Their Eyes Were Watching God
Long before the year was up, Janie noticed that her husband had stopped talking in rhymes to her. He had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it. Six months back he had told her, “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah fust wife never bothered me ’bout choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten.”
So Janie had told him, “Ah’m just as stiff as you is stout. If you can stand not to chop and tote wood Ah reckon you can stand not to git no dinner. ’Scuse mah freezolity, Mist’ Killicks, but Ah don’t mean to chop de first chip.”
“Aw you know Ah’m gwine chop de wood fuh yuh. Even if you is stingy as you can be wid me. Yo’ Grandma and me myself done spoilt yuh now, and Ah reckon Ah have tuh keep on wid it.”
One morning soon he called her out of the kitchen to the barn. He had the mule all saddled at the gate.
“Looka heah, LilBit, help me out some. Cut up dese seed taters fuh me. Ah got tuh go step off a piece.”
“Where you goin’?”
“Over tuh Lake City tuh see uh man about uh mule.”
“Whut you need two mules fuh? Lessen you aims to swap off dis one.”
“Naw, Ah needs two mules dis yeah. Taters is goin’ tuh be taters in de fall. Bringin’ big prices. Ah aims tuh run two plows, and dis man Ah’m talkin’ ’bout is got uh mule all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle ’im.”
Logan held his wad of tobacco real still in his jaw like a thermometer of his feelings while he studied Janie’s face and waited for her to say something.
“So Ah thought Ah mout as well go see.” He tagged on and swallowed to kill time but Janie said nothing except, “Ah’ll cut de p’taters fuh yuh. When yuh comin’ back?”
“Don’t know exactly. Round dust dark Ah reckon. It’s uh sorta long trip—specially if Ah hafter lead one on de way back.”
When Janie had finished indoors she sat down in the barn with the potatoes. But springtime reached her in there so she moved everything to a place in the yard where she could see the road. The noon sun filtered through the leaves of the fine oak tree where she sat and made lacy patterns on the ground. She had been there a long time when she heard whistling coming down the road.
It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. He whistled, mopped his face and walked like he knew where he was going. He was a seal-brown color but he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie. Where would such a man be coming from and where was he going? He didn’t look her way nor no other way except straight ahead, so Janie ran to the pump and jerked the handle hard while she pumped. It made a loud noise and also made her heavy hair fall down. So he stopped and looked hard, and then he asked her for a cool drink of water.
Janie pumped it off until she got a good look at the man. He talked friendly while he drank.
Joe Starks was the name, yeah Joe Starks from in and through Georgy. Been workin’ for white folks all his life. Saved up some money—round three hundred dollars, yes indeed, right here in his pocket. Kept hearin’ ’bout them buildin’ a new state down heah in Floridy and sort of wanted to come. But he was makin’ money where he was. But when he heard all about ’em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folks was buildin’ theirselves. Dat was right too. De man dat built things oughta boss it. Let colored folks build things too if dey wants to crow over somethin’. He was glad he had his money all saved up. He meant to git dere whilst de town wuz yet a baby. He meant to buy in big. It had always been his wish and desire to be a big voice and he had to live nearly thirty years to find a chance. Where was Janie’s papa and mama?
“Dey dead, Ah reckon. Ah wouldn’t know ’bout ’em ’cause mah Grandma raised me. She dead too.”
“She dead too! Well, who’s lookin’ after a lil girl-chile lak you?”
“You married? You ain’t hardly old enough to be weaned. Ah betcha you still craves sugar-tits, doncher?”
“Yeah, and Ah makes and sucks ’em when de notion strikes me. Drinks sweeten’ water too.”
“Ah loves dat mahself. Never specks to get too old to enjoy syrup sweeten’ water when it’s cools and nice.”
“Us got plenty syrup in de barn. Ribbon-cane syrup. If you so desires—”
“Where yo’ husband at, Mis’ er-er.”
“Mah name is Janie Mae Killicks since Ah got married. Useter be name Janie Mae Crawford. Mah husband is gone tuh buy a mule fuh me tuh plow. He left me cuttin’ up seed p’taters.”
“You behind a plow! You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than uh hog is got wid uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you.”
Janie laughed and drew two quarts of syrup from the barrel and Joe Starks pumped the water bucket full of cool water. They sat under the tree and talked. He was going on down to the new part of Florida, but no harm to stop and chat. He later decided he needed a rest anyway. It would do him good to rest a week or two.
Every day after that they managed to meet in the scrub oaks across the road and talk about when he would be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits. Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance. Still she hung back. The memory of Nanny was still powerful and strong.
“Janie, if you think Ah aims to tole you off and make a dog outa you, youse wrong. Ah wants to make a wife outa you.”
“You mean dat, Joe?”
“De day you puts yo’ hand in mine, Ah wouldn’t let de sun go down on us single. Ah’m uh man wid principles. You ain’t never knowed what it was to be treated lak a lady and Ah wants to be de one tuh show yuh. Call me Jody lak you do sometime.”
“Jody,” she smiled up at him, “but s’posin’—”
“Leave de s’posin’ and everything else to me. Ah’ll be down dis road uh little after sun-up tomorrow mornin’ to wait for you. You come go wid me. Den all de rest of yo’ natural life you kin live lak you oughta. Kiss me and shake yo’ head. When you do dat, yo’ plentiful hair breaks lak day.”
Janie debated the matter that night in bed.
“Logan, you ’sleep?”
“If Ah wuz, you’d be done woke me up callin’ me.”
“Ah wuz thinkin’ real hard about us; about you and me.”
“It’s about time. Youse powerful independent around here sometime considerin’.”
“Considerin’ whut for instance?”
“Considerin’ youse born in a carriage ’thout no top to it, and yo’ mama and you bein’ born and raised in de white folks back-yard.”
“You didn’t say all dat when you wuz begging Nanny for me to marry you.”
“Ah thought you would ’preciate good treatment. Thought Ah’d take and make somethin’ outa yuh. You think youse white folks by de way you act.”
“S’posin’ Ah wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime.”
There! Janie had put words in his held-in fears. She might run off sure enough. The thought put a terrible ache in Logan’s body, but he thought it best to put on scorn.
“Ah’m gettin’ sleepy, Janie. Let’s don’t talk no mo’. ’Tain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do.”
“Ah might take and find somebody dat did trust me and leave yuh.”
“Shucks! ’Tain’t no mo’ fools lak me. A whole lot of mens will grin in yo’ face, but dey ain’t gwine tuh work and feed yuh. You won’t git far and you won’t be long, when dat big gut reach over and grab dat little one, you’ll be too glad to come back here.”
“You don’t take nothin’ to count but sow-belly and cornbread.”
“Ah’m sleepy. Ah don’t aim to worry mah gut into a fiddle-string wid no s’posin’.” He flopped over resentful in his agony and pretended sleep. He hoped that he had hurt her as she had hurt him.
Janie got up with him the next morning and had the breakfast halfway done when he bellowed from the barn.
“Janie!” Logan called harshly. “Come help me move dis manure pile befo’ de sun gits hot. You don’t take a bit of interest in dis place. ’Tain’t no use in foolin’ round in dat kitchen all day long.”
Janie walked to the door with the pan in her hand still stirring the cornmeal dough and looked towards the barn. The sun from ambush was threatening the world with red daggers, but the shadows were gray and solid-looking around the barn. Logan with his shovel looked like a black bear doing some clumsy dance on his hind legs.
“You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine.”
“You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick.”
“Mah mamma didn’t tell me Ah wuz born in no hurry. So whut business Ah got rushin’ now? Anyhow dat ain’t whut youse mad about. Youse mad ’cause Ah don’t fall down and wash-up dese sixty acres uh ground yuh got. You ain’t done me no favor by marryin’ me. And if dat’s what you call yo’self doin’, Ah don’t thank yuh for it. Youse mad ’cause Ah’m tellin’ yuh whut you already knowed.”
Logan dropped his shovel and made two or three clumsy steps towards the house, then stopped abruptly.
“Don’t you change too many words wid me dis mawnin’, Janie, do Ah’ll take and change ends wid yuh! Heah, Ah just as good as take you out de white folks’ kitchen and set you down on yo’ royal diasticutis and you take and low-rate me! Ah’ll take holt uh dat ax and come in dere and kill yuh! You better dry up in dere! Ah’m too honest and hard-workin’ for anybody in yo’ family, dat’s de reason you don’t want me!” The last sentence was half a sob and half a cry. “Ah guess some low-lifed nigger is grinnin’ in yo’ face and lyin’ tuh yuh. God damn yo’ hide!”
Janie turned from the door without answering, and stood still in the middle of the floor without knowing it. She turned wrongside out just standing there and feeling. When the throbbing calmed a little she gave Logan’s speech a hard thought and placed it beside other things she had seen and heard. When she had finished with that she dumped the dough on the skillet and smoothed it over with her hand. She wasn’t even angry. Logan was accusing her of her mamma, her grandmama and her feelings, and she couldn’t do a thing about any of it. The sow-belly in the pan needed turning. She flipped it over and shoved it back. A little cold water in the coffee pot to settle it. Turned the hoe-cake with a plate and then made a little laugh. What was she losing so much time for? A feeling of sudden newness and change came over her. Janie hurried out of the front gate and turned south. Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good.
The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet. After that she came to where Joe Starks was waiting for her with a hired rig. He was very solemn and helped her to the seat beside him. With him on it, it sat like some high, ruling chair. From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them.
“Green Cove Springs,” he told the driver. So they were married there before sundown, just like Joe had said. With new clothes of silk and wool.
They sat on the boarding house porch and saw the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged.