AN ATLANTIC STORY
by CONRAD RICHTER
IF IT had a brighter child in these woods than her Sulie, Sayward did not know who it was. It wasn’t that she was her mammy. Sayward would rather her child be a little slower like the rest. It didn’t do a young one good to be made such a fuss over. It might go to her head and give her the notion she was better than the others. Sooner have her look up to her older brothers and sisters and for the younger ones to take her down to earth once in a while. Now her boys never could get the best of Sulie. She might be littler, but she was too bright for them.
Sayward wouldn’t tell Portius the strange token she had before little Sulie came along in this world. Resolve was only a little feller then, a mite bigger than Sulie was now. Worth’s oiled-paper window was knocked out long ago and Portius had a real glass light from George Roebuck’s. The bound boy had mortared it in the hole. Portius would sit by that window light with his books and lawyer papers. But this was in the nighttime. Portius was off somewhere, Guerdon asleep, and Kinzie in the cradle. Resolve was a-laying on the old bearskin making a cabin of corncobs in front of the fire while Sayward knitted at the thumb of a red mitten by the fire.
It came to her Resolve was mighty quiet. When she turned her head he was looking at the window, and his eyes were stiff in their sockets.
“Somebody a-peekin’ ini” he said. She looked but the window was empty.
“It’s went,” Resolve said. “I’m afeared!”
Sayward felt no fright. She went to the door, aiming to look outside. When she opened it, Put, the hound, came in stretching and yawning.
“You just reckoned you seen something,” Sayward told, coming back.
“Oh, no, I seen him plain,” Resolve said.
“Who did you see?” Sayward asked him.
“A little boy.”
The first queer feeling ran up Sayward’s spine.
“Now I know you didn’t see anything,” she said. “What would you be afeared of a little boy for! Besides, no such would be out in the woods tonight. And if he was, he couldn’t reach his head up to that winder.”
“It was a little dark boy,” Resolve said without winking.
Sayward laid down the mitten. This had gone far enough. “You’re a-makin’ this up,” she said sternly.
“No, I ain’t. The little dark boy knowed I seen him, too.”
“Now, harkee, Resolve! I won’t have you lyin’ to me or nobody else either.”
“I ain’t lyin’.”
“If you seen anything,” Sayward said, “I reckon you seen the fire shinin’ in the winder.”
“He was all dressed in white,” Resolve told her.
A strange quiver went over Sayward.
“You go back to your playin’,” she told him. “You just took it into your head you seen somethin’.”
“I seen him plain like I do you, so I did!" Resolve went back to his corncobs all right, but more than once when she looked up she saw him raise his eyes to the window.
Now Sayward wasn’t what you could call a scarebaby. It had no man nor woman either, in these woods, she would give ground to. But she didn’t like Resolve’s notion he saw a little dark boy dressed in white a-peeping in their window. Especially not when she was carrying a young one.
And she didn’t like the other token she had, the very day before the baby was to show up. Old Lady Giddings had had one foot in the grave too long, and when she died, Sayward told them they could bury aside of Jary, if they wanted. Some of the men came out to clear the brush so that it would be ready as a burying ground tomorrow. Resolve was out. He came in all worked up. He said his mammy had to go along out. He said he saw something and he didn’t know what it was. When Sayward and he got out, he pointed to a strange dark man tugging at a rock with his back turned.
Buckman Tull saw him point.
“Don’t fret, boy,” he said. “We’d never put him in here.”
The strange slow man gave no notice he heard, but Portius, who had a grubbing hoe in his hand, stood up.
“Then, ban my own body from this spot,” he spoke up so all could hear. “Sooner see me laid beside some lowly son of Ham in a remote spot unsanctified by man than in a place marked by human bigotry and dissension.” He looked around him with dignity. “I hope that those within the sound of my voice will be my witnesses and in the event of my untimely death remind my widow of these sentiments.”
Buckman Tull shut up like a jackknife. Only the strange humble man paid no notice. He seemed like one apart. Sayward watched him struggle up with the rock and tote it off cradled in his arms and belly.
“I seen one of them when I was a gal,” she said to Resolve. “I reckon it’s Zephon Brown’s new slave man.”
“What’s the matter with him?” Resolve asked.
“They ain’t nothin’ the matter with him. He’s a black man.”
“Why is he black?”
“Because God made him so.”
“But why did God make him so?”
“I reckon God wanted a change.”
“But why did He want a change?”
“You can ask your pappy tonight. Maybe he kin tell you,” she put him off, and went back to the cabin. Ever since Portius spoke about dying, she had felt the repeated stabs of her babe deep in her being.
All through the spell of pain that night, Sayward kept her mind off any notion of signs or tokens. Oh, it had things in this world, if you believed them, that were darker and more fearsome than hell itself. It had babes born to decent girls, she’d heard, that were monstrous as toads, hairy as wild bulls, or mad as a wolf with slobber on its jaws. When the hard labor was over, the first thing she asked about was her baby.
“How does it look?” she put to them.
“Just fine,” Mrs. Covenhoven said.
“Is it dark or fair?” Sayward asked.
“Why,” Mrs. Covenhoven said with surprise, looking it over in her hands, “I’d say fair.”
“It has no dark spots?” Sayward persisted.
“Why, she hasn’t a blemish on her.”
“It’s not a boy then.” Sayward took a breath.
“It’s a fine little girl child,” Mrs. Covenhoven declared. “What makes you talk this way, Saird?”
“I’m just glad it’s all right,” Sayward said and shut, her eyes with relief.
THAT baby grew like a stalk of anise weed. She could say “Mammy” and “Pappy” at eight months and hobble from stool to stool at nine. At ten months she came big as you please down over the door log where Sayward was talking to Granny MacWhirter and said, “Howdee. Howdee.” Now she was two years pushing on three and knew more letters than her mammy did. Oh, she was bright and sharp as a needle. She picked up everything she heard and plenty she didn’t. She might be the littlest, except for the new baby, but she was always one step ahead of the rest with her Yankee tricks.
Today Sayward was out boiling soap, and you’d think Sulie was the one making it. She lugged water in her little kettle, spilling half of it over herself. She made Sayward bend down so she could stick a bunch of sweet fern in her mammy’s hair against the woods flies. She was always the one to do anything first. She stood big as you please on the stump stirring the kettle with the sassafras paddle, plaguing her mammy with questions. She wouldn’t give Sayward any rest. She’d pop a new question before you could muster up an answer to the old.
And when she wore out her mammy’s tongue, she’d make the answers herself. She was going to have her own ash barrel. She would pour in water and out would come lye. It would be lye strong as whiskey. Only white hickory ashes would she put in the barrel, and only coon fat in the kettle, for soap made from coon fat never smarted the face like her mammy’s soap and A’nt Ginny’s. No, her soap would be soft as butter. With it you could wash a silken towel. Oh, Sulie was a pest if there ever was one. She could talk you deaf and dumb.
When the others hollered for their turn with the paddle, Sulie threw it down and swept hard on the ground with her little hickory broom. Then she toddled around in a circle and stopped stock-still on one foot with a stupid look on her face.
“What ye doin’?” Guerdon wanted to know while Kinzie on the stump tried to look this way and that through the smoke.
“I’m a chicken!” she called, solemn as all get out , standing on one foot like she was one of Mrs. Covenhoven’s gypsyfowl. “I’m a-thinkin’ how to lay a egg!”
Guerdon had to try it while Kinzie itched and sweated, wanting to come down and try it too. But before Guerdon had his foot down, Sulie had a new trick. She was meandering around with her head way down and her eyes looking out back between her far-apart legs.
“What’s that now?” Kinzie wanted to know.
“I got the rheumatiz,” she called. “I kin see how the world looks upside down. The kettle’s a-fallin’, and you’re a-standin’ on your head in the sky.”
Kinzie couldn’t stand that. He dropped the paddle and jumped from the stump to see the world down side up. In two shakes Sulie had scrambled up to stir with the paddle while Kinzie cried she stole it from him, and little bittie Sulie stood up there and sang at the top of her voice: —
Hangin’ on the brier
With your britches on fire!”
Oh, she was too quick and bright for her brothers. They fought and screeched to high heaven, but it didn’t hurt the soap any. When Sayward got it done, the soap was as clean and yaller as jelly. And Sayward still had time to grind meal for supper and to visit in the cabin with Mary Harbinson, who came along the trace with her little girl, Salomy. She could hear the five young ones running outside, yelling to each other, a-playing Injun against the black hornets who reckoned the run belonged to the hornet nation. Then for a while it was quiet as a sitting hen.
Sayward inside pricked up her ears. Fighting and bawling she paid small heed to, but peace and quiet sometimes called for looking into. That fire under the big kettle, she told herself, should be out this long time. Even so, the youngsters had strict orders to stay away. She had no idea that this minute Resolve was running to the cabin hard as he could come. Not that Resolve was a tattletale. He just wanted to tell his mammy that Sulie was playing with those ashes. She was showing off to Salomy, that’s what she was. She’d swept them out from under the big kettle with her little hickory broom. Now she was a-running through them with her bare feet to show she “wasn’t afeared.”
But Resolve never got more than halfway to the cabin. He must have stopped dead when he heard Sulie screech. Sayward heard it plain enough, a high screech, sharp and mad like the edge of a scalping knife. It lifted Sayward off her stool like God Almighty had yanked her. When she got to the door her eye took in Resolve, Guerdon, Kinzie, and Salomy, all standing at different places, stiff as small steelyards, staring at a ball of fire running for its mammy. Not till then did Sayward get through her head that the ball of fire was Sulie.
It was only a shake and a half till Sayward was across that yard, wrapping her skirt around the fire, beating out the flame with her bare hands. But that was a shake and a half too long, for fire is a cruel, tarnal thing, and a little girl child is soft and tender as a young Marybud coming up in the spring. Sayward wouldn’t believe what she saw when she took her skirt away. This was something to make her blood stop and her hair stand. This was something that couldn’t be.
“Oh, Mammy!” those blackened little lips of Sulie tried to say, a-telling her she meant no harm, a-begging her not to scold that her dress was burned, a-asking her mammy to help her little Sulie who had never asked help from anybody but always knew her own self what to do.
If she got to be a hundred years old, Sayward told herself, never without her voice breaking could she tell a stranger how it went with their little Sulie that day. How she lay in her bed looking up at them with blackened rims where her eyelashes ought to be. How one minute she had been in this world light and free, and the next, the gates of the other world were open and she had to pass through. Already she was where her own mammy couldn’t reach her. She couldn’t even touch grease to that scorched young flesh without Sulie screaming so they could hear her over at the Covenhovens’.
Never did Sayward think she would be weak enough to let other folks get her own child ready for the bury hole. She fought cruel as death to do with her own hands what had to be done. When the women would have it no other way, she let them push her in the chimney corner. But it would have been easier to do it herself than watch them try to pretty but only darken that little burned face and body that were once white as milk — to try to fix the gold hair Sayward used to run her haw comb through and was now like a lump of burned weeds — to have to sit and listen while they dragged in their young ones to show what would happen to them if they played with fire.
ALL the time in her mind she could see that little body when she first started to walk. Back and forwards, Sulie’s small red dress used to go, her little red arms out to balance. She’d never get a.-weary. She could go it all day, wraggling and wriggling, skipping and jumping, going hoppity-hoppity, nodding and bobbing, in and out, from one side to another. Did that little mite know, she wondered? Did something tell her she had only a short while in this world, and that’s why she was always on the go with one dido after another?
The women in the chimney corner kept up their woman talk to ca’m Sayward. They said a woman couldn’t expect to raise all her young ones. It was a blessing Sulie was spared the trial of going through this vale of tears. She was too bright to grow up anyway. The Lord took such for his own. Oh, Sayward never said back a word. But she would have changed places in a shake with Sulie if only Sulie could go through this vale of tears.
And in her heart she cried her disbelief that the Lord would steal human flesh from His children. No, you couldn’t throw the blame on the Lord. She didn’t hold too hard against herself either for not harping more about staying away from fire. She had done it a-plenty. You couldn’t dingdong at young ones all the time. You had to let them be their own selves once in a while, or they’d grow up tied to their mam’s apron strings. But if she’d had her wits about her, she would have taken a bucket of water and doused that fire before she came in the cabin. She might have reckoned that Sulie would be up to some new Yankee trick.
She felt hard for Fortius when he came. He looked like he was dragged through a knothole. He had been way out at Keleher’s improvement when he heard the news. He didn’t carry on any more than she did, but she knew how he felt, for little Sulie was his favor-rite, and now she’d never climb his knee again or call out the letters of the alphabet, but spend her days a-moldering in the ground till nobody could tell any more which dust belonged to her and which to the woods.
The only comfort Sayward had was that they had cleared a burying place for Mrs. Giddings and those that came after. Now Sulie could lay out of the dark of the trees, in the sun. She wouldn’t have to lay alone either. She would be next to her granmam. Both she and Jary had always been the sociable kind. Jary had come to these lonesome parts against her will. If she’d had her way, she’d have lived her life in the settlements. Her mother would feel kindly tonight, Sayward thought, if she knew she wasn’t lying in the woods any more and that she had kin for company.
The hardest thing was to look at your young one the last time by the open grave. Once they put the lid on that box, you would never lay eyes on her again. She lay so uncommon still for Sulie, wrapped in her muslin winding sheet. The bound boy had stayed up most the night to make this small box of sawn boards for her. He had made it fine as a town box, shaped like a diamond, the widest place for the shoulder. He had taken some shavings and pegged a scrap of muslin over for a pillow. Four young boys had carried the box out of the cabin to the grave. Now wasn’t it a pity that Sulie couldn’t have made a nicer-looking corpse! And yet you might know Sulie would not be as other folks. Even in the way she had to die, she’d go her own way. She wouldn’t waste away or die from the flux or a fever. No, she had to be a ball of fire and die from swallowing some of the flame!
Sayward never knew how long she stood there, bitter and cruel, looking down for the last time. She held her youngest girl babe in her arms so in after years that babe could say she had looked on her sister in her grave box. Fortius and the boys came close after. Guerdon and Kinzie said no word, but Resolve stiffened when he looked in the box.
He stood like he saw a ghost.
“Mam!” he said, pulling at her skirt. “Mam!”
“It’s all right,” Sayward told him.
“I want to tell you something, Mam. Do you know who that is?”
“It’s our poor little Sulie,” Sayward said quiet as she could to ca’m him.
“No, it ain’t, Mam,” he told her excited, starting to sputter.
“It’s just that she went through the fire,” Sayward told him,
“No, it ain’t, Mam!” Resolve stood his ground. “I knowed our Sulie and I know this one. Don’t you mind the one I told you about that time?”
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Sayward reproved him in a low voice, trying to get him still. But he wouldn’t listen.
“I’d know that one anywheres!” he cried the louder. “That’s the little dark boy I seen that time a-peekin’ at me and you through the winder.”