فصل 05

کتاب: Beloved / فصل 5

فصل 05

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5

Sethe opened the front door and sat down on the porch steps.

The day had gone blue without its sun, but she could still make out the black silhouettes of trees in the meadow beyond. She shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it reused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and writing it up. I am still full of that, God damn it, I can’t go back and add more. Add my husband to it, watching, above me in the loft–hiding close by–the one place he thought no one would look for him, looking down on what I couldn’t look at at all.

And not stopping them–looking and letting it happen. But my greedy brain says, Oh thanks, I’d love more–so I add more. And no sooner than I do, there is no stopping. There is also my husband squatting by the churn smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face because the milk they took is on his mind. And as far as he is concerned, the world may as well know it. And if he was that broken then, then he is also and certainly dead now. And if Paul D saw him and could not save or comfort him because the iron bit was in his mouth, then there is still more that Paul D could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love.

But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day. Exactly like that afternoon in the wild onions– when one more step was the most she could see of the future. Other people went crazy, why couldn’t she? Other people’s brains stopped, turned around and went on to something new, which is what must have happened to Halle. And how sweet that would have been: the two of them back by the milk shed, squatting by the churn, smashing cold, lumpy butter into their faces with not a care in the world.

Feeling it slippery, sticky–rubbing it in their hair, watching it squeeze through their fingers. What a relief to stop it right there. Close. Shut.

Squeeze the butter. But her three children were chewing sugar teat under a blanket on their way to Ohio and no butter play would change that.

Paul D stepped through the door and touched her shoulder.

“I didn’t plan on telling you that.”

“I didn’t plan on hearing it.”

“I can’t take it back, but I can leave it alone,” Paul D said.

He wants to tell me, she thought. He wants me to ask him about what it was like for him–about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it. She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back. Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye.

Sethe looked up into Paul D’s eyes to see if there was any trace left in them.

“People I saw as a child,” she said, “who’d had the bit always looked wild after that. Whatever they used it on them for, it couldn’t have worked, because it put a wildness where before there wasn’t any. When I look at you, I don’t see it. There ain’t no wildness in your eye nowhere.”

“There’s a way to put it there and there’s a way to take it out. I know em both and I haven’t figured out yet which is worse.” He sat down beside her. Sethe looked at him. In that unlit daylight his face, bronzed and reduced to its bones, smoothed her heart down.

“You want to tell me about it?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. I never have talked about it. Not to a soul. Sang it sometimes, but I never told a soul.”

“Go ahead. I can hear it.”

“Maybe. Maybe you can hear it. I just ain’t sure I can say it. Say it right, I mean, because it wasn’t the bit–that wasn’t it.”

“What then?” Sethe asked.

“The roosters,” he said. “Walking past the roosters looking at them look at me.”

Sethe smiled. “In that pine?”

“Yeah.” Paul D smiled with her. “Must have been five of them perched up there, and at least fifty hens.”

“Mister, too?”

“Not right off. But I hadn’t took twenty steps before I seen him.

He come down off the fence post there and sat on the tub.”

“He loved that tub,” said Sethe, thinking, No, there is no stopping now.

“Didn’t he? Like a throne. Was me took him out the shell, you know. He’d a died if it hadn’t been for me. The hen had walked on off with all the hatched peeps trailing behind her. There was this one egg left. Looked like a blank, but then I saw it move so I tapped it open and here come Mister, bad feet and all. I watched that son a bitch grow up and whup everything in the yard.”

“He always was hateful,” Sethe said.

“Yeah, he was hateful all right. Bloody too, and evil. Crooked feet flapping. Comb as big as my hand and some kind of red. He sat right there on the tub looking at me. I swear he smiled. My head was full of what I’d seen of Halle a while back. I wasn’t even thinking about the bit. Just Halle and before him Sixo, but when I saw Mister I knew it was me too. Not just them, me too. One crazy, one sold, one missing, one burnt and me licking iron with my hands crossed behind me. The last of the Sweet Home men.

“Mister, he looked so… free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher.

Son a bitch couldn’t even get out the shell by hisself but he was still king and I was…” Paul D stopped and squeezed his left hand with his right. He held it that way long enough for it and the world to quiet down and let him go on.

“Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”

Sethe put her hand on his knee and rubbed.

Paul D had only begun, what he was telling her was only the beginning when her fingers on his knee, soft and reassuring, stopped him. Just as well. Just as well. Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut. He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him. And it would hurt her to know that there was no red heart bright as Mister’s comb beating in him.

Sethe rubbed and rubbed, pressing the work cloth and the stony curves that made up his knee. She hoped it calmed him as it did her.

Like kneading bread in the half-light of the restaurant kitchen. Before the cook arrived when she stood in a space no wider than a bench is long, back behind and to the left of the milk cans. Working dough.

Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past. make-a-new-step, slide, slide and strut on down.

Denver sat on the bed smiling and providing the music.

She had never seen Beloved this happy. She had seen her pouty lips open wide with the pleasure of sugar or some piece of news Denver gave her. She had felt warm satisfaction radiating from Beloved’s skin when she listened to her mother talk about the old days.

But gaiety she had never seen. Not ten minutes had passed since Beloved had fallen backward to the floor, pop-eyed, thrashing and holding her throat. Now, after a few seconds lying in Denver’s bed, she was up and dancing.

“Where’d you learn to dance?” Denver asked her.

“Nowhere. Look at me do this.” Beloved put her fists on her hips and commenced to skip on bare feet. Denver laughed.

“Now you. Come on,” said Beloved. “You may as well just come on.” Her black skirt swayed from side to side.

Denver grew ice-cold as she rose from the bed. She knew she was twice Beloved’s size but she floated up, cold and light as a snowflake.

Beloved took Denver’s hand and placed another on Denver’s shoulder. They danced then. Round and round the tiny room and it may have been dizziness, or feeling light and icy at once, that made Denver laugh so hard. A catching laugh that Beloved caught. The two of them, merry as kittens, swung to and fro, to and fro, until exhausted they sat on the floor. Beloved let her head fall back on the edge of the bed while she found her breath and Denver saw the tip of the thing she always saw in its entirety when Beloved undressed to sleep. Looking straight at it she whispered, “Why you call yourself Beloved?”

Beloved closed her eyes. “In the dark my name is Beloved.”

Denver scooted a little closer. “What’s it like over there, where you were before? Can you tell me?”

“Dark,” said Beloved. “I’m small in that place. I’m like this here.”

She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up.

Denver covered her lips with her fingers. “Were you cold?”

Beloved curled tighter and shook her head. “Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in.”

“You see anybody?”

“Heaps. A lot of people is down there. Some is dead.”

“You see Jesus? Baby Suggs?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know the names.” She sat up.

“Tell me, how did you get here?”

“I wait; then I got on the bridge. I stay there in the dark, in the daytime, in the dark, in the daytime. It was a long time.”

“All this time you were on a bridge?”

“No. After. When I got out.”

“What did you come back for?”

Beloved smiled. “To see her face.”

“Ma’am’s? Sethe?”

“Yes, Sethe.”

Denver felt a little hurt, slighted that she was not the main reason for Beloved’s return. “Don’t you remember we played together by the stream?”

“I was on the bridge,” said Beloved. “You see me on the bridge?”

“No, by the stream. The water back in the woods.”

“Oh, I was in the water. I saw her diamonds down there. I could touch them.”

“What stopped you?”

“She left me behind. By myself,” said Beloved. She lifted her eyes to meet Denver’s and frowned, perhaps. Perhaps not. The tiny scratches on her forehead may have made it seem so.

Denver swallowed. “Don’t,” she said. “Don’t. You won’t leave us, will you?”

“No. Never. This is where I am.”

Suddenly Denver, who was sitting cross-legged, lurched forward and grabbed Beloved’s wrist. “Don’t tell her. Don’t let Ma’am know who you are. Please, you hear?”

“Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t you never never tell me what to do.”

“But I’m on your side, Beloved.”

“She is the one. She is the one I need. You can go but she is the one I have to have.” Her eyes stretched to the limit, black as the all night sky.

“I didn’t do anything to you. I never hurt you. I never hurt anybody,” said Denver.

“Me either. Me either.”

“What you gonna do?”

“Stay here. I belong here.”

“I belong here too.”

“Then stay, but don’t never tell me what to do. Don’t never do that.”

“We were dancing. Just a minute ago we were dancing together.

Let’s.”

“I don’t want to.” Beloved got up and lay down on the bed. Their quietness boomed about on the walls like birds in panic. Finally Denver’s breath steadied against the threat of an unbearable loss.

“Tell me,” Beloved said. “Tell me how Sethe made you in the boat.”

“She never told me all of it,” said Denver.

“Tell me.”

Denver climbed up on the bed and folded her arms under her apron. She had not been in the tree room once since Beloved sat on their stump after the carnival, and had not remembered that she hadn’t gone there until this very desperate moment. Nothing was out there that this sister-girl did not provide in abundance: a racing heart, dreaminess, society, danger, beauty. She swallowed twice to prepare for the telling, to construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved.

“She had good hands, she said. The whitegirl, she said, had thin little arms but good hands. She saw that right away, she said. Hair enough for five heads and good hands, she said. I guess the hands made her think she could do it: get us both across the river. But the mouth was what kept her from being scared. She said there ain’t nothing to go by with whitepeople. You don’t know how they’ll jump. Say one thing, do another. But if you looked at the mouth sometimes you could tell by that. She said this girl talked a storm, but there wasn’t no meanness around her mouth. She took Ma’am to that lean-to and rubbed her feet for her, so that was one thing.

And Ma’am believed she wasn’t going to turn her over. You could get money if you turned a runaway over, and she wasn’t sure this girl Amy didn’t need money more than anything, especially since all she talked about was getting hold of some velvet.”

“What’s velvet?”

“It’s a cloth, kind of deep and soft.”

“Go ahead.”

“Anyway, she rubbed Ma’am’s feet back to life, and she cried, she said, from how it hurt. But it made her think she could make it on over to where Grandma Baby Suggs was and…”

“Who is that?”

“I just said it. My grandmother.”

“Is that Sethe’s mother?”

“No. My father’s mother.”

“Go ahead.”

“That’s where the others was. My brothers and.., the baby girl.

She sent them on before to wait for her at Grandma Baby’s. So she had to put up with everything to get there. And this here girl Amy helped.”

Denver stopped and sighed. This was the part of the story she loved. She was coming to it now, and she loved it because it was all about herself; but she hated it too because it made her feel like a bill was owing somewhere and she, Denver, had to pay it. But who she owed or what to pay it with eluded her. Now, watching Beloved’s alert and hungry face, how she took in every word, asking questions about the color of things and their size, her downright craving to know, Denver began to see what she was saying and not just to hear it: there is this nineteen-year-old slave girl–a year older than her self–walking through the dark woods to get to her children who are far away. She is tired, scared maybe, and maybe even lost. Most of all she is by herself and inside her is another baby she has to think about too. Behind her dogs, perhaps; guns probably; and certainly mossy teeth. She is not so afraid at night because she is the color of it, but in the day every sound is a shot or a tracker’s quiet step.

Denver was seeing it now and feeling it–through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother. Seeing how it must have looked.

And the more fine points she made, the more detail she provided, the more Beloved liked it. So she anticipated the questions by giving blood to the scraps her mother and grandmother had told herwand a heartbeat. The monologue became, iri fact, a duet as they lay down together, Denver nursing Beloved’s interest like a lover whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved. The dark quilt with two orange patches was there with them because Beloved wanted it near her when she slept. It was smelling like grass and feeling like hands– the unrested hands of busy women: dry, warm, prickly. Denver spoke, Beloved listened, and the two did the best they could to create what really happened, how it really was, something only Sethe knew because she alone had the mind for it and the time afterward to shape it: the quality of Amy’s voice, her breath like burning wood. The quick-change weather up in those hills—cool at night, hot in the day, sudden fog. How recklessly she behaved with this whitegirlNa recklessness born of desperation and encouraged by Amy’s fugitive eyes and her tenderhearted mouth.

“You ain’t got no business walking round these hills, miss.”

“Looka here who’s talking. I got more business here ‘n you got.

They catch you they cut your head off. Ain’t nobody after me but I know somebody after you.” Amy pressed her fingers into the soles of the slavewoman’s feet. “Whose baby that?”

Sethe did not answer.

“You don’t even know. Come here, Jesus,” Amy sighed and shook her head. “Hurt?”

“A touch.”

“Good for you. More it hurt more better it is. Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know. What you wiggling for?”

Sethe raised up on her elbows. Lying on her back so long had raised a ruckus between her shoulder blades. The fire in her feet and the fire on her back made her sweat.

“My back hurt me,” she said.

“Your back? Gal, you a mess. Turn over here and let me see.”

In an effort so great it made her sick to her stomach, Sethe turned onto her right side. Amy unfastened the back of her dress and said, “Come here, Jesus,” when she saw. Sethe guessed it must be bad because after that call to Jesus Amy didn’t speak for a while. In the silence of an Amy struck dumb for a change, Sethe felt the fingers of those good hands lightly touch her back. She could hear her breathing but still the whitegirl said nothing. Sethe could not move. She couldn’t lie on her stomach or her back, and to keep on her side meant pressure on her screaming feet. Amy spoke at last in her dreamwalker’s voice.

“It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk–it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder. I had me some whippings, but I don’t remember nothing like this. Mr. Buddy had a right evil hand too. Whip you for looking at him straight. Sure would. I looked right at him one time and he hauled off and threw the poker at me. Guess he knew what I was a-thinking.’”

Sethe groaned and Amy cut her reverie short–long enough to shift Sethe’s feet so the weight, resting on leaf-covered stones, was above the ankles.

“That better? Lord what a way to die. You gonna die in here, you know. Ain’t no way out of it. Thank your Maker I come along so’s you wouldn’t have to die outside in them weeds. Snake come along he bite you. Bear eat you up. Maybe you should of stayed where you was, Lu. I can see by your back why you didn’t ha ha.

Whoever planted that tree beat Mr. Buddy by a mile. Glad I ain’t you. Well, spiderwebs is ‘bout all I can do for you. What’s in here ain’t enough. I’ll look outside. Could use moss, but sometimes bugs and things is in it. Maybe I ought to break them blossoms open. Get that pus to running, you think? Wonder what God had in mind. You must of did something. Don’t run off nowhere now.”

Sethe could hear her humming away in the bushes as she hunted spiderwebs. A humming she concentrated on because as soon as Amy ducked out the baby began to stretch. Good question, she was thinking.

What did He have in mind? Amy had left the back of Sethe’s dress open and now a tail of wind hit it, taking the pain down a step. A relief that let her feel the lesser pain of her sore tongue. Amy returned with two palmfuls of web, which she cleaned of prey and then draped on Sethe’s back, saying it was like stringing a tree for Christmas.

“We got a old nigger girl come by our place. She don’t know nothing. Sews stuff for Mrs. Buddy–real fine lace but can’t barely stick two words together. She don’t know nothing, just like you. You don’t know a thing. End up dead, that’s what. Not me. I’m a get to Boston and get myself some velvet. Carmine. You don’t even know about that, do you? Now you never will. Bet you never even sleep with the sun in your face. I did it a couple of times. Most times I’m feeding stock before light and don’t get to sleep till way after dark comes. But I was in the back of the wagon once and fell asleep.

Sleeping with the sun in your face is the best old feeling. Two times I did it. Once when I was little. Didn’t nobody bother me then. Next time, in back of the wagon, it happened again and doggone if the chickens didn’t get loose. Mr. Buddy whipped my tail. Kentucky ain’t no good place to be in. Boston’s the place to be in. That’s where my mother was before she was give to Mr. Buddy. Joe Nathan said Mr.

Buddy is my daddy but I don’t believe that, you?”

Sethe told her she didn’t believe Mr. Buddy was her daddy.

“You know your daddy, do you?”

“No,” said Sethe.

“Neither me. All I know is it ain’t him.” She stood up then, having finished her repair work, and weaving about the lean-to, her slow-moving eyes pale in the sun that lit her hair, she sang: “‘When the busy day is done And my weary little one Rocketh gently to and fro; When the night winds softly blow, And the crickets in the glen Chirp and chirp and chirp again; Where “pon the haunted green Fairies dance around their queen, Then from yonder misty skies Cometh Lady Button Eyes.”

Suddenly she stopped weaving and rocking and sat down, her skinny arms wrapped around her knees, her good good hands cupping her elbows. Her slow-moving eyes stopped and peered into the dirt at her feet. “That’s my mama’s song. She taught me it.”

“Through the muck and mist and glaam To our quiet cozy home, Where to singing sweet and low Rocks a cradle to and fro.

Where the clock’s dull monotone

Telleth of the day that’s done,

Where the moonbeams hover o’er

Playthings sleeping on the floor,

Where my weary wee one lies

Cometh Lady Button Eyes.

Layeth she her hands upon

My dear weary little one,

And those white hands overspread

Like a veil the curly head,

Seem to fondle and caress

Every little silken tress.

Then she smooths the eyelids down

Over those two eyes of brown

In such soothing tender wise

Cometh Lady Button Eyes.”

Amy sat quietly after her song, then repeated the last line before she stood, left the lean-to and walked off a little ways to lean against a young ash. When she came back the sun was in the valley below and they were way above it in blue Kentucky light.

“‘You ain’t dead yet, Lu? Lu?”

“Not yet.”

“Make you a bet. You make it through the night, you make it all the way.” Amy rearranged the leaves for comfort and knelt down to massage the swollen feet again. “Give these one more real good rub,” she said, and when Sethe sucked air through her teeth, she said, “Shut up. You got to keep your mouth shut.”

Careful of her tongue, Sethe bit down on her lips and let the good hands go to work to the tune of “So bees, sing soft and bees, sing low.” Afterward, Amy moved to the other side of the lean-to where, seated, she lowered her head toward her shoulder and braided her hair, saying, “Don’t up and die on me in the night, you hear? I don’t want to see your ugly black face hankering over me. If you do die, just go on off somewhere where I can’t see you, hear?”

“I hear,” said Sethe. I’ll do what I can, miss.”

Sethe never expected to see another thing in this world, so when she felt toes prodding her hip it took a while to come out of a sleep she thought was death. She sat up, stiff and shivery, while Amy looked in on her juicy back.

“Looks like the devil,” said Amy. “But you made it through.

Come down here, Jesus, Lu made it through. That’s because of me.

I’m good at sick things. Can you walk, you think?”

“I have to let my water some kind of way.”

“Let’s see you walk on em.”

It was not good, but it was possible, so Sethe limped, holding on first to Amy, then to a sapling.

“Was me did it. I’m good at sick things ain’t I?”

“Yeah,” said Sethe, “you good.”

“We got to get off this here hill. Come on. I’ll take you down to the river. That ought to suit you. Me, I’m going to the Pike. Take me straight to Boston. What’s that all over your dress?”

“Milk.”

“You one mess.”

Sethe looked down at her stomach and touched it. The baby was dead. She had not died in the night, but the baby had. If that was the case, then there was no stopping now. She would get that milk to her baby girl if she had to swim.

“Ain’t you hungry?” Amy asked her.

“I ain’t nothing but in a hurry, miss.”

“Whoa. Slow down. Want some shoes?”

“Say what?”

“I figured how,” said Amy and so she had. She tore two pieces from Sethe’s shawl, filled them with leaves and tied them over her feet, chattering all the while.

“How old are you, Lu? I been bleeding for four years but I ain’t having nobody’s baby. Won’t catch me sweating milk cause…”

“I know,” said Sethe. “You going to Boston.”

At noon they saw it; then they were near enough to hear it. By late afternoon they could drink from it if they wanted to. Four stars were visible by the time they found, not a riverboat to stow Sethe away on, or a ferryman willing to take on a fugitive passenger–nothing like that–but a whole boat to steal. It had one oar, lots of holes and two bird nests.

“There you go, Lu. Jesus looking at you.”

Sethe was looking at one mile of dark water, which would have to be split with one oar in a useless boat against a current dedicated to the Mississippi hundreds of miles away. It looked like home to her, and the baby (not dead in the least) must have thought so too.

As soon as Sethe got close to the river her own water broke loose to join it. The break, followed by the redundant announcement of labor, arched her back.

“What you doing that for?” asked Amy. “Ain’t you got a brain in your head? Stop that right now. I said stop it, Lu. You the dumbest thing on this here earth. Lu! Lu!”

Sethe couldn’t think of anywhere to go but in. She waited for the sweet beat that followed the blast of pain. On her knees again, she crawled into the boat. It waddled under her and she had just enough time to brace her leaf-bag feet on the bench when another rip took her breath away. Panting under four summer stars, she threw her legs over the sides, because here come the head, as Amy informed her as though she did not know it–as though the rip was a breakup of walnut logs in the brace, or of lightning’s jagged tear through a leather sky.

It was stuck. Face up and drowning in its mother’s blood. Amy stopped begging Jesus and began to curse His daddy.

“Push!” screamed Amy.

“Pull,” whispered Sethe.

And the strong hands went to work a fourth time, none too soon, for river water, seeping through any hole it chose, was spreading over Sethe’s hips. She reached one arm back and grabbed the rope while Amy fairly clawed at the head. When a foot rose from the river bed and kicked the bottom of the boat and Sethe’s behind, she knew it was done and permitted herself a short faint. Coming to, she heard no cries, just Amy’s encouraging coos. Nothing happened for so long they both believed they had lost it. Sethe arched suddenly and the afterbirth shot out. Then the baby whimpered and Sethe looked.

Twenty inches of cord hung from its belly and it trembled in the cooling evening air. Amy wrapped her skirt around it and the wet sticky women clambered ashore to see what, indeed, God had in mind.

Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects–but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future.

And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one–will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned.

This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

On a riverbank in the cool of a summer evening two women struggled under a shower of silvery blue. They never expected to see each other again in this world and at the moment couldn’t care less.

But there on a summer night surrounded by bluefern they did something together appropriately and well. A pateroller passing would have sniggered to see two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws– a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair–wrapping a ten-minute-old baby in the rags they wore. But no pateroller came and no preacher. The water sucked and swallowed itself beneath them. There was nothing to disturb them at their work. So they did it appropriately and well.

Twilight came on and Amy said she had to go; that she wouldn’t be caught dead in daylight on a busy river with a runaway. After rinsing her hands and face in the river, she stood and looked down at the baby wrapped and tied to Sethe’s chest.

“She’s never gonna know who I am. You gonna tell her? Who brought her into this here world?” She lifted her chin, looked off into the place where the sun used to be. “You better tell her. You hear? Say Miss Amy Denver. Of Boston.”

Sethe felt herself falling into a sleep she knew would be deep. On the lip of it, just before going under, she thought, “That’s pretty.

Denver. Real pretty.”

IT WAS TIME to lay it all down. Before Paul D came and sat on her porch steps, words whispered in the keeping room had kept her going. Helped her endure the chastising ghost; refurbished the baby faces of Howard and Buglar and kept them whole in the world because in her dreams she saw only their parts in trees; and kept her husband shadowy but there–somewhere. Now Halle’s face between the butter press and the churn swelled larger and larger, crowding her eyes and making her head hurt. She wished for Baby Suggs’ fingers molding her nape, reshaping it, saying, “Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside.

Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down.

Sword and shield.” And under the pressing fingers and the quiet instructive voice, she would. Her heavy knives of defense against misery, regret, gall and hurt, she placed one by one on a bank where dear water rushed on below.

Nine years without the fingers or the voice of Baby Suggs was too much. And words whispered in the keeping room were too little.

The butter-smeared face of a man God made none sweeter than demanded more: an arch built or a robe sewn. Some fixing ceremony.

Sethe decided to go to the Clearing, back where Baby Suggs had danced in sunlight.

Before 124 and everybody in it had closed down, veiled over and shut away; before it had become the plaything of spirits and the home of the chafed, 124 had been a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed. Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested there while children tried on their shoes. Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. Talk was low and to the point–for Baby Suggs, holy, didn’t approve of extra. “Everything depends on knowing how much,” she said, and “Good is knowing when to stop.”

It was in front of that 124 that Sethe climbed off a wagon, her newborn tied to her chest, and felt for the first time the wide arms of her mother-in-law, who had made it to Cincinnati. Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart–which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, un anointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence. When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing–a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

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