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Title: Cane
Author: Toomer, Jean
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                                 CANE


                              Jean Toomer

                           _With a Foreword
                                  by_
                              Waldo Frank

                          _Oracular.
                          Redolent of fermenting syrup,
                          Purple of the dusk,
                          Deep-rooted cane._

               [Illustration] LIVERIGHT
                                 NEW YORK

                 COPYRIGHT © 1923 BY BONI & LIVERIGHT
                         ® 1951 BY JEAN TOOMER

                               1.987654

                   STANDARD BOOK NUMBER: 87140-535-0
           LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER: 23-12749

             MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

                         To my grandmother...



                               FOREWORD


Reading this book, I had the vision of a land, heretofore sunk in
the mists of muteness, suddenly rising up into the eminence of song.
Innumerable books have been written about the South; some good books
have been written in the South. This book _is_ the South. I do not
mean that _Cane_ covers the South or is the South’s full voice. Merely
this: a poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to
turn the essences and materials of his Southland into the essences and
materials of literature. A poet has arisen in that land who writes, not
as a Southerner, not as a rebel against Southerners, not as a Negro,
not as apologist or priest or critic: who writes as a _poet_. The
fashioning of beauty is ever foremost in his inspiration: not forcedly
but simply, and because these ultimate aspects of his world are to him
more real than all its specific problems. He has made songs and lovely
stories of his land ... not of its yesterday, but of its immediate
life. And that has been enough.

How rare this is will be clear to those who have followed with
concern the struggle of the South toward literary expression, and the
particular trial of that portion of its folk whose skin is dark. The
gifted Negro has been too often thwarted from becoming a poet because
his world was forever forcing him to recollect that he was a Negro.
The artist must lose such lesser identities in the great well of life.
The English poet is not forever protesting and recalling that he is
English. It is so natural and easy for him to be English that he can
sing as a man. The French novelist is not forever noting: “This is
French.” It is so atmospheric for him to be French, that he can devote
himself to saying: “This is human.” This is an imperative condition for
the creating of deep art. The whole will and mind of the creator must
go below the surfaces of race. And this has been an almost impossible
condition for the American Negro to achieve, forced every moment of his
life into a specific and superficial plane of consciousness.

The first negative significance of _Cane_ is that this so natural
and restrictive state of mind is completely lacking. For Toomer,
the Southland is not a problem to be solved; it is a field of
loveliness to be sung: the Georgia Negro is not a downtrodden soul
to be uplifted; he is material for gorgeous painting: the segregated
self-conscious brown belt of Washington is not a topic to be discussed
and exposed; it is a subject of beauty and of drama, worthy of creation
in literary form.

It seems to me, therefore, that this is a first book in more ways
than one. It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its
emergence from the obsession put upon its minds by the unending racial
crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape
through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, “problem” fiction, and
moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.
And, as the initial work of a man of twenty-seven, it is the harbinger
of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of
this book will be in doubt.

How typical is _Cane_ of the South’s still virgin soil and of its
pressing seeds! and the book’s chaos of verse, tale, drama, its
rhythmic rolling shift from lyrism to narrative, from mystery to
intimate pathos! But read the book through and you will see a
complex and significant form take substance from its chaos. Part One
is the primitive and evanescent black world of Georgia. Part Two is
the threshing and suffering brown world of Washington, lifted by
opportunity and contact into the anguish of self-conscious struggle.
Part Three is Georgia again ... the invasion into this black womb of
the ferment seed: the neurotic, educated, spiritually stirring Negro.
As a broad form this is superb, and the very looseness and unexpected
waves of the book’s parts make _Cane_ still more _South_, still more of
an æsthetic equivalent of the land.

What a land it is! What an Æschylean beauty to its fateful problem!
Those of you who love our South will find here some of your love. Those
of you who know it not will perhaps begin to understand what a warm
splendor is at last at dawn.

    A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
    An orgy for some genius of the South
    With bloodshot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth
    Surprised in making folk-songs....

So, in his still sometimes clumsy stride (for Toomer is finally a
poet in prose) the author gives you an inkling of his revelation. An
individual force, wise enough to drink humbly at this great spring of
his land ... such is the first impression of Jean Toomer. But beyond
this wisdom and this power (which shows itself perhaps most splendidly
in his complete freedom from the sense of persecution), there rises
a figure more significant: the artist, hard, self-immolating, the
artist who is not interested in races, whose domain is Life. The book’s
final Part is no longer “promise”; it is achievement. It is no mere
dawn: it is a bit of the full morning. These materials ... the ancient
black man, mute, inaccessible, and yet so mystically close to the new
tumultuous members of his race, the simple slave Past, the shredding
Negro Present, the iridescent passionate dream of the To-morrow ...
are made and measured by a craftsman into an unforgettable music. The
notes of his counterpoint are particular, the themes are of intimate
connection with us Americans. But the result is that abstract and
absolute thing called Art.

                                                         WALDO FRANK.


  Certain of these pieces have appeared in _Broom_, _Crisis_,
  _Double Dealer_, _Liberator_, _Little Review_, _Modern Review_,
  _Nomad_, _Prairie_, and _S 4 N_.

  To these magazines: thanks.



                               CONTENTS


                                                                    PAGE

  FOREWORD, by _Waldo Frank_                                         vii


  KARINTHA                                                             1

  REAPERS                                                              6

  NOVEMBER COTTON FLOWER                                               7

  BECKY                                                                8

  FACE                                                                14

  COTTON SONG                                                         15

  CARMA                                                               16

  SONG OF THE SON                                                     21

  GEORGIA DUSK                                                        22

  FERN                                                                24

  NULLO                                                               34

  EVENING SONG                                                        35

  ESTHER                                                              36

  CONVERSION                                                          49

  PORTRAIT IN GEORGIA                                                 50

  BLOOD-BURNING MOON                                                  51


  SEVENTH STREET                                                      71

  RHOBERT                                                             73

  AVEY                                                                76

  BEEHIVE                                                             89

  STORM ENDING                                                        90

  THEATER                                                             91

  HER LIPS ARE COPPER WIRE                                           101

  CALLING JESUS                                                      102

  BOX SEAT                                                           104

  PRAYER                                                             131

  HARVEST SONG                                                       132

  BONA AND PAUL                                                      134


  KABNIS                                                             157



                               KARINTHA

    Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
    O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
    Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
    ... When the sun goes down.


Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha
carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode
her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics
when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant
us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the
time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This
interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon,
could mean no good to her.

Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just
what it was to live. At sunset, when there was no wind, and the
pinesmoke from over by the sawmill hugged the earth, and you couldnt
see more than a few feet in front, her sudden darting past you was a
bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light. With the
other children one could hear, some distance off, their feet flopping
in the two-inch dust. Karintha’s running was a whir. It had the sound
of the red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in the road. At dusk,
during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before
any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs, her
voice, high-pitched, shrill, would put one’s ears to itching. But no
one ever thought to make her stop because of it. She stoned the cows,
and beat her dog, and fought the other children... Even the preacher,
who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocently
lovely as a November cotton flower. Already, rumors were out about
her. Homes in Georgia are most often built on the two-room plan. In
one, you cook and eat, in the other you sleep, and there love goes on.
Karintha had seen or heard, perhaps she had felt her parents loving.
One could but imitate one’s parents, for to follow them was the way of
God. She played “home” with a small boy who was not afraid to do her
bidding. That started the whole thing. Old men could no longer ride her
hobby-horse upon their knees. But young men counted faster.

    Her skin is like dusk,
    O cant you see it,
    Her skin is like dusk,
    When the sun goes down.

Karintha is a woman. She who carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the
sun goes down. She has been married many times. Old men remind her that
a few years back they rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Karintha
smiles, and indulges them when she is in the mood for it. She has
contempt for them. Karintha is a woman. Young men run stills to make
her money. Young men go to the big cities and run on the road. Young
men go away to college. They all want to bring her money. These are
the young men who thought that all they had to do was to count time.
But Karintha is a woman, and she has had a child. A child fell out of
her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest. Pine-needles are
smooth and sweet. They are elastic to the feet of rabbits... A sawmill
was nearby. Its pyramidal sawdust pile smouldered. It is a year before
one completely burns. Meanwhile, the smoke curls up and hangs in odd
wraiths about the trees, curls up, and spreads itself out over the
valley... Weeks after Karintha returned home the smoke was so heavy
you tasted it in water. Some one made a song:

    Smoke is on the hills. Rise up.
    Smoke is on the hills, O rise
    And take my soul to Jesus.

Karintha is a woman. Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing
thing ripened too soon. They will bring their money; they will die not
having found it out... Karintha at twenty, carrying beauty, perfect
as dusk when the sun goes down. Karintha...

    Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
    O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
    Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
    ... When the sun goes down.

    Goes down...



                                REAPERS


    Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
    Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
    In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done,
    And start their silent swinging, one by one.
    Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
    And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
    His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
    Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.



                        NOVEMBER COTTON FLOWER


    Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
    Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
    And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
    Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
    Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
    Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
    All water from the streams; dead birds were found
    In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
    Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
    Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
    Significance. Superstition saw
    Something it had never seen before:
    Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
    Beauty so sudden for that time of year.



                                 BECKY

  Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead;
  they’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps
  its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.


Becky had one Negro son. Who gave it to her? Damn buck nigger, said the
white folks’ mouths. She wouldnt tell. Common, God-forsaken, insane
white shameless wench, said the white folks’ mouths. Her eyes were
sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen, till then. Taking their
words, they filled her, like a bubble rising—then she broke. Mouth
setting in a twist that held her eyes, harsh, vacant, staring... Who
gave it to her? Low-down nigger with no self-respect, said the black
folks’ mouths. She wouldnt tell. Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman,
said the black folks’ mouths. White folks and black folks built her
cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who’d put
His cross upon her and cast her out.

When the first was born, the white folks said they’d have no more to do
with her. And black folks, they too joined hands to cast her out...
The pines whispered to Jesus.. The railroad boss said not to say he
said it, but she could live, if she wanted to, on the narrow strip
of land between the railroad and the road. John Stone, who owned the
lumber and the bricks, would have shot the man who told he gave the
stuff to Lonnie Deacon, who stole out there at night and built the
cabin. A single room held down to earth... O fly away to Jesus ... by
a leaning chimney...

Six trains each day rumbled past and shook the ground under her cabin.
Fords, and horse-and mule-drawn buggies went back and forth along the
road. No one ever saw her. Trainmen, and passengers who’d heard about
her, threw out papers and food. Threw out little crumpled slips of
paper scribbled with prayers, as they passed her eye-shaped piece of
sandy ground. Ground islandized between the road and railroad track.
Pushed up where a blue-sheen God with listless eyes could look at it.
Folks from the town took turns, unknown, of course, to each other, in
bringing corn and meat and sweet potatoes. Even sometimes snuff... O
thank y Jesus... Old David Georgia, grinding cane and boiling syrup,
never went her way without some sugar sap. No one ever saw her. The boy
grew up and ran around. When he was five years old as folks reckoned
it, Hugh Jourdon saw him carrying a baby. “Becky has another son,” was
what the whole town knew. But nothing was said, for the part of man
that says things to the likes of that had told itself that if there was
a Becky, that Becky now was dead.

The two boys grew. Sullen and cunning... O pines, whisper to Jesus;
tell Him to come and press sweet Jesus-lips against their lips and
eyes... It seemed as though with those two big fellows there, there
could be no room for Becky. The part that prayed wondered if perhaps
she’d really died, and they had buried her. No one dared ask. They’d
beat and cut a man who meant nothing at all in mentioning that they
lived along the road. White or colored? No one knew, and least of all
themselves. They drifted around from job to job. We, who had cast out
their mother because of them, could we take them in? They answered
black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. “Godam
the white folks; godam the niggers,” they shouted as they left town.
Becky? Smoke curled up from her chimney; she must be there. Trains
passing shook the ground. The ground shook the leaning chimney. Nobody
noticed it. A creepy feeling came over all who saw that thin wraith
of smoke and felt the trembling of the ground. Folks began to take
her food again. They quit it soon because they had a fear. Becky if
dead might be a hant, and if alive—it took some nerve even to mention
it... O pines, whisper to Jesus...

It was Sunday. Our congregation had been visiting at Pulverton, and
were coming home. There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from
Ebenezer Church, listless and heavy. Even the pines were stale, sticky,
like the smell of food that makes you sick. Before we turned the bend
of the road that would show us the Becky cabin, the horses stopped
stock-still, pushed back their ears, and nervously whinnied. We urged,
then whipped them on. Quarter of a mile away thin smoke curled up from
the leaning chimney... O pines, whisper to Jesus... Goose-flesh came
on my skin though there still was neither chill nor wind. Eyes left
their sockets for the cabin. Ears burned and throbbed. Uncanny eclipse!
fear closed my mind. We were just about to pass... Pines shout to
Jesus!.. the ground trembled as a ghost train rumbled by. The chimney
fell into the cabin. Its thud was like a hollow report, ages having
passed since it went off. Barlo and I were pulled out of our seats.
Dragged to the door that had swung open. Through the dust we saw the
bricks in a mound upon the floor. Becky, if she was there, lay under
them. I thought I heard a groan. Barlo, mumbling something, threw his
Bible on the pile. (No one has ever touched it.) Somehow we got away.
My buggy was still on the road. The last thing that I remember was
whipping old Dan like fury; I remember nothing after that—that is,
until I reached town and folks crowded round to get the true word of
it.

  Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead;
  they’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps
  its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.



                                 FACE


    Hair—
    silver-gray,
    like streams of stars,
    Brows—
    recurved canoes
    quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
    Her eyes—
    mist of tears
    condensing on the flesh below
    And her channeled muscles
    are cluster grapes of sorrow
    purple in the evening sun
    nearly ripe for worms.



                              COTTON SONG


    Come, brother, come. Lets lift it;
    Come now, hewit! roll away!
    Shackles fall upon the Judgment Day
    But lets not wait for it.

    God’s body’s got a soul,
    Bodies like to roll the soul,
    Cant blame God if we dont roll,
    Come, brother, roll, roll!

    Cotton bales are the fleecy way
    Weary sinner’s bare feet trod,
    Softly, softly to the throne of God,
    “We aint agwine t wait until th Judgment Day!

    Nassur; nassur,
    Hump.
    Eoho, eoho, roll away!
    We aint agwine t wait until th Judgment Day!”

    God’s body’s got a soul,
    Bodies like to roll the soul,
    Cant blame God if we dont roll,
    Come, brother, roll, roll!



                                 CARMA

    Wind is in the cane. Come along.
    Cane leaves swaying, rusty with talk,
    Scratching choruses above the guinea’s squawk,
    Wind is in the cane. Come along.


Carma, in overalls, and strong as any man, stands behind the old brown
mule, driving the wagon home. It bumps, and groans, and shakes as it
crosses the railroad track. She, riding it easy. I leave the men around
the stove to follow her with my eyes down the red dust road. Nigger
woman driving a Georgia chariot down an old dust road. Dixie Pike is
what they call it. Maybe she feels my gaze, perhaps she expects it.
Anyway, she turns. The sun, which has been slanting over her shoulder,
shoots primitive rockets into her mangrove-gloomed, yellow flower face.
Hi! Yip! God has left the Moses-people for the nigger. “Gedap.” Using
reins to slap the mule, she disappears in a cloudy rumble at some
indefinite point along the road.

(The sun is hammered to a band of gold. Pine-needles, like mazda, are
brilliantly aglow. No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling
sweet-gum leaves. Over in the forest, across the swamp, a sawmill
blows its closing whistle. Smoke curls up. Marvelous web spun by the
spider sawdust pile. Curls up and spreads itself pine-high above the
branch, a single silver band along the eastern valley. A black boy
... you are the most sleepiest man I ever seed, Sleeping Beauty ...
cradled on a gray mule, guided by the hollow sound of cow-bells, heads
for them through a rusty cotton field. From down the railroad track,
the chug-chug of a gas engine announces that the repair gang is coming
home. A girl in the yard of a whitewashed shack not much larger than
the stack of worn ties piled before it, sings. Her voice is loud.
Echoes, like rain, sweep the valley. Dusk takes the polish from the
rails. Lights twinkle in scattered houses. From far away, a sad strong
song. Pungent and composite, the smell of farmyards is the fragrance of
the woman. She does not sing; her body is a song. She is in the forest,
dancing. Torches flare .. juju men, greegree, witch-doctors ..
torches go out... The Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa.

                                                             _Night._

Foxie, the bitch, slicks back her ears and barks at the rising moon.)

    Wind is in the corn. Come along.
    Corn leaves swaying, rusty with talk,
    Scratching choruses above the guinea’s squawk,
    Wind is in the corn. Come along.

Carma’s tale is the crudest melodrama. Her husband’s in the gang. And
its her fault he got there. Working with a contractor, he was away most
of the time. She had others. No one blames her for that. He returned
one day and hung around the town where he picked up week-old boasts and
rumors... Bane accused her. She denied. He couldnt see that she was
becoming hysterical. He would have liked to take his fists and beat
her. Who was strong as a man. Stronger. Words, like corkscrews, wormed
to her strength. It fizzled out. Grabbing a gun, she rushed from the
house and plunged across the road into a cane-brake.. There, in
quarter heaven shone the crescent moon... Bane was afraid to follow
till he heard the gun go off. Then he wasted half an hour gathering
the neighbor men. They met in the road where lamp-light showed tracks
dissolving in the loose earth about the cane. The search began. Moths
flickered the lamps. They put them out. Really, because she still
might be live enough to shoot. Time and space have no meaning in a
canefield. No more than the interminable stalks... Some one stumbled
over her. A cry went up. From the road, one would have thought that
they were cornering a rabbit or a skunk... It is difficult carrying
dead weight through cane. They placed her on the sofa. A curious, nosey
somebody looked for the wound. This fussing with her clothes aroused
her. Her eyes were weak and pitiable for so strong a woman. Slowly,
then like a flash, Bane came to know that the shot she fired, with
averted head, was aimed to whistle like a dying hornet through the
cane. Twice deceived, and one deception proved the other. His head went
off. Slashed one of the men who’d helped, the man who’d stumbled over
her. Now he’s in the gang. Who was her husband. Should she not take
others, this Carma, strong as a man, whose tale as I have told it is
the crudest melodrama?

    Wind is in the cane. Come along.
    Cane leaves swaying, rusty with talk,
    Scratching choruses above the guinea’s squawk,
    Wind is in the cane. Come along.



                            SONG OF THE SON


    Pour O pour that parting soul in song,
    O pour it in the sawdust glow of night,
    Into the velvet pine-smoke air to-night,
    And let the valley carry it along.
    And let the valley carry it along.

    O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,
    So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
    Now just before an epoch’s sun declines
    Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
    Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.

    In time, for though the sun is setting on
    A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
    Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet
    To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone,
    Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone.

    O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums,
    Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air,
    Passing, before they stripped the old tree bare
    One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes

    An everlasting song, a singing tree,
    Caroling softly souls of slavery,
    What they were, and what they are to me,
    Caroling softly souls of slavery.



                             GEORGIA DUSK


    The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
      The setting sun, too indolent to hold
      A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
    Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,

    A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
      An orgy for some genius of the South
      With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
    Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

    The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
      And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
      Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
    Their early promise of a bumper crop.

    Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
      Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
      Where only chips and stumps are left to show
    The solid proof of former domicile.

    Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
      Race memories of king and caravan,
      High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
    Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

    Their voices rise .. the pine trees are guitars,
      Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain ..
      Their voices rise .. the chorus of the cane
    Is caroling a vesper to the stars..

    O singers, resinous and soft your songs
      Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
      Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
    Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.



                                 FERN


Face flowed into her eyes. Flowed in soft cream foam and plaintive
ripples, in such a way that wherever your glance may momentarily have
rested, it immediately thereafter wavered in the direction of her
eyes. The soft suggestion of down slightly darkened, like the shadow
of a bird’s wing might, the creamy brown color of her upper lip. Why,
after noticing it, you sought her eyes, I cannot tell you. Her nose was
aquiline, Semitic. If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, if he has
touched you and made your own sorrow seem trivial when compared with
his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile,
like mobile rivers, to their common delta. They were strange eyes. In
this, that they sought nothing—that is, nothing that was obvious and
tangible and that one could see, and they gave the impression that
nothing was to be denied. When a woman seeks, you will have observed,
her eyes deny. Fern’s eyes desired nothing that you could give her;
there was no reason why they should withhold. Men saw her eyes and
fooled themselves. Fern’s eyes said to them that she was easy. When
she was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it. And then,
once done, they felt bound to her (quite unlike their hit and run with
other girls), felt as though it would take them a lifetime to fulfill
an obligation which they could find no name for. They became attached
to her, and hungered after finding the barest trace of what she might
desire. As she grew up, new men who came to town felt as almost
everyone did who ever saw her: that they would not be denied. Men were
everlastingly bringing her their bodies. Something inside of her got
tired of them, I guess, for I am certain that for the life of her she
could not tell why or how she began to turn them off. A man in fever
is no trifling thing to send away. They began to leave her, baffled
and ashamed, yet vowing to themselves that some day they would do some
fine thing for her: send her candy every week and not let her know whom
it came from, watch out for her wedding-day and give her a magnificent
something with no name on it, buy a house and deed it to her, rescue
her from some unworthy fellow who had tricked her into marrying him.
As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot
understand, especially if it be a woman. She did not deny them, yet the
fact was that they were denied. A sort of superstition crept into their
consciousness of her being somehow above them. Being above them meant
that she was not to be approached by anyone. She became a virgin. Now a
virgin in a small southern town is by no means the usual thing, if you
will believe me. That the sexes were made to mate is the practice of
the South. Particularly, black folks were made to mate. And it is black
folks whom I have been talking about thus far. What white men thought
of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes. If you walked
up the Dixie Pike most any time of day, you’d be most like to see her
resting listless-like on the railing of her porch, back propped against
a post, head tilted a little forward because there was a nail in the
porch post just where her head came which for some reason or other she
never took the trouble to pull out. Her eyes, if it were sunset, rested
idly where the sun, molten and glorious, was pouring down between the
fringe of pines. Or maybe they gazed at the gray cabin on the knoll
from which an evening folk-song was coming. Perhaps they followed a
cow that had been turned loose to roam and feed on cotton-stalks and
corn leaves. Like as not they’d settle on some vague spot above the
horizon, though hardly a trace of wistfulness would come to them. If it
were dusk, then they’d wait for the search-light of the evening train
which you could see miles up the track before it flared across the
Dixie Pike, close to her home. Wherever they looked, you’d follow them
and then waver back. Like her face, the whole countryside seemed to
flow into her eyes. Flowed into them with the soft listless cadence of
Georgia’s South. A young Negro, once, was looking at her, spellbound,
from the road. A white man passing in a buggy had to flick him with
his whip if he was to get by without running him over. I first saw her
on her porch. I was passing with a fellow whose crusty numbness (I
was from the North and suspected of being prejudiced and stuck-up) was
melting as he found me warm. I asked him who she was. “That’s Fern,”
was all that I could get from him. Some folks already thought that I
was given to nosing around; I let it go at that, so far as questions
were concerned. But at first sight of her I felt as if I heard a Jewish
cantor sing. As if his singing rose above the unheard chorus of a
folk-song. And I felt bound to her. I too had my dreams: something I
would do for her. I have knocked about from town to town too much not
to know the futility of mere change of place. Besides, picture if you
can, this cream-colored solitary girl sitting at a tenement window
looking down on the indifferent throngs of Harlem. Better that she
listen to folk-songs at dusk in Georgia, you would say, and so would I.
Or, suppose she came up North and married. Even a doctor or a lawyer,
say, one who would be sure to get along—that is, make money. You and
I know, who have had experience in such things, that love is not a
thing like prejudice which can be bettered by changes of town. Could
men in Washington, Chicago, or New York, more than the men of Georgia,
bring her something left vacant by the bestowal of their bodies? You
and I who know men in these cities will have to say, they could not.
See her out and out a prostitute along State Street in Chicago. See
her move into a southern town where white men are more aggressive. See
her become a white man’s concubine... Something I must do for her.
There was myself. What could I do for her? Talk, of course. Push back
the fringe of pines upon new horizons. To what purpose? and what for?
Her? Myself? Men in her case seem to lose their selfishness. I lost
mine before I touched her. I ask you, friend (it makes no difference
if you sit in the Pullman or the Jim Crow as the train crosses her
road), what thoughts would come to you—that is, after you’d finished
with the thoughts that leap into men’s minds at the sight of a pretty
woman who will not deny them; what thoughts would come to you, had
you seen her in a quick flash, keen and intuitively, as she sat there
on her porch when your train thundered by? Would you have got off at
the next station and come back for her to take her where? Would you
have completely forgotten her as soon as you reached Macon, Atlanta,
Augusta, Pasadena, Madison, Chicago, Boston, or New Orleans? Would you
tell your wife or sweetheart about a girl you saw? Your thoughts can
help me, and I would like to know. Something I would do for her...

                   •       •       •       •       •

One evening I walked up the Pike on purpose, and stopped to say hello.
Some of her family were about, but they moved away to make room for me.
Damn if I knew how to begin. Would you? Mr. and Miss So-and-So, people,
the weather, the crops, the new preacher, the frolic, the church
benefit, rabbit and possum hunting, the new soft drink they had at old
Pap’s store, the schedule of the trains, what kind of town Macon was,
Negro’s migration north, boll-weevils, syrup, the Bible—to all these
things she gave a yassur or nassur, without further comment. I began to
wonder if perhaps my own emotional sensibility had played one of its
tricks on me. “Lets take a walk,” I at last ventured. The suggestion,
coming after so long an isolation, was novel enough, I guess, to
surprise. But it wasnt that. Something told me that men before me had
said just that as a prelude to the offering of their bodies. I tried
to tell her with my eyes. I think she understood. The thing from her
that made my throat catch, vanished. Its passing left her visible in a
way I’d thought, but never seen. We walked down the Pike with people on
all the porches gaping at us. “Doesnt it make you mad?” She meant the
row of petty gossiping people. She meant the world. Through a canebrake
that was ripe for cutting, the branch was reached. Under a sweet-gum
tree, and where reddish leaves had dammed the creek a little, we sat
down. Dusk, suggesting the almost imperceptible procession of giant
trees, settled with a purple haze about the cane. I felt strange, as I
always do in Georgia, particularly at dusk. I felt that things unseen
to men were tangibly immediate. It would not have surprised me had
I had vision. People have them in Georgia more often than you would
suppose. A black woman once saw the mother of Christ and drew her in
charcoal on the courthouse wall... When one is on the soil of one’s
ancestors, most anything can come to one... From force of habit, I
suppose, I held Fern in my arms—that is, without at first noticing
it. Then my mind came back to her. Her eyes, unusually weird and open,
held me. Held God. He flowed in as I’ve seen the countryside flow
in. Seen men. I must have done something—what, I dont know, in the
confusion of my emotion. She sprang up. Rushed some distance from me.
Fell to her knees, and began swaying, swaying. Her body was tortured
with something it could not let out. Like boiling sap it flooded arms
and fingers till she shook them as if they burned her. It found her
throat, and spattered inarticulately in plaintive, convulsive sounds,
mingled with calls to Christ Jesus. And then she sang, brokenly. A
Jewish cantor singing with a broken voice. A child’s voice, uncertain,
or an old man’s. Dusk hid her; I could hear only her song. It seemed to
me as though she were pounding her head in anguish upon the ground. I
rushed to her. She fainted in my arms.

                   •       •       •       •       •

There was talk about her fainting with me in the canefield. And I
got one or two ugly looks from town men who’d set themselves up to
protect her. In fact, there was talk of making me leave town. But
they never did. They kept a watch-out for me, though. Shortly after,
I came back North. From the train window I saw her as I crossed her
road. Saw her on her porch, head tilted a little forward where the nail
was, eyes vaguely focused on the sunset. Saw her face flow into them,
the countryside and something that I call God, flowing into them...
Nothing ever really happened. Nothing ever came to Fern, not even I.
Something I would do for her. Some fine unnamed thing... And, friend,
you? She is still living, I have reason to know. Her name, against the
chance that you might happen down that way, is Fernie May Rosen.



                                 NULLO


    A spray of pine-needles,
    Dipped in western horizon gold,
    Fell onto a path.
    Dry moulds of cow-hoofs.
    In the forest.
    Rabbits knew not of their falling,
    Nor did the forest catch aflame.



                             EVENING SONG


    Full moon rising on the waters of my heart,
    Lakes and moon and fires,
    Cloine tires,
    Holding her lips apart.

    Promises of slumber leaving shore to charm the moon,
    Miracle made vesper-keeps,
    Cloine sleeps,
    And I’ll be sleeping soon.

    Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters where the moon-waves start,
    Radiant, resplendently she gleams,
    Cloine dreams,
    Lips pressed against my heart.



                                ESTHER


                                   1

  _Nine._

Esther’s hair falls in soft curls about her high-cheek-boned
chalk-white face. Esther’s hair would be beautiful if there were
more gloss to it. And if her face were not prematurely serious, one
would call it pretty. Her cheeks are too flat and dead for a girl of
nine. Esther looks like a little white child, starched, frilled, as
she walks slowly from her home towards her father’s grocery store.
She is about to turn in Broad from Maple Street. White and black men
loafing on the corner hold no interest for her. Then a strange thing
happens. A clean-muscled, magnificent, black-skinned Negro, whom she
had heard her father mention as King Barlo, suddenly drops to his knees
on a spot called the Spittoon. White men, unaware of him, continue
squirting tobacco juice in his direction. The saffron fluid splashes
on his face. His smooth black face begins to glisten and to shine.
Soon, people notice him, and gather round. His eyes are rapturous
upon the heavens. Lips and nostrils quiver. Barlo is in a religious
trance. Town folks know it. They are not startled. They are not afraid.
They gather round. Some beg boxes from the grocery stores. From old
McGregor’s notion shop. A coffin-case is pressed into use. Folks line
the curb-stones. Business men close shop. And Banker Warply parks his
car close by. Silently, all await the prophet’s voice. The sheriff,
a great florid fellow whose leggings never meet around his bulging
calves, swears in three deputies. “Wall, y cant never tell what a
nigger like King Barlo might be up t.” Soda bottles, five fingers full
of shine, are passed to those who want them. A couple of stray dogs
start a fight. Old Goodlow’s cow comes flopping up the street. Barlo,
still as an Indian fakir, has not moved. The town bell strikes six. The
sun slips in behind a heavy mass of horizon cloud. The crowd is hushed
and expectant. Barlo’s under jaw relaxes, and his lips begin to move.

“Jesus has been awhisperin strange words deep down, O way down deep,
deep in my ears.”

Hums of awe and of excitement.

“He called me to His side an said, ‘Git down on your knees beside me,
son, Ise gwine t whisper in your ears.’”

An old sister cries, “Ah, Lord.”

“‘Ise agwine t whisper in your ears,’ he said, an I replied, ‘Thy will
be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”

“Ah, Lord. Amen. Amen.”

“An Lord Jesus whispered strange good words deep down, O way down deep,
deep in my ears. An He said, ‘Tell em till you feel your throat on
fire.’ I saw a vision. I saw a man arise, an he was big an black an
powerful—”

Some one yells, “Preach it, preacher, preach it!”

“—but his head was caught up in th clouds. An while he was agazin at
th heavens, heart filled up with th Lord, some little white-ant biddies
came an tied his feet to chains. They led him t th coast, they led him
t th sea, they led him across th ocean an they didnt set him free.
The old coast didnt miss him, an th new coast wasnt free, he left
the old-coast brothers, t give birth t you an me. O Lord, great God
Almighty, t give birth t you an me.”

Barlo pauses. Old gray mothers are in tears. Fragments of melodies
are being hummed. White folks are touched and curiously awed. Off to
themselves, white and black preachers confer as to how best to rid
themselves of the vagrant, usurping fellow. Barlo looks as though he is
struggling to continue. People are hushed. One can hear weevils work.
Dusk is falling rapidly, and the customary store lights fail to throw
their feeble glow across the gray dust and flagging of the Georgia
town. Barlo rises to his full height. He is immense. To the people he
assumes the outlines of his visioned African. In a mighty voice he
bellows:

“Brothers an sisters, turn your faces t th sweet face of the Lord, an
fill your hearts with glory. Open your eyes an see th dawnin of th
mornin light. Open your ears—”

Years afterwards Esther was told that at that very moment a great,
heavy, rumbling voice actually was heard. That hosts of angels and of
demons paraded up and down the streets all night. That King Barlo rode
out of town astride a pitch-black bull that had a glowing gold ring
in its nose. And that old Limp Underwood, who hated niggers, woke up
next morning to find that he held a black man in his arms. This much is
certain: an inspired Negress, of wide reputation for being sanctified,
drew a portrait of a black madonna on the court-house wall. And King
Barlo left town. He left his image indelibly upon the mind of Esther.
He became the starting point of the only living patterns that her mind
was to know.


                                   2

  _Sixteen._

Esther begins to dream. The low evening sun sets the windows of
McGregor’s notion shop aflame. Esther makes believe that they really
are aflame. The town fire department rushes madly down the road. It
ruthlessly shoves black and white idlers to one side. It whoops. It
clangs. It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant
which she claims for her own. How had she come by it? She thinks of
it immaculately. It is a sin to think of it immaculately. She must
dream no more. She must repent her sin. Another dream comes. There
is no fire department. There are no heroic men. The fire starts. The
loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and
squirt juice just as fast as they can chew. Gallons on top of gallons
they squirt upon the flames. The air reeks with the stench of scorched
tobacco juice. Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women,
pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous
underclothes. The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.
She alone is left to take the baby in her arms. But what a baby! Black,
singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby—ugly as sin. Once held to her
breast, miraculous thing: its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.
She loves it frantically. Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers
to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone.

  _Twenty-two._

Esther’s schooling is over. She works behind the counter of her
father’s grocery store. “To keep the money in the family,” so he said.
She is learning to make distinctions between the business and the
social worlds. “Good business comes from remembering that the white
folks dont divide the niggers, Esther. Be just as black as any man
who has a silver dollar.” Esther listlessly forgets that she is near
white, and that her father is the richest colored man in town. Black
folk who drift in to buy lard and snuff and flour of her, call her a
sweet-natured, accommodating girl. She learns their names. She forgets
them. She thinks about men. “I dont appeal to them. I wonder why.”
She recalls an affair she had with a little fair boy while still in
school. It had ended in her shame when he as much as told her that for
sweetness he preferred a lollipop. She remembers the salesman from the
North who wanted to take her to the movies that first night he was in
town. She refused, of course. And he never came back, having found out
who she was. She thinks of Barlo. Barlo’s image gives her a slightly
stale thrill. She spices it by telling herself his glories. Black.
Magnetically so. Best cotton picker in the county, in the state,
in the whole world for that matter. Best man with his fists, best
man with dice, with a razor. Promoter of church benefits. Of colored
fairs. Vagrant preacher. Lover of all the women for miles and miles
around. Esther decides that she loves him. And with a vague sense of
life slipping by, she resolves that she will tell him so, whatever
people say, the next time he comes to town. After the making of this
resolution which becomes a sort of wedding cake for her to tuck beneath
her pillow and go to sleep upon, she sees nothing of Barlo for five
years. Her hair thins. It looks like the dull silk on puny corn ears.
Her face pales until it is the color of the gray dust that dances with
dead cotton leaves..


                                   3

  _Esther is twenty-seven._

Esther sells lard and snuff and flour to vague black faces that drift
in her store to ask for them. Her eyes hardly see the people to whom
she gives change. Her body is lean and beaten. She rests listlessly
against the counter, too weary to sit down. From the street some one
shouts, “King Barlo has come back to town.” He passes her window,
driving a large new car. Cut-out open. He veers to the curb, and steps
out. Barlo has made money on cotton during the war. He is as rich as
anyone. Esther suddenly is animate. She goes to her door. She sees him
at a distance, the center of a group of credulous men. She hears the
deep-bass rumble of his talk. The sun swings low. McGregor’s windows
are aflame again. Pale flame. A sharply dressed white girl passes by.
For a moment Esther wishes that she might be like her. Not white; she
has no need for being that. But sharp, sporty, with get-up about her.
Barlo is connected with that wish. She mustnt wish. Wishes only make
you restless. Emptiness is a thing that grows by being moved. “I’ll
not think. Not wish. Just set my mind against it.” Then the thought
comes to her that those purposeless, easy-going men will possess him,
if she doesnt. Purpose is not dead in her, now that she comes to think
of it. That loose women will have their arms around him at Nat Bowle’s
place to-night. As if her veins are full of fired sun-bleached southern
shanties, a swift heat sweeps them. Dead dreams, and a forgotten
resolution are carried upward by the flames. Pale flames. “They shant
have him. Oh, they shall not. Not if it kills me they shant have him.”
Jerky, aflutter, she closes the store and starts home. Folks lazing
on store window-sills wonder what on earth can be the matter with Jim
Crane’s gal, as she passes them. “Come to remember, she always was a
little off, a little crazy, I reckon.” Esther seeks her own room, and
locks the door. Her mind is a pink mesh-bag filled with baby toes.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Using the noise of the town clock striking twelve to cover the creaks
of her departure, Esther slips into the quiet road. The town, her
parents, most everyone is sound asleep. This fact is a stable thing
that comforts her. After sundown a chill wind came up from the west.
It is still blowing, but to her it is a steady, settled thing like the
cold. She wants her mind to be like that. Solid, contained, and blank
as a sheet of darkened ice. She will not permit herself to notice the
peculiar phosphorescent glitter of the sweet-gum leaves. Their movement
would excite her. Exciting too, the recession of the dull familiar
homes she knows so well. She doesnt know them at all. She closes her
eyes, and holds them tightly. Wont do. Her being aware that they are
closed recalls her purpose. She does not want to think of it. She opens
them. She turns now into the deserted business street. The corrugated
iron canopies and mule- and horse-gnawed hitching posts bring her a
strange composure. Ghosts of the commonplaces of her daily life take
stride with her and become her companions. And the echoes of her heels
upon the flagging are rhythmically monotonous and soothing. Crossing
the street at the corner of McGregor’s notion shop, she thinks that the
windows are a dull flame. Only a fancy. She walks faster. Then runs. A
turn into a side street brings her abruptly to Nat Bowle’s place. The
house is squat and dark. It is always dark. Barlo is within. Quietly
she opens the outside door and steps in. She passes through a small
room. Pauses before a flight of stairs down which people’s voices,
muffled, come. The air is heavy with fresh tobacco smoke. It makes her
sick. She wants to turn back. She goes up the steps. As if she were
mounting to some great height, her head spins. She is violently dizzy.
Blackness rushes to her eyes. And then she finds that she is in a large
room. Barlo is before her.

“Well, I’m sholy damned—skuse me, but what, what brought you here, lil
milk-white gal?”

“You.” Her voice sounds like a frightened child’s that calls homeward
from some point miles away.

“Me?”

“Yes, you Barlo.”

“This aint th place fer y. This aint th place fer y.”

“I know. I know. But I’ve come for you.”

“For me for what?”

She manages to look deep and straight into his eyes. He is slow at
understanding. Guffaws and giggles break out from all around the room.
A coarse woman’s voice remarks, “So thats how th dictie niggers does
it.” Laughs. “Mus give em credit fo their gall.”

Esther doesnt hear. Barlo does. His faculties are jogged. She sees a
smile, ugly and repulsive to her, working upward through thick licker
fumes. Barlo seems hideous. The thought comes suddenly, that conception
with a drunken man must be a mighty sin. She draws away, frozen. Like
a somnambulist she wheels around and walks stiffly to the stairs. Down
them. Jeers and hoots pelter bluntly upon her back. She steps out.
There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared.



                              CONVERSION


    African Guardian of Souls,
    Drunk with rum,
    Feasting on a strange cassava,
    Yielding to new words and a weak palabra
    Of a white-faced sardonic god—
    Grins, cries
    Amen,
    Shouts hosanna.



                          PORTRAIT IN GEORGIA


    Hair—braided chestnut, coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
    Eyes—fagots,
    Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
    Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
    And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame.



                          BLOOD-BURNING MOON


                                   1

Up from the skeleton stone walls, up from the rotting floor boards
and the solid hand-hewn beams of oak of the pre-war cotton factory,
dusk came. Up from the dusk the full moon came. Glowing like a fired
pine-knot, it illumined the great door and soft showered the Negro
shanties aligned along the single street of factory town. The full moon
in the great door was an omen. Negro women improvised songs against its
spell.

Louisa sang as she came over the crest of the hill from the white
folks’ kitchen. Her skin was the color of oak leaves on young trees
in fall. Her breasts, firm and up-pointed like ripe acorns. And her
singing had the low murmur of winds in fig trees. Bob Stone, younger
son of the people she worked for, loved her. By the way the world
reckons things, he had won her. By measure of that warm glow which came
into her mind at thought of him, he had won her. Tom Burwell, whom the
whole town called Big Boy, also loved her. But working in the fields
all day, and far away from her, gave him no chance to show it. Though
often enough of evenings he had tried to. Somehow, he never got along.
Strong as he was with hands upon the ax or plow, he found it difficult
to hold her. Or so he thought. But the fact was that he held her to
factory town more firmly than he thought for. His black balanced, and
pulled against, the white of Stone, when she thought of them. And her
mind was vaguely upon them as she came over the crest of the hill,
coming from the white folks’ kitchen. As she sang softly at the evil
face of the full moon.

A strange stir was in her. Indolently, she tried to fix upon Bob or
Tom as the cause of it. To meet Bob in the canebrake, as she was going
to do an hour or so later, was nothing new. And Tom’s proposal which
she felt on its way to her could be indefinitely put off. Separately,
there was no unusual significance to either one. But for some reason,
they jumbled when her eyes gazed vacantly at the rising moon. And from
the jumble came the stir that was strangely within her. Her lips
trembled. The slow rhythm of her song grew agitant and restless. Rusty
black and tan spotted hounds, lying in the dark corners of porches
or prowling around back yards, put their noses in the air and caught
its tremor. They began plaintively to yelp and howl. Chickens woke up
and cackled. Intermittently, all over the countryside dogs barked and
roosters crowed as if heralding a weird dawn or some ungodly awakening.
The women sang lustily. Their songs were cotton-wads to stop their
ears. Louisa came down into factory town and sank wearily upon the step
before her home. The moon was rising towards a thick cloud-bank which
soon would hide it.

    Red nigger moon. Sinner!
    Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
    Come out that fact’ry door.


                                   2

Up from the deep dusk of a cleared spot on the edge of the forest a
mellow glow arose and spread fan-wise into the low-hanging heavens.
And all around the air was heavy with the scent of boiling cane. A
large pile of cane-stalks lay like ribboned shadows upon the ground. A
mule, harnessed to a pole, trudged lazily round and round the pivot of
the grinder. Beneath a swaying oil lamp, a Negro alternately whipped
out at the mule, and fed cane-stalks to the grinder. A fat boy waddled
pails of fresh ground juice between the grinder and the boiling stove.
Steam came from the copper boiling pan. The scent of cane came from the
copper pan and drenched the forest and the hill that sloped to factory
town, beneath its fragrance. It drenched the men in circle seated
around the stove. Some of them chewed at the white pulp of stalks, but
there was no need for them to, if all they wanted was to taste the
cane. One tasted it in factory town. And from factory town one could
see the soft haze thrown by the glowing stove upon the low-hanging
heavens.

Old David Georgia stirred the thickening syrup with a long ladle, and
ever so often drew it off. Old David Georgia tended his stove and told
tales about the white folks, about moon-shining and cotton picking,
and about sweet nigger gals, to the men who sat there about his stove
to listen to him. Tom Burwell chewed cane-stalk and laughed with the
others till someone mentioned Louisa. Till some one said something
about Louisa and Bob Stone, about the silk stockings she must have
gotten from him. Blood ran up Tom’s neck hotter than the glow that
flooded from the stove. He sprang up. Glared at the men and said,
“She’s my gal.” Will Manning laughed. Tom strode over to him. Yanked
him up and knocked him to the ground. Several of Manning’s friends got
up to fight for him. Tom whipped out a long knife and would have cut
them to shreds if they hadnt ducked into the woods. Tom had had enough.
He nodded to Old David Georgia and swung down the path to factory town.
Just then, the dogs started barking and the roosters began to crow.
Tom felt funny. Away from the fight, away from the stove, chill got
to him. He shivered. He shuddered when he saw the full moon rising
towards the cloud-bank. He who didnt give a godam for the fears of
old women. He forced his mind to fasten on Louisa. Bob Stone. Better
not be. He turned into the street and saw Louisa sitting before her
home. He went towards her, ambling, touched the brim of a marvelously
shaped, spotted, felt hat, said he wanted to say something to her, and
then found that he didnt know what he had to say, or if he did, that he
couldnt say it. He shoved his big fists in his overalls, grinned, and
started to move off.

“Youall want me, Tom?”

“Thats what us wants, sho, Louisa.”

“Well, here I am—”

“An here I is, but that aint ahelpin none, all th same.”

“You wanted to say something?..”

“I did that, sho. But words is like th spots on dice: no matter how y
fumbles em, there’s times when they jes wont come. I dunno why. Seems
like th love I feels fo yo done stole m tongue. I got it now. Whee!
Louisa, honey, I oughtnt tell y, I feel I oughtnt cause yo is young
an goes t church an I has had other gals, but Louisa I sho do love
y. Lil gal, Ise watched y from them first days when youall sat right
here befo yo door befo th well an sang sometimes in a way that like t
broke m heart. Ise carried y with me into th fields, day after day, an
after that, an I sho can plow when yo is there, an I can pick cotton.
Yassur! Come near beatin Barlo yesterday. I sho did. Yassur! An next
year if ole Stone’ll trust me, I’ll have a farm. My own. My bales will
buy yo what y gets from white folks now. Silk stockings an purple
dresses—course I dont believe what some folks been whisperin as t how
y gets them things now. White folks always did do for niggers what they
likes. An they jes cant help alikin yo, Louisa. Bob Stone likes y.
Course he does. But not th way folks is awhisperin. Does he, hon?”

“I dont know what you mean, Tom.”

“Course y dont. Ise already cut two niggers. Had t hon, t tell em so.
Niggers always tryin t make somethin out a nothin. An then besides,
white folks aint up t them tricks so much nowadays. Godam better not
be. Leastawise not with yo. Cause I wouldnt stand f it. Nassur.”

“What would you do, Tom?”

“Cut him jes like I cut a nigger.”

“No, Tom—”

“I said I would an there aint no mo to it. But that aint th talk f now.
Sing, honey Louisa, an while I’m listenin t y I’ll be makin love.”

Tom took her hand in his. Against the tough thickness of his own, hers
felt soft and small. His huge body slipped down to the step beside her.
The full moon sank upward into the deep purple of the cloud-bank. An
old woman brought a lighted lamp and hung it on the common well whose
bulky shadow squatted in the middle of the road, opposite Tom and
Louisa. The old woman lifted the well-lid, took hold the chain, and
began drawing up the heavy bucket. As she did so, she sang. Figures
shifted, restless-like, between lamp and window in the front rooms of
the shanties. Shadows of the figures fought each other on the gray dust
of the road. Figures raised the windows and joined the old woman in
song. Louisa and Tom, the whole street, singing:

    Red nigger moon. Sinner!
    Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
    Come out that fact’ry door.


                                   3

Bob Stone sauntered from his veranda out into the gloom of fir trees
and magnolias. The clear white of his skin paled, and the flush of his
cheeks turned purple. As if to balance this outer change, his mind
became consciously a white man’s. He passed the house with its huge
open hearth which, in the days of slavery, was the plantation cookery.
He saw Louisa bent over that hearth. He went in as a master should
and took her. Direct, honest, bold. None of this sneaking that he had
to go through now. The contrast was repulsive to him. His family had
lost ground. Hell no, his family still owned the niggers, practically.
Damned if they did, or he wouldnt have to duck around so. What would
they think if they knew? His mother? His sister? He shouldnt mention
them, shouldnt think of them in this connection. There in the dusk
he blushed at doing so. Fellows about town were all right, but how
about his friends up North? He could see them incredible, repulsed.
They didnt know. The thought first made him laugh. Then, with their
eyes still upon him, he began to feel embarrassed. He felt the need of
explaining things to them. Explain hell. They wouldnt understand, and
moreover, who ever heard of a Southerner getting on his knees to any
Yankee, or anyone. No sir. He was going to see Louisa to-night, and
love her. She was lovely—in her way. Nigger way. What way was that?
Damned if he knew. Must know. He’d known her long enough to know. Was
there something about niggers that you couldnt know? Listening to
them at church didnt tell you anything. Looking at them didnt tell
you anything. Talking to them didnt tell you anything—unless it was
gossip, unless they wanted to talk. Of course, about farming, and
licker, and craps—but those werent nigger. Nigger was something more.
How much more? Something to be afraid of, more? Hell no. Who ever heard
of being afraid of a nigger? Tom Burwell. Cartwell had told him that
Tom went with Louisa after she reached home. No sir. No nigger had ever
been with his girl. He’d like to see one try. Some position for him
to be in. Him, Bob Stone, of the old Stone family, in a scrap with a
nigger over a nigger girl. In the good old days... Ha! Those were the
days. His family had lost ground. Not so much, though. Enough for him
to have to cut through old Lemon’s canefield by way of the woods, that
he might meet her. She was worth it. Beautiful nigger gal. Why nigger?
Why not, just gal? No, it was because she was nigger that he went to
her. Sweet... The scent of boiling cane came to him. Then he saw the
rich glow of the stove. He heard the voices of the men circled around
it. He was about to skirt the clearing when he heard his own name
mentioned. He stopped. Quivering. Leaning against a tree, he listened.

“Bad nigger. Yassur, he sho is one bad nigger when he gets started.”

“Tom Burwell’s been on th gang three times fo cuttin men.”

“What y think he’s agwine t do t Bob Stone?”

“Dunno yet. He aint found out. When he does— Baby!”

“Aint no tellin.”

“Young Stone aint no quitter an I ken tell y that. Blood of th old uns
in his veins.”

“Thats right. He’ll scrap, sho.”

“Be gettin too hot f niggers round this away.”

“Shut up, nigger. Y dont know what y talkin bout.”

Bob Stone’s ears burned as though he had been holding them over the
stove. Sizzling heat welled up within him. His feet felt as if they
rested on red-hot coals. They stung him to quick movement. He circled
the fringe of the glowing. Not a twig cracked beneath his feet. He
reached the path that led to factory town. Plunged furiously down it.
Halfway along, a blindness within him veered him aside. He crashed into
the bordering canebrake. Cane leaves cut his face and lips. He tasted
blood. He threw himself down and dug his fingers in the ground. The
earth was cool. Cane-roots took the fever from his hands. After a long
while, or so it seemed to him, the thought came to him that it must
be time to see Louisa. He got to his feet and walked calmly to their
meeting place. No Louisa. Tom Burwell had her. Veins in his forehead
bulged and distended. Saliva moistened the dried blood on his lips. He
bit down on his lips. He tasted blood. Not his own blood; Tom Burwell’s
blood. Bob drove through the cane and out again upon the road. A hound
swung down the path before him towards factory town. Bob couldnt see
it. The dog loped aside to let him pass. Bob’s blind rushing made him
stumble over it. He fell with a thud that dazed him. The hound yelped.
Answering yelps came from all over the countryside. Chickens cackled.
Roosters crowed, heralding the bloodshot eyes of southern awakening.
Singers in the town were silenced. They shut their windows down.
Palpitant between the rooster crows, a chill hush settled upon the
huddled forms of Tom and Louisa. A figure rushed from the shadow and
stood before them. Tom popped to his feet.

“Whats y want?”

“I’m Bob Stone.”

“Yassur—an I’m Tom Burwell. Whats y want?”

Bob lunged at him. Tom side-stepped, caught him by the shoulder, and
flung him to the ground. Straddled him.

“Let me up.”

“Yassur—but watch yo doins, Bob Stone.”

A few dark figures, drawn by the sound of scuffle stood about them. Bob
sprang to his feet.

“Fight like a man, Tom Burwell, an I’ll lick y.”

Again he lunged. Tom side-stepped and flung him to the ground.
Straddled him.

“Get off me, you godam nigger you.”

“Yo sho has started somethin now. Get up.”

Tom yanked him up and began hammering at him. Each blow sounded as if
it smashed into a precious, irreplaceable soft something. Beneath them,
Bob staggered back. He reached in his pocket and whipped out a knife.

“Thats my game, sho.”

Blue flash, a steel blade slashed across Bob Stone’s throat. He had
a sweetish sick feeling. Blood began to flow. Then he felt a sharp
twitch of pain. He let his knife drop. He slapped one hand against his
neck. He pressed the other on top of his head as if to hold it down.
He groaned. He turned, and staggered towards the crest of the hill in
the direction of white town. Negroes who had seen the fight slunk into
their homes and blew the lamps out. Louisa, dazed, hysterical, refused
to go indoors. She slipped, crumbled, her body loosely propped against
the woodwork of the well. Tom Burwell leaned against it. He seemed
rooted there.

Bob reached Broad Street. White men rushed up to him. He collapsed in
their arms.

“Tom Burwell....”

White men like ants upon a forage rushed about. Except for the taut hum
of their moving, all was silent. Shotguns, revolvers, rope, kerosene,
torches. Two high-powered cars with glaring search-lights. They came
together. The taut hum rose to a low roar. Then nothing could be heard
but the flop of their feet in the thick dust of the road. The moving
body of their silence preceded them over the crest of the hill into
factory town. It flattened the Negroes beneath it. It rolled to the
wall of the factory, where it stopped. Tom knew that they were coming.
He couldnt move. And then he saw the search-lights of the two cars
glaring down on him. A quick shock went through him. He stiffened. He
started to run. A yell went up from the mob. Tom wheeled about and
faced them. They poured down on him. They swarmed. A large man with
dead-white face and flabby cheeks came to him and almost jabbed a
gun-barrel through his guts.

“Hands behind y, nigger.”

Tom’s wrist were bound. The big man shoved him to the well. Burn him
over it, and when the woodwork caved in, his body would drop to the
bottom. Two deaths for a godam nigger. Louisa was driven back. The mob
pushed in. Its pressure, its momentum was too great. Drag him to the
factory. Wood and stakes already there. Tom moved in the direction
indicated. But they had to drag him. They reached the great door. Too
many to get in there. The mob divided and flowed around the walls to
either side. The big man shoved him through the door. The mob pressed
in from the sides. Taut humming. No words. A stake was sunk into the
ground. Rotting floor boards piled around it. Kerosene poured on the
rotting floor boards. Tom bound to the stake. His breast was bare.
Nails scratches let little lines of blood trickle down and mat into
the hair. His face, his eyes were set and stony. Except for irregular
breathing, one would have thought him already dead. Torches were flung
onto the pile. A great flare muffled in black smoke shot upward. The
mob yelled. The mob was silent. Now Tom could be seen within the
flames. Only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone. Stench
of burning flesh soaked the air. Tom’s eyes popped. His head settled
downward. The mob yelled. Its yell echoed against the skeleton stone
walls and sounded like a hundred yells. Like a hundred mobs yelling.
Its yell thudded against the thick front wall and fell back. Ghost of a
yell slipped through the flames and out the great door of the factory.
It fluttered like a dying thing down the single street of factory town.
Louisa, upon the step before her home, did not hear it, but her eyes
opened slowly. They saw the full moon glowing in the great door. The
full moon, an evil thing, an omen, soft showering the homes of folks
she knew. Where were they, these people? She’d sing, and perhaps they’d
come out and join her. Perhaps Tom Burwell would come. At any rate, the
full moon in the great door was an omen which she must sing to:

    Red nigger moon. Sinner!
    Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
    Come out that fact’ry door.

[Illustration]



                            SEVENTH STREET

    Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
    Bootleggers in silken shirts,
    Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
    Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.


Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War. A crude-boned,
soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz
songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood
into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington. Stale soggy wood
of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood... Split it! In two! Again!
Shred it! .. the sun. Wedges are brilliant in the sun; ribbons of wet
wood dry and blow away. Black reddish blood. Pouring for crude-boned
soft-skinned life, who set you flowing? Blood suckers of the War would
spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood. Prohibition
would put a stop to it. Who set you flowing? White and whitewash
disappear in blood. Who set you flowing? Flowing down the smooth
asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings,
theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets? Eddying on the
corners? Swirling like a blood-red smoke up where the buzzards fly in
heaven? God would not dare to suck black red blood. A Nigger God! He
would duck his head in shame and call for the Judgment Day. Who set you
flowing?

    Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
    Bootleggers in silken shirts,
    Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
    Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.



                                RHOBERT


Rhobert wears a house, like a monstrous diver’s helmet, on his head.
His legs are banty-bowed and shaky because as a child he had rickets.
He is way down. Rods of the house like antennæ of a dead thing,
stuffed, prop up in the air. He is way down. He is sinking. His house
is a dead thing that weights him down. He is sinking as a diver would
sink in mud should the water be drawn off. Life is a murky, wiggling,
microscopic water that compresses him. Compresses his helmet and would
crush it the minute that he pulled his head out. He has to keep it in.
Life is water that is being drawn off.

    Brother, life is water that is being drawn off.
    Brother, life is water that is being drawn off.

The dead house is stuffed. The stuffing is alive. It is sinful to draw
one’s head out of live stuffing in a dead house. The propped-up antennæ
would cave in and the stuffing be strewn .. shredded life-pulp .. in
the water. It is sinful to have one’s own head crushed. Rhobert is an
upright man whose legs are banty-bowed and shaky because as a child
he had rickets. The earth is round. Heaven is a sphere that surrounds
it. Sink where you will. God is a Red Cross man with a dredge and a
respiration-pump who’s waiting for you at the opposite periphery. God
built the house. He blew His breath into its stuffing. It is good to
die obeying Him who can do these things.

A futile something like the dead house wraps the live stuffing of the
question: how long before the water will be drawn off? Rhobert does not
care. Like most men who wear monstrous helmets, the pressure it exerts
is enough to convince him of its practical infinity. And he cares not
two straws as to whether or not he will ever see his wife and children
again. Many a time he’s seen them drown in his dreams and has kicked
about joyously in the mud for days after. One thing about him goes
straight to the heart. He has an Adam’s-apple which strains sometimes
as if he were painfully gulping great globules of air .. air floating
shredded life-pulp. It is a sad thing to see a banty-bowed, shaky,
ricket-legged man straining the raw insides of his throat against
smooth air. Holding furtive thoughts about the glory of pulp-heads
strewn in water.. He is way down. Down. Mud, coining to his banty
knees, almost hides them. Soon people will be looking at him and
calling him a strong man. No doubt he is for one who has had rickets.
Lets give it to him. Lets call him great when the water shall have been
all drawn off. Lets build a monument and set it in the ooze where he
goes down. A monument of hewn oak, carved in nigger-heads. Lets open
our throats, brother, and sing “Deep River” when he goes down.

    Brother, Rhobert is sinking.
    Lets open our throats, brother,
    Lets sing Deep River when he goes down.



                                 AVEY


For a long while she was nothing more to me than one of those skirted
beings whom boys at a certain age disdain to play with. Just how I
came to love her, timidly, and with secret blushes, I do not know.
But that I did was brought home to me one night, the first night that
Ned wore his long pants. Us fellers were seated on the curb before an
apartment house where she had gone in. The young trees had not outgrown
their boxes then. V Street was lined with them. When our legs grew
cramped and stiff from the cold of the stone, we’d stand around a box
and whittle it. I like to think now that there was a hidden purpose in
the way we hacked them with our knives. I like to feel that something
deep in me responded to the trees, the young trees that whinnied like
colts impatient to be let free... On the particular night I have in
mind, we were waiting for the top-floor light to go out. We wanted to
see Avey leave the flat. This night she stayed longer than usual and
gave us a chance to complete the plans of how we were going to stone
and beat that feller on the top floor out of town. Ned especially had
it in for him. He was about to throw a brick up at the window when at
last the room went dark. Some minutes passed. Then Avey, as unconcerned
as if she had been paying an old-maid aunt a visit, came out. I don’t
remember what she had on, and all that sort of thing. But I do know
that I turned hot as bare pavements in the summertime at Ned’s boast:
“Hell, bet I could get her too if you little niggers weren’t always
spying and crabbing everything.” I didnt say a word to him. It wasnt
my way then. I just stood there like the others, and something like
a fuse burned up inside of me. She never noticed us, but swung along
lazy and easy as anything. We sauntered to the corner and watched her
till her door banged to. Ned repeated what he’d said. I didnt seem
to care. Sitting around old Mush-Head’s bread box, the discussion
began. “Hang if I can see how she gets away with it,” Doc started.
Ned knew, of course. There was nothing he didnt know when it came to
women. He dilated on the emotional needs of girls. Said they werent
much different from men in that respect. And concluded with the solemn
avowal: “It does em good.” None of us liked Ned much. We all talked
dirt; but it was the way he said it. And then too, a couple of the
fellers had sisters and had caught Ned playing with them. But there was
no disputing the superiority of his smutty wisdom. Bubs Sanborn, whose
mother was friendly with Avey’s, had overheard the old ladies talking.
“Avey’s mother’s ont her,” he said. We thought that only natural and
began to guess at what would happen. Some one said she’d marry that
feller on the top floor. Ned called that a lie because Avey was going
to marry nobody but him. We had our doubts about that, but we did agree
that she’d soon leave school and marry some one. The gang broke up, and
I went home, picturing myself as married.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Nothing I did seemed able to change Avey’s indifference to me. I played
basket-ball, and when I’d make a long clean shot she’d clap with the
others, louder than they, I thought. I’d meet her on the street, and
there’d be no difference in the way she said hello. She never took the
trouble to call me by my name. On the days for drill, I’d let my voice
down a tone and call for a complicated maneuver when I saw her coming.
She’d smile appreciation, but it was an impersonal smile, never for me.
It was on a summer excursion down to Riverview that she first seemed to
take me into account. The day had been spent riding merry-go-rounds,
scenic-railways, and shoot-the-chutes. We had been in swimming and we
had danced. I was a crack swimmer then. She didnt know how. I held her
up and showed her how to kick her legs and draw her arms. Of course
she didnt learn in one day, but she thanked me for bothering with her.
I was also somewhat of a dancer. And I had already noticed that love
can start on a dance floor. We danced. But though I held her tightly
in my arms, she was way away. That college feller who lived on the top
floor was somewhere making money for the next year. I imagined that
she was thinking, wishing for him. Ned was along. He treated her until
his money gave out. She went with another feller. Ned got sore. One
by one the boys’ money gave out. She left them. And they got sore.
Every one of them but me got sore. This is the reason, I guess, why I
had her to myself on the top deck of the _Jane Mosely_ that night as
we puffed up the Potomac, coming home. The moon was brilliant. The air
was sweet like clover. And every now and then, a salt tang, a stale
drift of sea-weed. It was not my mind’s fault if it went romancing. I
should have taken her in my arms the minute we were stowed in that old
lifeboat. I dallied, dreaming. She took me in hers. And I could feel by
the touch of it that it wasnt a man-to-woman love. It made me restless.
I felt chagrined. I didnt know what it was, but I did know that I
couldnt handle it. She ran her fingers through my hair and kissed
my forehead. I itched to break through her tenderness to passion.
I wanted her to take me in her arms as I knew she had that college
feller. I wanted her to love me passionately as she did him. I gave her
one burning kiss. Then she laid me in her lap as if I were a child.
Helpless. I got sore when she started to hum a lullaby. She wouldnt
let me go. I talked. I knew damned well that I could beat her at that.
Her eyes were soft and misty, the curves of her lips were wistful, and
her smile seemed indulgent of the irrelevance of my remarks. I gave up
at last and let her love me, silently, in her own way. The moon was
brilliant. The air was sweet like clover, and every now and then, a
salt tang, a stale drift of sea-weed....

                   •       •       •       •       •

The next time I came close to her was the following summer at Harpers
Ferry. We were sitting on a flat projecting rock they give the name of
Lover’s Leap. Some one is supposed to have jumped off it. The river is
about six hundred feet beneath. A railroad track runs up the valley and
curves out of sight where part of the mountain rock had to be blasted
away to make room for it. The engines of this valley have a whistle,
the echoes of which sound like iterated gasps and sobs. I always think
of them as crude music from the soul of Avey. We sat there holding
hands. Our palms were soft and warm against each other. Our fingers
were not tight. She would not let them be. She would not let me twist
them. I wanted to talk. To explain what I meant to her. Avey was as
silent as those great trees whose tops we looked down upon. She has
always been like that. At least, to me. I had the notion that if I
really wanted to, I could do with her just what I pleased. Like one
can strip a tree. I did kiss her. I even let my hands cup her breasts.
When I was through, she’d seek my hand and hold it till my pulse cooled
down. Evening after evening we sat there. I tried to get her to talk
about that college feller. She never would. There was no set time to go
home. None of my family had come down. And as for hers, she didnt give
a hang about them. The general gossips could hardly say more than they
had. The boarding-house porch was always deserted when we returned. No
one saw us enter, so the time was set conveniently for scandal. This
worried me a little, for I thought it might keep Avey from getting an
appointment in the schools. She didnt care. She had finished normal
school. They could give her a job if they wanted to. As time went on,
her indifference to things began to pique me; I was ambitious. I left
the Ferry earlier than she did. I was going off to college. The more
I thought of it, the more I resented, yes, hell, thats what it was,
her downright laziness. Sloppy indolence. There was no excuse for a
healthy girl taking life so easy. Hell! she was no better than a cow.
I was certain that she was a cow when I felt an udder in a Wisconsin
stock-judging class. Among those energetic Swedes, or whatever they
are, I decided to forget her. For two years I thought I did. When I’d
come home for the summer she’d be away. And before she returned, I’d
be gone. We never wrote; she was too damned lazy for that. But what a
bluff I put up about forgetting her. The girls up that way, at least
the ones I knew, havent got the stuff: they dont know how to love.
Giving themselves completely was tame beside just the holding of Avey’s
hand. One day I received a note from her. The writing, I decided, was
slovenly. She wrote on a torn bit of note-book paper. The envelope had
a faint perfume that I remembered. A single line told me she had lost
her school and was going away. I comforted myself with the reflection
that shame held no pain for one so indolent as she. Nevertheless, I
left Wisconsin that year for good. Washington had seemingly forgotten
her. I hunted Ned. Between curses, I caught his opinion of her. She
was no better than a whore. I saw her mother on the street. The same
old pinch-beck, jerky-gaited creature that I’d always known.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Perhaps five years passed. The business of hunting a job or something
or other had bruised my vanity so that I could recognize it. I felt
old. Avey and my real relation to her, I thought I came to know. I
wanted to see her. I had been told that she was in New York. As I had
no money, I hiked and bummed my way there. I got work in a ship-yard
and walked the streets at night, hoping to meet her. Failing in this,
I saved enough to pay my fare back home. One evening in early June,
just at the time when dusk is most lovely on the eastern horizon, I saw
Avey, indolent as ever, leaning on the arm of a man, strolling under
the recently lit arc-lights of U Street. She had almost passed before
she recognized me. She showed no surprise. The puff over her eyes
had grown heavier. The eyes themselves were still sleepy-large, and
beautiful. I had almost concluded—indifferent. “You look older,” was
what she said. I wanted to convince her that I was, so I asked her to
walk with me. The man whom she was with, and whom she never took the
trouble to introduce, at a nod from her, hailed a taxi, and drove away.
That gave me a notion of what she had been used to. Her dress was of
some fine, costly stuff. I suggested the park, and then added that the
grass might stain her skirt. Let it get stained, she said, for where it
came from there are others.

                   •       •       •       •       •

I have a spot in Soldier’s Home to which I always go when I want the
simple beauty of another’s soul. Robins spring about the lawn all
day. They leave their footprints in the grass. I imagine that the
grass at night smells sweet and fresh because of them. The ground is
high. Washington lies below. Its light spreads like a blush against
the darkened sky. Against the soft dusk sky of Washington. And when
the wind is from the South, soil of my homeland falls like a fertile
shower upon the lean streets of the city. Upon my hill in Soldier’s
Home. I know the policeman who watches the place of nights. When I go
there alone, I talk to him. I tell him I come there to find the truth
that people bury in their hearts. I tell him that I do not come there
with a girl to do the thing he’s paid to watch out for. I look deep
in his eyes when I say these things, and he believes me. He comes
over to see who it is on the grass. I say hello to him. He greets me
in the same way and goes off searching for other black splotches upon
the lawn. Avey and I went there. A band in one of the buildings a fair
distance off was playing a march. I wished they would stop. Their
playing was like a tin spoon in one’s mouth. I wanted the Howard Glee
Club to sing “Deep River,” from the road. To sing “Deep River, Deep
River,” from the road... Other than the first comments, Avey had been
silent. I started to hum a folk-tune. She slipped her hand in mine.
Pillowed her head as best she could upon my arm. Kissed the hand that
she was holding and listened, or so I thought, to what I had to say. I
traced my development from the early days up to the present time, the
phase in which I could understand her. I described her own nature and
temperament. Told how they needed a larger life for their expression.
How incapable Washington was of understanding that need. How it
could not meet it. I pointed out that in lieu of proper channels, her
emotions had overflowed into paths that dissipated them. I talked,
beautifully I thought, about an art that would be born, an art that
would open the way for women the likes of her. I asked her to hope, and
build up an inner life against the coming of that day. I recited some
of my own things to her. I sang, with a strange quiver in my voice,
a promise-song. And then I began to wonder why her hand had not once
returned a single pressure. My old-time feeling about her laziness came
back. I spoke sharply. My policeman friend passed by. I said hello to
him. As he went away, I began to visualize certain possibilities. An
immediate and urgent passion swept over me. Then I looked at Avey.
Her heavy eyes were closed. Her breathing was as faint and regular as
a child’s in slumber. My passion died. I was afraid to move lest I
disturb her. Hours and hours, I guess it was, she lay there. My body
grew numb. I shivered. I coughed. I wanted to get up and whittle at
the boxes of young trees. I withdrew my hand. I raised her head to
waken her. She did not stir. I got up and walked around. I found my
policeman friend and talked to him. We both came up, and bent over her.
He said it would be all right for her to stay there just so long as she
got away before the workmen came at dawn. A blanket was borrowed from
a neighbor house. I sat beside her through the night. I saw the dawn
steal over Washington. The Capitol dome looked like a gray ghost ship
drifting in from sea. Avey’s face was pale, and her eyes were heavy.
She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn. I hated
to wake her. Orphan-woman...



                                BEEHIVE


    Within this black hive to-night
    There swarm a million bees;
    Bees passing in and out the moon,
    Bees escaping out the moon,
    Bees returning through the moon,
    Silver bees intently buzzing,
    Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
    Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
    And I, a drone,
    Lying on my back,
    Lipping honey,
    Getting drunk with silver honey,
    Wish that I might fly out past the moon
    And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.



                             STORM ENDING


    Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
    Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
    Rumbling in the wind,
    Stretching clappers to strike our ears ..
    Full-lipped flowers
    Bitten by the sun
    Bleeding rain
    Dripping rain like golden honey—
    And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.



                                THEATER


Life of nigger alleys, of pool rooms and restaurants and near-beer
saloons soaks into the walls of Howard Theater and sets them throbbing
jazz songs. Black-skinned, they dance and shout above the tick and
trill of white-walled buildings. At night, they open doors to people
who come in to stamp their feet and shout. At night, road-shows volley
songs into the mass-heart of black people. Songs soak the walls and
seep out to the nigger life of alleys and near-beer saloons, of the
Poodle Dog and Black Bear cabarets. Afternoons, the house is dark, and
the walls are sleeping singers until rehearsal begins. Or until John
comes within them. Then they start throbbing to a subtle syncopation.
And the space-dark air grows softly luminous.

John is the manager’s brother. He is seated at the center of the
theater, just before rehearsal. Light streaks down upon him from a
window high above. One half his face is orange in it. One half his
face is in shadow. The soft glow of the house rushes to, and compacts
about, the shaft of light. John’s mind coincides with the shaft of
light. Thoughts rush to, and compact about it. Life of the house and of
the slowly awakening stage swirls to the body of John, and thrills it.
John’s body is separate from the thoughts that pack his mind.

Stage-lights, soft, as if they shine through clear pink fingers.
Beneath them, hid by the shadow of a set, Dorris. Other chorus girls
drift in. John feels them in the mass. And as if his own body were the
mass-heart of a black audience listening to them singing, he wants
to stamp his feet and shout. His mind, contained above desires of
his body, singles the girls out, and tries to trace origins and plot
destinies.

A pianist slips into the pit and improvises jazz. The walls awake. Arms
of the girls, and their limbs, which .. jazz, jazz .. by lifting up
their tight street skirts they set free, jab the air and clog the floor
in rhythm to the music. (Lift your skirts, Baby, and talk t papa!)
Crude, individualized, and yet .. monotonous...

John: Soon the director will herd you, my full-lipped, distant
beauties, and tame you, and blunt your sharp thrusts in loosely
suggestive movements, appropriate to Broadway. (O dance!) Soon the
audience will paint your dusk faces white, and call you beautiful. (O
dance!) Soon I... (O dance!) I’d like...

Girls laugh and shout. Sing discordant snatches of other jazz songs.
Whirl with loose passion into the arms of passing show-men.

John: Too thick. Too easy. Too monotonous. Her whom I’d love I’d leave
before she knew that I was with her. Her? Which? (O dance!) I’d like
to...

Girls dance and sing. Men clap. The walls sing and press inward. They
press the men and girls, they press John towards a center of physical
ecstasy. Go to it, Baby! Fan yourself, and feed your papa! Put ..
nobody lied .. and take .. when they said I cried over you. No lie!
The glitter and color of stacked scenes, the gilt and brass and crimson
of the house, converge towards a center of physical ecstasy. John’s
feet and torso and his blood press in. He wills thought to rid his mind
of passion.

“All right, girls. Alaska. Miss Reynolds, please.”

The director wants to get the rehearsal through with.

The girls line up. John sees the front row: dancing ponies. The rest
are in shadow. The leading lady fits loosely in the front. Lack-life,
monotonous. “One, two, three—” Music starts. The song is somewhere
where it will not strain the leading lady’s throat. The dance is
somewhere where it will not strain the girls. Above the staleness,
one dancer throws herself into it. Dorris. John sees her. Her
hair, crisp-curled, is bobbed. Bushy, black hair bobbing about her
lemon-colored face. Her lips are curiously full, and very red. Her
limbs in silk purple stockings are lovely. John feels them. Desires
her. Holds off.

John: Stage-door johnny; chorus-girl. No, that would be all right.
Dictie, educated, stuck-up; show-girl. Yep. Her suspicion would be
stronger than her passion. It wouldnt work. Keep her loveliness. Let
her go.

Dorris sees John and knows that he is looking at her. Her own glowing
is too rich a thing to let her feel the slimness of his diluted
passion.

“Who’s that?” she asks her dancing partner.

“Th manager’s brother. Dictie. Nothin doin, hon.”

Dorris tosses her head and dances for him until she feels she has him.
Then, withdrawing disdainfully, she flirts with the director.

Dorris: Nothin doin? How come? Aint I as good as him? Couldnt I have
got an education if I’d wanted one? Dont I know respectable folks, lots
of em, in Philadelphia and New York and Chicago? Aint I had men as good
as him? Better. Doctors an lawyers. Whats a manager’s brother, anyhow?

Two steps back, and two steps front.

“Say, Mame, where do you get that stuff?”

“Whatshmean, Dorris?”

“If you two girls cant listen to what I’m telling you, I know where I
can get some who can. Now listen.”

Mame: Go to hell, you black bastard.

Dorris: Whats eatin at him, anyway?

“Now follow me in this, you girls. Its three counts to the right,
three counts to the left, and then you shimmy—”

John: —and then you shimmy. I’ll bet she can. Some good cabaret, with
rooms upstairs. And what in hell do you think you’d get from it? Youre
going wrong. Here’s right: get her to herself—(Christ, but how she’d
bore you after the first five minutes)—not if you get her right she
wouldnt. Touch her, I mean. To herself—in some room perhaps. Some
cheap, dingy bedroom. Hell no. Cant be done. But the point is, brother
John, it can be done. Get her to herself somewhere, anywhere. Go down
in yourself—and she’d be calling you all sorts of asses while you were
in the process of going down. Hold em, bud. Cant be done. Let her go.
(Dance and I’ll love you!) And keep her loveliness.

“All right now, Chicken Chaser. Dorris and girls. Where’s Dorris? I
told you to stay on the stage, didnt I? Well? Now thats enough. All
right. All right there, Professor? All right. One, two, three—”

Dorris swings to the front. The line of girls, four deep, blurs within
the shadow of suspended scenes. Dorris wants to dance. The director
feels that and steps to one side. He smiles, and picks her for a
leading lady, one of these days. Odd ends of stage-men emerge from the
wings, and stare and clap. A crap game in the alley suddenly ends.
Black faces crowd the rear stage doors. The girls, catching joy from
Dorris, whip up within the footlights’ glow. They forget set steps;
they find their own. The director forgets to bawl them out. Dorris
dances.

John: Her head bobs to Broadway. Dance from yourself. Dance! O just a
little more.

Dorris’ eyes burn across the space of seats to him.

Dorris: I bet he can love. Hell, he cant love. He’s too skinny. His
lips are too skinny. He wouldnt love me anyway, only for that. But I’d
get a pair of silk stockings out of it. Red silk. I got purple. Cut
it, kid. You cant win him to respect you that away. He wouldnt anyway.
Maybe he would. Maybe he’d love. I’ve heard em say that men who look
like him (what does he look like?) will marry if they love. O will you
love me? And give me kids, and a home, and everything? (I’d like to
make your nest, and honest, hon, I wouldnt run out on you.) You will if
I make you. Just watch me.

Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances.

Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs.

And her singing is of canebrake loves and mangrove feastings.

The walls press in, singing. Flesh of a throbbing body, they press
close to John and Dorris. They close them in. John’s heart beats
tensely against her dancing body. Walls press his mind within his
heart. And then, the shaft of light goes out the window high above him.
John’s mind sweeps up to follow it. Mind pulls him upward into dream.
Dorris dances...
John dreams:

  Dorris is dressed in a loose black gown splashed with lemon
  ribbons. Her feet taper long and slim from trim ankles. She
  waits for him just inside the stage door. John, collar and tie
  colorful and flaring, walks towards the stage door. There are
  no trees in the alley. But his feet feel as though they step
  on autumn leaves whose rustle has been pressed out of them by
  the passing of a million satin slippers. The air is sweet with
  roasting chestnuts, sweet with bonfires of old leaves. John’s
  melancholy is a deep thing that seals all senses but his eyes,
  and makes him whole.

  Dorris knows that he is coming. Just at the right moment she
  steps from the door, as if there were no door. Her face is
  tinted like the autumn alley. Of old flowers, or of a southern
  canefield, her perfume. “Glorious Dorris.” So his eyes speak.
  And their sadness is too deep for sweet untruth. She barely
  touches his arm. They glide off with footfalls softened on the
  leaves, the old leaves powdered by a million satin slippers.

  They are in a room. John knows nothing of it. Only, that the
  flesh and blood of Dorris are its walls. Singing walls. Lights,
  soft, as if they shine through clear pink fingers. Soft lights,
  and warm.

  John reaches for a manuscript of his, and reads. Dorris, who
  has no eyes, has eyes to understand him. He comes to a dancing
  scene. The scene is Dorris. She dances. Dorris dances. Glorious
  Dorris. Dorris whirls, whirls, dances...

                                                       Dorris dances.

The pianist crashes a bumper chord. The whole stage claps. Dorris,
flushed, looks quick at John. His whole face is in shadow. She seeks
for her dance in it. She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is
his dream. She rushes from the stage. Falls down the steps into her
dressing-room. Pulls her hair. Her eyes, over a floor of tears, stare
at the whitewashed ceiling. (Smell of dry paste, and paint, and soiled
clothing.) Her pal comes in. Dorris flings herself into the old safe
arms, and cries bitterly.

“I told you nothin doin,” is what Mame says to comfort her.



                       HER LIPS ARE COPPER WIRE


    whisper of yellow globes
    gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
    like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

    and let your breath be moist against me
    like bright beads on yellow globes

    telephone the power-house
    that the main wires are insulate

    (her words play softly up and down
    dewy corridors of billboards)

    then with your tongue remove the tape
    and press your lips to mine
    till they are incandescent



                             CALLING JESUS


Her soul is like a little thrust-tailed dog that follows her,
whimpering. She is large enough, I know, to find a warm spot for it.
But each night when she comes home and closes the big outside storm
door, the little dog is left in the vestibule, filled with chills till
morning. Some one ... eoho Jesus ... soft as a cotton boll brushed
against the milk-pod cheek of Christ, will steal in and cover it that
it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps upon clean hay
cut in her dreams.

                   •       •       •       •       •

When you meet her in the daytime on the streets, the little dog keeps
coming. Nothing happens at first, and then, when she has forgotten
the streets and alleys, and the large house where she goes to bed of
nights, a soft thing like fur begins to rub your limbs, and you hear a
low, scared voice, lonely, calling, and you know that a cool something
nozzles moisture in your palms. Sensitive things like nostrils, quiver.
Her breath comes sweet as honeysuckle whose pistils bear the life of
coming song. And her eyes carry to where builders find no need for
vestibules, for swinging on iron hinges, storm doors.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Her soul is like a little thrust-tailed dog, that follows her,
whimpering. I’ve seen it tagging on behind her, up streets where
chestnut trees flowered, where dusty asphalt had been freshly sprinkled
with clean water. Up alleys where niggers sat on low door-steps before
tumbled shanties and sang and loved. At night, when she comes home, the
little dog is left in the vestibule, nosing the crack beneath the big
storm door, filled with chills till morning. Some one ... eoho Jesus
... soft as the bare feet of Christ moving across bales of southern
cotton, will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry
it to her where she sleeps: cradled in dream-fluted cane.



                               BOX SEAT

                                   1


Houses are shy girls whose eyes shine reticently upon the dusk body of
the street. Upon the gleaming limbs and asphalt torso of a dreaming
nigger. Shake your curled wool-blossoms, nigger. Open your liver lips
to the lean, white spring. Stir the root-life of a withered people.
Call them from their houses, and teach them to dream.

Dark swaying forms of Negroes are street songs that woo virginal houses.

Dan Moore walks southward on Thirteenth Street. The low limbs of
budding chestnut trees recede above his head. Chestnut buds and
blossoms are wool he walks upon. The eyes of houses faintly touch him
as he passes them. Soft girl-eyes, they set him singing. Girl-eyes
within him widen upward to promised faces. Floating away, they dally
wistfully over the dusk body of the street. Come on, Dan Moore, come
on. Dan sings. His voice is a little hoarse. It cracks. He strains to
produce tones in keeping with the houses’ loveliness. Cant be done. He
whistles. His notes are shrill. They hurt him. Negroes open gates, and
go indoors, perfectly. Dan thinks of the house he’s going to. Of the
girl. Lips, flesh-notes of a forgotten song, plead with him...

Dan turns into a side-street, opens an iron gate, bangs it to. Mounts
the steps, and searches for the bell. Funny, he cant find it. He
fumbles around. The thought comes to him that some one passing by might
see him, and not understand. Might think that he is trying to sneak, to
break in.

Dan: Break in. Get an ax and smash in. Smash in their faces. I’ll show
em. Break into an engine-house, steal a thousand horse-power fire
truck. Smash in with the truck. I’ll show em. Grab an ax and brain
em. Cut em up. Jack the Ripper. Baboon from the zoo. And then the
cops come. “No, I aint a baboon. I aint Jack the Ripper. I’m a poor
man out of work. Take your hands off me, you bull-necked bears. Look
into my eyes. I am Dan Moore. I was born in a canefield. The hands of
Jesus touched me. I am come to a sick world to heal it. Only the other
day, a dope fiend brushed against me— Dont laugh, you mighty, juicy,
meat-hook men. Give me your fingers and I will peel them as if they
were ripe bananas.”

Some one might think he is trying to break in. He’d better knock. His
knuckles are raw bone against the thick glass door. He waits. No one
comes. Perhaps they havent heard him. He raps again. This time, harder.
He waits. No one comes. Some one is surely in. He fancies that he sees
their shadows on the glass. Shadows of gorillas. Perhaps they saw him
coming and dont want to let him in. He knocks. The tension of his arms
makes the glass rattle. Hurried steps come towards him. The door opens.

“Please, you might break the glass—the bell—oh, Mr. Moore! I thought
it must be some stranger. How do you do? Come in, wont you? Muriel?
Yes. I’ll call her. Take your things off, wont you? And have a seat in
the parlor. Muriel will be right down. Muriel! Oh Muriel! Mr. Moore to
see you. She’ll be right down. You’ll pardon me, wont you? So glad to
see you.”

Her eyes are weak. They are bluish and watery from reading newspapers.
The blue is steel. It gimlets Dan while her mouth flaps amiably to him.

Dan: Nothing for you to see, old mussel-head. Dare I show you? If I
did, delirium would furnish you headlines for a month. Now look here.
Thats enough. Go long, woman. Say some nasty thing and I’ll kill you.
Huh. Better damned sight not. Ta-ta, Mrs. Pribby.

Mrs. Pribby retreats to the rear of the house. She takes up a
newspaper. There is a sharp click as she fits into her chair and draws
it to the table. The click is metallic like the sound of a bolt being
shot into place. Dan’s eyes sting. Sinking into a soft couch, he closes
them. The house contracts about him. It is a sharp-edged, massed,
metallic house. Bolted. About Mrs. Pribby. Bolted to the endless rows
of metal houses. Mrs. Pribby’s house. The rows of houses belong to
other Mrs. Pribbys. No wonder he couldn’t sing to them.

Dan: What’s Muriel doing here? God, what a place for her. Whats she
doing? Putting her stockings on? In the bathroom. Come out of there,
Dan Moore. People must have their privacy. Peeping-toms. I’ll never
peep. I’ll listen. I like to listen.

Dan goes to the wall and places his ear against it. A passing street
car and something vibrant from the earth sends a rumble to him. That
rumble comes from the earth’s deep core. It is the mutter of powerful
underground races. Dan has a picture of all the people rushing to put
their ears against walls, to listen to it. The next world-savior is
coming up that way. Coming up. A continent sinks down. The new-world
Christ will need consummate skill to walk upon the waters where huge
bubbles burst... Thuds of Muriel coming down. Dan turns to the
piano and glances through a stack of jazz music sheets. “Ji-ji-bo,
JI-JI-BO!”..

“Hello, Dan, stranger, what brought you here?”

Muriel comes in, shakes hands, and then clicks into a high-armed seat
under the orange glow of a floor-lamp. Her face is fleshy. It would
tend to coarseness but for the fresh fragrant something which is the
life of it. Her hair like an Indian’s. But more curly and bushed
and vagrant. Her nostrils flare. The flushed ginger of her cheeks is
touched orange by the shower of color from the lamp.

“Well, you havent told me, you havent answered my question, stranger.
What brought you here?”

Dan feels the pressure of the house, of the rear room, of the rows of
houses, shift to Muriel. He is light. He loves her. He is doubly heavy.

“Dont know, Muriel—wanted to see you—wanted to talk to you—to see
you and tell you that I know what you’ve been through—what pain the
last few months must have been—”

“Lets dont mention that.”

“But why not, Muriel? I—”

“Please.”

“But Muriel, life is full of things like that. One grows strong and
beautiful in facing them. What else is life?”

“I dont know, Dan. And I dont believe I care. Whats the use? Lets talk
about something else. I hear there’s a good show at the Lincoln this
week.”

“Yes, so Harry was telling me. Going?”

“To-night.”

Dan starts to rise.

“I didnt know. I dont want to keep you.”

“Its all right. You dont have to go till Bernice comes. And she wont be
here till eight. I’m all dressed. I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.”

Silence. The rustle of a newspaper being turned comes from the rear
room.

Muriel: Shame about Dan. Something awfully good and fine about him. But
he don’t fit in. In where? Me? Dan, I could love you if I tried. I dont
have to try. I do. O Dan, dont you know I do? Timid lover, brave talker
that you are. Whats the good of all you know if you dont know that? I
wont let myself. I? Mrs. Pribby who reads newspapers all night wont.
What has she got to do with me? She is me, somehow. No she’s not. Yes
she is. She is the town, and the town wont let me love you, Dan. Dont
you know? You could make it let me if you would. Why wont you? Youre
selfish. I’m not strong enough to buck it. Youre too selfish to buck
it, for me. I wish you’d go. You irritate me. Dan, please go.

“What are you doing now, Dan?”

“Same old thing, Muriel. Nothing, as the world would have it. Living,
as I look at things. Living as much as I can without—”

“But you cant live without money, Dan. Why dont you get a good job and
settle down?”

Dan: Same old line. Shoot it at me, sister. Hell of a note, this loving
business. For ten minutes of it youve got to stand the torture of an
intolerable heaviness and a hundred platitudes. Well, damit, shoot on.

“To what? my dear. Rustling newspapers?”

“You mustnt say that, Dan. It isnt right. Mrs. Pribby has been awfully
good to me.”

“Dare say she has. Whats that got to do with it?”

“Oh, Dan, youre so unconsiderate and selfish. All you think of is
yourself.”

“I think of you.”

“Too much—I mean, you ought to work more and think less. Thats the
best way to get along.”

“Mussel-heads get along, Muriel. There is more to you than that—”

“Sometimes I think there is, Dan. But I dont know. I’ve tried. I’ve
tried to do something with myself. Something real and beautiful, I
mean. But whats the good of trying? I’ve tried to make people, every
one I come in contact with, happy—”

Dan looks at her, directly. Her animalism, still unconquered by
zoo-restrictions and keeper-taboos, stirs him. Passion tilts upward,
bringing with it the elements of an old desire. Muriel’s lips become
the flesh-notes of a futile, plaintive longing. Dan’s impulse to direct
her is its fresh life.

“Happy, Muriel? No, not happy. Your aim is wrong. There is no such
thing as happiness. Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness,
in such a way that no one may isolate them. No one should want to.
Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting element to define
them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean death. Not
happy, Muriel. Say that you have tried to make them create. Say that
you have used your own capacity for life to cradle them. To start them
upward-flowing. Or if you cant say that you have, then say that you
will. My talking to you will make you aware of your power to do so.
Say that you will love, that you will give yourself in love—”

“To you, Dan?”

Dan’s consciousness crudely swerves into his passions. They flare up in
his eyes. They set up quivers in his abdomen. He is suddenly over-tense
and nervous.

“Muriel—”

The newspaper rustles in the rear room.

“Muriel—”

Dan rises. His arms stretch towards her. His fingers and his palms,
pink in the lamp-light, are glowing irons. Muriel’s chair is close and
stiff about her. The house, the rows of houses locked about her chair.
Dan’s fingers and arms are fire to melt and bars to wrench and force
and pry. Her arms hang loose. Her hands are hot and moist. Dan takes
them. He slips to his knees before her.

“Dan, you mustnt.”

“Muriel—”

“Dan, really you mustnt. No, Dan. No.”

“Oh, come, Muriel. Must I—”

“Shhh. Dan, please get up. Please. Mrs. Pribby is right in the next
room. She’ll hear you. She may come in. Dont, Dan. She’ll see you—”

“Well then, lets go out.”

“I cant. Let go, Dan. Oh, wont you please let go.”

Muriel tries to pull her hands away. Dan tightens his grip. He feels
the strength of his fingers. His muscles are tight and strong. He
stands up. Thrusts out his chest. Muriel shrinks from him. Dan becomes
aware of his crude absurdity. His lips curl. His passion chills. He has
an obstinate desire to possess her.

“Muriel, I love you. I want you, whatever the world of Pribby says.
Damn your Pribby. Who is she to dictate my love? I’ve stood enough of
her. Enough of you. Come here.”

Muriel’s mouth works in and out. Her eyes flash and waggle. She
wrenches her hands loose and forces them against his breast to keep
him off. Dan grabs her wrists. Wedges in between her arms. Her face is
close to him. It is hot and blue and moist. Ugly.

“Come here now.”

“Dont, Dan. Oh, dont. What are you killing?”

“Whats weak in both of us and a whole litter of Pribbys. For once in
your life youre going to face whats real, by God—”

A sharp rap on the newspaper in the rear room cuts between them. The
rap is like cool thick glass between them. Dan is hot on one side.
Muriel, hot on the other. They straighten. Gaze fearfully at one
another. Neither moves. A clock in the rear room, in the rear room,
the rear room, strikes eight. Eight slow, cool sounds. Bernice. Muriel
fastens on her image. She smooths her dress. She adjusts her skirt.
She becomes prim and cool. Rising, she skirts Dan as if to keep the
glass between them. Dan, gyrating nervously above the easy swing of his
limbs, follows her to the parlor door. Muriel retreats before him till
she reaches the landing of the steps that lead upstairs. She smiles
at him. Dan sees his face in the hall mirror. He runs his fingers
through his hair. Reaches for his hat and coat and puts them on. He
moves towards Muriel. Muriel steps backward up one step. Dan’s jaw
shoots out. Muriel jerks her arm in warning of Mrs. Pribby. She gasps
and turns and starts to run. Noise of a chair scraping as Mrs. Pribby
rises from it, ratchets down the hall. Dan stops. He makes a wry face,
wheels round, goes out, and slams the door.


                                   2

People come in slowly ... mutter, laughs, flutter, whishadwash, “I’ve
changed my work-clothes—” ... and fill vacant seats of Lincoln
Theater. Muriel, leading Bernice who is a cross between a washerwoman
and a blue-blood lady, a washer-blue, a washer-lady, wanders down the
right aisle to the lower front box. Muriel has on an orange dress.
Its color would clash with the crimson box-draperies, its color would
contradict the sweet rose smile her face is bathed in, should she take
her coat off. She’ll keep it on. Pale purple shadows rest on the planes
of her cheeks. Deep purple comes from her thick-shocked hair. Orange
of the dress goes well with these. Muriel presses her coat down from
around her shoulders. Teachers are not supposed to have bobbed hair.
She’ll keep her hat on. She takes the first chair, and indicates that
Bernice is to take the one directly behind her. Seated thus, her eyes
are level with, and near to, the face of an imaginary man upon the
stage. To speak to Berny she must turn. When she does, the audience is
square upon her.

People come in slowly ... “—for my Sunday-go-to-meeting dress. O glory
God! O shout Amen!” ... and fill vacant seats of Lincoln Theater. Each
one is a bolt that shoots into a slot, and is locked there. Suppose
the Lord should ask, where was Moses when the light went out? Suppose
Gabriel should blow his trumpet! The seats are slots. The seats are
bolted houses. The mass grows denser. Its weight at first is impalpable
upon the box. Then Muriel begins to feel it. She props her arm against
the brass box-rail, to ward it off. Silly. These people are friends of
hers: a parent of a child she teaches, an old school friend. She smiles
at them. They return her courtesy, and she is free to chat with Berny.
Berny’s tongue, started, runs on, and on. O washer-blue! O washer-lady!

Muriel: Never see Dan again. He makes me feel queer. Starts things he
doesnt finish. Upsets me. I am not upset. I am perfectly calm. I am
going to enjoy the show. Good show. I’ve had some show! This damn tame
thing. O Dan. Wont see Dan again. Not alone. Have Mrs. Pribby come in.
She _was_ in. Keep Dan out. If I love him, can I keep him out? Well
then, I dont love him. Now he’s out. Who is that coming in? Blind as a
bat. Ding-bat. Looks like Dan. He mustnt see me. Silly. He cant reach
me. He wont dare come in here. He’d put his head down like a goring
bull and charge me. He’d trample them. He’d gore. He’d rape! Berny! He
won’t dare come in here.

“Berny, who was that who just came in? I havent my glasses.”

“A friend of yours, a _good_ friend so I hear. Mr. Daniel Moore, Lord.”

“Oh. He’s no friend of mine.”

“No? I hear he is.”

“Well, he isnt.”

Dan is ushered down the aisle. He has to squeeze past the knees of
seated people to reach his own seat. He treads on a man’s corns. The
man grumbles, and shoves him off. He shrivels close beside a portly
Negress whose huge rolls of flesh meet about the bones of seat-arms.
A soil-soaked fragrance comes from her. Through the cement floor
her strong roots sink down. They spread under the asphalt streets.
Dreaming, the streets roll over on their bellies, and suck their glossy
health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river
and disappear in blood-lines that waver south. Her roots shoot down.
Dan’s hands follow them. Roots throb. Dan’s heart beats violently. He
places his palms upon the earth to cool them. Earth throbs. Dan’s heart
beats violently. He sees all the people in the house rush to the walls
to listen to the rumble. A new-world Christ is coming up. Dan comes up.
He is startled. The eyes of the woman dont belong to her. They look at
him unpleasanfly. From either aisle, bolted masses press in. He doesnt
fit. The mass grows agitant. For an instant, Dan’s and Muriel’s eyes
meet. His weight there slides the weight on her. She braces an arm
against the brass rail, and turns her head away.

Muriel: Damn fool; dear Dan, what did you want to follow me here for?
Oh cant you ever do anything right? Must you always pain me, and
make me hate you? I do hate you. I wish some one would come in with a
horse-whip and lash you out. I wish some one would drag you up a back
alley and brain you with the whip-butt.

Muriel glances at her wrist-watch.

“Quarter of nine. Berny, what time have you?”

“Eight-forty. Time to begin. Oh, look Muriel, that woman with the
plume; doesnt she look good! They say she’s going with, oh, whats his
name. You know. Too much powder. I can see it from here. Here’s the
orchestra now. O fine! Jim Clem at the piano!”

The men fill the pit. Instruments run the scale and tune. The saxophone
moans and throws a fit. Jim Clem, poised over the piano, is ready to
begin. His head nods forward. Opening crash. The house snaps dark. The
curtain recedes upward from the blush of the footlights. Jazz overture
is over. The first act is on.

Dan: Old stuff. Muriel—bored. Must be. But she’ll smile and she’ll
clap. Do what youre bid, you she-slave. Look at her. Sweet, tame woman
in a brass box seat. Clap, smile, fawn, clap. Do what youre bid. Drag
me in with you. Dirty me. Prop me in your brass box seat. I’m there, am
I not? because of you. He-slave. Slave of a woman who is a slave. I’m a
damned sight worse than you are. I sing your praises, Beauty! I exalt
thee, O Muriel! A slave, thou art greater than all Freedom because I
love thee.

Dan fidgets, and disturbs his neighbors. His neighbors glare at him.
He glares back without seeing them. The man whose corns have been trod
upon speaks to him.

“Keep quiet, cant you, mister. Other people have paid their money
besides yourself to see the show.”

The man’s face is a blur about two sullen liquid things that are his
eyes. The eyes dissolve in the surrounding vagueness. Dan suddenly
feels that the man is an enemy whom he has long been looking for.

Dan bristles. Glares furiously at the man.

“All right. All right then. Look at the show. I’m not stopping you.”

“Shhh,” from some one in the rear.

Dan turns around.

“Its that man there who started everything. I didnt say a thing to him
until he tried to start something. What have I got to do with whether
he has paid his money or not? Thats the manager’s business. Do I look
like the manager?”

“Shhhh. Youre right. Shhhh.”

“Dont tell me to shhh. Tell him. That man there. He started everything.
If what he wanted was to start a fight, why didnt he say so?”

The man leans forward.

“Better be quiet, sonny. I aint said a thing about fight, yet.”

“Its a good thing you havent.”

“Shhhh.”

Dan grips himself. Another act is on. Dwarfs, dressed like
prize-fighters, foreheads bulging like boxing gloves, are led upon
the stage. They are going to fight for the heavyweight championship.
Gruesome. Dan glances at Muriel. He imagines that she shudders. His
mind curves back into himself, and picks up tail-ends of experiences.
His eyes are open, mechanically. The dwarfs pound and bruise and bleed
each other, on his eyeballs.

Dan: Ah, but she was some baby! And not vulgar either. Funny how some
women can do those things. Muriel dancing like that! Hell. She rolled
and wabbled. Her buttocks rocked. She pulled up her dress and showed
her pink drawers. Baby! And then she caught my eyes. Dont know what my
eyes had in them. Yes I do. God, dont I though! Sometimes I think, Dan
Moore, that your eyes could burn clean ... burn clean ... BURN CLEAN!..

The gong rings. The dwarfs set to. They spar grotesquely, playfully,
until one lands a stiff blow. This makes the other sore. He commences
slugging. A real scrap is on. Time! The dwarfs go to their corners
and are sponged and fanned off. Gloves bulge from their wrists. Their
wrists are necks for the tight-faced gloves. The fellow to the right
lets his eyes roam over the audience. He sights Muriel. He grins.

Dan: Those silly women arguing feminism. Here’s what I should have said
to them. “It should be clear to you women, that the proposition must
be stated thus:

    Me, horizontally above her.
    Action: perfect strokes downward oblique.
    Hence, man dominates because of limitation.
    Or, so it shall be until women learn their stuff.

So framed, the proposition is a mental-filler, Dentist, I
want gold teeth. It should become cherished of the technical intellect.
I hereby offer it to posterity as one of the important machine-age
designs. P. S. It should be noted, that because it _is_ an achievement
of this age, its growth and hence its causes, up to the point of
maturity, antedate machinery. Ery...”

The gong rings. No fooling this time. The dwarfs set to. They clinch.
The referee parts them. One swings a cruel upper-cut and knocks the
other down. A huge head hits the floor. Pop! The house roars. The
fighter, groggy, scrambles up. The referee whispers to the contenders
not to fight so hard. They ignore him. They charge. Their heads jab
like boxing-gloves. They kick and spit and bite. They pound each other
furiously. Muriel pounds. The house pounds. Cut lips. Bloody noses.
The referee asks for the gong. Time! The house roars. The dwarfs bow,
are made to bow. The house wants more. The dwarfs are led from the
stage.

Dan: Strange I never really noticed him before. Been sitting there for
years. Born a slave. Slavery not so long ago. He’ll die in his chair.
Swing low, sweet chariot. Jesus will come and roll him down the river
Jordan. Oh, come along, Moses, you’ll get lost; stretch out your rod
and come across. LET MY PEOPLE GO! Old man. Knows everyone who passes
the corners. Saw the first horse-cars. The first Oldsmobile. And he was
born in slavery. I did see his eyes. Never miss eyes. But they were
bloodshot and watery. It hurt to look at them. It hurts to look in most
people’s eyes. He saw Grant and Lincoln. He saw Walt—old man, did you
see Walt Whitman? Did you see Walt Whitman! Strange force that drew me
to him. And I went up to see. The woman thought I saw crazy. I told
him to look into the heavens. He did, and smiled. I asked him if he
knew what that rumbling is that comes up from the ground. Christ, what
a stroke that was. And the jabbering idiots crowding around. And the
crossing-cop leaving his job to come over and wheel him away...

The house applauds. The house wants more. The dwarfs are led back. But
no encore. Must give the house something. The attendant comes out and
announces that Mr. Barry, the champion, will sing one of his own songs,
“for your approval.” Mr. Barry grins at Muriel as he wabbles from the
wing. He holds a fresh white rose, and a small mirror. He wipes blood
from his nose. He signals Jim Clem. The orchestra starts. A sentimental
love song, Mr. Barry sings, first to one girl, and then another in the
audience. He holds the mirror in such a way that it flashes in the face
of each one he sings to. The light swings around.

Dan: I am going to reach up and grab the girders of this building and
pull them down. The crash will be a signal. Hid by the smoke and dust
Dan Moore will arise. In his right hand will be a dynamo. In his left,
a god’s face that will flash white light from ebony. I’ll grab a girder
and swing it like a walking-stick. Lightning will flash. I’ll grab
its black knob and swing it like a crippled cane. Lightning... Some
one’s flashing ... some one’s flashing... Who in hell is flashing that
mirror? Take it off me, godam you.

Dan’s eyes are half blinded. He moves his head. The light follows.
He hears the audience laugh. He hears the orchestra. A man with a
high-pitched, sentimental voice is singing. Dan sees the dwarf. Along
the mirror flash the song comes. Dan ducks his head. The audience
roars. The light swings around to Muriel. Dan looks. Muriel is too
close. Mr. Barry covers his mirror. He sings to her. She shrinks away.
Nausea. She clutches the brass box-rail. She moves to face away.
The audience is square upon her. Its eyes smile. Its hands itch to
clap. Muriel turns to the dwarf and forces a smile at him. With a
showy blare of orchestration, the song comes to its close. Mr. Barry
bows. He offers Muriel the rose, first having kissed it. Blood of his
battered lips is a vivid stain upon its petals. Mr. Barry offers Muriel
the rose. The house applauds. Muriel flinches back. The dwarf steps
forward, diffident; threatening. Hate pops from his eyes and crackles
like a brittle heat about the box. The thick hide of his face is drawn
in tortured wrinkles. Above his eyes, the bulging, tight-skinned brow.
Dan looks at it. It grows calm and massive. It grows profound. It is
a thing of wisdom and tenderness, of suffering and beauty. Dan looks
down. The eyes are calm and luminous. Words come from them... Arms
of the audience reach out, grab Muriel, and hold her there. Claps
are steel fingers that manacle her wrists and move them forward to
acceptance. Berny leans forward and whispers:

“Its all right. Go on—take it.”

Words form in the eyes of the dwarf:

    Do not shrink. Do not be afraid of me.
    _Jesus_
    See how my eyes look at you.
    _the Son of God_
    I too was made in His image.
    _was once_—
    I give you the rose.

Muriel, tight in her revulsion, sees black, and daintily reaches for
the offering. As her hand touches it, Dan springs up in his seat and
shouts:

  “JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER!”

Dan steps down.

He is as cool as a green stem that has just shed its flower.

Rows of gaping faces strain towards him. They are distant, beneath him,
impalpable. Squeezing out, Dan again treads upon the corn-foot man. The
man shoves him.

“Watch where youre going, mister. Crazy or no, you aint going to walk
over me. Watch where youre going there.”

Dan turns, and serenely tweaks the fellow’s nose. The man jumps up. Dan
is jammed against a seat-back. A slight swift anger flicks him. His
fist hooks the other’s jaw.

“Now you have started something. Aint no man living can hit me and get
away with it. Come on on the outside.”

The house, tumultuously stirring, grabs its wraps and follows the men.

The man leads Dan up a black alley. The alley-air is thick and moist
with smells of garbage and wet trash. In the morning, singing niggers
will drive by and ring their gongs... Heavy with the scent of rancid
flowers and with the scent of fight. The crowd, pressing forward, is a
hollow roar. Eyes of houses, soft girl-eyes, glow reticently upon the
hubbub and blink out. The man stops. Takes off his hat and coat. Dan,
having forgotten him, keeps going on.



                                PRAYER


    My body is opaque to the soul.
    Driven of the spirit, long have I sought to temper it unto the
        spirit’s longing,
    But my mind, too, is opaque to the soul.
    A closed lid is my soul’s flesh-eye.
    O Spirits of whom my soul is but a little finger,
    Direct it to the lid of its flesh-eye.
    I am weak with much giving.
    I am weak with the desire to give more.
    (How strong a thing is the little finger!)
    So weak that I have confused the body with the soul,
    And the body with its little finger.
    (How frail is the little finger.)
    My voice could not carry to you did you dwell in stars,
    O Spirits of whom my soul is but a little finger..



                             HARVEST SONG


    I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are
        cradled.
    But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them.
        And I hunger.

    I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.
    I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry.
        I hunger.

    My eyes are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time.
    I am a blind man who stares across the hills, seeking stack’d
        fields of other harvesters.

    It would be good to see them .. crook’d, split, and iron-ring’d
        handles of the scythes. It would be good to see them,
        dust-caked and blind. I hunger.

    (Dusk is a strange fear’d sheath their blades are dull’d in.)
    My throat is dry. And should I call, a cracked grain like the oats
        ... eoho—

    I fear to call. What should they hear me, and offer me their
        grain, oats, or wheat, or corn? I have been in the fields all
        day. I fear I could not taste it. I fear knowledge of my
        hunger.

    My ears are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time.
    I am a deaf man who strains to hear the calls of other harvesters
        whose throats are also dry.

    It would be good to hear their songs .. reapers of the
        sweet-stalk’d cane, cutters of the corn .. even though their
        throats cracked and the strangeness of their voices deafened
        me.

    I hunger. My throat is dry. Now that the sun has set and I am
        chilled, I fear to call. (Eoho, my brothers!)

    I am a reaper. (Eoho!) All my oats are cradled. But I am too
        fatigued to bind them. And I hunger. I crack a grain. It has
        no taste to it. My throat is dry...

    O my brothers, I beat my palms, still soft, against the stubble of
        my harvesting. (You beat your soft palms, too.) My pain is
        sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not
        bring me knowledge of my hunger.



                             BONA AND PAUL


                                   1

On the school gymnasium floor, young men and women are drilling. They
are going to be teachers, and go out into the world .. thud, thud ..
and give precision to the movements of sick people who all their lives
have been drilling. One man is out of step. In step. The teacher glares
at him. A girl in bloomers, seated on a mat in the corner because she
has told the director that she is sick, sees that the footfalls of the
men are rhythmical and syncopated. The dance of his blue-trousered
limbs thrills her.

Bona: He is a candle that dances in a grove swung with pale balloons.

Columns of the drillers thud towards her. He is in the front row. He is
in no row at all. Bona can look close at him. His red-brown face—

Bona: He is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is a nigger. Bona!
But dont all the dorm girls say so? And dont you, when you are sane,
say so? Thats why I love—Oh, nonsense. You have never loved a man who
didnt first love you. Besides—

Columns thud away from her. Come to a halt in line formation. Rigid.
The period bell rings, and the teacher dismisses them.

A group collects around Paul. They are choosing sides for basket-ball.
Girls against boys. Paul has his. He is limbering up beneath the
basket. Bona runs to the girl captain and asks to be chosen. The girls
fuss. The director comes to quiet them. He hears what Bona wants.

“But, Miss Hale, you were excused—”

“So I was, Mr. Boynton, but—”

“—you can play basket-ball, but you are too sick to drill.”

“If you wish to put it that way.”

She swings away from him to the girl captain.

“Helen, I want to play, and you must let me. This is the first time
I’ve asked and I dont see why—”

“Thats just it, Bona. We have our team.”

“Well, team or no team, I want to play and thats all there is to it.”

She snatches the ball from Helen’s hands, and charges down the floor.

Helen shrugs. One of the weaker girls says that she’ll drop out. Helen
accepts this. The team is formed. The whistle blows. The game starts.
Bona, in center, is jumping against Paul. He plays with her. Out-jumps
her, makes a quick pass, gets a quick return, and shoots a goal from
the middle of the floor. Bona burns crimson. She fights, and tries to
guard him. One of her team-mates advises her not to play so hard. Paul
shoots his second goal.

Bona begins to feel a little dizzy and all in. She drives on. Almost
hugs Paul to guard him. Near the basket, he attempts to shoot, and Bona
lunges into his body and tries to beat his arms. His elbow, going up,
gives her a sharp crack on the jaw. She whirls. He catches her. Her
body stiffens. Then becomes strangely vibrant, and bursts to a swift
life within her anger. He is about to give way before her hatred when
a new passion flares at him and makes his stomach fall. Bona squeezes
him. He suddenly feels stifled, and wonders why in hell the ring of
silly gaping faces that’s caked about him doesnt make way and give
him air. He has a swift illusion that it is himself who has been
struck. He looks at Bona. Whir. Whir. They seem to be human distortions
spinning tensely in a fog. Spinning .. dizzy .. spinning... Bona
jerks herself free, flushes a startling crimson, breaks through the
bewildered teams, and rushes from the hall.


                                   2

Paul is in his room of two windows.

Outside, the South-Side L track cuts them in two.

Bona is one window. One window, Paul.

Hurtling Loop-jammed L trains throw them in swift shadow.

Paul goes to his. Gray slanting roofs of houses are tinted lavender
in the setting sun. Paul follows the sun, over the stock-yards where
a fresh stench is just arising, across wheat lands that are still
waving above their stubble, into the sun. Paul follows the sun to a
pine-matted hillock in Georgia. He sees the slanting roofs of gray
unpainted cabins tinted lavender. A Negress chants a lullaby beneath
the mate-eyes of a southern planter. Her breasts are ample for the
suckling of a song. She weans it, and sends it, curiously weaving,
among lush melodies of cane and corn. Paul follows the sun into himself
in Chicago.

He is at Bona’s window.

With his own glow he looks through a dark pane.

                   •       •       •       •       •

Paul’s room-mate comes in.

“Say, Paul, I’ve got a date for you. Come on. Shake a leg, will you?”

His blonde hair is combed slick. His vest is snug about him.

He is like the electric light which he snaps on.

“Whatdoysay, Paul? Get a wiggle on. Come on. We havent got much time by
the time we eat and dress and everything.”

His bustling concentrates on the brushing of his hair.

Art: What in hell’s getting into Paul of late, anyway? Christ, but he’s
getting moony. Its his blood. Dark blood: moony. Doesnt get anywhere
unless you boost it. You’ve got to keep it going—

“Say, Paul!”

—or it’ll go to sleep on you. Dark blood; nigger? Thats what those
jealous she-hens say. Not Bona though, or she .. from the South ..
wouldnt want me to fix a date for him and her. Hell of a thing, that
Paul’s dark: you’ve got to always be answering questions.

“Say, Paul, for Christ’s sake leave that window, cant you?”

“Whats it, Art?”

“Hell, I’ve told you about fifty times. Got a date for you. Come on.”

“With who?”

Art: He didnt use to ask; now he does. Getting up in the air. Getting
funny.

“Heres your hat. Want a smoke? Paul! Here. I’ve got a match. Now come
on and I’ll tell you all about it on the way to supper.”

Paul: He’s going to Life this time. No doubt of that. Quit your
kidding. Some day, dear Art, I’m going to kick the living slats out of
you, and you wont know what I’ve done it for. And your slats will bring
forth Life .. beautiful woman...

_Pure Food Restaurant._

“Bring me some soup with a lot of crackers, understand? And then a
roast-beef dinner. Same for you, eh, Paul? Now as I was saying, you’ve
got a swell chance with her. And she’s game. Best proof: she dont give
a damn what the dorm girls say about you and her in the gym, or about
the funny looks that Boynton gives her, or about what they say about,
well, hell, you know, Paul. And say, Paul, she’s a sweetheart. Tall,
not puffy and pretty, more serious and deep—the kind you like these
days. And they say she’s got a car. And say, she’s on fire. But you
know all about that. She got Helen to fix it up with me. The four of
us—remember the last party? Crimson Gardens! Boy!”

Paul’s eyes take on a light that Art can settle in.


                                   3

Art has on his patent-leather pumps and fancy vest. A loose fall coat
is swung across his arm. His face has been massaged, and over a close
shave, powdered. It is a healthy pink the blue of evening tints a
purple pallor. Art is happy and confident in the good looks that his
mirror gave him. Bubbling over with a joy he must spend now if the
night is to contain it all. His bubbles, too, are curiously tinted
purple as Paul watches them. Paul, contrary to what he had thought he
would be like, is cool like the dusk, and like the dusk, detached.
His dark face is a floating shade in evening’s shadow. He sees Art,
curiously. Art is a purple fluid, carbon-charged, that effervesces
besides him. He loves Art. But is it not queer, this pale purple
facsimile of a red-blooded Norwegian friend of his? Perhaps for some
reason, white skins are not supposed to live at night. Surely, enough
nights would transform them fantastically, or kill them. And their red
passion? Night paled that too, and made it moony. Moony. Thats what Art
thought of him. Bona didnt, even in the daytime. Bona, would she be
pale? Impossible. Not that red glow. But the conviction did not set his
emotion flowing.

“Come right in, wont you? The young ladies will be right down. Oh, Mr.
Carlstrom, do play something for us while you are waiting. We just
love to listen to your music. You play so well.”

Houses, and dorm sitting-rooms are places where white faces seclude
themselves at night. There is a reason...

Art sat on the piano and simply tore it down. Jazz. The picture of Our
Poets hung perilously.

Paul: I’ve got to get the kid to play that stuff for me in the daytime.
Might be different More himself. More nigger. Different? There is.
Curious, though.

The girls come in. Art stops playing, and almost immediately takes up a
petty quarrel, where he had last left it, with Helen.

Bona, black-hair curled staccato, sharply contrasting with Helen’s
puffy yellow, holds Paul’s hand. She squeezes it. Her own emotion
supplements the return pressure. And then, for no tangible reason, her
spirits drop. Without them, she is nervous, and slightly afraid. She
resents this. Paul’s eyes are critical. She resents Paul. She flares at
him. She flares to poise and security.

“Shall we be on our way?”

“Yes, Bona, certainly.”

                   •       •       •       •       •

The Boulevard is sleek in asphalt, and, with arc-lights and
limousines, aglow. Dry leaves scamper behind the whir of cars. The
scent of exploded gasoline that mingles with them is faintly sweet.
Mellow stone mansions over-shadow clapboard homes which now resemble
Negro shanties in some southern alley. Bona and Paul, and Art and
Helen, move along an island-like, far-stretching strip of leaf-soft
ground. Above them, worlds of shadow-planes and solids, silently
moving. As if on one of these, Paul looks down on Bona. No doubt of it:
her face is pale. She is talking. Her words have no feel to them. One
sees them. They are pink petals that fall upon velvet cloth. Bona is
soft, and pale, and beautiful.

“Paul, tell me something about yourself—or would you rather wait?”

“I’ll tell you anything you’d like to know.”

“Not what I want to know, Paul; what you want to tell me.”

“You have the beauty of a gem fathoms under sea.”

“I feel that, but I dont want to be. I want to be near you. Perhaps I
will be if I tell you something. Paul, I love you.”

The sea casts up its jewel into his hands, and burns them furiously. To
tuck her arm under his and hold her hand will ease the burn.

“What can I say to you, brave dear woman—I cant talk love. Love is a
dry grain in my mouth unless it is wet with kisses.”

“You would dare? right here on the Boulevard? before Arthur and Helen?”

“Before myself? I dare.”

“Here then.”

Bona, in the slim shadow of a tree trunk, pulls Paul to her. Suddenly
she stiffens. Stops.

“But you have not said you love me.”

“I cant—yet—Bona.”

“Ach, you never will. Youre cold. Cold.”

Bona: Colored; cold. Wrong somewhere.

She hurries and catches up with Art and Helen.


                                   4

Crimson Gardens. Hurrah! So one feels. People ... University of Chicago
students, members of the stock exchange, a large Negro in crimson
uniform who guards the door .. had watched them enter. Had leaned
towards each other over ash-smeared tablecloths and highballs and
whispered: What is he, a Spaniard, an Indian, an Italian, a Mexican, a
Hindu, or a Japanese? Art had at first fidgeted under their stares ..
what are _you_ looking at, you godam pack of owl-eyed hyenas? .. but
soon settled into his fuss with Helen, and forgot them. A strange thing
happened to Paul. Suddenly he knew that he was apart from the people
around him. Apart from the pain which they had unconsciously caused.
Suddenly he knew that people saw, not attractiveness in his dark skin,
but difference. Their stares, giving him to himself, filled something
long empty within him, and were like green blades sprouting in his
consciousness. There was fullness, and strength and peace about it all.
He saw himself, cloudy, but real. He saw the faces of the people at
the tables round him. White lights, or as now, the pink lights of the
Crimson Gardens gave a glow and immediacy to white faces. The pleasure
of it, equal to that of love or dream, of seeing this. Art and Bona and
Helen? He’d look. They were wonderfully flushed and beautiful. Not for
himself; because they were. Distantly. Who were they, anyway? God, if
he knew them. He’d come in with them. Of that he was sure. Come where?
Into life? Yes. No. Into the Crimson Gardens. A part of life. A carbon
bubble. Would it look purple if he went out into the night and looked
at it? His sudden starting to rise almost upset the table.

“What in hell—pardon—whats the matter, Paul?”

“I forgot my cigarettes—”

“Youre smoking one.”

“So I am. Pardon me.”

The waiter straightens them out. Takes their order.

Art: What in hell’s eating Paul? Moony aint the word for it. From bad
to worse. And those godam people staring so. Paul’s a queer fish.
Doesnt seem to mind... He’s my pal, let me tell you, you horn-rimmed
owl-eyed hyena at that table, and a lot better than you whoever you
are... Queer about him. I could stick up for him if he’d only come
out, one way or the other, and tell a feller. Besides, a room-mate has
a right to know. Thinks I wont understand. Said so. He’s got a swell
head when it comes to brains, all right. God, he’s a good straight
feller, though. Only, moony. Nut. Nuttish. Nuttery. Nutmeg... “What’d
you say, Helen?”

“I was talking to Bona, thank you.”

“Well, its nothing to get spiffy about.”

“What? Oh, of course not. Please lets dont start some silly argument
all over again.”

“Well.”

“Well.”

“Now thats enough. Say, waiter, whats the matter with our order? Make
it snappy, will you?”

Crimson Gardens. Hurrah! So one feels. The drinks come. Four highballs.
Art passes cigarettes. A girl dressed like a bare-back rider in flaming
pink, makes her way through tables to the dance floor. All lights are
dimmed till they seem a lush afterglow of crimson. Spotlights the girl.
She sings. “Liza, Little Liza Jane.”

Paul is rosy before his window.

He moves, slightly, towards Bona.

With his own glow, he seeks to penetrate a dark pane.

Paul: From the South. What does that mean, precisely, except that
you’ll love or hate a nigger? Thats a lot. What does it mean except
that in Chicago you’ll have the courage to neither love or hate. A
priori. But it would seem that you have. Queer words, arent these,
for a man who wears blue pants on a gym floor in the daytime. Well,
never matter. You matter. I’d like to know you whom I look at. Know,
not love. Not that knowing is a greater pleasure; but that I have
just found the joy of it. You came just a month too late. Even this
afternoon I dreamed. To-night, along the Boulevard, you found me cold.
Paul Johnson, cold! Thats a good one, eh, Art, you fine old stupid
fellow, you! But I feel good! The color and the music and the song...
A Negress chants a lullaby beneath the mate-eyes of a southern planter.
O song!.. And those flushed faces. Eager brilliant eyes. Hard to
imagine them as unawakened. Your own. Oh, they’re awake all right. “And
you know it too, dont you Bona?”

“What, Paul?”

“The truth of what I was thinking.”

“I’d like to know I know—something of you.”

“You will—before the evening’s over. I promise it.”

Crimson Gardens. Hurrah! So one feels. The bare-back rider balances
agilely on the applause which is the tail of her song. Orchestral
instruments warm up for jazz. The flute is a cat that ripples its fur
against the deep-purring saxophone. The drum throws sticks. The cat
jumps on the piano keyboard. Hi diddle, hi diddle, the cat and the
fiddle. Crimson Gardens .. hurrah! .. jumps over the moon. Crimson
Gardens! Helen .. O Eliza .. rabbit-eyes sparkling, plays up to,
and tries to placate what she considers to be Paul’s contempt. She
always does that .. Little Liza Jane... Once home, she burns with
the thought of what she’s done. She says all manner of snidy things
about him, and swears that she’ll never go out again when he is along.
She tries to get Art to break with him, saying, that if Paul, whom
the whole dormitory calls a nigger, is more to him than she is, well,
she’s through. She does not break with Art. She goes out as often as
she can with Art and Paul. She explains this to herself by a piece of
information which a friend of hers had given her: men like him (Paul)
can fascinate. One is not responsible for fascination. Not one girl had
really loved Paul; he fascinated them. Bona didnt; only thought she
did. Time would tell. And of course, _she_ didnt. Liza... She plays up
to, and tries to placate, Paul.

“Paul is so deep these days, and I’m so glad he’s found some one to
interest him.”

“I dont believe I do.”

The thought escapes from Bona just a moment before her anger at having
said it.

Bona: You little puffy cat, I do. I do!

Dont I, Paul? her eyes ask.

Her answer is a crash of jazz from the palm-hidden orchestra. Crimson
Gardens is a body whose blood flows to a clot upon the dance floor. Art
and Helen clot. Soon, Bona and Paul. Paul finds her a little stiff, and
his mind, wandering to Helen (silly little kid who wants every highball
spoon her hands touch, for a souvenir), supple, perfect little dancer,
wishes for the next dance when he and Art will exchange.

Bona knows that she must win him to herself.

“Since when have men like you grown cold?”

“The first philosopher.”

“I thought you were a poet—or a gym director.”

“Hence, your failure to make love.”

Bona’s eyes flare. Water. Grow red about the rims. She would like to
tear away from him and dash across the clotted floor.

“What do you mean?”

“Mental concepts rule you. If they were flush with mine—good. I dont
believe they are.”

“How do you know, Mr. Philosopher?”

“Mostly a priori.”

“You talk well for a gym director.”

“And you—”

“I hate you. Ou!”

She presses away. Paul, conscious of the convention in it, pulls her
to him. Her body close. Her head still strains away. He nearly crushes
her. She tries to pinch him. Then sees people staring, and lets her
arms fall. Their eyes meet. Both, contemptuous. The dance takes blood
from their minds and packs it, tingling, in the torsos of their swaying
bodies. Passionate blood leaps back into their eyes. They are a dizzy
blood clot on a gyrating floor.

They know that the pink-faced people have no part in what they feel.
Their instinct leads them away from Art and Helen, and towards the
big uniformed black man who opens and closes the gilded exit door.
The cloak-room girl is tolerant of their impatience over such trivial
things as wraps. And slightly superior. As the black man swings the
door for them, his eyes are knowing. Too many couples have passed out,
flushed and fidgety, for him not to know. The chill air is a shock to
Paul. A strange thing happens. He sees the Gardens purple, as if he
were way off. And a spot is in the purple. The spot comes furiously
towards him. Face of the black man. It leers. It smiles sweetly like a
child’s. Paul leaves Bona and darts back so quickly that he doesnt give
the door-man a chance to open. He swings in. Stops. Before the huge
bulk of the Negro.

“Youre wrong.”

“Yassur.”

“Brother, youre wrong.”

“I came back to tell you, to shake your hand, and tell you that you are
wrong. That something beautiful is going to happen. That the
Gardens are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. That I
came into the Gardens, into life in the Gardens with one whom I did
not know. That I danced with her, and did not know her. That I felt
passion, contempt and passion for her whom I did not know. That I
thought of her. That my thoughts were matches thrown into a dark
window. And all the while the Gardens were purple like a bed of roses
would be at dusk. I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces
are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am
going out and gather petals. That I am going out and know her whom I
brought here with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of
roses would be at dusk.”

Paul and the black man shook hands.

When he reached the spot where they had been standing, Bona was gone.

[Illustration]


                                                      to WALDO FRANK.



                                KABNIS


                                   1

Ralph Kabnis, propped in his bed, tries to read. To read himself to
sleep. An oil lamp on a chair near his elbow burns unsteadily. The
cabin room is spaced fantastically about it. Whitewashed hearth and
chimney, black with sooty saw-teeth. Ceiling, patterned by the fringed
globe of the lamp. The walls, unpainted, are seasoned a rosin yellow.
And cracks between the boards are black. These cracks are the lips the
night winds use for whispering. Night winds in Georgia are vagrant
poets, whispering. Kabnis, against his will, lets his book slip down,
and listens to them. The warm whiteness of his bed, the lamp-light, do
not protect him from the weird chill of their song:

    White-man’s land.
    Niggers, sing.
    Burn, bear black children
    Till poor rivers bring
    Rest, and sweet glory
    In Camp Ground.

Kabnis’ thin hair is streaked on the pillow. His hand strokes the slim
silk of his mustache. His thumb, pressed under his chin, seems to be
trying to give squareness and projection to it. Brown eyes stare from
a lemon face. Moisture gathers beneath his arm-pits. He slides down
beneath the cover, seeking release.

Kabnis: Near me. Now. Whoever you are, my warm glowing sweetheart,
do not think that the face that rests beside you is the real Kabnis.
Ralph Kabnis is a dream. And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak
chins and broad brows that get smashed by the fists of square faces.
The body of the world is bull-necked. A dream is a soft face that fits
uncertainly upon it... God, if I could develop that in words. Give
what I know a bull-neck and a heaving body, all would go well with
me, wouldnt it, sweetheart? If I could feel that I came to the South
to face it. If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could
become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs
being the lips of its soul. Soul. Soul hell. There aint no such thing.
What in hell was that?

A rat had run across the thin boards of the ceiling. Kabnis thrusts his
head out from the covers. Through the cracks, a powdery faded red dust
sprays down on him. Dust of slave-fields, dried, scattered... No use
to read. Christ, if he only could drink himself to sleep. Something
as sure as fate was going to happen. He couldnt stand this thing much
longer. A hen, perched on a shelf in the adjoining room begins to
tread. Her nails scrape the soft wood. Her feathers ruffle.

“Get out of that, you egg-laying bitch.”

Kabnis hurls a slipper against the wall. The hen flies from her perch
and cackles as if a skunk were after her.

“Now cut out that racket or I’ll wring your neck for you.”

Answering cackles arise in the chicken yard.

“Why in Christ’s hell cant you leave me alone? Damn it, I wish your
cackle would choke you. Choke every mother’s son of them in this
God-forsaken hole. Go away. By God I’ll wring your neck for you if you
dont. Hell of a mess I’ve got in: even the poultry is hostile. Go way.
Go way. By God, I’ll...”

Kabnis jumps from his bed. His eyes are wild. He makes for the door.
Bursts through it. The hen, driving blindly at the window-pane,
screams. Then flies and flops around trying to elude him. Kabnis
catches her.

“Got you now, you she-bitch.”

With his fingers about her neck, he thrusts open the outside door and
steps out into the serene loveliness of Georgian autumn moonlight. Some
distance off, down in the valley, a band of pine-smoke, silvered gauze,
drifts steadily. The half-moon is a white child that sleeps upon the
tree-tops of the forest. White winds croon its sleep-song:

    rock a-by baby..
    Black mother sways, holding a white child on her bosom.
    when the bough bends..
    Her breath hums through pine-cones.
    cradle will fall..
    Teat moon-children at your breasts,
    down will come baby..
    Black mother.

Kabnis whirls the chicken by its neck, and throws the head away. Picks
up the hopping body, warm, sticky, and hides it in a clump of bushes.
He wipes blood from his hands onto the coarse scant grass.

Kabnis: Thats done. Old Chromo in the big house there will wonder whats
become of her pet hen. Well, it’ll teach her a lesson: not to make a
hen-coop of my quarters. Quarters. Hell of a fine quarters, I’ve got.
Five years ago; look at me now. Earth’s child. The earth my mother. God
is a profligate red-nosed man about town. Bastardy; me. A bastard son
has got a right to curse his maker. God...

Kabnis is about to shake his fists heaven-ward. He looks up, and the
night’s beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones
cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He
quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes.

“God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty.
Take it away. Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed
niggers. Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills
and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot
reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and
... tortures me. Ugh. Hell. Get up, you damn fool. Look around. Whats
beautiful there? Hog pens and chicken yards. Dirty red mud. Stinking
outhouse. Whats beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you? God, he
doesnt exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from
Him is ugly. Lynchers and business men, and that cockroach Hanby,
especially. How come that he gets to be principal of a school? Of the
school I’m driven to teach in? God’s handiwork, doubtless. God and
Hanby, they belong together. Two godam moral-spouters. Oh, no, I wont
let that emotion come up in me. Stay down. Stay down, I tell you. O
Jesus, Thou art beautiful... Come, Ralph, pull yourself together.
Curses and adoration dont come from what is sane. This loneliness,
dumbness, awful, intangible oppression is enough to drive a man insane.
Miles from nowhere. A speck on a Georgia hillside. Jesus, can you
imagine it—an atom of dust in agony on a hillside? Thats a spectacle
for you. Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together.”

Kabnis has stiffened. He is conscious now of the night wind, and
of how it chills him. He rises. He totters as a man would who for
the first time uses artificial limbs. As a completely artificial man
would. The large frame house, squatting on brick pillars, where the
principal of the school, his wife, and the boarding girls sleep, seems
a curious shadow of his mind. He tries, but cannot convince himself
of its reality. His gaze drifts down into the vale, across the swamp,
up over the solid dusk bank of pines, and rests, bewildered-like,
on the court-house tower. It is dull silver in the moonlight. White
child that sleeps upon the top of pines. Kabnis’ mind clears. He sees
himself yanked beneath that tower. He sees white minds, with indolent
assumption, juggle justice and a nigger... Somewhere, far off in
the straight line of his sight, is Augusta. Christ, how cut off from
everything he is. And hours, hours north, why not say a lifetime
north? Washington sleeps. Its still, peaceful streets, how desirable
they are. Its people whom he had always halfway despised. New York?
Impossible. It was a fiction. He had dreamed it. An impotent nostalgia
grips him. It becomes intolerable. He forces himself to narrow to a cabin
silhouetted on a knoll about a mile away. Peace. Negroes within it are
content. They farm. They sing. They love. They sleep. Kabnis wonders if
perhaps they can feel him. If perhaps he gives them bad dreams. Things
are so immediate in Georgia.

Thinking that now he can go to sleep, he re-enters his room. He builds
a fire in the open hearth. The room dances to the tongues of flames,
and sings to the crackling and spurting of the logs. Wind comes up
between the floor boards, through the black cracks of the walls.

Kabnis: Cant sleep. Light a cigarette. If that old bastard comes over
here and smells smoke, I’m done for. Hell of a note, cant even smoke.
The stillness of it: where they burn and hang men, you cant smoke. Cant
take a swig of licker. What do they think this is, anyway, some sort
of temperance school? How did I ever land in such a hole? Ugh. One
might just as well be in his grave. Still as a grave. Jesus, how still
everything is. Does the world know how still it is? People make noise.
They are afraid of silence. Of what lives, and God, of what dies in
silence. There must be many dead things moving in silence. They come
here to touch me. I swear I feel their fingers... Come, Ralph, pull
yourself together. What in hell was that? Only the rustle of leaves, I
guess. You know, Ralph, old man, it wouldnt surprise me at all to see a
ghost. People dont think there are such things. They rationalize their
fear, and call their cowardice science. Fine bunch, they are. Damit,
that was a noise. And not the wind either. A chicken maybe. Hell,
chickens dont wander around this time of night. What in hell is it?

A scraping sound, like a piece of wood dragging over the ground, is
coming near.

“Ha, ha. The ghosts down this way havent got any chains to rattle,
so they drag trees along with them. Thats a good one. But no joke,
something is outside this house, as sure as hell. Whatever it is, it
can get a good look at me and I cant see it. Jesus Christ!”

Kabnis pours water on the flames and blows his lamp out. He picks up a
poker and stealthily approaches the outside door. Swings it open, and
lurches into the night. A calf, carrying a yoke of wood, bolts away
from him and scampers down the road.

“Well, I’m damned. This godam place is sure getting the best of me.
Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together. Nights cant last forever.
Thank God for that. Its Sunday already. First time in my life I’ve ever
wanted Sunday to come. Hell of a day. And down here there’s no such
thing as ducking church. Well, I’ll see Halsey and Layman, and get a
good square meal. Thats something. And Halsey’s a damn good feller.
Cant talk to him, though. Who in Christ’s world can I talk to? A hen.
God. Myself... I’m going bats, no doubt of that. Come now, Ralph, go
in and make yourself go to sleep. Come now .. in the door .. thats
right. Put the poker down. There. All right. Slip under the sheets.
Close your eyes. Think nothing .. a long time .. nothing, nothing.
Dont even think nothing. Blank. Not even blank. Count. No, mustnt count
Nothing .. blank .. nothing .. blank .. space without stars in it.
No, nothing .. nothing..

Kabnis sleeps. The winds, like soft-voiced vagrant poets sing:

    White-man’s land.
    Niggers, sing.
    Burn, bear black children
    Till poor rivers bring
    Rest, and sweet glory
    In Camp Ground.


                                   2

The parlor of Fred Halsey’s home. There is a seediness about it.
It seems as though the fittings have given a frugal service to at
least seven generations of middle-class shop-owners. An open grate
burns cheerily in contrast to the gray cold changed autumn weather.
An old-fashioned mantelpiece supports a family clock (not running),
a figure or two in imitation bronze, and two small group pictures.
Directly above it, in a heavy oak frame, the portrait of a bearded
man. Black hair, thick and curly, intensifies the pallor of the high
forehead. The eyes are daring. The nose, sharp and regular. The poise
suggests a tendency to adventure checked by the necessities of absolute
command. The portrait is that of an English gentleman who has retained
much of his culture, in that money has enabled him to escape being
drawn through a land-grubbing pioneer life. His nature and features,
modified by marriage and circumstances, have been transmitted to his
great-grandson, Fred. To the left of this picture, spaced on the wall,
is a smaller portrait of the great-grandmother. That here there is
a Negro strain, no one would doubt. But it is difficult to say in
precisely what feature it lies. On close inspection, her mouth is seen
to be wistfully twisted. The expression of her face seems to shift
before one’s gaze—now ugly, repulsive; now sad, and somehow beautiful
in its pain. A tin wood-box rests on the floor below. To the right of
the great-grandfather’s portrait hangs a family group: the father,
mother, two brothers, and one sister of Fred. It includes himself
some thirty years ago when his face was an olive white, and his hair
luxuriant and dark and wavy. The father is a rich brown. The mother,
practically white. Of the children, the girl, quite young, is like
Fred; the two brothers, darker. The walls of the room are plastered
and painted green. An old upright piano is tucked into the corner near
the window. The window looks out on a forlorn, box-like, whitewashed
frame church. Negroes are gathering, on foot, driving questionable gray
and brown mules, and in an occasional Ford, for afternoon service.
Beyond, Georgia hills roll off into the distance, their dreary aspect
heightened by the gray spots of unpainted one- and two-room shanties.
Clumps of pine trees here and there are the dark points the whole
landscape is approaching. The church bell tolls. Above its squat tower,
a great spiral of buzzards reaches far into the heavens. An ironic
comment upon the path that leads into the Christian land... Three
rocking chairs are grouped around the grate. Sunday papers scattered on
the floor indicate a recent usage. Halsey, a well-built, stocky fellow,
hair cropped close, enters the room. His Sunday clothes smell of wood
and glue, for it is his habit to potter around his wagon-shop even
on the Lord’s day. He is followed by Professor Layman, tall, heavy,
loose-jointed Georgia Negro, by turns teacher and preacher, who has
traveled in almost every nook and corner of the state and hence knows
more than would be good for anyone other than a silent man. Kabnis,
trying to force through a gathering heaviness, trails in behind them.
They slip into chairs before the fire.

Layman: Sholy fine, Mr. Halsey, sholy fine. This town’s right good at
feedin folks, better’n most towns in th state, even for preachers, but
I ken say this beats um all. Yassur. Now aint that right, Professor
Kabnis?

Kabnis: Yes sir, this beats them all, all right—best I’ve had, and
thats a fact, though my comparison doesnt carry far, y’know.

Layman: Hows that, Professor?

Kabnis: Well, this is my first time out—

Layman: For a fact. Aint seed you round so much. Whats th trouble? Dont
like our folks down this away?

Halsey: Aint that, Layman. He aint like most northern niggers that way.
Aint a thing stuck up about him. He likes us, you an me, maybe all—its
that red mud over yonder—gets stuck in it an cant get out. (Laughs.)
An then he loves th fire so, warm as its been. Coldest Yankee I’ve ever
seen. But I’m goin t get him out now in a jiffy, eh, Kabnis?

Kabnis: Sure, I should say so, sure. Dont think its because I dont
like folks down this way. Just the opposite, in fact. Theres more
hospitality and everything. Its diff—that is, theres lots of northern
exaggeration about the South. Its not half the terror they picture it.
Things are not half bad, as one could easily figure out for himself
without ever crossing the Mason and Dixie line: all these people
wouldnt stay down here, especially the rich, the ones that could easily
leave, if conditions were so mighty bad. And then too, sometime back,
my family were southerners y’know. From Georgia, in fact—

Layman: Nothin t feel proud about, Professor. Neither your folks nor
mine.

Halsey (in a mock religious tone): Amen t that, brother Layman. Amen
(turning to Kabnis, half playful, yet somehow dead in earnest). An Mr.
Kabnis, kindly remember youre in th land of cotton—hell of a land.
Th white folks get th boll; th niggers get th stalk. An dont you dare
touch th boll, or even look at it. They’ll swing y sho. (Laughs.)

Kabnis: But they wouldnt touch a gentleman—fellows, men like us three
here—

Layman: Nigger’s a nigger down this away, Professor. An only two
dividins: good an bad. An even they aint permanent categories. They
sometimes mixes um up when it comes t lynchin. I’ve seen um do it.

Halsey: Dont let th fear int y, though, Kabnis. This county’s a good
un. Aint been a stringin up I can remember. (Laughs.)

Layman: This is a good town an a good county. But theres some that
makes up fer it.

Kabnis: Things are better now though since that stir about those
peonage cases, arent they?

Layman: Ever hear tell of a single shot killin moren one rabbit,
Professor?

Kabnis: No, of course not, that is, but then—

Halsey: Now I know you werent born yesterday, sprung up so rapid like
you aint heard of th brick thrown in th hornets’ nest. (Laughs.)

Kabnis: Hardly, hardly, I know—

Halsey: Course y do. (To Layman) See, northern niggers aint as dumb as
they make out t be.

Kabnis (overlooking the remark): Just stirs them up to sting.

Halsey: T perfection. An put just like a professor should put it.

Kabnis: Thats what actually did happen?

Layman: Well, if it aint sos only because th stingers already movin jes
as fast as they ken go. An been goin ever since I ken remember, an then
some mo. Though I dont usually make mention of it.

Halsey: Damn sight better not. Say, Layman, you come from where theyre
always swarmin, dont y?

Layman: Yassur. I do that, sho. Dont want t mention it, but its a fact.
I’ve seed th time when there werent no use t even stretch out flat upon
th ground. Seen um shoot an cut a man t pieces who had died th night
befo. Yassur. An they didnt stop when they found out he was dead—jes
went on ahackin at him anyway.

Kabnis: What did you do? What did you say to them, Professor?

Layman: Thems th things you neither does a thing or talks about if y
want t stay around this away, Professor.

Halsey: Listen t what he’s tellin y, Kabnis. May come in handy some day.

Kabnis: Cant something be done? But of course not. This
preacher-ridden race. Pray and shout. Theyre in the preacher’s hands.
Thats what it is. And the preacher’s hands are in the white man’s
pockets.

Halsey: Present company always excepted.

Kabnis: The Professor knows I wasnt referring to him.

Layman: Preacher’s a preacher anywheres you turn. No use exceptin.

Kabnis: Well, of course, if you look at it that way. I didnt mean— But
cant something be done?

Layman: Sho. Yassur. An done first rate an well. Jes like Sam Raymon
done it.

Kabnis: Hows that? What did he do?

Layman: Th white folks (reckon I oughtnt tell it) had jes knocked two
others like you kill a cow—brained um with an ax, when they caught Sam
Raymon by a stream. They was about t do fer him when he up an says,
“White folks, I gotter die, I knows that. But wont y let me die in my
own way?” Some was fer gettin after him, but th boss held um back an
says, “Jes so longs th nigger dies—” An Sam fell down ont his knees an
prayed, “O Lord, Ise comin to y,” an he up an jumps int th stream.

Singing from the church becomes audible. Above it, rising and falling
in a plaintive moan, a woman’s voice swells to shouting. Kabnis hears
it. His face gives way to an expression of mingled fear, contempt, and
pity. Layman takes no notice of it. Halsey grins at Kabnis. He feels
like having a little sport with him.

Halsey: Lets go t church, eh, Kabnis?

Kabnis (seeking control): All right—no sir, not by a damn sight. Once
a days enough for me. Christ, but that stuff gets to me. Meaning no
reflection on you, Professor.

Halsey: Course not. Say, Kabnis, noticed y this morning. What’d y get
up for an go out?

Kabnis: Couldnt stand the shouting, and thats a fact. We dont have that
sort of thing up North. We do, but, that is, some one should see to it
that they are stopped or put out when they get so bad the preacher has
to stop his sermon for them.

Halsey: Is that th way youall sit on sisters up North?

Kabnis: In the church I used to go to no one ever shouted—

Halsey: Lungs weak?

Kabnis: Hardly, that is—

Halsey: Yankees are right up t th minute in tellin folk how t turn a
trick. They always were good at talkin.

Kabnis: Well, anyway, they should be stopped.

Layman: Thats right. Thats true. An its th worst ones in th community
that comes int th church t shout. I’ve sort a made a study of it. You
take a man what drinks, th biggest licker-head around will come int th
church an yell th loudest. An th sister whats done wrong, an is always
doin wrong, will sit down in th Amen corner an swing her arms an shout
her head off. Seems as if they cant control themselves out in th world;
they cant control themselves in church. Now dont that sound logical,
Professor?

Halsey: Reckon its as good as any. But I heard that queer cuss over
yonder—y know him, dont y, Kabnis? Well, y ought t. He had a run-in
with your boss th other day—same as you’ll have if you dont walk th
chalk-line. An th quicker th better. I hate that Hanby. Ornery bastard.
I’ll mash his mouth in one of these days. Well, as I was sayin, that
feller, Lewis’s name, I heard him sayin somethin about a stream whats
dammed has got t cut loose somewheres. An that sounds good. I know th
feelin myself. He strikes me as knowin a bucketful bout most things,
that feller does. Seems like he doesnt want t talk, an does, sometimes,
like Layman here. Damn queer feller, him.

Layman: Cant make heads or tails of him, an I’ve seen lots o queer
possums in my day. Everybody’s wonderin about him. White folks too.
He’ll have t leave here soon, thats sho. Always askin questions. An I
aint seed his lips move once. Pokin round an notin somethin. Noted what
I said th other day, an that werent fer notin down.

Kabnis: What was that?

Layman: Oh, a lynchin that took place bout a year ago. Th worst I know
of round these parts.

Halsey: Bill Burnam?

Layman: Na. Mame Lamkins.

Halsey grunts, but says nothing.

The preacher’s voice rolls from the church in an insistent chanting
monotone. At regular intervals it rises to a crescendo note. The
sister begins to shout. Her voice, high-pitched and hysterical, is
almost perfectly attuned to the nervous key of Kabnis. Halsey notices
his distress, and is amused by it. Layman’s face is expressionless.
Kabnis wants to hear the story of Mame Lamkins. He does not want to
hear it. It can be no worse than the shouting.

Kabnis (his chair rocking faster): What about Mame Lamkins?

Halsey: Tell him, Layman.

The preacher momentarily stops. The choir, together with the entire
congregation, sings an old spiritual. The music seems to quiet the
shouter. Her heavy breathing has the sound of evening winds that blow
through pinecones. Layman’s voice is uniformly low and soothing. A
canebrake, murmuring the tale to its neighbor-road would be more
passionate.

Layman: White folks know that niggers talk, an they dont mind jes so
long as nothing comes of it, so here goes. She was in th family-way,
Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein
th risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any
cow, took an ripped her belly open, an th kid fell out. It was living;
but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it an
stuck it t a tree. An then they all went away.

Kabnis: Christ no! What had she done?

Layman: Tried t hide her husband when they was after him.

A shriek pierces the room. The bronze pieces on the mantel hum. The
sister cries frantically: “Jesus, Jesus, I’ve found Jesus. O Lord,
glory t God, one mo sinner is acomin home.” At the height of this, a
stone, wrapped round with paper, crashes through the window. Kabnis
springs to his feet, terror-stricken. Layman is worried. Halsey picks
up the stone. Takes off the wrapper, smooths it out, and reads: “You
northern nigger, its time fer y t leave. Git along now.” Kabnis knows
that the command is meant for him. Fear squeezes him. Caves him in. As
a violent external pressure would. Fear flows inside him. It fills him
up. He bloats. He saves himself from bursting by dashing wildly from
the room. Halsey and Layman stare stupidly at each other. The stone,
the crumpled paper are things, huge things that weight them. Their
thoughts are vaguely concerned with the texture of the stone, with the
color of the paper. Then they remember the words, and begin to shift
them about in sentences. Layman even construes them grammatically.
Suddenly the sense of them comes back to Halsey. He grips Layman by the
arm and they both follow after Kabnis.

A false dusk has come early. The countryside is ashen, chill. Cabins
and roads and canebrakes whisper. The church choir, dipping into a long
silence, sings:

    My Lord, what a mourning,
    My Lord, what a mourning,
    My Lord, what a mourning,
    When the stars begin to fall.

Softly luminous over the hills and valleys, the faint spray of a
scattered star...


                                   3

A splotchy figure drives forward along the cane- and corn-stalk
hemmed-in road. A scarecrow replica of Kabnis, awkwardly animate.
Fantastically plastered with red Georgia mud. It skirts the big house
whose windows shine like mellow lanterns in the dusk. Its shoulder jogs
against a sweet-gum tree. The figure caroms off against the cabin door,
and lunges in. It slams the door as if to prevent some one entering
after it.

“God Almighty, theyre here. After me. On me. All along the road I saw
their eyes flaring from the cane. Hounds. Shouts. What in God’s name
did I run here for? A mud-hole trap. I stumbled on a rope. O God, a
rope. Their clammy hands were like the love of death playing up and
down my spine. Trying to trip my legs. To trip my spine. Up and down my
spine. My spine... My legs... Why in hell didn’t they catch me?”

Kabnis wheels around, half defiant, half numbed with a more immediate
fear.

“Wanted to trap me here. Get out o there. I see you.”

He grabs a broom from beside the chimney and violently pokes it under
the bed. The broom strikes a tin wash-tub. The noise bewilders. He
recovers.

“Not there. In the closet.”

He throws the broom aside and grips the poker. Starts towards the
closet door, towards somewhere in the perfect blackness behind the
chimney.

“I’ll brain you.”

He stops short. The barks of hounds, evidently in pursuit, reach him. A
voice, liquid in distance, yells, “Hi! Hi!”

“O God, theyre after me. Holy Father, Mother of Christ—hell, this aint
no time for prayer—”

Voices, just outside the door:

“Reckon he’s here.”

“Dont see no light though.”

The door is flung open.

Kabnis: Get back or I’ll kill you.

He braces himself, brandishing the poker.

Halsey (coming in): Aint as bad as all that. Put that thing down.

Layman: Its only us, Professor. Nobody else after y.

Kabnis: Halsey. Layman. Close that door. Dont light that light. For
godsake get away from there.

Halsey: Nobody’s after y, Kabnis, I’m tellin y. Put that thing down an
get yourself together.

Kabnis: I tell you they are. I saw them. I heard the hounds.

Halsey: These aint th days of hounds an Uncle Tom’s Cabin, feller.
White folks aint in fer all them theatrics these days. Theys more
direct than that. If what they wanted was t get y, theyd have just
marched right in an took y where y sat. Somebodys down by th branch
chasin rabbits an atreein possums.

A shot is heard.

Halsey: Got him, I reckon. Saw Tom goin out with his gun. Tom’s pretty
lucky most times.

He goes to the bureau and lights the lamp. The circular fringe is
patterned on the ceiling. The moving shadows of the men are huge
against the bare wall boards. Halsey walks up to Kabnis, takes the
poker from his grip, and without more ado pushes him into a chair
before the dark hearth.

Halsey: Youre a mess. Here, Layman. Get some trash an start a fire.

Layman fumbles around, finds some newspapers and old bags, puts them
in the hearth, arranges the wood, and kindles the fire. Halsey sets a
black iron kettle where it soon will be boiling. Then takes from his
hip-pocket a bottle of corn licker which he passes to Kabnis.

Halsey: Here. This’ll straighten y out a bit.

Kabnis nervously draws the cork and gulps the licker down.

Kabnis: Ha. Good stuff. Thanks. Thank y, Halsey.

Halsey: Good stuff! Youre damn right. Hanby there dont think so. Wonder
he doesnt come over t find out whos burnin his oil. Miserly bastard,
him. Th boys what made this stuff—are y listenin t me, Kabnis? th boys
what made this stuff have got th art down like I heard you say youd
like t be with words. Eh? Have some, Layman?

Layman: Dont think I care for none, thank y jes th same, Mr. Halsey.

Halsey: Care hell. Course y care. Everybody cares around these parts.
Preachers an school teachers an everybody. Here. Here, take it. Dont
try that line on me.

Layman limbers up a little, but he cannot quite forget that he is on
school ground.

Layman: Thats right. Thats true, sho. Shinin is th only business what
pays in these hard times.

He takes a nip, and passes the bottle to Kabnis. Kabnis is in the
middle of a long swig when a rap sounds on the door. He almost
spills the bottle, but manages to pass it to Halsey just as the door
swings open and Hanby enters. He is a well-dressed, smooth, rich,
black-skinned Negro who thinks there is no one quite so suave and
polished as himself. To members of his own race, he affects the manners
of a wealthy white planter. Or, when he is up North, he lets it be
known that his ideas are those of the best New England tradition. To
white men he bows, without ever completely humbling himself. Tradesmen
in the town tolerate him because he spends his money with them. He
delivers his words with a full consciousness of his moral superiority.

Hanby: Hum. Erer, Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the
progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits
and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged
and hard-won standard of its average member. This institution, of which
I am the humble president, was founded, and has been maintained at a
cost of great labor and untold sacrifice. Its purpose is to teach our
youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives. To prove to the world
that the Negro race can be just like any other race. It hopes to attain
this aim partly by the salutary examples set by its instructors. I
cannot hinder the progress of a race simply to indulge a single member.
I have thought the matter out beforehand, I can assure you. Therefore,
if I find your resignation on my desk by to-morrow morning, Mr. Kabnis,
I shall not feel obliged to call in the sheriff. Otherwise...”

Kabnis: A fellow can take a drink in his own room if he wants to, in
the privacy of his own room.

Hanby: His room, but not the institution’s room, Mr. Kabnis.

Kabnis: This is my room while I’m in it.

Hanby: Mr. Clayborn (the sheriff) can inform you as to that.

Kabnis: Oh, well, what do I care—glad to get out of this mud-hole.

Hanby: I should think so from your looks.

Kabnis: You neednt get sarcastic about it.

Hanby: No, that is true. And I neednt wait for your resignation either,
Mr. Kabnis.

Kabnis: Oh, you’ll get that all right. Dont worry.

Hanby: And I should like to have the room thoroughly aired and cleaned
and ready for your successor by to-morrow noon, Professor.

Kabnis (trying to rise): You can have your godam room right away. I
dont want it.

Hanby: But I wont have your cursing.

Halsey pushes Kabnis back into his chair.

Halsey: Sit down, Kabnis, till I wash y.

Hanby (to Halsey): I would rather not have drinking men on the
premises, Mr. Halsey. You will oblige me—

Halsey: I’ll oblige you by stayin right on this spot, this spot, get
me? till I get damned ready t leave.

He approaches Hanby. Hanby retreats, but manages to hold his dignity.

Halsey: Let me get you told right now, Mr. Samuel Hanby. Now listen t
me. I aint no slick an span slave youve hired, an dont y think it for
a minute. Youve bullied enough about this town. An besides, wheres
that bill youve been owin me? Listen t me. If I dont get it paid in by
tmorrer noon, Mr. Hanby (he mockingly assumes Hanby’s tone and manner),
I shall feel obliged t call th sheriff. An that sheriff’ll be myself
who’ll catch y in th road an pull y out your buggy an rightly attend t
y. You heard me. Now leave him alone. I’m takin him home with me. I got
it fixed. Before you came in. He’s goin t work with me. Shapin shafts
and buildin wagons’ll make a man of him what nobody, y get me? what
nobody can take advantage of. Thats all...

Halsey burrs off into vague and incoherent comment.

Pause. Disagreeable.

Layman’s eyes are glazed on the spurting fire.

Kabnis wants to rise and put both Halsey and Hanby in their places.
He vaguely knows that he must do this, else the power of direction
will completely slip from him to those outside. The conviction is just
strong enough to torture him. To bring a feverish, quick-passing flare
into his eyes. To mutter words soggy in hot saliva. To jerk his arms
upward in futile protest. Halsey, noticing his gestures, thinks it is
water that he desires. He brings a glass to him. Kabnis slings it to
the floor. Heat of the conviction dies. His arms crumple. His upper
lip, his mustache, quiver. Rap! rap, on the door. The sounds slap
Kabnis. They bring a hectic color to his cheeks. Like huge cold finger
tips they touch his skin and goose-flesh it. Hanby strikes a commanding
pose. He moves toward Layman. Layman’s face is innocently immobile.

Halsey: Whos there?

Voice: Lewis.

Halsey: Come in, Lewis. Come on in.

Lewis enters. He is the queer fellow who has been referred to. A tall
wiry copper-colored man, thirty perhaps. His mouth and eyes suggest
purpose guided by an adequate intelligence. He is what a stronger
Kabnis might have been, and in an odd faint way resembles him. As he
steps towards the others, he seems to be issuing sharply from a vivid
dream. Lewis shakes hands with Halsey. Nods perfunctorily to Hanby, who
has stiffened to meet him. Smiles rapidly at Layman, and settles with
real interest on Kabnis.

Lewis: Kabnis passed me on the road. Had a piece of business of my own,
and couldnt get here any sooner. Thought I might be able to help in
some way or other.

Halsey: A good baths bout all he needs now. An somethin t put his mind
t rest.

Lewis: I think I can give him that. That note was meant for me. Some
Negroes have grown uncomfortable at my being here—

Kabnis: You mean, Mr. Lewis, some colored folks threw it? Christ
Amighty!

Halsey: Thats what he means. An just as I told y. White folks more
direct than that.

Kabnis: What are they after you for?

Lewis: Its a long story, Kabnis. Too long for now. And it might involve
present company. (He laughs pleasantly and gestures vaguely in the
direction of Hanby.) Tell you about it later on perhaps.

Kabnis: Youre not going?

Lewis: Not till my month’s up.

Halsey: Hows that?

Lewis: I’m on a sort of contract with myself. (Is about to leave.)
Well, glad its nothing serious—

Halsey: Come round t th shop sometime why dont y, Lewis? I’ve asked y
enough. I’d like t have a talk with y. I aint as dumb as I look. Kabnis
an me’ll be in most any time. Not much work these days. Wish t hell
there was. This burg gets to me when there aint. (In answer to Lewis’
question.) He’s goin t work with me. Ya. Night air this side th branch
aint good fer him. (Looks at Hanby. Laughs.)

Lewis: I see...

His eyes turn to Kabnis. In the instant of their shifting, a vision of
the life they are to meet. Kabnis, a promise of a soil-soaked beauty;
uprooted, thinning out. Suspended a few feet above the soil whose
touch would resurrect him. Arm’s length removed from him whose will
to help... There is a swift intuitive interchange of consciousness.
Kabnis has a sudden need to rush into the arms of this man. His eyes
call, “Brother.” And then a savage, cynical twist-about within him
mocks his impulse and strengthens him to repulse Lewis. His lips curl
cruelly. His eyes laugh. They are glittering needles, stitching. With a
throbbing ache they draw Lewis to. Lewis brusquely wheels on Hanby.

Lewis: I’d like to see you, sir, a moment, if you dont mind.

Hanby’s tight collar and vest effectively preserve him.

Hanby: Yes, erer, Mr. Lewis. Right away.

Lewis: See you later, Halsey.

Halsey: So long—thanks—sho hope so, Lewis.

As he opens the door and Hanby passes out, a woman, miles down the
valley, begins to sing. Her song is a spark that travels swiftly to the
near-by cabins. Like purple tallow flames, songs jet up. They spread
a ruddy haze over the heavens. The haze swings low. Now the whole
countryside is a soft chorus. Lord. O Lord... Lewis closes the door
behind him. A flame jets out...

The kettle is boiling. Halsey notices it. He pulls the wash-tub from
beneath the bed. He arranges for the bath before the fire.

Halsey: Told y them theatrics didnt fit a white man. Th niggers, just
like I told y. An after him. Aint surprisin though. He aint bowed t
none of them. Nassur. T nairy a one of them nairy an inch nairy a time.
An only mixed when he was good an ready—

Kabnis: That song, Halsey, do you hear it?

Halsey: Thats a man. Hear me, Kabnis? A man—

Kabnis: Jesus, do you hear it.

Halsey: Hear it? Hear what? Course I hear it. Listen t what I’m tellin
y. A man, get me? They’ll get him yet if he dont watch out.

Kabnis is jolted into his fear.

Kabnis: Get him? What do you mean? How? Not lynch him?

Halsey: Na. Take a shotgun an shoot his eyes clear out. Well, anyway, it
wasnt fer you, just like I told y. You’ll stay over at th house an work
with me, eh, boy? Good t get away from his nobs, eh? Damn big stiff
though, him. An youre not th first an I can tell y. (Laughs.)

He bustles and fusses about Kabnis as if he were a child. Kabnis
submits, wearily. He has no will to resist him.

Layman (his voice is like a deep hollow echo): Thats right. Thats true,
sho. Everybody’s been expectin that th bust up was comin. Surprised um
all y held on as long as y did. Teachin in th South aint th thing fer
y. Nassur. You ought t be way back up North where sometimes I wish I
was. But I’ve hung on down this away so long—

Halsey: An there’ll never be no leavin time fer y.


                                   4

A month has passed.

Halsey’s workshop. It is an old building just off the main street
of Sempter. The walls to within a few feet of the ground are of an
age-worn cement mixture. On the outside they are considerably crumbled
and peppered with what looks like musket-shot. Inside, the plaster has
fallen away in great chunks, leaving the laths, grayed and cobwebbed,
exposed. A sort of loft above the shop proper serves as a break-water
for the rain and sunshine which otherwise would have free entry to the
main floor. The shop is filled with old wheels and parts of wheels,
broken shafts, and wooden litter. A double door, midway the street
wall. To the left of this, a work-bench that holds a vise and a variety
of wood-work tools. A window with as many panes broken as whole, throws
light on the bench. Opposite, in the rear wall, a second window looks
out upon the back yard. In the left wall, a rickety smoke-blackened
chimney, and hearth with fire blazing. Smooth-worn chairs grouped about
the hearth suggest the village meeting-place. Several large wooden
blocks, chipped and cut and sawed on their upper surfaces are in the
middle of the floor. They are the supports used in almost any sort of
wagon-work. Their idleness means that Halsey has no worth-while job on
foot. To the right of the central door is a junk heap, and directly
behind this, stairs that lead down into the cellar. The cellar is known
as “The Hole.” Besides being the home of a very old man, it is used by
Halsey on those occasions when he spices up the life of the small town.

Halsey, wonderfully himself in his work overalls, stands in the doorway
and gazes up the street, expectantly. Then his eyes grow listless. He
slouches against the smooth-rubbed frame. He lights a cigarette. Shifts
his position. Braces an arm against the door. Kabnis passes the window
and stoops to get in under Halsey’s arm. He is awkward and ludicrous,
like a schoolboy in his big brother’s new overalls. He skirts the large
blocks on the floor, and drops into a chair before the fire. Halsey
saunters towards him.

Kabnis: Time f lunch.

Halsey: Ya.

He stands by the hearth, rocking backward and forward. He stretches his
hands out to the fire. He washes them in the warm glow of the flames.
They never get cold, but he warms them.

Kabnis: Saw Lewis up th street. Said he’d be down.

Halsey’s eyes brighten. He looks at Kabnis. Turns away. Says nothing.
Kabnis fidgets. Twists his thin blue cloth-covered limbs. Pulls closer
to the fire till the heat stings his shins. Pushes back. Pokes the
burned logs. Puts on several fresh ones. Fidgets. The town bell
strikes twelve.

Kabnis: Fix it up f tnight?

Halsey: Leave it t me.

Kabnis: Get Lewis in?

Halsey: Tryin t.

The air is heavy with the smell of pine and resin. Green logs spurt
and sizzle. Sap trickles from an old pine-knot into the flames. Layman
enters. He carries a lunch-pail. Kabnis, for the moment, thinks that he
is a day laborer.

Layman: Evenin, gen’lemun.

Both: Whats say, Layman.

Layman squares a chair to the fire and droops into it. Several town
fellows, silent unfathomable men for the most part, saunter in.
Overalls. Thick tan shoes. Felt hats marvelously shaped and twisted.
One asks Halsey for a cigarette. He gets it. The blacksmith, a
tremendous black man, comes in from the forge. Not even a nod from
him. He picks up an axle and goes out. Lewis enters. The town men look
curiously at him. Suspicion and an open liking contest for possession
of their faces. They are uncomfortable. One by one they drift into the
street.

Layman: Heard y was leavin, Mr. Lewis.

Kabnis: Months up, eh? Hell of a month I’ve got.

Halsey: Sorry y goin, Lewis. Just getting acquainted like.

Lewis: Sorry myself, Halsey, in a way—

Layman: Gettin t like our town, Mr. Lewis?

Lewis: I’m afraid its on a different basis, Professor.

Halsey: An I’ve yet t hear about that basis. Been waitin long enough,
God knows. Seems t me like youd take pity a feller if nothin more.

Kabnis: Somethin that old black cockroach over yonder doesnt like,
whatever it is.

Layman: Thats right. Thats right, sho.

Halsey: A feller dropped in here tother day an said he knew what you
was about. Said you had queer opinions. Well, I could have told him
you was a queer one, myself. But not th way he was driftin. Didnt mean
anything by it, but just let drop he thought you was a little wrong up
here—crazy, y’know. (Laughs.)

Kabnis: Y mean old Blodson? Hell, he’s bats himself.

Lewis: I remember him. We had a talk. But what he found queer, I think,
was not my opinions, but my lack of them. In half an hour he had
settled everything: boll weevils, God, the World War. Weevils and wars
are the pests that God sends against the sinful. People are too weak to
correct themselves: the Redeemer is coming back. Get ready, ye sinners,
for the advent of Our Lord. Interesting, eh, Kabnis? but not exactly
what we want.

Halsey: Y could have come t me. I’ve sho been after y enough. Most
every time I’ve seen y.

Kabnis (sarcastically): Hows it y never came t us professors?

Lewis: I did—to one.

Kabnis: Y mean t say y got somethin from that
celluloid-collar-eraser-cleaned old codger over in th mud hole?

Halsey: Rough on th old boy, aint he? (Laughs.)

Lewis: Something, yes. Layman here could have given me quite a deal,
but the incentive to his keeping quiet is so much greater than anything
I could have offered him to open up, that I crossed him off my mind.
And you—

Kabnis: What about me?

Halsey: Tell him, Lewis, for godsake tell him. I’ve told him. But its
somethin else he wants so bad I’ve heard him downstairs mumblin with th
old man.

Lewis: The old man?

Kabnis: What about me? Come on now, you know so much.

Halsey: Tell him, Lewis. Tell it t him.

Lewis: Life has already told him more than he is capable of knowing. It
has given him in excess of what he can receive. I have been offered.
Stuff in his stomach curdled, and he vomited me.

Kabnis’ face twitches. His body writhes.

Kabnis: You know a lot, you do. How about Halsey?

Lewis: Yes... Halsey? Fits here. Belongs here. An artist in your way,
arent you, Halsey?

Halsey: Reckon I am, Lewis. Give me th work and fair pay an I aint
askin nothin better. Went over-seas an saw France; an I come back. Been
up North; an I come back. Went t school; but there aint no books whats
got th feel t them of them there tools. Nassur. An I’m atellin y.

A shriveled, bony white man passes the window and enters the shop. He
carries a broken hatchet-handle and the severed head. He speaks with a
flat, drawn voice to Halsey, who comes forward to meet him.

Mr. Ramsay: Can y fix this fer me, Halsey?

Halsey (looking it over): Reckon so, Mr. Ramsay. Here, Kabnis. A little
practice fer y.

Halsey directs Kabnis, showing him how to place the handle in the vise,
and cut it down. The knife hangs. Kabnis thinks that it must be dull.
He jerks it hard. The tool goes deep and shaves too much off. Mr.
Ramsay smiles brokenly at him.

Mr. Ramsay (to Halsey): Still breakin in the new hand, eh, Halsey?
Seems like a likely enough faller once he gets th hang of it.

He gives a tight laugh at his own good humor. Kabnis burns red. The
back of his neck stings him beneath his collar. He feels stifled.
Through Ramsay, the whole white South weighs down upon him. The
pressure is terrific. He sweats under the arms. Chill beads run down
his body. His brows concentrate upon the handle as though his own life
was staked upon the perfect shaving of it. He begins to out and out
botch the job. Halsey smiles.

Halsey: He’ll make a good un some of these days, Mr. Ramsay.

Mr. Ramsay: Y ought t know. Yer daddy was a good un before y. Runs in
th family, seems like t me.

Halsey: Thats right, Mr. Ramsay.

Kabnis is hopeless. Halsey takes the handle from him. With a few deft
strokes he shaves it. Fits it. Gives it to Ramsay.

Mr. Ramsay: How much on this?

Halsey: No charge, Mr. Ramsay.

Mr. Ramsay (going out): All right, Halsey. Come down an take it out in
trade. Shoe-strings or something.

Halsey: Yassur, Mr. Ramsay.

Halsey rejoins Lewis and Layman. Kabnis, hangdog-fashion, follows him.

Halsey: They like y if y work fer them.

Layman: Thats right, Mr. Halsey. Thats right, sho.

The group is about to resume its talk when Hanby enters. He is all
energy, bustle, and business. He goes direct to Kabnis.

Hanby: An axle is out in the buggy which I would like to have shaped
into a crow-bar. You will see that it is fixed for me.

Without waiting for an answer, and knowing that Kabnis will follow, he
passes out. Kabnis, scowling, silent, trudges after him.

Hanby (from the outside): Have that ready for me by three o’clock,
young man. I shall call for it.

Kabnis (under his breath as he comes in): Th hell you say, you old
black swamp-gut.

He slings the axle on the floor.

Halsey: Wheeee!

Layman, lunch finished long ago, rises, heavily. He shakes hands with
Lewis.

Layman: Might not see y again befo y leave, Mr. Lewis. I enjoys t hear
y talk. Y might have been a preacher. Maybe a bishop some day. Sho do
hope t see y back this away again sometime, Mr. Lewis.

Lewis: Thanks, Professor. Hope I’ll see you.

Layman waves a long arm loosely to the others, and leaves. Kabnis goes
to the door. His eyes, sullen, gaze up the street.

Kabnis: Carrie K.’s comin with th lunch. Bout time.

She passes the window. Her red girl’s-cap, catching the sun, flashes
vividly. With a stiff, awkward little movement she crosses the
door-sill and gives Kabnis one of the two baskets which she is
carrying. There is a slight stoop to her shoulders. The curves of her
body blend with this to a soft rounded charm. Her gestures are stiffly
variant. Black bangs curl over the forehead of her oval-olive face.
Her expression is dazed, but on provocation it can melt into a wistful
smile. Adolescent. She is easily the sister of Fred Halsey.

Carrie K.: Mother says excuse her, brother Fred an Ralph, fer bein late.

Kabnis: Everythings all right an O.K., Carrie Kate. O.K. an all right.

The two men settle on their lunch. Carrie, with hardly a glance in the
direction of the hearth, as is her habit, is about to take the second
basket down to the old man, when Lewis rises. In doing so he draws
her unwitting attention. Their meeting is a swift sun-burst. Lewis
impulsively moves towards her. His mind flashes images of her life
in the southern town. He sees the nascent woman, her flesh already
stiffening to cartilage, drying to bone. Her spirit-bloom, even now
touched sullen, bitter. Her rich beauty fading... He wants to— He
stretches forth his hands to hers. He takes them. They feel like warm
cheeks against his palms. The sun-burst from her eyes floods up and
haloes him. Christ-eyes, his eyes look to her. Fearlessly she loves
into them. And then something happens. Her face blanches. Awkwardly
she draws away. The sin-bogies of respectable southern colored folks
clamor at her: “Look out! Be a _good_ girl. A _good_ girl. Look out!”
She gropes for her basket that has fallen to the floor. Finds it, and
marches with a rigid gravity to her task of feeding the old man. Like
the glowing white ash of burned paper, Lewis’ eyelids, wavering, settle
down. He stirs in the direction of the rear window. From the back yard,
mules tethered to odd trees and posts blink dumbly at him. They too
seem burdened with an impotent pain. Kabnis and Halsey are still busy
with their lunch. They havent noticed him. After a while he turns to
them.

Lewis: Your sister, Halsey, whats to become of her? What are you going
to do for her?

Halsey: Who? What? What am I goin t do?..

Lewis: What I mean is, what does she do down there?

Halsey: Oh. Feeds th old man. Had lunch, Lewis?

Lewis: Thanks, yes. You have never felt her, have you, Halsey? Well,
no, I guess not. I dont suppose you can. Nor can she... Old man?
Halsey, some one lives down there? I’ve never heard of him. Tell me—

Kabnis takes time from his meal to answer with some emphasis:

Kabnis: Theres lots of things you aint heard of.

Lewis: Dare say. I’d like to see him.

Kabnis: You’ll get all th chance you want tnight.

Halsey: Fixin a little somethin up fer tnight, Lewis. Th three of us an
some girls. Come round bout ten-thirty.

Lewis: Glad to. But what under the sun does he do down there?

Halsey: Ask Kabnis. He blows off t him every chance he gets.

Kabnis gives a grunting laugh. His mouth twists. Carrie returns from
the cellar. Avoiding Lewis, she speaks to her brother.

Carrie K.: Brother Fred, father hasnt eaten now goin on th second week,
but mumbles an talks funny, or tries t talk when I put his hands ont
th food. He frightens me, an I dunno what t do. An oh, I came near
fergettin, brother, but Mr. Marmon—he was eatin lunch when I saw
him—told me t tell y that th lumber wagon busted down an he wanted y t
fix it fer him. Said he reckoned he could get it t y after he ate.

Halsey chucks a half-eaten sandwich in the fire. Gets up. Arranges his
blocks. Goes to the door and looks anxiously up the street. The wind
whirls a small spiral in the gray dust road.

Halsey: Why didnt y tell me sooner, little sister?

Carrie K.: I fergot t, an just remembered it now, brother.

Her soft rolled words are fresh pain to Lewis. He wants to take her
North with him. What for? He wonders what Kabnis could do for her. What
she could do for him. Mother him. Carrie gathers the lunch things,
silently, and in her pinched manner, curtsies, and departs. Kabnis
lights his after-lunch cigarette. Lewis, who has sensed a change,
becomes aware that he is not included in it. He starts to ask again
about the old man. Decides not to. Rises to go.

Lewis: Think I’ll run along, Halsey.

Halsey: Sure. Glad t see y any time.

Kabnis: Dont forget tnight.

Lewis: Dont worry. I wont. So long.

Kabnis: So long. We’ll be expectin y.

Lewis passes Halsey at the door. Halsey’s cheeks form a vacant smile.
His eyes are wide awake, watching for the wagon to turn from Broad
Street into his road.

Halsey: So long.

His words reach Lewis halfway to the corner.


                                   5

Night, soft belly of a pregnant Negress, throbs evenly against the
torso of the South. Night throbs a womb-song to the South. Cane- and
cotton-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps, sawmills, and factories
are fecund at her touch. Night’s womb-song sets them singing. Night
winds are the breathing of the unborn child whose calm throbbing in the
belly of a Negress sets them somnolently singing. Hear their song.

    White-man’s land.
    Niggers, sing.
    Burn, bear black children
    Till poor rivers bring
    Rest, and sweet glory
    In Camp Ground.

Sempter’s streets are vacant and still. White paint on the wealthier
houses has the chill blue glitter of distant stars. Negro cabins
are a purple blur. Broad Street is deserted. Winds stir beneath the
corrugated iron canopies and dangle odd bits of rope tied to horse-
and mule-gnawed hitching-posts. One store window has a light in it.
Chesterfield cigarette and Chero-Cola cardboard advertisements are
stacked in it. From a side door two men come out. Pause, for a last
word and then say good night. Soon they melt in shadows thicker than
they. Way off down the street four figures sway beneath iron awnings
which form a sort of corridor that imperfectly echoes and jumbles what
they say. A fifth form joins them. They turn into the road that leads
to Halsey’s workshop. The old building is phosphorescent above deep
shade. The figures pass through the double door. Night winds whisper in
the eaves. Sing weirdly in the ceiling cracks. Stir curls of shavings
on the floor. Halsey lights a candle. A good-sized lumber wagon, wheels
off, rests upon the blocks. Kabnis makes a face at it. An unearthly
hush is upon the place. No one seems to want to talk. To move, lest the
scraping of their feet..

Halsey: Come on down this way, folks.

He leads the way. Stella follows. And close after her, Cora, Lewis, and
Kabnis. They descend into the Hole. It seems huge, limitless in the
candle light. The walls are of stone, wonderfully fitted. They have no
openings save a small iron-barred window toward the top of each. They
are dry and warm. The ground slopes away to the rear of the building
and thus leaves the south wall exposed to the sun. The blacksmith’s
shop is plumb against the right wall. The floor is clay. Shavings have
at odd times been matted into it. In the right-hand corner, under the
stairs, two good-sized pine mattresses, resting on cardboard, are on
either side of a wooden table. On this are several half-burned candles
and an oil lamp. Behind the table, an irregular piece of mirror hangs
on the wall. A loose something that looks to be a gaudy ball costume
dangles from a near-by hook. To the front, a second table holds a lamp
and several whiskey glasses. Six rickety chairs are near this table.
Two old wagon wheels rest on the floor. To the left, sitting in a
high-backed chair which stands upon a low platform, the old man. He
is like a bust in black walnut. Gray-bearded. Gray-haired. Prophetic.
Immobile. Lewis’ eyes are sunk in him. The others, unconcerned, are
about to pass on to the front table when Lewis grips Halsey and so
turns him that the candle flame shines obliquely on the old man’s
features.

Lewis: And he rules over—

Kabnis: Th smoke an fire of th forge.

Lewis: Black Vulcan? I wouldnt say so. That forehead. Great woolly
beard. Those eyes. A mute John the Baptist of a new religion—or a
tongue-tied shadow of an old.

Kabnis: His tongue is tied all right, an I can vouch f that.

Lewis: Has he never talked to you?

Halsey: Kabnis wont give him a chance.

He laughs. The girls laugh. Kabnis winces.

Lewis: What do you call him?

Halsey: Father.

Lewis: Good. Father what?

Kabnis: Father of hell.

Halsey: Father’s th only name we have fer him. Come on. Lets sit down
an get t th pleasure of the evenin.

Lewis: Father John it is from now on...

Slave boy whom some Christian mistress taught to read the Bible. Black
man who saw Jesus in the ricefields, and began preaching to his people.
Moses- and Christ-words used for songs. Dead blind father of a muted
folk who feel their way upward to a life that crushes or absorbs them.
(Speak, Father!) Suppose your eyes could see, old man. (The years hold
hands. O Sing!) Suppose your lips...

Halsey, does he never talk?

Halsey: Na. But sometimes. Only seldom. Mumbles. Sis says he talks—

Kabnis: I’ve heard him talk.

Halsey: First I’ve ever heard of it. You dont give him a chance. Sis
says she’s made out several words, mostly one—an like as not cause it
was “sin.”

Kabnis: All those old fogies stutter about sin.

Cora laughs in a loose sort of way. She is a tall, thin, mulatto woman.
Her eyes are deep-set behind a pointed nose. Her hair is coarse and
bushy. Seeing that Stella also is restless, she takes her arm and the
two women move towards the table. They slip into chairs. Halsey follows
and lights the lamp. He lays out a pack of cards. Stella sorts them as
if telling fortunes. She is a beautifully proportioned, large-eyed,
brown-skin girl. Except for the twisted line of her mouth when she
smiles or laughs, there is about her no suggestion of the life she’s
been through. Kabnis, with great mock-solemnity, goes to the corner,
takes down the robe, and dons it. He is a curious spectacle, acting a
part, yet very real. He joins the others at the table. They are used
to him. Lewis is surprised. He laughs. Kabnis shrinks and then glares
at him with a furtive hatred. Halsey, bringing out a bottle of corn
licker, pours drinks.

Halsey: Come on, Lewis. Come on, you fellers. Heres lookin at y.

Then, as if suddenly recalling something, he jerks away from the table
and starts towards the steps.

Kabnis: Where y goin, Halsey?

Halsey: Where? Where y think? That oak beam in th wagon—

Kabnis: Come ere. Come ere. Sit down. What in hell’s wrong with you
fellers? You with your wagon. Lewis with his Father John. This aint
th time fer foolin with wagons. Daytime’s bad enough f that. Ere, sit
down. Ere, Lewis, you too sit down. Have a drink. Thats right. Drink
corn licker, love th girls, an listen t th old man mumblin sin.

There seems to be no good-time spirit to the party. Something in the
air is too tense and deep for that. Lewis, seated now so that his eyes
rest upon the old man, merges with his source and lets the pain and
beauty of the South meet him there. White faces, pain-pollen, settle
downward through a cane-sweet mist and touch the ovaries of yellow
flowers. Cotton-bolls bloom, droop. Black roots twist in a parched
red soil beneath a blazing sky. Magnolias, fragrant, a trifle futile,
lovely, far off... His eyelids close. A force begins to heave and
rise... Stella is serious, reminiscent.

Stella: Usall is brought up t hate sin worse than death—

Kabnis: An then before you have y eyes half open, youre made t love it
if y want t live.

Stella: Us never—

Kabnis: Oh, I know your story: that old prim bastard over yonder, an
then old Calvert’s office—

Stella: It wasnt them—

Kabnis: I know. They put y out of church, an then I guess th preacher
came around an asked f some. But thats your body. Now me—

Halsey (passing him the bottle): All right, kid, we believe y. Here,
take another. Wheres Clover, Stel?

Stella: You know how Jim is when he’s just out th swamp. Done up in
shine an wouldnt let her come. Said he’d bust her head open if she went
out.

Kabnis: Dont see why he doesnt stay over with Laura, where he belongs.

Stella: Ask him, an I reckon he’ll tell y. More than you want.

Halsey: Th nigger hates th sight of a black woman worse than death.
Sorry t mix y up this way, Lewis. But y see how tis.

Lewis’ skin is tight and glowing over the fine bones of his face. His
lips tremble. His nostrils quiver. The others notice this and smile
knowingly at each other. Drinks and smokes are passed around. They pay
no neverminds to him. A real party is being worked up. Then Lewis opens
his eyes and looks at them. Their smiles disperse in hot-cold tremors.
Kabnis chokes his laugh. It sputters, gurgles. His eyes flicker and
turn away. He tries to pass the thing off by taking a long drink which
he makes considerable fuss over. He is drawn back to Lewis. Seeing
Lewis’ gaze still upon him, he scowls.

Kabnis: Whatsha lookin at me for? Y want t know who I am? Well, I’m
Ralph Kabnis—lot of good its goin t do y. Well? Whatsha keep lookin
for? I’m Ralph Kabnis. Aint that enough f y? Want th whole family
history? Its none of your godam business, anyway. Keep off me. Do y
hear? Keep off me. Look at Cora. Aint she pretty enough t look at? Look
at Halsey, or Stella. Clover ought t be here an you could look at her.
An love her. Thats what you need. I know—

Lewis: Ralph Kabnis gets satisfied that way?

Kabnis: Satisfied? Say, quit your kiddin. Here, look at that old man
there. See him? He’s satisfied. Do I look like him? When I’m dead I
dont expect t be satisfied. Is that enough f y, with your godam nosin,
or do you want more? Well, y wont get it, understand?

Lewis: The old man as symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past, what do
think he would say if he could see you? You look at him, Kabnis.

Kabnis: Just like any done-up preacher is what he looks t me. Jam some
false teeth in his mouth and crank him, an youd have God Almighty spit
in torrents all around th floor. Oh, hell, an he reminds me of that
black cockroach over yonder. An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors
were Southern blue-bloods—

Lewis: And black.

Kabnis: Aint much difference between blue an black.

Lewis: Enough to draw a denial from you. Cant hold them, can you?
Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They
fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of your cheeks, flame of
the great season’s multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned. Split,
shredded: easily burned. No use...

His gaze shifts to Stella. Stella’s face draws back, her breasts come
towards him.

Stella: I aint got nothin f y, mister. Taint no use t look at me.

Halsey: Youre a queer feller, Lewis, I swear y are. Told y so, didnt I,
girls? Just take him easy though, an he’ll be ridin just th same as any
Georgia mule, eh, Lewis? (Laughs.)

Stella: I’m goin t tell y somethin, mister. It aint t you, t th Mister
Lewis what noses about. Its t somethin different, I dunno what. That
old man there—maybe its him—is like m father used t look. He used t
sing. An when he could sing no mo, they’d allus come f him an carry
him t church an there he’d sit, befo th pulpit, aswayin an aleadin
every song. A white man took m mother an it broke th old man’s heart.
He died; an then I didnt care what become of me, an I dont now. I dont
care now. Dont get it in y head I’m some sentimental Susie askin for yo
sop. Nassur. But theres somethin t yo th others aint got. Boars an kids
an fools—thats all I’ve known. Boars when their fever’s up. When their
fever’s up they come t me. Halsey asks me over when he’s off th job.
Kabnis—it ud be a sin t play with him. He takes it out in talk.

Halsey knows that he has trifled with her. At odd things he has been
inwardly penitent before her tasking him. But now he wants to hurt her.
He turns to Lewis.

Halsey: Lewis, I got a little licker in me, an thats true. True’s what
I said. True. But th stuff just seems t wake me up an make my mind a
man of me. Listen. You know a lot, queer as hell as y are, an I want
t ask y some questions. Theyre too high fer them, Stella an Cora an
Kabnis, so we’ll just excuse em. A chat between ourselves. (Turns to
the others.) Youall cant listen in on this. Twont interest y. So just
leave th table t this gen’lemun an myself. Go long now.

Kabnis gets up, pompous in his robe, grotesquely so, and makes as if to
go through a grand march with Stella. She shoves him off, roughly, and
in a mood swings her body to the steps. Kabnis grabs Cora and parades
around, passing the old man, to whom he bows in mock-curtsy. He sweeps
by the table, snatches the licker bottle, and then he and Cora sprawl
on the mattresses. She meets his weak approaches after the manner she
thinks Stella would use.

Halsey contemptuously watches them until he is sure that they are
settled.

Halsey: This aint th sort o thing f me, Lewis, when I got work
upstairs. Nassur. You an me has got things t do. Wastin time on
common low-down women—say, Lewis, look at her now—Stella—aint she
a picture? Common wench—na she aint, Lewis. You know she aint. I’m
only tryin t fool y. I used t love that girl. Yassur. An sometimes
when th moon is thick an I hear dogs up th valley barkin an some old
woman fetches out her song, an th winds seem like th Lord made them
fer t fetch an carry th smell o pine an cane, an there aint no big
job on foot, I sometimes get t thinkin that I still do. But I want t
talk t y, Lewis, queer as y are. Y know, Lewis, I went t school once.
Ya. In Augusta. But it wasnt a regular school. Na. It was a pussy
Sunday-school masqueradin under a regular name. Some goody-goody
teachers from th North had come down t teach th niggers. If you was
nearly white, they liked y. If you was black, they didnt. But it wasnt
that—I was all right, y see. I couldnt stand em messin an pawin over m
business like I was a child. So I cussed em out an left. Kabnis there
ought t have cussed out th old duck over yonder an left. He’d a been a
better man tday. But as I was sayin, I couldnt stand their ways. So I
left an came here an worked with my father. An been here ever since.
He died. I set in f myself. An its always been; give me a good job an
sure pay an I aint far from being satisfied, so far as satisfaction
goes. Prejudice is everywheres about this country. An a nigger aint
in much standin anywheres. But when it comes t pottin round an doin
nothing, with nothin bigger’n an ax-handle t hold a feller down, like
it was a while back befo I got this job—that beam ought t be—but
tmorrow mornin early’s time enough f that. As I was sayin, I gets t
thinkin. Play dumb naturally t white folks. I gets t thinkin. I used
to subscribe t th _Literary Digest_ an that helped along a bit. But
there werent nothing I could sink m teeth int. Theres lots I want t ask
y, Lewis. Been askin y t come around. Couldnt get y. Cant get in much
tnight. (He glances at the others. His mind fastens on Kabnis.) Say,
tell me this, whats on your mind t say on that feller there? Kabnis’
name. One queer bird ought t know another, seems like t me.

Licker has released conflicts in Kabnis and set them flowing. He pricks
his ears, intuitively feels that the talk is about him, leaves Cora,
and approaches the table. His eyes are watery, heavy with passion. He
stoops. He is a ridiculous pathetic figure in his showy robe.

Kabnis: Talkin bout me. I know. I’m th topic of conversation everywhere
theres talk about this town. Girls an fellers. White folks as well. An
if its me youre talkin bout, guess I got a right t listen in. Whats
sayin? Whats sayin bout his royal guts, the Duke? Whats sayin, eh?

Halsey (to Lewis): We’ll take it up another time.

Kabnis: No nother time bout it Now. I’m here now an talkin’s just
begun. I was born an bred in a family of orators, thats what I was.

Halsey: Preachers.

Kabnis: Na. Preachers hell. I didnt say wind-busters. Y misapprehended
me. Y understand what that means, dont y? All right then, y
misapprehended me. I didnt say preachers. I said orators. O R A T O R S.
Born one an I’ll die one. You understand me, Lewis. (He turns to
Halsey and begins shaking his finger in his face.) An as f you, youre
all right f choppin things from blocks of wood. I was good at that th
day I ducked th cradle. An since then, I’ve been shapin words after a
design that branded here. Know whats here? M soul. Ever heard o that?
Th hell y have. Been shapin words t fit m soul. Never told y that
before, did I? Thought I couldnt talk. I’ll tell y. I’ve been shapin
words; ah, but sometimes theyre beautiful an golden an have a taste
that makes them fine t roll over with y tongue. Your tongue aint fit f
nothin but t roll an lick hog-meat.

Stella and Cora come up to the table.

Halsey: Give him a shove there, will y, Stel?

Stella jams Kabnis in a chair. Kabnis springs up.

Kabnis: Cant keep a good man down. Those words I was tellin y about,
they wont fit int th mold thats branded on m soul. Rhyme, y see? Poet,
too. Bad rhyme. Bad poet. Somethin else youve learned tnight. Lewis
dont know it all, an I’m atellin y. Ugh. Th form thats burned int my
soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam
nightmare, an wont stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words.
Not beautiful words. God Almighty no. Misshapen, split-gut, tortured,
twisted words. Layman was feedin it back there that day you thought I
ran out fearin things. White folks feed it cause their looks are words.
Niggers, black niggers feed it cause theyre evil an their looks are
words. Yallar niggers feed it. This whole damn bloated purple country
feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words. I
want t feed th soul—I know what that is; th preachers dont—but I’ve
got t feed it. I wish t God some lynchin white man ud stick his knife
through it an pin it to a tree. An pin it to a tree. You hear me? Thats
a wish f y, you little snot-nosed pups who’ve been makin fun of me, an
fakin that I’m weak. Me, Ralph Kabnis weak. Ha.

Halsey: Thats right, old man. There, there. Here, so much exertion
merits a fittin reward. Help him t be seated, Cora.

Halsey gives him a swig of shine. Cora glides up, seats him, and then
plumps herself down on his lap, squeezing his head into her breasts.
Kabnis mutters. Tries to break loose. Curses. Cora almost stifles
him. He goes limp and gives up. Cora toys with him. Ruffles his hair.
Braids it. Parts it in the middle. Stella smiles contemptuously. And
then a sudden anger sweeps her. She would like to lash Cora from the
place. She’d like to take Kabnis to some distant pine grove and nurse
and mother him. Her eyes flash. A quick tensioning throws her breasts
and neck into a poised strain. She starts towards them. Halsey grabs
her arm and pulls her to him. She struggles. Halsey pins her arms and
kisses her. She settles, spurting like a pine-knot afire.

Lewis finds himself completely cut out. The glowing within him
subsides. It is followed by a dead chill. Kabnis, Carrie, Stella,
Halsey, Cora, the old man, the cellar, and the work-shop, the southern
town descend upon him. Their pain is too intense. He cannot stand it.
He bolts from the table. Leaps up the stairs. Plunges through the
work-shop and out into the night.


                                   6

The cellar swims in a pale phosphorescence. The table, the chairs,
the figure of the old man are amœba-like shadows which move about and
float in it. In the corner under the steps, close to the floor, a
solid blackness. A sound comes from it. A forcible yawn. Part of the
blackness detaches itself so that it may be seen against the grayness
of the wall. It moves forward and then seems to be clothing itself in
odd dangling bits of shadow. The voice of Halsey, vibrant and deepened,
calls.

Halsey: Kabnis. Cora. Stella.

He gets no response. He wants to get them up, to get on the job. He is
intolerant of their sleepiness.

Halsey: Kabnis! Stella! Cora!

Gutturals, jerky and impeded, tell that he is shaking them.

Halsey: Come now, up with you.

Kabnis (sleepily and still more or less intoxicated): Whats th big
idea? What in hell—

Halsey: Work. But never you mind about that. Up with you.

Cora: Oooooo! Look here, mister, I aint used t bein thrown int th
street befo day.

Stella: Any bunk whats worked is worth in wages moren this. But come
on. Taint no use t arger.

Kabnis: I’ll arger. Its preposterous—

The girls interrupt him with none too pleasant laughs.

Kabnis: Thats what I said. Know what it means, dont y? All right, then.
I said its preposterous t root an artist out o bed at this ungodly
hour, when there aint no use t it. You can start your damned old work.
Nobody’s stoppin y. But what we got t get up for? Fraid somebody’ll
see th girls leavin? Some sport, you are. I hand it t y.

Halsey: Up you get, all th same.

Kabnis: Oh, th hell you say.

Halsey: Well, son, seeing that I’m th kind-hearted father, I’ll give y
chance t open your eyes. But up y get when I come down.

He mounts the steps to the work-shop and starts a fire in the hearth.
In the yard he finds some chunks of coal which he brings in and throws
on the fire. He puts a kettle on to boil. The wagon draws him. He lifts
an oak-beam, fingers it, and becomes abstracted. Then comes to himself
and places the beam upon the work-bench. He looks over some newly
cut wooden spokes. He goes to the fire and pokes it. The coals are
red-hot. With a pair of long prongs he picks them up and places them
in a thick iron bucket. This he carries downstairs. Outside, darkness
has given way to the impalpable grayness of dawn. This early morning
light, seeping through the four barred cellar windows, is the color of
the stony walls. It seems to be an emanation from them. Halsey’s coals
throw out a rich warm glow. He sets them on the floor, a safe distance
from the beds.

Halsey: No foolin now. Come. Up with you.

Other than a soft rustling, there is no sound as the girls slip into
their clothes. Kabnis still lies in bed.

Stella (to Halsey): Reckon y could spare us a light?

Halsey strikes a match, lights a cigarette, and then bends over and
touches flame to the two candles on the table between the beds. Kabnis
asks for a cigarette. Halsey hands him his and takes a fresh one for
himself. The girls, before the mirror, are doing up their hair. It is
bushy hair that has gone through some straightening process. Character,
however, has not all been ironed out. As they kneel there, heavy-eyed
and dusky, and throwing grotesque moving shadows on the wall, they are
two princesses in Africa going through the early-morning ablutions of
their pagan prayers. Finished, they come forward to stretch their hands
and warm them over the glowing coals. Red dusk of a Georgia sunset,
their heavy, coal-lit faces... Kabnis suddenly recalls something.

Kabnis: Th old man talked last night.

Stella: An so did you.

Halsey: In your dreams.

Kabnis: I tell y, he did. I know what I’m talkin about. I’ll tell y
what he said. Wait now, lemme see.

Halsey: Look out, brother, th old man’ll be getting int you by way o
dreams. Come, Stel, ready? Cora? Coffee an eggs f both of you.

Halsey goes upstairs.

Stella: Gettin generous, aint he?

She blows the candles out. Says nothing to Kabnis. Then she and Cora
follow after Halsey. Kabnis, left to himself, tries to rise. He has
slept in his robe. His robe trips him. Finally, he manages to stand
up. He starts across the floor. Half-way to the old man, he falls and
lies quite still. Perhaps an hour passes. Light of a new sun is about
to filter through the windows. Kabnis slowly rises to support upon his
elbows. He looks hard, and internally gathers himself together. The
side face of Father John is in the direct line of his eyes. He scowls
at him. No one is around. Words gush from Kabnis.

Kabnis: You sit there like a black hound spiked to an ivory pedestal.
An all night long I heard you murmurin that devilish word. They thought
I didnt hear y, but I did. Mumblin, feedin that ornery thing thats
livin on my insides. Father John. Father of Satan, more likely. What
does it mean t you? Youre dead already. Death. What does it mean t you?
To you who died way back there in th ’sixties. What are y throwin it
in my throat for? Whats it goin t get y? A good smashin in th mouth,
thats what. My fist’ll sink int y black mush face clear t y guts—if y
got any. Dont believe y have. Never seen signs of none. Death. Death.
Sin an Death. All night long y mumbled death. (He forgets the old man
as his mind begins to play with the word and its associations.) Death
... these clammy floors ... just like th place they used t stow away th
worn-out, no-count niggers in th days of slavery ... that was long ago;
not so long ago ... no windows (he rises higher on his elbows to verify
this assertion. He looks around, and, seeing no one but the old man,
calls.) Halsey! Halsey! Gone an left me. Just like a nigger. I thought
he was a nigger all th time. Now I know it. Ditch y when it comes right
down t it. Damn him anyway. Godam him. (He looks and re-sees the old
man.) Eh, you? T hell with you too. What do I care whether you can see
or hear? You know what hell is cause youve been there. Its a feelin an
its ragin in my soul in a way that’ll pop out of me an run you through,
an scorch y, an burn an rip your soul. Your soul. Ha. Nigger soul. A
gin soul that gets drunk on a preacher’s words. An screams. An shouts.
God Almighty, how I hate that shoutin. Where’s th beauty in that? Gives
a buzzard a windpipe an I’ll bet a dollar t a dime th buzzard ud beat
y to it. Aint surprisin th white folks hate y so. When you had eyes,
did you ever see th beauty of th world? Tell me that. Th hell y did.
Now dont tell me. I know y didnt. You couldnt have. Oh, I’m drunk an
just as good as dead, but no eyes that have seen beauty ever lose their
sight. You aint got no sight. If you had, drunk as I am, I hope Christ
will kill me if I couldnt see it. Your eyes are dull and watery, like
fish eyes. Fish eyes are dead eyes. Youre an old man, a dead fish man,
an black at that. Theyve put y here t die, damn fool y are not t know
it. Do y know how many feet youre under ground? I’ll tell y. Twenty.
An do y think you’ll ever see th light of day again, even if you wasnt
blind? Do y think youre out of slavery? Huh? Youre where they used t
throw th worked-out, no-count slaves. On a damp clammy floor of a dark
scum-hole. An they called that an infirmary. Th sons-a... Why I can
already see you toppled off that stool an stretched out on th floor
beside me—not beside me, damn you, by yourself, with th flies buzzin
an lickin God knows what they’d find on a dirty, black, foul-breathed
mouth like yours...

Some one is coming down the stairs. Carrie, bringing food for the old
man. She is lovely in her fresh energy of the morning, in the calm
untested confidence and nascent maternity which rise from the purpose
of her present mission. She walks to within a few paces of Kabnis.

Carrie K.: Brother says come up now, brother Ralph.

Kabnis: Brother doesnt know what he’s talkin bout.

Carrie K.: Yes he does, Ralph. He needs you on th wagon.

Kabnis: He wants me on th wagon, eh? Does he think some wooden thing
can lift me up? Ask him that.

Carrie K.: He told me t help y.

Kabnis: An how would you help me, child, dear sweet little sister?

She moves forward as if to aid him.

Carrie K.: I’m not a child, as I’ve more than once told you, brother
Ralph, an as I’ll show you now.

Kabnis: Wait, Carrie. No, thats right. Youre not a child. But twont do
t lift me bodily. You dont understand. But its th soul of me that needs
th risin.

Carrie K: Youre a bad brother an just wont listen t me when I’m tellin
y t go t church.

Kabnis doesnt hear her. He breaks down and talks to himself.

Kabnis: Great God Almighty, a soul like mine cant pin itself onto a
wagon wheel an satisfy itself in spinnin round. Iron prongs an hickory
sticks, an God knows what all ... all right for Halsey ... use him. Me?
I get my life down in this scum-hole. Th old man an me—

Carrie K.: Has he been talkin?

Kabnis: Huh? Who? Him? No. Dont need to. I talk. An when I really talk,
it pays th best of them t listen. Th old man is a good listener. He’s
deaf; but he’s a good listener. An I can talk t him. Tell him anything.

Carrie K.: He’s deaf an blind, but I reckon he hears, an sees too, from
th things I’ve heard.

Kabnis: No. Cant. Cant I tell you. How’s he do it?

Carrie K.: Dunno, except I’ve heard that th souls of old folks have a
way of seein things.

Kabnis: An I’ve heard them call that superstition.

The old man begins to shake his head slowly. Carrie and Kabnis watch
him, anxiously. He mumbles. With a grave motion his head nods up and
down. And then, on one of the down-swings—

Father John (remarkably clear and with great conviction): Sin.

He repeats this word several times, always the downward nodding.
Surprised, indignant, Kabnis forgets that Carrie is with him.

Kabnis: Sin! Shut up. What do you know about sin, you old black
bastard. Shut up, an stop that swayin an noddin your head.

Father John: Sin.

Kabnis tries to get up.

Kabnis: Didnt I tell y t shut up?

Carrie steps forward to help him. Kabnis is violently shocked at her
touch. He springs back.

Kabnis: Carrie! What .. how .. Baby, you shouldnt be down here. Ralph
says things. Doesnt mean to. But Carrie, he doesnt know what he’s
talkin about. Couldnt know. It was only a preacher’s sin they knew in
those old days, an that wasnt sin at all. Mind me, th only sin is whats
done against th soul. Th whole world is a conspiracy t sin, especially
in America, an against me. I’m th victim of their sin. I’m what sin
is. Does he look like me? Have you ever heard him say th things youve
heard me say? He couldnt if he had th Holy Ghost t help him. Dont look
shocked, little sweetheart, you hurt me.

Father John: Sin.

Kabnis: Aw, shut up, old man.

Carrie K.: Leave him be. He wants t say somethin. (She turns to the old
man.) What is it, Father?

Kabnis: Whatsha talkin t that old deaf man for? Come away from him.

Carrie K.: What is it, Father?

The old man’s lips begin to work. Words are formed incoherently.
Finally, he manages to articulate—

Father John: Th sin whats fixed... (Hesitates.)

Carrie K. (restraining a comment from Kabnis): Go on, Father.

Father John: ... upon th white folks—

Kabnis: Suppose youre talkin about that bastard race thats roamin round
th country. It looks like sin, if thats what y mean. Give us somethin
new an up t date.

Father John:—f tellin Jesus—lies. O th sin th white folks ’mitted
when they made th Bible lie.

Boom. Boom. BOOM! Thuds on the floor above. The old man sinks back into
his stony silence. Carrie is wet-eyed. Kabnis, contemptuous.

Kabnis: So thats your sin. All these years t tell us that th white
folks made th Bible lie. Well, I’ll be damned. Lewis ought t have been
here. You old black fakir—

Carrie K.: Brother Ralph, is that your best Amen?

She turns him to her and takes his hot cheeks in her firm cool hands.
Her palms draw the fever out. With its passing, Kabnis crumples. He
sinks to his knees before her, ashamed, exhausted. His eyes squeeze
tight. Carrie presses his face tenderly against her. The suffocation of
her fresh starched dress feels good to him. Carrie is about to lift her
hands in prayer, when Halsey, at the head of the stairs, calls down.

Halsey: Well, well. Whats up? Aint you ever comin? Come on. Whats up
down there? Take you all mornin t sleep off a pint? Youre weakenin,
man, youre weakenin. Th axle an th beam’s all ready waitin f y. Come on.

Kabnis rises and is going doggedly towards the steps. Carrie notices
his robe. She catches up to him, points to it, and helps him take it
off. He hangs it, with an exaggerated ceremony, on its nail in the
corner. He looks down on the tousled beds. His lips curl bitterly.
Turning, he stumbles over the bucket of dead coals. He savagely jerks
it from the floor. And then, seeing Carrie’s eyes upon him, he swings
the pail carelessly and with eyes downcast and swollen, trudges
upstairs to the work-shop. Carrie’s gaze follows him till he is gone.
Then she goes to the old man and slips to her knees before him. Her
lips murmur, “Jesus, come.”

Light streaks through the iron-barred cellar window. Within its soft
circle, the figures of Carrie and Father John.

Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the
forest. Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes. The
sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a
birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the
southern town.


                                THE END



Transcriber’s Notes:
 - Text enclosed by underscores is in italics (_italics_).
 - Blank pages have been removed.
 - Redundant title page removed.
 - Silently corrected a few typographical errors.
 - Otherwise spelling and hyphenation left unchanged.
 - Ellipses period counts left unchanged.





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