Livvie Is Back



SOLOMON carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when lie married her. He carried her away up on the Old Natchez Trace into the deep country to live in his house. She was sixteen then. People said he thought nobody would ever come along there. It had been a long time, and a day she did not know about, he told her himself, since that road was a traveled road with people coming and going. He was good to her, but he kept her in the house. She had not thought that she could not get back. Where she came from, people said an old man did not want anybody in the world to find his wife, for fear they would steal her back from him. Solomon had asked her before he took her, “Would she be happy?” — very dignified, for he was a colored man that owned his land and had it written down in the courthouse; and she said, “Yes, sir,” since he was an old man then and she was young, and just listened and answered. He asked her, if she was choosing winter, would she pine for spring, and she said, No, indeed.” Whatever she said, always, was because he was an old man, while nine years went by. All the time, he got old, and he got so old lie gave out. At last he slept the whole day in bed, and she was young still.

It was a nice house, inside and outside both. In the first place, it had three rooms. The front room was papered in holly paper, with green palmettos from the swamp spaced at careful intervals over the walls. There was fresh newspaper cut with fancy borders on the mantelshelf, on which were propped straight-up photographs of old or very young men printed in faint yellow — Solomon’s people. Solomon had a houseful of furniture. There was a double settee, a tail scrolled rocker, and an organ in the front room, all around a three-legged table with a pink marble top, on which was set a lamp with three gold feet, besides a jelly glass with pretty hen feathers in it.

The room behind the front room had a bright iron bed with polished knobs like a throne, in which Solomon slept all day. There were snow-white curtains of wiry lace at the window, and a lace bedspread belonged on the bed. But what old Solomon slept so sound under was a big featherstitched piece-quilt in the pattern “Trip Around the World,” which had twenty-one different colors, four hundred and forty pieces, and a thousand yards of thread; and that was what Solomon’s mother made in her life and old age. There was a table holding the Bible, and a trunk with a key. On the wall were two calendars, and a diploma from somewhere in Solomon’s family, and under that Livvie’s one possession was nailed, a picture of the little white baby of the family she worked for, back in Natchez before she was married.

In the kitchen beyond, there were a big wood stove and a big round table always with a wet top and with the knives and forks in one jelly glass and the spoons in another, and a cut-glass vinegar bottle between, and going out from those, many shallow dishes of pickled peaches, fig preserves, watermelon pickles, and blackberry jam always sitting there. The churn sat in the sun, the doors of the safe were always both shut, and there were four baited mousetraps in the kitchen, one in every corner.

The outside of Solomon’s house looked nice. It was not painted, but across the porch was an even balance. On each side there was one easy chair with high springs, looking out, and a fern basket hanging over it from the ceiling, and a dislipan of zinnia seedlings growing at its foot on the floor. By the door there was a plow-wheel, just a pretty iron circle nailed up on one wall, and a square mirror on the other, a turquoiseblue comb stuck up in the frame, with the washstand beneath it. On the door was a wooden knob with a pearl in the end, and Solomon’s black hat hung on that, if he was in the house.

Out front was a clean dirt yard with every vestige of grass patiently uprooted and the ground scarred in deep whorls from the strike of Livvie’s broom. Rosebushes with tiny blood-red roses blooming every month grew in threes on either side of the steps. On one side was a peach tree, on the other a pomegranate. Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees keep evil spirits from coming into the house — by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again. Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did.

But there was nobody, nobody at all. not even a white person. And if there had been anybody, Solomon would not have let Livvie look at them, just as he would not let her look at a field hand, or a field hand look at her. There was no house near, except for the cabins of the tenants that were forbidden to her, and there was no house as far as she had been, stealing away down the still, dee]) Trace. She felt as if she waded a river when she went, for the dead leaves on the ground reached as high as her knees, and when she was all scratched and bleeding she said it was not like a road that went anywhere. One day, climbing up the high bank, she had found a graveyard without a church, with ribbon grass growing about the foot of an angel (she had climbed up because she thought she saw angel wings), and in the sun, trees shining like burning flames through the great caterpillar nets which enclosed them. Scarev thistles stood looking like the prophets in the Bible in Solomon s house. Indian paintbrushes grew over her head, and the mourning dove made tire only sound in the world. Oh, for a stirring of the leaves, and a breaking of the nets! But not by a ghost, prayed Livvie, jumping down the bank. After Solomon took to his bed, she never went out, except one more time.

Livvie knew she made a nice girl to wait on anybody. She fixed things to eat on a tray like a surprise. She could keep from singing when she ironed; and to sit by a bed and fan away the flies, she could be so still she could not hear herself breathe. She could clean up the house and never drop a thing, and wash the dishes without a sound, and she would step outside to churn, for churning sounded too sad to her, like sobbing, and if it made her homesick and not Solomon, she did not think of that.

But Solomon scarcely opened his eyes to see her, and scarcely tasted his food. He was not sick or paralyzed or in any pain that he mentioned, but he was surely wearing out in the body, and no matter what nice hot thing Livvie would bring him to taste, he would only look at it now, as if he were past seeing how he could add anything more to himself. Before she could beg him, he would go fast asleep. She could not surprise him any more if he would not taste, and she was afraid he was never in the world going to taste another thing she brought him — and so how could he last?


But one morning it was breakfast time, and she cooked his eggs and grits, carried them in on the tray, and called his name. He was sound asleep. He lay in a dignified way with his watch beside him, on his back in the middle of the bed. One hand drew the quilt up high, though it was the first day of spring. Through the white lace curtains a little puffy wind was blowing in as if it came from round cheeks. All night the frogs had sung out in the swamp like a commotion in the room, and he had not stirred, though she lay wide awake and saying, Shh, frogs!” for fear he would mind them.

He looked as if he would like to sleep a little longer, and so she put back the tray and waited a little. When she tiptoed and stayed so quiet, she surrounded herself with a little reverie, and sometimes it seemed to her, when she was so stealthy, that the quiet she kept was for a sleeping baby, and that she had a baby and was its mother. When she stood at Solomon’s bed and looked down at him, she would be thinking, “He sleeps so well,” and she would hate to wake him up. And in some other way, too, she was afraid to wake him up because even in his sleep he seemed to be such a strict man.

Of course, nailed to the wall over the bed — only she would forget who it was — there was a picture of him when he was young. Then he had a fan of hair over his forehead like a king’s crown. Now his hair lay down on his head; the spring had gone out of it. Solomon had a lightish face, with eyebrows scattered but rugged, the way privet grows, strong eyes, with second sight, a strict mouth, and a little gold smile. This was the way he looked in his clothes, but in bed in the daytime he looked like a different and smaller man, even when he was wide awake and holding the Bible. He looked like somebody kin to himself. And then sometimes when he lay in sleep and she stood fanning the flies away, and the light came in, his face was like new, so smooth and clear that it was like a glass of jelly held to the window, and she could almost look through his forehead and see what he thought.

She fanned him, and at length he opened his eyes and spoke her name, but he would not taste the nice eggs she had kept warm under a pan.

Back in the kitchen she ate heartily, his breakfast and hers, and looked out the open door at what went on. The whole day, and the whole night before, she had felt the stir of spring close to her. It was as present in the house as a young man would be. The moon was in the last quarter, and outside they were turning the sod and planting peas and beans. Up and down the red fields, over which smoke from the brush-burning hung, showing like a little skirt of sky, a white horse and a white mule pulled the plow.

At intervals hoarse shouts came through the air and roused her as if she dozed neglectfully in the shade, and they were telling her, “Jump up!” She could see how over each ribbon of field were moving men and girls, on foot and mounted on mules, with hats set on their heads, and bright with tall hoes and forks as if they carried streamers on them and were going to some place on a journey — and how as if at a signal now and then they would all start at once shouting, hollering, cajoling, calling and answering back, running, being leaped on, and breaking away, flinging to the earth with a shout and lying motionless in the trance of noon. The old women came out of the cabins and brought them the food they had ready for them, and then all worked together, spread evenly out. The little children came too, like a bouncing stream overflowing the fields, and set upon the men, the women, the dogs, the rushing birds, and the wavelike rows of earth, their little voices almost too high to be heard. In the middle distance like some white and gold towers were the haystacks, with black cows coming around to eat their edges. High above everything — the wheel of fields, house, and cabins, and the deep road surrounding like a moat to keep them in — was the turning sky, blue with long, far-flung white mare’stail clouds, serene and still as high flames. And sound asleep while all this went around him that was his, Solomon was like a little still spot in the middle.

Even in the house the earth was sweet to breathe. Solomon had never let Livvie go any further than the chicken-house and the well. But what if she would walk now into the heart of the fields and take a hoe and work until she fell stretched out and drenched with her efforts, like other girls, and laid her cheek against the laid-open earth, and shamed the old man with her humbleness and delight? To shame him! A cruel wish could come in uninvited and so fast while she looked out the back door. She washed the dishes and scrubbed the table. She could hear the cries of the little lambs. Her mother, whom she had not seen since her wedding day, had said one time, “I rather a man be anything, than a woman be mean.”

So all morning she kept lasting the chicken broth on the stove, and when it was right she poured off a nice cupful. She carried it in to Solomon, and there he lay having a dream. Now what did he dream about? For she saw him sigh gently as if not to disturb some whole thing he held round in his mind, like a fresh egg. So even an old man dreamed about something pretty. Did he dream of her, while his eyes were shut and sunken, and his small hand with the wedding ring curled close in sleep around the quilt? He might be dreaming of what time it was, for even through his sleep he kept track of it like a clock, and knew how much of it went by, and waked up knowing where the hands were, even before he consulted the silver watch that he never let go. He would sleep with the watch in his palm, and even holding it to his cheek like a child that loves a plaything. Or he might dream of journeys and travels on a steamboat to Natchez. Yet she thought he dreamed of her; but even while she scrutinized him, the rods of the foot of the bed seemed to rise up like a rail fence between them, and she could see that people never could be sure of anything as long as one of them was asleep and the other awake. To look at him dreaming of her when he might be going to die frightened her a little, as if he might carry her with him that way, and she wanted to run out of the room. She took hold of the bed and held on, and Solomon opened his eyes and called her name, but he did not want anything. He would not taste the good broth.


Just a little after that, as she was taking up the ashes in the front room for the last time in the year, she heard a sound. It was somebody coming. She pulled the curtains together and looked through the slit.

Coming up the path under the bottle trees was a white lady. At first she looked young, but then she looked old. Marvelous to see, a little car stood steaming like a kettle out in the field-track—it had come without a road.

Livvie stood listening to the long, repeated knockings at the door, and then she opened it just a little. The lady came in through the crack, though she was more than middlesized and wore a big hat.

“My name is Miss Baby Marie,” she said.

Livvie gazed respectfully at the lady and at the little suitcase she was holding close to her by the handle until the proper moment. The lady’s eyes were running over the room, from palmetto to palmetto, but she was saying, “I live at home . . . out from Natchez . . . and get out and show these pretty cosmetic things to the white people and the colored people both . . . all around . . . years and years . . . both shades of powder and rouge . . . it’s the kind of work a girl can do and not go clear ‘way from home. . . And the harder she looked, the faster she talked. Suddenly she turned up her nose and said, “It is not Christian or sanitary to put feathers in a vase,” and then she took a gold key out of the front of her dress and began unlocking the locks on her suitcase. Her face drew the light, the way it was covered with intense white and red, with a little patty-cake of white between the wrinkles by her upper lip. Little red tassels of hair bobbed under the rusty wires of her picture hat, as with an air of triumph and secrecy she now drew open her little suitcase and brought out bottle after bottle and jar after jar, which she put down on the table, the mantelpiece, the settee, and the organ.

‘’Did you ever see so many cosmetics in your life? ” asked Miss Baby Marie.

“No’m,” Livvie tried to say, but the cat had her tongue.

“ Have you ever applied cosmetics?” asked Miss Baby Marie next.


“Then look!” she said, and pulling out the last thing of all, “Try this!” she said. And in her hand was unclenched a golden lipstick which popped open like magic. A fragrance came out of it like incense, and Livvie cried out suddenly, “Chinaberry flowers!”

Her hand took the lipstick, and in an instant she was carried away in the air through the spring; and looking down with a halfdrowsy smile from a purple cloud which floated above a chinaberry tree, dark and smooth and neatly leaved, neat as a guinea hen in the dooryard, she saw again her home that she had left. On one side of the tree was her mama holding up her heavy apron, and she could see it was loaded with ripe figs; and on the other side was her papa holding a fish pole over the pond, and she could see it transparently, the little clear fishes swimming up to the brim.

“Oh no, not chinaberry flowers — secret ingredients,” said Miss Baby Marie. “My cosmetics have secret ingredients — not chinaberry flowers.”

“It’s purple,” Livvie breathed, and Miss Baby Marie said, “ Use it freely. Rub it on.”

Livvie tiptoed out to the waslistand on the front porch and, before the mirror, put the paint on her mouth. In the wavery surface her face danced before her like a flame. Miss Baby Marie followed her out, took a look at what she had done, and said, “That’s it.”

Livvie tried to say “Thank you” without moving her parted lips where the paint lay so new.

By now Miss Baby Marie stood behind Livvie and looked in the mirror over her shoulder, twisting up the tassels of her hair. “The lipstick I can let you have for only two dollars,” she said, close to her neck.

“Lady, but I don’t have no money, never did have,” said Livvie.

“Oh, but you don’t pay the first time. I make another trip, that’s the way I do. I come back again — later.”

“ Oh — then”

“But if you don’t take it now, this may be the last time I’ll call at your house,” said Miss Baby Marie sharply. “It’s far away from anywhere, I’ll tell you that. You don’t live close to anywhere.”

“Yes’m. My husband, he keep the money,” said Livvie trembling. “He is strict as he can be. He don’t know you walk in here — Miss Baby Marie!”

“Where is he?”

“In yonder, sound asleep, an old man. I wouldn’t ever ask him for anything.”

Miss Baby Marie took back the lipstick and packed it up. She gathered up her jars and got them all inside the suitcase, with the same little fuss of triumph with which she had brought them out. She started away.

“ Good-bye,” she said, making herself look grand from the back, but she could not help turning around in the door. Her old hat wobbled as she whispered, “Let me see your husband.”

Livvie obediently went on tiptoe and opened the door to the other room. Miss Baby Marie came behind her and rose on her toes and looked in.

“My, what a little tiny old, old man!” she whispered, clasping her hands and shaking her head over them. “What a beautiful quilt! What a tiny old, old man!”

“He can sleep like that all day,” whispered Livvie proudly.

They looked at him awhile so fast asleep, and then they looked at each other. Somehow that was as if they had a secret, for he had never stirred. Livvie then politely, but all at once, closed the door.

“Well! I’d certainly like to leave you with a lipstick!” said Miss Baby Marie vivaciously. She smiled in the door.

“Lady, I told you I don’t have no money and never did have.”

“And never will?” In the air and all around, like a bright halo around the white lady’s nodding head, it was a true spring day.

“Would you take eggs, lady?” asked Livvie softly.

“No, eggs I have plenty of,” said Miss Baby Marie.

“I still don’t have no money,” said Livvie, and Miss Baby Marie took her suitcase and went on somewhere else.

Livvie stood watching her go, and all the time she felt her heart beating in her left side. She touched the place with her hand. It seemed as if her heart beat and her whole face flamed from the pulsing color of her lips. She went in to sit by Solomon, and when he opened his eyes he could not see a change in her. “He’s fixin’ to die,” she said inside. That was the secret. That was when she went out of the house for a little breath of air.


She went down the path and down the Natchez Trace a way, and she did not know how far she had gone, but it was not far, when she saw a sight. It was a man, looking like a vision — she standing on one side of the Old Natchez Trace and he standing on the other.

As soon as this man caught sight of her, he began to look himself over. Starting at the bottom with his pointed shoes, he began to look up, lifting his peg-top pants the higher to see fully his bright socks. His coat, long and wide and leaf-green, he opened like doors to see his high-up tawny pants, and his pants he smoothed downward from the points of his collar, and he wore a luminous baby-pink satin shirt. At the end, he reached gently above his wide plattershaped round hat, the color of a plum, and one finger touched at the feather, emerald green, blowing in the spring winds.

No matter how she looked, she could never look so fine as he did, and she was not sorry for that, she was pleased.

He took three jumps, one down and two up, and was by her side.

“My name is Cash,” he said.

He had a guinea pig in his pocket. They began to walk along. She stared on and on at him, as if he were doing some daring spectacular thing, instead of just walking beside her. It was not simply the city way he was dressed that made her look at him and see hope in its insolence looking back. It was not only the way he moved along, kicking the flowers as if he could break through everything in the way and destroy anything in the world, that made her eyes grow bright. It might be, if he had not appeared the way he did appear that day, she would never have looked so closely at him, but the time people come makes a difference.

They walked through the still leaves of the Natchez Trace, the light and the dark falling through trees about them, the white irises shining like candles on the banks and the new ferns shining like green stars up in the oak branches. They came out at Solomon’s house, bottle trees and all. Livvie stopped and hung her head.

Cash began whistling a little tune. She did not know what it was, but she had heard it before from a distance, and she had a revelation. Cash was a field hand. He was a transformed field hand. Cash belonged to Solomon. But he had stepped out of his overalls into this. There in front of Solomon’s house he laughed. He had a round head, a round face; all of him was young, and he flung his head up, rolled it against the mare’s-tail sky in his round hat, and he could laugh just to see Solomon’s house sitting there. Livvie looked at it, and there was Solomon’s black hat hanging on the peg on the front door, the blackest thing in the world.

“I been to Natchez,” Cash said, wagging his head around against the blue sky. “I taken a trip, I been to Natchez, I been today. I am ready for Easter!”

How was it possible to look so fine before the harvest? Cash must have stolen the money. He stood in the path and lifted his spread hand high and brought it down again and again in his laughter. He kicked up his heels. A chill went through her. It was as if Cash were bringing that strong hand down to beat a drum or to rain blows upon a man, such an abandon and menace were in his laugh. Frowning, she went closer to him, and his swinging arm drew her in at once and the fright was crushed from her body, as a little match-flame might be smothered out by what it lighted. She gathered the folds of his coat behind him and fastened her red lips to his mouth, and she was dazzled at herself then, the way he had been dazzled at himself to begin with.

In that instant she felt something that could not be told — that Solomon’s death was at hand, that he was the same to her as if he were dead now. She cried out, and uttering little cries turned and ran for the house.

At once Cash was coming, following after; he was running behind her. He came close, and halfway up the path he laughed and passed her. He even picked up a stone and sailed it into the bottle trees. She put her hands over her head, and sounds clattered through the bottle trees like cries of outrage. Cash stamped and plunged zigzag up the front steps and in at the door.

When she got there, he had stuck his hands in his pockets and was turning slowly about in the front room. The little guinea pig peeped out. Around Cash, the pinned-up palmettos looked as if a lazy green monkey had walked up and down and around the walls leaving green prints of his hands and feet.

She got through the room and his hands were still in his pockets, and fell upon the closed door to the other room and pushed it open. She ran to Solomon’s bed, calling “Solomon! Solomon!” The little shape of the old man never moved at all, wrapped under the quilt as if it were winter still.

“Solomon!” She pulled the quilt away, but there was another one under that, and she fell on her knees beside him. lie made no sound except a sigh, and then she could hear in the silence the light springy steps of Cash walking and walking in the front room, and the ticking of Solomon’s silver watch, which came from the bed. Old Solomon was far away in his sleep; his face looked small, relentless, and devout, as if he were walking somewhere where she could imagine the snow falling.

Then there was a noise like a hoof pawing the floor, and the door gave a creak, and Cash appeared beside her. When she looked up, Cash’s face was so black it was bright, and so bright and bare of pity that it looked sweet to her. She stood up and held up her head. Cash was so powerful that his presence gave her strength even when she did not need any.

Under their eyes Solomon slept. People’s faces tell of things and places not known to the one who looks at them while they sleep, and while Solomon slept under the eyes of Livvie and Cash his face told them like a mythical story how all his life he had built, little scrap by little scrap, respect. A beetle could not have been more laborious or more ingenious in the task of its destiny. When Solomon was young, as he was in his picture overhead, it was the infinite thing with him, and he could see no end to the respect he would contrive and keep in a house. He had built a lonely house, the way he would make a cage, but it grew to be the same with him as a great monumental pyramid, and sometimes in his absorption of getting it erected he was like the builder-slaves of Egypt who forgot or never knew the origin and meaning of the thing to which they gave all the strength of their bodies and used up all their days. Livvie and Cash could see that as a man might rest from a life-labor he lay in his bed, and they could hear how, wrapped in his quilt, he sighed to himself comfortably in sleep, while in his dream he might have been an ant, a beetle, a bird, an Egyptian, assembling and carrying on his back and building with his hands, or he might have been an old man of India or a swaddled baby about to smile and brush all away.

Then without warning old Solomon’s eyes flew wide open under the hedge-like brows. He was wide awake.

And instantly Cash raised his quick arm. A radiant sweat stood on his temples. But he did not bring his arm down — it stayed in the air, as if something might have taken hold.

It was not Livvie — she did not move. As if something said “Wait,” she stood waiting. Even while her eyes burned under motionless lids, her lips parted in a stiff grimace, and with her arms stiff at her sides she stood above the prone old man and the panting young one, erect and apart.

Movement, when it came, came in Solomon’s face. It was an old and strict face, a frail face, but behind it, like a covered light, came an animation that could play hideand-seek, that would dart and escape — had always escaped. The mystery flickered in him, and invited from his eyes. It was that very mystery that Cash with his quick arm would have to strike, and that Livvie could not weep for. But Cash only stood holding his arm in the air, when the gentlest flick of his great strength, almost a puff of his breath, would have been enough, if he had known how to give it, to send the old man over the obstruction that kept him away from death. If it could not be that the tiny illumination in the fragile and ancient face caused a crisis, a mystery in the room that would not permit a blow to fall, at least it was certain that Cash, throbbing in his Easter clothes, felt a pang of shame that the vigor of a man would come to such an end that he could not be struck without warning. He took down his hand and stepped back behind Livvie, like a round-eyed schoolboy on whose unsuspecting head the dunce cap has been placed.

“Young ones can’t wait,” said Solomon.

Livvie shuddered violently, and then in a gush of tears she stooped for a glass of water and handed it to him, but he did not see her.

“So here come the young man Livvie wait for. There was no prevention. No prevention. Now I lay eyes on him and it come to be somebody I know all the time, and been knowing since he were born in a cotton patch, and watched grow up year to year, Cash McCord, growed to size, growed to come in my house in the end — ragged and barefoot.”

Solomon gave a cough of distaste. Then he shut his eyes vigorously, and his lips began to move like a chanter’s.

“ When Livvie married, her husband were already somebody. He had paid great cost for his land. He spread sycamore leaves over the ground from wagon to door, day he brought her home, so her foot would not have to touch ground. He carried her through his door. Then he growed old and could not lift her, and she were still young.”

Livvie’s sobs followed his words like a soft melody repeating each thing as he stated it. His lips moved for a little without sound, or she cried too fervently, and unheard he might have been telling his whole life, and then he said, “God forgive Solomon for sins great and small. God forgive Solomon for carrying away too young a wife and keeping her away from her people and from young people who would want her back.”

Then he lifted up his right hand toward Livvie where she stood by the bed, and offered her his silver watch. He dangled it before her eyes, and she hushed crying; her tears stopped. For a moment the watch could be heard ticking precisely in his proud hand. She lifted it away. Then he took hold of the quilt; then lie was dead.

Livvie left Solomon dead and went out of the room. Stealthily, nearly without noise, Cash went beside her. He was like a shadow, but his shiny shoes moved over the floor in spangles, and the green downy feather shone like a light in his hat. As they reached the front room, he seized her deftly as a long black cat and dragged her hanging by the waist round and round him, while he turned in a circle, his face bent down to hers. The first moment, she kept one arm and its hand stiff and still, the one that held Solomon’s watch. Then the fingers softly let go, all of her was limp, and the watch fell somewhere on the floor. It ticked away in the still room, and all at once there began outside the full song of a bird.

They moved around and around the room and into the brightness of the open door, then he stopped and shook her once. She rested in silence in his trembling arms, unprotesting as a bird on a nest. Outside the redbirds were flying and criss-crossing, the sun was in all the bottles on the prisoned trees, and the young peach was shining in the middle of them with the bursting light of spring.