Zora Neale Hurston, "Sweat" (1926)
It was eleven o’clock of a Spring night in Florida. It was Sunday. Any other night, Delia Jones would have been in bed for two hours by this time. But she was a wash-woman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. So she collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost a half day’s start. A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.
She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and buckboard.
Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove.
She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright. She screamed at him.
“Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me–looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes.”
“Course Ah knowed it! That’s how come Ah done it.” He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. “If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don’t keer how bad Ah skeer you.”
“You aint got no business doing it. Gawd knows it’s a sin. Some day Ah’m goin’ tuh drop dead from some of yo’ foolishness. ‘Nother thing, where you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony. He aint fuh you to be drivin’ wid no bull whip.”
“You sho is one aggravatin’ nigger woman!” he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once. “Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house.”
He picked up the whip and glared down at her. Delia went on with her work. She went out into the yard and returned with a galvanized tub and set it on the washbench. She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way truculently, his whole manner hoping, praying, for an argument. But she walked calmly around him and commenced to re-sort the things.
“Next time, Ah’m gointer kick ’em outdoors,” he threatened as he struck a match along the leg of his corduroy breeches.
Delia never looked up from her work, and her thin, stooped shoulders sagged further.
“Ah aint for no fuss t’night Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house.”
He snorted scornfully. “Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain’t nothing but a hypocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians–sing, whoop, and shout, then come home and wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath.”
He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room. His wife gave a little scream of dismay, and quickly gathered them together again.
“Sykes, you quit grindin’ dirt into these clothes! How can Ah git through by Sat’day if Ah don’t start on Sunday?”
“Ah don’t keer if you never git through. Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah aint gointer have it in mah house. Don’t gimme no lip neither, else Ah’ll throw ’em out and put mah fist up side yo’ head to boot.”
Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.
“Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
“What’s that got to do with me?” he asked brutally.
“What’s it got to do with you, Sykes? Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more times than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it.”
She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did.
“Naw you won’t,” she panted, “that ole snaggle-toothed black woman you runnin’ with aint comin’ heah to pile up on mah sweat and blood. You aint paid for nothin’ on this place, and Ah’m gointer stay right heah till Ah’m toted out foot foremost.”
“Well, you better quit gittin’ me riled up, else they’ll be totin’ you out sooner than you expect. Ah’m so tired of you Ah don’t know whut to do. Gawd! how Ah hates skinny wimmen!”
A little awed by this new Delia, he sidled out of the door and slammed the back gate after him. He did not say where he had gone, but she knew too well. She knew very well that he would not return until nearly daybreak also. Her work over, she went on to bed but not to sleep at once. Things had come to a pretty pass!
She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed. She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed. Too late now to hope for love, even if it were not Bertha it would be someone else. This case differed from the others only in that she was bolder than the others. Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.
Somehow, before sleep came, she found herself saying aloud: “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.” After that she was able to build a spiritual earthworks against her husband. His shells could no longer reach her. Amen. She went to sleep and slept until he announced his presence in bed by kicking her feet and rudely snatching the covers away.
“Gimme some kivah heah, an’ git yo’ damn foots over on yo’ own side! Ah oughter mash you in yo’ mouf fuh drawing dat skillet on me.”
Delia went clear to the rail without answering him. A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did.
The week was as full of work for Delia as all other weeks, and Saturday found her behind her little pony, collecting and delivering clothes.
It was a hot, hot day near the end of July. The village men on Joe Clarke’s porch even chewed cane listlessly. They did not hurl the cane-knots as usual. They let them dribble over the edge of the porch. Even conversation had collapsed under the heat.
“Heah come Delia Jones,” Jim Merchant said, as the shaggy pony came ’round the bend of the road toward them. The rusty buckboard was heaped with baskets of crisp, clean laundry.
“Yep,” Joe Lindsay agreed. “Hot or col’, rain or shine, jes ez reg’lar ez de weeks roll roun’ Delia carries ’em an’ fetches ’em on Sat’day.”
“She better if she wanter eat,” said Moss. “Syke Jones aint wuth de shot an’ powder hit would tek tuh kill ’em. Not to huh he aint. ”
“He sho’ aint,” Walter Thomas chimed in. “It’s too bad, too, cause she wuz a right pritty lil trick when he got huh. Ah’d uh mah’ied huh mahseff if he hadnter beat me to it.”
Delia nodded briefly at the men as she drove past.
“Too much knockin’ will ruin any ‘oman. He done beat huh ‘nough tuh kill three women, let ‘lone change they looks,” said Elijah Moseley. “How Syke kin stommuck dat big black greasy Mogul he’s layin’ roun wid, gits me. Ah swear dat eight-rock couldn’t kiss a sardine can Ah done throwed out de back do’ ‘way las’ yeah.”
“Aw, she’s fat, thass how come. He’s allus been crazy ’bout fat women,” put in Merchant. “He’d a’ been tied up wid one long time ago if he could a’ found one tuh have him. Did Ah tell yuh ’bout him come sidlin’ roun’ mah wife–bringin’ her a basket uh pecans outa his yard fuh a present? Yessir, mah wife! She tol’ him tuh take ’em right straight back home, cause Delia works so hard ovah dat washtub she reckon everything on de place taste lak sweat an’ soapsuds. Ah jus’ wisht Ah’d a’ caught ‘im ‘dere! Ah’d a’ made his hips ketch on fiah down dat shell road.”
“Ah know he done it, too. Ah sees ‘im grinnin’ at every ‘oman dat passes,” Walter Thomas said. “But even so, he useter eat some mighty big hunks uh humble pie tuh git dat lil ‘oman he got. She wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup! Dat wuz fifteen yeahs ago. He useter be so skeered uh losin’ huh, she could make him do some parts of a husband’s duty. Dey never wuz de same in de mind.”
“There oughter be a law about him,” said Lindsay. “He aint fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear.”
Clarke spoke for the first time. “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ’em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ’em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way.”
“We oughter take Syke an’ dat stray ‘oman uh his’n down in Lake Howell swamp an’ lay on de rawhide till they cain’t say Lawd a’ mussy.’ He allus wuz uh ovahbearin’ niggah, but since dat white ‘oman from up north done teached ‘im how to run a automobile, he done got too biggety to live–an’ we oughter kill ‘im,” Old Man Anderson advised.
A grunt of approval went around the porch. But the heat was melting their civic virtue, and Elijah Moseley began to bait Joe Clarke.
“Come on, Joe, git a melon outa dere an’ slice it up for yo’ customers. We’se all sufferin’ wid de heat. De bear’s done got me!”
“Thass right, Joe, a watermelon is jes’ whut Ah needs tuh cure de eppizudicks,” Walter Thomas joined forces with Moseley. “Come on dere, Joe. We all is steady customers an’ you aint set us up in a long time. Ah chooses dat long, bowlegged Floridy favorite.”
“A god, an’ be dough. You all gimme twenty cents and slice way,” Clarke retorted. “Ah needs a col’ slice m’self. Heah, everybody chip in. Ah’ll lend y’ll mah meat knife.”
The money was quickly subscribed and the huge melon brought forth. At that moment, Sykes and Bertha arrived. A determined silence fell on the porch and the melon was put away again.
Merchant snapped down the blade of his jackknife and moved toward the store door.
“Come on in, Joe, an’ gimme a slab uh sow belly an’ uh pound uh coffee–almost fuhgot ’twas Sat’day. Got to git on home.” Most of the men left also.
Just then Delia drove past on her way home, as Sykes was ordering magnificently for Bertha. It pleased him for Delia to see.
“Git whutsoever yo’ heart desires, Honey. Wait a minute, Joe. Give huh two bottles uh strawberry soda-water, uh quart uh parched ground-peas, an’ a block uh chewin’ gum.”
With all this they left the store, with Sykes reminding Bertha that this was his town and she could have it if she wanted it.
The men returned soon after they left, and held their watermelon feast.
“Where did Syke Jones git da ‘oman from nohow?” Lindsay asked.
“Ovah Apopka. Guess dey musta been cleanin’ out de town when she lef’. She don’t look lak a thing but a hunk uh liver wid hair on it.”
“Well, she sho’ kin squall,” Dave Carter contributed. “When she gits ready tuh laff, she jes’ opens huh mouf an’ latches it back tuh de las’ notch. No ole grandpa alligator down in Lake Bell ain’t got nothin’ on huh.”
Bertha had been in town three months now. Sykes was still paying her room rent at Della Lewis’–the only house in town that would have taken her in. Sykes took her frequently to Winter Park to “stomps.” He still assured her that he was the swellest man in the state.
“Sho’ you kin have dat lil’ ole house soon’s Ah kin git dat ‘oman outa dere. Everything b’longs tuh me an’ you sho’ kin have it. Ah sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman. Lawdy, you sho’ is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an’ you sho’ kin have it.”
Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. But Bertha nullified this to a degree, by coming to Delia’s house to call Sykes out to her at the gate.
Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time. It was plain that the breaches must remain agape.
The sun had burned July to August. The heat streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad. Dog days!
Delia came home one day and found Sykes there before her. She wondered, but started to go on into the house without speaking, even though he was standing in the kitchen door and she must either stoop under his arm or ask him to move. He made no room for her. She noticed a soap box beside the steps, but paid no particular attention to it, knowing that he must have brought it there. As she was stooping to pass under his outstretched arm, he suddenly pushed her backward, laughingly.
“Look in de box dere Delia, Ah done brung yuh somethin’!”
She nearly fell upon the box in her stumbling, and when she saw what it held, she all but fainted outright.
“Syke! Syke, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake ‘way from heah! You gottuh. Oh, Jesus, have mussy!”
“Ah aint gut tuh do nuthin’ uh de kin’–fact is Ah aint got tuh do nothin’ but die. Taint no use uh you puttin’ on airs makin’ out lak you skeered uh dat snake–he’s gointer stay right heah tell he die. He wouldn’t bite me cause Ah knows how tuh handle ‘im. Nohow he wouldn’t risk breakin’ out his fangs ‘gin yo’ skinny laigs.”
“Naw, now Syke, don’t keep dat thing ‘roun’ heah tuh skeer me tuh death. You knows Ah’m even feared uh earth worms. Thass de biggest snake Ah evah did see. Kill ‘im Syke, please.”
“Doan ast me tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Goin’ roun’ trying’ tuh be so damn asterperious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it. Ah think uh damn sight mo’ uh him dan you! Dat’s a nice snake an’ anybody doan lak ‘im kin jes’ hit de grit.”
The village soon heard that Sykes had the snake, and came to see and ask questions.
“How de hen-fire did you ketch dat six-foot rattler, Syke?” Thomas asked.
“He’s full uh frogs so he caint hardly move, thass how. Ah eased up on ‘m. But Ah’m a snake charmer an’ knows how tuh handle ’em. Shux, dat aint nothin’. Ah could ketch one eve’y day if Ah so wanted tuh.”
“Whut he needs is a heavy hick’ry club leaned real heavy on his head. Dat’s de bes ‘way tuh charm a rattlesnake.”
“Naw, Walt, y’ll jes’ don’t understand dese diamon’ backs lak Ah do,” said Sykes in a superior tone of voice.
The village agreed with Walter, but the snake stayed on. His box remained by the kitchen door with its screen wire covering. Two or three days later it had digested its meal of frogs and literally came to life. It rattled at every movement in the kitchen or the yard. One day as Delia came down the kitchen steps she saw his chalky-white fangs curved like scimitars hung in the wire meshes. This time she did not run away with averted eyes as usual. She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment.
That night she broached the subject as soon as Sykes sat down to the table.
“Syke, Ah wants you tuh take dat snake ‘way fum heah. You done starved me an’ Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin’ dat varmint heah.”
Sykes poured out a saucer full of coffee and drank it deliberately before he answered her.
“A whole lot Ah keer ’bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin’ no damn wheah till Ah gits ready fuh ‘im tuh go. So fur as beatin’ is concerned, yuh aint took near all dat you gointer take ef yuh stay ‘roun’ me.”
Delia pushed back her plate and got up from the table. “Ah hates you, Sykes,” she said calmly. “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an’ took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck. Dat’s de reason Ah got mah letter fum de church an’ moved mah membership tuh Woodbridge–so Ah don’t haf tuh take no sacrament wid yuh. Ah don’t wantuh see yuh ‘roun’ me atall. Lay ‘roun’ wid dat ‘oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house. Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog.”
Sykes almost let the huge wad of corn bread and collard greens he was chewing fall out of his mouth in amazement. He had a hard time whipping himself up to the proper fury to try to answer Delia.
“Well, Ah’m glad you does hate me. Ah’m sho’ tiahed uh you hangin’ ontuh me. Ah don’t want yuh. Look at yuh stringey ole neck! Yo’ rawbony laigs an’ arms is enough tuh cut uh man tuh death. You looks jes’ lak de devvul’s doll-baby tuh me. You cain’t hate me no worse dan Ah hates you. Ah been hatin’ you fuh years.”
“Yo’ ole black hide don’t look lak nothin’ tuh me, but uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber, wid yo’ big ole yeahs flappin’ on each side lak uh paih uh buzzard wings. Don’t think Ah’m gointuh be run ‘way fum mah house neither. Ah’m goin’ tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me. Mah cup is done run ovah.” Delia said this with no signs of fear and Sykes departed from the house, threatening her, but made not the slightest move to carry out any of them.
That night he did not return at all, and the next day being Sunday, Delia was glad she did not have to quarrel before she hitched up her pony and drove the four miles to Woodbridge.
She stayed to the night service–“love feast”–which was very warm and full of spirit. In the emotional winds her domestic trials were borne far and wide so that she sang as she drove homeward.
“Jurden water, black an’ col’
Chills de body, not de soul
An’ Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time.”
She came from the barn to the kitchen door and stopped.
“Whut’s de mattah, ol’ satan, you aint kickin’ up yo’ racket?” She addressed the snake’s box. Complete silence. She went on into the house with a new hope in its birth struggles. Perhaps her threat to go to the white folks had frightened Sykes! Perhaps he was sorry! Fifteen years of misery and suppression had brought Delia to the place where she would hope anything that looked towards a way over or through her wall of inhibitions.
She felt in the match safe behind the stove at once for a match. There was only one there.
“Dat niggah wouldn’t fetch nothin’ heah tuh save his rotten neck, but he kin run thew whut Ah brings quick enough. Now he done toted off nigh on tuh haff uh box uh matches. He done had dat ‘oman heah in mah house, too.”
Nobody but a woman could tell how she knew this even before she struck the match. But she did and it put her into a new fury.
Presently she brought in the tubs to put the white things to soak. This time she decided she need not bring the hamper out of the bedroom; she would go in there and do the sorting. She picked up the pot-bellied lamp and went in. The room was small and the hamper stood hard by the foot of the white iron bed. She could sit and reach through the bedposts–resting as she worked.
“Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time,” she was singing again. The mood of the “love feast” had returned. She threw back the lid of the basket almost gaily. Then, moved by both horror and terror, she sprang back toward the door. There lay the snake in the basket! He moved sluggishly at first, but even as she turned round and round, jumped up and down in an insanity of fear, he began to stir vigorously. She saw him pouring his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed, then she seized the lamp and ran as fast as she could to the kitchen. The wind from the open door blew out the light and the darkness added to her terror. She sped to the darkness of the yard, slamming the door after her before she thought to set down the lamp. She did not feel safe even on the ground, so she climbed up in the hay barn.
There for an hour or more she lay sprawled upon the hay a gibbering wreck.
Finally, she grew quiet, and after that, coherent thought. With this, stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Hours of this. A period of introspection, a space of retrospection, then a mixture of both. Out of this an awful calm.
“Well, Ah done de bes’ Ah could. If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault.”
She went to sleep–a twitch sleep–and woke up to a faint gray sky. There was a loud hollow sound below. She peered out. Sykes was at the wood-pile, demolishing a wire-covered box.
He hurried to the kitchen door, but hung outside there some minutes before he entered, and stood some minutes more inside before he closed it after him.
The gray in the sky was spreading. Delia descended without fear now, and crouched beneath the low bedroom window. The drawn shade shut out the dawn, shut in the night. But the thin walls held back no sound.
“Dat ol’ scratch is woke up now!” She mused at the tremendous whirr inside, which every woodsman knows, is one of the sound illusions. The rattler is a ventriloquist. His whirr sounds to the right, to the left, straight ahead, behind, close under foot–everywhere but where it is. Woe to him who guesses wrong unless he is prepared to hold up his end of the argument! Sometimes he strikes without rattling at all.
Inside, Sykes heard nothing until he knocked a pot lid off the stove while trying to reach the match safe in the dark. He had emptied his pockets at Bertha’s.
The snake seemed to wake up under the stove and Sykes made a quick leap into the bedroom. In spite of the gin he had had, his head was clearing now.
“‘Mah Gawd!” he chattered, “ef Ah could on’y strack uh light!”
The rattling ceased for a moment as he stood paralyzed. He waited. It seemed that the snake waited also.
“Oh, fuh de light! Ah thought he’d be too sick”–Sykes was muttering to himself when the whirr began again, closer, right underfoot this time. Long before this, Sykes’ ability to think had been flattened down to primitive instinct and he leaped–onto the bed.
Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla. All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound.
A tremendous stir inside there, another series of animal screams, the intermittent whirr of the reptile. The shade torn violently down from the window, letting in the red dawn, a huge brown hand seizing the window stick, great dull blows upon the wooden floor punctuating the gibberish of sound long after the rattle of the snake had abruptly subsided. All this Delia could see and hear from her place beneath the window, and it made her ill. She crept over to the four-o’clocks and stretched herself on the cool earth to recover.
She lay there. “Delia. Delia!” She could hear Sykes calling in a most despairing tone as one who expected no answer. The sun crept on up, and he called. Delia could not move–her legs were gone flabby. She never moved, he called, and the sun kept rising.
“Mah Gawd!” She heard him moan, “Mah Gawd fum Heben!” She heard him stumbling about and got up from her flower-bed. The sun was growing warm. As she approached the door she heard him call out hopefully, “Delia, is dat you Ah heah?”
She saw him on his hands and knees as soon as she reached the door. He crept an inch or two toward her–all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope. A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs. He would see the lamp. Orlando with its doctors was too far. She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.
ZONA NEALE HURSTON .
Published in Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (1926)