فصل 09کتاب: Beloved / فصل 9
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Baby closed her eyes. Perhaps they were right. Suddenly, behind the disapproving odor, way way back behind it, she smelled another thing. Dark and coming. Something she couldn’t get at because the other odor hid it.
She squeezed her eyes tight to see what it was but all she could make out was high-topped shoes she didn’t like the look of.
Thwarted yet wondering, she chopped away with the hoe. What could it be? This dark and coming thing. What was left to hurt her now? News of Halle’s death? No. She had been prepared for that better than she had for his life. The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own–fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere.
She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did Famous’ skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny’s chin or just a dimple that would disappear soon’s his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at that youngest one? But for some reason they let her keep him. He was with her–everywhere.
When she hurt her hip in Carolina she was a real bargain (costing less than Halle, who was ten then) for Mr. Garner, who took them both to Kentucky to a farm he called Sweet Home. Because of the hip she jerked like a three-legged dog when she walked. But at Sweet Home there wasn’t a rice field or tobacco patch in sight, and nobody, but nobody, knocked her down. Not once. Lillian Garner called her Jenny for some reason but she never pushed, hit or called her mean names. Even when she slipped in cow dung and broke every egg in her apron, nobody said you-blackbitchwhat’sthematterwith-you and nobody knocked her down.
Sweet Home was tiny compared to the places she had been. Mr.
Garner, Mrs. Garner, herself, Halle, and four boys, over half named Paul, made up the entire population. Mrs. Garner hummed when she worked; Mr. Garner acted like the world was a toy he was supposed to have fun with. Neither wanted her in the field–Mr.
Garner’s boys, including Halle, did all of that–which was a blessing since she could not have managed it anyway. What she did was stand beside the humming Lillian Garner while the two of them cooked, preserved, washed, ironed, made candles, clothes, soap and cider; fed chickens, pigs, dogs and geese; milked cows, churned butter, rendered fat, laid fires…. Nothing to it. And nobody knocked her down.
Her hip hurt every single day–but she never spoke of it. Only Halle, who had watched her movements closely for the last four years, knew that to get in and out of bed she had to lift her thigh with both hands, which was why he spoke to Mr. Garner about buying her out of there so she could sit down for a change. Sweet boy. The one person who did something hard for her: gave her his work, his life and now his children, whose voices she could just make out as she stood in the garden wondering what was the dark and coming thing behind the scent of disapproval. Sweet Home was a marked improvement. No question. And no matter, for the sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home. Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.
Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother?
A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?
In Lillian Garner’s house, exempted from the field work that broke her hip and the exhaustion that drugged her mind; in Lillian Garner’s house where nobody knocked her down (or up), she listened to the whitewoman humming at her work; watched her face light up when Mr. Garner came in and thought, It’s better here, but I’m not. The Garners, it seemed to her, ran a special kind of slavery, treating them like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known. And he didn’t stud his boys. Never brought them to her cabin with directions to “lay down with her,” like they did in Carolina, or rented their sex out on other farms. It surprised and pleased her, but worried her too. Would he pick women for them or what did he think was going to happen when those boys ran smack into their nature? Some danger he was courting and he surely knew it. In fact, his order for them not to leave Sweet Home, except in his company, was not so much because of the law, but the danger of men-bred slaves on the loose.
Baby Suggs talked as little as she could get away with because what was there to say that the roots of her tongue could manage?
So the whitewoman, finding her new slave excellent if silent help, hummed to herself while she worked.
When Mr. Garner agreed to the arrangements with Halle, and when Halle looked like it meant more to him that she go free than anything in the world, she let herself be taken ‘cross the river. Of the two hard thingsstanding on her feet till she dropped or leaving her last and probably only living child–she chose the hard thing that made him happy, and never put to him the question she put to herself: What for? What does a sixty-odd-year-old slavewoman who walks like a three-legged dog need freedom for? And when she stepped foot on free ground she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew that there was nothing like it in this world. It scared her.
Something’s the matter. What’s the matter? What’s the matter? she asked herself. She didn’t know what she looked like and was not curious. But suddenly she saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, “These hands belong to me. These my hands.” Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing? She felt like a fool and began to laugh out loud.
Mr. Garner looked over his shoulder at her with wide brown eyes and smiled himself. “What’s funny, Jenny?”
She couldn’t stop laughing. “My heart’s beating,” she said.
And it was true.
Mr. Garner laughed. “Nothing to be scared of, Jenny. Just keep your same ways, you’ll be all right.”
She covered her mouth to keep from laughing too loud.
“These people I’m taking you to will give you what help you need. Name of Bodwin. A brother and a sister. Scots. I been knowing them for twenty years or more.”
Baby Suggs thought it was a good time to ask him something she had long wanted to know.
“Mr. Garner,” she said, “why you all call me Jenny?”
‘“Cause that what’s on your sales ticket, gal. Ain’t that your name? What you call yourself?”
“Nothings” she said. “I don’t call myself nothing.”
Mr. Garner went red with laughter. “When I took you out of Carolina, Whitlow called you Jenny and Jenny Whitlow is what his bill said. Didn’t he call you Jenny?”
“No, sir. If he did I didn’t hear it.”
“What did you answer to?”
“Anything, but Suggs is what my husband name.”
“You got married, Jenny? I didn’t know it.”
“Manner of speaking.”
“You know where he is, this husband?”
“Is that Halle’s daddy?”
“why you call him Suggs, then? His bill of sale says Whitlow too, just like yours.”
“Suggs is my name, sir. From my husband. He didn’t call me Jenny.”
“What he call you?”
“Well,” said Mr. Garner, going pink again, “if I was you I’d stick to Jenny Whitlow. Mrs. Baby Suggs ain’t no name for a freed Negro.”
Maybe not, she thought, but Baby Suggs was all she had left of the “husband” she claimed. A serious, melancholy man who taught her how to make shoes. The two of them made a pact: whichever one got a chance to run would take it; together if possible, alone if not, and no looking back. He got his chance, and since she never heard otherwise she believed he made it. Now how could he find or hear tell of her if she was calling herself some bill-of-sale name?
She couldn’t get over the city. More people than Carolina and enough whitefolks to stop the breath. Two-story buildings everywhere, and walkways made of perfectly cut slats of wood. Roads wide as Garner’s whole house.
“This is a city of water,” said Mr. Garner. “Everything travels by water and what the rivers can’t carry the canals take. A queen of a city, Jenny. Everything you ever dreamed of, they make it right here. Iron stoves, buttons, ships, shirts, hairbrushes, paint, steam engines, books. A sewer system make your eyes bug out. Oh, this is a city, all right. If you have to live in a city–this is it.”
The Bodwins lived right in the center of a street full of houses and trees. Mr. Garner leaped out and tied his horse to a solid iron post.
“Here we are.”
Baby picked up her bundle and with great difficulty, caused by her hip and the hours of sitting in a wagon, climbed down. Mr.
Garner was up the walk and on the porch before she touched ground, but she got a peep at a Negro girl’s face at the open door before she followed a path to the back of the house. She waited what seemed a long time before this same girl opened the kitchen door and offered her a seat by the window.
“Can I get you anything to eat, ma’am?” the girl asked.
“No, darling. I’d look favorable on some water though.” The girl went to the sink and pumped a cupful of water. She placed it in Baby Suggs’ hand. “I’m Janey, ma’am.”
Baby, marveling at the sink, drank every drop of water although it tasted like a serious medicine. “Suggs,” she said, blotting her lips with the back of her hand. “Baby Suggs.”
“Glad to meet you, Mrs. Suggs. You going to be staying here?”
“I don’t know where I’ll be. Mr. Garner–that’s him what brought me here–he say he arrange something for me.” And then, “I’m free, you know.”
Janey smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Your people live around here?”
“Yes, ma’am. All us live out on Bluestone.”
“We scattered,” said Baby Suggs, “but maybe not for long.”
Great God, she thought, where do I start? Get somebody to write old Whitlow. See who took Patty and Rosa Lee. Somebody name Dunn got Ardelia and went West, she heard. No point in trying for Tyree or John. They cut thirty years ago and, if she searched too hard and they were hiding, finding them would do them more harm than good. Nancy and Famous died in a ship off the Virginia coast before it set sail for Savannah. That much she knew. The overseer at Whitlow’s place brought her the news, more from a wish to have his way with her than from the kindness of his heart. The captain waited three weeks in port, to get a full cargo before setting off. Of the slaves in the hold who didn’t make it, he said, two were Whitlow pickaninnies name of…
But she knew their names. She knew, and covered her ears with her fists to keep from hearing them come from his mouth.
Janey heated some milk and poured it in a bowl next to a plate of cornbread. After some coaxing, Baby Suggs came to the table and sat down. She crumbled the bread into the hot milk and discovered she was hungrier than she had ever been in her life and that was saying something.
“They going to miss this?”
“No,” said Janey. “Eat all you want; it’s ours.”
“Anybody else live here?”
“Just me. Mr. Woodruff, he does the outside chores. He comes by two, three days a week.”
“Just you two?”
“Yes, ma’am. I do the cooking and washing.”
“Maybe your people know of somebody looking for help.”
“I be sure to ask, but I know they take women at the slaughterhouse.”
“I don’t know.”
“Something men don’t want to do, I reckon.”
“My cousin say you get all the meat you want, plus twenty-five cents the hour. She make summer sausage.”
Baby Suggs lifted her hand to the top of her head. Money? Money?
They would pay her money every single day? Money?
“Where is this here slaughterhouse?” she asked.
Before Janey could answer, the Bodwins came in to the kitchen with a grinning Mr. Garner behind. Undeniably brother and sister, both dressed in gray with faces too young for their snow-white hair.
“Did you give her anything to eat, Janey?” asked the brother.
“Keep your seat, Jenny,” said the sister, and that good news got better.
When they asked what work she could do, instead of reeling off the hundreds of tasks she had performed, she asked about the slaughterhouse.
She was too old for that, they said.
“She’s the best cobbler you ever see,” said Mr. Garner.
“Cobbler?” Sister Bodwin raised her black thick eyebrows. “Who taught you that?”
“Was a slave taught me,” said Baby Suggs.
“New boots, or just repair?”
“New, old, anything.”
“Well,” said Brother Bodwin, “that’ll be something, but you’ll need more.”
“What about taking in wash?” asked Sister Bodwin.
“Two cents a pound.”
“Yes, ma’am. But where’s the in?”
“You said ‘take in wash.’ Where is the ‘in’? Where I’m going to be.”
“Oh, just listen to this, Jenny,” said Mr. Garner. “These two angels got a house for you. Place they own out a ways.”
It had belonged to their grandparents before they moved in town.
Recently it. had been rented out to a whole parcel of Negroes, who had left the state. It was too big a house for Jenny alone, they said (two rooms upstairs, two down), but it was the best and the only thing they could do. In return for laundry, some seamstress work, a little canning and so on (oh shoes, too), they would permit her to stay there. Provided she was clean. The past parcel of colored wasn’t.
Baby Suggs agreed to the situation, sorry to see the money go but excited about a house with stepsnever mind she couldn’t climb them. Mr. Garner told the Bodwins that she was a right fine cook as well as a fine cobbler and showed his belly and the sample on his feet. Everybody laughed.
“Anything you need, let us know,” said the sister. “We don’t hold with slavery, even Garner’s kind.”
“Tell em, Jenny. You live any better on any place before mine?”
“No, sir,” she said. “No place.”
“How long was you at Sweet Home?”
“Ten year, I believe.”
“Ever go hungry?”
“Anybody lay a hand on you?”
“Did I let Halle buy you or not?”
“Yes, sir, you did,” she said, thinking, But you got my boy and I’m all broke down. You be renting him out to pay for me way after I’m gone to Glory.
Woodruff, they said, would carry her out there, they said, and all three disappeared through the kitchen door.
“I have to fix the supper now,” said Janey.
“I’ll help,” said Baby Suggs. “You too short to reach the fire.”
It was dark when Woodruff clicked the horse into a trot. He was a young man with a heavy beard and a burned place on his jaw the beard did not hide.
“You born up here?” Baby Suggs asked him.
“No, ma’am. Virginia. Been here a couple years.”
“You going to a nice house. Big too. A preacher and his family was in there. Eighteen children.”
“Have mercy. Where they go?”
“Took off to Illinois. Bishop Allen gave him a congregation up there. Big.”
“What churches around here? I ain’t set foot in one in ten years.”
“Wasn’t none. I dislike the place I was before this last one, but I did get to church every Sunday some kind of way. I bet the Lord done forgot who I am by now.”
“Go see Reverend Pike, ma’am. He’ll reacquaint you.”
“I won’t need him for that. I can make my own acquaintance.
What I need him for is to reacquaint me with my children. He can read and write, I reckon?”
“Good, ‘cause I got a lot of digging up to do.” But the news they dug up was so pitiful she quit. After two years of messages written by the preacher’s hand, two years of washing, sewing, canning, cobbling, gardening, and sitting in churches, all she found out was that the Whitlow place was gone and that you couldn’t write to “a man named Dunn” if all you knew was that he went West. The good news, however, was that Halle got married and had a baby coming.
She fixed on that and her own brand of preaching, having made up her mind about what to do with the heart that started beating the minute she crossed the Ohio River. And it worked out, worked out just fine, until she got proud and let herself be overwhelmed by the sight of her daughter-in-law and Halle’s children–one of whom was born on the way–and have a celebration of blackberries that put Christmas to shame. Now she stood in the garden smelling disapproval, feeling a dark and coming thing, and seeing high-topped shoes that she didn’t like the look of at all. At all.
WHEN THE four horsemen came–schoolteacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sheriff–the house on Bluestone Road was so quiet they thought they were too late. Three of them dismounted, one stayed in the saddle, his rifle ready, his eyes trained away from the house to the left and to the right, because likely as not the fugitive would make a dash for it. Although sometimes, you could never tell, you’d find them folded up tight somewhere: beneath floorboards, in a pantry–once in a chimney. Even then care was taken, because the quietest ones, the ones you pulled from a press, a hayloft, or, that once, from a chimney, would go along nicely for two or three seconds.
Caught red-handed, so to speak, they would seem to recognize the futility of outsmarting a whiteman and the hopelessness of outrunning a rifle. Smile even, like a child caught dead with his hand in the jelly jar, and when you reached for the rope to tie him, well, even then you couldn’t tell. The very nigger with his head hanging and a little jelly-jar smile on his face could all of a sudden roar, like a bull or some such, and commence to do disbelievable things. Grab the rifle at its mouth; throw himself at the one holding it–anything. So you had to keep back a pace, leave the tying to another. Otherwise you ended up killing what you were paid to bring back alive. Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin.
Six or seven Negroes were walking up the road toward the house: two boys from the slave catcher’s left and some women from his right. He motioned them still with his rifle and they stood where they were. The nephew came back from peeping inside the house, and after touching his lips for silence, pointed his thumb to say that what they were looking for was round back. The slave catcher dismounted then and joined the others. Schoolteacher and the nephew moved to the left of the house; himself and the sheriff to the right.
A crazy old nigger was standing in the woodpile with an ax. You could tell he was crazy right off because he was grunting–making low, cat noises like. About twelve yards beyond that nigger was another one–a woman with a flower in her hat. Crazy too, probably, because she too was standing stock-still–but fanning her hands as though pushing cobwebs out of her way. Both, however, were staring at the same place–a shed. Nephew walked over to the old nigger boy and took the ax from him. Then all four started toward the shed.
Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time, when out of nowheremin the ticking time the men spent staring at what there was to stare the old nigger boy, still mewing, ran through the door behind them and snatched the baby from the arch of its mother’s swing.
Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim. The three (now four–because she’d had the one coming when she cut) pickaninnies they had hoped were alive and well enough to take back to Kentucky, take back and raise properly to do the work Sweet Home desperately needed, were not.
Two were lying open-eyed in sawdust; a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one–the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her and made her cut and run. Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think–just think–what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education. Or Chipper, or Samson. Suppose you beat the hounds past that point thataway.
Never again could you trust them in the woods or anywhere else.
You’d be feeding them maybe, holding out a piece of rabbit in your hand, and the animal would revert–bite your hand clean off. So he punished that nephew by not letting him come on the hunt. Made him stay there, feed stock, feed himself, feed Lillian, tend crops. See how he liked it; see what happened when you overbear creatures God had given you the responsibility of–the trouble it was, and the loss. The whole lot was lost now. Five. He could claim the baby struggling in the arms of the mewing old man, but who’d tend her?
Because the woman–something was wrong with her. She was looking at him now, and if his other nephew could see that look he would learn the lesson for sure: you just can’t mishandle creatures and expect success.
The nephew, the one who had nursed her while his brother held her down, didn’t know he was shaking. His uncle had warned him against that kind of confusion, but the warning didn’t seem to be taking. What she go and do that for? On account of a beating? Hell, he’d been beat a million times and he was white. Once it hurt so bad and made him so mad he’d smashed the well bucket. Another time he took it out on Samson–a few tossed rocks was all. But no beating ever made him… I mean no way he could have… What she go and do that for? And that is what he asked the sheriff, who was standing there, amazed like the rest of them, but not shaking. He was swallowing hard, over and over again. “What she want to go and do that for?”
The sheriff turned, then said to the other three, “You all better go on. Look like your business is over. Mine’s started now.”
Schoolteacher beat his hat against his thigh and spit before leaving the woodshed. Nephew and the catcher backed out with him. They didn’t look at the woman in the pepper plants with the flower in her hat. And they didn’t look at the seven or so faces that had edged closer in spite of the catcher’s rifle warning. Enough nigger eyes for now. Little nigger-boy eyes open in sawdust; little nigger-girl eyes staring between the wet fingers that held her face so her head wouldn’t fall off; little nigger-baby eyes crinkling up to cry in the arms of the old nigger whose own eyes were nothing but slivers looking down at his feet. But the worst ones were those of the nigger woman who looked like she didn’t have any. Since the whites in them had disappeared and since they were as black as her skin, she looked blind.
They unhitched from schoolteacher’s horse the borrowed mule that was to carry the fugitive woman back to where she belonged, and tied it to the fence. Then, with the sun straight up over their heads, they trotted off, leaving the sheriff behind among the damnedest bunch of coons they’d ever seen. All testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred.
The sheriff wanted to back out too. To stand in the sunlight outside of that place meant for housing wood, coal, kerosene–fuel for cold Ohio winters, which he thought of now, while resisting the urge to run into the August sunlight. Not because he was afraid. Not at all. He was just cold. And he didn’t want to touch anything. The baby in the old man’s arms was crying, and the woman’s eyes with no whites were gazing straight ahead. They all might have remained that way, frozen till Thursday, except one of the boys on the floor sighed. As if he were sunk in the pleasure of a deep sweet sleep, he sighed the sigh that flung the sheriff into action.
“I’ll have to take you in. No trouble now. You’ve done enough to last you. Come on now.”
She did not move.
“You come quiet, hear, and I won’t have to tie you up.”
She stayed still and he had made up his mind to go near her and some kind of way bind her wet red hands when a shadow behind him in the doorway made him turn. The nigger with the flower in her hat entered.
Baby Suggs noticed who breathed and who did not and went straight to the boys lying in the dirt. The old man moved to the woman gazing and said, “Sethe. You take my armload and gimme yours.”
She turned to him, and glancing at the baby he was holding, made a low sound in her throat as though she’d made a mistake, left the salt out of the bread or something.
“I’m going out here and send for a wagon,” the sheriff said and got into the sunlight at last.
But neither Stamp Paid nor Baby Suggs could make her put her crawling-already? girl down. Out of the shed, back in the house, she held on. Baby Suggs had got the boys inside and was bathing their heads, rubbing their hands, lifting their lids, whispering, “Beg your pardon, I beg your pardon,” the whole time. She bound their wounds and made them breathe camphor before turning her attention to Sethe. She took the crying baby from Stamp Paid and carried it on her shoulder for a full two minutes, then stood in front of its mother.
“It’s time to nurse your youngest,” she said.
Sethe reached up for the baby without letting the dead one go.
Baby Suggs shook her head. “One at a time,” she said and traded the living for the dead, which she carried into the keeping room.
When she came back, Sethe was aiming a bloody nipple into the baby’s mouth. Baby Suggs slammed her fist on the table and shouted, “Clean up! Clean yourself up!”
They fought then. Like rivals over the heart of the loved, they fought. Each struggling for the nursing child. Baby Suggs lost when she slipped in a red puddle and fell. So Denver took her mother’s milk right along with the blood of her sister. And that’s the way they were when the sheriff returned, having commandeered a neighbor’s cart, and ordered Stamp to drive it.
Outside a throng, now, of black faces stopped murmuring. Holding the living child, Sethe walked past them in their silence and hers.
She climbed into the cart, her profile knife-clean against a cheery blue sky. A profile that shocked them with its clarity. Was her head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably. Otherwise the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house on Bluestone Road. Some cape of sound would have quickly been wrapped around her, like arms to hold and steady her on the way. As it was, they waited till the cart turned about, headed west to town. And then no words. Humming. No words at all.
Baby Suggs meant to run, skip down the porch steps after the cart, screaming, No. No. Don’t let her take that last one too. She meant to. Had started to, but when she got up from the floor and reached the yard the cart was gone and a wagon was rolling up. A red-haired boy and a yellow-haired girl jumped down and ran through the crowd toward her. The boy had a half-eaten sweet pepper in one hand and a pair of shoes in the other.
“Mama says Wednesday.” He held them together by their tongues.
“She says you got to have these fixed by Wednesday.”
Baby Suggs looked at him, and then at the woman holding a twitching lead horse to the road.
“She says Wednesday, you hear? Baby? Baby?”
She took the shoes from him–high-topped and muddy–saying, “I beg your pardon. Lord, I beg your pardon. I sure do.”
Out of sight, the cart creaked on down Bluestone Road. Nobody in it spoke. The wagon rock had put the baby to sleep. The hot sun dried Sethe’s dress, stiff, like rigor morris.
THAT AIN’T her mouth.
Anybody who didn’t know her, or maybe somebody who just got a glimpse of her through the peephole at the restaurant, might think it was hers, but Paul D knew better. Oh well, a little something around the forehead–a quietness–that kind of reminded you of her.
But there was no way you could take that for her mouth and he said so. Told Stamp Paid, who was watching him carefully.
“I don’t know, man. Don’t look like it to me. I know Sethe’s mouth and this ain’t it.” He smoothed the clipping with his fingers and peered at it, not at all disturbed. From the solemn air with which Stamp had unfolded the paper, the tenderness in the old man’s fingers as he stroked its creases and flattened it out, first on his knees, then on the split top of the piling, Paul D knew that it ought to mess him up. That whatever was written on it should shake him.
Pigs were crying in the chute. All day Paul D, Stamp Paid and twenty more had pushed and prodded them from canal to shore to chute to slaughterhouse. Although, as grain farmers moved west, St.
Louis and Chicago now ate up a lot of the business, Cincinnati was still pig port in the minds of Ohioans. Its main job was to receive, slaughter and ship up the river the hogs that Northerners did not want to live without. For a month or so in the winter any stray man had work, if he could breathe the stench of offal and stand up for twelve hours, skills in which Paul D was admirably trained.
A little pig shit, rinsed from every place he could touch, remained on his boots, and he was conscious of it as he stood there with a light smile of scorn curling his lips. Usually he left his boots in the shed and put his walking shoes on along with his day clothes in the corner before he went home. A route that took him smack dab through the middle of a cemetery as old as sky, rife with the agitation of dead Miami no longer content to rest in the mounds that covered them. Over their heads walked a strange people; through their earth pillows roads were cut; wells and houses nudged them out of eternal rest. Outraged more by their folly in believing land was holy than by the disturbances of their peace, they growled on the banks of Licking River, sighed in the trees on Catherine Street and rode the wind above the pig yards. Paul D heard them but he stayed on because all in all it wasn’t a bad job, especially in winter when Cincinnati reassumed its status of slaughter and riverboat capital. The craving for pork was growing into a mania in every city in the country. Pig farmers were cashing in, provided they could raise enough and get them sold farther and farther away. And the Germans who flooded southern Ohio brought and developed swine cooking to its highest form. Pig boats jammed the Ohio River, and their captains’ hollering at one another over the grunts of the stock was as common a water sound as that of the ducks flying over their heads. Sheep, cows and fowl too floated up and down that river, and all a Negro had to do was show up and there was work: poking, killing, cutting, skinning, case packing and saving offal.
A hundred yards from the crying pigs, the two men stood behind a shed on Western Row and it was clear why Stamp had been eyeing Paul D this last week of work; why he paused when the evening shift came on, to let Paul D’s movements catch up to his own. He had made up his mind to show him this piece of paper–newspaper– with a picture drawing of a woman who favored Sethe except that was not her mouth. Nothing like it.
Paul D slid the clipping out from under Stamp’s palm. The print meant nothing to him so he didn’t even glance at it. He simply looked at the face, shaking his head no. No. At the mouth, you see. And no at whatever it was those black scratches said, and no to whatever it was Stamp Paid wanted him to know. Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary–something whitepeople would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps. And it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen of Cincinnati.
So who was this woman with a mouth that was not Sethe’s, but whose eyes were almost as calm as hers? Whose head was turned on her neck in the manner he loved so well it watered his eye to see it.
And he said so. “This ain’t her mouth. I know her mouth and this ain’t it.” Before Stamp Paid could speak he said it and even while he spoke Paul D said it again. Oh, he heard all the old man was saying, but the more he heard, the stranger the lips in the drawing became.
Stamp started with the party, the one Baby Suggs gave, but stopped and backed up a bit to tell about the berries–where they were and what was in the earth that made them grow like that.
“They open to the sun, but not the birds, ‘cause snakes down in there and the birds know it, so they just grow–fat and sweet–with nobody to bother em ‘cept me because don’t nobody go in that piece of water but me and ain’t too many legs willing to glide down that bank to get them. Me neither. But I was willing that day. Somehow or ‘nother I was willing. And they whipped me, I’m telling you. Tore me up. But I filled two buckets anyhow. And took em over to Baby Suggs’ house. It was on from then on. Such a cooking you never see no more. We baked, fried and stewed everything God put down here.
Everybody came. Everybody stuffed. Cooked so much there wasn’t a stick of kirdlin left for the next day. I volunteered to do it. And next morning I come over, like I promised, to do it.”
“But this ain’t her mouth,” Paul D said. “This ain’t it at all.”
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