2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

[5 of 5] Kindred, pp. 234 -264, by Octavia E. Butler (1979)

Author: Octavia E. Butler

"The Storm.” "The Rope," and "Epilogue," Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, Beacon Press, 1988, pp. 234 - 264.

She caught me alone one evening and pulled me into her cabin. It was empty except for the sleeping Hagar. Joe was out collecting cuts and bruises from sturdier children.

“Did you get the laudanum?” she demanded.

I peered at her through the semidarkness. Rufus kept her well supplied with candles, but at the moment, the only light in the room came from the window and from a low fire over which two pots simmered. “Alice, are you sure you still want it?”

I saw her frown. “Sure I want it! ’Course I want it! What’s the matter with you?”

I hedged a little. “It’s so soon . . . The baby’s only a few weeks old.”

“You get me that stuff so I can leave when I want to!” “I’ve got it.”

“Give it to me!”

“Goddamnit, Alice, will you slow down! Look, you keep working on him the way you have been, and you can get whatever you want and live to enjoy it.”

To my surprise, her stony expression crumbled, and she began to cry. “He’ll never let any of us go,” she said. “The more you give him, the more he wants.” She paused, wiped her eyes, then added softly, “I got to go while I still can—before I turn into just what people call me.” She looked at me and did the thing that made her so much like Rufus, though neither of them recognized it. “I got to go before I turn into what you are!” she said bitterly.

Sarah had cornered me once and said, “What you let her talk to you like that for? She can’t get away with it with nobody else.”

I didn’t know. Guilt, maybe. In spite of everything, my life was easier than hers. Maybe I tried to make up for that by taking her abuse. Everything had its limits, though.

“You want my help, Alice, you watch your mouth!” “Watch yours,” she mocked.

I stared at her in astonishment, remembering, knowing exactly what she had overheard.

“If I talked to him the way you do, he’d have me hangin’ in the bam,” she said.

“If you go on talking to me the way you do, I won’t care what he does to you.”

She looked at me for a long time without saying anything. Finally, she smiled. “You’ll care. And you’ll help me. Else, you’d have to see yourself for the white nigger you are, and you couldn’t stand that.” Rufus never called my bluff. Alice did it automatically—and be¬ cause I was bluffing, she got away with it. I got up and walked away

from her. Behind me, I thought I heard her laugh.

Some days later, I gave her the laudanum. Later that same day, Rufus began talking about sending Joe to school up North when he was a little older.

“Do you mean to free the boy, Rufe?” He nodded.

“Good. Tell Alice.” “When I get around to it.”

I didn’t argue with him; I told her myself.

“It don’t matter what he says,” she told me. “Did he show you any free papers?”


“When he does, and you read them to me, maybe I’ll believe him. I’m tellin’ you, he uses those children just the way you use a bit on a horse. I’m tired of havin’ a bit in my mouth.”

I didn’t blame her. But still, I didn’t want her to go, didn’t want her to risk Joe and Hagar. Hell, I didn’t even want her to risk her¬ self. Elsewhere, under other circumstances, I would probably have disliked her. But here, we had a common enemy to unite us.


I planned to stay on the Weylin plantation long enough to see Alice leave, to find out whether she would be able to keep her free¬ dom this time. I managed to talk her into waiting until early summer to go. And I was prepared to wait that long myself before I tried some dangerous trick that might get me home. I was homesick and Kevinsick and damned sick of Margaret Weylin’s floor and Alice’s mouth, but I could wait a few more months. I thought.

I talked Rufus into letting me teach Nigel’s two older sons and the two children who served at the table along with Joe. Surprisingly, the children liked it. I couldn’t recall having liked school much when I was their ages. Rufus liked it because Joe was as bright as I had said —bright and competitive. He had a head start on the others, and he didn’t intend to lose it.

“Why weren’t you like that about learning?” I asked Rufus. “Don’t bother me,” he muttered.

Some of his neighbors found out what I was doing and offered him fatherly advice. It was dangerous to educate slaves, they warned. Education made blacks dissatisfied with slavery. It spoiled them for field work. The Methodist minister said it made them disobedient, made them want more than the Lord intended them to have. Another man said educating slaves was illegal. When Rufus replied that he had checked and that it wasn’t illegal in Maryland, the man said it should have been. Talk. Rufus shrugged it off without ever saying how much of it he believed. It was enough that he sided with me, and my school continued. I got the feeling that Alice was keeping him happy—and maybe finally enjoying herself a little in the process. I guessed from what she had told me that this was what was frightening her so, driving her away from the plantation, causing her to lash out at me. She was trying to deal with guilt of her own.

But she was waiting and using some discretion. I relaxed, spent my spare moments trying to think of a way to get home. I didn’t want to depend on someone else’s chance violence again—violence that, if it came, could be more effective than I wanted.

Then Sam James stopped me out by the cookhouse and my complacency was brought to an end.

I saw him waiting for me beside the cookhouse door—a big young man. I mistook him for Nigel at first. Then I recognized him. Sarah had told me his name. He had spoken to me at the com husking, and again at Christmas. Then Sarah had spoken to him for me and he had said nothing else. Until now.

“I’m Sam,” he said. “Remember at Christmas?” “Yes. But I thought Sarah told you . . .”

“She did. Look, it ain’t that. I just wanted to see if maybe you’d teach my brother and sister to read.”

“Your. . . Oh. How old are they?”

“Sister was bom the year you came here last . . . brother, the year before that.”

“I’ll have to get permission. Ask Sarah about it in a few days but don’t come to me again.” I thought of the expression I had seen on Rufus’s face as he looked at this man. “Maybe I’m too cautious, but I don’t want you getting in trouble because of me.”

He gave me a long searching look. “You want to be with that white man, girl?”

“If I were anywhere else, no black child on the place would be learning anything.”

“That ain’t what I mean.”

“Yes it is. It’s all part of the same thing.”

“Some folks say . .

“Hold on.” I was suddenly angry. “I don’t want to hear what ‘some folks’ say. ‘Some folks’ let Fowler drive them into the fields every day and work them like mules.”

“Let him . . . ?”

“Let him! They do it to keep the skin on their backs and breath in their bodies. Well, they’re not the only ones who have to do things they don’t like to stay alive and whole. Now you tell me why that should be so hard for ‘some folks’ to understand?”

He sighed. “That’s what I told them. But you better off than they are, so they get jealous.” He gave me another of his long searching looks. “I still say it’s too bad you already spoke for.”

I grinned. “Get out of here, Sam. Field hands aren’t the only ones who can be jealous.”

He went. That was all. Innocent—completely innocent. But three days later, a trader led Sam away in chains.

Rufus never said a word to me. He didn’t accuse me of anything. I wouldn’t have known Sam had been sold if I hadn’t glanced out the window of Margaret Weylin’s room and seen the coffle.

I told Margaret some hasty lie, then ran out of her room, down the stairs, and out the door. I ran headlong into Rufus, and felt him steady me, hold me. The weakness that his dengue fever had left was finally gone. His grip was formidable.

“Get back in the house!” he hissed.

I saw Sam beyond him being chained into line. There were people a few feet away from him crying loudly. Two women, a boy and a girl. His family.

“Rufe,” I pleaded desperately, “don’t do this. There’s no need!” He pushed me back toward the door and I struggled against him. “Rufe, please! Listen, he came to ask me to teach his brother and

sister to read. That’s all!”

It was like talking to the wall of the house. I managed to break away from him for a moment just as the younger of the two weeping women spotted me.

“You whore!” she screamed. She had not been permitted to approach the coffle, but she approached me. “You no-’count nigger whore, why couldn’t you leave my brother alone!”

She would have attacked me. And field hand that she was, strengthened by hard work, she would probably have given me the beating she thought I deserved. But Rufus stepped between us.

“Get back to work, Sally!”

She didn’t move, stood glaring at him until the older woman, prob¬ ably her mother, reached her and pulled her away.

I caught Rufus by the hand and spoke low to him. “Please, Rufe. If you do this, you’ll destroy what you mean to preserve. Please don’t . . .”

He hit me.

It was a first, and so unexpected that I stumbled backward and fell.

And it was a mistake. It was the breaking of an unspoken agreement between us—a very basic agreement—and he knew it.

I got up slowly, watching him with anger and betrayal. “Get in the house and stay there,” he said.

I turned my back and went to the cookhouse, deliberately disobey¬ ing. I could hear one of the traders say, “You ought to sell that one too. Troublemaker!”

At the cookhouse, I heated water, got it warm, not hot. Then I took a basin of it up to the attic. It was hot there, and empty except for the pallets and my bag in its comer. I went over to it, washed my knife in antiseptic, and hooked the drawstring of my bag over my shoulder.

And in the warm water I cut my wrists.

The Rope


I awoke in darkness and lay still for several seconds trying to think where I was and when I had gone to sleep.

I was lying on something unbelievably soft and comfortable . . .

My bed. Home. Kevin?

I could hear regular breathing beside me now. I sat up and reached out to turn on the lamp—or I tried to. Sitting up made me faint and dizzy. For a moment, I thought Rufus was pulling me back to him before I could even see home. Then I became aware that my wrists were bandaged and throbbing—and I remembered what I had done.

The lamp on Kevin’s side of the bed went on and I could see him beardless now, but with his thatch of gray hair uncut.

I lat flat and looked up at him happily. “You’re beautiful,” I said. “You look a little like a heroic portrait I saw once of Andrew Jackson.”

“No way,” he said. “Man was skinny as hell. I’ve seen him.” “But you haven’t seen my heroic portrait.”

“Why the hell did you cut your wrists? You could have bled to death! Or did you cut them yourself?”

“Yes. It got me home.” “There must be a safer way.”

I rubbed my wrists gingerly. “There isn’t any safe way to almost kill yourself. I was afraid of the sleeping pills. I took them with me because I wanted to be able to die if . . . if I wanted to die. But I was afraid that if I used them to get home, I might die before you or some doctor figured out what was wrong with me. Or that if I didn’t die, I’d have some grisly side-effect—like gangrene.”

“I see,” he said after a while. “Did you bandage me?”

“Me? No, I thought this was too serious for me to handle alone. I stopped the bleeding as best I could and called Lou George. He bandaged you.” Louis George was a doctor friend Kevin had met through his writing. Kevin had interviewed George for an article once, and the two had taken a liking to each other. They wound up doing a nonfiction book together.

“Lou said you managed to miss the main arteries in both arms,” Kevin told me. “Said you didn’t do much more than scratch your¬ self.”

“With all that blood!”

“It wasn’t that much. You were probably too frightened to cut as deeply as you could have.”

I sighed. “Well … I guess I’m glad I didn’t do much damage—as long as I got home.”

“How would you feel about seeing a psychiatrist?” “Seeing a . . . Are you kidding?”

“I am, but Lou wasn’t. He says if you’re doing things like this, you need help.”

“Oh God. Do I have to? The lies I’d have to invent!”

“No, this time you probably won’t have to. Lou is a friend. You do it again, though, and . . . well, you could be locked up for psychiatric treatment whether you like it or not. The law tries to protect people like you from themselves.”

I found myself laughing, almost crying. I put my head on his shoulder and wondered whether a little time in some sort of mental institution would be worse than several months of slavery. I doubted it.

“How long was I gone this time?” I asked. “About three hours. How long was it for you?” “Eight months.”

“Eight . . .” He put his arm over me, holding me. “No wonder you cut your wrists.”

“Hagar has been bom.”

“Has she?” There was silence for a moment, then, “What’s that going to mean?”

I twisted uncomfortably and, by accident, put pressure on one of my wrists. The sudden pain made me gasp.

“Be careful,” he said. “Treat yourself gently for a change.” “Where’s my bag?”

“Here.” He pulled the blanket aside and let me see that I was securely tied to my denim bag. “What are you going to do, Dana?”

“I don’t know.” “What’s he like now?”

He. Rufus. He had become such a fixture in my life that it wasn’t even necessary to say his name. “His father died,” I said. “He’s running things now.”


“I don’t know. How do you do well at owning and trading in slaves?”

“Not well,” Kevin decided. He got up and went to the kitchen, came back with a glass of water. “Did you want anything to eat? I can get you something.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“What did he do to you, finally, to make you cut your wrists?” “Nothing to me. Nothing important. He sold a man away from his

family when there was no need for him to. He hit me when I objected. Maybe he’ll never be as hard as his father was, but he’s a man of his time.”

“Then … it doesn’t seem to me that you have such a difficult decision ahead of you.”

“But I do. I talked to Carrie about it once, and she said. . “Carrie?” He looked at me strangely.

“Yes. She said . . . Oh. She gets her meaning across, Kevin. Weren’t you around the place long enough to find that out?”

“She never tried to get much across to me. I used to wonder whether she was a little retarded.”

“God, no! Far from it. If you had gotten to know her, you wouldn’t even suspect.”

He managed to shrug. “Well, anyway, what did she tell you?” “That if I had let Rufus die, everyone would have been sold. More

families would have been separated. She has three children now.”

He was silent for several seconds. Then, “She might be sold with her children if they’re young. But I doubt that anyone would bother to keep her and her husband together. Someone would buy her and breed her to a new man. It is breeding, you know.”

“Yes. So you see, my decision isn’t as easy as you thought.” “But. . . they’re being sold anyway.”

“Not all of them. Good Lord, Kevin, their lives are hard enough.” “What about your life?”

“It’s better than anything most of them will ever know.” “It may not be as he gets older.”

I sat up, trying to ignore my own weakness. “Kevin, tell me what you want me to do.”

He looked away, said nothing. I gave him several seconds, but he kept silent.

“It’s real now, isn’t it,” I said softly. “We talked about it before-God knows how long ago—but somehow, it was abstract then. Now

. . . Kevin, if you can’t even say it, how can you expect me to do it?”


We had fifteen full days together this time. I marked them off on the calendar—June 19, through July 3. With some kind of reverse symbolism, Rufus called me back on July 4. But at least Kevin and I had a chance to grow back into the twentieth century. We didn’t seem to have to grow back into each other. The separations hadn’t been good for us, but they hadn’t hurt us that much either. It was easy for us to be together, knowing we shared experiences no one else would believe. It wasn’t as easy, though, for us to be with other people.

My cousin came over, and when Kevin answered the door, she didn’t recognize him.

“What’s the matter with him?” she whispered later when she and I were alone.

“He’s been sick,” I lied. “With what?”

“The doctor isn’t sure what it was. Kevin is much better now, though.”

“He looks just like my girl friend’s father did, and he had cancer.”

“Julie, for Godsake!”

“I’m sorry, but. . . never mind. He hasn’t hit you again, has he?” “No.”

“Well, that’s something. You’d better take care of yourself. You don’t look so good either.”

Kevin tried driving—his first time after five years of horses and buggies. He said the traffic confused him, made him more nervous than he could see any reason for. He said he’d almost killed a couple of people. Then he put the car in the garage and left it there.

Of course, I wouldn’t drive, wouldn’t even ride with someone else while there was still a chance of Rufus snatching me away. After the first week, though, Kevin began to doubt that I would be called again.

I didn’t doubt it. For the sake of the people whose lives Rufus controlled, I didn’t wish him dead, but I wouldn’t rest easy until I knew he was. As things stood now, sooner or later, he would get himself into trouble again and call me. I kept my denim bag nearby.

“You know, someday, you’re going to have to stop dragging that thing around with you and come back to life,” Kevin said after two weeks. He had just tried driving again, and when he came in, his hands were shaking. “Hell, half the time I wonder if you’re not eager to go back to Maryland anyway.”

I had been watching television—or at least, the television was on. Actually, I was looking over some journal pages I had managed to bring home in my bag, wondering whether I could weave them into a story. Now, I looked up at Kevin. “Me?”

“Why not? Eight months, after all.”

I put my journal pages down and got up to turn off the television. “Leave it on,” said Kevin.

I turned it off. “I think you’ve got something to say to me,” I said. “And I think I should hear it clearly.”

“You don’t want to hear anything.” “No, I don’t. But I’m going to, aren’t I?” “My God, Dana, after two weeks. . .”

“It was eight days, time before last. And about three hours last time. The intervals between trips don’t mean anything.”

“How old was he last time?”

“He turned twenty-five when I was there last. And, though I’ll never be able to prove it, I turned twenty-seven.”

“He’s grown up.”

I shrugged.

“Do you remember what he said just before he tried to shoot you?”

“No. I had other things on my mind.”

“I had forgotten it myself, but it’s come back to me. He said, ‘You’re not going to leave me!’

I thought for a moment. “Yes, that sounds about right.” “It doesn’t sound right to me.”

“I mean it sounds like what he said! I don’t have any control over what he says.”

“But still . . .” He paused, looked at me as though he expected me to say something. I didn’t. “It sounded more like what I might say to you if you were leaving.”

“Would you?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Say what you mean. I can’t answer you unless you say it.”

He drew a deep breath. “All right. You’ve said he was a man of his time, and you’ve told me what he’s done to Alice. What’s he done to you?”

“Sent me to the field, had me beaten, made me spend nearly eight months sleeping on the floor of his mother’s room, sold people . . .

He’s done plenty, but the worst of it was to other people. He hasn’t raped me, Kevin. He understands, though you don’t seem to, that for him that would be a form of suicide.”

“You mean there’s something he could do to make you kill him, after all?”

I sighed, went over to him, and sat down on the arm of his chair. I looked down at him. “Tell me you believe I’m lying to you.”

He looked at me uncertainly. “Look, if anything did happen, I could understand it. I know how it was back then.”

“You mean you could forgive me for having been raped?”

“Dana, I lived there. I know what those people were like. And Rufus’s attitude toward you . . .”

“Was sensible most of the time. He knew I could kill him just by turning my back at the right moment. And he believed that I wouldn’t have him because I loved you. He said something like that once. He was wrong, but I never told him so.”


“At least partly. Of course I love you, and I don’t want anyone else. But there’s another reason, and when I’m back there it’s the most important reason. I don’t think Rufus would have understood it. Maybe you won’t either.”

“Tell me.”

I thought for a moment, tried to find the right words. If I could make him understand, then surely he would believe me. He had to believe. He was my anchor here in my own time. The only person who had any idea what I was going through.

“You know what I thought,” I said, “when I saw Tess tied into that coffle?” I had told him about Tess and about Sam—that I had known them, that Rufus had sold them. I hadn’t told him the details though—especially not the details of Sam’s sale. I had been trying for two weeks to avoid sending his thoughts in the direction they had taken now.

“What does Tess have to do with . . . ?”

“I thought, that could be me—standing there with a rope around my neck waiting to be led away like someone’s dog!” I stopped, looked down at him, then went on softly. “I’m not property, Kevin. I’m not a horse or a sack of wheat. If I have to seem to be property, if I have to accept limits on my freedom for Rufus’s sake, then he also has to accept limits—on his behavior toward me. He has to leave me enough control of my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying.”

“If your black ancestors had felt that way, you wouldn’t be here,” said Kevin.

“I told you when all this started that I didn’t have their endurance. I still don’t. Some of them will go on struggling to survive, no matter what. I’m not like that.”

He smiled a little. “I suspect that you are.”

I shook my head. He thought I was being modest or something. He didn’t understand.

Then I realized that he had smiled. I looked down at him ques-tioningly.

He sobered. “I had to know.” “And do you, now?”


That felt like truth. It felt enough like truth for me not to mind that he had only half understood me.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do about Rufus?” he asked.

I shook my head. “You know, it’s not only what will happen to the slaves that worries me … if I turn my back on him. It’s what might happen to me.”

“You’ll be finished with him.”

“I might be finished period. I might not be able to get home.” “Your coming home has never had anything to do with him. You

come home when your life is in danger.”

“But how do I come home? Is the power mine, or do I tap some power in him? All this started with him, after all. I don’t know whether I need him or not. And I won’t know until he’s not around.”


A couple of Kevin’s friends came over on the Fourth of July and tried to get us to go to the Rose Bowl with them for the fireworks. Kevin wanted to go—more to get out of the house than for any other reason, I suspected. I told him to go ahead, but he wouldn’t go with¬ out me. As it turned out, there was no chance for me to go, anyway. As Kevin’s friends left the house, I began to feel dizzy.

I stumbled toward my bag, fell before I reached it, crawled toward it, grabbed it just as Kevin came in from saying good-bye to his friends.

“Dana,” he was saying, “we can’t stay cooped up in this house any longer waiting for something that isn’t. . .”

He was gone.

Instead of lying on the floor of my living room, I was lying on the ground in the sun, almost directly over a hill of large black ants.

Before I could get up, someone kicked me, fell on me heavily. I had the breath knocked out of me for a moment.

“Dana!” said Rufus’s voice. “What the hell are you doing here?” I looked up, saw him sprawled across me where he had fallen. We got up just as something began to bite me—the ants, probably. I

bnished myself off quickly.

“I said what are you doing here!” He sounded angry. He looked no older than he had been when I’d last seen him, but something was wrong with him. He looked haggard and weary—looked as though it had been too long since he’d slept last, looked as though it would be even longer before he was able to sleep again.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, Rufe. I never do until I find out what’s wrong with you.”

He stared at me for a long moment. His eyes were red and under them were dark smudges. Finally, he grabbed me by the arm and led me back the way he had come. We were on the plantation not far from the house. Nothing looked changed. I saw two of Nigel’s sons wrestling, rolling around on the ground. They were the two I had been teaching, and they were no bigger than they had been when I saw them last.

“Rufe, how long have I been gone?”

He didn’t answer. He was leading me toward the bam, I saw, and apparently I wasn’t going to leam anything until I got there.

He stopped at the bam door and pushed me through it. He didn’t follow me in.

I looked around, seeing very little at first as my eyes became ac¬ customed to the dimmer light. I turned to the place where I had been strung up and whipped—and jumped back in surprise when I saw that someone was hanging there. Hanging by the neck. A woman.


I stared at her not believing, not wanting to believe … I touched her and her flesh was cold and hard. The dead gray face was ugly in death as it had never been in life. The mouth was open. The eyes were open and staring. Her head was bare and her hair loose and short like mine. She had never liked to tie it up the way other women did. It was one of the things that had made us look even more alike— the only two consistently bareheaded women on the place. Her dress was dark red and her apron clean and white. She wore shoes that Rufus had had made specifically for her, not the rough heavy shoes or boots other slaves wore. It was as though she had dressed up and combed her hair and then . . .

I wanted her down.

I looked around, saw that the rope had been tied to a wall peg, thrown over a beam. I broke my fingernails, trying to untie it until I remembered my knife. I got it from my bag and cut Alice down.

She fell stiffly like something that would break when it hit the floor. But she landed without breaking and I took the rope from her neck and closed her eyes. For a time, I just sat with her, holding her head and crying silently.

Eventually, Rufus came in. I looked up at him and he looked away.

“Did she do this to herself?” I asked. “Yes. To herself.”


He didn’t answer. “Rufe?”

He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Where are her children?”

He turned and walked out of the barn.

I straightened Alice’s body and her dress and looked around for something to cover her with. There was nothing.

I left the bam and went across an expanse of grass to the cook¬ house. Sarah was there chopping meat with that frightening speed and co-ordination of hers. I had told her once that it always looked as though she was about to cut off a finger or two, and she had laughed. She still had all ten.

“Sarah?” There was such a difference in our ages now that every¬ one else my age called her “Aunt Sarah.” I knew it was a title of re¬ spect in this culture, and I respected her. But I couldn’t quite manage “Aunt” any more than I could have managed “Mammy.” She didn’t seem to mind.

She looked up. “Dana! Girl, what are you doing back here? What Marse Rufe done now?”

“I’m not sure. But, Sarah, Alice is dead.”

Sarah put down her cleaver and sat on the bench next to the table. “Oh Lord. Poor child. He finally killed her.”

“I don’t know,” I said. I went over and sat beside her. “I think she did it to herself. Hung herself. I just took her down.”

“He did it!” she hissed. “Even if he didn’t put the rope on her, he drove her to it. He sold her babies!”

I frowned. Sarah had spoken clearly enough, loudly enough, but for a moment, I didn’t understand. “Joe and Hagar? His children?”

“What he care ’bout that?”

“But … he did care. He was going to . . . Why would he do such a thing?”

“She run off.” Sarah faced me. “You must have known she was goin’. You and her was like sisters.”

I didn’t need the reminder. I got up, feeling that I had to move around, distract myself, or I would cry again.

“You sure fought like sisters,” said Sarah. “Always fussin’ at each other, stompin’ away from each other, cornin’ back. Right after you left, she knocked the devil out of a field hand who was runnin’ you down.”

Had she? She would. Insulting me was her prerogative. No trespassing. I paced from the table to the hearth to a small work table. Back to Sarah.

“Dana, where is she?” “In the bam.”

“He’ll give her a big funeral.” Sarah shook her head. “It’s funny. I thought she was finally settlin’ down with him—getting not to mind so much.”

“If she was, I don’t think she could have forgiven herself for it.” Sarah shrugged.

“When she ran . . . did he beat her?”

“Not much. ’Bout much as old Marse Tom whipped you that time.”

That gentle spanking, yes.

“The whipping didn’t matter much. But when he took away her children, I thought she was go’ die right there. She was screaming and crying and carrying on. Then she got sick and I had to take care of her.” Sarah was silent for a moment. “I didn’t want to even be close to her. When Marse Tom sold my babies, I just wanted to lay down and die. Seeing her like she was brought all that back.”

Carrie came in then, her face wet with tears. She came up to me without surprise, and hugged me.

“You know?” I asked.

She nodded, then made her sign for white people and pushed me toward the door. I went.

I found Rufus at his desk in the library fondling a hand gun.

He looked up and saw me just as I was about to withdraw. It had occurred to me suddenly, certainly, that this was where he had been heading when he called me. What had his call been, then? A subconscious desire for me to stop him from shooting himself?

“Come in, Dana.” His voice sounded empty and dead.

I pulled my old Windsor chair up to his desk and sat down. “How could you do it, Rufe?”

He didn’t answer.

“Your son and your daughter. . . How could you sell them?” “I didn’t.”

That stopped me. I had been prepared for almost any other answer—or no answer. But a denial. . . “But. . . but. . .”

“She ran away.” “I know.”

“We were getting along. You know. You were here. It was good. Once, when you were gone, she came to my room. She came on her own.”

“Rufe . . . ?”

“Everything was all right. I even went on with Joe’s lessons. Me! I told her I would free both cf them.”

“She didn’t believe you. You wouldn’t put anything into writing.” “I would have.”

I shrugged. “Where are the children, Rufe?” “In Baltimore with my mother’s sister.” “But. . . why?”

“To punish her, scare her. To make her see what could happen if she didn’t… if she tried to leave me.”

“Oh God! But you could have at least brought them back when she got sick.”

“I wish I had.” “Why didn’t you?” “I don’t know.”

I turned away from him in disgust. “You killed her. Just as though you had put that gun to her head and fired.”

He looked at the gun, put it down quickly. “What are you going to do now?”

“Nigel’s gone to get a coffin. A decent one, not just a homemade box. And he’ll hire a minister to come out tomorrow.”

“I mean what are you going to do for your son and your daughter?”

He looked at me helplessly.

“Two certificates of freedom,” I said. “You owe them that, at least. You’ve deprived them of their mother.”

“Damn you, Dana! Stop saying that! Stop saying I killed her.” I just looked at him.

“Why did you leave me! If you hadn’t gone, she might not have run away!”

I rubbed my face where he had hit me when I begged him not to sell Sam.

“You didn’t have to go!”

“You were turning into something I didn’t want to stay near.” Silence.

“Two certificates of freedom, Rufe, all legal. Raise them free. That’s the least you can do.”


There was an outdoor funeral the next day. Everyone attended-field hands, house servants, even the indifferent Evan Fowler.

The minister was a tall coal-black deep-voiced freedman with a face that reminded me of a picture I had of my father who had died before I was old enough to know him. The minister was literate. He held a Bible in his huge hands and read from Job and Ecclesiastes until I could hardly stand to listen. I had shrugged off my aunt and uncle’s strict Baptist teachings years before. But even now, especially now, the bitter melancholy words of Job could still reach me. “Man that is bom of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. .

I kept quiet somehow, wiped away silent tears, beat away flies and mosquitoes, heard the whispers.

“She gone to hell! Don’t you know folks kills theyself goes to hell!”

“Shut your mouth! Marse Rufe’ll make you think you down there with her!”


They buried her.

There was a big dinner afterward. My relatives at home had dinners after funerals too. I had never thought about how far back the custom might go.

I ate a little, then went away to the library where I could be alone, where I would write. Sometimes I wrote things because I couldn’t say them, couldn’t sort out my feelings about them, couldn’t keep them bottled up inside me. It was a kind of writing I always destroyed afterward. It was for no one else. Not even Kevin.

Rufus came in later when I was nearly written out. He came to the desk, sat down in my old Windsor—I was in his chair—and put his head down. We didn’t say anything, but we sat together for a while.

The next day, he took me to town with him, took me to the old

brick Court House, and let me watch while he had certificates of freedom drawn up for his children.

“If I bring them back,” he said on the ride home, “will you take care of them?”

I shook my head. “It wouldn’t be good for them, Rufe. This isn’t my home. They’d get used to me, then I’d be gone.”

“Who, then?”

“Carrie. Sarah will help her.” He nodded listlessly.

Early one morning a few days later, he left for Easton Point where he could catch a steamboat to Baltimore. I offered to go with him to help with the children, but all that got me was a look of suspicion—a look I couldn’t help understanding.

“Rufe, I don’t have to go to Baltimore to escape from you. I really want to help.”

“Just stay here,” he said. And he went out to talk to Evan Fowler before he left. He knew how I had gone home last. He had asked me, and I had told him.

“But why?” he had demanded. “You could have killed yourself.” “There’re worse things than being dead,” I had said.

He had turned and walked away from me.

Now he watched more than he had before. He couldn’t watch me all the time, of course, and unless he wanted to keep me chained, he couldn’t prevent me from taking one route or another out of his world if that was what I wanted to do. He couldn’t control me. That clearly bothered him.

Evan Fowler was in the house more than he had to be while Rufus was gone. He said little to me, gave me no orders. But he was there. I took refuge in Margaret Weylin’s room, and she was so pleased she talked endlessly. I found myself laughing and actually holding conversations with her as though we were just a couple of lonely people talking without the extra burden of stupid barriers.

Rufus came back, came to the house carrying the dark little girl and leading the boy who seemed to look even more like him. Joe saw me in the hall and ran to me.

“Aunt Dana, Aunt Dana!” And a hug later, “I can read better now. Daddy’s been teaching me. Wanna hear?”

“Sure I do.” I looked up at Rufus. Daddy?

He glared at me tight-lipped as though daring me to speak. All I had wanted to say, though, was, “What took you so long?” The boy had spent his short life calling his father “Master.” Well, now that he no longer had a mother, I supposed Rufus thought it was time he had a father. I managed to smile at Rufus—a real smile. I didn’t want him feeling embarrassed or defensive for finally acknowledging his son.

He smiled back, seemed to relax.

“How about my getting classes going again?”

He nodded. “I guess the others haven’t had time to forget much.” They hadn’t. As it turned out, I had only been away for three months. The children had had a kind of early summer vacation. Now they went back to school. And I, slowly, delicately, went to work on Rufus, began to push him toward freeing a few more of them, per¬ haps several more of them—perhaps in his will, all of them. I had heard of slaveholders doing such things. The Civil War was still thirty years away. I might be able to get some of the adult slaves freed while they were still young enough to build new lives. I might be able to do some good for everyone, finally. At least, I felt secure

enough to try, now that my own freedom was within reach.

Rufus had been keeping me with him more than he needed me now. He called me to share his meals openly, and he seemed to listen when I talked to him about freeing the slaves. But he made no promises. I wondered whether he thought making a will was foolish at his age—or maybe it was freeing more slaves that he thought was foolish. He didn’t say anything, so I couldn’t tell.

Finally, though, he did answer me, told me much more than I wanted to know. None of it should have surprised me at all.

“Dana,” he said one afternoon in the library, “I’d have to be crazy to make a will freeing these people and then tell you about it. I could die damn young for that kind of craziness.”

I had to look at him to see whether he was serious. But looking at him confused me even more. He was smiling, but I got the feeling he was completely serious. He believed I would kill him to free his slaves. Strangely, the idea had not occurred to me. My suggestion had been innocent. But he might have a point. Eventually, it would have occurred to me.

“I used to have nightmares about you,” he said. “They started when I was little—right after I set fire to the draperies. Remember the fire?”

“Of course.”

“I’d dream about you and wake up in a cold sweat.” “Dream . . . about me killing you?”

“Not exactly.” He paused, gave me a long unreadable look. “I’d dream about you leaving me.”

I frowned. That was close to the thing Kevin had heard him say— the thing that had awakened Kevin’s suspicions. “I leave,” I said carefully. “I have to. I don’t belong here.”

“Yes you do! As far as I’m concerned, you do. But that’s not what I mean. You leave, and sooner or later you come back. But in my nightmares, you leave without helping me. You walk away and leave me in trouble, hurting, maybe dying.”

“Oh. Are you sure those dreams started when you were little? They sound more like something you would have come up with after your fight with Isaac.”

“They got worse then,” he admitted. “But they started way back at the fire—as soon as I realized you could help me or not, just as you chose. I had those nightmares for years. Then when Alice had been here awhile, they went away. Now they’ve come back.”

He stopped, looked at me as though he expected me to say some¬ thing—to reassure him, perhaps, to promise him that I would never do such a thing. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to say the words.

“You see?” he said quietly.

I moved uncomfortably in my chair. “Rufe, do you know how many people live to ripe old ages without ever getting into the kind of trouble that causes you to need me? If you don’t trust me, then you have more reason than ever to be careful.”

“Tell me I can trust you.”

More discomfort. “You keep doing things that make it impossible for me to trust you—even though you know it has to work both ways.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I never know how to treat you. You confuse everybody. You sound too white to the field hands—like some kind of traitor, I guess.”

“I know what they think.”

“Daddy always thought you were dangerous because you knew too many white ways, but you were black. Too black, he said. The kind of black who watches and thinks and makes trouble. I told that to Alice and she laughed. She said sometimes Daddy showed more sense than I did. She said he was right about you, and that I’d find out some day.”

I jumped. Had Alice really said such a thing?

“And my mother,” continued Rufus calmly, “says if she closes her eyes while you and her are talking, she can forget you’re black with¬ out even trying.”

“I’m black,” I said. “And when you sell a black man away from his family just because he talked to me, you can’t expect me to have any good feelings toward you.”

He looked away. We hadn’t really discussed Sam before. We had talked around him, alluded to him without quite mentioning him.

“He wanted you,” said Rufus bluntly.

I stared at him, knowing now why we hadn’t spoken of Sam. It was too dangerous. It could lead to speaking of other things. We needed safe subjects now, Rufus and I—the price of com, supplies for the slaves, that sort of thing.

“Sam didn’t do anything,” I said. “You sold him for what you thought he was thinking.”

“He wanted you,” Rufus repeated.

So do you, I thought. No Alice to take the pressure off any more. It was time for me to go home. I started to get up.

“Don’t leave, Dana.”

I stopped. I didn’t want to hurry away—run away—from him. I didn’t want to give him any indication that I was going to the attic to reopen the tender new scar tissue at my wrists. I sat down again. And he leaned back in his chair and looked at me until I wished I had taken the chance of hurrying away.

“What am I going to do when you go home this time?” he whis¬ pered.

“You’ll survive.”

“I wonder . . . why I should bother.”

“For your children, at least,” I said. “Her children. They’re all you have left of her.”

He closed his eyes, rubbed one hand over them. “They should be your children now,” he said. “If you had any feelings for them, you’d stay.”

For them? “You know I can’t.”

“You could if you wanted to. I wouldn’t hurt you, and you wouldn’t have to hurt yourself. . . again.”

“You wouldn’t hurt me until something frustrated you, made you angry or jealous. You wouldn’t hurt me until someone hurt you. Rufe, I know you. I couldn’t stay here even if I didn’t have a home to go back to—and someone waiting for me there.”

“That Kevin!”


“I wish I had shot him.”

“If you had, you’d be dead yourself by now.”

He turned his body so that he faced me squarely. “You say that as though it means something.”

I got up to leave. There was nothing more to be said. He had asked for what he knew I could not give, and I had refused.

“You know, Dana,” he said softly, “when you sent Alice to me that first time, and I saw how much she hated me, I thought, I’ll fall asleep beside her and she’ll kill me. She’ll hit me with a candlestick. She’ll set fire to the bed. She’ll bring a knife up from the cook¬ house . . .

“I thought all that, but I wasn’t afraid. Because if she killed me, that would be that. Nothing else would matter. But if I lived, I would have her. And, by God, I had to have her.”

He stood up and came over to me. I stepped back, but he caught my arms anyway. “You’re so much like her, I can hardly stand it,” he said.

“Let go of me, Rufe!”

“You were one woman,” he said. “You and her. One woman. Two halves of a whole.”

I had to get away from him. “Let me go, or I’ll make your dream real!” Abandonment. The one weapon Alice hadn’t had. Rufus didn’t seem to be afraid of dying. Now, in his grief, he seemed almost to want death. But he was afraid of dying alone, afraid of being deserted by the person he had depended on for so long.

He stood holding my arms, perhaps trying to decide what he should do. After a moment, I felt his grip loosen, and I pulled away. I knew I had to go now before he submerged his fear. He could do it. He could talk himself into anything.

I left the library, went up the main stairs, then the attic stairs. Over to my bag, my knife . . .

Footsteps on the stairs. The knife!

I opened it, hesitated, then slipped the knife, blade still open, back into my bag.

He opened the door, came in, looked around the big hot empty room. He saw me at once, but still, he looked around—to see whether we were alone?

We were.

He came over and sat next to me on my pallet. “I’m sorry, Dana,” he said.

Sorry? For what he had nearly done, or for what he was about to do? Sony. He had apologized to me many times in many ways be¬ fore, but his apologies had always been oblique, “Eat with me, Dana. Sarah is cooking up something special.” Or, “Here, Dana, here’s a new book I bought for you in town.” Or, “Here’s some cloth, Dana. Maybe you can make yourself something from it.”

Things. Gifts given when he knew he had hurt or offended me. But he had never before said, “I’m sorry, Dana.” I looked at him uncertainly.

“I’ve never felt so lonesome in my life,” he said.

The words touched me as no others could have. I knew about loneliness. I found my thoughts going back to the time I had gone home without Kevin—the loneliness, the fear, sometimes the hopelessness I had felt then. Hopelessness wouldn’t be a sometime thing to Rufus, though. Alice was dead and buried. He had only his children left. But at least one of them had also loved Alice. Joe.

“Where’d my mama go?” he demanded on his first day home. “Away,” Rufus had said. “She went away.”

“When is she coming back?” “I don’t know.”

The boy came to me. “Aunt Dana, where’d my mama go?” “Honey . . . she died.”


“Yes. Like old Aunt Mary.” Who at last had drifted the final distance to her reward. She had lived over eighty years—had come over from Africa, people said. Nigel had made a box and Mary had been laid to rest near where Alice lay now.

“But Mama wasn’t old.” “No, she was sick, Joe.” “Daddy said she went away.” “Well… to heaven.” “No!”

He had cried and I had tried to comfort him. I remembered the pain of my own mother’s death—grief, loneliness, uncertainty in my aunt and uncle’s house . . .

I had held the boy and told him he still had his daddy—please God. And that Sarah and Carrie and Nigel loved him. They wouldn’t let anything happen to him—as though they had the power to protect him, or even themselves.

I let Joe go to his mother’s cabin to be alone for a while. He wanted to. Then I told Rufus what I had done. And Rufus hadn’t known whether to hit me or thank me. He had glared at me, the skin of his face drawn tight, intense. Then, finally, he had relaxed and nodded and gone out to find his son.

Now, he sat with me—being sorry and lonely and wanting me to take the place of the dead.

“You never hated me, did you?” he asked.

“Never for long. I don’t know why. You worked hard to earn my hatred, Rufe.”

“She hated me. From the first time I forced her.” “I don’t blame her.”

“Until just before she ran. She had stopped hating me. I wonder how long it will take you.”


“To stop hating.”

Oh God. Almost against my will, I closed my fingers around the handle of the knife still concealed in my bag. He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away.

“Rufe,” I said, “your children. . ” “They’re free.”

“But they’re young. They need you to protect their freedom.” “Then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”

I twisted my hand, tried to get it away from him in sudden anger. At once, his hold went from caressing to imprisoning. My right hand had become wet and slippery on the knife.

“It’s up to you,” he repeated.

“No, Goddamnit, it isn’t! Keeping you alive has been up to me for too long! Why didn’t you shoot yourself when you started to? I wouldn’t have stopped you!”

“I know.”

The softness of his voice made me look up at him.

“So what else do I have to lose?” he asked. He pushed me back on the pallet, and for a few moments, we lay there, still. What was he waiting for? What was I waiting for?

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand still holding my hand, and slowly, I realized how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill . . .

He was not hurting me, would not hurt me if I remained as I was. He was not his father, old and ugly, brutal and disgusting. He smelled of soap, as though he had bathed recently—for me? The red hair was neatly combed and a little damp. I would never be to him what Tess had been to his father—a thing passed around like the whiskey jug at a husking. He wouldn’t do that to me or sell me or . . .


I could feel the knife in my hand, still slippery with perspiration. A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover. He had understood that once.

I twisted sharply, broke away from him. He caught me, trying not to hurt me. I was aware of him trying not to hurt me even as I raised the knife, even as I sank it into his side.

He screamed. I had never heard anyone scream that way—an ani¬ mal sound. He screamed again, a lower ugly gurgle.

He lost his hold on my hand for a moment, but caught my arm be¬ fore I could get away. Then he brought up the fist of his free hand to punch me once, and again as the patroller had done so long ago.

I pulled the knife free of him somehow, raised it, and brought it down again into his back.

This time he only grunted. He collapsed across me, somehow still alive, still holding my arm.

I lay beneath him, half conscious from the blows, and sick. My stomach seemed to twist, and I vomited on both of us.


A voice. A man’s voice.

I managed to turn my head and see Nigel standing in the doorway. “Dana, what. . . ? Oh no. God, no!”

“Nigel . . .” moaned Rufus, and he gave a long shuddering sigh. His body went limp and leaden across me. I pushed him away some¬ how—everything but his hand still on my arm. Then I convulsed with terrible, wrenching sickness.

Something harder and stronger than Rufus’s hand clamped down on

my arm, squeezing it, stiffening it, pressing into it—painlessly, at first —melting into it, meshing with it as though somehow my arm were being absorbed into something. Something cold and nonliving.

Something . . . paint, plaster, wood—a wall. The wall of my living room. I was back at home—in my own house, in my own time. But I was still caught somehow, joined to the wall as though my arm were growing out of it—or growing into it. From the elbow to the ends of the fingers, my left arm had become a part of the wall. I looked at the spot where flesh joined with plaster, stared at it uncomprehending. It was the exact spot Rufus’s fingers had grasped.

I pulled my arm toward me, pulled hard.

And suddenly, there was an avalanche of pain, red impossible agony! And I screamed and screamed.


We flew to Maryland as soon as my arm was well enough. There, we rented a car—Kevin was driving again, finally—and wandered around Baltimore and over to Easton. There was a bridge now, not the steamship Rufus had used. And at last I got a good look at the town I had lived so near and seen so little of. We found the court¬ house and an old church, a few other buildings time had not worn away. And we found Burger King and Holiday Inn and Texaco and schools with black kids and white kids together and older people who looked at Kevin and me, then looked again.

We went into the countryside, into what was still woods and farmland, and found a few of the old houses. A couple of them could have been the Weylin house. They were well-kept and handsomer, but basically, they were the same red-brick Georgian Colonials.

But Rufus’s house was gone. As nearly as we could tell, its site was now covered by a broad field of corn. The house was dust, like Rufus.

I was the one who insisted on trying to find his grave, questioning the farmer about it because Rufus, like his father, like old Mary and Alice, had probably been buried on the plantation.

But the farmer knew nothing—or at least, said nothing. The only clue we found—more than a clue, really—was an old newspaper article—a notice that Mr. Rufus Weylin had been killed when his house caught fire and was partially destroyed. And in later papers, notice of the sale of the slaves from Mr. Rufus Weylin’s estate. These slaves were listed by their first names with their approximate ages and their skills given. All three of Nigel’s sons were listed, but Nigel and Carrie were not. Sarah was listed, but Joe and Hagar were not. Every¬ one else was listed. Everyone.

I thought about that, put together as many pieces as I could. The fire, for instance. Nigel had probably set it to cover what I had done —and he had covered. Rufus was assumed to have burned to death. I could find nothing in the incomplete newspaper records to suggest that he had been murdered, or even that the fire had been arson. Nigel must have done a good job. He must also have managed to get Margaret Weylin out of the house alive. There was no mention of her dying. And Margaret had relatives in Baltimore. Also, Hagar’s home had been in Baltimore.

Kevin and I went back to Baltimore to skim newspapers, legal records, anything we could find that might tie Margaret and Hagar together or mention them at all. Margaret might have taken both children. Perhaps with Alice dead she had accepted them. They were her grandchildren, after all, the son and daughter of her only child. She might have cared for them. She might also have held them as slaves. But even if she had, Hagar, at least, lived long enough for the Fourteenth Amendment to free her.

“He could have left a will,” Kevin told me outside one of our haunts, the Maryland Historical Society. “He could have freed those people at least when he had no more use for them.”

“But there was his mother to consider,” I said. “And he was only twenty-five. He probably thought he had plenty of time to make a will.”

“Stop defending him,” muttered Kevin.

I hesitated, then shook my head. “I wasn’t. I guess in a way, I was defending myself. You see, I know why he wouldn’t make that kind of will. I asked him, and he told me.”


“Because of me. He was afraid I’d kill him afterwards.” “You wouldn’t even have had to know about it!”

“Yes, but I guess he wasn’t taking any chances.” “Was he right. . . to be afraid?”

“I don’t know.”

“I doubt it, considering what you took from him. I don’t think you were really capable of killing him until he attacked you.”

And barely then, I thought. Kevin would never know what those last moments had been like. I had outlined them for him, and he’d asked few questions. For that I was grateful. Now I said simply, “Self-defense.”

“Yes,” he said.

“But the cost. . . Nigel’s children, Sarah, all the others . . .”

“It’s over,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to change any of it now.”

“I know.” I drew a deep breath. “I wonder whether the children were allowed to stay together—maybe stay with Sarah.”

“You’ve looked,” he said. “And you’ve found no records. You’ll probably never know.”

I touched the scar Tom Weylin’s boot had left on my face, touched my empty left sleeve. “I know,” I repeated. “Why did I even want to come here. You’d think I would have had enough of the past.”

“You probably needed to come for the same reason I did.” He shrugged. “To try to understand. To touch solid evidence that those people existed. To reassure yourself that you’re sane.”

I looked back at the brick building of the Historical Society, itself a converted early mansion. “If we told anyone else about this, any¬ one at all, they wouldn’t think we were so sane.”

“We are,” he said. “And now that the boy is dead, we have some chance of staying that way.”

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2021 09:11