A great deal of the old crowd were back. But there were lots of new ones too. Some of these men made passes at Janie, and women who didn’t know took out after Tea Cake. Didn’t take them long to be put right, however. Still and all, jealousies arose now and then on both sides. When Mrs. Turner’s brother came and she brought him over to be introduced, Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.
“Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man,” Sop-de-Bottom told him. “Uh person can see every place you hit her. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit yuh back, neither. Take some uh dese ol’ rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn’t tell you ever hit ’em. Dat’s de reason Ah done quit beatin’ mah woman. You can’t make no mark on ’em at all. Lawd! wouldn’t Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! All bet she don’t even holler. She jus’ cries, eh Tea Cake?”
“See dat! Mah woman would spread her lungs all over Palm Beach County, let alone knock out mah jaw teeth. You don’t know dat woman uh mine. She got ninety-nine rows uh jaw teeth and git her good and mad, she’ll wade through solid rock up to her hip pockets.”
“Mah Janie is uh high time woman and useter things. Ah didn’t git her outa de middle uh de road. Ah got her outa uh big fine house. Right now she got money enough in de bank tuh buy up dese ziggaboos and give ’em away.”
“Hush yo’ mouf! And she down heah on de muck lak anybody else!”
“Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat’s de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it. Ah wouldn’t be knockin’ her around. Ah didn’t wants whup her last night, but ol’ Mis’ Turner done sent for her brother tuh come tuh bait Janie in and take her way from me. Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss. Ah set in de kitchen one day and heard dat woman tell mah wife Ah’m too black fuh her. She don’t see how Janie can stand me.”
“Tell her husband on her.”
“Shucks! Ah b’lieve he’s skeered of her.”
“Knock her teeth down her throat.”
“Dat would look like she had some influence when she ain’t. Ah jus’ let her see dat Ah got control.”
“So she live offa our money and don’t lak black folks, huh? O.K. we’ll have her gone from here befo’ two weeks is up. Ah’m goin’ right off tuh all de men and drop rocks aginst her.”
“Ah ain’t mad wid her for whut she done, ’cause she ain’t done me nothin’ yet. Ah’m mad at her for thinkin’. Her and her gang got tuh go.”
“Us is wid yuh, Tea Cake. You know dat already. Dat Turner woman is real smart, accordin’ tuh her notions. Reckon she done heard ’bout dat money yo’ wife got in de bank and she’s bound tuh rope her intuh her family one way or another.”
“Sop, Ah don’t think it’s half de money as it is de looks. She’s color-struck. She ain’t got de kind of uh mind you meet every day. She ain’t a fact and neither do she make a good story when you tell about her.”
“Ah yeah, she’s too smart tuh stay round heah. She figgers we’se jus’ uh bunch uh dumb niggers so she think she’ll grow horns. But dat’s uh lie. She’ll die butt-headed.”
Saturday afternoon when the work tickets were turned into cash everybody began to buy coon-dick and get drunk. By dusk dark Belle Glade was full of loud-talking, staggering men. Plenty women had gotten their knots charged too. The police chief in his speedy Ford was rushing from jook to jook and eating house trying to keep order, but making few arrests. Not enough jail-space for all the drunks so why bother with a few? All he could do to keep down fights and get the white men out of colored town by nine o’clock. Dick Sterrett and Coodemay seemed to be the worst off. Their likker told them to go from place to place pushing and shoving and loud-talking and they were doing it.
Way after a while they arrived at Mrs. Turner’s eating house and found the place full to the limit. Tea Cake, Stew Beef, Sop-de-Bottom, Bootyny, Motor Boat and all the familiar crowd was there. Coodemay straightened up as if in surprise and asked, “Say, whut y’all doin’ in heah?”
“Eatin’,” Stew Beef told him, “Dey got beef stew, so you know Ah’d be heah.”
“We all laks tuh take uh rest from our women folks’ cookin’ once in uh while, so us all eatin’ way from home tuhnight. Anyhow Mis’ Turner got de best ole grub in town.”
Mrs. Turner back and forth in the dining room heard Sop when he said this and beamed.
“Ah speck you two last ones tuh come in is gointuh have tuh wait for uh seat. Ah’m all full up now.”
“Dat’s all right,” Sterrett objected. “You fry me some fish. Ah kin eat dat standin’ up. Cuppa coffee on de side.”
“Sling me up uh plate uh dat stew beef wid some coffee too, please ma’am. Sterrett is jus’ ez drunk ez Ah is; and if he kin eat standin’ up, Ah kin do de same.” Coodemay leaned drunkenly against the wall and everybody laughed.
Pretty soon the girl that was waiting table for Mrs. Turner brought in the order and Sterrett took his fish and coffee in his hands and stood there. Coodemay wouldn’t take his off the tray like he should have.
“Naw, you hold it fuh me, baby, and lemme eat,” he told the waitress. He took the fork and started to eat off the tray.
“Nobody ain’t got no time tuh hold yo’ grub up in front uh yo’ face,” she told Coodemay. “Heah, take it yo’self.”
“You’se right,” Coodemay told her. “Gimme it heah. Sop kin gimme his chear.”
“You’se uh lie,” Sop retorted. “Ah ain’t through and Ah ain’t ready tuh git up.”
Coodemay tried to shove Sop out of the chair and Sop resisted. That brought on a whole lot of shoving and scrambling and coffee got spilt on Sop. So he aimed at Coodemay with a saucer and hit Bootyny. Bootyny threw his thick coffee cup at Coodemay and just missed Stew Beef. So it got to be a big fight. Mrs. Turner came running in out of the kitchen. Then Tea Cake got up and caught hold of Coodemay by the collar.
“Looka heah, y’all, don’t come in heah and raise no disturbance in de place. Mis’ Turner is too nice uh woman fuh dat. In fact, she’s more nicer than anybody else on de muck.” Mrs. Turner beamed on Tea Cake.
“Ah knows dat. All of us knows it. But Ah don’t give uh damn how nice she is, Ah got tuh have some place tuh set down and eat. Sop ain’t gointuh bluff me, neither. Let ’im fight lak a man. Take yo’ hands off me, Tea Cake.”
“Naw, Ah won’t neither. You comin’ on outa de place.”
“Who gointuh make me come out?”
“Me, dat’s who. Ah’m in heah, ain’t Ah? If you don’t want tuh respect nice people lak Mrs. Turner, God knows you gointuh respect me! Come on outa heah, Coodemay.”
“Turn him loose, Tea Cake!” Sterrett shouted. “Dat’s mah buddy. Us come in heah together and he ain’t goin’ nowhere until Ah go mahself.”
“Well, both of yuh is goin’!” Tea Cake shouted and fastened down on Coodemay. Dockery grabbed Sterrett and they wrassled all over the place. Some more joined in and dishes and tables began to crash.
Mrs. Turner saw with dismay that Tea Cake’s taking them out was worse than letting them stay in. She ran out in the back somewhere and got her husband to put a stop to things. He came in, took a look and squinched down into a chair in an off corner and didn’t open his mouth. So Mrs. Turner struggled into the mass and caught Tea Cake by the arm.
“Dat’s all right, Tea Cake, Ah ’preciate yo’ help, but leave ’em alone.”
“Naw suh, Mis’ Turner, Ah’m gointuh show ’em dey can’t come runnin’ over nice people and loud-talk no place whilst Ah’m around. Dey goin’ outa heah!”
By that time everybody in and around the place was taking sides. Somehow or other Mrs. Turner fell down and nobody knew she was down there under all the fighting, and broken dishes and crippled up tables and broken-off chair legs and window panes and such things. It got so that the floor was knee-deep with something no matter where you put your foot down. But Tea Cake kept right on until Coodemay told him, “Ah’m wrong. Ah’m wrong! Y’all tried tuh tell me right and Ah wouldn’t lissen. Ah ain’t mad wid nobody. Just tuh show y’all Ah ain’t mad, me and Sterrett gointuh buy everybody somethin’ tuh drink. Ole man Vickers got some good coon-dick over round Pahokee. Come on everybody. Let’s go git our knots charged.” Everybody got in a good humor and left.
Mrs. Turner got up off the floor hollering for the police. Look at her place! How come nobody didn’t call the police? Then she found out that one of her hands was all stepped on and her fingers were bleeding pretty peart. Two or three people who were not there during the fracas poked their heads in at the door to sympathize but that made Mrs. Turner madder. She told them where to go in a hurry. Then she saw her husband sitting over there in the corner with his long bony legs all crossed up smoking his pipe.
“What kinda man is you, Turner? You see dese no-count niggers come in heah and break up mah place! How kin you set and see yo’ wife all trompled on? You ain’t no kinda man at all. You seen dat Tea Cake shove me down! Yes you did! You ain’t raised yo’ hand tuh do nothin’ about it.”
Turner removed his pipe and answered: “Yeah, and you see how Ah did swell up too, didn’t yuh? You tell Tea Cake he better be keerful Ah don’t swell up again.” At that Turner crossed his legs the other way and kept right on smoking his pipe.
Mrs. Turner hit at him the best she could with her hurt hand and then spoke her mind for half an hour.
“It’s a good thing mah brother wuzn’t round heah when it happened do he would uh kilt somebody. Mah son too. Dey got some manhood about ’em. We’se goin’ back tuh Miami where folks is civilised.”
Nobody told her right away that her son and brother were already on their way after pointed warnings outside the café. No time for fooling around. They were hurrying into Palm Beach. She’d find out about that later on.
Monday morning Coodemay and Sterrett stopped by and begged her pardon profusely and gave her five dollars apiece. Then Coodemay said, “Dey tell me Ah wuz drunk Sat’day night and clownin’ down. Ah don’t ’member uh thing ’bout it. But when Ah git tuh peepin’ through mah likker, dey tell me Ah’m uh mess.”
Since Tea Cake and Janie had friended with the Bahaman workers in the ’Glades, they, the “Saws,” had been gradually drawn into the American crowd. They quit hiding out to hold their dances when they found that their American friends didn’t laugh at them as they feared. Many of the Americans learned to jump and liked it as much as the “Saws.” So they began to hold dances night after night in the quarters, usually behind Tea Cake’s house. Often now, Tea Cake and Janie stayed up so late at the fire dances that Tea Cake would not let her go with him to the field. He wanted her to get her rest.
So she was home by herself one afternoon when she saw a band of Seminoles passing by. The men walking in front and the laden, stolid women following them like burros. She had seen Indians several times in the ’Glades, in twos and threes, but this was a large party. They were headed towards the Palm Beach road and kept moving steadily. About an hour later another party appeared and went the same way. Then another just before sundown. This time she asked where they were all going and at last one of the men answered her.
“Going to high ground. Saw-grass bloom. Hurricane coming.”
Everybody was talking about it that night. But nobody was worried. The fire dance kept up till nearly dawn. The next day, more Indians moved east, unhurried but steady. Still a blue sky and fair weather. Beans running fine and prices good, so the Indians could be, must be, wrong. You couldn’t have a hurricane when you’re making seven and eight dollars a day picking beans. Indians are dumb anyhow, always were. Another night of Stew Beef making dynamic subtleties with his drum and living, sculptural, grotesques in the dance. Next day, no Indians passed at all. It was hot and sultry and Janie left the field and went home.
Morning came without motion. The winds, to the tiniest, lisping baby breath had left the earth. Even before the sun gave light, dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man.
Some rabbits scurried through the quarters going east. Some possums slunk by and their route was definite. One or two at a time, then more. By the time the people left the fields the procession was constant. Snakes, rattlesnakes began to cross the quarters. The men killed a few, but they could not be missed from the crawling horde. People stayed indoors until daylight. Several times during the night Janie heard the snort of big animals like deer. Once the muted voice of a panther. Going east and east. That night the palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain. Several people took fright and picked up and went in to Palm Beach anyway. A thousand buzzards held a flying-meet and then went above the clouds and stayed.
One of the Bahaman boys stopped by Tea Cake’s house in a car and hollered. Tea Cake came out throwin’ laughter over his shoulder into the house.
“Hello Tea Cake.”
“Hello ’Lias. You leavin’, Ah see.”
“Yeah man. You and Janie wanta go? Ah wouldn’t give nobody else uh chawnce at uh seat till Ah found out if you all had anyway tuh go.”
“Thank yuh ever so much, ’Lias. But we ’bout decided tuh stay.”
“De crow gahn up, man.”
“Dat ain’t nothin’. You ain’t seen de bossman go up, is yuh? Well all right now. Man, de money’s too good on the muck. It’s liable tuh fair off by tuhmorrer. Ah wouldn’t leave if Ah wuz you.”
“Mah uncle come for me. He say hurricane warning out in Palm Beach. Not so bad dere, but man, dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust.”
“Ah naw, man. Some boys in dere now talkin’ ’bout it. Some of ’em been in de ’Glades fuh years. ’Tain’t nothin’ but uh lil blow. You’ll lose de whole day tuhmorrer tryin’ tuh git back out heah.”
“De Indians gahn east, man. It’s dangerous.”
“Dey don’t always know. Indians don’t know much uh nothin’, tuh tell de truth. Else dey’d own dis country still. De white folks ain’t gone nowhere. Dey oughta know if it’s dangerous. You better stay heah, man. Big jumpin’ dance tuhnight right heah, when it fair off.”
’Lias hesitated and started to climb out, but his uncle wouldn’t let him. “Dis time tuhmorrer you gointuh wish you follow crow,” he snorted and drove off. ’Lias waved back to them gaily.
“If Ah never see you no mo’ on earth, Ah’ll meet you in Africa.”
Others hurried east like the Indians and rabbits and snakes and coons. But the majority sat around laughing and waiting for the sun to get friendly again.
Several men collected at Tea Cake’s house and sat around stuffing courage into each other’s ears. Janie baked a big pan of beans and something she called sweet biscuits and they all managed to be happy enough.
Most of the great flame-throwers were there and naturally, handling Big John de Conquer and his works. How he had done everything big on earth, then went up tuh heben without dying atall. Went up there picking a guitar and got all de angels doing the ring-shout round and round de throne. Then everybody but God and Old Peter flew off on a flying race to Jericho and back and John de Conquer won the race; went on down to hell, beat the old devil and passed out ice water to everybody down there. Somebody tried to say that it was a mouth organ harp that John was playing, but the rest of them would not hear that. Don’t care how good anybody could play a harp, God would rather to hear a guitar. That brought them back to Tea Cake. How come he couldn’t hit that box a lick or two? Well, all right now, make us know it.
When it got good to everybody, Muck-Boy woke up and began to chant with the rhythm and everybody bore down on the last word of the line:
Yo’ mama don’t wear no Draws
Ah seen her when she took ’em Off
She soaked ’em in alcoHol
She sold ’em tuh de Santy Claus
He told her ’twas aginst de Law
To wear dem dirty Draws
Then Muck-Boy went crazy through the feet and danced himself and everybody else crazy. When he finished he sat back down on the floor and went to sleep again. Then they got to playing Florida flip and coon-can. Then it was dice. Not for money. This was a show-off game. Everybody posing his fancy shots. As always it broiled down to Tea Cake and Motor Boat. Tea Cake with his shy grin and Motor Boat with his face like a little black cherubim just from a church tower doing amazing things with anybody’s dice. The others forgot the work and the weather watching them throw. It was art. A thousand dollars a throw in Madison Square Garden wouldn’t have gotten any more breathless suspense. It would have just been more people holding in.
After a while somebody looked out and said, “It ain’t gitting no fairer out dere. B’lieve Ah’ll git on over tah mah shack.” Motor Boat and Tea Cake were still playing so everybody left them at it.
Sometime that night the winds came back. Everything in the world had a strong rattle, sharp and short like Stew Beef vibrating the drum head near the edge with his fingers. By morning Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum. So when Janie looked out of her door she saw the drifting mists gathered in the west—that cloud field of the sky—to arm themselves with thunders and march forth against the world. Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking.
It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble. The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore heard the big lake and wondered. The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always. Chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy of the Lord. The bossman might have the thing stopped before morning anyway. It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
A big burst of thunder and lightning that trampled over the roof of the house. So Tea Cake and Motor stopped playing. Motor looked up in his angel-looking way and said, “Big Massa draw him chair upstairs.”
“Ah’m glad y’all stop dat crap-shootin’ even if it wasn’t for money,” Janie said. “Ole Massa is doin’ His work now. Us oughta keep quiet.”
They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn’t use another part of their bodies, and they didn’t look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God.
Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall, seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him.
In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, “Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo’ big house ’way from such as dis, don’t yuh?”
“Yeah, naw. People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all.”
“Thanky, Ma’am. But ’sposing you wuz tuh die, now. You wouldn’t git mad at me for draggin’ yuh heah?”
“Naw. We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.”
He dropped to the floor and put his head in her lap. “Well then, Janie, you meant whut you didn’t say, ’cause Ah never knowed you wuz so satisfied wid me lak dat. Ah kinda thought—”
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. Water everywhere. Stray fish swimming in the yard. Three inches more and the water would be in the house. Already in some. He decided to try to find a car to take them out of the ’Glades before worse things happened. He turned back to tell Janie about it so she could be ready to go.
“Git our insurance papers tuhgether, Janie. Ah’ll tote mah box mahself and things lak dat.”
“You got all de money out de dresser drawer, already?”
“Naw, git it quick and cut up piece off de table-cloth tuh wrap it up in. Us liable tuh git wet tuh our necks. Cut uh piece uh dat oilcloth quick fuh our papers. We got tuh go, if it ain’t too late. De dish can’t bear it out no longer.”
He snatched the oilcloth off the table and took out his knife. Janie held it straight while he slashed off a strip.
“But Tea Cake, it’s too awful out dere. Maybe it’s better tuh stay heah in de wet than it is tuh try tuh—”
He stunned the argument with half a word. “Fix,” he said and fought his way outside. He had seen more than Janie had.
Janie took a big needle and ran up a longish sack. Found some newspaper and wrapped up the paper money and papers and thrust them in and whipped over the open end with her needle. Before she could get it thoroughly hidden in the pocket of her overalls, Tea Cake burst in again.
“ ’Tain’t no cars, Janie.”
“Ah thought not! Whut we gointuh do now?”
“We got tuh walk.”
“In all dis weather, Tea Cake? Ah don’t b’lieve Ah could make it out de quarters.”
“Oh yeah you kin. Me and you and Motor Boat kin all lock arms and hold one ’nother down. Eh, Motor?”
“He’s sleep on de bed in yonder,” Janie said. Tea Cake called without moving.
“Motor Boat! You better git up from dere! Hell done broke loose in Georgy. Dis minute! How kin you sleep at uh time lak dis? Water knee-deep in de yard.”
They stepped out in water almost to their buttocks and managed to turn east. Tea Cake had to throw his box away, and Janie saw how it hurt him. Dodging flying missiles, floating dangers, avoiding stepping in holes and warmed on the wind now at their backs until they gained comparatively dry land. They had to fight to keep from being pushed the wrong way and to hold together. They saw other people like themselves struggling along. A house down, here and there, frightened cattle. But above all the drive of the wind and the water. And the lake. Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t. A huge barrier of the makings of the dike to which the cabins had been added was rolling and tumbling forward. Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
“De lake is comin’!” Tea Cake gasped.
“De lake!” In amazed horror from Motor Boat, “De lake!”
“It’s comin’ behind us!” Janie shuddered. “Us can’t fly.”
“But we still kin run,” Tea Cake shouted and they ran. The gushing water ran faster. The great body was held back, but rivers spouted through fissures in the rolling wall and broke like day. The three fugitives ran past another line of shanties that topped a slight rise and gained a little. They cried out as best they could, “De lake is comin’!” and barred doors flew open and others joined them in flight crying the same as they went. “De lake is comin’!” and the pursuing waters growled and shouted ahead, “Yes, Ah’m comin’!”, and those who could fled on.
They made it to a tall house on a hump of ground and Janie said, “Less stop heah. Ah can’t make it no further. Ah’m done give out.”
“All of us is done give out,” Tea Cake corrected. “We’se goin’ inside out dis weather, kill or cure.” He knocked with the handle of his knife, while they leaned their faces and shoulders against the wall. He knocked once more then he and Motor Boat went round to the back and forced a door. Nobody there.
“Dese people had mo’ sense than Ah did,” Tea Cake said as they dropped to the floor and lay there panting. “Us oughta went on wid ’Lias lak he ast me.”
“You didn’t know,” Janie contended. “And when yuh don’t know, yuh just don’t know. De storms might not of come sho nuff.”
They went to sleep promptly but Janie woke up first. She heard the sound of rushing water and sat up.
“Tea Cake! Motor Boat! De lake is comin’!”
The lake was coming on. Slower and wider, but coming. It had trampled on most of its supporting wall and lowered its front by spreading. But it came muttering and grumbling onward like a tired mammoth just the same.
“Dis is uh high tall house. Maybe it won’t reach heah at all,” Janie counseled. “And if it do, maybe it won’t reach tuh de upstairs part.”
“Janie, Lake Okechobee is forty miles wide and sixty miles long. Dat’s uh whole heap uh water. If dis wind is shovin’ dat whole lake disa way, dis house ain’t nothin’ tuh swaller. Us better go. Motor Boat!”
“Whut you want, man?”
“De lake is comin’!”
“Aw, naw it ’tain’t.”
“Yes, it is so comin’! Listen! You kin hear it way off.”
“It kin jus’ come on. Ah’ll wait right here.”
“Aw, get up, Motor Boat! Less make it tuh de Palm Beach road. Dat’s on uh fill. We’se pretty safe dere.”
“Ah’m safe here, man. Go ahead if yuh wants to. Ah’m sleepy.”
“Whut you gointuh do if de lake reach heah?”
“S’posing it come up dere?”
“Swim, man. Dat’s all.”
“Well, uh, Good bye, Motor Boat. Everything is pretty bad, yuh know. Us might git missed of one ’nother. You sho is a grand friend fuh uh man tuh have.”
“Good bye, Tea Cake. Y’all oughta stay here and sleep, man. No use in goin’ off and leavin’ me lak dis.”
“We don’t wanta. Come on wid us. It might be night time when de water hem you up in heah. Dat’s how come Ah won’t stay. Come on, man.”
“Tea Cake, Ah got tuh have mah sleep. Definitely.”
“Good bye, then, Motor. Ah wish you all de luck. Goin’ over tuh Nassau fuh dat visit widja when all dis is over.”
“Definitely, Tea Cake. Mah mama’s house is yours.”
Tea Cake and Janie were some distance from the house before they struck serious water. Then they had to swim a distance, and Janie could not hold up more than a few strokes at a time, so Tea Cake bore her up till finally they hit a ridge that led on towards the fill. It seemed to him the wind was weakening a little so he kept looking for a place to rest and catch his breath. His wind was gone. Janie was tired and limping, but she had not had to do that hard swimming in the turbulent waters, so Tea Cake was much worse off. But they couldn’t stop. Gaining the fill was something but it was no guarantee. The lake was coming. They had to reach the six-mile bridge. It was high and safe perhaps.
Everybody was walking the fill. Hurrying, dragging, falling, crying, calling out names hopefully and hopelessly. Wind and rain beating on old folks and beating on babies. Tea Cake stumbled once or twice in his weariness and Janie held him up. So they reached the bridge at Six Mile Bend and thought to rest.
But it was crowded. White people had preempted that point of elevation and there was no more room. They could climb up one of its high sides and down the other, that was all. Miles further on, still no rest.
They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other.
Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island. A tin roof of a building hung from the branches by electric wires and the wind swung it back and forth like a mighty ax. The man dared not move a step to his right lest this crushing blade split him open. He dared not step left for a large rattlesnake was stretched full length with his head in the wind. There was a strip of water between the island and the fill, and the man clung to the tree and cried for help.
“De snake won’t bite yuh,” Tea Cake yelled to him. “He skeered tuh go intuh uh coil. Skeered he’ll be blowed away. Step round dat side and swim off!”
Soon after that Tea Cake felt he couldn’t walk anymore. Not right away. So he stretched long side of the road to rest. Janie spread herself between him and the wind and he closed his eyes and let the tiredness seep out of his limbs. On each side of the fill was a great expanse of water like lakes—water full of things living and dead. Things that didn’t belong in water. As far as the eye could reach, water and wind playing upon it in fury. A large piece of tar-paper roofing sailed through the air and scudded along the fill until it hung against a tree. Janie saw it with joy. That was the very thing to cover Tea Cake with. She could lean against it and hold it down. The wind wasn’t quite so bad as it was anyway. The very thing. Poor Tea Cake!
She crept on hands and knees to the piece of roofing and caught hold of it by either side. Immediately the wind lifted both of them and she saw herself sailing off the fill to the right, out and out over the lashing water. She screamed terribly and released the roofing which sailed away as she plunged downward into the water.
“Tea Cake!” He heard her and sprang up. Janie was trying to swim but fighting water too hard. He saw a cow swimming slowly towards the fill in an oblique line. A massive built dog was sitting on her shoulders and shivering and growling. The cow was approaching Janie. A few strokes would bring her there.
“Make it tuh de cow and grab hold of her tail! Don’t use yo’ feet. Jus’ yo’ hands is enough. Dat’s right, come on!”
Janie achieved the tail of the cow and lifted her head up along the cow’s rump, as far as she could above water. The cow sunk a little with the added load and thrashed a moment in terror. Thought she was being pulled down by a gator. Then she continued on. The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge. Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived. The dog raced down the backbone of the cow to the attack and Janie screamed and slipped far back on the tail of the cow, just out of reach of the dog’s angry jaws. He wanted to plunge in after her but dreaded the water, somehow. Tea Cake rose out of the water at the cow’s rump and seized the dog by the neck. But he was a powerful dog and Tea Cake was over-tired. So he didn’t kill the dog with one stroke as he had intended. But the dog couldn’t free himself either. They fought and somehow he managed to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone once. Then Tea Cake finished him and sent him to the bottom to stay there. The cow relieved of a great weight was landing on the fill with Janie before Tea Cake stroked in and crawled weakly upon the fill again.
Janie began to fuss around his face where the dog had bitten him but he said it didn’t amount to anything. “He’d uh raised hell though if he had uh grabbed me uh inch higher and bit me in mah eye. Yuh can’t buy eyes in de store, yuh know.” He flopped to the edge of the fill as if the storm wasn’t going on at all. “Lemme rest awhile, then us got tuh make it on intuh town somehow.”
It was next day by the sun and the clock when they reached Palm Beach. It was years later by their bodies. Winters and winters of hardship and suffering. The wheel kept turning round and round. Hope, hopelessness and despair. But the storm blew itself out as they approached the city of refuge.
Havoc was there with her mouth wide open. Back in the Everglades the wind had romped among lakes and trees. In the city it had raged among houses and men. Tea Cake and Janie stood on the edge of things and looked over the desolation.
“How kin Ah find uh doctor fuh yo’ face in all dis mess?” Janie wailed.
“Ain’t got de damn doctor tuh study ’bout. Us needs uh place tuh rest.”
A great deal of their money and perseverance and they found a place to sleep. It was just that. No place to live at all. Just sleep. Tea Cake looked all around and sat heavily on the side of the bed.
“Well,” he said humbly, “reckon you never ’spected tuh come tuh dis when you took up wid me, didja?”
“Once upon uh time, Ah never ’spected nothin’, Tea Cake, but bein’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come ’long and made somethin’ outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together.”
“You was twice noble tuh save me from dat dawg. Tea Cake, Ah don’t speck you seen his eyes lak Ah did. He didn’t aim tuh jus’ bite me, Tea Cake. He aimed tuh kill me stone dead. Ah’m never tuh fuhgit dem eyes. He wuzn’t nothin’ all over but pure hate. Wonder where he come from?”
“Yeah, Ah did see ’im too. It wuz frightenin’. Ah didn’t mean tuh take his hate neither. He had tuh die uh me one. Mah switch-blade said it wuz him.”
“Po’ me, he’d tore me tuh pieces, if it wuzn’t fuh you, honey.”
“You don’t have tuh say, if it wuzn’t fuh me, baby, cause Ah’m heah, and then Ah want yuh tuh know it’s uh man heah.”
And then again Him-with-the-square-toes had gone back to his house. He stood once more and again in his high flat house without sides to it and without a roof with his soulless sword standing upright in his hand. His pale white horse had galloped over waters, and thundered over land. The time of dying was over. It was time to bury the dead.
“Janie, us been in dis dirty, slouchy place two days now, and dat’s too much. Us got tuh git outa dis house and outa dis man’s town. Ah never did lak round heah.”
“Where we goin’, Tea Cake? Dat we don’t know.”
“Maybe, we could go back up de state, if yuh want tuh go.”
“Ah didn’t say dat, but if dat is whut you—”
“Naw, Ah ain’t said nothin’ uh de kind. Ah wuz tryin’ not tuh keep you outa yo’ comfortable no longer’n you wanted tuh stay.”
“If Ah’m in yo’ way—”
“Will you lissen at dis woman? Me ’bout tuh bust mah britches tryin’ tuh stay wid her and she heah—she oughta be shot wid tacks!”
“All right then, you name somethin’ and we’ll do it. We kin give it uh poor man’s trial anyhow.”
“Anyhow Ah done got rested up and de bed bugs is done got too bold round heah. Ah didn’t notice when mah rest wuz broke. Ah’m goin’ out and look around and see whut we kin do. Ah’ll give anything uh common trial.”
“You better stay inside dis house and git some rest. ’Tain’t nothin’ tuh find out dere nohow.”
“But Ah wants tuh look and see, Janie. Maybe it’s some kinda work fuh me tuh help do.”
“Whut dey want you tuh help do, you ain’t gointuh like it. Dey’s grabbin’ all de menfolks dey kin git dey hands on and makin’ ’em help bury de dead. Dey claims dey’s after de unemployed, but dey ain’t bein’ too particular about whether you’se employed or not. You stay in dis house. De Red Cross is doin’ all dat kin be done otherwise fuh de sick and de ’fflicted.”
“Ah got money on me, Janie. Dey can’t bother me. Ahyhow Ah wants tuh go see how things is sho nuff. Ah wants tuh see if Ah kin hear anything ’bout de boys from de ’Glades. Maybe dey all come through all right. Maybe not.”
Tea Cake went out and wandered around. Saw the hand of horror on everything. Houses without roofs, and roofs without houses. Steel and stone all crushed and crumbled like wood. The mother of malice had trifled with men.
While Tea Cake was standing and looking he saw two men coming towards him with rifles on their shoulders. Two white men, so he thought about what Janie had told him and flexed his knees to run. But in a moment he saw that wouldn’t do him any good. They had already seen him and they were too close to miss him if they shot. Maybe they would pass on by. Maybe when they saw he had money they would realize he was not a tramp.
“Hello, there, Jim,” the tallest one called out. “We been lookin’ fuh you.”
“Mah name ain’t no Jim,” Tea Cake said watchfully. “Whut you been lookin’ fuh me fuh? Ah ain’t done nothin’.”
“Dat’s whut we want yuh fuh—not doin’ nothin’. Come on less go bury some uh dese heah dead folks. Dey ain’t gittin’ buried fast enough.”
Tea Cake hung back defensively. “Whut Ah got tuh do wid dat? Ah’m uh workin’ man wid money in mah pocket. Jus’ got blowed outa de ’Glades by de storm.”
The short man made a quick move with his rifle. “Git on down de road dere, suh! Don’t look out somebody’ll be buryin’ you! G’wan in front uh me, suh!”
Tea Cake found that he was part of a small army that had been pressed into service to clear the wreckage in public places and bury the dead. Bodies had to be searched out, carried to certain gathering places and buried. Corpses were not just found in wrecked homes. They were under houses, tangled in shrubbery, floating in water, hanging in trees, drifting under wreckage.
Trucks lined with drag kept rolling in from the ’Glades and other outlying parts, each with its load of twenty-five bodies. Some bodies fully dressed, some naked and some in all degrees of dishevelment. Some bodies with calm faces and satisfied hands. Some dead with fighting faces and eyes flung wide open in wonder. Death had found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing.
Miserable, sullen men, black and white under guard had to keep on searching for bodies and digging graves. A huge ditch was dug across the white cemetery and a big ditch was opened across the black graveyard. Plenty quick-lime on hand to throw over the bodies as soon as they were received. They had already been unburied too long. The men were making every effort to get them covered up as quickly as possible. But the guards stopped them. They had received orders to be carried out.
“Hey, dere, y’all! Don’t dump dem bodies in de hole lak dat! Examine every last one of ’em and find out if they’s white or black.”
“Us got tuh handle ’em slow lak dat? God have mussy! In de condition they’s in got tuh examine ’em? Whut difference do it make ’bout de color? Dey all needs buryin’ in uh hurry.”
“Got orders from headquarters. They makin’ coffins fuh all de white folks. ’Tain’t nothin’ but cheap pine, but dat’s better’n nothin’. Don’t dump no white folks in de hole jus’ so.”
“Whut tuh do ’bout de colored folks? Got boxes fuh dem too?”
“Nope. They cain’t find enough of ’em tuh go ’round. Jus’ sprinkle plenty quick-lime over ’em and cover ’em up.”
“Shucks! Nobody can’t tell nothin’ ’bout some uh dese bodies, de shape dey’s in. Can’t tell whether dey’s white or black.”
The guards had a long conference over that. After a while they came back and told the men, “Look at they hair, when you cain’t tell no other way. And don’t lemme ketch none uh y’all dumpin’ white folks, and don’t be wastin’ no boxes on colored. They’s too hard tuh git holt of right now.”
“They’s mighty particular how dese dead folks goes tuh judgment,” Tea Cake observed to the man working next to him. “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ ’bout de Jim Crow law.”
Tea Cake had been working several hours when the thought of Janie worrying about him made him desperate. So when a truck drove up to be unloaded he bolted and ran. He was ordered to halt on pain of being shot at, but he kept right on and got away. He found Janie sad and crying just as he had thought. They calmed each other about his absence then Tea Cake brought up another matter.
“Janie, us got tuh git outa dis house and outa dis man’s town. Ah don’t mean tuh work lak dat no mo’.”
“Naw, naw, Tea Cake. Less stay right in heah until it’s all over. If dey can’t see yuh, dey can’t bother yuh.”
“Aw naw. S’posin’ dey come round searchin’? Less git outa heah tuhnight.”
“Where us goin’, Tea Cake?”
“De quickest place is de ’Glades. Less make it on back down dere. Dis town is full uh trouble and compellment.”
“But, Tea Cake, de hurricane wuz down in de ’Glades too. It’ll be dead folks tuh be buried down dere too.”
“Yeah, Ah know, Janie, but it couldn’t never be lak it ’tis heah. In de first place dey been bringin’ bodies outa dere all day so it can’t be but so many mo’ tuh find. And then again it never wuz as many dere as it wuz heah. And then too, Janie, de white folks down dere knows us. It’s bad bein’ strange niggers wid white folks. Everybody is aginst yuh.”
“Dat sho is de truth. De ones de white man know is nice colored folks. De ones he don’t know is bad niggers.” Janie said this and laughed and Tea Cake laughed with her.
“Janie, Ah done watched it time and time again; each and every white man think he know all de GOOD darkies already. He don’t need tuh know no mo’. So far as he’s concerned, all dem he don’t know oughta be tried and sentenced tuh six months behind de United States privy house at hard smellin’.”
“How come de United States privy house, Tea Cake?”
“Well, you know Old Uncle Sam always do have de biggest and de best uh everything. So de white man figger dat anything less than de Uncle Sam’s consolidated water closet would be too easy. So Ah means tuh go where de white folks know me. Ah feels lak uh motherless chile round heah.”
They got things together and stole out of the house and away. The next morning they were back on the muck. They worked hard all day fixing up a house to live in so that Tea Cake could go out looking for something to do the next day. He got out soon next morning more out of curiosity than eagerness to work. Stayed off all day. That night he came in beaming out with light.
“Who you reckon Ah seen, Janie? Bet you can’t guess.”
“Ah’ll betcha uh fat man you seen Sop-de-Bottom.”
“Yeah Ah seen him and Stew Beef and Dockery and ’Lias, and Coodemay and Bootyny. Guess who else!”
“Lawd knows. Is it Sterrett?”
“Naw, he got caught in the rush. ’Lias help bury him in Palm Beach. Guess who else?”
“Ah g’wan tell me, Tea Cake. Ah don’t know. It can’t be Motor Boat.”
“Dat’s jus’ who it is. Ole Motor! De son of a gun laid up in dat house and slept and de lake come moved de house way off somewhere and Motor didn’t know nothin’ ’bout it till de storm wuz ’bout over.”
“Yeah man. Heah we nelly kill our fool selves runnin’ way from danger and him lay up dere and sleep and float on off!”
“Well, you know dey say luck is uh fortune.”
“Dat’s right too. Look, Ah got uh job uh work. Help clearin’ up things in general, and then dey goin’ build dat dike sho nuff. Dat ground got to be cleared off too. Plenty work. Dey needs mo’ men even.”
So Tea Cake made three hearty weeks. He bought another rifle and a pistol and he and Janie bucked each other as to who was the best shot with Janie ranking him always with the rifle. She could knock the head off of a chicken-hawk sitting up a pine tree. Tea Cake was a little jealous, but proud of his pupil.
About the middle of the fourth week Tea Cake came home early one afternoon complaining of his head. Sick headache that made him lie down for a while. He woke up hungry. Janie had his supper ready but by the time he walked from the bedroom to the table, he said he didn’t b’lieve he wanted a thing.
“Thought you tole me you wuz hongry!” Janie wailed.
“Ah thought so too,” Tea Cake said very quietly and dropped his head in his hands.
“But Ah done baked yuh uh pan uh beans.”
“Ah knows dey’s good all right but Ah don’t choose nothin’ now, Ah thank yuh, Janie.”
He went back to bed. Way in the midnight he woke Janie up in his nightmarish struggle with an enemy that was at his throat. Janie struck a light and quieted him.
“Whut’s de matter, honey?” She soothed and soothed. “You got tuh tell me so Ah kin feel widja. Lemme bear de pain ’long widja, baby. Where hurt yuh, sugar?”
“Somethin’ got after me in mah sleep, Janie.” He all but cried, “Tried tuh choke me tuh death. Hadn’t been fuh you Ah’d be dead.”
“You sho wuz strainin’ wid it. But you’se all right, honey. Ah’m heah.”
He went on back to sleep, but there was no getting around it. He was sick in the morning. He tried to make it but Janie wouldn’t hear of his going out at all.
“If Ah kin jus’ make out de week,” Tea Cake said.
“Folks wuz makin’ weeks befo’ you wuz born and they gointuh be makin’ ’em after you’se gone. Lay back down, Tea Cake. Ah’m goin’ git de doctor tuh come see ’bout yuh.”
“Aw ain’t dat bad, Janie. Looka heah! Ah kin walk all over de place.”
“But you’se too sick tuh play wid. Plenty fever round heah since de storm.”
“Gimme uh drink uh water befo’ you leave, then.”
Janie dipped up a glass of water and brought it to the bed. Tea Cake took it and filled his mouth then gagged horribly, disgorged that which was in his mouth and threw the glass upon the floor. Janie was frantic with alarm.
“Whut make you ack lak dat wid yo’ drinkin’ water, Tea Cake? You ast me tuh give it tuh yuh.”
“Dat water is somethin’ wrong wid it. It nelly choke me tuh death. Ah tole yuh somethin’ jumped on me heah last night and choked me. You come makin’ out Ah wuz dreamin’.”
“Maybe it wuz uh witch ridin’ yuh, honey. Ah’ll see can’t Ah find some mustard seed whilst Ah’s out. But Ah’m sho tuh fetch de doctor when Ah’m come.”
Tea Cake didn’t say anything against it and Janie herself hurried off. This sickness to her was worse than the storm. As soon as she was well out of sight, Tea Cake got up and dumped the water bucket and washed it clean. Then he struggled to the irrigation pump and filled it again. He was not accusing Janie of malice and design. He was accusing her of carelessness. She ought to realize that water buckets needed washing like everything else. He’d tell her about it good and proper when she got back. What was she thinking about nohow? He found himself very angry about it. He eased the bucket on the table and sat down to rest before taking a drink.
Finally he dipped up a drink. It was so good and cool! Come to think about it, he hadn’t had a drink since yesterday. That was what he needed to give him an appetite for his beans. He found himself wanting it very much, so he threw back his head as he rushed the glass to his lips. But the demon was there before him, strangling, killing him quickly. It was a great relief to expel the water from his mouth. He sprawled on the bed again and lay there shivering until Janie and the doctor arrived. The white doctor who had been around so long that he was part of the muck. Who told the workmen stories with brawny sweaty words in them. He came into the house quickly, hat sitting on the left back corner of his head.
“Hi there, Tea Cake. What de hell’s de matter with you?”
“Wisht Ah knowed, Doctah Simmons. But Ah sho is sick.”
“Ah, naw Tea Cake. ’Tain’t a thing wrong that a quart of coon-dick wouldn’t cure. You haven’t been gettin’ yo’ right likker lately, eh?” He slapped Tea Cake lustily across his back and Tea Cake tried to smile as he was expected to do. But it was hard. The doctor opened up his bag and went to work.
“You do look a little peaked, Tea Cake. You got a temperature and yo’ pulse is kinda off. What you been doin’ here lately?”
“Nothin’ ’cept workin’ and gamin’ uh little, doctah. But look lak water done turn’t aginst me.”
“Water? How do you mean?”
“Can’t keep it on mah stomach, at all.”
Janie came around the bed full of concern.
“Doctah, Tea Cake ain’t tellin’ yuh everything lak he oughta. We wuz caught in dat hurricane out heah, and Tea Cake over-strained hisself swimmin’ such uh long time and holdin’ me up too, and walkin’ all dem miles in de storm and then befo’ he could git his rest he had tuh come git me out de water agin and fightin’ wid dat big ole dawg and de dawg bitin’ ’im in de face and everything. Ah been ’spectin’ him tuh be sick befo’ now.”
“Dawg bit ’im, did you say?”
“Aw ’twudn’t nothin’ much, doctah. It wuz all healed over in two three days,” Tea Cake said impatiently. “Dat been over uh month ago, nohow. Dis is somethin’ new, doctah. Ah figgers de water is yet bad. It’s bound tuh be. Too many dead folks been in it fuh it tuh be good tuh drink fuh uh long time. Dat’s de way Ah figgers it anyhow.”
“All right, Tea Cake. Ah’ll send you some medicine and tell Janie how tuh take care of you. Anyhow, I want you in a bed by yo’self until you hear from me. Just you keep Janie out of yo’ bed for awhile, hear? Come on out to the car with me, Janie. I want to send Tea Cake some pills to take right away.”
Outside he fumbled in his bag and gave Janie a tiny bottle with a few pellets inside.
“Give him one of these every hour to keep him quiet, Janie, and stay out of his way when he gets in one of his fits of gagging and choking.”
“How you know he’s havin’ ’em, doctah? Dat’s jus’ what Ah come out heah tuh tell yuh.”
“Janie, I’m pretty sure that was a mad dawg bit yo’ husband. It’s too late to get hold of de dawg’s head. But de symptoms is all there. It’s mighty bad dat it’s gone on so long. Some shots right after it happened would have fixed him right up.”
“You mean he’s liable tuh die, doctah?”
“Sho is. But de worst thing is he’s liable tuh suffer somethin’ awful befo’ he goes.”
“Doctor, Ah loves him fit tuh kill. Tell me anything tuh do and Ah’ll do it.”
“ ’Bout de only thing you can do, Janie, is to put him in the County Hospital where they can tie him down and look after him.”
“But he don’t like no hospital at all. He’d think Ah wuz tired uh doin’ fuh ’im, when God knows Ah ain’t. Ah can’t stand de idea us tyin’ Tea Cake lak he wuz uh mad dawg.”
“It almost amounts to dat, Janie. He’s got almost no chance to pull through and he’s liable to bite somebody else, specially you, and then you’ll be in the same fix he’s in. It’s mighty bad.”
“Can’t nothin’ be done fuh his case, doctah? Us got plenty money in de bank in Orlandah, doctah. See can’t yuh do somethin’ special tuh save him. Anything it cost, doctah, Ah don’t keer, but please, doctah.”
“Do what I can. Ah’ll phone into Palm Beach right away for the serum which he should have had three weeks ago. I’ll do all I can to save him, Janie. But it looks too late. People in his condition can’t swallow water, you know, and in other ways it’s terrible.”
Janie fooled around outside awhile to try and think it wasn’t so. If she didn’t see the sickness in his face she could imagine it wasn’t really happening. Well, she thought, that big old dawg with the hatred in his eyes had killed her after all. She wished she had slipped off that cow-tail and drowned then and there and been done. But to kill her through Tea Cake was too much to bear. Tea Cake, the son of Evening Sun, had to die for loving her. She looked hard at the sky for a long time. Somewhere up there beyond blue ether’s bosom sat He. Was He noticing what was going on around here? He must be because He knew everything. Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her? It wasn’t anything she could fight. She could only ache and wait. Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He’d give her a sign. She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign. A star in the daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder. Her arms went up in a desperate supplication for a minute. It wasn’t exactly pleading, it was asking questions. The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house. God would do less than He had in His heart.
Tea Cake was lying with his eyes closed and Janie hoped he was asleep. He wasn’t. A great fear had took hold of him. What was this thing that set his brains afire and grabbed at his throat with iron fingers? Where did it come from and why did it hang around him? He hoped it would stop before Janie noticed anything. He wanted to try to drink water again but he didn’t want her to see him fail. As soon as she got out of the kitchen he meant to go to the bucket and drink right quick before anything had time to stop him. No need to worry Janie, until he couldn’t help it. He heard her cleaning out the stove and saw her go out back to empty the ashes. He leaped at the bucket at once. But this time the sight of the water was enough. He was on the kitchen floor in great agony when she returned. She petted him, soothed him, and got him back to bed. She made up her mind to go see about that medicine from Palm Beach. Maybe she could find somebody to drive over there for it.
“Feel better now, Tea Cake, baby chile?”
“Uh huh, uh little.”
“Well, b’lieve Ah’ll rake up de front yard. De mens is got cane chewin’s and peanut hulls all over de place. Don’t want de doctah tuh come back heah and find it still de same.”
“Don’t take too long, Janie. Don’t lak tuh be by mahself when Ah’m sick.”
She ran down the road just as fast as she could. Halfway to town she met Sop-de-Bottom and Dockery coming towards her.
“Hello, Janie, how’s Tea Cake?”
“Pretty bad off. Ah’m gointuh see ’bout medicine fuh ’im right now.”
“Doctor told somebody he wuz sick so us come tuh see. Thought somethin’ he never come tuh work.”
“Y’all set wid ’im till Ah git back. He need de company right long in heah.”
She fanned on down the road to town and found Dr. Simmons. Yes, he had had an answer. They didn’t have any serum but they had wired Miami to send it. She needn’t worry. It would be there early the next morning if not before. People didn’t fool around in a case like that. No, it wouldn’t do for her to hire no car to go after it. Just go home and wait. That was all. When she reached home the visitors rose to go.
When they were alone Tea Cake wanted to put his head in Janie’s lap and tell her how he felt and let her mama him in her sweet way. But something Sop had told him made his tongue lie cold and heavy like a dead lizard between his jaws. Mrs. Turner’s brother was back on the muck and now he had this mysterious sickness. People didn’t just take sick like this for nothing.
“Janie, whut is dat Turner woman’s brother doin’ back on de muck?”
“Ah don’t know, Tea Cake. Didn’t even knowed he wuz back.”
“Accordin’ tuh mah notion, you did. Whut you slip off from me just now for?”
“Tea Cake, Ah don’t lak you astin’ me no sich question. Dat shows how sick you is sho nuff. You’se jealous ’thout me givin’ you cause.”
“Well, whut didja slip off from de house ’thout tellin’ me you wuz goin’. You ain’t never done dat befo’.”
“Dat wuz cause Ah wuz tryin’ not tuh let yuh worry ’bout yo’ condition. De doctah sent after some mo’ medicine and Ah went tuh see if it come.”
Tea Cake began to cry and Janie hovered him in her arms like a child. She sat on the side of the bed and sort of rocked him back to peace.
“Tea Cake, ’tain’t no use in you bein’ jealous uh me. In de first place Ah couldn’t love nobody but yuh. And in de second place, Ah jus’ uh ole woman dat nobody don’t want but you.”
“Naw, you ain’t neither. You only sound ole when you tell folks when you wuz born, but wid de eye you’se young enough tuh suit most any man. Dat ain’t no lie. Ah knows plenty mo’ men would take yuh and work hard fuh de privilege. Ah done heard ’em talk.”
“Maybe so, Tea Cake, Ah ain’t never tried tuh find out. Ah jus’ know dat God snatched me out de fire through you. And Ah loves yuh and feel glad.”
“Thank yuh, ma’am, but don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.”
“Ah feel dat uh way too, Tea Cake, and Ah thank yuh fuh sayin’ it.”
“ ’Tain’t no trouble tuh say whut’s already so. You’se uh pretty woman outside uh bein’ nice.”
“Aw, Tea Cake.”
“Yeah you is too. Everytime Ah see uh patch uh roses uh somethin’ over sportin’ theyselves makin’ out they pretty, Ah tell ’em ’Ah want yuh tuh see mah Janie sometime.’ You must let de flowers see yuh sometimes, heah, Janie?”
“You keep dat up, Tea Cake, Ah’ll b’lieve yuh after while,” Janie said archly and fixed him back in bed. It was then she felt the pistol under the pillow. It gave her a quick ugly throb, but she didn’t ask him about it since he didn’t say. Never had Tea Cake slept with a pistol under his head before. “Neb’ mind ’bout all dat cleanin’ round de front yard,” he told her as she straightened up from fixing the bed. “You stay where Ah kin see yuh.”
“All right, Tea Cake, jus’ as you say.”
“And if Mis’ Turner’s lap-legged brother come prowlin’ by heah you kin tell ’im Ah got him stopped wid four wheel brakes. ’Tain’t no need of him standin’ ’round watchin’ de job.”
“Ah won’t be tellin’ him nothin’ ’cause Ah don’t expect tuh see ’im.”
Tea Cake had two bad attacks that night. Janie saw a changing look come in his face. Tea Cake was gone. Something else was looking out of his face. She made up her mind to be off after the doctor with the first glow of day. So she was up and dressed when Tea Cake awoke from the fitful sleep that had come to him just before day. He almost snarled when he saw her dressed to go.
“Where are you goin’, Janie?”
“After de doctor, Tea Cake. You’se too sick tuh be heah in dis house ’thout de doctah. Maybe we oughta git yuh tuh de hospital.”
“Ah ain’t goin’ tuh no hospital no where. Put dat in yo’ pipe and smoke it. Guess you tired uh waitin’ on me and doing fuh me. Dat ain’t de way Ah been wid you. Ah never is been able tuh do enough fuh yuh.”
“Tea Cake, you’se sick. You’se takin’ everything in de way Ah don’t mean it. Ah couldn’t never be tired uh waitin’ on you. Ah’m just skeered you’se too sick fuh me tuh handle. Ah wants yuh tuh git well, honey. Dat’s all.”
He gave her a look full of blank ferocity and gurgled in his throat. She saw him sitting up in bed and moving about so that he could watch her every move. And she was beginning to feel fear of this strange thing in Tea Cake’s body. So when he went out to the outhouse she rushed to see if the pistol was loaded. It was a six shooter and three of the chambers were full. She started to unload it but she feared he might break it and find out she knew. That might urge his disordered mind to action. If that medicine would only come! She whirled the cylinder so that if he even did draw the gun on her it would snap three times before it would fire. She would at least have warning. She could either run or try to take it away before it was too late. Anyway Tea Cake wouldn’t hurt her. He was jealous and wanted to scare her. She’d just be in the kitchen as usual and never let on. They’d laugh over it when he got well. She found the box of cartridges, however, and emptied it. Just as well to take the rifle from back of the head of the bed. She broke it and put the shell in her apron pocket and put it in a corner in the kitchen almost behind the stove where it was hard to see. She could outrun his knife if it came to that. Of course she was too fussy, but it did no harm to play safe. She ought not to let poor sick Tea Cake do something that would run him crazy when he found out what he had done.
She saw him coming from the outhouse with a queer loping gait, swinging his head from side to side and his jaws clenched in a funny way. This was too awful! Where was Dr. Simmons with that medicine? She was glad she was here to look after him. Folks would do such mean things to her Tea Cake if they saw him in such a fix. Treat Tea Cake like he was some mad dog when nobody in the world had more kindness about them. All he needed was for the doctor to come on with that medicine. He came back into the house without speaking, in fact, he did not seem to notice she was there and fell heavily into the bed and slept. Janie was standing by the stove washing up the dishes when he spoke to her in a queer cold voice.
“Janie, how come you can’t sleep in de same bed wid me no mo’?”
“De doctah told you tuh sleep by yo’self, Tea Cake. Don’t yuh remember him tellin’ you dat yistiddy?”
“How come you ruther sleep on uh pallet than tuh sleep in de bed wid me?” Janie saw then that he had the gun in his hand that was hanging to his side. “Answer me when Ah speak.”
“Tea Cake, Tea Cake, honey! Go lay down! Ah’ll be too glad tuh be in dere wid yuh de minute de doctor say so. Go lay back down. He’ll be heah wid some new medicine right away.”
“Janie, Ah done went through everything tuh be good tuh you and it hurt me tuh mah heart tuh be ill treated lak Ah is.”
The gun came up unsteadily but quickly and leveled at Janie’s breast. She noted that even in his delirium he took good aim. Maybe he would point to scare her, that was all.
The pistol snapped once. Instinctively Janie’s hand flew behind her on the rifle and brought it around. Most likely this would scare him off. If only the doctor would come! If anybody at all would come! She broke the rifle deftly and shoved in the shell as the second click told her that Tea Cake’s suffering brain was urging him on to kill.
“Tea Cake, put down dat gun and go back tuh bed!” Janie yelled at him as the gun wavered weakly in his hand.
He steadied himself against the jamb of the door and Janie thought to run into him and grab his arm, but she saw the quick motion of taking aim and heard the click. Saw the ferocious look in his eyes and went mad with fear as she had done in the water that time. She threw up the barrel of the rifle in frenzied hope and fear. Hope that he’d see it and run, desperate fear for her life. But if Tea Cake could have counted costs he would not have been there with the pistol in his hands. No knowledge of fear nor rifles nor anything else was there. He paid no more attention to the pointing gun than if it were Janie’s dog finger. She saw him stiffen himself all over as he leveled and took aim. The fiend in him must kill and Janie was the only thing living he saw.
The pistol and the rifle rang out almost together. The pistol just enough after the rifle to seem its echo. Tea Cake crumpled as his bullet buried itself in the joist over Janie’s head. Janie saw the look on his face and leaped forward as he crashed forward in her arms. She was trying to hover him as he closed his teeth in the flesh of her forearm. They came down heavily like that. Janie struggled to a sitting position and pried the dead Tea Cake’s teeth from her arm.
It was the meanest moment of eternity. A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap. She had wanted him to live so much and he was dead. No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep. Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time. Then the grief of outer darkness descended.
So that same day of Janie’s great sorrow she was in jail. And when the doctor told the sheriff and the judge how it was, they all said she must be tried that same day. No need to punish her in jail by waiting. Three hours in jail and then they set the court for her case. The time was short and everything, but sufficient people were there. Plenty of white people came to look on this strangeness. And all the Negroes for miles around. Who was it didn’t know about the love between Tea Cake and Janie?
The court set and Janie saw the judge who had put on a great robe to listen about her and Tea Cake. And twelve more white men had stopped whatever they were doing to listen and pass on what happened between Janie and Tea Cake Woods, and as to whether things were done right or not. That was funny too. Twelve strange men who didn’t know a thing about people like Tea Cake and her were going to sit on the thing. Eight or ten white women had come to look at her too. They wore good clothes and had the pinky color that comes of good food. They were nobody’s poor white folks. What need had they to leave their richness to come look on Janie in her overalls? But they didn’t seem too mad, Janie thought. It would be nice if she could make them know how it was instead of those menfolks. Oh, and she hoped that undertaker was fixing Tea Cake up fine. They ought to let her go see about it. Yes, and there was Mr. Prescott that she knew right well and he was going to tell the twelve men to kill her for shooting Tea Cake. And a strange man from Palm Beach who was going to ask them not to kill her, and none of them knew.
Then she saw all of the colored people standing up in the back of the courtroom. Packed tight like a case of celery, only much darker than that. They were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks.
So it was all ready after a while and they wanted people to talk so that they could know what was right to do about Janie Woods, the relic of Tea Cake’s Janie. The white part of the room got calmer the more serious it got, but a tongue storm struck the Negroes like wind among palm trees. They talked all of a sudden and all together like a choir and the top parts of their bodies moved on the rhythm of it. They sent word by the bailiff to Mr. Prescott they wanted to testify in the case. Tea Cake was a good boy. He had been good to that woman. No nigger woman ain’t never been treated no better. Naw suh! He worked like a dog for her and nearly killed himself saving her in the storm, then soon as he got a little fever from the water, she had took up with another man. Sent for him to come there from way off. Hanging was too good. All they wanted was a chance to testify. The bailiff went up and the sheriff and the judge, and the police chief, and the lawyers all came together to listen for a few minutes, then they parted again and the sheriff took the stand and told how Janie had come to his house with the doctor and how he found things when he drove out to hers.
Then they called Dr. Simmons and he told about Tea Cake’s sickness and how dangerous it was to Janie and the whole town, and how he was scared for her and thought to have Tea Cake locked up in the jail, but seeing Janie’s care he neglected to do it. And how he found Janie all bit in the arm, sitting on the floor and petting Tea Cake’s head when he got there. And the pistol right by his hand on the floor. Then he stepped down.
“Any further evidence to present, Mr. Prescott?” the judge asked.
“No, Your Honor. The State rests.”
The palm tree dance began again among the Negroes in the back. They had come to talk. The State couldn’t rest until it heard.
“Mistah Prescott, Ah got somethin’ tuh say,” Sop-de-Bottom spoke out anonymously from the anonymous herd.
The courtroom swung round on itself to look.
“If you know what’s good for you, you better shut your mouth up until somebody calls you,” Mr. Prescott told him coldly.
“Yassuh, Mr. Prescott.”
“We are handling this case. Another word out of you, out of any of you niggers back there, and I’ll bind you over to the big court.”
The white women made a little applause and Mr. Prescott glared at the back of the house and stepped down. Then the strange white man that was going to talk for her got up there. He whispered a little with the clerk and then called on Janie to take the stand and talk. After a few little questions he told her to tell just how it happened and to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help her God.
They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fighting something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice.
She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he couldn’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. But she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how she couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed. She had been through for some time before the judge and the lawyer and the rest seemed to know it. But she sat on in that trial chair until the lawyer told her she could come down.
“The defense rests,” her lawyer said. Then he and Prescott whispered together and both of them talked to the judge in secret up high there where he sat. Then they both sat down.
“Gentlemen of the jury, it is for you to decide whether the defendant has committed a cold blooded murder or whether she is a poor broken creature, a devoted wife trapped by unfortunate circumstances who really in firing a rifle bullet into the heart of her late husband did a great act of mercy. If you find her a wanton killer you must bring in a verdict of first degree murder. If the evidence does not justify that then you must set her free. There is no middle course.”
The jury filed out and the courtroom began to drone with talk, a few people got up and moved about. And Janie sat like a lump and waited. It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding. If they made a verdict that she didn’t want Tea Cake and wanted him dead, then that was a real sin and a shame. It was worse than murder. Then the jury was back again. Out five minutes by the courthouse clock.
“We find the death of Vergible Woods to be entirely accidental and justifiable, and that no blame should rest upon the defendant Janie Woods.”
So she was free and the judge and everybody up there smiled with her and shook her hand. And the white women cried and stood around her like a protecting wall and the Negroes, with heads hung down, shuffled out and away. The sun was almost down and Janie had seen the sun rise on her troubled love and then she had shot Tea Cake and had been in jail and had been tried for her life and now she was free. Nothing to do with the little that was left of the day but to visit the kind white friends who had realized her feelings and thank them. So the sun went down.
She took a room at the boarding house for the night and heard the men talking around the front.
“Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her.”
“She didn’t kill no white man, did she? Well, long as she don’t shoot no white man she kin kill jus’ as many niggers as she please.”
“Yeah, de nigger women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet’ not kill one uh dem. De white folks will sho hang yuh if yuh do.”
“Well, you know whut dey say ’uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.”
Janie buried Tea Cake in Palm Beach. She knew he loved the ’Glades but it was too low for him to lie with water maybe washing over him with every heavy rain. Anyway, the ’Glades and its waters had killed him. She wanted him out of the way of storms, so she had a strong vault built in the cemetery at West Palm Beach. Janie had wired to Orlando for money to put him away. Tea Cake was the son of Evening Sun, and nothing was too good. The Undertaker did a handsome job and Tea Cake slept royally on his white silken couch among the roses she had bought. He looked almost ready to grin. Janie bought him a brand new guitar and put it in his hands. He would be thinking up new songs to play to her when she got there.
Sop and his friends had tried to hurt her but she knew it was because they loved Tea Cake and didn’t understand. So she sent Sop word and to all the others through him. So the day of the funeral they came with shame and apology in their faces. They wanted her quick forgetfulness. So they filled up and overflowed the ten sedans that Janie had hired and added others to the line. Then the band played, and Tea Cake rode like a Pharaoh to his tomb. No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.
Because they really loved Janie just a little less than they had loved Tea Cake, and because they wanted to think well of themselves, they wanted their hostile attitude forgotten. So they blamed it all on Mrs. Turner’s brother and ran him off the muck again. They’d show him about coming back there posing like he was good looking and putting himself where men’s wives could look at him. Even if they didn’t look it wasn’t his fault, he had put himself in the way.
“Naw, Ah ain’t mad wid Janie,” Sop went around explaining. “Tea Cake had done gone crazy. You can’t blame her for puhtectin’ herself. She wuz crazy ’bout ’im. Look at de way she put him away. Ah ain’t got anything in mah heart aginst her. And Ah never woulda thought uh thing, but de very first day dat lap-legged nigger come back heah makin’ out he wuz lookin’ fuh work, he come astin’ me ’bout how wuz Mr. and Mrs. Woods makin’ out. Dat goes tuh show yuh he wuz up tuh somethin’.”
“So when Stew Beef and Bootyny and some of de rest of ’em got behind ’im he come runnin’ tuh me tuh save ’im. Ah told ’im, don’t come tuh me wid yo’ hair blowin’ back, ’cause, Ah’m gointuh send yuh, and Ah sho did. De bitches’ baby!” That was enough, they eased their feelings by beating him and running him off. Anyway, their anger against Janie had lasted two whole days and that was too long to keep remembering anything. Too much of a strain.
They had begged Janie to stay on with them and she had stayed a few weeks to keep them from feeling bad. But the muck meant Tea Cake and Tea Cake wasn’t there. So it was just a great expanse of black mud. She had given away everything in their little house except a package of garden seed that Tea Cake had bought to plant. The planting never got done because he had been waiting for the right time of the moon when his sickness overtook him. The seeds reminded Janie of Tea Cake more than anything else because he was always planting things. She had noticed them on the kitchen shelf when she came home from the funeral and had put them in her breast pocket. Now that she was home, she meant to plant them for remembrance.
Janie stirred her strong feet in the pan of water. The tiredness was gone so she dried them off on the towel.
“Now, dat’s how everything wuz, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain’t so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo’ Tea Cake come along. It’s full uh thoughts, ’specially dat bedroom.
“Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin’ ’bout. Dat’s all right, Pheoby, tell ’em. Dey gointuh make ’miration ’cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin’.”
“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let ’em consolate theyselves wid talk. ’Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
There was a finished silence after that so that for the first time they could hear the wind picking at the pine trees. It made Pheoby think of Sam waiting for her and getting fretful. It made Janie think about that room upstairs—her bedroom. Pheoby hugged Janie real hard and cut the darkness in flight.
Soon everything around downstairs was shut and fastened. Janie mounted the stairs with her lamp. The light in her hand was like a spark of sun-stuff washing her face in fire. Her shadow behind fell black and headlong down the stairs. Now, in her room, the place tasted fresh again. The wind through the open windows had broomed out all the fetid feeling of absence and nothingness. She closed in and sat down. Combing road-dust out of her hair. Thinking.
The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.