Toni Morrison - Tar Baby
“Well, in that case the shroud may as well be comfy.” He picked up the rattan tray and, since he was a genuine Philadelphia Negro mentioned in the book of that name, he reclasped his bow tie and adjusted his cuff links before he left the kitchen and went to the greenhouse. He noticed that the bricks that edged the courtyard were popping up out of the ground, leaning every which way. Urged, it seemed to him, out of the earth, like they were poked from beneath. Cement, he thought, is all that will keep this earth still. This place dislocates everything. I’ll get that mulatto to fix them right this time. And something serious had to be done about the ants. They had already eaten through the loudspeaker wires and he had had to transfer the entire system to the greenhouse: turntable, receiver, records. Sydney was grateful to the ants because he really hated vacuuming or polishing doorknobs while the music boomed through the house. He preferred silence for his work. Now he was free of it and Mr. Street had it all to himself. Still, if ants will eat copper—something serious had to be done. If it’s not one thing it’s another, he thought, and either he was shrinking in his old age or the trees were jumping up overnight. The roof of the washhouse was completely obscured by a heavy branch. That mulatto may buck if I tell him to cut it down, he thought. Better get somebody from town.
The greenhouse was sunk in violins and Valerian, seated at a seed bench, did not hear Sydney enter. He was drenched in music and although his fingers shuddered occasionally, his head-of-a-coin profile moved accurately to the tempo. Sydney tapped him on the shoulder and he turned.
“Your lunch, Mr. Street.”
Valerian motioned for him to put the tray down, his fingers describing a wavy arc in the air.
“You letting this place run down, Mr. Street.”
“What’s that?” asked Valerian.
Sydney walked over to the record player and lifted the arm away. “I said you letting this place run down. Used to be pretty in here. You letting it go to pieces.”
“It’s my place,” said Valerian. “Turn the music back on.”
Sydney did not move, but said, “You don’t grow nothing in here anymore.”
“I like it this way, Sydney. Put the music back.”
“Then you should take care of it.”
“That’ll do, Sydney. Hand me the mail.”
Sydney picked up the stack of letters, circulars and catalogs and held them out to Valerian, but the dancing hands could not receive them. “Want me to open them for you?” asked Sydney.
Sydney pulled up a stepping stool and sat down next to Valerian. “You should take care of yourself, too. You need a haircut.”
“I prefer it long,” said Valerian.
“No, you don’t. You just don’t want to go into town. The mulatto’s here today. If you won’t let me cut it, let him take you over.”
Sydney slit open a letter with a penknife. “The one Dr. Michelin sent over. A mulatto. Been coming awhile now. He can take you over to get your hair cut.”
“Not today,” said Valerian. “Not today; later, Sydney.” Valerian turned toward the tray and tried to pick up the knife and fork. He succeeded but could not manage to make them do anything else but wave there in his hands. Sydney put aside the mail, and stood up. He took the knife and fork from Valerian, broke open the steaming potato, and scooped out a forkful. He blew on it and then held it in front of Valerian’s mouth. Valerian closed his lips and looked into Sydney’s eyes. He tried as best he could to see what was there, what was really there. He wasn’t sure, but he believed he saw kindness. He opened his lips and swallowed.
“Good,” said Sydney. “That’s good. It’s not too hot, is it?”
Valerian shook his head and opened his mouth for more. He chewed for a little while and then said, “Sydney?”
“No, sir, I didn’t. I heard about it same time you did.”
“Ondine never told you?”
“Not a word.”
“I hear them in the kitchen. Talking, like they used to.”
“Remember? How they used to gossip in the kitchen back then?”
“He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“Michael? Oh, yes, sir. He’s fine.”
“I’m thinking of going back. I think I should leave this place and go back to Philadelphia.”
“I don’t like it here anymore. No reason to be here now.”
“No reason to be anywhere, Mr. Street. But I’d think carefully on it if I was you. Ondine and me, we like it down here. Philadelphia winters can be hard on old people. It’s nice and warm down here. Quiet too. We like it fine. Would you like a sip of Chablis now?” He put down the fork and went to the small refrigerator for a bottle of wine.
“No,” said Valerian. “Not now.”
“I would,” said Sydney. “I’d like a glass myself.” He worked the screw into the cork. “You sure you don’t want any?”
“I said no.”
“How are your bunions, Mr. Street?”
“Corns. I don’t have bunions. I have corns.”
“How are they?”
“Sydney, you are drinking my wine.”
“Next time that mulatto comes, I’ll tell him to bring you back a pair of huaraches.”
“I don’t want any huaraches.”
“Sure you do. Nice pair of huaraches be good for you. Make your feet feel good. This time next year, you’ll thank me for em.”
“What do you mean, this time next year? I’m going back.”
“I figure we’re going to be here a long time, Mr. Street. A good long time.”
“What’s happening here. Something’s happening here.”
“Don’t agitate yourself. Rest your mind.” Sydney put down the wineglass, and went to the record player. He held the arm over the record and turned to Valerian. “We’ll give you the best of care. Just like we always done. That’s something you ain’t never got to worry about.” He placed the arm carefully in the groove and turned the volume up high. Valerian smiled then, and his fingers danced lightly in the air.
THE AIRPORT in Dominique is a long building made of pale yellow concrete blocks. If you didn’t know you were in the Caribbean, the paper in the ladies’ room would tell you. To an American the contempt in which the rest of the world holds toilet paper is incomprehensible. It is treated as though it were, in fact, toilet paper. Jadine stepped out of the stall and stood before the tiny mirror over the sink. She sudsed her hands generously with a piece of her own soap and rinsed them carefully. She wrapped the soap in a piece of wax paper, returned it to her traveling bag, from which she took a tube of hand lotion. She creamed her palms and the backs of her hands, then with tissue wiped away the lotion that had gotten under her fingernails. Unhurried at last, with thirty minutes before flight time. The frantic scampering over with. She had run away from New York City with the same speed she had run toward it. New York was not her home after all. The dogs were leashed in the city but the reins were not always secure. Sometimes walking with their owners they met other dogs and if they were unspayed and unchecked you could see a female standing quietly under the paws of a male who had not even spoken to her, just sniffed for purposes of identification. She thought it could be a shelter for her because there the night women could be beaten, reduced to shadows and confined to the brier patch where they belonged. But she could not beat them alone. There were no shelters anyway; it was adolescent to think that there were. Every orphan knew that and knew also that mothers however beautiful were not fair. No matter what you did, the diaspora mothers with pumping breasts would impugn your character. And an African woman, with a single glance from eyes that had burned away their own lashes, could discredit your elements.
She still had plenty of time to take two Dramamines, comb her hair, check her makeup, but this ladies’ lounge was not designed for lingering. She was doing her eyes when a girl came out of the stall next to the one she had used. She had a short mop and a plastic pail of various cleansers in her hands. She wore a green uniform which looked even greener beneath her russet wig. Jadine glanced at the wig in the mirror and then back to her own lashes. The girl stopped dead and did not take her eyes off Jadine, who was flattered but wished she would not stare so. Then the girl approached her.
“You don’t remember me?” she asked.
Jadine turned around. The wig was so overwhelming it was awhile before she recognized her.
“L’Arbe de la Croix,” said the girl.
“Oh, wow.” Jadine smiled. “I didn’t recognize you. What are you doing here? You work here now?”
The girl nodded. “You took the chocolate eater away,” she said.
Jadine closed her smile and turned back to the mirror. There was nothing like an islander; they never had any chat—or manners for that matter. Conversation with them was always an interrogation and she was not about to explain anything to this child.
“He was going to send me a wig, he said.”
“Looks like he did,” said Jadine.
“Not this one. I have a picture of the other one. It’s at home. Is he coming back? Can you get it for me?”
“No,” Jadine answered.
“You kill him?” asked the girl in a very matter-of-fact tone.
Jadine slung the huge, lightweight traveling bag over her shoulder and removed her coat from the top of the stall where it hung. “I have to go now,” she said.
“Thérèse said you kill him,” the girl insisted.
“Tell Thérèse she killed him.”
“No,” said the girl, perplexed. “Thérèse has magic breasts. They still give milk.”
“I bet they do,” said Jadine.
“But there is nobody to nurse them.”
“She’s not looking in the right places,” said Jadine. Black pearls of hair were visible at the wig’s edge. The girl’s eyes were wide, still, the curiosity in them was the only thing that kept them from looking like an animal’s. A deer, thought Jadine. She has the eyes of a curious deer. She wished once more that she had had real talent—she’d like to draw her—deer eyes, wig and all. Suddenly she reached into the side pocket of her traveling bag. A few francs were shoved in there and she dropped the whole lot into the girl’s plastic pail. “Bye, Mary, I have to go. Good luck.” Jadine pushed open the door and was gone.
“Alma,” whispered the girl. “Alma Estée.”
ABOARD the 707 Jadine had free use of the seat next to her. Not many passengers in first class. She checked her five luggage claim tickets stapled to the envelope that held a copy of her one-way ticket to Orly. Everything was in order. As soon as the plane was airborne, she reached above her head to adjust the air flow. Bringing her hand down she noticed a tiny irregularity in the nail of her forefinger. She opened her purse and took out an emery board. Two swift strokes and it was gone. Her nail was perfect again. She turned her sealskin coat lining side out and folded it carefully into the empty seat beside her. Then she adjusted the headrest. The same sixteen answers to the question What went wrong? kicked like a chorus line. Having sixteen answers meant having none. So none it was. Zero. She would go back to Paris and begin at Go. Let loose the dogs, tangle with the woman in yellow—with her and with all the night women who had looked at her. No more shoulders and limitless chests. No more dreams of safety. No more. Perhaps that was the thing—the thing Ondine was saying. A grown woman did not need safety or its dreams. She was the safety she longed for.
The plane lifted itself gracefully over the island; its tail of smoke widened, then dispersed. It was evening and the stars were already brilliant. The hills below crouched on all fours under the weight of the rain forest where liana grew and soldier ants marched in formation. Straight ahead they marched, shamelessly single-minded, for soldier ants have no time for dreaming. Almost all of them are women and there is so much to do—the work is literally endless. So many to be born and fed, then found and buried. There is no time for dreaming. The life of their world requires organization so tight and sacrifice so complete there is little need for males and they are seldom produced. When they are needed, it is deliberately done by the queen who surmises, by some four-million-year-old magic she is heiress to, that it is time. So she urges a sperm from the private womb where they were placed when she had her one, first and last copulation. Once in life, this little Amazon trembled in the air waiting for a male to mount her. And when he did, when he joined a cloud of others one evening just before a summer storm, joined colonies from all over the world gathered for the marriage flight, he knew at last what his wings were for. Frenzied, he flies into the humming cloud to fight gravity and time in order to do, just once, the single thing he was born for. Then he drops dead, having emptied his sperm into his lady-love. Sperm which she keeps in a special place to use at her own discretion when there is need for another dark and singing cloud of ant folk mating in the air. Once the lady has collected the sperm, she too falls to the ground, but unless she breaks her back or neck or is eaten by one of a thousand things, she staggers to her legs and looks for a stone to rub on, cracking and shredding the wings she will never need again. Then she begins her journey searching for a suitable place to build her kingdom. She crawls into the hollow of a tree, examines its walls and corners. She seals herself off from all society and eats her own wing muscles until she bears her eggs. When the first larvae appear, there is nothing to feed them so she gives them their unhatched sisters until they are old enough and strong enough to hunt and bring their prey back to the kingdom. That is all. Bearing, hunting, eating, fighting, burying. No time for dreaming, although sometimes, late in life, somewhere between the thirtieth and fortieth generation she might get wind of a summer storm one day. The scent of it will invade her palace and she will recall the rush of wind on her belly—the stretch of fresh wings, the blinding anticipation and herself, there, airborne, suspended, open, trusting, frightened, determined, vulnerable—girlish, even, for an entire second and then another and another. She may lift her head then, and point her wands toward the place where the summer storm is entering her palace and in the weariness that ruling queens alone know, she may wonder whether his death was sudden. Or did he languish? And if so, if there was a bit of time left, did he think how mean the world was, or did he fill that space of time thinking of her? But soldier ants do not have time for dreaming. They are women and have much to do. Still it would be hard. So very hard to forget the man who fucked like a star.
THE MAN sat on the stone wall that separated Rue Madelaine from the sea. His legs hung over the ledge below which were rocks and a thin strip of dirty sand. To the left a rickety pier extended some two hundred feet into the water where black boys leaped, splashed, screamed and climbed back up to leap again. The garbage on the sand was mostly paper and bottles. No food garbage down here. Here, away from the tourist shops, away from the restaurants and offices, was that part of the boulevard where the sea threw up what it could not digest. Whatever life there is on the sand is desperate. A gull negotiated the breeze and swooped down on a black starfish. The gull pecked it, flew away and returned to peck again and again until finally the starfish yielded the magenta string that was its heart. The man watched the gull tear it out with a great deal of interest. Then he swung his legs over the wall and stood up. Shielding his eyes from the sun with his arm, he looked toward the market crowd: a half-block of cloth roofs, tables, baskets, pots, boxes and trays. His jacket was draped across his forearm—both hands in his pockets—as he started toward the market looking for Thérèse. Earlier he had taken the shuttle bus from the airport to the Old Queen Hotel and gone directly from there up the hill to the powder pink house, climbing slowly, carefully, keeping to the edge of the road where the dust gave way to grass. He moved like a man saving his strength, or one suspicious of trip mines.