Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Toni Morrison, Beloved, Vintage Books, New York, 2004.

It was important to name this house, but not the way “Sweet Home” or other plantations were named. There would be no adjectives suggesting coziness or grandeur or the laying claim to an instant, aristocratic past. (Foreward, xviii)

Yet a house that has, literally, a personality—which we call “haunted” when that personality is blatant. (Foreward, xviii)

Baby Suggs didn’t even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn’t the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn’t like the one on Bluestone Road. Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys. Her past had been like her present—intolerable—and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
“Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t.”
And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue.

Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, … (4)

…she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. (6)

It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. (7)

“You can’t leave right away, Paul D. You got to stay awhile.”
“Well, long enough to see Baby Suggs, anyway. Where is she?”
“Aw no. When?”
“Eight years now. Almost nine.”
“Was it hard? I hope she didn’t die hard.”
Sethe shook her head. “Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part. (8)

Probably best, he thought. If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up. (11)

Out of the dimness of the room in which they sat, a white staircase climbed toward the blue-and-white wallpaper of the second floor. Paul D could see just the beginning of the paper; discreet flecks of yellow sprinkled among a blizzard of snow-drops all backed by blue. The luminous white of the railing and steps kept him glancing toward it. Every sense he has told him the air above the stairwell was charmed and very thin. But the girl who walked down out of that air was round and brown with the face of an alert doll. (13)

Now her mother was upstairs with the man who had gotten rid of the only other company she had. Denver dipped a bit of bread into the jelly. Slowly, methodically, miserably she ate it. (23)

It made sense for a lot of reasons because in all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone [27] loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. (28)

He told the story to Paul F, Halle, Paul A and Paul D in the peculiar way that made them cry-laugh. Sixo went among trees at night. For dancing, he said, to keep his bloodlines open, he said. Privately, alone, he did it. None of the rest of them had seen him at it, but they could imagine it, and the picture they pictured made them eager to laugh at him—in daylight, that is, when it was safe.
But that was before he stopped speaking English because there was no future in it. (30)

Little rice, little bean,
No meat in between.
Hard work ain’t easy,
Dry bread ain’t greasy.

The songs he knew from Georgia were flat-headed nails for pounding and pounding and pounding.

But they didn’t fit, these songs. They were too loud, had too much power for the little house chores he was engaged in—resetting table legs; glazing. (48)

Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one. (54)

And, for some reason she could not immediately account for, the moment she got close enough to see the face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity. She said, “Oh, excuse me,” and ran around to the back of 124. Not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight-year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had an emergency that unmanageable. (61)

She was in the window at two when Sethe returned, or the doorway; then the porch, its steps, the path the road, till finally, surrendering to the habit, Beloved began inching down Bluestone Road further and further each day to meet Sethe and walk her back to 124. It was as though every afternoon she doubted anew the older woman’s return.
Sethe was flattered by Beloved’s open, quiet devotion. The same adoration from her daughter (had it been forthcoming) would have annoyed her; made her chill at the thought of having raised a ridiculously dependent child. But the company of this sweet, if peculiar, guest pleased her the way a zealot pleases his teacher. (68)

It became a way to feed her. Just as Denver discovered and relied on the delightful effect sweet things had on Beloved, Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful or lost. She and Baby Suggs had agreed without saying so that it was unspeakable; to Denver’s inquiries Sethe have short replies or rambling incomplete reveries. Even with Paul D, who had shared some of it and to whom she could talk with at least a measure of calm, the hurt was always there—like a tender place in the corn of her mouth that the bit left. (69)

“Must be somebody form the old days,” Sethe said. The days when 124 was a way station where messages came and then their senders. Where bits of news soaked like dried beans in spring water—until they were soft enough to digest. (77)

She shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking one my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and writing it up. I am still full of that, God damn, I can’t go back and add more. Add my husband to it, watching, above me in the loft—hiding close by—the one place he thought no one would look for him, looking down on what I couldn’t look at at all. And not stopping them— (83)

Other people went crazy, why couldn’t she? Other people’s brains stopped, turned around and when on to something new, which is what must have happened to Halle. (83)

She is not so afraid at night because she is the color of it, but in the day every sound is a shot or a tracker’s quiet step. (91)

So she anticipated the questions by giving blood to the scraps her mother and grandmother had told her—and a heartbeat. The monologue became, in fact, a duet as they lay down together, Denver nursing Beloved’s interest like a love whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved. (92)

“We got a old nigger girl come by our place. She don’t know nothing. Sews stuff for Mrs. Buddy—real fine lace but can’t barely stick two words together. She don’t know nothing, just like you. You don’t know a thing. Eng up dead, that’s what. Not me. I’m a get to Boston and get myself some velvet. Carmine. You don’t even know about that, do you? Now you never will. Bet you never even sleep with the sun in your face. I did it a couple of times. Most times I’m feeding stock before light and don’t get to sleep till way after day comes. But I was in the back of the wagon once and fell asleep. Sleeping with the sun in your face is the best old feeling. Two times I did it. Once when I was little. Didn’t nobody bother me then. (94)

Through the muck and mist and gloam
To our quiet cozy home,
Where to singing sweet and low
Rocks a cradle two and fro.
Where the clock’s dull monotone
Telleth of the day that’s done,
Where the moonbeams hover o’er
Playthings sleeping on the floor,
Where my weary wee one lies
Cometh Lady Button Eyes. (95-6)

It was stuck. Face up and drowning in its mother’s blood. Amy stopped begging Jesus and began to curse His daddy. (99)

…before it had become the plaything of spirits and the home of the chafed, 124 had been a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed. Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested there while children tried on the shoes. Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. Talk was low and to the point—for Baby Suggs, holy, didn’t approve of extra. “Everything depends on knowing how much,” she said, and “Good is knowing when to stop.” (102)

Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, … When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing—a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deep and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees. [102] … The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her. / “Let your mothers hear and laugh,” … Then “Let the grown men come,” … “Let your wives and your children see you dance,” … Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” … It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. … She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. … “Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. (103)

Sethe wanted to be there now. At the least to listen to the spaces that the long-ago singing had left behind. At the most to get a clue form her husband’s dead mother as to what she should do with her sword and shield now, dear Jesus, now nine years after Baby Suggs, holy, proved herself a liar, dismissed her great heart and lay in the keeping-room bed roused once in a while by a craving for color and not for another thing. / “Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,” (104)

Baby Suggs, holy, believed she had lied. There was no grace—imaginary or real—and no sunlit dace in a Clearing could change that. (105)

Later on, after Baby Suggs died, she did not wonder why Howard and Buglar had run away. She did not agree with Sethe that they left because of the ghost. If so, what took them so long? They had lived with it as long as she had. But if Nelson Lord was right—no wonder they were sulky, staying away from home as much as they could. /
Meanwhile the monstrous and unmanageable dreams about Stehe found release in the concentration Denver began to fix on the baby ghost. Before Nelson Lord, she had been barely interested in its antics. The patience of her mother and grandmother in its presence made her indifferent to it. Then it began to irritate her, wear her out with its mischief. That was when she walked off to follow the children to Lady Jones’ house-school. Now it held for her all the anger, love and fear she didn’t know what to do with. (121)

Alone, the last man with buffalo hair among the ailing Cherokee, Paul D finally woke up and, admitting his ignorance, asked how he might get North. Free North. Magical North. Welcoming, benevolent North. The Cherokee smiled and looked around. The flood rains of a month ago had turned everything to steam and blossoms. / “That way,” he said, pointing. “Follow the tree flowers,” he said. “Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone.” / So he raced from dogwood to blossoming peach. When the thinned out he headed for the cherry blossoms, then magnolia, chinaberry, pecan, walnut and prickly pear. At last he reached a field of apple trees whose flowers were just becoming tiny knots of fruit. Spring sauntered north, but he had to run like hell to keep it as his traveling companion. From February to July he was on the lookout for blossoms. When he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him. He did not touch them or stop to smell. He merely followed in their wake, a dark ragged figure guided by the blossoming plums. (133)

In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it. (136)

No given chore was enough to put out the licking fire that seemed always to burn in her. Not when they wrung out sheets so tight the rinse water ran backup their arms. (141)

Was that it? Is that where the manhood lay? In the naming done who was supposed to know? Who gave them the privilege not of working but of deciding how to? No. In their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to.
He thought what they said had merit, and what they felt was serious. Deferring to his slaves’ opinions did not deprive him of authority or power. It was schoolteacher who taught them otherwise. A truth that waved like a scarecrow in rye: they were only Sweet Home men at Sweet Home. (147) … If a schoolteacher was right it explained how he had come to be a rag doll—picked up and put back down anywhere any time by a girl young enough to be his daughter. Fucking her when he was convinced he didn’t want to. … But it was more than appetite that humiliated him and made him wonder if school-teacher was right. It was being moved, placed where she wanted him, and there was nothing he was able to do about it. For his life he could not walk up the glistening white stairs in the evening; … He, he. He who had eaten raw meat barely dead, who under plum trees bursting with blossoms had crunched through a dove’s breast before its heart stopped beating. Because he was a man and a man could do what he would: be still for six hours in a dry well while night dropped; fight raccoon with his hands and win; watch another man whom he loved better than his brothers, roast without a tear just so the roasters would know what a man was like. And it was he, that man, who had walked from Georgia to Delaware, who could not go or stay put where he wanted to in 124—shame. (148)

Once before (and only once) Paul D had been grateful to a woman. Crawling out of the woods, cross-eyed with hunger and loneliness, he knocked at the first back door he came to in the colored section of Wilmington. He told the woman who opened it that he’d appreciate doing her woodpile, if she could spare him something to eat. She looked him up and down. /
“A little later on,” she said and opened the door wider. She fed him pork sausage, the worst thing in the world for a starving man, but neither he nor his stomach objected. Later, when he saw pale cotton sheets and two pillows in her bedroom, he had to wipe his eyes quickly, quickly so she would not see the thankful tears of a man’s first time. Soil, grass, mud, shucking, leaves, hay, cobs, seashells—all that he’d slept on. White cotton sheets had never crossed his mind. He fell in with a groan and the woman helped him pretend he was making love to her and not her bed linen. He vowed that night, full of pork, deep in luxury, that he would never leave her. She would have to kill him to get him out of that bed. Eighteen months later, when he had been purchased by Northpoint Bank and Railroad Company, he was still thankful for that introduction to sheets. (154)

But now she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her… (176)

…they trotted off, leaving the sheriff behind among the damnedest bunch of coons they’d ever seen. All testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred. (177)

“What you did was wrong, Sethe.”
“I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?”
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”
“What way?”
“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet. (194)

Then Denver stood up and tried for a long, independent glide. The tip of her single skate hit an ice bump, and as she fell, the flapping of her arms was so wild and hopeless that all three—Sethe, Beloved and Denver herself—laughed till they coughed. … But when her laughter died, the tears did not and it was some time before Beloved or Denver knew the difference. (206)

A hobnail casket of jewels found in a tree hollow should be fondled before it is opened. Its lock may have rusted or broken away form the clasp. Still you should touch the nail heads, and test its weight. No smashing with an ax head before it is decently exhumed form the grave that has hidden it all this time. No gasp at a miracle that is truly miraculous [207] because the magic lies in the fact that you knew it was there for you all along. (208)

With that, she gathered her blanket around her elbows and ascended the lily-white stairs like a bride. Outside, snow solidified itself into graceful forms. The peace of winter stars seemed permanent. (208)

My marrow is tired, he thought. I been tired all my days, bone-tired, but now it’s in the marrow. Must be what Baby Suggs felt when she lay down and thought about color for the rest of her life. When she told him what her aim was, he thought she was ashamed and too shamed to say so. Her authority in the pulpit, her dance in the Clearing, her powerful Call (she didn’t deliver sermons or preach—insisting she was too ignorant for that—she called and the hearing heard)—all that had been mocked and rebuked by the bloodspill in her backyard. [208] … Her marrow was tired and it was a testimony to the heart that fed it was it took eight years to meet finally the color she was hankering after. The onslaught of her fatigue, like his, was sudden, but lasted for years. After sixty years of losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone; after five years of freedom given to her by her last child, who bought her future with his, exchanged it, so to speak, so she could have one whether he did or not—to lose him too; to acquire a daughter and grandchildren and see that daughter slay the children (to try to); to belong to a community of other free Negroes—to love and be loved by them, to counsel and be counseled, protect and be protected, feed and be fed—and than to have that community step back and hold itself at a distance—well, it could wear out even a Baby Suggs, holy. (209)

“You missed the Clearing three Saturdays running,” he told her.
She turned her head away and scanned the houses along the street.
“Folks came,” he said.
“Folks come; folks go,” she answered. (210)

“What I have to do is get in my bed and lay down. I want to fix on something harmless in this world.”
“What world you talking about? Ain’t nothing harmless down here.”
“Yes it is. Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither.”
“You getting in the bed to think about yellow?”
“I likes yellow.” (211)

“You saying God give up? Nothing left for us but pour out our own blood?”
“I’m saying they came in my yard.”
“You punishing Him, ain’t you.”
“Not like He punish me.”
“You can’t do that, Baby. It ain’t right.”
“Was a time I knew what that was.”
“You still know.”
“What I know is what I see: a nigger woman hauling shoes.” (211)

And him. Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored school burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black woman raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken. He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank. (213)

…a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet wooly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. … “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?” (213)

“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground.”
He couldn’t deny it. Jesus Christ Himself didn’t, (221)

Driven her fat-bellied into the woods—they had done that. All news of them was rot. They buttered Halle’s face; gave Paul D iron to eat; crisped Sixo; hanged her own mother. She didn’t want any more news about whitefolks; didn’t want to know what Ella knew and John and Stamp Paid, about the world done up the way whitefolks loved it. (222)

“You stole that shoat, didn’t you?”
“No. Sir,” said Sixo, but he had the decency to keep his eyes on the meat.

“And you telling me that’s not stealing?”
“No, sir. It ain’t.”
“What is it then?”
“Improving your property, sir.”
“Sixo plant rye to give the high piece a better chance. Sixo take and feed the soil, give you more crop. Sixo take and feed Sixo give you more work.” [224]
Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined. (225)

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, … the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livale) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. … The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own. (234)

I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it. She missed killing my brothers and they knew it. They told me die-witch! stories to show me the way to do it, if ever I needed to. (242)

All she had left was her heart and they busted it so even the War couldn’t rouse her. (247)

All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too… (248)

…it is hard to make yourself die forever you sleep short and then return… (249)

Mother. Father. Didn’t remember the one. Never saw the other. He was the youngest of three half-brothers (same mother—different fathers) sold to Garner and kept there, forbidden to leave the farm, for twenty years. Once, in Maryland, he met four families of slaves who had all been together for a hundred years: great-grands, grands, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and children. Half white, part white, all black, mixed with Indian. He watched them with awe and envy, and each time he discovered large families of black people he had made them identify over and over who each was, what relation, who, in fact, belonged to who. (258)

Nobody counted on Garner dying. Nobody thought he could. How ’bout that? Everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life each of theirs fell to pieces. Now ain’t that slavery or what is it? At the peak of his strength, taller than tall men, and stronger than most, they clipped him, Paul D. First his shotgun, then his thoughts, for schoolteacher didn’t take advice from Negroes. The information they offered he called backtalk and developed a variety of corrections (which he recorded in his notebook) to reeducate them. (259)

For years Paul D believed schoolteacher broke into children what Garner had raised into men. …he wondered how much difference there really was between before schoolteacher and after. Garner called and announced them men—but only on Sweet Home, … Oh, he did manly things, but was that Garner’s gift or his own will? (261)

Schoolteacher would know. He knew the worth of everything. It accounted for the real sorrow in his voice when he pronounced Sixo unsuitable. Who could be fooled into buying a singing nigger with a gun? Shouting Seven-O! Seven-O! because his Thirty-Mile Woman got away with his blossoming seed. (270)

When it became clear that they were only interested in each other, Denver began to drift from the play, but she watched it, alert for any sign that Beloved was in danger. Finally convinced there was none, and seeing her mother that happy, that smiling—how could it go wrong?—she let down her guard and it did. Her problem at first was trying to find out who was to blame. Her eye was on her mother, for a signal that the thing that was in her was out, and she would kill again. But it was Beloved who made demands. Anything she wanted she got, and when Sethe ran out of things to give her, Beloved invented desire. (283)

When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself—be the unquestioned mother whose word was law and who knew what was best—Beloved slammed things, wiped the table clean of plates, threw salt on the floor, broke a windowpane. / She was not like them. She was wild game, and nobody said, Get on out of here, girl, and come back when you get some sense. … I will wrap you round that doorknob, don’t nobody work for you and God don’t love ugly ways. / No, no. They mended the plates, swept the salt, and little by little it dawned on Denver that if Sethe didn’t wake up one morning and pick up a knife, Beloved might. Frightened as she was by the thing in Sethe that could come out, it shamed her to see her mother serving a girl not much older than herself. (284-5)

…since neither Beloved nor Sethe seemed to care what the next day might bring (Sethe happy when Beloved was; Beloved lapping devotion like cream), Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help. (286)

As Denver’s outside life improved, her home life deteriorated. If the whitepeople of Cincinnati had allowed Negroes into their lunatic asylum they could have found candidates in 124. Strengthened by the gifts of food, the source of which neither Sethe nor Beloved questioned, the women had arrived at a doomsday truce designed by the devil. Beloved sat around, ate, went from bed to bed. Sometimes she screamed, “Rain! Rain!” and clawed her throat until rubies of blood opened there, made brighter by her midnight skin. Then Sethe shouted, “No!” and knocked over chairs to get to her and wipe the jewels away. (295)

She sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. (295)


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