Ralph Kabnis, propped in his bed, tries to read. To read himself to sleep. An oil lamp on a chair near his elbow burns unsteadily. The cabin room is spaced fantastically about it. Whitewashed hearth and chimney, black with sooty saw-teeth. Ceiling, patterned by the fringed globe of the lamp. The walls, unpainted, are seasoned a rosin yellow. And cracks between the boards are black. These cracks are the lips the night winds use for whispering. Night winds in Georgia are vagrant poets, whispering. Kabnis, against his will, lets his book slip down, and listens to them. The warm whiteness of his bed, the lamp-light, do not protect him from the weird chill of their song:
Burn, bear black children
Till poor rivers bring
Rest, and sweet glory
In Camp Ground.
Kabnis’ thin hair is streaked on the pillow. His hand strokes the slim silk of his mustache. His thumb, pressed under his chin, seems to be trying to give squareness and projection to it. Brown eyes stare from a lemon face. Moisture gathers beneath his armpits. He slides down beneath the cover, seeking release.
Kabnis: Near me. Now. Whoever you are, my warm glowing sweetheart, do not think that the face that rests beside you is the real Kabnis. Ralph Kabnis is a dream. And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak chins and broad brows that get smashed by the fists of square faces. The body of the world is bull-necked. A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it…God, if I could develop that in words. Give what I know a bull-neck and a heaving body, all would go well with me, wouldnt it, sweetheart? If I could feel that I came to the South to face it. If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs being the lips of its soul. Soul. Soul hell. There aint no such thing. What in hell was that?
A rat had run across the thin boards of the ceiling. Kabnis thrusts his head out from the covers. Through the cracks, a powdery faded red dust sprays down on him. Dust of slavefields, dried, scattered…No use to read. Christ, if he only could drink himself to sleep. Something as sure as fate was going to happen. He couldnt stand this thing much longer. A hen, perched on a shelf in the adjoining room begins to tread. Her nails scrape the soft wood. Her feathers ruffle.
“Get out of that, you egg-laying bitch.”
Kabnis hurls a slipper against the wall. The hen flies from her perch and cackles as if a skunk were after her.
“Now cut out that racket or I’ll wring your neck for you.”
Answering cackles arise in the chicken yard.
“Why in Christ’s hell cant you leave me alone? Damn it, I wish your cackle would choke you. Choke every mother’s son of them in this God-forsaken hole. Go away. By God I’ll wring your neck for you if you dont. Hell of a mess I’ve got in: even the poultry is hostile. Go way. Go way. By God, I’ll…”
Kabnis jumps from his bed. His eyes are wild. He makes for the door. Bursts through it. The hen, driving blindly at the windowpane, screams. Then flies and flops around trying to elude him. Kabnis catches her.
“Got you now, you she-bitch.”
With his fingers about her neck, he thrusts open the outside door and steps out into the serene loveliness of Georgian autumn moon-light. Some distance off, down in the valley, a band of pine-smoke, silvered gauze, drifts steadily. The half-moon is a white child that sleeps upon the tree-tops of the forest. White winds croon its sleep-song:
rock a-by baby…
Black mother sways, holding a white child on her bosom.
when the bough bends…
Her breath hums through pine-cones.
cradle will fall…
Teat moon-children at your breasts,
down will come baby…
Kabnis whirls the chicken by its neck, and throws the head away. Picks up the hopping body, warm, sticky, and hides it in a clump of bushes. He wipes blood from his hands onto the coarse scant grass.
Kabnis: Thats done. Old Chromo in the big house there will wonder whats become of her pet hen. Well, it’ll teach her a lesson: not to make a hen-coop of my quarters. Quarters. Hell of a fine quarters, I’ve got. Five years ago; look at me now. Earth’s child. The earth my mother. God is a profligate red-nosed man about town. Bastardy; me. A bastard son has got a right to curse his maker. God…
Kabnis is about to shake his fists heavenward. He looks up, and the night’s beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes.
“God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and…tortures me. Ugh. Hell. Get up, you damn fool. Look around. Whats beautiful there? Hog pens and chicken yards. Dirty red mud. Stinking outhouse. Whats beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you? God, he doesnt exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from Him is ugly. Lynchers and business men, and that cockroach Hanby, especially. How come that he gets to be principal of a school? Of the school I’m driven to teach in? God’s handiwork, doubtless. God and Hanby, they belong together. Two godam moral-spouters. Oh, no, I wont let that emotion come up in me. Stay down. Stay down, I tell you. O Jesus, Thou art beautiful…Come, Ralph, pull yourself together. Curses and adoration dont come from what is sane. This loneliness, dumbness, awful, intangible oppression is enough to drive a man insane. Miles from nowhere. A speck on a Georgia hillside. Jesus, can you imagine it — an atom of dust in agony on a hillside? Thats a spectacle for you. Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together.”
Kabnis has stiffened. He is conscious now of the night wind, and of how it chills him. He rises. He totters as a man would who for the first time uses artificial limbs. As a completely artificial man would. The large frame house, squatting on brick pillars, where the principal of the school, his wife, and the boarding girls sleep, seems a curious shadow of his mind. He tries, but cannot convince himself of its reality. His gaze drifts down into the vale, across the swamp, up over the solid dusk bank of pines, and rests, bewildered-like, on the court-house tower. It is dull silver in the moonlight. White child that sleeps upon the top of pines. Kabnis’ mind clears. He sees himself yanked beneath that tower. He sees white minds, with indolent assumption, juggle justice and a nigger…Somewhere, far off in the straight line of his sight, is Augusta. Christ, how cut off from everything he is. And hours, hours north, why not say a lifetime north? Washington sleeps. Its still, peaceful streets, how desirable they are. Its people whom he had always halfway despised. New York? Impossible. It was a fiction. He had dreamed it. An impotent nostalgia grips him. It becomes intolerable. He forces himself to narrow to a cabin silhouetted on a knoll about a mile away. Peace. Negroes within it are content. They farm. They sing. They love. They sleep. Kabnis wonders if perhaps they can feel him. If perhaps he gives them bad dreams. Things are so immediate in Georgia.
Thinking that now he can go to sleep, he re-enters his room. He builds a fire in the open hearth. The room dances to the tongues of flames, and sings to the crackling and spurting of the logs. Wind comes up between the floor boards, through the black cracks of the walls.
Kabnis: Cant sleep. Light a cigarette. If that old bastard comes over here and smells smoke, I’m done for. Hell of a note, cant even smoke. The stillness of it: where they burn and hang men, you cant smoke. Cant take a swig of licker. What do they think this is, anyway, some sort of temperance school? How did I ever land in such a hole? Ugh. One might just as well be in his grave. Still as a grave. Jesus, how still everything is. Does the world know how still it is? People make noise. They are afraid of silence. Of what lives, and God, of what dies in silence. There must be many dead things moving in silence. They come here to touch me. I swear I feel their fingers…Come, Ralph, pull yourself together. What in hell was that? Only the rustle of leaves, I guess. You know, Ralph, old man, it wouldnt surprise me at all to see a ghost. People dont think there are such things. They rationalize their fear, and call their cowardice science. Fine bunch, they are. Damit, that was a noise. And not the wind either. A chicken maybe. Hell, chickens dont wander around this time of night. What in hell is it?
A scraping sound, like a piece of wood dragging over the ground, is coming near.
“Ha, ha. The ghosts down this way havent got any chains to rattle, so they drag trees along with them. Thats a good one. But no joke, something is outside this house, as sure as hell. Whatever it is, it can get a good look at me and I cant see it. Jesus Christ!”
Kabnis pours water on the flames and blows his lamp out. He picks up a poker and stealthily approaches the outside door. Swings it open, and lurches into the night. A calf, carrying a yoke of wood, bolts away from him and scampers down the road.
“Well, I’m damned. This godam place is sure getting the best of me. Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together. Nights cant last forever. Thank God for that. Its Sunday already. First time in my life I’ve ever wanted Sunday to come. Hell of a day. And down here there’s no such thing as ducking church. Well, I’ll see Halsey and Layman, and get a good square meal. Thats something. And Halsey’s a damn good feller. Cant talk to him, though. Who in Christ’s world can I talk to? A hen. God. Myself…I’m going bats, no doubt of that. Come now, Ralph, go in and make yourself go to sleep. Come now…in the door…thats right. Put the poker down. There. All right. Slip under the sheets. Close your eyes. Think nothing…a long time…nothing, nothing. Dont even think nothing. Blank. Not even blank. Count. No, mustnt count. Nothing…blank…nothing…blank…space without stars in it. No, nothing…nothing…
Kabnis sleeps. The winds, like soft-voiced vagrant poets sing:
Burn, bear black children
Till poor rivers bring
Rest, and sweet glory
In Camp Ground.
The parlor of Fred Halsey’s home. There is a seediness about it. It seems as though the fittings have given a frugal service to at least seven generations of middle-class shop-owners. An open grate burns cheerily in contrast to the gray cold changed autumn weather. An old-fashioned mantelpiece supports a family clock (not running), a figure or two in imitation bronze, and two small group pictures. Directly above it, in a heavy oak frame, the portrait of a bearded man. Black hair, thick and curly, intensifies the pallor of the high forehead. The eyes are daring. The nose, sharp and regular. The poise suggests a tendency to adventure checked by the necessities of absolute command. The portrait is that of an English gentleman who has retained much of his culture, in that money has enabled him to escape being drawn through a land-grubbing pioneer life. His nature and features, modified by marriage and circumstances, have been transmitted to his great-grandson, Fred. To the left of this picture, spaced on the wall, is a smaller portrait of the great-grandmother. That here there is a Negro strain, no one would doubt. But it is difficult to say in precisely what feature it lies. On close inspection, her mouth is seen to be wistfully twisted. The expression of her face seems to shift before one’s gaze — now ugly, repulsive; now sad, and somehow beautiful in its pain. A tin wood-box rests on the floor below. To the right of the great-grandfather’s portrait hangs a family group: the father, mother, two brothers, and one sister of Fred. It includes himself some thirty years ago when his face was an olive white, and his hair luxuriant and dark and wavy. The father is a rich brown. The mother, practically white. Of the children, the girl, quite young, is like Fred; the two brothers, darker. The walls of the room are plastered and painted green. An old upright piano is tucked into the corner near the window. The window looks out on a forlorn, box-like, whitewashed frame church. Negroes are gathering, on foot, driving questionable gray and brown mules, and in an occasional Ford, for afternoon service. Beyond, Georgia hills roll off into the distance, their dreary aspect heightened by the gray spots of unpainted one-and two-room shanties. Clumps of pine trees here and there are the dark points the whole landscape is approaching. The church bell tolls. Above its squat tower, a great spiral of buzzards reaches far into the heavens. An ironic comment upon the path that leads into the Christian land…Three rocking chairs are grouped around the grate. Sunday papers scattered on the floor indicate a recent usage. Halsey, a well-built, stocky fellow, hair cropped close, enters the room. His Sunday clothes smell of wood and glue, for it is his habit to potter around his wagon-shop even on the Lord’s day. He is followed by Professor Layman, tall, heavy, loose-jointed Georgia Negro, by turns teacher and preacher, who has traveled in almost every nook and corner of the state and hence knows more than would be good for anyone other than a silent man. Kabnis, trying to force through a gathering heaviness, trails in behind them. They slip into chairs before the fire.
Layman: Sholy fine, Mr. Halsey, sholy fine. This town’s right good at feedin folks, better’n most towns in th state, even for preachers, but I ken say this beats um all. Yassur. Now aint that right, Professor Kabnis?
Kabnis: Yes sir, this beats them all, all right — best I’ve had, and thats a fact, though my comparison doesnt carry far, y’know.
Layman: Hows that, Professor?
Kabnis: Well, this is my first time out—
Layman: For a fact. Aint seed you round so much. Whats th trouble? Dont like our folks down this away?
Halsey: Aint that, Layman. He aint like most northern niggers that way. Aint a thing stuck-up about him. He likes us, you an me, maybe all — its that red mud over yonder — gets stuck in it an cant get out. (Laughs.) An then he loves th fire so, warm as its been. Coldest Yankee I’ve ever seen. But I’m goin t get him out now in a jiffy, eh, Kabnis?
Kabnis: Sure, I should say so, sure. Dont think its because I dont like folks down this way. Just the opposite, in fact. Theres more hospitality and everything. Its diff — that is, theres lots of northern exaggeration about the South. Its not half the terror they picture it. Things are not half bad, as one could easily figure out for himself without ever crossing the Mason and Dixie line: all these people wouldnt stay down here, especially the rich, the ones that could easily leave, if conditions were so mighty bad. And then too, sometime back, my family were southerners y’know. From Georgia, in fact—
Layman: Nothin t feel proud about, Professor. Neither your folks nor mine.
Halsey (in a mock religious tone): Amen t that, brother Lay man. Amen (turning to Kabnis, half playful, yet somehow dead in earnest). An Mr. Kabnis, kindly remember youre in th land of cotton — hell of a land. Th white folks get th boll; th niggers get th stalk. An dont you dare touch th boll, or even look at it. They’ll swing y sho. (Laughs.)
Kabnis: But they wouldnt touch a gentleman — fellows, men like us three here—
Layman: Nigger’s a nigger down this away, Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes t lynchin. I’ve seen um do it.
Halsey: Dont let th fear int y, though, Kabnis. This county’s a good un. Aint been a stringin up I can remember. (Laughs.)
ayman: This is a good town an a good county. But theres some that makes up fer it.
Kabnis: Things are better now though since that stir about those peonage cases, arent they?
Layman: Ever hear tell of a single shot killin moren one rabbit, Professor?
Kabnis: No, of course not, that is, but then—
Halsey: Now I know you werent born yesterday, sprung up so rapid like you aint heard of th brick thrown in th hornets’ nest. (Laughs.)
Kabnis: Hardly, hardly, I know—
Halsey: Course y do. (To Layman) See, northern niggers aint as dumb as they make out t be.
Kabnis (overlooking the remark): Just stirs them up to sting. Halsey: T perfection. An put just like a professor should put it. Kabnis:
Thats what actually did happen?
Layman: Well, if it aint sos only because th stingers already movin jes as fast as they ken go. An been goin ever since I ken remember, an then some mo. Though I dont usually make mention of it.
Halsey: Damn sight better not. Say, Layman, you come from where theyre always swarmin, dont y?
Layman: Yassur. I do that, sho. Dont want t mention it, but its a fact. I’ve seed th time when there werent no use t even stretch out flat upon th ground. Seen um shoot an cut a man t pieces who had died th night befo. Yassur. An they didnt stop when they found out he was dead — jes went on ahackin at him anyway.
Kabnis: What did you do? What did you say to them, Professor?
Layman: Thems th things you neither does a thing or talks about if y want t stay around this away, Professor.
Halsey: Listen t what he’s tellin y, Kabnis. May come in handy some day.
Kabnis: Cant something be done? But of course not. This preacher-ridden race. Pray and shout. Theyre in the preacher’s hands. Thats what it is. And the preacher’s hands are in the white man’s pockets.
Halsey: Present company always excepted.
Kabnis: The Professor knows I wasnt referring to him.
Layman: Preacher’s a preacher anywheres you turn. No use exceptin. Kabnis: Well, of course, if you look at it that way. I didnt mean — But cant something be done? Layman: Sho. Yassur. An done first rate an well. Jes like Sam Raymon done it.
Kabnis: Hows that? What did he do?
Layman: Th white folks (reckon I oughtnt tell it) had jes knocked two others like you kill a cow — brained um with an ax, when they caught Sam Raymon by a stream. They was about t do fer him when he up an says, “White folks, I gotter die, I knows that. But wont y let me die in my own way?” Some was fer gettin after him, but th boss held um back an says, “Jes so longs th nigger dies—” An Sam fell down ont his knees an prayed, “O Lord, Ise comin to y,” and he up an jumps int th stream.
Singing from the church becomes audible. Above it, rising and falling in a plaintive moan, a woman’s voice swells to shouting. Kabnis hears it. His face gives way to an expression of mingled fear, contempt, and pity. Layman takes no notice of it. Halsey grins at Kabnis. He feels like having a little sport with him.
Halsey: Lets go t church, eh, Kabnis?
Kabnis (seeking control): All right — no sir, not by a damn sight. Once a days enough for me. Christ, but that stuff gets to me. Meaning no reflection on you, Professor.
Halsey: Course not. Say, Kabnis, noticed y this morning. What’d y get up for an go out?
Kabnis: Couldnt stand the shouting, and thats a fact. We dont have that sort of thing up North. We do, but, that is, some one should see to it that they are stopped or put out when they get so bad the preacher has to stop his sermon for them.
Halsey: Is that th way youall sit on sisters up North?
Kabnis: In the church I used to go to no one ever shouted—
Halsey: Lungs weak?
Kabnis: Hardly, that is—
Halsey: Yankees are right up t th minute in tellin folk how t turn a trick.
They always were good at talkin. Kabnis: Well, anyway, they should be stopped.
Layman: Thats right. Thats true. An its th worst ones in th community that comes int th church t shout. I’ve sort a made a study of it. You take a man what drinks, th biggest licker-head around will come int th church an yell th loudest. An th sister whats done wrong, an is always doin wrong, will sit down in th Amen corner an swing her arms an shout her head off. Seems as if they cant control themselves out in th world; they cant control themselves in church. Now dont that sound logical, Professor?
Halsey: Reckon its as good as any. But I heard that queer cuss over yonder — y know him, dont y, Kabnis? Well, y ought t. He had a run-in with your boss th other day — same as you’ll have if you dont walk th chalk-line. An th quicker th better. I hate that Hanby. Ornery bastard. I’ll mash his mouth in one of these days. Well, as I was sayin, that feller, Lewis’s name, I heard him sayin somethin about a stream whats dammed has got t cut loose somewheres. An that sounds good. I know th feelin myself. He strikes me as knowin a bucketful bout most things, that feller does. Seems like he doesnt want t talk, an does, sometimes, like Layman here. Damn queer feller, him.
Layman: Cant make heads or tails of him, an I’ve seen lots o queer possums in my day. Everybody’s wonderin about him. White folks too. He’ll have t leave here soon, thats sho. Always askin questions. An I aint seed his lips move once. Pokin round an notin somethin. Noted what I said th other day, an that werent fer notin down.
Kabnis: What was that?
Layman: Oh, a lynchin that took place bout a year ago. Th worst I know of round these parts.
Halsey: Bill Burnam?
Layman: Na. Mame Lamkins.
Halsey grunts, but says nothing.
The preacher’s voice rolls from the church in an insistent chanting monotone. At regular intervals it rises to a crescendo note. The sister begins to shout. Her voice, high-pitched and hysterical, is almost perfectly attuned to the nervous key of Kabnis. Halsey notices his distress, and is amused by it. Layman’s face is expressionless. Kabnis wants to hear the story of Mame Lamkins. He does not want to hear it. It can be no worse than the shouting.
Kabnis (his chair rocking faster): What about Mame Lamkins?
Halsey: Tell him, Layman.
The preacher momentarily stops. The choir, together with the entire congregation, sings an old spiritual. The music seems to quiet the shouter. Her heavy breathing has the sound of evening winds that blow through pinecones. Layman’s voice is uniformly low and soothing. A canebrake, murmuring the tale to its neighbor-road would be more passionate.
Layman: White folks know that niggers talk, an they dont mind jes so long as nothing comes of it, so here goes. She was in th family-way, Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein th risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an th kid fell out. It was living; but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it an stuck it t a tree. An then they all went away.
Kabnis: Christ no! What had she done?
Layman: Tried t hide her husband when they was after him.
A shriek pierces the room. The bronze pieces on the mantel hum. The sister cries frantically: “Jesus, Jesus, I’ve found Jesus. O Lord, glory t God, one mo sinner is acomin home.” At the height of this, a stone, wrapped round with paper, crashes through the window. Kabnis springs to his feet, terror-stricken. Layman is worried. Halsey picks up the stone. Takes off the wrapper, smooths it out, and reads: “You northern nigger, its time fer y t leave. Git along now.” Kabnis knows that the command is meant for him. Fear squeezes him. Caves him in. As a violent external pressure would. Fear flows inside him. It fills him up. He bloats. He saves himself from bursting by dashing wildly from the room. Halsey and Layman stare stupidly at each other. The stone, the crumpled paper are things, huge things that weight them. Their thoughts are vaguely concerned with the texture of the stone, with the color of the paper. Then they remember the words, and begin to shift them about in sentences. Layman even construes them grammatically. Suddenly the sense of them comes back to Halsey. He grips Layman by the arm and they both follow after Kabnis.
A false dusk has come early. The countryside is ashen, chill. Cabins and roads and canebrakes whisper. The church choir, dipping into a long silence, sings:
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.
Softly luminous over the hills and valleys, the faint spray of a scattered star…
A splotchy figure drives forward along the cane-and corn-stalk hemmed-in road. A scarecrow replica of Kabnis, awkwardly animate. Fantastically plastered with red Georgia mud. It skirts the big house whose windows shine like mellow lanterns in the dusk. Its shoulder jogs against a sweet-gum tree. The figure caroms off against the cabin door, and lunges in. It slams the door as if to prevent some one entering after it.
“God Almighty, theyre here. After me. On me. All along the road I saw their eyes flaring from the cane. Hounds. Shouts. What in God’s name did I run here for? A mud-hole trap. I stumbled on a rope. O God, a rope. Their clammy hands were like the love of death playing up and down my spine. Trying to trip my legs. To trip my spine. Up and down my spine. My spine…My legs…Why in hell didnt they catch me?”
Kabnis wheels around, half defiant, half numbed with a more immediate fear.
“Wanted to trap me here. Get out o there. I see you.”
He grabs a broom from beside the chimney and violently pokes it under the bed. The broom strikes a tin wash-tub. The noise bewilders. He recovers.
“Not there. In the closet.”
He throws the broom aside and grips the poker. Starts towards the closet door, towards somewhere in the perfect blackness behind the chimney.
“I’ll brain you.”
He stops short. The barks of hounds, evidently in pursuit, reach him. A voice, liquid in distance, yells, “Hi! Hi!”
“O God, theyre after me. Holy Father, Mother of Christ — hell, this aint no time for prayer—”
Voices, just outside the door:
“Reckon he’s here.”
“Dont see no light though.”
The door is flung open.
Kabnis: Get back or I’ll kill you.
He braces himself, brandishing the poker.
Halsey (coming in): Aint as bad as all that. Put that thing down.
Layman: Its only us, Professor. Nobody else after y.
Kabnis: Halsey. Layman. Close that door. Dont light that light. For godsake get away from there.
Halsey: Nobody’s after y, Kabnis, I’m tellin y. Put that thing down an get yourself together.
Kabnis: I tell you they are. I saw them. I heard the hounds.
Halsey: These aint th days of hounds an Uncle Tom’s Cabin, feller. White folks aint in fer all them theatrics these days. Theys more direct than that. If what they wanted was t get y, theyd have just marched right in an took y where y sat. Somebodys down by th branch chasin rabbits an atreein possums.
A shot is heard.
Halsey: Got him, I reckon. Saw Tom goin out with his gun. Tom’s pretty lucky most times.
He goes to the bureau and lights the lamp. The circular fringe is patterned on the ceiling. The moving shadows of the men are huge against the bare wall boards. Halsey walks up to Kabnis, takes the poker from his grip, and without more ado pushes him into a chair before the dark hearth.
Halsey: Youre a mess. Here, Layman. Get some trash an start a fire.
Layman fumbles around, finds some newspapers and old bags, puts them in the hearth, arranges the wood, and kindles the fire. Halsey sets a black iron kettle where it soon will be boiling. Then takes from his hip-pocket a bottle of corn licker which he passes to Kabnis.
Halsey: Here. This’ll straighten y out a bit.
Kabnis nervously draws the cork and gulps the licker down.
Kabnis: Ha. Good stuff. Thanks. Thank y, Halsey.
Halsey: Good stuff! Youre damn right. Hanby there dont think so. Wonder he doesnt come over t find out whos burnin his oil. Miserly bastard, him. Th boys what made this stuff — are y listenin t me, Kabnis? th boys what made this stuff have got th art down like I heard you say youd like t be with words. Eh? Have some, Layman?
Layman: Dont think I care for none, thank y jes th same, Mr. Halsey.
Halsey: Care hell. Course y care. Everybody cares around these parts. Preachers an school teachers an everybody. Here. Here, take it. Dont try that line on me.
Layman limbers up a little, but he cannot quite forget that he is on school ground.
Layman: Thats right. Thats true, sho. Shinin is th only business what pays in these hard times.
He takes a nip, and passes the bottle to Kabnis. Kabnis is in the middle of a long swig when a rap sounds on the door. He almost spills the bottle, but manages to pass it to Halsey just as the door swings open and Hanby enters. He is a well-dressed, smooth, rich, black-skinned Negro who thinks there is no one quite so suave and polished as himself. To members of his own race, he affects the manners of a wealthy white planter. Or, when he is up North, he lets it be known that his ideas are those of the best New England tradition. To white men he bows, without ever completely humbling himself. Tradesmen in the town tolerate him because he spends his money with them. He delivers his words with a full consciousness of his moral superiority.
Hanby: Hum. Erer, Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member. This institution, of which I am the humble president, was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice. Its purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives. To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race. It hopes to attain this aim partly by the salutary examples set by its instructors. I cannot hinder the progress of a race simply to indulge a single member. I have thought the matter out beforehand, I can assure you. Therefore, if I find your resignation on my desk by to-morrow morning, Mr. Kabnis, I shall not feel obliged to call in the sheriff. Otherwise…”
Kabnis: A fellow can take a drink in his own room if he wants to, in the privacy of his own room.
Hanby: His room, but not the institution’s room, Mr. Kabnis.
Kabnis: This is my room while I’m in it.
Hanby: Mr. Clayborn (the sheriff) can inform you as to that.
Kabnis: Oh, well, what do I care — glad to get out of this mud-hole.
Hanby: I should think so from your looks.
Kabnis: You neednt get sarcastic about it.
Hanby: No, that is true. And I neednt wait for your resignation either, Mr. Kabnis.
Kabnis: Oh, you’ll get that all right. Dont worry.
Hanby: And I should like to have the room thoroughly aired and cleaned and ready for your successor by to-morrow noon, Professor.
Kabnis (trying to rise): You can have your godam room right away. I dont want it.
Hanby: But I wont have your cursing.
Halsey pushes Kabnis back into his chair.
Halsey: Sit down, Kabnis, till I wash y.
Hanby (to Halsey): I would rather not have drinking men on the premises, Mr. Halsey. You will oblige me—
Halsey: I’ll oblige you by stayin right on this spot, this spot, get me? till I get damned ready t leave.
He approaches Hanby. Hanby retreats, but manages to hold his dignity.
Halsey: Let me get you told right now, Mr. Samuel Hanby. Now listen t me. I aint no slick an span slave youve hired, an dont y think it for a minute. Youve bullied enough about this town. An besides, wheres that bill youve been owin me? Listen t me. If I dont get it paid in by tmorrer noon, Mr. Hanby (he mockingly assumes Hanby’s tone and manner), I shall feel obliged t call th sheriff. An that sheriff’ll be myself who’ll catch y in th road an pull y out your buggy an lightly attend t y. You heard me. Now leave him alone. I’m takin him home with me. I got it fixed. Before you came in. He’s goin t work with me. Shapin shafts and buildin wagons’ll make a man of him what nobody, y get me? what nobody can take advantage of. Thats all…
Halsey burrs off into vague and incoherent comment.
Layman’s eyes are glazed on the spurting fire.
Kabnis wants to rise and put both Halsey and Hanby in their places. He vaguely knows that he must do this, else the power of direction will completely slip from him to those outside. The conviction is just strong enough to torture him. To bring a feverish, quick-passing flare into his eyes. To mutter words soggy in hot saliva. To jerk his arms upward in futile protest. Halsey, noticing his gestures, thinks it is water that he desires. He brings a glass to him. Kabnis slings it to the floor. Heat of the conviction dies. His arms crumple. His upper lip, his mustache, quiver. Rap! rap, on the door. The sounds slap Kabnis. They bring a hectic color to his cheeks. Like huge cold finger tips they touch his skin and goose-flesh it. Hanby strikes a commanding pose. He moves toward Layman. Layman’s face is innocently immobile.
Halsey: Whos there?
Halsey: Come in, Lewis. Come on in.
Lewis enters. He is the queer fellow who has been referred to. A tall wiry copper-colored man, thirty perhaps. His mouth and eyes suggest purpose guided by an adequate intelligence. He is what a stronger Kabnis might have been, and in an odd faint way resembles him. As he steps towards the others, he seems to be issuing sharply from a vivid dream. Lewis shakes hands with Halsey. Nods perfunctorily to Hanby, who has stiffened to meet him. Smiles rapidly at Layman, and settles with real interest on Kabnis.
Lewis: Kabnis passed me on the road. Had a piece of business of my own, and couldnt get here any sooner. Thought I might be able to help in some way or other.
Halsey: A good baths bout all he needs now. An somethin t put his mind t rest.
Lewis: I think I can give him that. That note was meant for me. Some Negroes have grown uncomfortable at my being here—
Kabnis: You mean, Mr. Lewis, some colored folks threw it? Christ Almighty!
Halsey: Thats what he means. An just as I told y. White folks more direct than that.
Kabnis: What are they after you for?
Lewis: Its a long story, Kabnis. Too long for now. And it might involve present company. (He laughs pleasantly and gestures vaguely in the direction of Hanby.) Tell you about it later on perhaps.
Kabnis: Youre not going?
Lewis: Not till my month’s up.
Halsey: Hows that?
Lewis: I’m on a sort of contract with myself. (Is about to leave.) Well, glad its nothing serious—
Halsey: Come round t th shop sometime why dont y, Lewis? I’ve asked y enough. I’d like t have a talk with y. I aint as dumb as I look. Kabnis an me’ll be in most any time. Not much work these days. Wish t hell there was. This burg gets to me when there aint. (In answer to Lewis’ question.) He’s goin t work with me. Ya. Night air this side th branch aint good fer him. (Looks at Hanby. Laughs.)
Lewis: I see…
His eyes turn to Kabnis. In the instant of their shifting, a vision of the life they are to meet. Kabnis, a promise of a soil-soaked beauty; uprooted, thinning out. Suspended a few feet above the soil whose touch would resurrect him. Arm’s length removed from him whose will to help…There is a swift intuitive interchange of consciousness. Kabnis has a sudden need to rush into the arms of this man. His eyes call, “Brother.” And then a savage, cynical twist-about within him mocks his impulse and strengthens him to repulse Lewis. His lips curl cruelly. His eyes laugh. They are glittering needles, stitching. With a throbbing ache they draw Lewis to. Lewis brusquely wheels on Hanby.
Lewis: I’d like to see you, sir, a moment, if you dont mind.
Hanby’s tight collar and vest effectively preserve him.
Hanby: Yes, erer, Mr. Lewis. Right away.
Lewis: See you later, Halsey.
Halsey: So long — thanks — sho hope so, Lewis.
As he opens the door and Hanby passes out, a woman, miles down the valley, begins to sing. Her song is a spark that travels swiftly to the near-by cabins. Like purple tallow flames, songs jet up. They spread a ruddy haze over the heavens. The haze swings low. Now the whole countryside is a soft chorus. Lord. O Lord…Lewis closes the door behind him. A flame jets out…
The kettle is boiling. Halsey notices it. He pulls the wash-tub from beneath the bed. He arranges for the bath before the fire.
Halsey: Told y them theatrics didnt fit a white man. Th niggers, just like I told y. An after him. Aint surprisin though. He aint bowed t none of them. Nassur. T nairy a one of them nairy an inch nairy a time. An only mixed when he was good an ready—
Kabnis: That song, Halsey, do you hear it?
Halsey: Thats a man. Hear me, Kabnis? A man—
Kabnis: Jesus, do you hear it.
Halsey: Hear it? Hear what? Course I hear it. Listen t what I’m tellin y. A man, get me? They’ll get him yet if he dont watch out.
Kabnis is jolted into his fear.
Kabnis: Get him? What do you mean? How? Not lynch him?
Halsey: Na. Take a shotgun an shoot his eyes clear out. Well, anyway, it wasnt fer you, just like I told y. You’ll stay over at th house an work with me, eh, boy? Good t get away from his nobs, eh? Damn big stiff though, him. An youre not th first an I can tell y. (Laughs.) He bustles and fusses about Kabnis as if he were a child. Kabnis submits, wearily. He has no will to resist him.
Layman (his voice is like a deep hollow echo): Thats right. Thats true, sho. Everybody’s been expectin that th bust up was comin. Surprised um all y held on as long as y did. Teachin in th South aint th thing fer y. Nassur. You ought t be way back up North where sometimes I wish I was. But I’ve hung on down this away so long—
Halsey: An there’ll never be no leavin time fer y.
A month has passed.
Halsey’s work-shop. It is an old building just off the main street of Sempter. The walls to within a few feet of the ground are of an age-worn cement mixture. On the outside they are considerably crumbled and peppered with what looks like musket-shot. Inside, the plaster has fallen away in great chunks, leaving the laths, grayed and cobwebbed, exposed. A sort of loft above the shop proper serves as a break-water for the rain and sunshine which otherwise would have free entry to the main floor. The shop is filled with old wheels and parts of wheels, broken shafts, and wooden litter. A double door, midway the street wall. To the left of this, a work-bench that holds a vise and a variety of woodwork tools. A window with as many panes broken as whole, throws light on the bench. Opposite, in the rear wall, a second window looks out upon the back yard. In the left wall, a rickety smoke-blackened chimney, and hearth with fire blazing. Smooth-worn chairs grouped about the hearth suggest the village meeting-place. Several large wooden blocks, chipped and cut and sawed on their upper surfaces are in the middle of the floor. They are the supports used in almost any sort of wagon-work. Their idleness means that Halsey has no worth-while job on foot. To the right of the central door is a junk heap, and directly behind this, stairs that lead down into the cellar. The cellar is known as “The Hole.” Besides being the home of a very old man, it is used by Halsey on those occasions when he spices up the life of the small town.
Halsey, wonderfully himself in his work overalls, stands in the doorway and gazes up the street, expectantly. Then his eyes grow listless. He slouches against the smooth-rubbed frame. He lights a cigarette. Shifts his position. Braces an arm against the door. Kabnis passes the window and stoops to get in under Halsey’s arm. He is awkward and ludicrous, like a schoolboy in his big brother’s new overalls. He skirts the large blocks on the floor, and drops into a chair before the fire. Halsey saunters towards him.
Kabnis: Time f lunch.
He stands by the hearth, rocking backward and forward. He stretches his hands out to the fire. He washes them in the warm glow of the flames. They never get cold, but he warms them.
Kabnis: Saw Lewis up th street. Said he’d be down.
Halsey’s eyes brighten. He looks at Kabnis. Turns away. Says nothing. Kabnis fidgets. Twists his thin blue cloth-covered limbs. Pulls closer to the fire till the heat stings his shins. Pushes back. Pokes the burned logs. Puts on several fresh ones. Fidgets. The town bell strikes twelve.
Kabnis: Fix it up f tnight?
Halsey: Leave it t me.
Kabnis: Get Lewis in?
Halsey: Tryin t.
The air is heavy with the smell of pine and resin. Green logs spurt and sizzle. Sap trickles from an old pine-knot into the flames. Layman enters. He carries a lunch-pail. Kabnis, for the moment, thinks that he is a day laborer.
Layman: Evenin, gen’lemun.
Both: Whats say, Layman.
Layman squares a chair to the fire and droops into it. Several town fellows, silent unfathomable men for the most part, saunter in. Overalls. Thick tan shoes. Felt hats marvelously shaped and twisted. One asks Halsey for a cigarette. He gets it. The blacksmith, a tremendous black man, comes in from the forge. Not even a nod from him. He picks up an axle and goes out. Lewis enters. The town men look curiously at him. Suspicion and an open liking contest for possession of their faces. They are uncomfortable. One by one they drift into the street.
Layman: Heard y was leavin, Mr. Lewis.
Kabnis: Months up, eh? Hell of a month I’ve got.
Halsey: Sorry y goin, Lewis. Just gettin acquainted like.
Lewis: Sorry myself, Halsey, in a way—
Layman: Gettin t like our town, Mr. Lewis?
Lewis: I’m afraid its on a different basis, Professor.
Halsey: An I’ve yet t hear about that basis. Been waitin long enough, God knows. Seems t me like youd take pity on a feller if nothin more.
Kabnis: Somethin that old black cockroach over yonder doesnt like, whatever it is.
Layman: Thats right. Thats right, sho.
Halsey: A feller dropped in here tother day an said he knew what you was about. Said you had queer opinions. Well, I could have told him you was a queer one, myself. But not th way he was driftin. Didnt mean anything by it, but just let drop he thought you was a little wrong up here — crazy; y’know. (Laughs.)
Kabnis: Y mean old Blodson? Hell, he’s bats himself.
Lewis: I remember him. We had a talk. But what he found queer, I think, was not my opinions, but my lack of them. In half an hour he had settled everything: boll weevils, God, the World War. Weevils and wars are the pests that God sends against the sinful. People are too weak to correct themselves: the Redeemer is coming back. Get ready, ye sinners, for the advent of Our Lord. Interesting, eh, Kabnis? but not exactly what we want.
Halsey: Y could have come t me. I’ve sho been after y enough. Most every time I’ve seen y.
Kabnis (sarcastically): Hows it y never came t us professors?
Lewis: I did — to one.
Kabnis: Y mean t say y got somethin from that celluloid-collar-eraser-cleaned old codger over in th mud hole?
Halsey: Rough on th old boy, aint he? (Laughs.)
Lewis: Something, yes. Layman here could have given me quite a deal, but the incentive to his keeping quiet is so much greater than anything I could have offered him to open up, that I crossed him off my mind. And you—
Kabnis: What about me?
Halsey: Tell him, Lewis, for godsake tell him. I’ve told him. But its somethin else he wants so bad I’ve heard him downstairs mumblin with th old man.
Lewis: The old man?
Kabnis: What about me? Come on now, you know so much.
Halsey: Tell him, Lewis. Tell it t him.
Lewis: Life has already told him more than he is capable of knowing. It has given him in excess of what he can receive. I have been offered. Stuff in his stomach curdled, and he vomited me.
Kabnis’ face twitches. His body writhes.
Kabnis: You know a lot, you do. How about Halsey?
Lewis: Yes…Halsey? Fits here. Belongs here. An artist in your way, arent you, Halsey?
Halsey: Reckon I am, Lewis. Give me th work and fair pay an I aint askin nothin better. Went over-seas an saw France; an I come back. Been up North; an I come back. Went t school; but there aint no books whats got th feel t them of them there tools. Nassur. An I’m atellin y.
A shriveled, bony white man passes the window and enters the shop. He carries a broken hatchet-handle and the severed head. He speaks with a flat, drawn voice to Halsey, who comes forward to meet him.
Mr. Ramsay: Can y fix this fer me, Halsey?
Halsey (looking it over): Reckon so, Mr. Ramsay. Here, Kabnis. A little practice fer y.
Halsey directs Kabnis, showing him how to place the handle in the vise, and cut it down. The knife hangs. Kabnis thinks that it must be dull. He jerks it hard. The tool goes deep and shaves too much off. Mr. Ramsay smiles brokenly at him.
Mr. Ramsay (to Halsey): Still breakin in the new hand, eh, Halsey? Seems like a likely enough faller once he gets th hang of it.
He gives a tight laugh at his own good humor. Kabnis burns red. The back of his neck stings him beneath his collar. He feels stifled. Through Ramsay, the whole white South weighs down upon him. The pressure is terrific. He sweats under the arms. Chill beads run down his body. His brows concentrate upon the handle as though his own life was staked upon the perfect shaving of it. He begins to out and out botch the job. Halsey smiles.
Halsey: He’ll make a good un some of these days, Mr. Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay: Y ought t know. Yer daddy was a good un before y. Runs in th family, seems like t me.
Halsey: Thats right, Mr. Ramsay.
Kabnis is hopeless. Halsey takes the handle from him. With a few deft strokes he shaves it. Fits it. Gives it to Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay: How much on this?
Halsey: No charge, Mr. Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay (going out): All right, Halsey. Come down an take it out in trade. Shoestrings or something.
Halsey: Yassur, Mr. Ramsay.
Halsey rejoins Lewis and Layman. Kabnis, hangdog-fashion, follows him.
Halsey: They like y if y work fer them.
Layman: Thats right, Mr. Halsey. Thats right, sho.
The group is about to resume its talk when Hanby enters. He is all energy, bustle, and business. He goes direct to Kabnis.
Hanby: An axle is out in the buggy which I would like to have shaped into a crow-bar. You will see that it is fixed for me.
Without waiting for an answer, and knowing that Kabnis will follow, he passes out. Kabnis, scowling, silent, trudges after him.
Hanby (from the outside): Have that ready for me by three o’clock, young man. I shall call for it.
Kabnis (under his breath as he comes in): Th hell you say, you old black swamp-gut.
He slings the axle on the floor.
Layman, lunch finished long ago, rises, heavily. He shakes hands with Lewis.
Layman: Might not see y again befo y leave, Mr. Lewis. I enjoys t hear y talk. Y might have been a preacher. Maybe a bishop some day. Sho do hope t see y back this away again sometime, Mr. Lewis.
Lewis: Thanks, Professor. Hope I’ll see you.
Layman waves a long arm loosely to the others, and leaves. Kabnis goes to the door. His eyes, sullen, gaze up the street.
Kabnis: Carrie K.’s comin with th lunch. Bout time.
She passes the window. Her red girl’s-cap, catching the sun, flashes vividly. With a stiff, awkward little movement she crosses the doorsill and gives Kabnis one of the two baskets which she is carrying. There is a slight stoop to her shoulders. The curves of her body blend with this to a soft rounded charm. Her gestures are stiffly variant. Black bangs curl over the forehead of her oval-olive face. Her expression is dazed, but on provocation it can melt into a wistful smile. Adolescent. She is easily the sister of Fred Halsey.
Carrie K.: Mother says excuse her, brother Fred an Ralph, fer bein late.
Kabnis: Everythings all right an O.K., Carrie Kate. O.K. an all right.
The two men settle on their lunch. Carrie, with hardly a glance in the direction of the hearth, as is her habit, is about to take the second basket down to the old man, when Lewis rises. In doing so he draws her unwitting attention. Their meeting is a swift sun-burst. Lewis impulsively moves towards her. His mind flashes images of her life in the southern town. He sees the nascent woman, her flesh already stiffening to cartilage, drying to bone. Her spirit-bloom, even now touched sullen, bitter. Her rich beauty fading…He wants to — He stretches forth his hands to hers. He takes them. They feel like warm cheeks against his palms. The sun-burst from her eyes floods up and haloes him. Christ-eyes, his eyes look to her. Fearlessly she loves into them. And then something happens. Her face blanches. Awkwardly she draws away. The sin-bogies of respectable southern colored folks clamor at her: “Look out! Be a good girl. A good girl. Look out!” She gropes for her basket that has fallen to the floor. Finds it, and marches with a rigid gravity to her task of feeding the old man. Like the glowing white ash of burned paper, Lewis’ eyelids, wavering, settle down. He stirs in the direction of the rear window. From the back yard, mules tethered to odd trees and posts blink dumbly at him. They too seem burdened with an impotent pain. Kabnis and Halsey are still busy with their lunch. They havent noticed him. After a while he turns to them.
Lewis: Your sister, Halsey, whats to become of her? What are you going to do for her?
Halsey: Who? What? What am I goin t do?…
Lewis: What I mean is, what does she do down there?
Halsey: Oh. Feeds th old man. Had lunch, Lewis?
Lewis: Thanks, yes. You have never felt her, have you, Halsey? Well, no, I guess not. I dont suppose you can. Nor can she…Old man? Halsey, some one lives down there? I’ve never heard of him. Tell me—
Kabnis takes time from his meal to answer with some emphasis:
Kabnis: Theres lots of things you aint heard of.
Lewis: Dare say. I’d like to see him.
Kabnis: You’ll get all th chance you want tnight.
Halsey: Fixin a little somethin up fer tnight, Lewis. Th three of us an some girls. Come round bout ten-thirty.
Lewis: Glad to. But what under the sun does he do down there?
Halsey: Ask Kabnis. He blows off t him every chance he gets.
Kabnis gives a grunting laugh. His mouth twists. Carrie returns from the cellar. Avoiding Lewis, she speaks to her brother.
Carrie K.: Brother Fred, father hasnt eaten now goin on th second week, but mumbles an talks funny, or tries t talk when I put his hands ont th food. He frightens me, an I dunno what t do. An oh, I came near fergettin, brother, but Mr. Marmon — he was eatin lunch when I saw him — told me t tell y that th lumber wagon busted down an he wanted y t fix it fer him. Said he reckoned he could get it t y after he ate.
Halsey chucks a half-eaten sandwich in the fire. Gets up. Arranges his blocks. Goes to the door and looks anxiously up the street. The wind whirls a small spiral in the gray dust road.
Halsey: Why didnt y tell me sooner, little sister?
Carrie K.: I fergot t, an just remembered it now, brother.
Her soft rolled words are fresh pain to Lewis. He wants to take her North with him What for? He wonders what Kabnis could do for her. What she could do for him. Mother him. Carrie gathers the lunch things, silently, and in her pinched manner, curtsies, and departs. Kabnis lights his after-lunch cigarette. Lewis, who has sensed a change, becomes aware that he is not included in it. He starts to ask again about the old man. Decides not to. Rises to go.
Lewis: Think I’ll run along, Halsey.
Halsey: Sure. Glad t see y any time.
Kabnis: Dont forget tnight.
Lewis: Dont worry. I wont. So long.
Kabnis: So long. We’ll be expectin y.
Lewis passes Halsey at the door. Halsey’s cheeks form a vacant smile. His eyes are wide awake, watching for the wagon to turn from Broad Street into his road.
Halsey: So long.
His words reach Lewis halfway to the corner.
Night, soft belly of a pregnant Negress, throbs evenly against the torso of the South. Night throbs a womb-song to the South. Cane-and cotton-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps, sawmills, and factories are fecund at her touch. Night’s womb-song sets them singing. Night winds are the breathing of the unborn child whose calm throbbing in the belly of a Negress sets them somnolently singing. Hear their song.
Burn, bear black children
Till poor rivers bring
Rest, and sweet glory
In Camp Ground.
Sempter’s streets are vacant and still. White paint on the wealthier houses has the chill blue glitter of distant stars. Negro cabins are a purple blur. Broad Street is deserted. Winds stir beneath the corrugated iron canopies and dangle odd bits of rope tied to horse-and mule-gnawed hitching-posts. One store window has a light in it. Chesterfield cigarette and Chero-Cola cardboard advertisements are stacked in it. From a side door two men come out. Pause, for a last word and then say good night. Soon they melt in shadows thicker than they. Way off down the street four figures sway beneath iron awnings which form a sort of corridor that imperfectly echoes and jumbles what they say. A fifth form joins them. They turn into the road that leads to Halsey’s workshop. The old building is phosphorescent above deep shade. The figures pass through the double door. Night winds whisper in the eaves. Sing weirdly in the ceiling cracks. Stir curls of shavings on the floor. Halsey lights a candle. A good-sized lumber wagon, wheels off, rests upon the blocks. Kabnis makes a face at it. An unearthly hush is upon the place. No one seems to want to talk. To move, lest the scraping of their feet…
Halsey: Come on down this way, folks.
He leads the way. Stella follows. And close after her, Cora, Lewis, and Kabnis. They descend into the Hole. It seems huge, limitless in the candle light. The walls are of stone, wonderfully fitted. They have no openings save a small iron-barred window toward the top of each. They are dry and warm. The ground slopes away to the rear of the building and thus leaves the south wall exposed to the sun. The blacksmith’s shop is plumb against the right wall. The floor is clay. Shavings have at odd times been matted into it. In the right-hand corner, under the stairs, two good-sized pine mattresses, resting on cardboard, are on either side of a wooden table. On this are several half-burned candles and an oil lamp. Behind the table, an irregular piece of mirror hangs on the wall. A loose something that looks to be a gaudy ball costume dangles from a near-by hook. To the front, a second table holds a lamp and several whiskey glasses. Six rickety chairs are near this table. Two old wagon wheels rest on the floor. To the left, sitting in a high-backed chair which stands upon a low platform, the old man. He is like a bust in black walnut. Gray-bearded. Gray-haired. Prophetic. Immobile. Lewis’ eyes are sunk in him. The others, unconcerned, are about to pass on to the front table when Lewis grips Halsey and so turns him that the candle flame shines obliquely on the old man’s features.
Lewis: And he rules over—
Kabnis: Th smoke an fire of th forge.
Lewis: Black Vulcan? I wouldnt say so. That forehead. Great woolly beard. Those eyes. A mute John the Baptist of a new religion — or a tongue-tied shadow of an old.
Kabnis: His tongue is tied all right, an I can vouch f that.
Lewis: Has he never talked to you?
Halsey: Kabnis wont give him a chance.
He laughs. The girls laugh. Kabnis winces.
Lewis: What do you call him?
Lewis: Good. Father what?
Kabnis: Father of hell.
Halsey: Father’s th only name we have fer him. Come on. Lets sit down an get t th pleasure of the evenin.
Lewis: Father John it is from now on…
Slave boy whom some Christian mistress taught to read the Bible. Black man who saw Jesus in the ricefields, and began preaching to his people. Moses-and Christ-words used for songs. Dead blind father of a muted folk who feel their way upward to a life that crushes or absorbs them. (Speak, Father!) Suppose your eyes could see, old man. (The years hold hands. O Sing!) Suppose your lips…
Halsey, does he never talk?
Halsey: Na. But sometimes. Only seldom. Mumbles. Sis says he talks—
Kabnis: I’ve heard him talk.
Halsey: First I’ve ever heard of it. You dont give him a chance. Sis says she’s made out several words, mostly one — an like as not cause it was “sin.”
Cora laughs in a loose sort of way. She is a tall, thin, mulatto woman. Her eyes are deep-set behind a pointed nose. Her hair is coarse and bushy. Seeing that Stella also is restless, she takes her arm and the two women move towards the table. They slip into chairs. Halsey follows and lights the lamp. He lays out a pack of cards. Stella sorts them as if telling fortunes. She is a beautifully proportioned, large-eyed, brown-skin girl. Except for the twisted line of her mouth when she smiles or laughs, there is about her no suggestion of the life she’s been through. Kabnis, with great mock-solemnity, goes to the corner, takes down the robe, and dons it. He is a curious spectacle, acting a part, yet very real. He joins the others at the table. They are used to him. Lewis is surprised. He laughs. Kabnis shrinks and then glares at him with a furtive hatred. Halsey, bringing out a bottle of corn licker, pours drinks.
Halsey: Come on, Lewis. Come on, you fellers. Heres lookin at y.
Then, as if suddenly recalling something, he jerks away from the table and starts towards the steps.
Kabnis: Where y goin, Halsey?
Halsey: Where? Where y think? That oak beam in th wagon—
Kabnis: Come ere. Come ere. Sit down. What in hell’s wrong with you fellers? You with your wagon. Lewis with his Father John. This aint th time fer foolin with wagons. Daytime’s bad enough f that. Ere, sit down. Ere, Lewis, you too sit down. Have a drink. Thats right. Drink corn licker, love th girls, an listen t th old man mumblin sin.
There seems to be no good-time spirit to the party. Something in the air is too tense and deep for that. Lewis, seated now so that his eyes rest upon the old man, merges with his source and lets the pain and beauty of the South meet him there. White faces, pain-pollen, settle downward through a cane-sweet mist and touch the ovaries of yellow flowers. Cotton-bolls bloom, droop. Black roots twist in a parched red soil beneath a blazing sky. Magnolias, fragrant, a trifle futile, lovely, far off…His eyelids close. A force begins to heave and rise…Stella is serious, reminiscent.
Stella: Usall is brought up t hate sin worse than death—
Kabnis: An then before you have y eyes half open, youre made t love it if y want t live.
Stella: Us never—
Kabnis: Oh, I know your story: that old prim bastard over yonder, an then old Calvert’s office—
Stella: It wasnt them—
Kabnis: I know. They put y out of church, an then I guess th preacher came around an asked f some. But thats your body. Now me—
Halsey (passing him the bottle): All right, kid, we believe y. Here, take another. Wheres Clover, Stel?
Stella: You know how Jim is when he’s just out th swamp. Done up in shine an wouldnt let her come. Said he’d bust her head open if she went out.
Kabnis: Dont see why he doesnt stay over with Laura, where he belongs.
Stella: Ask him, an I reckon he’ll tell y. More than you want.
Halsey: Th nigger hates th sight of a black woman worse than death. Sorry t mix y up this way, Lewis. But y see how tis.
Lewis’ skin is tight and glowing over the fine bones of his face. His lips tremble. His nostrils quiver. The others notice this and smile knowingly at each other. Drinks and smokes are passed around. They pay no neverminds to him. A real party is being worked up. Then Lewis opens his eyes and looks at them. Their smiles disperse in hot-cold tremors. Kabnis chokes his laugh. It sputters, gurgles. His eyes flicker and turn away. He tries to pass the thing off by taking a long drink which he makes considerable fuss over. He is drawn back to Lewis. Seeing Lewis’ gaze still upon him, he scowls.
Kabnis: Whatsha lookin at me for? Y want t know who I am? Well, I’m Ralph Kabnis — lot of good its goin t do y. Well? Whatsha keep lookin for? I’m Ralph Kabnis. Aint that enough f y? Want th whole family history? Its none of your godam business, anyway. Keep off me. Do y hear? Keep off me. Look at Cora. Aint she pretty enough t look at? Look at Halsey, or Stella. Clover ought t be here an you could look at her. An love her. Thats what you need. I know—
Lewis: Ralph Kabnis gets satisfied that way?
Kabnis: Satisfied? Say, quit your kiddin. Here, look at that old man there. See him? He’s satisfied. Do I look like him? When I’m dead I dont expect t be satisfied. Is that enough f y, with your godam nosin, or do you want more? Well, y wont get it, understand?
Lewis: The old man as symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past, what do you think he would say if he could see you? You look at him, Kabnis.
Kabnis: Just like any done-up preacher is what he looks t me. Jam some false teeth in his mouth and crank him, an youd have God Almighty spit in torrents all around th floor. Oh, hell, an he reminds me of that black cockroach over yonder. An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors were Southern blue-bloods—
Lewis: And black.
Kabnis: Aint much difference between blue an black.
Lewis: Enough to draw a denial from you. Cant hold them, can you? Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of your cheeks, flame of the great season’s multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned. Split, shredded: easily burned. No use…
His gaze shifts to Stella. Stella’s face draws back, her breasts come towards him.
Stella: I aint got nothin f y, mister. Taint no use t look at me.
Halsey: Youre a queer feller, Lewis, I swear y are. Told y so, didnt I, girls? Just take him easy though, an he’ll be ridin just th same as any Georgia mule, eh, Lewis? (Laughs.)
Stella: I’m goin t tell y somethin, mister. It aint t you, t th Mister Lewis what noses about. Its t somethin different, I dunno what. That old man there — maybe its him — is like m father used t look. He used t sing. An when he could sing no mo, they’d allus come f him an carry him t church an there he’d sit, befo th pulpit, aswayin an aleadin every song. A white man took m mother an it broke th old man’s heart. He died; an then I didnt care what become of me, an I dont now. I dont care now. Dont get it in y head I’m some sentimental Susie askin for yo sop. Nassur. But theres somethin t yo th others aint got. Boars an kids an fools — thats all I’ve known. Boars when their fever’s up. When their fever’s up they come t me. Halsey asks me over when he’s off th job. Kabnis — it ud be a sin t play with him. He takes it out in talk.
Halsey knows that he has trifled with her. At odd things he has been inwardly penitent before her tasking him. But now he wants to hurt her. He turns to Lewis.
Halsey: Lewis, I got a little licker in me, an thats true. True’s what I said. True. But th stuff just seems t wake me up an make my mind a man of me. Listen. You know a lot, queer as hell as y are, an I want t ask y some questions. Theyre too high fer them, Stella an Cora an Kabnis, so we’ll just excuse em. A chat between ourselves. (Turns to the others.) You-all cant listen in on this. Twont interest y. So just leave th table t this gen’lemun an myself. Go long now.
Kabnis gets up, pompous in his robe, grotesquely so, and makes as if to go through a grand march with Stella. She shoves him off, roughly, and in a mood swings her body to the steps. Kabnis grabs Cora and parades around, passing the old man, to whom he bows in mock-curtsy. He sweeps by the table, snatches the licker bottle, and then he and Cora sprawl on the mattresses. She meets his weak approaches after the manner she thinks Stella would use.
Halsey contemptuously watches them until he is sure that they are settled.
Halsey: This aint th sort o thing f me, Lewis, when I got work upstairs. Nassur. You an me has got things t do. Wastin time on common low-down women — say, Lewis, look at her now — Stella — aint she a picture? Common wench — na she aint, Lewis. You know she aint. I’m only tryin t fool y. I used t love that girl. Yassur. An sometimes when th moon is thick an I hear dogs up th valley barkin an some old woman fetches out her song, an th winds seem like th Lord made them fer t fetch an carry th smell o pine an cane, an there aint no big job on foot, I sometimes get t thinkin that I still do. But I want t talk t y, Lewis, queer as y are. Y know, Lewis, I went t school once. Ya. In Augusta. But it wasnt a regular school. Na. It was a pussy Sunday-school masqueradin under a regular name. Some goody-goody teachers from th North had come down t teach th niggers. If you was nearly white, they liked y. If you was black, they didnt. But it wasnt that — I was all right, y see. I couldnt stand em messin an pawin over m business like I was a child. So I cussed em out an left. Kabnis there ought t have cussed out th old duck over yonder an left. He’d a been a better man tday. But as I was sayin, I couldnt stand their ways. So I left an came here an worked with my father. An been here ever since. He died. I set in f myself. An its always been; give me a good job an sure pay an I aint far from being satisfied, so far as satisfaction goes. Prejudice is everywheres about this country. An a nigger aint in much standin anywheres. But when it comes t pottin round in doin nothin, with nothin bigger’n an ax-handle t hold a feller down, like it was a while back befo I got this job — that beam ought t be — but tmorrow mornin early’s time enough f that. As I was sayin, I gets t thinkin. Play dumb naturally t white folks. I gets t thinkin. I used to subscribe t th Literary Digest an that helped along a bit. But there werent nothing I could sink m teeth int. Theres lots I want t ask y, Lewis. Been askin y t come around. Couldnt get y. Cant get in much tnight. (He glances at the others. His mind fastens on Kabnis.) Say, tell me this, whats on your mind t say on that feller there? Kabnis’ name. One queer bird ought t know another, seems like t me.
Licker has released conflicts in Kabnis and set them flowing. He pricks his ears, intuitively feels that the talk is about him, leaves Cora, and approaches the table. His eyes are watery, heavy with passion. He stoops. He is a ridiculous pathetic figure in his showy robe.
Kabnis: Talkin bout me. I know. I’m th topic of conversation everywhere theres talk about this town. Girls an fellers. White folks as well. An if its me youre talkin bout, guess I got a right t listen in. Whats sayin? Whats sayin bout his royal guts, the Duke? Whats sayin, eh?
Halsey (to Lewis): We’ll take it up another time.
Kabnis: No nother time bout it. Now. I’m here now an talkin’s just begun. I was born an bred in a family of orators, thats what I was.
Kabnis: Na. Preachers hell. I didnt say wind-busters. Y misapprehended me. Y understand what that means, dont y? All right then, y misapprehended me. I didnt say preachers. I said orators. O R A T O R S. Born one an I’ll die one. You understand me, Lewis. (He turns to Halsey and begins shaking his finger in his face.) An as f you, youre all right f choppin things from blocks of wood. I was good at that th day I ducked th cradle. An since then, I’ve been shapin words after a design that branded here. Know whats here? M soul. Ever heard o that? Th hell y have. Been shapin words t fit m soul. Never told y that before, did I? Thought I couldnt talk. I’ll tell y. I’ve been shapin words; ah, but sometimes theyre beautiful an golden an have a taste that makes them fine t roll over with y tongue. Your tongue aint fit f nothin but t roll an lick hog-meat.
Stella and Cora come up to the table.
Halsey: Give him a shove there, will y, Stel?
Stella jams Kabnis in a chair. Kabnis springs up.
Kabnis: Cant keep a good man down. Those words I was tellin y about, they wont fit int th mold thats branded on m soul. Rhyme, y see? Poet, too. Bad rhyme. Bad poet. Somethin else youve learned tnight. Lewis dont know it all, an I’m atellin y. Ugh. Th form thats burned int my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare, an wont stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words. Not beautiful words. God Almighty no. Misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words. Layman was feedin it back there that day you thought I ran out fearin things. White folks feed it cause their looks are words. Niggers, black niggers feed it cause theyre evil an their looks are words. Yallar niggers feed it. This whole damn bloated purple country feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words. I want t feed th soul — I know what that is; th preachers dont — but I’ve got t feed it. I wish t God some lynchin white man ud stick his knife through it an pin it to a tree. An pin it to a tree. You hear me? Thats a wish f y, you little snot-nosed pups who’ve been makin fun of me, an fakin that I’m weak. Me, Ralph Kabnis weak. Ha.
Halsey: Thats right, old man. There, there. Here, so much exertion merits a fittin reward. Help him t be seated, Cora.
Halsey gives him a swig of shine. Cora glides up, seats him, and then plumps herself down on his lap, squeezing his head into her breasts. Kabnis mutters. Tries to break loose. Curses. Cora almost stifles him. He goes limp and gives up. Cora toys with him. Ruffles his hair. Braids it. Parts it in the middle. Stella smiles contemptuously. And then a sudden anger sweeps her. She would like to lash Cora from the place. She’d like to take Kabnis to some distant pine grove and nurse and mother him. Her eyes flash. A quick tensioning throws her breasts and neck into a poised strain. She starts towards them. Halsey grabs her arm and pulls her to him. She struggles. Halsey pins her arms and kisses her. She settles, spurting like a pine-knot afire.
Lewis finds himself completely cut out. The glowing within him subsides. It is followed by a dead chill. Kabnis, Carrie, Stella, Halsey, Cora, the old man, the cellar, and the work-shop, the southern town descend upon him. Their pain is too intense. He cannot stand it. He bolts from the table. Leaps up the stairs. Plunges through the work-shop and out into the night.
The cellar swims in a pale phosphorescence. The table, the chairs, the figure of the old man are amœba-like shadows which move about and float in it. In the corner under the steps, close to the floor, a solid blackness. A sound comes from it. A forcible yawn. Part of the blackness detaches itself so that it may be seen against the grayness of the wall. It moves forward and then seems to be clothing itself in odd dangling bits of shadow. The voice of Halsey, vibrant and deepened, calls
Halsey: Kabnis. Cora. Stella.
He gets no response. He wants to get them up, to get on the job. He is intolerant of their sleepiness.
Halsey: Kabnis! Stella! Cora!
Gutturals, jerky and impeded, tell that he is shaking them.
Halsey: Come now, up with you.
Kabnis (sleepily and still more or less intoxicated): Whats th big idea? What in hell—
Halsey: Work. But never you mind about that. Up with you.
Cora: Oooooo! Look here, mister, I aint used t bein thrown int th street befo day.
Stella: Any bunk whats worked is worth in wages moren this. But come on. Taint no use t arger.
Kabnis: I’ll arger. Its preposterous—
The girls interrupt him with none too pleasant laughs.
Kabnis: Thats what I said. Know what it means, dont y? All right, then. I said its preposterous t root an artist out o bed at this ungodly hour, when there aint no use t it. You can start your damned old work. Nobody’s stoppin y. But what we got t get up for? Fraid somebody’ll see th girls leavin? Some sport, you are. I hand it t y.
Halsey: Up you get, all th same.
Kabnis: Oh, th hell you say.
Halsey: Well, son, seeing that I’m th kindhearted father, I’ll give y chance t open your eyes. But up y get when I come down.
He mounts the steps to the work-shop and starts a fire in the hearth. In the yard he finds some chunks of coal which he brings in and throws on the fire. He puts a kettle on to boil. The wagon draws him. He lifts an oak-beam, fingers it, and becomes abstracted. Then comes to himself and places the beam upon the work-bench. He looks over some newly cut wooden spokes. He goes to the fire and pokes it. The coals are red-hot. With a pair of long prongs he picks them up and places them in a thick iron bucket. This he carries downstairs. Outside, darkness has given way to the impalpable grayness of dawn. This early morning light, seeping through the four barred cellar windows, is the color of the stony walls. It seems to be an emanation from them. Halsey’s coals throw out a rich warm glow. He sets them on the floor, a safe distance from the beds.
Halsey: No foolin now. Come. Up with you.
Other than a soft rustling, there is no sound as the girls slip into their clothes. Kabnis still lies in bed.
Stella (to Halsey): Reckon y could spare us a light?
Halsey strikes a match, lights a cigarette, and then bends over and touches flame to the two candles on the table between the beds. Kabnis asks for a cigarette. Halsey hands him his and takes a fresh one for himself. The girls, before the mirror, are doing up their hair. It is bushy hair that has gone through some straightening process. Character, however, has not all been ironed out. As they kneel there, heavy-eyed and dusky, and throwing grotesque moving shadows on the wall, they are two princesses in Africa going through the early-morning ablutions of their pagan prayers. Finished, they come forward to stretch their hands and warm them over the glowing coals. Red dusk of a Georgia sunset, their heavy, coal-lit faces…Kabnis suddenly recalls something.
Kabnis: Th old man talked last night.
Stella: And so did you.
Halsey: In your dreams.
Kabnis: I tell y, he did. I know what I’m talkin about. I’ll tell y what he said. Wait now, lemme see.
Halsey: Look out, brother, th old man’ll be getting int you by way o dreams. Come, Stel, ready? Cora? Coffee an eggs f both of you.
Halsey goes upstairs.
Stella: Gettin generous, aint he?
She blows the candles out. Says nothing to Kabnis. Then she and Cora follow after Halsey. Kabnis, left to himself, tries to rise. He has slept in his robe. His robe trips him. Finally, he manages to stand up. He starts across the floor. Half-way to the old man, he falls and lies quite still. Perhaps an hour passes. Light of a new sun is about to filter through the windows. Kabnis slowly rises to support upon his elbows. He looks hard, and internally gathers himself together. The side face of Father John is in the direct line of his eyes. He scowls at him. No one is around. Words gush from Kabnis.
Kabnis: You sit there like a black hound spiked to an ivory pedestal. An all night long I heard you murmurin that devilish word. They thought I didnt hear y, but I did. Mumblin, feedin that ornery thing thats livin on my insides. Father John. Father of Satan, more likely. What does it mean t you? Youre dead already. Death. What does it mean t you? To you who died way back there in th ’sixties. What are y throwin it in my throat for? Whats it goin t get y? A good smashin in th mouth, thats what. My fist’ll sink int y black mush face clear t y guts — if y got any. Dont believe y have. Never seen signs of none. Death. Death. Sin an Death. All night long y mumbled death. (He forgets the old man as his mind begins to play with the word and its associations.) Death…these clammy floors…just like th place they used t stow away th worn-out, no-count niggers in th days of slavery…that was long ago; not so long ago…no windows (he rises higher on his elbows to verify this assertion. He looks around, and, seeing no one but the old man, calls.) Halsey! Halsey! Gone an left me. Just like a nigger. I thought he was a nigger all th time. Now I know it. Ditch y when it comes right down t it. Damn him anyway. Godam him. (He looks and re-sees the old man.) Eh, you? T hell with you too. What do I care whether you can see or hear? You know what hell is cause youve been there. Its a feelin an its ragin in my soul in a way that’ll pop out of me an run you through, an scorch y, an burn an rip your soul. Your soul. Ha. Nigger soul. A gin soul that gets drunk on a preacher’s words. An screams. An shouts. God Almighty, how I hate that shoutin. Where’s th beauty in that? Gives a buzzard a windpipe an I’ll bet a dollar t a dime th buzzard ud beat y to it. Aint surprisin th white folks hate y so. When you had eyes, did you ever see th beauty of th world? Tell me that. Th hell y did. Now dont tell me. I know y didnt. You couldnt have. Oh, I’m drunk an just as good as dead, but no eyes that have seen beauty ever lose their sight. You aint got no sight. If you had, drunk as I am, I hope Christ will kill me if I couldnt see it. Your eyes are dull and watery, like fish eyes. Fish eyes are dead eyes. Youre an old man, a dead fish man, an black at that. Theyve put y here t die, damn fool y are not t know it. Do y know how many feet youre under ground? I’ll tell y. Twenty. An do y think you’ll ever see th light of day again, even if you wasnt blind? Do y think youre out of slavery? Huh? Youre where they used t throw th worked-out, no-count slaves. On a damp clammy floor of a dark scum-hole. An they called that an infirmary. Th sons-a…. Why I can already see you toppled off that stool an stretched out on th floor beside me — not beside me, damn you, by yourself, with th flies buzzin an lickin God knows what they’d find on a dirty, black, foul-breathed mouth like yours…
Some one is coming down the stairs. Carrie, bringing food for the old man. She is lovely in her fresh energy of the morning, in the calm untested confidence and nascent maternity which rise from the purpose of her present mission. She walks to within a few paces of Kabnis.
Carrie K.: Brother says come up now, brother Ralph.
Kabnis: Brother doesnt know what he’s talkin bout.
Carrie K.: Yes he does, Ralph. He needs you on th wagon.
Kabnis: He wants me on th wagon, eh? Does he think some wooden thing can lift me up? Ask him that.
Carrie K.: He told me t help y.
Kabnis: An how would you help me, child, dear sweet little sister?
She moves forward as if to aid him.
Carrie K.: I’m not a child, as I’ve more than once told you, brother Ralph, an as I’ll show you now.
Kabnis: Wait, Carrie. No, thats right. Youre not a child. But twont do t lift me bodily. You dont understand. But its th soul of me that needs th risin.
Carrie K.: Youre a bad brother an just wont listen t me when I’m tellin y t go t church.
Kabnis doesnt hear her. He breaks down and talks to himself.
Kabnis: Great God Almighty, a soul like mine cant pin itself onto a wagon wheel an satisfy itself in spinnin round. Iron prongs an hickory sticks, an God knows what all…all right for Halsey…use him. Me? I get my life down in this scum-hole. Th old man an me—
Carrie K.: Has he been talkin?
Kabnis: Huh? Who? Him? No. Dont need to. I talk. An when I really talk, it pays th best of them t listen. Th old man is a good listener. He’s deaf; but he’s a good listener. An I can talk t him. Tell him anything.
Carrie K.: He’s deaf an blind, but I reckon he hears, an sees too, from th things I’ve heard.
Kabnis: No. Cant. Cant I tell you. How’s he do it?
Carrie K.: Dunno, except I’ve heard that th souls of old folks have a way of seein things.
Kabnis: An I’ve heard them call that superstition.
The old man begins to shake his head slowly. Carrie and Kabnis watch him, anxiously. He mumbles. With a grave motion his head nods up and down. And then, on one of the down-swings—
Father John (remarkably clear and with great conviction): Sin.
He repeats this word several times, always on the downward nodding. Surprised, indignant, Kabnis forgets that Carrie is with him.
Kabnis: Sin! Shut up. What do you know about sin, you old black bastard. Shut up, an stop that swayin an noddin your head.
Father John: Sin.
Kabnis tries to get up.
Kabnis: Didnt I tell y t shut up?
Carrie steps forward to help him. Kabnis is violently shocked at her touch. He springs back.
Kabnis: Carrie! What…how…Baby, you shouldnt be down here. Ralph says things. Doesnt mean to. But Carrie, he doesnt know what he’s talkin about. Couldnt know. It was only a preacher’s sin they knew in those old days, an that wasnt sin at all. Mind me, th only sin is whats done against th soul. Th whole world is a conspiracy t sin, especially in America, an against me. I’m th victim of their sin. I’m what sin is. Does he look like me? Have you ever heard him say th things youve heard me say? He couldnt if he had th Holy Ghost t help him. Dont look shocked, little sweetheart, you hurt me.
Father John: Sin.
Kabnis: Aw, shut up, old man.
Carrie K.: Leave him be. He wants t say somethin. (She turns to the old man.) What is it, Father?
Kabnis: Whatsha talkin t that old deaf man for? Come away from him.
Carrie K.: What is it, Father?
The old man’s lips begin to work. Words are formed incoherently. Finally, he manages to articulate—
Father John: Th sin whats fixed…(Hesitates.)
Carrie K. (restraining a comment from Kabnis): Go on, Father.
Father John:…upon th white folks—
Kabnis: Suppose youre talkin about that bastard race thats roamin round th country. It looks like sin, if thats what y mean. Give us somethin new an up t date.
Father John — f tellin Jesus — lies. O th sin th white folks ’mitted when they made th Bible lie.
Boom. Boom. BOOM! Thuds on the floor above. The old man sinks back into his stony silence. Carrie is wet-eyed. Kabnis, contemptuous.
Kabnis: So thats your sin. All these years t tell us that th white folks made th Bible lie. Well, I’ll be damned. Lewis ought t have been here. You old black fakir—
Carrie K.: Brother Ralph, is that your best Amen?
She turns him to her and takes his hot cheeks in her firm cool hands. Her palms draw the fever out. With its passing, Kabnis crumples. He sinks to his knees before her, ashamed, exhausted. His eyes squeeze tight. Carrie presses his face tenderly against her. The suffocation of her fresh starched dress feels good to him. Carrie is about to lift her hands in prayer, when Halsey, at the head of the stairs, calls down.
Halsey: Well, well. Whats up? Aint you ever comin? Come on. Whats up down there? Take you all mornin t sleep off a pint? Youre weakenin, man, youre weakenin. Th axle an th beam’s all ready waitin f y. Come on.
Kabnis rises and is going doggedly towards the steps. Carrie notices his robe. She catches up to him, points to it, and helps him take it off. He hangs it, with an exaggerated ceremony, on its nail in the corner. He looks down on the tousled beds. His lips curl bitterly. Turning, he stumbles over the bucket of dead coals. He savagely jerks it from the floor. And then, seeing Carrie’s eyes upon him, he swings the pail carelessly and with eyes downcast and swollen, trudges upstairs to the work-shop. Carrie’s gaze follows him till he is gone. Then she goes to the old man and slips to her knees before him. Her lips murmur, “Jesus, come.”
Light streaks through the iron-barred cellar window. Within its soft circle, the figures of Carrie and Father John.
Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes. The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.