Toni Morrison Sula
First published in 1973
It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you. This book is for Ford and Slade, whom I miss although they have not left me.
“Nobody knew my rose of the world but me… I had too much glory. They don’t want glory like that in nobody’s heart.”
–The Rose Tattoo
In the fifties, when I was a student, the embarrassment of being called a politically minded writer was so acute, the fear of critical derision for channeling one’s creativity toward the state of social affairs so profound, it made me wonder: Why the panic? The flight from any accusation of revealing an awareness of the political world in one’s fiction turned my attention to the source of the panic and the means by which writers sought to ease it. What could be so bad about being socially astute, politically aware in literature? Conventional wisdom agrees that political fiction is not art; that such work is less likely to have aesthetic value because politics–all politics–is agenda and therefore its presence taints aesthetic production. That wisdom,
which seems to have been unavailable to Chaucer, or Dante, or Catullus, or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or Dickens, is still with us, and, in 1969 it placed an inordinate burden on African American writers. Whether they were wholly uninterested in politics of any sort, or whether they were politically inclined, aware, or aggressive, the fact of their race or the race of their characters doomed them to a “political-only” analysis of their worth. If Phillis Wheatley wrote “The sky is blue,” the critical question was what could blue sky mean to a black slave woman? If Jean Toomer wrote “The iron is hot,” the question was how accurately or poorly he expressed chains of servitude. This burden rested not only on the critics, but also on the reader. How does a reader of any race situate herself or himself in order to approach the world of a black writer? Won’t there always be apprehension about what may be revealed, exposed about the reader? In 1970, when I began writing _Sula,__ I had already had the depressing experience of reading commentary on my first novel, _The Bluest Eye,__ by both black and white reviewers that–with two exceptions–had little merit since the evaluation ignored precisely the “aesthetics only” criteria it championed. If the novel was good, it was because it was faithful to a certain kind of politics; if it was bad, it was because it was faithless to them. The judgment was based on whether “Black people are–or are not–like this.” This time out, I returned the compliment and ignored the shallowness of such views and, again, rooted the narrative in a landscape already tainted by the fact that it existed. Only a few people would
be interested, I thought, in any wider approach–fewer than the tiny percentage of the fifteen hundred who had bought the first book. But the act of writing was too personally important for me to abandon it just because the prospects of my being taken seriously were bleak. It may be difficult now to imagine how it felt to be seen as a problem to be solved rather than a writer to be read. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston–all had been called upon to write an essay addressing the “problem” of being a “Negro” writer. In that no-win situation- -inauthentic, even irresponsible, to those looking for a politically representative canvas; marginalized by those assessing value by how “moral” the characters were–my only option was fidelity to my own sensibility. Further exploration of my own interests, questions, challenges. And since my sensibility was highly political _and__ passionately aesthetic, it would unapologetically inform the work I did. I refused to explain, or even acknowledge, the “problem” as anything other than an artistic one. Other questions mattered more. What is friendship between women when unmediated by men? What choices are available to black women outside their own society’s approval? What are the risks of individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet racially uniform and socially static, community? Female freedom always means sexual freedom, even when-especially when–it is seen through the prism of economic freedom. The sexual freedom of Hannah Peach was my entrance into the story, constructed from shreds of memory about the way local women regarded a
certain kind of female–envy coupled with amused approbation. Against her fairly modest claims to personal liberty are placed conventional and anarchic ones: Eva’s physical sacrifice for economic freedom; Nel’s accommodation to the protection marriage promises; Sula’s resistance to either sacrifice or accommodation. Hannah’s claims are acceptable in her neighborhood because they are nonfinancial and nonthreatening; she does not disturb or deplete family resources. Because her dependence is on another woman, Eva, who has both money and authority, she is not competitive. But Sula, although she does nothing so horrendous as what Eva does, is seen by the townspeople as not just competitive, but devouring, evil. Nel, with the most minimal demands, is seen as the muted standard. Hannah, Nel, Eva, Sula were points of a cross–each one a choice for characters bound by gender and race. The nexus of that cross would be a merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to reach, a battle among women who are understood to be least able to win it. Wrapped around the arms of that cross were wires of other kinds of battles–the veteran, the orphans, the husband, the laborers, confined to a village by the same forces that mandated the struggle. And the only possible triumph was that of the imagination. The job, of course, was summoning those perceptions in language that could express them. _Sula__ stretched my attempts to manipulate language, to work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary. To use folk language, vernacular in a manner neither exotic nor comic,
neither minstrelized nor microscopically analyzed. I wanted to redirect, reinvent the political, cultural, and artistic judgments saved for African American writers. I was living in Queens while I wrote _Sula,__ commuting to Manhattan to an office job, leaving my children to childminders and the public school in the fall and winter, to my parents in the summer, and was so strapped for money that the condition moved from debilitating stress to hilarity. Every rent payment was an event; every shopping trip a triumph of caution over the reckless purchase of a staple. The best news was that this was the condition of every other single/separated female parent I knew. The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory–and daring. Daring especially, because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore. Use what was known and tried and investigate what was not. Write a play, form a theater company, design clothes, write fiction unencumbered by other people’s expectations. Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves. In that atmosphere of “What would you be doing or thinking if there was no gaze or hand to stop you?” I began to think about just what that kind of license would have been like for us black women forty years earlier. We were being encouraged to think of ourselves as our own salvation, to be our own best friends. What could that mean in 1969 that it had not meant in the 1920s? The image of the woman who was both envied and
cautioned against came to mind. Elsewhere (in an essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”), I have detailed my thoughts about developing the structure of _Sula.__ “Originally, _Sula__ opened with ‘Except for World War II, nothing interfered with National Suicide Day.’ With some encouragement I recognized that sentence as a false beginning.” Falseness, in this case, meant abrupt. There was no lobby, as it were, where the reader could be situated before being introduced to the goings-on of the characters. As I wrote in that essay, “The threshold between the reader and the black-topic text need not be the safe, welcoming lobby I persuaded myself [_Sula__] needed at that time. My preference was the demolition of the lobby altogether. [Of all of my books], only _Sula__ has this ‘entrance.’ The others refuse the ‘presentation,’ refuse the seductive safe harbor; the line of demarcation between… them and us. Refuse, in effect, to cater to the diminished expectations of the reader, or his or her alarm heightened by the emotional luggage one carries into the black-topic text…. [Although] the bulk of the opening I finally wrote is about the community, a view of it… the view is not from within… but from the point of view of a stranger–the ‘valley man’ who might happen to be there and to and for whom all this is mightily strange, even exotic…. [In] my new first sentence I am introducing an outside-the-circle reader into the circle. I am translating the anonymous into the specific, a ‘place’ into a ‘neighborhood’ and letting a stranger in, through whose eyes it can be viewed.” This deference, paid to the “white” gaze, was the one time I
addressed the “problem.” Had I begun with Shadrack, as originally planned, I would have ignored the gentle welcome and put the reader into immediate confrontation with his wounded mind. It would have called greater attention to the traumatic displacement this most wasteful capitalist war had on black people, and thrown into relief their desperate and desperately creative strategies of survival. In the revised opening I tried to represent discriminatory, prosecutorial racial oppression as well as the community’s efforts to remain stable and healthy: the neighborhood has been almost completely swept away by commercial interests (a golf course), but the remains of what sustained it (music, dancing, craft, religion, irony, wit) are what the “valley man,” the stranger, sees–or could have seen. It is a more inviting embrace than Shadrack’s organized public madness–it helps to unify the neighborhood until Sula’s anarchy challenges it. Outlaw women are fascinating–not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men. In much literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster. In _Sula__ I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on not only a conventional black society, but on female friendship. In 1969, in Queens, snatching liberty seemed compelling. Some of us thrived; some of us died. All of us had a taste.
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it. There will be nothing left of the Bottom (the footbridge that crossed the river is already gone), but perhaps it is just as well, since it wasn’t a town anyway: just a neighborhood where on quiet days people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes, banjos sometimes, and, if a valley man happened to have business up in those hills–collecting rent or insurance payments–he might see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of
“messing around” to the lively notes of a mouth organ. Her bare feet would raise the saffron dust that floated down on the coveralls and bunion-split shoes of the man breathing music in and out of his harmonica. The black people watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew’s curve. He’d have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew’s and let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight years) and let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin. Otherwise the pain would escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain. A shucking, knee-slapping, wet-eyed laughter that could even describe and explain how they came to be where they were. A joke. A nigger joke. That was the way it got started. Not the town, of course, but that part of town where the Negroes lived, the part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills. Just a nigger joke. The kind white folks tell when the mill closes down and they’re looking for a little comfort somewhere. The kind colored folks tell on themselves when the rain doesn’t come, or comes for weeks, and they’re looking for a little comfort somehow. A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his
end of the bargain. Freedom was easy–the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.” “But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave. “High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven–best land there is.” So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter. Which accounted for the fact that white people lived on the rich valley floor in that little river town in Ohio, and the blacks populated the hills above it, taking small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks. Still, it was lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the farm land turned into a village and the village into a town and the streets of Medallion were hot and dusty with progress, those heavy trees that sheltered the shacks up in the Bottom were wonderful to see. And the hunters who went there sometimes wondered in private if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven. The black people would have disagreed, but they had no time to think about it. They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things–and each other, wondering
even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all about, tucked up there in the Bottom.
Except for World War II, nothing ever interfered with the celebration of National Suicide Day. It had taken place every January third since 1920, although Shadrack, its founder, was for many years the only celebrant. Blasted and permanently astonished by the events of 1917, he had returned to Medallion handsome but ravaged, and even the most fastidious people in the town sometimes caught themselves dreaming of what he must have been like a few years back before he went off to war. A young man of hardly twenty, his head full of nothing and his mouth recalling the taste of lipstick, Shadrack had found himself in December, 1917, running with his comrades across a field in France. It was his first encounter with the enemy and he didn’t know whether his company was running toward them or away. For several days they had been marching, keeping close to a stream that was frozen at its edges. At one point they crossed it, and no sooner had he stepped foot on the other side than the day was adangle with shouts and explosions. Shellfire was all around him, and though he knew that this was something called _it,__ he could not muster up the proper feeling–the feeling that would accommodate _it.__ He expected to be terrified or
exhilarated–to feel _something__ very strong. In fact, he felt only the bite of a nail in his boot, which pierced the ball of his foot whenever he came down on it. The day was cold enough to make his breath visible, and he wondered for a moment at the purity and whiteness of his own breath among the dirty, gray explosions surrounding him. He ran, bayonet fixed, deep in the great sweep of men flying across this field. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned his head a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly off. Before he could register shock, the rest of the soldier’s head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet. But stubbornly, taking no direction from the brain, the body of the headless soldier ran on, with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back. When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles–a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were–would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones–he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful–
anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledypiggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse. “Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?” Shadrack looked up at a balding man dressed in a greencotton jacket and trousers. His hair was parted low on the right side so that some twenty or thirty yellow hairs could discreetly cover the nakedness of his head. “Come on. Pick up that spoon. Pick it up, Private. Nobody is going to feed you forever.” Sweat slid from Shadrack’s armpits down his sides. He could not bear to see his hands grow again and he was frightened of the voice in the apple-green suit. “Pick it up, I said. There’s no point to this… ” The nurse reached under the cover for Shadrack’s wrist to pull out the monstrous hand. Shadrack jerked it back and overturned the tray. In panic he raised himself to his knees and tried to fling off and away his terrible fingers, but succeeded only in knocking the nurse into the next bed. When they bound Shadrack into a straitjacket, he was both relieved and grateful, for his hands were at last hidden and confined to whatever size they had attained. Laced and silent in his
small bed, he tried to tie the loose cords in his mind. He wanted desperately to see his own face and connect it with the word “private”–the word the nurse (and the others who helped bind him) had called him. “Private” he thought was something secret, and he wondered why they looked at him and called him a secret. Still, if his hands behaved as they had done, what might he expect from his face? The fear and longing were too much for him, so he began to think of other things. That is, he let his mind slip into whatever cave mouths of memory it chose. He saw a window that looked out on a river which he knew was full of fish. Someone was speaking softly just outside the door… Shadrack’s earlier violence had coincided with a memorandum from the hospital executive staff in reference to the distribution of patients in high-risk areas. There was clearly a demand for space. The priority or the violence earned Shadrack his release, $217 in cash, a full suit of clothes and copies of very official-looking papers. When he stepped out of the hospital door the grounds overwhelmed him: the cropped shrubbery, the edged lawns, the undeviating walks. Shadrack looked at the cement stretches: each one leading clearheadedly to some presumably desirable destination. There were no fences, no warnings, no obstacles at all between concrete and green grass, so one could easily ignore the tidy sweep of stone and cut out in another direction–a direction of one’s own. Shadrack stood at the foot of the hospital steps watching the heads of trees tossing ruefully but harmlessly, since their trunks were rooted too deeply in the earth to threaten him. Only the
walks made him uneasy. He shifted his weight, wondering how he could get to the gate without stepping on the concrete. While plotting his course-where he would have to leap, where to skirt a clump of bushes–a loud guffaw startled him. Two men were going up the steps. Then he noticed that there were many people about, and that he was just now seeing them, or else they had just materialized. They were thin slips, like paper dolls floating down the walks. Some were seated in chairs with wheels, propelled by other paper figures from behind. All seemed to be smoking, and their arms and legs curved in the breeze. A good high wind would pull them up and away and they would land perhaps among the tops of the trees. Shadrack took the plunge. Four steps and he was on the grass heading for the gate. He kept his head down to avoid seeing the paper people swerving and bending here and there, and he lost his way. When he looked up, he was standing by a low red building separated from the main building by a covered walkway. From somewhere came a sweetish smell which reminded him of something painful. He looked around for the gate and saw that he had gone directly away from it in his complicated journey over the grass. Just to the left of the low building was a graveled driveway that appeared to lead outside the grounds. He trotted quickly to it and left, at last, a haven of more than a year, only eight days of which he fully recollected. Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak–too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for
breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man. The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart–a pretty, quietly regulated downtown. Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was… with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do… he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door… Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then
rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes. By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided. Like moonlight stealing under a window shade an idea insinuated itself: his earlier desire to see his own face. He looked for a mirror; there was none. Finally, keeping his hands carefully behind his back he made his way to the toilet bowl and peeped in. The water was unevenly lit by the sun so he could make nothing out. Returning to his cot he took the blanket and covered his head, rendering the water dark enough to see his reflection. There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real–that he didn’t exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the
first sleep of his new life. A sleep deeper than the hospital drugs; deeper than the pits of plums, steadier than the condor’s wing; more tranquil than the curve of eggs. The sheriff looked through the bars at the young man with the matted hair. He had read through his prisoner’s papers and hailed a farmer. When Shadrack awoke, the sheriff handed him back his papers and escorted him to the back of a wagon. Shadrack got in and in less than three hours he was back in Medallion, for he had been only twenty-two miles from his window, his river, and his soft voices just outside the door. In the back of the wagon, supported by sacks of squash and hills of pumpkins, Shadrack began a struggle that was to last for twelve days, a struggle to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day. On the third day of the new year, he walked through the Bottom down Carpenter’s Road with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope calling the people together. Telling them that this was their only chance to kill themselves or each other. At first the people in the town were frightened; they knew Shadrack was crazy but that did not mean that he didn’t have any sense or, even more important, that he had no power. His eyes were so wild, his hair so long and matted, his voice
was so full of authority and thunder that he caused panic on the first, or Charter, National Suicide Day in 1920. The next one, in 1921, was less frightening but still worrisome. The people had seen him a year now in between. He lived in a shack on the riverbank that had once belonged to his grandfather long time dead. On Tuesday and Friday he sold the fish he had caught that morning, the rest of the week he was drunk, loud, obscene, funny and outrageous. But he never touched anybody, never fought, never caressed. Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things. Then, on subsequent National Suicide Days, the grown people looked out from behind curtains as he rang his bell; a few stragglers increased their speed, and little children screamed and ran. The tetter heads tried goading him (although he was only four or five years older then they) but not for long, for his curses were stingingly personal. As time went along, the people took less notice of these January thirds, or rather they thought they did, thought they had no attitudes or feelings one way or another about Shadrack’s annual solitary parade. In fact they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives. Someone said to a friend, “You sure was a long time delivering that baby. How long was you in labor?” And the friend answered, “‘Bout three days. The pains started on Suicide Day and kept up till the following Sunday. Was borned on Sunday. All my boys is Sunday boys.” Some lover said to his bride-to-be, “Let’s do it after
New Years, ‘stead of before. I get paid New Year’s Eve.” And his sweetheart answered, “OK, but make sure it ain’t on Suicide Day. I ain’t ’bout to be listening to no cowbells whilst the weddin’s going on.” Somebody’s grandmother said her hens always started a laying of double yolks right after Suicide Day. Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack’s call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death. “May’s well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of redemption.” Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.
It had to be as far away from the Sundown House as possible. And her grandmother’s middle-aged nephew who lived in a Northern town called Medallion was the one chance she had to make sure it would be. The red shutters had haunted both Helene Sabat and her grandmother for sixteen years. Helene was born behind those shutters, daughter of a Creole whore who worked there. The grandmother took Helene away from the soft lights and flowered carpets of the Sundown House and raised her under the dolesome eyes of a multicolored Virgin Mary, counseling her to be constantly on guard for any sign of her mother’s wild blood. So when Wiley Wright came to visit his Great Aunt Cecile in New Orleans, his enchantment with the pretty Helene became a marriage proposal–under the
pressure of both women. He was a seaman (or rather a lakeman, for he was a ship’s cook on one of the Great Lakes lines), in port only three days out of every sixteen. He took his bride to his home in Medallion and put her in a lovely house with a brick porch and real lace curtains at the window. His long absences were quite bearable for Helene Wright, especially when, after some nine years of marriage, her daughter was born. Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life. She rose grandly to the occasion of motherhood–grateful, deep down in her heart, that the child had not inherited the great beauty that was hers: that her skin had dusk in it, that her lashes were substantial but not undignified in their length, that she had taken the broad flat nose of Wiley (although Helene expected to improve it somewhat) and his generous lips. Under Helene’s hand the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground. Helene Wright was an impressive woman, at least in Medallion she was. Heavy hair in a bun, dark eyes arched in a perpetual query about other people’s manners. A woman who won all social battles with presence and a conviction of the legitimacy of her authority. Since there was no Catholic church in Medallion then, she joined the most conservative black church. And held sway. It was Helene who never turned her head in church when latecomers arrived; Helene who established the practice of seasonal altar flowers; Helene who introduced the giving of banquets of welcome to
returning Negro veterans. She lost only one battle–the pronunciation of her name. The people in the Bottom refused to say Helene. They called her Helen Wright and left it at that. All in all her life was a satisfactory one. She loved her house and enjoyed manipulating her daughter and her husband. She would sigh sometimes just before falling asleep, thinking that she had indeed come far enough away from the Sundown House. So it was with extremely mixed emotions that she read a letter from Mr. Henri Martin describing the illness of her grandmother, and suggesting she come down right away. She didn’t want to go, but could not bring herself to ignore the silent plea of the woman who had rescued her. It was November. November, 1920. Even in Medallion there was a victorious swagger in the legs of white men and a dull-eyed excitement in the eyes of colored veterans. Helene thought about the trip South with heavy misgiving but decided that she had the best protection: her manner and her bearing, to which she would add a beautiful dress. She bought some deep-brown wool and threefourths of a yard of matching velvet. Out of this she made herself a heavy but elegant dress with velvet collar and pockets. Nel watched her mother cutting the pattern from newspapers and moving her eyes rapidly from a magazine model to her own hands. She watched her turn up the kerosene lamp at sunset to sew far into the night. The day they were ready, Helene cooked a smoked ham, left a note for her lake-bound husband, in case he docked early, and walked head high and arms stiff with luggage ahead of her daughter to the train depot. It was a longer
walk than she remembered, and they saw the train steaming up just as they turned the corner. They ran along the track looking for the coach pointed out to them by the colored porter. Even at that they made a mistake. Helene and her daughter entered a coach peopled by some twenty white men and women. Rather than go back and down the three wooden steps again, Helene decided to spare herself some embarrassment and walk on through to the colored car. She carried two pieces of luggage and a string purse; her daughter carried a covered basket of food. As they opened the door marked COLORED ONLY, they saw a white conductor coming toward them. It was a chilly day but a light skim of sweat glistened on the woman’s face as she and the little girl struggled to hold the door open, hang on to their luggage and enter all at once. The conductor let his eyes travel over the pale yellow woman and then stuck his little finger into his ear, jiggling it free of wax. “What you think you doin’, gal?” Helene looked up at him. So soon. So soon. She hadn’t even begun the trip back. Back to her grandmother’s house in the city where the red shutters glowed, and already she had been called “gal.” All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach and made her hands tremble. She had heard only that one word; it dangled above her wide- brimmed hat, which had slipped, in her exertion, from its carefully leveled placement and was now tilted in a bit of a jaunt over her eye. Thinking he wanted her tickets, she quickly dropped both the cowhide suitcase and the straw one in order to search for them in her purse. An eagerness
to please and an apology for living met in her voice. “I have them. Right here somewhere, sir… ” The conductor looked at the bit of wax his fingernail had retrieved. “What was you doin’ back in there? What was you doin’ in that coach yonder?” Helene licked her lips. “Oh… I… ” Her glance moved beyond the white man’s face to the passengers seated behind him. Four or five black faces were watching, two belonging to soldiers still in their shit-colored uniforms and peaked caps. She saw their closed faces, their locked eyes, and turned for compassion to the gray eyes of the conductor. “We made a mistake, sir. You see, there wasn’t no sign. We just got in the wrong car, that’s all. Sir.” “We don’t ‘low no mistakes on this train. Now git your butt on in there.” He stood there staring at her until she realized that he wanted her to move aside. Pulling Nel by the arm, she pressed herself and her daughter into the foot space in front of a wooden seat. Then, for no earthly reason, at least no reason that anybody could understand, certainly no reason that Nel understood then or later, she smiled. Like a street pup that wags its tail at the very doorjamb of the butcher shop he has been kicked away from only moments before, Helene smiled. Smiled dazzlingly and coquettishly at the salmon-colored face of the conductor. Nel looked away from the flash of pretty teeth to the other passengers. The two black soldiers, who had been watching the scene with what appeared to be indifference, now looked stricken. Behind Nel was the bright and blazing light of her mother’s smile; before her the midnight eyes of the soldiers. She saw the muscles of their faces tighten, a movement under
the skin from blood to marble. No change in the expression of the eyes, but a hard wetness that veiled them as they looked at the stretch of her mother’s foolish smile. As the door slammed on the conductor’s exit, Helene walked down the aisle to a seat. She looked about for a second to see whether any of the men would help her put the suitcases in the overhead rack. Not a man moved. Helene sat down, fussily, her back toward the men. Nel sat opposite, facing both her mother and the soldiers, neither of whom she could look at. She felt both pleased and ashamed to sense that these men, unlike her father, who worshiped his graceful, beautiful wife, were bubbling with a hatred for her mother that had not been there in the beginning but had been born with the dazzling smile. In the silence that preceded the train’s heave, she looked deeply at the folds of her mother’s dress. There in the fall of the heavy brown wool she held her eyes. She could not risk letting them travel upward for fear of seeing that the hooks and eyes in the placket of the dress had come undone and exposed the custard-colored skin underneath. She stared at the hem, wanting to believe in its weight but knowing that custard was all that it hid. If this tall, proud woman, this woman who was very particular about her friends, who slipped into church with unequaled elegance, who could quell a roustabout with a look, if _she__ were really custard, then there was a chance that Nel was too. It was on that train, shuffling toward Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard–always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or
marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly. For two days they rode; two days of watching sleet turn to rain, turn to purple sunsets, and one night knotted on the wooden seats (their heads on folded coats), trying not to hear the snoring soldiers. When they changed trains in Birmingham for the last leg of the trip, they discovered what luxury they had been in through Kentucky and Tennessee, where the rest stops had all had colored toilets. After Birmingham there were none. Helene’s face was drawn with the need to relieve herself, and so intense was her distress she finally brought herself to speak about her problem to a black woman with four children who had got on in Tuscaloosa. “Is there somewhere we can go to use the restroom?” The woman looked up at her and seemed not to understand. “Ma’am?” Her eyes fastened on the thick velvet collar, the fair skin, the high-tone voice. “The restroom,” Helene repeated. Then, in a whisper, “The toilet.” The woman pointed out the window and said, “Yes, ma’am. Yonder.” Helene looked out of the window halfway expecting to see a comfort station in the distance; instead she saw graygreen trees leaning over tangled grass. “Where?” “Yonder,” the woman said. “Meridian. We be pullin’ in direc’lin.” Then she smiled sympathetically and asked, “Kin you make it?” Helene nodded and went back to her seat trying to think of other things–for the surest way to have an accident would be to remember her full bladder. At Meridian the women got out with their children. While Helene looked about the tiny stationhouse for a door that said COLORED WOMEN, the other woman stalked off to a
field of high grass on the far side of the track. Some white men were leaning on the railing in front of the stationhouse. It was not only their tongues curling around toothpicks that kept Helene from asking information of them. She looked around for the other woman and, seeing just the top of her head rag in the grass, slowly realized where “yonder” was. All of them, the fat woman and her four children, three boys and a girl, Helene and her daughter, squatted there in the four o’clock Meridian sun. They did it again in Ellisville, again in Hattiesburg, and by the time they reached Slidell, not too far from Lake Pontchartrain, Helene could not only fold leaves as well as the fat woman, she never felt a stir as she passed the muddy eyes of the men who stood like wrecked Dorics under the station roofs of those towns. The lift in spirit that such an accomplishment produced in her quickly disappeared when the train finally pulled into New Orleans. Cecile Sabat’s house leaned between two others just like it on Elysian Fields. A Frenchified shotgun house, it sported a magnificent garden in the back and a tiny wrought-iron fence in the front. On the door hung a black crepe wreath with purple ribbon. They were too late. Helene reached up to touch the ribbon, hesitated, and knocked. A man in a collarless shirt opened the door. Helene identified herself and he said he was Henri Martin and that he was there for the settin’-up. They stepped into the house. The Virgin Mary clasped her hands in front of her neck three times in the front room and once in the bedroom where Cecile’s body lay. The old woman had died without seeing or blessing her granddaughter. No one other than Mr.
Martin seemed to be in the house, but a sweet odor as of gardenias told them that someone else had been. Blotting her lashes with a white handkerchief, Helene walked through the kitchen to the back bedroom where she had slept for sixteen years. Nel trotted along behind, enchanted with the smell, the candles and the strangeness. When Helene bent to loosen the ribbons of Nel’s hat, a woman in a yellow dress came out of the garden and onto the back porch that opened into the bedroom. The two women looked at each other. There was no recognition in the eyes of either. Then Helene said, “This is your… grandmother, Nel.” Nel looked at her mother and then quickly back at the door they had just come out of. “No. That was your great- grandmother. This is your grandmother. My… mother.” Before the child could think, her words were hanging in the gardenia air. “But she looks so young.” The woman in the canary-yellow dress laughed and said she was forty-eight, “an old forty-eight.” Then it was she who carried the gardenia smell. This tiny woman with the softness and glare of a canary. In that somber house that held four Virgin Marys, where death sighed in every corner and candles sputtered, the gardenia smell and canary-yellow dress emphasized the funeral atmosphere surrounding them. The woman smiled, glanced in the mirror and said, throwing her voice toward Helene, “That your only one?” “Yes,” said Helene. “Pretty. A lot like you.” “Yes. Well. She’s ten now.” “Ten? Vrai? Small for her age, no?” Helene shrugged and looked at her daughter’s questioning eyes. The woman in the yellow dress leaned forward. “Come. Come, chere.”
Helene interrupted. “We have to get cleaned up. We been three days on the train with no chance to wash or… ” “Comment t’appelle?” “She doesn’t talk Creole.” “Then you ask her.” “She wants to know your name, honey.” With her head pressed into her mother’s heavy brown dress, Nel told her and then asked, “What’s yours?” “Mine’s Rochelle. Well. I must be going on.” She moved closer to the mirror and stood there sweeping hair up from her neck back into its halo-like roll, and wetting with spit the ringlets that fell over her ears. “I been here, you know, most of the day. She pass on yesterday. The funeral tomorrow. Henri takin’ care.” She struck a match, blew it out and darkened her eyebrows with the burnt head. All the while Helene and Nel watched her. The one in a rage at the folded leaves she had endured, the wooden benches she had slept on, all to miss seeing her gr
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