Authors: Alice Walker
“We has tried with them. They is the onliest group of peoples you can’t be blood brothers to. They don’t want it and we don’t want it either after all these years. They is the reason fences was invented. I mean, take before they come here with all they Bibles, do you think the Injuns had done hogged propity from one another and fenced it all off? No, ma’am. They hadn’t. They didn’t mind letting folks use the grass and the good earth like the Lawd intended it should be used. Those people over there, you give ’em a chance, they try to take our land, never mind it belong to us. They want hit, they take hit. They been that way since hist’ry. They the cause the fence was invented. Now. Far as we concerned they going to have to learn to live with it … and I mean with the sharp bobs turned toward them!”
Grange returned determinedly to his fencing, Ruth watching from under her long grapes. They were bleached brownish by the sun with a yellow lion-colored edge. The rest of her hair had been botchily braided and the grapes had not been worked in and caught up. She thought when she got older she would straighten her hair with combs, if Grange let her. She would convince him that grapes were too nappy to put up with. The finer points of hair care mystified her almost as much as they did her grandfather, whose only advice to her when she mentioned her hair was to wash it and grease it a little. Sometimes she even wished Josie would help her out. But just to fix her hair, not to talk and lie around the house with her titties hanging out.
“You’re a mean ’un, if you ask me,” she said lazily, leaning back on her elbows, turning her face to the sun. “Just a mean, mean old man. Without good home training, or somethin’,” she murmured, closing her eyes.
He did not look at her, he concentrated on the fence, thrusting the post-hole diggers deeper and deeper into the hard red soil, stringing the wire tighter and tighter, raising the fence higher and higher.
Not far from where he stood there existed still, it seemed to him, at least the shadows of his first life. He was on his third or fourth and final. The first life of Grange Copeland. The glow of the sun enclosed him in a gone but never-to-be forgotten landscape with its immediate sealing-off heat. And again, as in a stifling nightmare, he saw the long rows and wide acres of cotton rising before him. He felt the sun beating down on his bent back, exploding, pounding, bursting against the back of his head through the wide straw hat. He saw Margaret (first life, first wife!) as she had been when they married, seductive and gay, a whimsical girl-lady, acting strong and stoical out of love for him. While the love lasted. He saw the change come as it had occurred in Margaret’s face. Gradually the lines had come, the perplexed lines between the eyes, placed as if against and in spite of the young, smooth and carefree brow. Actually she had had a gay but somnolent face then, as if she existed in a dream. Misery had awakened her, and he had not needed to tell her she had married not into ecstasy, but into dread. Not into freedom, but into bondage; not into perpetual love, but into deepening despair. And he had not needed to tell her who was behind their misery—she knew and then he did not—for someone,
did stand behind his cruelty to her (he made himself believe), pushing him on to desert her, and driving her down and to the purgation of suicide for herself and murder for her bastard child.
What could he tell his granddaughter about her sadly loving, bravely raging and revengeful grandmother?
Could he tell her that the sweaty, unkind years plastered themselves across her lovely face like layers of dull paint put on every year? That sometime, in that hopelessness, when cotton production was all that mattered in their world (and not ever their cotton!), even love had stopped and that soon they had not been able even to
love? Could he tell her of his own degradation, his belief in a manhood devoid of truth and honor; of the way he had kept Josie always tucked away for himself, as men tuck a bottle away against despair or snake bite? Could he tell her that Margaret had thought a marriage finished whoredom for a man; that she had thought Grange’s respect for his marriage would put an end to his visits to Josie, the whore of his lusting youth? Could he tell Ruth of her grandmother’s bewilderment when she learned he still saw Josie once a week, rarely missing a Saturday night? Could he tell her of how Margaret grappled with his explanation that Josie was necessary for his self-respect, necessary for his feeling of manliness? If I can never own nothing, he had told her, I will have women. I love you, he had assured her, because I trust you to bear and raise my sons; I love Josie because she can have no sons.
He could see Margaret sitting alone in the doorway of their cabin. She would watch him leave in the wagon, rolling determinedly, toward the Dew Drop Inn. Her bewilderment had changed to a feeling of inadequacy and she had tried to play her husband’s game. She threw away on other men what she felt her husband did not want. And she had finally bedded down with Shipley, the man who had caused everything. This Grange had not been able to bear. His choice was either kill her or leave her. In the end he had done both.
The strangely calm eyes of the old man looked across the fence to rest on his granddaughter. He marveled that, knowing him so well, she knew nothing of that other life. Or even of the dismal birth of her own father. That gray day of retribution in sorrow when the newly born was sentenced to a familiar death.
name going to be?” he had asked Margaret, feeling no elation at the birth of his son.
In her depression, carelessly she asked him, “What’s the first damn thing you see?”
And he, standing before the door, saw the autumnal shades of Georgia cotton fields. “Sort of brownish colored fields,” he had answered. And he had wondered, without hope, if that was what covered also the rest of the universe.
“Brownish color,” she had said, pushing the sleeping baby from the warm resting at her breast. “Brownish field. Brownfield.” There was not even pity in her for her child. “That’ll do about as well as King Albert,” she said. “It won’t make a bit of difference what we name him.”
Already she was giving him up to what stood ready to take his life. After only two years of marriage she knew that in her plantation world the mother was second in command, the father having no command at all.
“Grange, save me! Grange,
me!” she had cried the first time she had been taken by the first in command. He had plugged his ears with whiskey, telling himself as he ignored her, that he was not to blame for his wife’s unforgivable sin. He had blamed Margaret and he had blamed Shipley, all the Shipleys in the world. In Josie’s arms he had no longer heard Margaret’s cries, no longer considered his wife’s lovers who were black; his hatred of Shipley’s whiteness had absolved Grange of his own guilt, and his blackness protected him from any feelings of shame that threatened within himself.
His wife had died believing what she had done was sinful and required death, and that what he had done required nothing but that she get out of his life. And now Grange thought with tears in his eyes of what a fool he had been. For, he said to himself, suppose I turned my back on that little motherless girl over there and spent my time with somebody else, some other little girl; would she understand that something
myself caused it? No, she would not. “And I could parade Shipleys before her from now till doomsday and she’d still want to know what’s done happened to her granddaddy’s love!” Grange mumbled to himself, his eyes moist and his hands trembling over the wires.
“Looks like some old sad story, from the way you standing there frowning. Wake up!” The child stood beside him with her hand over his arm. “You looking sort of sick from all this heat. I think you better sit down.” She pulled him by the suspender strap, like pulling a horse to drink. “Too much sun is not good for old men your age.”
“Shet up. What you know ’bout old age? ‘Too much sunshine ain’t good for ol’ men your age!’“ he mimicked her, but seated himself in the shade by the fence. “By the time you git ol’ enough to have mouthy grandchildren, you know what’s good for you. Only by then it seem like too late to do much about it!” Quickly he rolled up his past and lay back on it, obliterating the keen spots, completely erasing the edges. “I never in my life seen such a womanish gal,” he said, stretching out with his back to a tree and taking out his pipe. She lit a match, held his fingers while he lit the pipe, then blew it out.
“I ain’t any more sassy than you,” she said smartly, pushing him over roughly so she could also prop herself against the tree. He almost fell down.
“You ain’t supposed to say ain’t,” he said, looking at her solemnly. (“Her eddication,” he was known to declare to odd colleagues and peers, “is where I draws the line!”) “And don’t say you say hit because
say hit. I say hit ’cause I don’t know no better. I mean, I
hit ain’t correct, but I can’t always remember what to replace hit with.”
“A perfect score of hits!” Ruth shouted, clapping her hands. “You ain’t—aren’t—supposed to say ‘hit’ for ‘it,’ neither. ‘It’ ain’t got no h
‘hit.’” She giggled.
“I just wanted to check if you was noticing,” he said, fussing with his pipe. “You know the
part about owning a fence around propity you also owns is that you gits to shoot down any man or beast that sets foot over your boundaries. They is a law what says you can do that.”
“You sure are in a bloodthirsty mood,” she said tolerantly, “you
didn’t get too much sun?” She lay drowsily, with her chin against her chest. Idly she thwacked him across the leg with a weed. Her new dress had grass stains on it. She inspected them with concerned attention, then turned humming, blissfully, on her stomach.
“Did I ever thank you properly for this dress?” she asked, looking up into his eyes. Reluctantly, he smiled.
“I winned that dress at the poker game last Saddity. I winned near to twenty dollars, then, dang it, I lost fifteen, and I figured I’d get that dress. I spoke to some of the womens there. I say, what size reckon do my grand girl wear?—and they say, they don’t know sizes too good (they mostly steals clothes of all sizes), but they thought a twelve. So I pick that there which are a twelve, and I figured them frills round the tail made hit—it—grown up enough for you. I told the white woman what sold it to me. (She act like she didn’t want me to say nothing to her, but I did.) I say, you want you one grownup adolescent-acting,
young ’un, you take my granddaughter. She take all my money to deck herself out. I say, she shore is spoiled all right. I say, she see this dress, and the first thing you know she done got grease on it and out setting round in the dirt in it, then she like to wind up tearing it rat down the mittle if the spirit move her to it. Yes, ma’am, I say, she
stuff! I says to the woman what sold it to me.” Grange laughed. “She must didn’t
your fine qualities,” he said. “She just stood there looking at me like she thought I’d bite, kind of holding onto her teeth like this.” He clamped his lips together and made them prune up.
“You ought to call me by my name instead of ‘my grand girl.’ No wonder nobody knows what you talking about.” She laughed nonchalantly. “Anyway, I ain’t any more spoiled than you.
I do thank you for this dress.” She decided to use other words she’d learned at school. Grange was a glutton for them. “It is
She smiled. “It
is. You know, you have real
taste!” she deliberately spoke from the back of her mouth, so she would sound like an actress on radio. Her grandfather beamed.
Confusedly, he searched around behind some bushes on his hands and knees, and brought out a pint bottle. “I would offer you some …” he began.
“… but, no thank you,” Ruth added. “I’m only ten, and there are some who are concerned about their liver.”
“Don’t you go upsetting yourself ’bout my liver, it’ll keep,” the old man said, drinking his whiskey through a chuckle. When the whiskey spilled down his chin, Ruth, who had been flexing her injured finger, and thinking vaguely about Indians, swiped the droplets for her wound. “Antisepsis.” She smiled loftily, licking her whole hand.
“Ruth ain’t no kind of name for you! Maybe that’s why I don’t like to use it… . You rat out the Bible though, I can guarantee you that much, but it probably one of the parts I ain’t read.”
“God knows I ain’t if you ain’t,” she said, collecting several whiskey droplets on her tongue.
One day they watched the people who lived on the adjoining property. There was a man who had lank, neck-length hair the color of greasy pine bark. There were half a dozen little cracker children around him. They grew in stairsteps, looked hungry and rusty, and kept straws and pine needles in their teeth. Ruth and Grange lay concealed behind some bushes on their side of the fence. It was Grange’s idea that they inspect some “white people” for Ruth’s further education. What Ruth noticed was that they were not exactly white, not like a refrigerator, but rather a combination of gray and yellow and pink, with the youngest ones being the pinkest.
“What they doing?” she wanted to know. The daddy of the bunch and two of the older boys lay under a tree, smoking and chewing.
“They probably plotting how to git our land,” said Grange.
“Why do you think that?”
“Well, what else do you think they’d be doing, laying over there in the weeds, hiding out from they womenfolks?”
“Well, they could just be trying to get shut of the women’s yapping,” said Ruth.
“That’s just what they’d like for you to believe,” said Grange, glowering at the group.
“Do you mean to tell me that that’s all they have to do—
the time—just lay around and think up ways to take this farm?”
“Yup,” said Grange, momentarily peevish.
“Well, when do they talk about the weather, then, and the price of cotton and all like that?” Ruth sat upright and Grange quickly pulled her down again out of sight of the group. “I mean, what I want to know, is did anybody ever try to find out if they’s real