Toni Morrison - Sula
The woman smiled, glanced in the mirror and said, throwing her voice toward Helene, “That your only one?”
“Yes,” said Helene.
“Pretty. A lot like you.”
“Yes. Well. She’s ten now.”
“Ten? Vrai? Small for her age, no?”
Helene shrugged and looked at her daughter’s questioning eyes. The woman in the yellow dress leaned forward. “Come. Come, chere.”
Helene interrupted. “We have to get cleaned up. We been three days on the train with no chance to wash or…”
“She doesn’t talk Creole.”
“Then you ask her.”
“She wants to know your name, honey.”
With her head pressed into her mother’s heavy brown dress, Nel told her and then asked, “What’s yours?”
“Mine’s Rochelle. Well. I must be going on.” She moved closer to the mirror and stood there sweeping hair up from her neck back into its halo-like roll, and wetting with spit the ringlets that fell over her ears. “I been here, you know, most of the day. She pass on yesterday. The funeral tomorrow. Henri takin’ care.” She struck a match, blew it out and darkened her eyebrows with the burnt head. All the while Helene and Nel watched her. The one in a rage at the folded leaves she had endured, the wooden benches she had slept on, all to miss seeing her grandmother and seeing instead that painted canary who never said a word of greeting or affection or…
Rochelle continued. “I don’t know what happen to de house. Long time paid for. You be thinkin’ on it? Oui?” Her newly darkened eyebrows queried Helene.
“Oui.” Helene’s voice was chilly. “I be thinkin’ on it.”
“Oh, well. Not for me to say…”
Suddenly she swept around and hugged Nel—a quick embrace tighter and harder than one would have imagined her thin soft arms capable of.
“’Voir! ’Voir!” and she was gone.
In the kitchen, being soaped head to toe by her mother, Nel ventured an observation. “She smelled so nice. And her skin was so soft.”
Helene rinsed the cloth. “Much handled things are always soft.”
“What does ‘vwah’ mean?”
“I don’t know,” her mother said. “I don’t talk Creole.” She gazed at her daughter’s wet buttocks. “And neither do you.”
When they got back to Medallion and into the quiet house they saw the note exactly where they had left it and the ham dried out in the icebox.
“Lord, I’ve never been so glad to see this place. But look at the dust. Get the rags, Nel. Oh, never mind. Let’s breathe awhile first. Lord, I never thought I’d get back here safe and sound. Whoo. Well, it’s over. Good and over. Praise His name. Look at that. I told that old fool not to deliver any milk and there’s the can curdled to beat all. What gets into people? I told him not to. Well, I got other things to worry ’bout. Got to get a fire started. I left it ready so I wouldn’t have to do nothin’ but light it. Lord, it’s cold. Don’t just sit there, honey. You could be pulling your nose…”
Nel sat on the red-velvet sofa listening to her mother but remembering the smell and the tight, tight hug of the woman in yellow who rubbed burned matches over her eyes.
Late that night after the fire was made, the cold supper eaten, the surface dust removed, Nel lay in bed thinking of her trip. She remembered clearly the urine running down and into her stockings until she learned how to squat properly; the disgust on the face of the dead woman and the sound of the funeral drums. It had been an exhilarating trip but a fearful one. She had been frightened of the soldiers’ eyes on the train, the black wreath on the door, the custard pudding she believed lurked under her mother’s heavy dress, the feel of unknown streets and unknown people. But she had gone on a real trip, and now she was different. She got out of bed and lit the lamp to look in the mirror. There was her face, plain brown eyes, three braids and the nose her mother hated. She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.
“I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.”
Nel didn’t know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant.
“I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.”
Each time she said the word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear. Back in bed with her discovery, she stared out the window at the dark leaves of the horse chestnut.
“Me,” she murmured. And then, sinking deeper into the quilts, “I want…I want to be…wonderful. Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful.”
The many experiences of her trip crowded in on her. She slept. It was the last as well as the first time she was ever to leave Medallion.
For days afterward she imagined other trips she would take, alone though, to faraway places. Contemplating them was delicious. Leaving Medallion would be her goal. But that was before she met Sula, the girl she had seen for five years at Garfield Primary but never played with, never knew, because her mother said that Sula’s mother was sooty. The trip, perhaps, or her new found me-ness, gave her the strength to cultivate a friend in spite of her mother.
When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter. Her daughter’s friend seemed to have none of the mother’s slackness. Nel, who regarded the oppressive neatness of her home with dread, felt comfortable in it with Sula, who loved it and would sit on the red-velvet sofa for ten to twenty minutes at a time—still as dawn. As for Nel, she preferred Sula’s woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, and where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream.
Sula Peace lived in a house of many rooms that had been built over a period of five years to the specifications of its owner, who kept on adding things: more stairways—there were three sets to the second floor—more rooms, doors and stoops. There were rooms that had three doors, others that opened out on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom. The creator and sovereign of this enormous house with the four sickle-pear trees in the front yard and the single elm in the back yard was Eva Peace, who sat in a wagon on the third floor directing the lives of her children, friends, strays, and a constant stream of boarders. Fewer than nine people in the town remembered when Eva had two legs, and her oldest child, Hannah, was not one of them. Unless Eva herself introduced the subject, no one ever spoke of her disability; they pretended to ignore it, unless, in some mood of fancy, she began some fearful story about it—generally to entertain children. How the leg got up by itself one day and walked on off. How she hobbled after it but it ran too fast. Or how she had a corn on her toe and it just grew and grew and grew until her whole foot was a corn and then it traveled on up her leg and wouldn’t stop growing until she put a red rag at the top but by that time it was already at her knee.
Somebody said Eva stuck it under a train and made them pay off. Another said she sold it to a hospital for $10,000—at which Mr. Reed opened his eyes and asked, “Nigger gal legs goin’ for $10,000 a piece?” as though he could understand $10,000 a pair—but for one?
Whatever the fate of her lost leg, the remaining one was magnificent. It was stockinged and shod at all times and in all weather. Once in a while she got a felt slipper for Christmas or her birthday, but they soon disappeared, for Eva always wore a black laced-up shoe that came well above her ankle. Nor did she wear overlong dresses to disguise the empty place on her left side. Her dresses were mid-calf so that her one glamorous leg was always in view as well as the long fall of space below her left thigh. One of her men friends had fashioned a kind of wheelchair for her: a rocking-chair top fitted into a large child’s wagon. In this contraption she wheeled around the room, from bedside to dresser to the balcony that opened out the north side of her room or to the window that looked out on the back yard. The wagon was so low that children who spoke to her standing up were eye level with her, and adults, standing or sitting, had to look down at her. But they didn’t know it. They all had the impression that they were looking up at her, up into the open distances of her eyes, up into the soft black of her nostrils and up at the crest of her chin.
Eva had married a man named BoyBoy and had three children: Hannah, the eldest, and Eva, whom she named after herself but called Pearl, and a son named Ralph, whom she called Plum.
After five years of a sad and disgruntled marriage BoyBoy took off. During the time they were together he was very much preoccupied with other women and not home much. He did whatever he could that he liked, and he liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third. When he left in November, Eva had $1.65, five eggs, three beets and no idea of what or how to feel. The children needed her; she needed money, and needed to get on with her life. But the demands of feeding her three children were so acute she had to postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and the energy for it. She was confused and desperately hungry. There were very few black families in those low hills then. The Suggs, who lived two hundred yards down the road, brought her a warm bowl of peas, as soon as they found out, and a plate of cold bread. She thanked them and asked if they had a little milk for the older ones. They said no, but Mrs. Jackson, they knew, had a cow still giving. Eva took a bucket over and Mrs. Jackson told her to come back and fill it up in the morning, because the evening milking had already been done. In this way, things went on until near December. People were very willing to help, but Eva felt she would soon run her welcome out; winters were hard and her neighbors were not that much better off. She would lie in bed with the baby boy, the two girls wrapped in quilts on the floor, thinking. The oldest child, Hannah, was five and too young to take care of the baby alone, and any housework Eva could find would keep her away from them from five thirty or earlier in the morning until dark—way past eight. The white people in the valley weren’t rich enough then to want maids; they were small farmers and tradesmen and wanted hard-labor help if anything. She thought also of returning to some of her people in Virginia, but to come home dragging three young ones would have to be a step one rung before death for Eva. She would have to scrounge around and beg through the winter, until her baby was at least nine months old, then she could plant and maybe hire herself out to valley farms to weed or sow or feed stock until something steadier came along at harvest time. She thought she had probably been a fool to let BoyBoy haul her away from her people, but it had seemed so right at the time. He worked for a white carpenter and toolsmith who insisted on BoyBoy’s accompanying him when he went West and set up in a squinchy little town called Medallion. BoyBoy brought his new wife and built them a one-room cabin sixty feet back from the road that wound up out of the valley, on up into the hills and was named for the man he worked for. They lived there a year before they had an outhouse.
Sometime before the middle of December, the baby, Plum, stopped having bowel movements. Eva massaged his stomach and gave him warm water. Something must be wrong with my milk, she thought. Mrs. Suggs gave her castor oil, but even that didn’t work. He cried and fought so they couldn’t get much down his throat anyway. He seemed in great pain and his shrieks were pitched high in outrage and suffering. At one point, maddened by his own crying, he gagged, choked and looked as though he was strangling to death. Eva rushed to him and kicked over the earthen slop jar, washing a small area of the floor with the child’s urine. She managed to soothe him, but when he took up the cry again late that night, she resolved to end his misery once and for all. She wrapped him in blankets, ran her finger around the crevices and sides of the lard can and stumbled to the outhouse with him. Deep in its darkness and freezing stench she squatted down, turned the baby over on her knees, exposed his buttocks and shoved the last bit of food she had in the world (besides three beets) up his ass. Softening the insertion with the dab of lard, she probed with her middle finger to loosen his bowels. Her fingernail snagged what felt like a pebble; she pulled it out and others followed. Plum stopped crying as the black hard stools ricocheted onto the frozen ground. And now that it was over, Eva squatted there wondering why she had come all the way out there to free his stools, and what was she doing down on her haunches with her beloved baby boy warmed by her body in the almost total darkness, her shins and teeth freezing, her nostrils assailed. She shook her head as though to juggle her brains around, then said aloud, “Uh uh. Nooo.” Thereupon she returned to the house and her bed. As the grateful Plum slept, the silence allowed her to think.
Two days later she left all of her children with Mrs. Suggs, saying she would be back the next day.
Eighteen months later she swept down from a wagon with two crutches, a new black pocketbook, and one leg. First she reclaimed her children, next she gave the surprised Mrs. Suggs a ten-dollar bill, later she started building a house on Carpenter’s Road, sixty feet from BoyBoy’s one-room cabin, which she rented out.
When Plum was three years old, BoyBoy came back to town and paid her a visit. When Eva got the word that he was on his way, she made some lemonade. She had no idea what she would do or feel during that encounter. Would she cry, cut his throat, beg him to make love to her? She couldn’t imagine. So she just waited to see. She stirred lemonade in a green pitcher and waited.
BoyBoy danced up the steps and knocked on the door.
“Come on in,” she hollered.
He opened the door and stood smiling, a picture of prosperity and good will. His shoes were a shiny orange, and he had on a citified straw hat, a light-blue suit, and a cat’s-head stickpin in his tie. Eva smiled and told him to sit himself down. He smiled too.
“How you been, girl?”
“Pretty fair. What you know good?” When she heard those words come out of her own mouth she knew that their conversation would start off polite. Although it remained to be seen whether she would still run the ice pick through the cat’s-head pin.
“Have some lemonade.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He swept his hat off with a satisfied gesture. His nails were long and shiny. “Sho is hot, and I been runnin’ around all day.”
Eva looked out of the screen door and saw a woman in a pea-green dress leaning on the smallest pear tree. Glancing back at him, she was reminded of Plum’s face when he managed to get the meat out of a walnut all by himself. Eva smiled again, and poured the lemonade.