And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes (45)
Give thyme or parsley wreath, I ask no bays;9
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.
Who lisped at first, in future times speak plain.6 (20)
By art he gladly found what he did seek,
A full requital of his striving pain.
Art can do much, but this maxim’s most sure:
A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance. (30)
Men have precedency and still excel,
It is but vain unjustly to wage war;
Men can do best, and women know it well (40)
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours.
“The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”
“learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye.
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train.
You see them now . . . though they were always . . . there . . . the children of Hester Prynne . . . walking the streets . . . needing a place . . . to eat . . . sleep . . . Be . . . warm . . . loved . . . alone. . . together. . . complete . . . The block . . . that little Black girls . . . stood upon . . . is the same block . . . they now walk . . . with little white boys and girls . . . selling themselves . . . to the adequate . . . bidder . . .
Hagar was a little Black girl . . . chosen by Sarah and Abraham . . . looked like a breeder . . . they said . . . Phillis . . . a little Black girl . . . chosen by Wheatley . . . looked intelligent . . . make a cute pet . . . for the children . . . Old men . . . sweat curling round their collars . . . choose a body and act . . . on the wait . . . through the tunnel to Jersey . . . Looked like fun . . . they say . . . Family members . . . and family friends . . . inhale to intoxication . . . the allure of the youths. . . destroying in conception . . . that which has never been . . . born . . .
Eyes . . . they say . . . are the mirror . . . of the soul . . . a reflection . . . of the spirit . . . an informer . . . to reality . . . What do you see . . . if you are a little Black girl . . . standing on a stage . . . waiting to be purchased . . . Is there kindness . . . concern . . . compassion . . . in the faces examining you . . . Do your eyes show. . . or other eyes acknowledge . . . that you . . . dusky . . . naked of clothes and tongue . . . stripped of the protection of Gods . . . and countrymen . . . are Human . . . Do you see those who purchase . . . or those who sold . . . Do you see those who grab at you . . . or those who refused to shield you . . . Are you grateful to be bought . . . or sold . . . What would you think . . . of a people . . . who allowed . . . nay encouraged . . . abetted . . . regaled . . . in your chains. . . . Hands . . . that handle heavy objects . . . develop callouses . . . Feet in shoes too tight . . . develop corns . . . Minds that cannot comprehend . . . like lovers separated too long . . . develop in affinity for what is . . . and an indifference . . . if not hostility . . . to that which has been denied. . . Little white boys . . . stalking Park Avenue . . . little white girls . . . on the Minnesota Strip . . . are also slaves.. . to the uncaring. . . of a nation . . .
It cannot be unusual . . . that the gene remembers . . . It divides . . . and redivides and subdivides . . . again and again and again.. . to make the eyes brown . . . the fingers long . . . the hair coarse . . . the nose broad . . . the pigment Black . . . the mind intelligent . . . It cannot be unusual . . . that one gene . . . from all the billions upon billions. . . remembered clitorectomies . . . infibulations . . . women beaten. . . children hungry . . garbage heaping . . . open sewers . . . men laughing . . . at it all . . . It cannot be unusual . . . that the dark . . . dusky . . . murky world . . . of druggery . . . drums . . . witch doctors . . . incantations . . . MAGIC . . . was willingly shed . . . for the Enlightenment . . . At least man . . . was considered rational . . . At least books . . . dispensed knowledge . . . At least God . . . though still angry and jealous . . . was reachable through prayer and action . . . if those are not redundant . . . terms . . . We cannot be surprised that young Phillis chose poetry. . .
The critics . . . from a safe seat in the balcony . . . disdain her performance . . . reject her reality . . . ignore her truth. . . How could she . . . they ask . . . thank God she was brought . . . and bought . . . in this Land . . . How dare she . . . they decried . . . cheer George Washington his victory . . . Why couldn’t she . . . they want to know . . . be more like . . . more like . . . more like . . . The record sticks . . . Phillis was her own precedent . . . her own image . . . her only ancestor . . . She wasn’t like Harriet Tubman because she is Tubman . . . with Pen . . . rather than body . . . Leading herself . . . and therefore her people . . . from bondage . . . not like Sojourner Truth . . . she was Truth . . . using words on paper . . . to make the case . . . that slavery is people . . . and wrong to do . . . We know nothing of the Life . . . we who judge others . . . of the conditions . . . we create. . . and expect others to live with . . . or beyond . . . broken spirits . . . broken hearts . . . misplaced love . . . fruitless endeavor . . . Women . . . are considered complete . . . when they marry . . . We have done . . . it is considered . . . our duty . . . when we safely deliver a person from the bondage of Father . . . to the bondage of duty . . . and husband . . . from house slaves who read and write . . . to housewives who have time for neither . . . We are happy . . . when their own race is chosen . . . their own class reaffirmed . . . their their own desire submerged . . . into food . . . dishes . . . laundry . . . babies . . . no dreams this week thank you I haven’t the time . . . Like overripe fruit in an orchard embraced by frost . . . the will to live turns rotten . . . feckless . . . feculent . . .
What is a woman . . . to think . . . when all she hears . . . are words that exclude her . . . all she feels . . . are emotions that deceive . . . What do the children think . . . in their evening quest . . . of those who from platform and pulpit . . . deride their condition . . . yet purchase their service . . . What must life be . . . to any young captive . . . of its time . . . Do we send them back . . . home to the remembered horrors . . . Do we allow them their elsewheres . . . to parade their talents . . . Do we pretend that all is well . . . that Ends . . .
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is—and tonics, and air and exercise, and journeys, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.”
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.
I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the ever-lastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.
I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.
I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe.
The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs. I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here.
The wallpaper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother—they must have had perseverance as well as hatred.
Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed, which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.
But I don’t mind it a bit—only the paper.”
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under way in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.
The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions—why, that is something like it.
That is, sometimes!
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.
When the sun shoots in through the cast window—I always watch for that first long, straight ray—it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it.
That is why I watch it always.
By moonlight—the moon shines in all night when there is a moon—I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.
I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.
By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.”
John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper.
I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper—he would make fun of me. He might even want to take me away.
I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out. There is a week more, and I think that will be enough.”
“I can’t,” said I. “The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf!”
And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said it so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course, and came in. He stopped short by the door.
“What is the matter?” he cried. “For God’s sake, what are you doing!”
I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
Jennie wanted to sleep with me—the sly thing; but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone.
That was clever, for really I wasn’t alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her.
I pulled and she shook. I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.”
And then when the sun came and that awful pattern began to laugh at me, I declared I would finish it today!
We go away tomorrow, and they are moving all my furniture down again to leave things as they were before.
Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing.
She laughed and said she wouldn’t mind doing it herself, but I must not get tired.
How she betrayed herself that time!”
She tried to get me out of the room—it was too patent! But I said it was so quiet and empty and clean now that I believed I would lie down again and sleep all I could, and not to wake me even for dinner—I would call when I woke.
So now she is gone, and the servants are gone, and the things are gone, and there is nothing left but that great bedstead nailed down, with the canvas mattress we found on it.
We shall sleep downstairs tonight, and take the boat home tomorrow.
I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again.
How those children did tear about here!
This bedstead is fairly gnawed!
But I must get to work.
I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.
I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes.
I want to astonish him.
I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!
But I forgot I could not reach far without anything to stand on!”
Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!
I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.
Besides I wouldn’t do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.
I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.
I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?”
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats (5)
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . (10)
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make out visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown (130)
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
meets the tide,
a red swan lifts red wings
and darker beak,
and underneath the purple down (5)
of his soft breast
uncurls his coral feet.
Through the deep purple
of the dying heat
of sun and mist, (10)
the level ray of sun-beam
the lily with dark breast,
and flecked with richer gold
its golden crest. (15)
Where the slow lifting
of the tide,
floats into the river
and slowly drifts
among the reeds, (20)
and lifts the yellow flags,
where tide and river meet.
Ah kingly kiss—
no more regret (25)
nor old deep memories
to mar the bliss;
where the low sedge is thick,
the gold day-lily
outspreads and rests (30)
beneath soft fluttering
of red swan wings
and the warm quivering
of the red swan’s breast.
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus1 (5)
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn (10)
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
I regret my brother’s death.”
A man must defend himself.”
Many people have been killed;
I will surrender now
Because such things are not right.”
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Lost in a world of confusion,
Caught up in a whirl of a
Confused by the rules,
Scorned by attitudes,
Suppressed by manipulations,
And destroyed by modern society.
have lost the economic battle
the struggle of cultural survival.
I must choose
Between the paradox of
Victory of the spirit,
despite physical hunger
to exist in the grasp
of American social neurosis,
sterilization of the soul
and a full stomach.
or whatever I call myself,
I look the same
I feel the same
Sing the same
I am the masses of my people and
I refuse to be absorbed.
I am Joaquin
The odds are great
but my spirit is strong
My faith unbreakable
My blood is pure
I am Aztec Prince and Christian Christ
I SHALL ENDURE!
I WILL ENDURE!
“In that hut down by the ash-hopper. Why, looky here. When we was at dinner, didn’t you see a N man go in there with some vittles?”
“What did you think the vittles was for?”
“For a dog.”
“So’d I. Well, it wasn’t for a dog.”
“Because part of it was watermelon.”
“So it was-I noticed it. Well, it does beat all, that I never thought about a dog not eating watermelon. It shows how a body can see and don’t see at the same time.”
so on, ‘stead of mister; and Jim’s eyes bugged out, and he was interested. He says:
“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Sollermun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”
“Get?” I says; “why, they get a thousand dollars a month if they want it; they can have just as much as they want; everything belongs to them.”
“Ain’that gay? En what dey got to do, Huck?”
“They don’t do nothing! Why, how you talk! They just set around.”
“No; is dat so?”
“Of course it is. They just set around — except, maybe, when there’s a war; then they go to the war. But other times they just lazy around; or go hawking — just hawking and sp — Sh! — d’ you hear a noise?”
We skipped out and looked; but it warn’t nothing but the flutter of a steamboat’s wheel away down, coming around the point; so we come back.
“Yes,” says I, “and other times, when things is dull, they fuss with the parlyment; and if everybody don’t go just so he whacks their heads off. But mostly they hang round the harem.”
“Roun’ de which?”
“What’s de harem?”
“The place where he keeps his wives. Don’t you know about the harem? Solomon had one; he had about a million wives.”
“Why, yes, dat’s so; I — I’d done forgot it. A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I reck’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives
quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why: would a wise man want to live in de mids’ er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No — ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factry; en den he could shet down de biler-factry when he want to res’.”
“Well, but he was the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so, her own self.”
“I doan k’yer what de widder say, he warn’t no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes’ ways I ever see. Does you know ’bout dat chile dat he ‘uz gwyne to chop in two?”
“Yes, the widow told me all about it.”
“Well den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stump, dah — dat’s one er de women; heah’s you — dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill do b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in two, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill? — can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um.”
“But hang it, Jim, you’ve clean missed the point — blame it, you’ve missed it a thousand mile.”
“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ’bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en
dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ’bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ’bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ’bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ’bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”
“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”
“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder — it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; he can’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ’em. But you take a man dat’s got ’bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
I never see such a ******. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any ****** I ever see. So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide. I told about Louis Sixteenth that got his head cut off in France long time ago; and about his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.
“Po’ little chap.”
“But some says he got out and got away, and come to America.”
“Dat’s good! But he’ll be pooty lonesome — dey ain’ no kings here, is dey, Huck?”
“Den he cain’t git no situation. What he gwyne to do?”
“Well, I don’t know. Some of them gets on the police, and some of them learns people how to talk French.”
“Why, Huck, doan’ de French people talk de same way we does?”
“No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”
“I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head — dat is, if he warn’t white. I wouldn’t ‘low no ****** to call me dat.”
“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything. It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French?”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em. Is a Frenchman a man?”
“WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!”
I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a ****** to argue. So I quit.” (
“Huck — Huck Finn, you look me in de eye; look me in de eye. Hain’t you ben gone away?”
“Gone away? Why, what in the nation do you mean? I hain’t been gone anywheres. Where would I go to?”
“Well, looky here, boss, dey’s sumf’n wrong, dey is. Is I me, or who is I? Is I heah, or whah is I? Now dat’s what I wants to know.”
“Well, I think you’re here, plain enough, but I think you’re a tangle-headed old fool, Jim.”
“I is, is I? Well, you answer me dis: Didn’t you tote out de line in de canoe fer to make fas’ to de tow-head?”
“No, I didn’t. What tow-head? I hain’t see no tow-head.”
“You hain’t seen no towhead? Looky here, didn’t de line pull loose en de raf’ go a-hummin’ down de river, en leave you en de canoe behine in de fog?”
“Why, de fog! — de fog dat’s been aroun’ all night. En didn’t you whoop, en didn’t I whoop, tell we got mix’ up in de islands en one un us got los’ en t’other one was jis’ as good as los’, ‘kase he didn’ know whah he wuz? En didn’t I bust up agin a lot er dem islands en have a turrible time en mos’ git drownded? Now ain’ dat so, boss — ain’t it so? You answer me dat.”
“Well, this is too many for me, Jim. I hain’t seen no fog, nor no islands, nor no troubles, nor nothing. I been setting here talking with you all night till you went to sleep about ten minutes ago, and I reckon I done the same. You couldn’t a got drunk in that time, so of course you’ve been dreaming.”
“Dad fetch it, how is I gwyne to dream all dat in ten minutes?”
“Well, hang it all, you did dream it, because there didn’t any of it happen.”
“But, Huck, it’s all jis’ as plain to me as — ”
“It don’t make no difference how plain it is; there ain’t nothing in it. I know, because I’ve been here all the time.”
Jim didn’t say nothing for about five minutes, but set there studying over it. Then he says:
“Well, den, I reck’n I did dream it, Huck; but dog my cats ef it ain’t de powerfullest dream I ever see. En I hain’t ever had no dream b’fo’ dat’s tired me like dis one.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right, because a dream does tire a body like everything sometimes. But this one was a staving dream; tell me all about it, Jim.”
So Jim went to work and told me the whole thing right through, just as it happened, only he painted it up considerable. Then he said he must start in and “‘terpret” it, because it was sent for a warning. He said the first towhead stood for a man that would try to do us some good, but the current was another man that would get us away from him. The whoops was warnings that would come to us every now and then, and if we didn’t try hard to make out to understand them they’d just take us into bad luck, ‘stead of keeping us out of it. The lot of towheads was troubles we was going to get into with quarrelsome people and all kinds of mean folks, but if we minded our business and didn’t talk back and aggravate them, we would pull through and get out of the fog and into the big clear river, which was the free States, and wouldn’t have no more trouble.
It had clouded up pretty dark just after I got on to the raft, but it was clearing up again now.
“Oh, well, that’s all interpreted well enough as far
as it goes, Jim,” I says; “but what does these things stand for?”
It was the leaves and rubbish on the raft and the smashed oar. You could see them first-rate now.
Jim looked at the trash, and then looked at me, and back at the trash again. He had got the dream fixed so strong in his head that he couldn’t seem to shake it loose and get the facts back into its place again right away. But when he did get the thing straightened around he looked at me steady without ever smiling, and says:
“What do dey stan’ for? I’se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.”
Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a ******; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”
“Dah she is?”
But it warn’t. It was Jack-o’-lanterns, or lightning bugs; so he set down again, and went to watching, same as before. Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free — and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so — I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her ****** go off right under your
eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you could treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done.”
I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead. I fidgeted up and down the raft, abusing myself to myself, and Jim was fidgeting up and down past me. We neither of us could keep still. Every time he danced around and says, “Dah’s Cairo!” it went through me like a shot, and I thought if it was Cairo I reckoned I would die of miserableness.
Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.
It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a ****** an inch and he’ll take an ell.” Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this ******, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.
I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, “Let up on me — it ain’t too late yet — I’ll paddle ashore at the first light and tell.” I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone. I went to looking out sharp for a light, and sort of singing to myself. By and by one showed. Jim sings out:
“We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels! Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it!”
“I’ll take the canoe and go and see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.”
He jumped and got the canoe ready, and put his old coat in the bottom for me to set on, and give me the paddle; and as I shoved off, he says:
“Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.”
I was paddling off, all in a sweat to tell on him; but when he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. I went along slow then, and I warn’t right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn’t. When I was fifty yards off, Jim says:
“Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.”
Well, I just felt sick. But I says, I got to do it — I
can’t get out of it. Right then along comes a skiff with two men in it with guns, and they stopped and I stopped. One of them says:
“What’s that yonder?”
“A piece of a raft,” I says.
“Do you belong on it?”
“Any men on it?”
“Only one, sir.”
“Well, there’s five ******s run off to-night up yonder, above the head of the bend. Is your man white or black?”
I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough — hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says:
“I reckon we’ll go and see for ourselves.”
“I wish you would,” says I, “because it’s pap that’s there, and maybe you’d help me tow the raft ashore where the light is. He’s sick — and so is mam and Mary Ann.”
“Oh, the devil! we’re in a hurry, boy. But I s’pose we’ve got to. Come, buckle to your paddle, and let’s get along.”
I buckled to my paddle and they laid to their oars. When we had made a stroke or two, I says:
“Pap’ll be mighty much obleeged to you, I can tell you. Everybody goes away when I want them to help me tow the raft ashore, and I can’t do it by myself.”
“Well, that’s infernal mean. Odd, too. Say, boy, what’s the matter with your father?”
“It’s the — a — the — well, it ain’t anything much.”
They stopped pulling. It warn’t but a mighty little ways to the raft now. One says:
“Boy, that’s a lie. What IS the matter with your pap? Answer up square now, and it’ll be the better for you.”
“I will, sir, I will, honest — but don’t leave us, please. It’s the — the — Gentlemen, if you’ll only pull ahead, and let me heave you the headline, you won’t have to come a-near the raft — please do.”
“Set her back, John, set her back!” says one. They backed water. “Keep away, boy — keep to looard. Confound it, I just expect the wind has blowed it to us. Your pap’s got the small-pox, and you know it precious well. Why didn’t you come out and say so? Do you want to spread it all over?”
“Well,” says I, a-blubbering, “I’ve told everybody before, and they just went away and left us.”
“Poor devil, there’s something in that. We are right down sorry for you, but we — well, hang it, we don’t want the small-pox, you see. Look here, I’ll tell you what to do. Don’t you try to land by yourself, or you’ll smash everything to pieces. You float along down about twenty miles, and you’ll come to a town on the left-hand side of the river. It will be long after sun-up then, and when you ask for help you tell them your folks are all down with chills and fever. Don’t be a fool again, and let people guess what is the matter. Now we’re trying to do you a kindness; so you just put twenty miles between us, that’s a good boy. It wouldn’t do any good to land yonder where the light is — it’s only a wood-yard. Say, I reckon your father’s poor, and I’m bound to say he’s in pret-
ty hard luck. Here, I’ll put a twenty-dollar gold piece on this board, and you get it when it floats by. I feel mighty mean to leave you; but my kingdom! it won’t do to fool with small-pox, don’t you see?”(
I went to the circus and loafed around the back
side till the watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent. I had my twenty-dollar gold piece and some other money, but I reckoned I better save it, because there ain’t no telling how soon you are going to need it, away from home and amongst strangers that way. You can’t be too careful. I ain’t opposed to spending money on circuses when there ain’t no other way, but there ain’t no use in wasting it on them.
It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable — there must a been twenty of them — and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely. And then one by one they got up and stood, and went a-weaving around the ring so gentle and wavy and graceful, the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight, with their heads bobbing and skimming along, away up there under the tent-roof, and every lady’s rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol.
And then faster and faster they went, all of them dancing, first one foot out in the air and then the other, the horses leaning more and more, and the ringmaster going round and round the center-pole, cracking his whip and shouting “Hi! — hi!” and the clown
cracking jokes behind him; and by and by all hands dropped the reins, and every lady put her knuckles on her hips and every gentleman folded his arms, and then how the horses did lean over and hump themselves! And so one after the other they all skipped off into the ring, and made the sweetest bow I ever see, and then scampered out, and everybody clapped their hands and went just about wild.
Well, all through the circus they done the most astonishing things; and all the time that clown carried on so it most killed the people. The ringmaster couldn’t ever say a word to him but he was back at him quick as a wink with the funniest things a body ever said; and how he ever could think of so many of them, and so sudden and so pat, was what I couldn’t noway understand. Why, I couldn’t a thought of them in a year. And by and by a drunk man tried to get into the ring — said he wanted to ride; said he could ride as well as anybody that ever was. They argued and tried to keep him out, but he wouldn’t listen, and the whole show come to a standstill. Then the people begun to holler at him and make fun of him, and that made him mad, and he begun to rip and tear; so that stirred up the people, and a lot of men begun to pile down off of the benches and swarm towards the ring, saying, “Knock him down! throw him out!” and one or two women begun to scream. So, then, the ringmaster he made a little speech, and said he hoped there wouldn’t be no disturbance, and if the man would promise he wouldn’t make no more trouble he would let him ride if he thought he could stay on the horse. So everybody laughed and said all right, and the man got on.
The minute he was on, the horse begun to rip and tear and jump and cavort around, with two circus men hanging on to his bridle trying to hold him, and the drunk man hanging on to his neck, and his heels flying in the air every jump, and the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down. And at last, sure enough, all the circus men could do, the horse broke loose, and away he went like the very nation, round and round the ring, with that sot laying down on him and hanging to his neck, with first one leg hanging most to the ground on one side, and then t’other one on t’other side, and the people just crazy. It warn’t funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger. But pretty soon he struggled up astraddle and grabbed the bridle, a-reeling this way and that; and the next minute he sprung up and dropped the bridle and stood! and the horse a-going like a house afire too. He just stood up there, a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn’t ever drunk in his life — and then he begun to pull off his clothes and sling them. He shed them so thick they kind of clogged up the air, and altogether he shed seventeen suits. And, then, there he was, slim and handsome, and dressed the gaudiest and prettiest you ever saw, and he lit into that horse with his whip and made him fairly hum — and finally skipped off, and made his bow and danced off to the dressing-room, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment.
Then the ringmaster he see how he had been fooled, and he was the sickest ringmaster you ever see, I reckon. Why, it was one of his own men! He had got up that joke all out of his own head, and
never let on to nobody. Well, I felt sheepish enough to be took in so, but I wouldn’t a been in that ringmaster’s place, not for a thousand dollars. I don’t know; there may be bullier circuses than what that one was, but I never struck them yet. Anyways, it was plenty good enough for me; and wherever I run across it, it can have all of my custom every time.”
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings 0065isting in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than what we do. He will be interested possibility rather than in probability. He will be intereste in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves – whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there
“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ “
“You could be honest too if you’d only try,” said the grandmother. “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.”
The Misfit kept scratching in the ground with the butt of his gun as if he were thinking about it. “Yes’m, somebody is always after you,” he murmured.
The grandmother noticed how thin his shoulder blades were just behind his hat because she was standing up looking down on him. “Do you ever pray?” she asked.
He shook his head. All she saw was the black hat wiggle between his shoulder blades. “Nome,” he said.
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. “Bailey Boy!” she called.
“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet,” and he looked up at the children’s mother and the little girl who were sitting close together, their faces white and their eyes glassy; “I even seen a woman flogged,” he said.
“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray . . .”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
“That’s when you should have started to pray,” she said. “What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?”
“Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”
“Maybe they put you in by mistake,” the old lady said vaguely.
“Nome,” he said. “It wasn’t no mistake. They had the papers on me.”
“You must have stolen something,” she said.
The Misfit sneered slightly. “Nobody had nothing I wanted,” he said. “It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself.”
“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed. “Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say he didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father’s hand and Bobby Lee followed. They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned and supporting himself against a gray naked pine trunk, he shouted, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”
Eva couldn’t see Hannah clearly for the tears, but she looked up at her anyway and said, by way of apology or explanation or perhaps just by way of neatness, “But I held him close first. Real close. Sweet Plum. My baby boy.”
Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of over-ripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze.
“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”