down when Beloved’s eyes flew wide open. Denver felt her heart race. It wasn’t that she was looking at that face for the first time with no trace of sleep in it, or that the eyes were big and black. Nor was it that the whites of them were much too white–blue-white. It was that deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all.

“Can I get you something?”

Beloved looked at the sweet bread in Denver’s hands and Denver held it out to her. She smiled then and Denver’s heart stopped bouncing and sat down—relieved and easeful like a traveler who had made it home.

From that moment and through everything that followed, sugar could always be counted on to please her. It was as though sweet things were what she was born for. Honey as well as the wax it came in, sugar sandwiches, the sludgy molasses gone hard and brutal in the can, lemonade, taffy and any type of dessert Sethe brought home from the restaurant. She gnawed a cane stick to flax and kept the strings in her mouth long after the syrup had been sucked away.

Denver laughed, Sethe smiled and Paul D said it made him sick to his stomach.

Sethe believed it was a recovering body’s need—after an illness– for quick strength. But it was a need that went on and on into glowing health because Beloved didn’t go anywhere. There didn’t seem anyplace for her to go. She didn’t mention one, or have much of an idea of what she was doing in that part of the country or where she had been. They believed the fever had caused her memory to fail just as it kept her slow-moving. A young woman, about nineteen or twenty, and slender, she moved like a heavier one or an older one, holding on to furniture, resting her head in the palm of her hand as though it was too heavy for a neck alone.

“You just gonna feed her? From now on?” Paul D, feeling ungenerous, and surprised by it, heard the irritability in his voice.

“Denver likes her. She’s no real trouble. I thought we’d wait till her breath was better. She still sounds a little lumbar to me.”

“Something funny ‘bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?”

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”

“She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

“That’s what I mean. Can’t walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.”

“You didn’t.”

“Don’t tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.”

“Denver! Come in here a minute.”

Denver stopped rinsing the porch and stuck her head in the window.

“Paul D says you and him saw Beloved pick up the rocking chair single-handed. That so?”

Long, heavy lashes made Denver’s eyes seem busier than they were; deceptive, even when she held a steady gaze as she did now on Paul D. “No,” she said. “I didn’t see no such thing.”

Paul D frowned but said nothing. If there had been an open latch between them, it would have closed.

RAINWATER held on to pine needles for dear life and Beloved could not take her eyes off Sethe. Stooping to shake the damper, or snapping sticks for kindlin, Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes. Like a familiar, she hovered, never leaving the room Sethe was in unless required and told to. She rose early in the dark to be there, waiting, in the kitchen when Sethe came down to make fast bread before she left for work. In lamplight, and over the flames of the cooking stove, their two shadows clashed and crossed on the ceiling like black swords. She was in the window at two when Sethe returned, or the doorway; then the porch, its steps, the path, the road, till finally, surrendering to the habit, Beloved began inching down Bluestone Road further and further each day to meet Sethe and walk her back to 124. It was as though every afternoon she doubted anew the older woman’s return.

Sethe was flattered by Beloved’s open, quiet devotion. The same adoration from her daughter (had it been forthcoming) would have annoyed her; made her chill at the thought of having raised a ridiculously dependent child. But the company of this sweet, if peculiar, guest pleased her the way a zealot pleases his teacher.

Time came when lamps had to be lit early because night arrived sooner and sooner. Sethe was leaving for work in the dark; Paul D was walking home in it. On one such evening dark and cool, Sethe cut a rutabaga into four pieces and left them stewing. She gave Denver a half peck of peas to sort and soak overnight. Then she sat herself down to rest. The heat of the stove made her drowsy and she was sliding into sleep when she felt Beloved touch her. A touch no heavier than a feather but loaded, nevertheless, with desire. Sethe stirred and looked around. First at Beloved’s soft new hand on her shoulder, then into her eyes. The longing she saw there was bottomless. Some plea barely in control. Sethe patted Beloved’s fingers and glanced at Denver, whose eyes were fixed on her pea-sorting task.

“Where your diamonds?” Beloved searched Sethe’s face.

“Diamonds? What would I be doing with diamonds?”

“On your ears.”

“Wish I did. I had some crystal once. A present from a lady I worked for.”

“Tell me,” said Beloved, smiling a wide happy smile. “Tell me your diamonds.”

It became a way to feed her. Just as Denver discovered and relied on the delightful effect sweet things had on Beloved, Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful or lost. She and Baby Suggs had agreed without saying so that it was unspeakable; to Denver’s inquiries Sethe gave short replies or rambling incomplete reveries.

Even with Paul D, who had shared some of it and to whom she could talk with at least a measure of calm, the hurt was always there-like a tender place in the corner of her mouth that the bit left.

But, as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it–in any case it was an unexpected pleasure.

Above the patter of the pea sorting and the sharp odor of cooking rutabaga, Sethe explained the crystal that once hung from her ears.

“That lady I worked for in Kentucky gave them to me when I got married. What they called married hack there and back then. I guess she saw how bad I felt when I found out there wasn’t going to be no ceremony, no preacher. Nothing. I thought there should be something–something to say it was right and true. I didn’t want it to be just me moving over a bit of pallet full of corn husks. Or just me bringing my night bucket into his cabin. I thought there should be some ceremony. Dancing maybe. A little sweet william in my hair.” Sethe smiled. “I never saw a wedding, but I saw Mrs. Garner’s wedding gown in the press, and heard her go on about what it was like. Two pounds of currants in the cake, she said, and four whole sheep. The people were still eating the next day. That’s what I wanted.

A meal maybe, where me and Halle and all the Sweet Home men sat down and ate something special. Invite some of the other colored people from over by Covington or High Trees–those places Sixo used to sneak off to. But it wasn’t going to be nothing. They said it was all right for us to be husband and wife and that was it. All of it.

“Well, I made up my mind to have at the least a dress that wasn’t the sacking I worked in. So I took to stealing fabric, and wound up with a dress you wouldn’t believe. The top was from two pillow cases in her mending basket. The front of the skirt was a dresser scarf a candle fell on and burnt a hole in, and one of her old sashes we used to test the flatiron on. Now the back was a problem for the longest time. Seem like I couldn’t find a thing that wouldn’t be missed right away. Because I had to take it apart afterwards and put all the pieces back where they were. Now Halle was patient, waiting for me to finish it. He knew I wouldn’t go ahead without having it.

Finally I took the mosquito netting from a nail out the barn. We used it to strain jelly through. I washed it and soaked it best I could and tacked it on for the back of the skirt. And there I was, in the worst-looking gown you could imagine. Only my wool shawl kept me from looking like a haint peddling. I wasn’t but fourteen years old, so I reckon that’s why I was so proud of myself.

“Anyhow, Mrs. Garner must have seen me in it. I thought I was stealing smart, and she knew everything I did. Even our honeymoon: going down to the cornfield with Halle. That’s where we went first.

A Saturday afternoon it was. He begged sick so he wouldn’t have to go work in town that day. Usually he worked Saturdays and Sundays to pay off Baby Suggs’ freedom. But he begged sick and I put on my dress and we walked into the corn holding hands. I can still smell the ears roasting yonder where the Pauls and Sixo was. Next day Mrs. Garner crooked her finger at me and took me upstairs to her bedroom. She opened up a wooden box and took out a pair of crystal earrings. She said, ‘I want you to have these, Sethe.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Are your ears pierced?’ she said. I said, ‘No, ma’am.’

‘Well do it,’ she said, ‘so you can wear them. I want you to have them and I want you and Halle to be happy.’ I thanked her but I never did put them on till I got away from there. One day after I walked into this here house Baby Suggs unknotted my underskirt and took em out. I sat right here by the stove with Denver in my arms and let her punch holes in my ears for to wear them.”

“I never saw you in no earrings,” said Denver. “Where are they now?”

“Gone,” said Sethe. “Long gone,” and she wouldn’t say another word. Until the next time when all three of them ran through the wind back into the house with rainsoaked sheets and petticoats.

Panting, laughing, they draped the laundry over the chairs and table.

Beloved filled herself with water from the bucket and watched while Sethe rubbed Denver’s hair with a piece of toweling.

“Maybe we should unbraid it?” asked Sethe.

“Oh uh. Tomorrow.” Denver crouched forward at the thought of a fine-tooth comb pulling her hair.

“Today is always here,” said Sethe. “Tomorrow, never.”

“It hurts,” Denver said.

“Comb it every day, it won’t.”

“Ouch.”

“Your woman she never fix up your hair?” Beloved asked.

Sethe and Denver looked up at her. After four weeks they still had not got used to the gravelly voice and the song that seemed to lie in it. Just outside music it lay, with a cadence not like theirs.

“Your woman she never fix up your hair?” was clearly a question for sethe, since that’s who she was looking at.

“My woman? You mean my mother? If she did, I don’t remember.

I didn’t see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo. By the time I woke up in the morning, she was in line. If the moon was bright they worked by its light. Sunday she slept like a stick. She must of nursed me two or three weeks–that’s the way the others did. Then she went back in rice and I sucked from another woman whose job it was. So to answer you, no. I reckon not. She never fixed my hair nor nothing. She didn’t even sleep in the same cabin most nights I remember. Too far from the line-up, I guess. One thing she did do. She picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse. Back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, ‘This is your ma’am. This,’ and she pointed. ‘I am the only one got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.’ Scared me so. All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn’t think of anything so I just said what I thought. ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ I said. ‘But how will you know me?

How will you know me? Mark me, too,’ I said. ‘Mark the mark on me too.’” Sethe chuckled.

“Did she?” asked Denver.

“She slapped my face.”

“What for?”

“I didn’t understand it then. Not till I had a mark of my own.”

“What happened to her?”

“Hung. By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me and I did look.”

Sethe gathered hair from the comb and leaning back tossed it into the fire. It exploded into stars and the smell infuriated them. “Oh, my Jesus,” she said and stood up so suddenly the comb she had parked in Denver’s hair fell to the floor.

“Ma’am? What’s the matter with you, Ma’am?”

Sethe walked over to a chair, lifted a sheet and stretched it as wide as her arms would go. Then she folded, refolded and double folded it. She took another. Neither was completely dry but the folding felt too fine to stop. She had to do something with her hands because she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew.

Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross.

“Why they hang your ma’am?” Denver asked. This was the first time she had heard anything about her mother’s mother. Baby Suggs was the only grandmother she knew.

“I never found out. It was a lot of them,” she said, but what was getting clear and clearer as she folded and refolded damp laundry was the woman called Nan who took her hand and yanked her away from the pile before she could make out the mark. Nan was the one she knew best, who was around all day, who nursed babies, cooked, had one good arm and half of another. And who used different words.

Words Sethe understood then but could neither recall nor repeat now. She believed that must be why she remembered so little before Sweet Home except singing and dancing and how crowded it was.

What Nan told her she had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. The same language her ma’am spoke, and which would never come back. But the message–that was and had been there all along. Holding the damp white sheets against her chest, she was picking meaning out of a code she no longer understood. Nighttime.

Nan holding her with her good arm, waving the stump of the other in the air. “Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe,” and she did that. She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew. “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man.

She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe.”

As small girl Sethe, she was unimpressed. As grown-up woman Sethe she was angry, but not certain at what. A mighty wish for Baby Suggs broke over her like surf. In the quiet following its splash, Sethe looked at the two girls sitting by the stove: her sickly, shallow-minded boarder, her irritable, lonely daughter. They seemed little and far away.

“Paul D be here in a minute,” she said.

Denver sighed with relief. For a minute there, while her mother stood folding the wash lost in thought, she clamped her teeth and prayed it would stop. Denver hated the stories her mother told that did not concern herself, which is why Amy was all she ever asked about. The rest was a gleaming, powerful world made more so by Denver’s absence from it. Not being in it, she hated it and wanted Beloved to hate it too, although there was no chance of that at all.

Beloved took every opportunity to ask some funny question and get Sethe going. Denver noticed how greedy she was to hear Sethe talk.

Now she noticed something more. The questions Beloved asked: “Where your diamonds?”

“Your woman she never fix up your hair?”

And most perplexing: Tell me your earrings.

How did she know? strawberry plants did before they shot out their thin vines: the quality of the green changed. Then the vine threads came, then the buds. By the time the white petals died and the mint-colored berry poked out, the leaf shine was gilded fight and waxy. That’s how Beloved looked– gilded and shining. Paul D took to having Sethe on waking, so that later, when he went down the white stairs where she made bread under Beloved’s gaze, his head was clear.

In the evening when he came home and the three of them were all there fixing the supper table, her shine was so pronounced he wondered why Denver and Sethe didn’t see it. Or maybe they did.

Certainly women could tell, as men could, when one of their number was aroused. Paul D looked carefully at Beloved to see if she was aware of it but she paid him no attention at all–frequently not even answering a direct question put to her. She would look at him and not open her mouth. Five weeks she had been with them, and they didn’t know any more about her than they did when they found her asleep on the stump.

They were seated at the table Paul D had broken the day he arrived at 124. Its mended legs stronger than before. The cabbage was all gone and the shiny ankle bones of smoked pork were pushed in a heap on their plates. Sethe was dishing up bread pudding, murmuring her hopes for it, apologizing in advance the way veteran cooks always do, when something in Beloved’s face, some petlike adoration that took hold of her as she looked at Sethe, made Paul D speak.

“Ain’t you got no brothers or sisters?”

Beloved diddled her spoon but did not look at him. “I don’t have nobody.”

“What was you looking for when you came here?” he asked her.

“This place. I was looking for this place I could be in.”

“Somebody tell you about this house?”

“She told me. When I was at the bridge, she told me.”

“Must be somebody from the old days,” Sethe said. The days when 124 was a way station where messages came and then their senders. Where bits of news soaked like dried beans in spring water–until they were soft enough to digest.

“How’d you come? Who brought you?”

Now she looked steadily at him, but did not answer.

He could feel both Sethe and Denver pulling in, holding their stomach muscles, sending out sticky spiderwebs to touch one another.

He decided to force it anyway.

“I asked you who brought you here?”

“I walked here,” she said. “A long, long, long, long way. Nobody bring me. Nobody help me.”

“You had new shoes. If you walked so long why don’t your shoes show it?”

“Paul D, stop picking on her.”

“I want to know,” he said, holding the knife handle in his fist like a pole.

“I take the shoes! I take the dress! The shoe strings don’t fix!” she shouted and gave him a look so malevolent Denver touched her arm.

“I’ll teach you,” said Denver, “how to tie your shoes,” and got a smile from Beloved as a reward.

Paul D had the feeling a large, silver fish had slipped from his hands the minute he grabbed hold of its tail. That it was streaming back off into dark water now, gone but for the glistening marking its route. But if her shining was not for him, who then? He had never known a woman who lit up for nobody in particular, who just did it as a general announcement. Always, in his experience, the light appeared when there was focus. Like the Thirty-Mile Woman, dulled to smoke while he waited with her in the ditch, and starlight when Sixo got there. He never knew himself to mistake it. It was there the instant he looked at Sethe’s wet legs, otherwise he never would have been bold enough to enclose her in his arms that day and whisper into her back.

This girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he couldn’t say exactly why, considering the coloredpeople he had run into during the last twenty years. During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merrymakers. Once he met a Negro about fourteen years old who lived by himself in the woods and said he couldn’t remember living anywhere else. He saw a witless coloredwoman jailed and hanged for stealing ducks she believed were her own babies.

Move. Walk. Run. Hide. Steal and move on. Only once had it been possible for him to stay in one spot–with a woman, or a family–for longer than a few months. That once was almost two years with a weaver lady in Delaware, the meanest place for Negroes he had ever seen outside Pulaski County, Kentucky, and of course the prison camp in Georgia.

From all those Negroes, Beloved was different. Her shining, her new shoes. It bothered him. Maybe it was just the fact that he didn’t bother her. Or it could be timing. She had appeared and been taken in on the very day Sethe and he had patched up their quarrel, gone out in public and had a right good time–like a family. Denver had come around, so to speak; Sethe was laughing; he had a promise of steady work, 124 was cleared up from spirits. It had begun to look like a life. And damn! a water-drinking woman fell sick, got took in, healed, and hadn’t moved a peg since.

He wanted her out, but Sethe had let her in and he couldn’t put her out of a house that wasn’t his. It was one thing to beat up a ghost, quite another to throw a helpless coloredgirl out in territory infected by the Klan. Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will.

Sitting at table, chewing on his after-supper broom straw, Paul D decided to place her. Consult with the Negroes in town and find her her own place.

No sooner did he have the thought than Beloved strangled on one of the raisins she had picked out of the bread pudding. She fell backward and off the chair and thrashed around holding her throat.

Sethe knocked her on the back while Denver pried her hands away from her neck. Beloved, on her hands and knees, vomited up her food and struggled for breath.

When she was quiet and Denver had wiped up the mess, she said, “Go to sleep now.”

“Come in my room,” said Denver. “I can watch out for you up there.”

No moment could have been better. Denver had worried herself sick trying to think of a way to get Beloved to share her room. It was hard sleeping above her, wondering if she was going to be sick again, fall asleep and not wake, or (God, please don’t) get up and wander out of the yard just the way she wandered in. They could have their talks easier there: at night when Sethe and Paul D were asleep; or in the daytime before either came home. Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.

When the girls left, Sethe began to clear the table. She stacked the plates near a basin of water.

“What is it about her vex you so?”

Paul D frowned, but said nothing.

“We had one good fight about Denver. Do we need one about her too?” asked Sethe.

“I just don’t understand what the hold is. It’s clear why she holds on to you, but just can’t see why you holding on to her.”

Sethe turned away from the plates toward him. “what you care who’s holding on to who? Feeding her is no trouble. I pick up a little extra from the restaurant is all. And she’s nice girl company for Denver. You know that and I know you know it, so what is it got your teeth on edge?”

“I can’t place it. It’s a feeling in me.”

“Well, feel this, why don’t you? Feel how it feels to have a bed to sleep in and somebody there not worrying you to death about what you got to do each day to deserve it. Feel how that feels. And if that don’t get it, feel how it feels to be a coloredwoman roaming the roads with anything God made liable to jump on you. Feel that.”

“I know every bit of that, Sethe. I wasn’t born yesterday and I never mistreated a woman in my life.”

“That makes one in the world,” Sethe answered.

“Not two?”

“No. Not two.”

“What Halle ever do to you? Halle stood by you. He never left you.”

“What’d he leave then if not me?”

“I don’t know, but it wasn’t you. That’s a fact.”

“Then he did worse; he left his children.”

“You don’t know that.”

“He wasn’t there. He wasn’t where he said he would be.”

“He was there.”

“Then why didn’t he show himself? Why did I have to pack my babies off and stay behind to look for him?”

“He couldn’t get out the loft.”

“Loft? What loft?”

“The one over your head. In the barn.”

Slowly, slowly, taking all the time allowed, Sethe moved toward the table.

“He saw?”

“He saw.”

“He told you?”

“You told me.”

“What?”

“The day I came in here. You said they stole your milk. I never knew what it was that messed him up. That was it, I guess. All I knew was that something broke him. Not a one of them years of Saturdays, Sundays and nighttime extra never touched him. But whatever he saw go on in that barn that day broke him like a twig.”

“He saw?” Sethe was gripping her elbows as though to keep them from flying away.

“He saw. Must have.”

“He saw them boys do that to me and let them keep on breathing air? He saw? He saw? He saw?”

“Hey! Hey! Listen up. Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.”

Sethe was pacing up and down, up and down in the lamplight.

“The underground agent said, By Sunday. They took my milk and he saw it and didn’t come down? Sunday came and he didn’t. Monday came and no Halle. I thought he was dead, that’s why; then I thought they caught him, that’s why. Then I thought, No, he’s not dead because if he was I’d know it, and then you come here after all this time and you didn’t say he was dead, because you didn’t know either, so I thought, Well, he just found him another better way to live.

Because if he was anywhere near here, he’d come to Baby Suggs, if not to me. But I never knew he saw.”

“What does that matter now?”

“If he is alive, and saw that, he won’t step foot in my door. Not Halle.”

“It broke him, Sethe.” Paul D looked up at her and sighed. “You may as well know it all. Last time I saw him he was sitting by the chum. He had butter all over his face.”

Nothing happened, and she was grateful for that. Usually she could see the picture right away of what she heard. But she could not picture what Paul D said. Nothing came to mind. Carefully, carefully, she passed on to a reasonable question.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing.”

“Not a word?”

“Not a word.”

“Did you speak to him? Didn’t you say anything to him? Something!”

“I couldn’t, Sethe. I just.., couldn’t.”

“Why!”

“I had a bit in my mouth.”

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