That Evening Sun Goes Down by William Faulkner

That Evening Sun Goes Down by William Faulkner

Monday is no different from any other week day in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and the electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees – the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms – to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially made motor-cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like a tearing of silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white peoples’ washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

But fifteen years ago, on Monday morning the quiet, dusty, shady streets would be full of Negro women with, balanced on their steady turbaned heads, bundles of clothes tied up in sheets, almost as large as cotton bales, carried so without touch of hand between the kitchen door of the white house and the blackened wash-pot beside a cabin door in Negro Hollow.

Nancy would set her bundle on the top of her head, then upon the bundle in turn she would set the black straw sailor hat which she wore winter and summer. She was tall, with a high, sad face sunken a little where her teeth were missing. Sometimes we would go a part of the way down the lane and across the pasture with her, to watch the balanced bundle and the hat that never bobbed nor wavered, even when she walked down into the ditch and climbed out again and stooped through the fence. She would go down on her hands and knees and crawl through the gap, her head rigid, up-tilted, the bundle steady as a rock or a balloon, and rise to her feet and go on.

Sometimes the husbands of the washing women would fetch and deliver the clothes, but Jubah never did that for Nancy, even before father told him to stay away from our house, even when Dilsey was sick and Nancy would come to cook for us.

And then about half the time we’d have to go down the lane to Nancy’s house and tell her to come on and get breakfast. We would stop at the ditch, because father told us to not have anything to do with Jubah – he was a short black man, with a razor scar down his face – and we would throw rocks at Nancy’s house until she came to the door leaning her head around it without any clothes on.

“What yawl mean, chunking my house?” Nancy said. “What you little devils mean?”

“Father says for you to come and get breakfast,” Caddy said. “Father says it’s over a half an hour now, and you’ve got to come this minute.”

“I ain’t studying no breakfast,” Nancy laid. “I going to get my sleep out.”

“I bet you’re drunk,” Jason said. “Father says you’re drunk. Are you drunk, Nancy?”

“Who says I is?” Nancy said. “I got to get my sleep out. I ain’t studying no breakfast.”

So after a while we quit chunking the house and went back home. When she finally came, it was too late for me to go to school.

So we thought it was whiskey until that day when they arrested her again and they were taking her to jail and they passed Mr. Stovall. He was the cashier in the bank and a deacon in the Baptist church, and Nancy began to say:

“When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent-” Mr. Stovall knocked her down, but she kept on saying, “When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since–” until Mr. Stovall kicked her in the mouth with his heel and the marshal caught Mr. Stovall back, and Nancy lying in the street, laughing. She turned her head and spat out some blood and teeth and said, “It’s been three times now since he paid me a cent.”

That was how she lost her teeth, and all that day they told about Nancy and Mr. Stovall, and all that night the ones that passed the jail could hear Nancy singing and yelling. They could see her hands holding to the window bars, and a lot of them stopped along the fence, listening to her and to the jailer trying to make her shut up. She didn’t shut up until just before daylight, when the jailer began to hear a bumping and scraping upstairs and he went up there and found Nancy hanging from the window bar. He said that it was cocaine and not whiskey, because no nigger would try to commit suicide unless he was full of cocaine, because a nigger full of cocaine was not a nigger any longer.

The jailer cut her down and revived her; then he beat her, whipped her. She had hung herself with her dress. She had fixed it all right, but when they arrested her she didn’t have on anything except a dress and so she didn’t have anything to tie her hands with and she couldn’t make her hands let go of the window ledge. So the jailer heard the noise and ran up there and found Nancy hanging from the window, stark naked.

When Dilsey was sick in her cabin and Nancy was cooking for us, we could see her apron swelling out; that was before father told Jubah to stay away from the house. Jubah was in the kitchen, sitting behind the stove, with his razor scar on his black face like a piece of dirty string. He said it was a watermelon Nancy had under her dress. And it was winter, too.

“Where did you get a watermelon in the winter,” Caddy said.

“I didn’t,” Jubah said. “It wasn’t me that give it to her. But I can cut it down, same as if it was.”

“What makes you want to talk that way before these chillen?” Nancy said. “Whyn’t you go on to work? You done et. You want Mr. Jason to catch you hanging around his kitchen, talking that way before these chillen?”

“Talking what way, Nancy?” Caddy said.

“I can’t hang around white man’s kitchen,” Jubah said. “But white man can hang around mine. White man can come in my house, but I can’t stop him. When white man want to come in my house, I ain’t got no house. I can’t stop him, but he can’t kick me outen it. He can’t do that.”

Dilsey was still sick in her cabin. Father told Jubah to stay off our place. Dilsey was still sick. It was a long time. We were in the library after supper.

“Isn’t Nancy through yet?” mother said. “It seems to me that she has had plenty of time to have finished the dishes.”

“Let Quentin go and see,” father said. “Go and see if Nancy is through, Quentin. Tell her she can go on home.”

I went to the kitchen. Nancy was through. The dishes were put away and the fire was out. Nancy was sitting in a chair, close to the cold stove. She looked at me.

“Mother wants to know if you are through,” I said.

“Yes,” Nancy said. She looked at me. “I done finished.” She looked at me.

“What is it?” I said. What is it?”

“I ain’t nothing but a nigger,” Nancy said. “It ain’t none of my fault.”

She looked at me, sitting in the chair before the cold stove, the sailor hat on her head. I went back to the library. It was the cold stove and all, when you think of a kitchen being warm and busy and cheerful. And with a cold stove and the dishes all put away, and nobody wanting to eat at that hour.

“Is she through?” mother said.

“Yessum,” I said.

“What is she doing?” mother said.

“She’s not doing anything. She’s through.”

“I’ll go and see,” father said.

“Maybe she’s waiting for Jubah to come and take her home,” Caddy said.

“Jubah is gone,” I said. Nancy told us how one morning she woke up and Jubah was gone.

“He quit me,” Nancy said. “Done gone to Memphis, I reckon. Dodging them city po-lice for a while, I reckon.”

“And a good riddance,” father said. “I hope he stays there.”

“Nancy’s scaired of the dark,” Jason said.

“So are you,” Caddy said.

“I’m not,” Jason said.

“Scairy cat,” Caddy said.

“I’m not,” Jason said.

“You, Candace!” mother said. Father came back.

“I am going to walk down the lane with Nancy,” he said. “She says Jubah is back.”

“Has she seen him?” mother said.

“No. Some Negro sent her word that he was back in town. I won’t be long.”

“You’ll leave me alone, to take Nancy home?” mother said. “Is her safety more precious to you than mine?”

“I won’t be long,” father said.

“You’ll leave these children unprotected, with that Negro about?”

“I’m going, too,” Caddy said. “Let me go, father.”

“What would he do with them, if he were unfortunate enough to have them?” father said.

“I want to go, too,” Jason said.

“Jason!” mother said. She was speaking to father. You could tell that by the way she said it. Like she believed that all day father had been trying to think of doing the thing that she wouldn’t like the most, and that she knew all the time that after a while he would think of it. I stayed quiet, because father and I both knew that mother would want him to make me stay with her, if she just thought of it in time. So father didn’t look at me. I was the oldest. I was nine and Caddy was seven and Jason was five.

“Nonsense,” father said. “We won’t be long.”

Nancy had her hat on. We came to the lane. “Jubah always been good to me,” Nancy said. “Whenever he had two dollars, one of them was mine.” We walked in the lane. “If I can just get through the lane,” Nancy said, “I be all right then.”

The lane was always dark. “This is where Jason got scared on Hallowe’en,” Caddy said.

“I didn’t,” Jason said.

“Can’t Aunt Rachel do anything with him?” father said. Aunt Rachel was old. She lived in a cabin beyond Nancy’s, by herself. She had white hair and she smoked a pipe in the door, all day long; she didn’t work any more. They said she was Jubah’s mother. Sometimes she said she was and sometimes she said she wasn’t any kin to Jubah.

“Yes, you did,” Caddy said. “You were scairder than Frony. You were scairder than T.P. even. Scairder than niggers.”

“Can’t nobody do nothing with him,” Nancy said. “He say I done woke up the devil in him, and ain’t but one thing going to lay it again.”

“Well, he’s gone now,” father said. “There’s nothing for you to be afraid of now. And if you’d just let white men alone.”

“Let what white men alone?” Caddy said. “How let them alone?”

“He ain’t gone nowhere,” Nancy said. “I can feel him. I can feel him now, in this lane. He hearing us talk, every word, hid somewhere, waiting. I ain’t seen him, and I ain’t going to see him again but once more, with that razor. That razor on that string down his back, inside his shirt. And then I ain’t going to be even surprised.”

“I wasn’t scaired,” Jason said.

“If you’d behave yourself, you’d have kept out of this,” father said. “But it’s all right now. He’s probably in St. Louis now. Probably got another wife by now and forgot all about you.”

“If he has, I better not find out about it,” Nancy said. “I’d stand there and every time he wropped her, I’d cut that arm off. I’d cut his head off and I’d slit her belly and I’d shove-”

“Hush,” father said.

“Slit whose belly, Nancy?” Caddy said.

“I wasn’t scared,” Jason said. “I’d walk right down this lane by myself.”

“Yah,” Caddy said. “You wouldn’t dare to put your foot in it if we were not with you.”

 

II

Dilsey was still sick, and so we took Nancy home every night until mother said, “How much longer is this going to go on? I to be left alone in this big house while you take home a frightened Negro?”

We fixed a pallet in the kitchen for Nancy. One night we waked up, hearing the sound. It was not singing and it was not crying, coming up the dark stairs. There was a light in mother’s room and we heard father going down the hall, down the back stairs, and Caddy and I went into the hall. The floor was cold. Our toes curled away from the floor while we listened to the sound. It was like singing and it wasn’t like singing, like the sounds that Negroes make.

Then it stopped and we heard father going down the back stairs, and we went to the head of the stairs. Then the sound began again, in the stairway, not loud, and we could see Nancy’s eyes half way up the stairs, against the wall. They looked like cat’s eyes do, like a big cat against the wall, watching us. When we came down the steps to where she was she quit making the sound again, and we stood there until father came back up from the kitchen, with his pistol in his hand. He went back down with Nancy and they came back with Nancy’s pallet.

We spread the pallet in our room. After the light in mother’s room went off, we could see Nancy’s eyes again. “Nancy,” Caddy whispered, “are you asleep, Nancy?”

Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no, I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stair that they had got printed on my eyelids, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun. “Jesus,” Nancy whispered. “Jesus.”

“Was it Jubah?” Caddy whispered. “Did he try to come into the kitchen?”

“Jesus,” Nancy said. Like this: Jeeeeee- eeeeeeeeesus, until the sound went out like a match or a candle does.

“Can you see us, Nancy?” Caddy whispered. “Can you see our eyes too?”

“I ain’t nothing but a nigger,” Nancy said. “God knows. God knows.”

“What did you see down there in the kitchen?” Caddy whispered. “What tried to get in?”

“God knows,” Nancy said. We could see her eyes. “God knows.”

Dilsey got well. She cooked dinner. “You’d better stay in bed a day or two longer,” father said.

“What for?” Dilsey said. “If I had been a day later, this place would be to rack and ruin. Get on out of here, now, and let me get my kitchen straight again.”

Dilsey cooked supper, too. And that night, just before dark, Nancy came into the kitchen.

“How do you know he’s back?” Dilsey said. “You ain’t seen him.”

“Jubah is a nigger,” Jason said.

“I can feel him,” Nancy said. “I can feel him laying yonder in the ditch.”

“Tonight?” Dilsey said. “Is he there tonight?”

“Dilsey’s a nigger too,” Jason said.

“You try to eat something,” Dilsey said.

“I don’t want nothing,” Nancy said.

“I ain’t a nigger,” Jason said.

“Drink some coffee,” Dilsey said. She poured a cup of coffee for Nancy. “Do you know he’s out there tonight? How come you know it’s tonight?”

“I know,” Nancy said. “He’s there, waiting. I know. I done lived with him too long. I know what he fixing to do fore he knows it himself.”

“Drink some coffee,” Dilsey said. Nancy held the cup to her mouth and blew into the cup. Her mouth pursed out like a spreading adder’s, like a rubber mouth, like she had blown all the color out of her lips with blowing the coffee.

“I ain’t a nigger,” Jason said. “Are you a nigger, Nancy?”

“I hell-born, child,” Nancy said. “I won’t be nothing soon. I going back where I come from soon.”

She began to drink the coffee. While she was drinking, holding the cup in both hands, she began to make the sound again. She made the sound into the cup and the coffee sploshed out on to her hands and her dress. Her eyes looked at us and she sat there, her elbows on her knees, holding the cup in both hands, looking at us across the wet cup, makin the sound.

“Look at Nancy,” Jason said. “Nancy can’t cook for us now. Dilsey’s got well now.”

“You hush up,” Dilsey said. Nancy held the cup in both hands, looking at us, making the sound, like there were two of them: one looking at us and the other making the sound. “Whyn’t you let Mr. Jason telefoam the marshal?” Dilsey said. Nancy stopped then, holding the cup in her long brown hands. She tried to drink some coffee again, but it sploshed out of the cup, on to her hands and her dress and she put the cup down. Jason watched her.

“I can’t swallow it,” Nancy said. “I swallows but it won’t go down me.”

“You go down to the cabin,” Dilsey said. “Frony will fix you a pallet and I’ll be there soon.”

“Won’t no nigger stop him,” Nancy said.

“I ain’t a nigger,” Jason said. “Am I, Dilsey?”

“I reckon not,” Dilsey said. She looked at Nancy. “I don’t reckon so. What you going to do, then?”

Nancy looked at us. Her eyes went fast, like she was afraid there wasn’t time to look, without hardly moving at all. She looked at us, at all three of us at one time. “You member that night I stayed in yawls’ room?” she said. She told about how we waked up early the next morning, and played. We had to play quiet, on her pallet, until father woke and it was time for her to go down and get breakfast. “Go and ask you maw to let me stay here tonight,” Nancy said. “I won’t need no pallet. We can play some more,” she said.

Caddy asked mother. Jason went too. “I can’t have Negroes sleeping in the house,” mother said. Jason cried. He cried until mother said he couldn’t have any dessert for three days if he didn’t stop. Then Jason said he would stop if Dilsey would make a chocolate cake. Father was there.

“Why don’t you do something about it?” mother said. “What do we have officers for?”

“Why is Nancy afraid of Jubah?” Caddy said. “Are you afraid of father, mother?”

“What could they do?” father said. “If Nancy hasn’t seen him, how could the officers find him?”

“Then why is she afraid?” mother said.

“She says he is there. She says she knows he is there tonight.”

“Yet we pay taxes,” mother said. “I must wait here alone in this big house while you take a Negro woman home.”

“You know that I am not lying outside with a razor,” father said.

“I’ll stop if Dilsey will make a chocolate cake,” Jason said. Mother told us to go out and father said he didn’t know if Jason would get a chocolate cake or not, but he knew what Jason was going to get in about a minute. We went back to the kitchen and told Nancy.

“Father said for you to go home and lock the door, and you’ll be all right,” Caddy said. “All right from what, Nancy? Is Jubah mad at you?” Nancy was holding the coffee cup in her hands, her elbow on her knees and her hands holding the cup between her knees. She was looking into the cup. “What have you done that made Jubah mad?” Caddy said. Nancy let the cup go. It didn’t break on the floor, but the coffee spilled out, and Nancy sat there with her hands making the shape of the cup. She began to make the sound again, not loud. Not singing and not un-singing. We watched her.

“Here,” Dilsey said. “You quit that, now. You get a-holt of yourself. You wait here. I going to get Versh to walk home with you.” Dilsey went out.

We looked at Nancy. Her shoulders kept shaking, but she had quit making the sound. We watched her. “What’s Jubah going to do to you?” Caddy said. “He went away.”

Nancy looked at us. “We had fun that night I stayed in yawls’ room, didn’t we?”

“I didn’t,” Jason said. “I didn’t have any fun.”

“You were asleep,” Caddy said. “You were not there.”

“Let’s go down to my house and have some more fun,” Nancy said.

“Mother won’t let us,” I said. “It’s too late now.”

“Don’t bother her,” Nancy said. “We can tell her in the morning. She won’t mind.”

“She wouldn’t let us,” I said.

“Don’t ask her now,” Nancy said. “Don’t bother her now.”

“They didn’t say we couldn’t go,” Caddy said.

“We didn’t ask,” I said.

“If you go, I’ll tell,” Jason said.

“We’ll have fun,” Nancy said. “They won’t mind, just to my house. I been working for yawl a long time. They won’t mind.”

“I’m not afraid to go,” Caddy said. “Jason is the one that’s afraid. He’ll tell.”

“I’m not,” Jason said.

“You are,” Caddy said. “You’ll tell.”

“I won’t tell,” Jason said. “I’m not afraid.”

“Jason ain’t afraid to go with me,” Nancy said. “Is you, Jason?”

“Jason is going to tell,” Caddy said. The lane was dark. We passed the pasture gate. “I bet if something was to jump out from behind that gate, Jason would holler.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jason said. We walked down the lane. Nancy was talking loud.

“What are you talking so loud for, Nancy?” Caddy said.

“Who; me?” Nancy said. “Listen at Quentin and Caddy and Jason saying I’m talking loud.”

“You talk like there was four of us here,” Caddy said. “You talk like father was here too.”

“Who; me talking loud, Mr. Jason?” Nancy said.

“Nancy called Jason `Mister’,” Caddy said.

“Listen how Caddy and Quentin and Jason talk,” Nancy said.

“We’re not talking loud,” Caddy said. “You’re the one that’s talking like father– ”

“Hush,” Nancy said; “hush, Mr. Jason.”

“Nancy called Jason `Mister’ aguh–”

“Hush,” Nancy said. She was talking loud when we crossed the ditch and stooped through the fence where she used to stoop through with the clothes on her head. Then we came to her house. We were going fast then. She opened the door. The smell of the house was like the lamp and the smell of Nancy was like the wick, like they were waiting for one another to smell. She lit the lamp and closed the door and put the bar up. Then she quit talking loud, looking at us.

“What’re we going to do?” Caddy said.

“What you all want to do?” Nancy said.

“You said we would have some fun,” Caddy said.

There was something about Nancy’s house; something you could smell. Jason smelled it, even. “I don’t want to stay here,” he said. “I want to go home.”

“Go home, then,” Caddy said.

“I don’t want to go by myself,” Jason said.

“We’re going to have some fun,” Nancy said.

“How?” Caddy said.

Nancy stood by the door. She was looking at us, only it was like she had emptied her eyes, like she had quit using them.

“What do you want to do?” she said.

“Tell us a story,” Caddy said. “Can you tell a story?”

“Yes,” Nancy said.

“Tell it,” Caddy said. We looked at Nancy. “You don’t know any stories,” Caddy said.

“Yes,” Nancy said. “Yes I do.”

She came and sat down in a chair before the hearth. There was some fire there; she built it up; it was already hot. You didn’t need a fire. She built a good blaze. She told a story. She talked like her eyes looked, like her eyes watching us and her voice talking to us did not belong to her. Like she was living somewhere else, waiting somewhere else. She was outside the house. Her voice was there and the shape of her, the Nancy that could stoop under the fence with the bundle of clothes balanced as though without weight, like a balloon, on her head, was there. But that was all. “And so this here queen come walking up to the ditch, where that bad man was hiding. She was walking up the ditch, and she say, `If I can just get past this here ditch,’ was what she say . . . .”

“What ditch?” Caddy said. “A ditch like that one out there? Why did the queen go into the ditch?”

“To get to her house,” Nancy said. She looked at us. “She had to cross that ditch to get home.”

“Why did she want to go home?” Caddy said.

 

III

Nancy looked at us. She quit talking. She looked at us. Jason’s legs stuck straight out of his pants, because he was little. “I don’t think that’s a good story,” he said. “I want to go home.”

“Maybe we had better,” Caddy said. She got up from the floor. “I bet they are looking for us right now.” She went toward the door.

“No,” Nancy said. “Don’t open it.” She got up quick and passed Caddy. She didn’t touch the door, the wooden bar.

“Why not?” Caddy said.

“Come back to the lamp,” Nancy said. “We’ll have fun. You don’t have to go.”

“We ought to go,” Caddy said. “Unless we have a lot of fun.” She and Nancy came back to the fire, the lamp.

“I want to go home,” Jason said. “I’m going to tell.”

“I know another story,” Nancy said. She stood close to the lamp. She looked at Caddy, like when your eyes look up at a stick balanced on your nose. She had to look down to see Caddy, but her eyes looked like that, like when you are balancing a stick.

“I won’t listen to it,” Jason said. “I’ll bang on the floor.”

“It’s a good one,” Nancy said. “It’s better than the other one.”

“What’s it about?” Caddy said. Nancy was standing by the lamp. Her hand was on the lamp, against the light, long and brown.

“Your hand is on that hot globe,” Caddy said. “Don’t it feel hot to your hand?”

Nancy looked at her hand on the lamp chimney. She took her hand away, slow. She stood there, looking at Caddy, wringing her long hand as though it were tied to her wrist with a string.

“Let’s do something else,” Caddy said.

“I want to go home,” Jason said.

“I got some popcorn,” Nancy said. She looked at Caddy and then at Jason and then at me and then at Caddy again. “I got some popcorn.”

“I don’t like popcorn,” Jason said. “I’d rather have candy.”

Nancy looked at Jason. “You can hold the popper.” She was still wringing her hand; it was long and limp and brown.

“All right,” Jason said. “I’ll stay a while if I can do that. Caddy can’t hold it. I’ll want to go home, if Caddy holds the popper.”

Nancy built up the fire. “Look at Nancy putting her hands in the fire,” Caddy said. “What’s the matter with you, Nancy?”

“I got popcorn,” Nancy said. “I got some.” She took the popper from under the bed. It was broken. Jason began to cry.

“We can’t have any popcorn,” he said.

“We ought to go home, anyway,” Caddy said. “Come on, Quentin.”

“Wait,” Nancy said; “wait. I can fix it. Don’t you want to help me fix it?”

“I don’t think I want any,” Caddy said. “It’s too late now.”

“You help me, Jason,” Nancy said. “Don’t you want to help me?”

“No,” Jason said. “I want to go home.”

“Hush,” Nancy said; “hush. Watch. Watch me. I can fix it so Jason can hold it and pop the corn.” She got a piece of wire and fixed the popper.

“It won’t hold good,” Caddy said.

“Yes it will,” Nancy said. “Yawl watch. Yawl help me shell the corn.”

The corn was under the bed too. We shelled it into the popper and Nancy helped Jason hold the popper over the fire.

“It’s not popping,” Jason said. “I want to go home.”

“You wait,” Nancy said. “It’ll begin to pop. We’ll have fun then.” She was sitting close to the fire. The lamp was turned up so high it was beginning to smoke.

“Why don’t you turn it down some?” I said.

“It’s all right,” Nancy said. “I’ll clean it. Yawl wait. The popcorn will start in a minute.”

“I don’t believe it’s going to start,” Caddy said. “We ought to go home, anyway. They’ll be worried.”

“No,” Nancy said. “It’s going to pop. Dilsey will tell um yawl with me. I been working for yawl long time. They won’t mind if you at my house. You wait, now. It’ll start popping in a minute.”

Then Jason got some smoke in his eyes and he began to cry. He dropped the popper into the fire. Nancy got a wet rag and wiped Jason’s face, but he didn’t stop crying.

“Hush,” she said. “Hush.” He didn’t hush. Caddy took the popper out of the fire.

“It’s burned up,” she said. “You’1l have to get some more popcorn, Nancy.”

“Did you put all of it in?” Nancy said.

“Yes,” Caddy said. Nancy looked at Caddy. Then she took the popper and opened it and poured the blackened popcorn into her apron and began to sort the grains, her hands long and brown, and we watching her.

“Haven’t you got any more?” Caddy said.

“Yes,” Nancy said; “yes. Look. This here ain’t burnt. All we need to do is–”

“I want to go home,” Jason said. “I’m going to tell.”

“Hush,” Caddy said. We all listened. Nancy’s head was already turned toward the barred door, her eyes filled with rep lamplight. “Somebody is coming,” Caddy said.

Then Nancy began to make that sound again, not loud, sitting there above the fire, her long hands dangling between her knees; all of a sudden water began to come out on her face in big drops, running down her face, carrying in each on a little turning ball of firelight until it dropped off her chin.

“She’s not crying,” I said.

“I ain’t crying,” Nancy said. Her eyes were closed, “I ain’t crying. Who is it?”

“I don’t know,” Caddy said. She went the door and looked out. “We’ve got to go home now,” she said. “Here comes father.”

“I’m going to tell,” Jason said. “You all made me come.”

The water still ran down Nancy’s face. She turned in her chair. “Listen. Tell him. Tell him we going to have fun. Tell him I take good care of yawl until in the morning. Tell him to let me come home with yawl and sleep on the floor. Tell him I won’t need no pallet. We’ll have fun. You remember last time how we had so much fun?”

“I didn’t have any fun,” Jason said. “You hurt me. You put smoke in my eyes.

 

IV

Father came in. He looked at us. Nancy did not get up.

“Tell him,” she said.

“Caddy made us come down here,” Jason said. “I didn’t want to.”

Father came to the fire. Nancy looked up at him. “Can’t you go to Aunt Rachel’s and stay?” he said. Nancy looked up at father, her hands between knees. “He’s not here,” father said. “I would have seen. There wasn’t a soul in sight.”

“He in the ditch,” Nancy said. “He waiting in the ditch yonder.”

“Nonsense,” father said. He looked at Nancy. “Do you know he’s there?”

“I got the sign,” Nancy said.

“What sign?”

“I got it. It was on the table when I come in. It was a hog bone, with blood meat still on it, laying by the lamp. He’s out there. When yawl walk out that door, I gone.”

“Who’s gone, Nancy?” Caddy said.

“I’m not a tattletale,” Jason said.

“Nonsense,” father said.

“He out there,” Nancy said. “He looking through that window this minute, waiting for yawl to go. Then I gone.”

“Nonsense,” father said. “Lock up your house and we’ll take you on to Aunt Rachel’s.”

“‘Twon’t do no good,” Nancy said. She didn’t look at father now, but he looked down at her, at her long, limp, moving hands.

“Putting it off won’t do no good.”

“Then what do you want to do?” father said.

“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “I can’t do nothing. Just put it off. And that don’t do no good. I reckon it belong to me. I reckon what I going to get ain’t no more than mine.”

“Get what?” Caddy said. “What’s yours?”

“Nothing,” father said. You all must get to bed.”

“Caddy made me come,” Jason said.

“Go on to Aunt Rachel’s,” father said.

“It won’t do no good,” Nancy said. She sat before the fire, her elbows on her knees, her long hands between her knees. “When even your own kitchen wouldn’t do no good. When even if I was sleeping on the floor in the room with your own children, and the next morning there I am, and blood all–”

“Hush,” father said. “Lock the door and put the lamp out and go to bed.”

“I scared of the dark,” Nancy said. “I scared for it to happen in the dark.”

“You mean you’re going to sit right here, with the lamp lighted?” father said. Then Nancy began to make the sound again, sitting before the fire, her long hands between her knees. “Ah, damnation,” father said. “Come along, chillen. It’s bedtime.”

“When yawl go, I gone,” Nancy said. “I be dead tomorrow. I done had saved up the coffin money with Mr. Lovelady– ”

Mr. Lovelady was a short, dirty man who collected the Negro insurance, coming around to the cabins and the kitchens every Saturday morning, to collect fifteen cents. He and his wife lived in the hotel. One morning his wife committed suicide. They had a child, a little girl. After his wife committed suicide Mr. Lovelady and the child went away. After a while Mr. Lovelady came back. We would see him going down the lanes on Saturday morning to the Baptist church.

Father carried Jason on his back. We went out Nancy’s door; she was sitting before the fire. “Come and put the bar up,” father said. Nancy didn’t move. She didn’t look at us again. We left her there, sitting before the fire with the door opened, so it wouldn’t happen in the dark.

“What, father?” Caddy said. “Why is Nancy scared of Jubah? What is Jubah going to do to her?”

“Jubah wasn’t there,” Jason said.

“No,” father said. “He’s not there. He’s gone away.”

“Who is it that’s waiting in the ditch?” Caddy said. We looked at the ditch. We came to it, where the path went down into the thick vines and went up again.

“Nobody,” father said.

There was just enough moon to see by. The ditch was vague, thick, quiet. “If he’s there, he can see us, can’t he?” Caddy said.

“You made me come,” Jason said on father’s back. “I didn’t want to.”

The ditch was quite still, quite empty, massed with honeysuckle. We couldn’t see Jubah, any more than we could see Nancy sitting there in her house, with the door open and the lamp burning, because she didn’t want it to happen in the dark. “I done got tired,” Nancy said. “I just a nigger. It ain’t no fault of mine.”

But we could still hear her. She began as soon as we were out of the house, sitting there above the fire, her long brown hands between her knees. We could still hear her when we had crossed the ditch, Jason high and close and little about father’s head.

Then we had crossed the ditch, walking out of Nancy’s life. Then her life was sitting there with the door open and the lamp lit, waiting, and the ditch between us and us going on, dividing the impinged lives of us and Nancy.

“Who will do our washing now, father?” I said.

“I’m not a nigger,” Jason said.

“You’re worse,” Caddy said, “you are a tattletale. If something was to jump out, you’d be scairder than a nigger.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jason said.

“You’d cry,” Caddy said.

“Caddy!” father said.

“I wouldn’t,” Jason said.

“Scairy cat,” Caddy said.

“Candace!” father said.

The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Monday or Tuesday. 1921.

8. The Mark on the Wall

PERHAPS it was the middle of January in the present that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw. So now I think of the fire; the steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece. Yes, it must have been the winter time, and we had just finished our tea, for I remember that I was smoking a cigarette when I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time. I looked up through the smoke of my cigarette and my eye lodged for a moment upon the burning coals, and that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping from the castle tower came into my mind, and I thought of the cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of the black rock. Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps. The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece. 1
How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it…. If that mark was made by a nail, it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature—the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way—an old picture for an old room. That is the sort of people they were—very interesting people, and I think of them so often, in such queer places, because one will never see them again, never know what happened next. They wanted to leave this house because they wanted to change their style of furniture, so he said, and he was in process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train. 2
But as for that mark, I’m not sure about it; I don’t believe it was made by a nail after all; it’s too big, too round, for that. I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain; because once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened. Oh! dear me, the mystery of life; The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! To show how very little control of our possessions we have—what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization—let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses—what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble—three pale blue canisters of book-binding tools? Then there were the bird cages, the iron hoops, the steel skates, the Queen Anne coal-scuttle, the bagatelle board, the hand organ—all gone, and jewels, too. Opals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips. What a scraping paring affair it is to be sure! The wonder is that I’ve any clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment. Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard…. 3
But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants? As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things, that one won’t be in a condition to do for fifty years or so. There will be nothing but spaces of light and dark, intersected by thick stalks, and rather higher up perhaps, rose-shaped blots of an indistinct colour—dim pinks and blues—which will, as time goes on, become more definite, become—I don’t know what…. 4
And yet that mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance, such as a small rose leaf, left over from the summer, and I, not being a very vigilant housekeeper—look at the dust on the mantelpiece, for example, the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe. 5
The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane…. I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes…. Shakespeare…. Well, he will do as well as another. A man who sat himself solidly in an arm-chair, and looked into the fire, so— A shower of ideas fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind. He leant his forehead on his hand, and people, looking in through the open door,—for this scene is supposed to take place on a summer’s evening—But how dull this is, this historical fiction! It doesn’t interest me at all. I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises. They are not thoughts directly praising oneself; that is the beauty of them; they are thoughts like this: 6
“And then I came into the room. They were discussing botany. I said how I’d seen a flower growing on a dust heap on the site of an old house in Kingsway. The seed, I said, must have been sown in the reign of Charles the First. What flowers grew in the reign of Charles the First?” I asked—(but, I don’t remember the answer). Tall flowers with purple tassels to them perhaps. And so it goes on. All the time I’m dressing up the figure of myself in my own mind, lovingly, stealthily, not openly adoring it, for if I did that, I should catch myself out, and stretch my hand at once for a book in self-protection. Indeed, it is curious how instinctively one protects the image of oneself from idolatry or any other handling that could make it ridiculous, or too unlike the original to be believed in any longer. Or is it not so very curious after all? It is a matter of great importance. Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people—what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted, as the Greeks did and Shakespeare perhaps—but these generalizations are very worthless. The military sound of the word is enough. It recalls leading articles, cabinet ministers—a whole class of things indeed which as a child one thought the thing itself, the standard thing, the real thing, from which one could not depart save at the risk of nameless damnation. Generalizations bring back somehow Sunday in London, Sunday afternoon walks, Sunday luncheons, and also ways of speaking of the dead, clothes, and habits—like the habit of sitting all together in one room until a certain hour, although nobody liked it. There was a rule for everything. The rule for tablecloths at that particular period was that they should be made of tapestry with little yellow compartments marked upon them, such as you may see in photographs of the carpets in the corridors of the royal palaces. Tablecloths of a different kind were not real tablecloths. How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom. What now takes the place of those things I wonder, those real standard things? Men perhaps, should you be a woman; the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war half a phantom to many men and women, which soon—one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists…. 7
In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall. Nor is it entirely circular. I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus, a smooth tumulus like those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, either tombs or camps. Of the two I should prefer them to be tombs, desiring melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf…. There must be some book about it. Some antiquary must have dug up those bones and given them a name…. What sort of a man is an antiquary, I wonder? Retired Colonels for the most part, I daresay, leading parties of aged labourers to the top here, examining clods of earth and stone, and getting into correspondence with the neighbouring clergy, which, being opened at breakfast time, gives them a feeling of importance, and the comparison of arrow-heads necessitates cross-country journeys to the county towns, an agreeable necessity both to them and to their elderly wives, who wish to make plum jam or to clean out the study, and have every reason for keeping that great question of the camp or the tomb in perpetual suspension, while the Colonel himself feels agreeably philosophic in accumulating evidence on both sides of the question. It is true that he does finally incline to believe in the camp; and, being opposed, indites a pamphlet which he is about to read at the quarterly meeting of the local society when a stroke lays him low, and his last conscious thoughts are not of wife or child, but of the camp and that arrowhead there, which is now in the case at the local museum, together with the foot of a Chinese murderess, a handful of Elizabethan nails, a great many Tudor clay pipes, a piece of Roman pottery, and the wine-glass that Nelson drank out of—proving I really don’t know what. 8
No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known. And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really—what shall we say?—-the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago, which has now, owing to the patient attrition of many generations of housemaids, revealed its head above the coat of paint, and is taking its first view of modern life in the sight of a white-walled fire-lit room, what should I gain?— Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars? And the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle and our respect for beauty and health of mind increases…. Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs…. How peaceful it is drown here, rooted in the centre of the world and gazing up through the grey waters, with their sudden gleams of light, and their reflections—if it were not for Whitaker’s Almanack—if it were not for the Table of Precedency! 9
I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is—a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood? 10
Here is nature once more at her old game of self-preservation. This train of thought, she perceives, is threatening mere waste of energy, even some collision with reality, for who will ever be able to lift a finger against Whitaker’s Table of Precedency? The Archbishop of Canterbury is followed by the Lord High Chancellor; the Lord High Chancellor is followed by the Archbishop of York. Everybody follows somebody, such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom. Whitaker knows, and let that, so Nature counsels, comfort you, instead of enraging you; and if you can’t be comforted, if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall. 11
I understand Nature’s game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain. Hence, I suppose, comes our slight contempt for men of action—men, we assume, who don’t think. Still, there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall. 12
Indeed, now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel that I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality which at once turns the two Archbishops and the Lord High Chancellor to the shadows of shades. Here is something definite, something real. Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of…. Wood is a pleasant thing to think about. It comes from a tree; and trees grow, and we don’t know how they grow. For years and years they grow, without paying any attention to us, in meadows, in forests, and by the side of rivers—all things one likes to think about. The cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again. I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out; and of water-beetles slowly raiding domes of mud upon the bed of the river. I like to think of the tree itself:—first the close dry sensation of being wood; then the grinding of the storm; then the slow, delicious ooze of sap. I like to think of it, too, on winter’s nights standing in the empty field with all leaves close-furled, nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon, a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long. The song of birds must sound very loud and strange in June; and how cold the feet of insects must feel upon it, as they make laborious progresses up the creases of the bark, or sun themselves upon the thin green awning of the leaves, and look straight in front of them with diamond-cut red eyes…. One by one the fibres snap beneath the immense cold pressure of the earth, then the last storm comes and, falling, the highest branches drive deep into the ground again. Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree. I should like to take each one separately—but something is getting in the way…. Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying— 13
“I’m going out to buy a newspaper.” 14
“Yes?” 15
“Though it’s no good buying newspapers…. Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!… All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.” 16
Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.