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Beloved
2004
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I 124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny band prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them. Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys. Her past had been like her present--intolerable--and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color. "Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don't." And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life's principal joy was reckless indeed. So Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted, for her. Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light. Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, and right afterward Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, "Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on." The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did. "Grandma Baby must be stopping it," said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying. Sethe opened her eyes. "I doubt that," she said. "Then why don't it come?" "You forgetting how little it is," said her mother. "She wasn't even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even." "Maybe she don't want to understand," said Denver. "Maybe. But if she'd only come, I could make it clear to her." Sethe released her daughter's hand and together they pushed the sideboard back against the wall. Outside a driver whipped his horse into the gallop local people felt necessary when they passed 124. "For a baby she throws a powerful spell," said Denver. "No more powerful than the way I loved her," Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I'll do it for free. Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten "Dearly" too? She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possible--that for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby's headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new. That should certainly be enough. Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust. Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil. "We could move," she suggested once to her mother-in-law. "What'd be the point?" asked Baby Suggs. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don't talk to me. You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don't you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody's house into evil." Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows. "My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember." "That's all you let yourself remember," Sethe had told her, but she was down to one herself--one alive, that is--the boys chased off by the dead one, and her memory of Buglar was fading fast. Howard at least had a head shape nobody could forget. As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field, running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind. The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard. Nor was there the faintest scent of ink or the cherry gum and oak bark from which it was made. Nothing. Just the breeze cooling her face as she rushed toward water. And then sopping the chamomile away with pump water and rags, her mind fixed on getting every last bit of sap off--on her carelessness in taking a shortcut across the field just to save a half mile, and not noticing how high the weeds had grown until the itching was all the way to her knees. Then something. The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her--remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that. When the last of the chamomile was gone, she went around to the front of the house, collecting her shoes and stockings on the way. As if to punish her further for her terrible memory, sitting on the porch not forty feet away was Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?" "What's left." He stood up and smiled. "How you been, girl, besides barefoot?" When she laughed it came out loose and young. "Messed up my legs back yonder. Chamomile." He made a face as though tasting a teaspoon of something bitter. "I don't want to even hear 'bout it. Always did hate that stuff." Sethe balled up her stockings and jammed them into her pocket. "Come on in." "Porch is fine, Sethe. Cool out here." He sat back down and looked at the meadow on the other side of the road, knowing the eagerness he felt would be in his eyes. "Eighteen years," she said softly. "Eighteen," he repeated. "And I swear I been walking every one of em. Mind if I join you?" He nodded toward her feet and began unlacing his shoes. "You want to soak them? Let me get you a basin of water." She moved closer to him to enter the house. "No, uh uh. Can't baby feet. A whole lot more tramping they got to do yet." "You can't leave right away, Paul D. You got to stay awhile." "Well, long enough to see Baby Suggs, anyway. Where is she?" ''Dead.'' "Aw no. When?" "Eight years now. Almost nine." "Was it hard? I hope she didn't die hard." Sethe shook her head. "Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part. Sorry you missed her though. Is that what you came by for?" "That's some of what I came for. The rest is you. But if all the truth be known, I go anywhere these days. Anywhere they let me sit down." "You looking good." "Devil's confusion. He lets me look good long as I feel bad." He looked at her and the word "bad" took on another meaning. Sethe smiled. This is the way they were--had been. All of the Sweet Home men, before and after Halle, treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it. Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed. For a man with an immobile face it was amazing how ready it was to smile, or blaze or be sorry with you. As though all you had to do was get his attention and right away he produced the feeling you were feeling. With less than a blink, his face seemed to change--underneath it lay the activity. "I wouldn't have to ask about him, would I? You'd tell me if there was anything to tell, wouldn't you?" Sethe looked down at her feet and saw again the sycamores. "I'd tell you. Sure I'd tell you. I don't know any more now than I did then." Except for the churn, he thought, and you don't need to know that. "You must think he's still alive." "No. I think he's dead. It's not being sure that keeps him alive." "What did Baby Suggs think?" "Same, but to listen to her, all her children is dead. Claimed she felt each one go the very day and hour." "When she say Halle went?" "Eighteen fifty-five. The day my baby was born." "You had that baby, did you? Never thought you'd make it." He chuckled. "Running off pregnant." "Had to. Couldn't be no waiting." She lowered her head and thought, as he did, how unlikely it was that she had made it. And if it hadn't been for that girl looking for velvet, she never would have. "All by yourself too." He was proud of her and annoyed by her. Proud she had done it; annoyed that she had not needed Halle or him in the doing. "Almost by myself. Not all by myself. A whitegirl helped me." "Then she helped herself too, God bless her." "You could stay the night, Paul D." "You don't sound too steady in the offer." Sethe glanced beyond his shoulder toward the closed door. "Oh it's truly meant. I just hope you'll pardon my house. Come on in. Talk to Denver while I cook you something." Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood. "You got company?" he whispered, frowning. "Off and on," said Sethe. "Good God." He backed out the door onto the porch. "What kind of evil you got in here?" "It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through." He looked at her then, closely. Closer than he had when she first rounded the house on wet and shining legs, holding her shoes and stockings up in one hand, her skirts in the other. Halle's girl--the one with iron eyes and backbone to match. He had never seen her hair in Kentucky. And though her face was eighteen years older than when last he saw her, it was softer now. Because of the hair. A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes. Halle's woman. Pregnant every year including the year she sat by the fire telling him she was going to run. Her three children she had already packed into a wagonload of others in a caravan of Negroes crossing the river. They were to be left with Halle's mother near Cincinnati. Even in that tiny shack, leaning so close to the fire you could smell the heat in her dress, her eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held. So he looked instead at the fire while she told him, because her husband was not there for the telling. Mr. Garner was dead and his wife had a lump in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone. She leaned as close to the fire as her pregnant belly allowed and told him, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. Excerpted from Beloved by Toni Morrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

FAMILY SAGAS WRITE HISTORY through microcosm, tracing a clan's rise, survival and, more often than not, ultimate dissolution. Thomas Mann's healthy bourgeois Buddenbrooks succumb to decadent sterility; Gabriel García Marquez's Buendias are erased by a hurricane; the Starks of Winterfell are massacred in the Riverlands. A family is sacrificed to time, and in their entrails readers find auguries of larger motions. The critic Frank Kermode believed that novels developed alongside a loss of faith in biblical chronology, as substitutes for Adam and Eve's universal family plot. He is borne out by recent years' fruitful crop of epics rooted in the familiar soil of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, blood, sex, bastardy and inheritance. They are books like Annie Proulx's "Barkskins" (2016), a tale of two families and five centuries of worldwide deforestation; Min Jin Lee's "Pachinko" (2017), an account of the 20 th century as undergone by four generations of a Korean family in xenophobic Japan; and a spate of African-American novels, like Ayana Mathis's "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" (2012) and Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" (2016), that use the dispersal of families to chart the precarious red thread of black survival. Perhaps the most expansive family novel of the last two years, C. E. Morgan's "The Sport of Kings" (2016), synthesizes the black epic of lost roots with the dynastic accrual of white property. Morgan tracks three generations of Kentucky's aristocratic Forge clan, horse breeders whose self-aggrandizing mythology is shadowed at every step by a black Ohioan family descended from their founder's slaves. A picture of the hidden costs of cultivating enduring privilege, Morgan's novel offers a calculus of ancestral sins, a deep history of inequality, and, like so many interracial family novels in American literature, the faint prospect of national reconciliation. Its refrain is, tellingly, "How far away from your father can you run?" Novels like Morgan's draw the past into moral and emotional proximity, allowing readers entry to vast historical schema while borrowing their propulsion - the "illusion of historical flow" that Irving Howe called "a secret of genius"- from the family plot. More and more, they also expose the genre's disavowals and patriarchal dirty secrets, vindicating erased maternal contributions and buried collateral lines. But genealogy isn't everything. In many ways, the family saga runs a blinkered race, eyes locked on the straightaway between the present and its most obvious progenitors - those who managed, despite every obstacle or with the assistance of every unjust privilege, to reproduce. We are interested, to put it otherwise, in people who became "our" ancestors. What about those who didn't? PUBLISHED IN 2015 by New Directions, John Keene's quietly acclaimed but undersung "Counternarratives" surveys the vast tracts of uncharted territory beyond the family-novel paradigm. Chronologically arranged but narratively discrete, Keene's collection of 13 stories and novellas examines lives marked by the tectonic historical pressures of its five-century scope. Jumping from Reformation-era Brazil to Puritan New England to Langston Hughes's Harlem, it is that rare book of short fiction with an epic intuition of time, accomplishing in a handful of inspired, intimate portraits what many sagas only manage in reams. Some of Keene's characters are documented if obscure figures like the Prussian circus performer Miss La La, or "La Mulâtresse-Canon," whom Degas immortalized hanging from a rope by her teeth. Others are plausibly invented, like Zion, an 18th-century Massachusetts bondsman who disappears from his cell - after a debauched career across the Commonwealth - on the eve of his execution. All exist on history's fringes, not forefathers or foremothers but frustrated artists, defeated revolutionaries, monks, nuns, eccentric balloonists and social deviants. Same-sex relationships and their erotic undercurrents are a central focus. But even the stories without explicitly homosexual narratives "queer" history, in Keene's words, raising unwritten possibilities from the past's dormant margins. The book opens with "Mannahatta," a vignette evoking the 1613 landfall of Juan Rodriguez, a black Dominican sailor and Manhattan's first immigrant. Disembarking alone from his canoe, Rodriguez finds himself so entranced by the landscape and Algonquian language that he resolves to desert the crew of the Jonge Tobias - "shielding this place and its particularities from their imaginations" - to join the Indians. A counterspell to the arrival of that lost génocidaire Columbus, the moment is within history but not of it, an overture suggesting alternative chronologies. Other stories mourn disfigured potential. "Cold" dissects the final hours of Robert Allen Cole, a turn-of-thecentury vaudevillian, ragtime composer and tragic pioneer of African-American theater. Carving a Faustian niche for black musicians in a deeply racist genre, Cole is most famous today for "Under the Bamboo Tree." He also co-wrote more than 150 "coon songs" and introduced the first New York musical conceived, directed and performed by black entertainers. Unlike his more famous collaborators, John Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson - the brothers wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing"; James Weldon Johnson was executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. from 1920 to 1930 - Cole did not survive the coliseum of commercial disenfranchisement and requisite self-denigration that encircled black artists of his era. He killed himself in 1911 while recovering from a mental breakdown at a hotel in the Catskills. Cole's is a story few writers would think to tell. Remembered now, if at all, as a footnote or an embarrassment, he is neither an overlooked hero to rescue from erasure nor a tragic martyr like the quixotic John Brown of James McBride's "The Good Lord Bird," the defeated Béhanzin of Mary¿e Condé's "The Last of the African Kings" or the filicidal Sethe of Toni Morrison's "Beloved." Undaunted, Keene finds Cole sweating through his lavender linen suit, tormented by "devil's arias" on his dying day. Lyrics from his "coon songs" interrupt the text, while a tantalizing blues - "undreamt, unsummoned ... terrible samplings of the old and the unfamiliar" - drifts beyond his reach. This description could double as an epitome of "Counternarratives" itself. Keene has a Borgesian flair for invented primary texts and pseudoscholarly ephemera. "Rivers," a postscript to "Huckleberry Finn" narrated by Jim (now a Union army veteran), begins as an interview in the style of the W.RA.'s Depression-era oral histories. "Blues," which imagines an affair between Langston Hughes and his Spanish translator, the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, is a fantasy spun from the slenderest evidence: the latter's dedication of an erotic poem to Hughes and the knowledge that their time in New York and Mexico City overlapped. Disguised as marginalia, these stories are hard to imagine fitting into any novel. Larger narratives would only destroy that apartness from the chain of events which gives them escape velocity. HAUNTED BY ORIGINAL SIN and nourished by dreams of upward mobility, family sagas rarely extricate themselves from a sense of inevitability. They are about how the world came to be as it is, and even when they include characters outside the rubric of struggle and reproduction, it is usually a way to ruminate on their own boundaries. Toni Morrison coined the phrase "black surrogacy" to describe how blackness in classic American literature marked the limits of rational experience. Family novels often position queerness similarly, using it as a counterpoint or rebuke to the patriarchal dynamics driving the plot. "No one knows my name - or my history!" boasts Reuben Bedford Walker III, the jockey who rides the Forges' prize filly in "The Sport of Kings." Clearly marked as queer, he mocks both the aristocratic pretensions of his employers and another black character's self-consciously stereotyped family debilities. "I piss on family and order," Walker declares. "No mother made me, I bore my own damn self." Quey, the son of a Fante woman and a British slave trader in the 18th-century Ghana of "Homegoing," encounters an alternative to the novel's fateful trans-Atlantic course in his attraction to Cudjo, a childhood friend and wrestling companion. Both a tragic mulatto and tragically queer, Quey briefly considers an invitation to visit Cudjo's village - even fantasizes about living in his compound like a wife - but ultimately capitulates to the white, patriarchal role his father has marked for him: slaver. The novel's subsequent generations process in this betrayal's wake, as though if only Quey had spurned his father's dirty work for Cudjo's wrestler's arms, some quantum of the diaspora's tragedy might have been averted. In "Counternarratives," queerness is not a wrinkle in generational time, but a subject - and lens - in its own right. Glimpsed from the peripheries of gender and sexuality, history confesses concealed depths and old stories reveal unsuspected trajectories. The novella "A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon" begins deceptively as a story of "civilization" in distress, adopting the portentous register of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." A Jesuit priest, Joaquim D'Azevedo, arrives to lead a failing monastery in Alagoas, on the frontier of Portuguese Brazil. His predecessors have either died or disappeared, and Catholicism's influence is threatened by the monks' slackening morals, imminent Dutch invasion and an ineffable malevolence that seems to revolve around one of the monastery's eight African slaves: Joäo Baptista, caught one night in women's clothing trying to burn the compound down. The ensuing confrontation ends with the slave liberating his master. Baptista - who is really Burunbana the "Jinbada," a bigender seer sexually involved with many of the men at the monastery - discovers that D'Azevedo is a Jewish converso, secretly adherent to his old faith, and endangered if he remains at Alagoas. He spirits the Jewish Jesuit to a hidden settlement - possibly Palmares, a city founded by runaway slaves that before its 1695 destruction counted more than 10,000 inhabitants - and from there to Dutch territory, where he is free to practice his ancestral faith. Burunbana's clairvoyance echoes the slant reappraisal of the past in "Counternarratives," one that proceeds not along the vector of generations - each a kernel containing the next - but the strange byways of identities in flux. Catholics become Jews, Portuguese captaincies are subsumed by Dutch colonies or supplanted by armed fugitive settlements and purported apostles of white Christian civilization are rescued by queer representatives of African spirituality. History is restored to miraculous contingency, no longer fraught with the present. THERE IS MUCH TO BE SAID for heredity's tethers, and for the writers who unravel them. But art has other ways to humanize time's passage, forms emphasizing lines of continuity and species of kinship that family sagas - still the dominant genre for putting history's course on an individual scale - largely ignore. Keene echoes writers like the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, whose three-volume "Memory of Fire" chronicles the Americas in a monumental collage of myths, crimes, encounters and skirmishes in a long anticolonial struggle. Or Patrick Chamoiseau, whose novel "Texaco" recounts Martinique's history as remembered by the insurgent residents of a shantytown menaced by city planners. Among contemporary American writers, the poets Layli Long Soldier, Robin Coste Lewis and Susan Howe stand out as fellow travelers, ventriloquists of the archive who wring new voices from settled texts. Their liberating attention to the interstitial and unwritten contrasts with the family saga's sentimental attachment to endurance, what the scholar Lauren Beriant describes as a "confusion between survival and freedom." Entranced by the ancestor who crossed on the Mayflower, escaped from the plantation or started anew in a hostile foreign city, we too often limit our retrospective gaze to those predecessors who made provisions for a future we recognize in our own present. We deprive ourselves of people whose visions were never realized, who left no obvious legacy. More people have lived on earth than the tendentious nets of genealogy - inevitably tangled in the chronologies of faith, race, nation - can catch, and we are connected to them by threads more subtle, and resonances more profound, than have yet been explored. Imagining those lives, deeply and without the prejudice that they must be prologue to our world, can be both radical and beautiful. We Eire interested in people who became 'our' ancestors. What about those who didn't?

  Publishers Weekly Review

Set in post-Civil War Ohio, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel concerns a runaway slave and her daughter, whose lives are disrupted by a former slave, a spirit and a woman named Beloved. According to PW, this ``brilliantly conceived story . . . should not be missed.'' (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Summary
Nominated as one of America's best-loved novels by PBS's The Great American Read <br> <br> Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.
Table of Contents
I124 Was Spiteful.
Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny band prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.
Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys. Her past had been like her present--intolerable--and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
"Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don't."
And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life's principal joy was reckless indeed. So Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted, for her. Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light.
Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, and right afterward Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, "Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on."
The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.
"Grandma Baby must be stopping it," said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.
Sethe opened her eyes. "I doubt that," she said.
"Then why don't it come?"
"You forgetting how little it is," said her mother. "She wasn't even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even."
"Maybe she don't want to understand," said Denver.
"Maybe. But if she'd only come, I could make it clear to her." Sethe released her daughter's hand and together they pushed the sideboard back against the wall. Outside a driver whipped his horse into the gallop local people felt necessary when they passed 124.
"For a baby she throws a powerful spell," said Denver.
"No more powerful than the way I loved her," Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I'll do it for free.
Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten "Dearly" too? She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possible--that for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby's headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new. That should certainly be enough. Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust.
Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil.
"We could move," she suggested once to her mother-in-law.
"What'd be the point?" asked Baby Suggs. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don't talk to me. You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don't you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody's house into evil." Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows. "My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember."
"That's all you let yourself remember," Sethe had told her, but she was down to one herself--one alive, that is--the boys chased off by the dead one, and her memory of Buglar was fading fast. Howard at least had a head shape nobody could forget. As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field, running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind. The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard. Nor was there the faintest scent of ink or the cherry gum and oak bark from which it was made. Nothing. Just the breeze cooling her face as she rushed toward water. And then sopping the chamomile away with pump water and rags, her mind fixed on getting every last bit of sap off--on her carelessness in taking a shortcut across the field just to save a half mile, and not noticing how high the weeds had grown until the itching was all the way to her knees. Then something. The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her--remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.
When the last of the chamomile was gone, she went around to the front of the house, collecting her shoes and stockings on the way. As if to punish her further for her terrible memory, sitting on the porch not forty feet away was Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?"
"What's left." He stood up and smiled. "How you been, girl, besides barefoot?"
When she laughed it came out loose and young. "Messed up my legs back yonder. Chamomile."
He made a face as though tasting a teaspoon of something bitter. "I don't want to even hear 'bout it. Always did hate that stuff."
Sethe balled up her stockings and jammed them into her pocket. "Come on in."
"Porch is fine, Sethe. Cool out here." He sat back down and looked at the meadow on the other side of the road, knowing the eagerness he felt would be in his eyes.
"Eighteen years," she said softly.
"Eighteen," he repeated. "And I swear I been walking every one of em. Mind if I join you?" He nodded toward her feet and began unlacing his shoes.
"You want to soak them? Let me get you a basin of water." She moved closer to him to enter the house.
"No, uh uh. Can't baby feet. A whole lot more tramping they got to do yet."
"You can't leave right away, Paul D. You got to stay awhile."
"Well, long enough to see Baby Suggs, anyway. Where is she?"
''Dead.''
"Aw no. When?"
"Eight years now. Almost nine."
"Was it hard? I hope she didn't die hard."
Sethe shook her head. "Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part. Sorry you missed her though. Is that what you came by for?"
"That's some of what I came for. The rest is you. But if all the truth be known, I go anywhere these days. Anywhere they let me sit down."
"You looking good."
"Devil's confusion. He lets me look good long as I feel bad." He looked at her and the word "bad" took on another meaning.
Sethe smiled. This is the way they were--had been. All of the Sweet Home men, before and after Halle, treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.
Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed. For a man with an immobile face it was amazing how ready it was to smile, or blaze or be sorry with you. As though all you had to do was get his attention and right away he produced the feeling you were feeling. With less than a blink, his face seemed to change--underneath it lay the activity.
"I wouldn't have to ask about him, would I? You'd tell me if there was anything to tell, wouldn't you?" Sethe looked down at her feet and saw again the sycamores.
"I'd tell you. Sure I'd tell you. I don't know any more now than I did then." Except for the churn, he thought, and you don't need to know that. "You must think he's still alive."
"No. I think he's dead. It's not being sure that keeps him alive."
"What did Baby Suggs think?"
"Same, but to listen to her, all her children is dead. Claimed she felt each one go the very day and hour."
"When she say Halle went?"
"Eighteen fifty-five. The day my baby was born."
"You had that baby, did you? Never thought you'd make it." He chuckled. "Running off pregnant."
"Had to. Couldn't be no waiting." She lowered her head and thought, as he did, how unlikely it was that she had made it. And if it hadn't been for that girl looking for velvet, she never would have.
"All by yourself too." He was proud of her and annoyed by her. Proud she had done it; annoyed that she had not needed Halle or him in the doing.
"Almost by myself. Not all by myself. A whitegirl helped me."
"Then she helped herself too, God bless her."
"You could stay the night, Paul D."
"You don't sound too steady in the offer."
Sethe glanced beyond his shoulder toward the closed door. "Oh it's truly meant. I just hope you'll pardon my house. Come on in. Talk to Denver while I cook you something."
Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood.
"You got company?" he whispered, frowning.
"Off and on," said Sethe.
"Good God." He backed out the door onto the porch. "What kind of evil you got in here?"
"It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through."
He looked at her then, closely. Closer than he had when she first rounded the house on wet and shining legs, holding her shoes and stockings up in one hand, her skirts in the other. Halle's girl--the one with iron eyes and backbone to match. He had never seen her hair in Kentucky. And though her face was eighteen years older than when last he saw her, it was softer now. Because of the hair. A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes. Halle's woman. Pregnant every year including the year she sat by the fire telling him she was going to run. Her three children she had already packed into a wagonload of others in a caravan of Negroes crossing the river. They were to be left with Halle's mother near Cincinnati. Even in that tiny shack, leaning so close to the fire you could smell the heat in her dress, her eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held. So he looked instead at the fire while she told him, because her husband was not there for the telling. Mr. Garner was dead and his wife had a lump in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone. She leaned as close to the fire as her pregnant belly allowed and told him, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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