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