Read an Excerpt
BROWNFIELD STOOD CLOSE to his mother in the yard, not taking his eyes off the back of the receding automobile. His Uncle Silas slowed the car as it got to a place where a pointed rock jutted up out of the road: a week before he had busted an oil pan there. Once past this spot, which he had cursed as he passed to and fro over it during the week, he stuck out his arm and waved jauntily back at them. Brownfield waved sadly, his eyes blurred with tears. His Aunt Marilyn, not visible through the rear window of the car, waved a dainty blue handkerchief from her front window. It fluttered merrily like a pennant. Brownfield's cousins had their faces pressed to the rear window, and their delicate, hard-to-see hands flopped monotonously up and down. They were tired of waving, for they had been waving good-bye since they finished breakfast.
The automobile was a new 1920 Buick, long and high and shiny green with great popping headlights like the eyes of a frog. Inside the car it was all blue, with seats that were fuzzy and soft. Slender silver handles opened the doors and rolled the astonishingly clear windows up and down. As it bumped over the road its canvas top was scratched by low elm branches. Brownfield felt embarrassed about the bad road and the damage it did to his uncle's car. Uncle Silas loved his car and had spent all morning washing it, polishing the wheel spokes and dusting off the running board. Now it bounced over gullies and potholes in the road, tossing Uncle Silas and his wife and children up in the air and slamming them down again. Brownfield sighed as the sound of metal against rock reached his ears. The road was for mules, wagons and bare feet only.
"A wagon'd be easier," said his father.
"But not nearly 'bout as grand as that." His mother looked after the car without envy, but wistfully.
Brownfield watched the automobile as it turned a curve and was finally out of sight. Then he watched the last of the dust settle. Already he missed his cousins, although they made him feel dumb for never having seen a picture show and for never having seen houses stacked one on top of the other until they nearly reached the sky. They had stayed a week and got over being impressed by his small knowledge of farming the first day. He showed them how to milk the cow, how to feed the pigs, how to find chickens' eggs; but the next day they had bombarded him with talk about automobiles and street lights and paved walks and trash collectors and about something they had ridden in once in a department store that went up, up, up from one floor to the next without anybody walking a step. He had been dazzled by this information and at last overwhelmed. They taunted him because he lived in the country and never saw anything or went anywhere. They told him that his father worked for a cracker and that the cracker owned him. They told him that their own daddy, his Uncle Silas, had gone to Philadelphia to be his own boss. They told him that his mother wanted to leave his father and go North to Philadelphia with them. They said that his mother wanted him, Brownfield, to go to school, and that she was tired of his father and wanted to leave him anyway. His cousins told Brownfield this and much more. They bewildered, excited and hurt him. Still, he missed them; they were from a world he had never seen. Now that they were gone he felt the way he usually felt only in winter, never in June; as if he were waiting for something to happen that would take a very long time to come.
"I wish we lived in Philydelphia," he said.
"Well, we don't." That was his father.
Brownfield looked at Grange with surprise. His father almost never spoke to him unless they had company. Even then he acted as if talking to his son was a strain, a burdensome requirement.
"Uncle Silas like to talk about his automobile," said Brownfield, his lips bumbling over the word. It was his uncle's word, a city word. In the country they always said car. Some people still called them buggies, as if they could not get used to a conveyance that did not use horses.
"I wish we had a automobile like that!"
"Well, we don't."
"No, we don't," said Margaret.
Brownfield frowned. His mother agreed with his father whenever possible. And though he was only ten Brownfield wondered about this. He thought his mother was like their dog in some ways. She didn't have a thing to say that did not in some way show her submission to his father.
"We ought to be thankful we got a roof over our heads and three meals a day."
It was actually more like one meal a day. His mother smiled at Brownfield, one of her rare sudden smiles that lit up her smooth, heart-shaped face. Her skin was rich brown with a creamy reddish sheen. Her teeth were small and regular and her breath was always sweet with a milky cleanness. Brownfield had hands like hers, long, thin aristocratic hands, with fingers meant for jewels. His mother had no wedding ring, however.
Brownfield listened to the familiar silence around him. Their house was at the end of the long rugged road that gave his uncle's car so much trouble. This road looked to be no more than a track where it branched off from the main road, which was of smoothly scraped dirt. The road scraper, a man on a big yellow machine like a tank, never scraped their road, which was why it was so rough and pitted with mud holes when it rained. The house was in a clearing and at the edge of the clearing was forest. Forest full of animals and birds. But they were not large animals or noisy birds and days passed sometimes without a sound and the sky seemed a round blue muffler made of wool.
Brownfield had been born here, in the vast cotton flats of southern Georgia, and had been conscious first of the stifling heat in summer, and then of the long periods of uninterrupted quiet. As a very small child he had scrambled around the clearing alone, chasing lizards and snakes, bearing his cuts and bruises with solemnity until his mother came home at night.
His mother left him each morning with a hasty hug and a sugartit, on which he sucked through wet weather and dry, across the dusty clearing or miry, until she returned. She worked all day pulling baits for ready money. Her legs were always clean when she left home and always coated with mud and slime of baits when she came back. The baits she "pulled" were packed in cans and sold in town to gentlemen who went fishing for the sport of it. His mother had taken Brownfield with her to the bait factory when he was a baby, but he was in the way, and the piles of squirming baits, which were dumped first for sorting on a long table, terrified him. They had looked like a part of the table until one day his mother sat him down near them and he rolled over and became entangled in them. It seemed to him the baits moved with a perfectly horrifying blind wriggling. He had screamed and screamed. His mother was ordered to take him out of there at once and never to bring him back.
At first she left him home in a basket, with his sugartit pressed against his face. He sucked on it all day until it was nothing but a tasteless rag. Then, when he could walk, she left him on the porch steps. In moments of idle sitting he shared the steps with their lean mangy dog. And as the flies buzzed around the whiskered snout of the dog they buzzed around his face. No one was there to shoo them away, or to change the sodden rag that attracted them, and which he wore brownish and damp around his distended waist. For hours he was lost in a dull, weak stupor. His hunger made him move in a daze, his heavy eyes unnaturally bright.
When he was four he was covered with sores. Tetter sores covered his head, eating out his hair in patches the size of quarters. Tomato sores covered his legs up to the knee-when the tomatoes in his mother's garden were ripe he ate nothing but tomatoes all day long-and pus ran from boils that burst under his armpits. His mother washed the sores in bluestone water. Suddenly, out of his days of sitting and of picking the scabs from his sores, there evolved a languid slow order of jobs he had to do. He fed the pigs, brought in wood and led the cow all over the clearing looking for fresh grass. When he was six his mother taught him how to feed and milk the cow. Then he became fond of the calm, slow patience of the cow and loved to catch her rich milk in a tin syrup pail and drink it warm and dribbling down his chin.
His father worked: planting, chopping, poisoning and picking in the cotton field, which ran for half a mile along the main road. Brownfield had worked there too now, for four years, since he was six, in the company of other child workers. His father worked with men and women in another part of the field. The cotton field too was generally silent. The children were too tired to play and were encouraged not to play because of the cotton. The grownups talked softly, intermittently, like the sporadic humming of wasps. The buzz of their conversations became part of the silence, for nothing they said came clearly across the field to where the children worked.
At the end of the day all the workers stopped. There were close to twenty grownups, and each had several children who worked in the children's section of the field. The children's job was to go over the rows their parents had gone over the week before-"scrapping cotton" it was called. When the children saw their parents put down their sacks they came and stood beside them at the edge of the field as all of them waited for the truck to come. Brownfield waited for the truck along with his father. His father never looked at him or acknowledged him in any way, except to lift his sack of cotton to the back of the truck when it arrived. Brownfield was afraid of his father's silence, and his fear reached its peak when the truck came. For when the truck came his father's face froze into an unnaturally bland mask, curious and unsettling to see. It was as if his father became a stone or a robot. A grim stillness settled over his eyes and he became an object, a cipher, something that moved in tense jerks if it moved at all. While the truck stood backed up in the field the workers held their breath. A family of five or six workers would wonder uneasily if they would take home, together, a whole dollar. Some of the workers laughed and joked with the man who drove the truck, but they looked at his shoes and at his pants legs or at his hands, never into his eyes, and their looks were a combination of small sly smiles and cowed, embarrassed desperation.
Brownfield's father had no smiles about him at all. He merely froze; his movements when he had to move to place sacks on the truck were rigid as a machine's. At first Brownfield thought his father was turned to stone by the truck itself. The truck was big and noisy and coldly, militarily gray. Its big wheels flattened the cotton stalks and made deep ruts in the soft dirt of the field. But after watching the loading of the truck for several weeks he realized it was the man who drove the truck who caused his father to don a mask that was more impenetrable than his usual silence. Brownfield looked closely at the man and made a startling discovery; the man was a man, but entirely different from his own father. When he noticed this difference, one of odor and sound and movement and laughter, as well as of color, he wondered how he had not seen it before. But as a small child all men had seemed to merge into one. They were exactly alike, all of them having the same smell, the same feel of muscled hardness when they held him against their bodies, the same disregard for smallness. They took pride only in their own bigness, when they laughed and opened their cavernous mouths, or when they walked in their long fearsome strides or when they stooped from their great height and tossed him about in their arms. Brownfield's immediate horrified reaction to the man who froze his father was that the man had the smooth brownish hair of an animal. Thinking this discovery was the key to his father's icy withdrawal from the man, Brownfield acquired a cold nervousness around him of his own.
Once the man touched him on the hand with the handle of his cane, not hard, and said, with a smell of mint on his breath, "You're Grange Copeland's boy, ain't you?" And Brownfield had answered, "Uh huh," chewing on his lip and recoiling from the enormous pile of gray-black hair that lay matted on the man's upper chest and throat. While he stared at the hair one of the workers-not his father who was standing beside him as if he didn't know he was there-said to him softly, "Say 'Yessir' to Mr. Shipley," and Brownfield looked up before he said anything and scanned his father's face. The mask was as tight and still as if his father had coated himself with wax. And Brownfield smelled for the first time an odor of sweat, fear and something indefinite. Something smothered and tense (which was of his father and of the other workers and not of mint) that came from his father's body. His father said nothing. Brownfield, trembling, said "Yessir," filled with terror of this man who could, by his presence alone, turn his father into something that might as well have been a pebble or a post or a piece of dirt, except for the sharp bitter odor of something whose source was forcibly contained in flesh.
One day not long afterward Grange was drinking quietly at home, stretched out on the porch. Brownfield sat on the porch steps gazing at him, mesmerized by the movement of the bottle going up and down in his father's hand. Grange noticed him looking, and Brownfield was afraid to move away and afraid to stay. When he was drinking his father took every action as a personal affront. He looked at Brownfield and started to speak. His eyes had little yellowand red lines in them like the veins of a leaf. Brownfield leaned nearer. But all his father said was, "I ought to throw you down the goddam well."
Brownfield drew back in alarm, though there was no anger or determination in his father's voice; there was only a rough drunken wistfulness and a weary tremor of pity and regret.
Brownfield had told his cousins about the man, and it was then that they told him how his father was owned and of how their father escaped being owned by moving North. And now they had a nice new car every other year and beautiful plush furniture and their mother didn't pull nasty baits but worked instead for people who owned two houses and a long black car with a man in it dressed in green with gold braid. That man being their father, who had taken them one day for a ride in the car, so they knew what they were talking about. They had played with rich children, and, talking about them to Brownfield, who lived in a house that leaked, they sounded rich as well.
Angeline, his girl cousin, who eavesdropped as a matter of habit, told Brownfield impatiently that she and her brother Lincoln had heard their mother say that Brownfield's family would never amount to anything because they didn't have sense enough to leave Green County, Georgia. It was Angeline who told him that her mother said that Grange was no good; that he had tried to get his wife to "sell herself" to get them out of debt. Brownfield's mother and Angeline's were sisters.
"He even wanted her to sell herself to the man who drives the truck," Angeline lied.
"Or anybody else who'd buy her!" Lincoln said.
Lincoln began to dance around Brownfield. "You all are in debt twelve hundred dollars! And you'll never pay it!"
Angeline sniffed primly with her nose in the air. "My daddy says you'll never pay it 'cause you ain't got no money and your daddy drinks up everything he can get his hands on."
What did "sell" mean when it applied to his mama, Brownfield had wanted to know, but his cousins only giggled and nudged each other gravely but in apparent delight.
For Brownfield his cousins' information was peculiarly ominous. He tried to remember when his father's silence began, for surely there had been a time when his father cooed hopefully to him as he fondled him on his knee. Perhaps, he thought, his father's silence was part of the reason his mother was always submissive to him and why his father was jealous of her and angry if she spoke, just "how're you?" to other men. Maybe he had tried to sell her and she wouldn't be sold-which could be why they were still poor and in debt and would die that way. And maybe his father, who surely would feel bad about trying to sell his wife, became silent and jealous of her, not because of anything she had done, but because of what he had tried to do! Maybe his mother was as scared of Grange as he was, terrified by Grange's tense composure. Perhaps she was afraid he would sell her anyway, whether she wanted to be sold or not. That could be why she jumped to please him.
Brownfield got a headache trying to grasp the meaning of what his cousins told him. The need to comprehend his parents' actions seeped into him with his cousins' laughter. The blood rushed to his head and he was sick. He thought feverishly of how their weeks were spent. Of the heat, the cold, the work, the feeling of desperation behind all the sly small smiles. The feeling of hunger in winter, of bleak unsmiling faces, of eating bark when he was left alone before his mother returned home smelling of baits and manure. Of his mother's soft skin and clean milky breath; of his father's brooding, and of the feeling of an onrushing inevitable knowledge, like a summer storm that comes with high wind and flash flooding, that would smash the silence finally and flatten them all mercilessly to the ground. One day he would know everything and be equal to his cousins and to his father and perhaps even to God.
Their life followed a kind of cycle that depended almost totally on Grange's moods. On Monday, suffering from a hangover and the aftereffects of a violent quarrel with his wife the night before, Grange was morose, sullen, reserved, deeply in pain under the hot early morning sun. Margaret was tense and hard, exceedingly nervous. Brownfield moved about the house like a mouse. On Tuesday, Grange was merely quiet. His wife and son began to relax. On Wednesday, as the day stretched out and the cotton rows stretched out even longer, Grange muttered and sighed. He sat outside in the night air longer before going to bed; he would speak of moving away, of going North. He might even try to figure out how much he owed the man who owned the fields. The man who drove the truck and who owned the shack they occupied. But these activities depressed him, and he said things on Wednesday nights that made his wife cry. By Thursday, Grange's gloominess reached its peak and he grimaced respectfully, with veiled eyes, at the jokes told by the man who drove the truck. On Thursday nights he stalked the house from room to room and pulled himself up and swung from the rafters of the porch. Brownfield could hear his joints creaking against the sounds of the porch, for the whole porch shook when his father swung. By Friday Grange was so stupefied with the work and the sun he wanted nothing but rest the next two days before it started all over again.
On Saturday afternoon Grange shaved, bathed, put on clean overalls and a shirt and took the wagon into town to buy groceries. While he was away his wife washed and straightened her hair. She dressed up and sat, all shining and pretty, in the open door, hoping anxiously for visitors who never came.
Brownfield too was washed and cleanly dressed. He played contentedly in the silent woods and in the clearing. Late Saturday night Grange would come home lurching drunk, threatening to kill his wife and Brownfield, stumbling and shooting off his shotgun. He threatened Margaret and she ran and hid in the woods with Brownfield huddled at her feet. Then Grange would roll out the door and into the yard, crying like a child in big wrenching sobs and rubbing his whole head in the dirt. He would lie there until Sunday morning, when the chickens pecked around him, and the dog sniffed at him and neither his wife nor Brownfield went near him. Brownfield played instead on the other side of the house. Steady on his feet but still ashen by noon, Grange would make his way across the pasture and through the woods, headlong, like a blind man, to the Baptist church, where his voice above all the others was raised in song and prayer. Margaret would be there too, Brownfield asleep on the bench beside her. Back home again after church Grange and Margaret would begin a supper quarrel which launched them into another week just about like the one before.
Brownfield turned from watching the road and looked withhateful scrutiny at the house they lived in. It was a cabin of two rooms with a brick chimney at one end. The roof was of rotting gray wood shingles; the sides of the house were gray vertical slabs; the whole aspect of the house was gray. It was lower in the middle than at its ends, and resembled a swaybacked animal turned out to pasture. A stone-based well sat functionally in the middle of the yard, its mossy wooden bucket dangling above it from some rusty chain and frazzled lengths of rope. Where water was dashed behind the well, wild morning-glories bloomed, their tendrils reaching as far as the woodpile, which was a litter of tree trunks, slivers of carcass bones deposited by the dog and discarded braces and bits that had pained the jaws and teeth of many a hard-driven mule.
From the corner of his eye Brownfield noticed that his father was also surveying the house. Grange stood with an arm across the small of his back, soldier fashion, and with the other hand made gestures toward this and that of the house, as if pointing out necessary repairs. There were very many. He was a tall, thin, brooding man, slightly stooped from plowing, with skin the deep glossy brown of pecans. He was thirty-five but seemed much older. His face and eyes had a dispassionate vacancy and sadness, as if a great fire had been extinguished within him and was just recently missed. He seemed devoid of any emotion, while Brownfield watched him, except that of bewilderment. A bewilderment so complete he did not really appear to know what he saw, although his hand continued to gesture, more or less aimlessly, and his lips moved, shaping unintelligible words. While his son watched, Grange lifted his shoulders and let them fall. Brownfield knew this movement well; it was the fatal shrug. It meant that his father saw nothing about the house that he could change and would therefore give up gesturing about it and he would never again think of repairing it.
When Brownfield's mother had wanted him to go to school Grange had assessed the possibility with the same inaudible gesticulation accorded the house. Knowing nothing of schools, but knowing he was broke, he had shrugged; the shrug being the end of that particular dream. It was the same when Margaret needed a dress and there was no way Grange could afford to buy it. He merely shrugged, never saying a word about it again. After each shrug he was more silent than before, as if each of these shrugs cut him off from one more topic of conversation.
Brownfield turned from looking at his father and the house to see his mother brush a hand across her eyes. He sat glumly, full of a newly discovered discontent. He was sad for her and felt bitterly small. How could he ever bear to lose her, to his father or to death or to age? How would he ever survive without her pliant strength and the floating fragrance of her body which was sweet and inviting and delicate, yet full of the concretely comforting odors of cooking and soap and milk.
"You could've gone," said Grange softly, to his wife.
"I don't know nothing about up Norse."
"You could learn."
"Naw, I don't believe I could." There was a sigh in her voice.
Brownfield came alive. So his cousins had been right; there had been talk about him and his mother going back with them to Philadelphia. Why hadn't they gone? He felt peeved and in the dark.
"I didn't know nobody asked us to go. I want to go up Norse." His cousins said only the greenest hicks from Georgia said "Norse" like that.
His mother smiled at him. "And wear your hair pressed down like a woman's? Get away from here, boy!"
Brownfield, an admirer of Uncle Silas, was not dissuaded. "I just wouldn't wear the headrag at night," he said.
"My poor sister Marilyn," his mother muttered sadly, "all bleached up like a streetwalker. The Lawd keep me from ever wanting to brush another woman's hair out of my face. To tell you the truth," she continued to Grange over Brownfield's head, "I don't even think it was real hair. I felt it when she took it off for me to try on. Just like the hair on the end of a cow's tail, and when you pulled a strand it stretched."
"I like it 'cause it swooshes," said Brownfield rhapsodically.
"That's 'cause you ain't got no sense," said Grange.
Copyright © 1970 by Alice Walker
Afterword copyright © 1988 by Alice Walker
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970