Their Eyes Were Watching God
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.