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He believed he was...
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About the Author
Also by Toni Morrison
Acclaim for Toni Morrison’s
Mrs. Caroline Smith
Mrs. Millie McTyeire
Mrs. Ardelia Willis
Mrs. Ramah Wofford
Mrs. Lois Brooks
—and each of their sisters,
all of whom knew
their true and ancient
For it hath been declared
unto me of you, my brethren, by them
which are of the house of
Chloe, that there are
contentions among you.
I CORINTHIANS 1:11
MY EAR is so close to the radio I have to be shouted away lest it ruin my hearing forever. Or I am cross-legged on the linoleum floor, breathing through my mouth, rapt, watching the giveaway eyes of the grown-up telling the story. All narrative begins for me as listening. When I read, I listen. When I write, I listen—for silence, inflection, rhythm, rest. Then comes the image, the picture of the thing that I have to invent: the headless bride in her wedding dress; the forest clearing. There is performance, too: “zzz went the saw,” accompanied by gesture. And cadence: “Old man Simon Gillicutty, caaatch me.” I need to use everything—sound, image, performance—to get at the full meaning of the story because I may be called upon to re-tell it for the pleasure of adults. Their judgment of my interpretation is critical.
Once upon a time there was this farmer. He planted himself a garden….
They are waiting. My mother is smiling in anticipation, but it is my grandmother I want most to please.
Yummy food, unique attention, playfulness, or loving sternness—these features are often summoned to sweeten one’s memory of a grandmother. Whether true or screened by time and loss, the relationship between grandmother and child usually surfaces as a warm and satisfying one. Mine, too, is sugared, but so much deeper than satisfaction that I don’t want to share it. Like the greedy child who can’t get close enough to the radio, I want it all to myself. She told us stories to keep us working at tedious tasks: picking through baskets of wild grapes to sort out the bruised; to take our minds off pain and chicken pox; to split open the dreary world to expose an enchanted one.
I was not my grandmother’s favorite. No matter, she was mine. I see her cutting lard into biscuit dough. I see my hands in hers as she dances with me. I smell the drops of turpentine in a teaspoon of sugar given to us in springtime. The school dresses she sewed, two each for my sister and me—plaid with a white collar; and once, she made us bobby suits. Most important, she was the one who wanted my dreams, mine alone, to interpret when she played the numbers. They were important to her, so I recalled them, shaped them into stories which, like hers, needed interpretation.
Once upon a time there was this farmer. He planted himself a garden….
Very funny, then scary, then funny again. Yet puzzling. At some level the tar baby story begged and offered understanding beyond “outlaw peasant outwits inventive master with wit and cunning.” It’s clear why the rabbit ate as much lettuce and cabbage as he could. It’s clear why the farmer had to stop him. But why a tar figure? And why (in the version I was told) is it dressed as a female? Did the farmer understand the rabbit so well he could count on its curiosity? But the rabbit isn’t curious at all; he passes by the tar baby, casually acknowledging its presence with “Good morning.” It is his being ignored and her being ill-mannered that annoy, then infuriate him. He threatens, then strikes her. Now he is stupid; if one of his paws sticks, why try another? The inventive farmer has succeeded but gets involved in a form of punishment, and having understood motivation so well earlier, now misunderstands completely. Now the stupid rabbit becomes the clever one, pretending that the punishment he fears most is being returned to his own neighborhood. He knows the farmer would reckon this return to the ’hood as supreme torture, worse than death, so into the briar patch he is unceremoniously, gleefully thrown. The figure of tar, having done its work, falls out of the action of the tale, yet remains not only as its strange, silent center, but also as the sticky mediator between master and peasant, plantation owner and slave. Constructed by the farmer to foil and entrap, it moves beyond trickery to art. The principal relationship is not limited to the rabbit and the farmer; it is also between the rabbit and the tar figure. She snares him; he knows it, yet compounds his entanglement while demanding to be freed. A love story, then. Difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman and clever, anarchic male, each with definitions of independence and domesticity, of safety and danger that clash. The novel signals this conflict at the beginning: “He believed he was safe.” “Believed” rather than thought in order to stamp doubt, suggest unease.
It was the image of tar, however, artfully shaped, black, disturbing, threatening yet inviting, that led me to African masks: ancient, alive, and breathing, their features exaggerated, their power mysterious. A blatant sculpture sitting at the heart of the folktale became the bones of the narrative. All of the characters are themselves masks. And like African masks, the novel merged the primal and the contemporary, lore and reality. It was a blend that proved heady, even dizzying, but I believed the plotline solid and familiar enough to withhold or contain a reader’s sense of vertigo. If so, the original tale would have earned a new life. Which brings me back to the linoleum floor, listening to the women singing and telling their way through a buried history to stinging truth, enchanting the world where I was “born and bred at.”
They said she was dying. Something like “albumen” in the blood, a visiting doctor said. She mustn’t eat the whites of eggs. That was the diagnosis and the prescription. It was a brew of hit-and-miss medical attention, faith in God’s will, and a conviction that illness was mostly caused by food. (One of her daughters died at eighteen either of sitting on wet grass and catching “cold in the womb” or of the blackberry cobbler she ate the night before. In any case, my grandmother woke to find her sweet baby girl sleeping beside her as cold as frost.) Whatever the cause, my grandmother became very ill. Everyone available watched over her, and at some point I was sent into the bedroom to read to her. Something from the Bible, they said, to comfort her. I read solemnly, not understanding a word. I wanted to tell her a story instead—to amuse, maybe even cure her. Or recount a dream I’d had. But that would be frivolous, indeed, compared to the Bible. Silently she thrashed, turning restlessly under the sheet. I thought she wanted to run, to get away from this stupid grandchild who was awed by her assignment and inadequate to the task. Or perhaps she just wanted to go, to leave life, get quit of it. Minus income, she and her husband were living by turns with one offspring, then another. Although each of her daughters was pleased to have her and cared for her with fierce devotion, she was, in fact, like her husband, homeless. This sequence of beds—none their own—must have been unsettling if not humiliating. At the time I thought it a lovely life—traveling between towns, neighborhoods, “visiting” members of one’s family. But watching her walk her bedsheets, whip her head to and fro on the pillow…I don’t know. Of course, she was ill. Albumen and all…. But surely she could not die or want to. A few days later, when they told me she was dead, I thought, now no one will ask for my dreams. No one will insist I tell her a story.
Once upon a time, a long time ago…
There were four of us in the room: me, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. The oldest one intemperate, brimming with hard, scary wisdom. The youngest, me, a sponge. My mother gifted, gregarious, burdened with insight. My grandmother a secret treasure whose presence anchored the frightening, enchanted world. Three women and a girl who never stopped listening, watching, seeking their advice, and eager for their praise. All four of us people the writing of Tar Baby as witness, as challenge, as judges intent on the uses to which stories are put and the manner of their telling.
But only one of them needed my dreams.
HE BELIEVED he was safe. He stood at the railing of H.M.S. Stor Konigsgaarten and sucked in great gulps of air, his heart pounding in sweet expectation as he stared at the harbor. Queen of France blushed a little in the lessening light and lowered her lashes before his gaze. Seven girlish white cruisers bobbed in the harbor but a mile or so down current was a deserted pier. Carefully casual, he went below to the quarters he shared with the others, who had gone on shore leave, and since he had no things to gather—no book of postage stamps, no razor blade or key to any door—he merely folded more tightly the blanket corners under the mattress of his bunk. He took off his shoes and knotted the laces of each one through the belt hoop of his pants. Then, after a leisurely look around, he ducked through the passageway and returned to the top deck. He swung one leg over the railing, hesitated and considered diving headfirst, but, trusting what his feet could tell him more than what his hands could, changed his mind and simply stepped away from the ship. The water was so soft and warm that it was up to his armpits before he realized he was in it. Quickly he brought his knees to his chest and shot forward. He swam well. At each fourth stroke he turned skyward and lifted his head to make sure his course was parallel to the shore but away. Although his skin blended well with the dark waters, he was careful not to lift his arms too high above the waves. He gained on the pier and was gratified that his shoes still knocked softly against his hips.
After a while he thought it was time to head inland—toward the pier. As he scissored his legs for the turn, a bracelet of water circled them and yanked him into a wide, empty tunnel. He struggled to rise out of it and was turned three times. Just before the urge to breathe water became unmanageable, he was tossed up into the velvet air and laid smoothly down on the surface of the sea. He trod water for several minutes while he regulated his breathing, then he struck out once more for the pier. Again the bracelet tightened around his ankles and the wet throat swallowed him. He went down, down, and found himself not at the bottom of the sea, as he expected, but whirling in a vortex. He thought nothing except, I am going counterclockwise. No sooner had he completed the thought than the sea flattened and he was riding its top. Again he trod water, coughed, spat and shook his head to free his ears of water. When he’d rested he decided to swim butterfly and protect his feet from the sucking that had approached him both times from his right side. But when he tore open the water in front of him, he felt a gentle but firm pressure along his chest, stomach, and down his thighs. Like the hand of an insistent woman it pushed him. He fought hard to break through, but couldn’t. The hand was forcing him away from the shore. The man turned his head to see what lay behind him. All he saw was water, blood-tinted by a sun sliding into it like a fresh heart. Far away to his right was Stor Konigsgaarten, lit fore and aft.
His strength was leaving him and he knew he should not waste it fighting the current. He decided to let it carry him for a while. Perhaps it would disappear. In any case, it would give him time to regain strength. He floated as best he could in water that heaved and pulsed in the ammonia-scented air and was getting darker all the time. He knew he was in a part of the world that had never known and would never know twilight and that very soon he might be zooming toward the horizon in a pitch-black sea. Queen of France was already showing lights scattered like teardrops from a sky pierced to weeping by the blade tip of an early star. Still the water-lady cupped him in the palm of her hand, and nudged him out to sea. Suddenly he saw new lights—four of them—to his left. He could not judge the distance, but knew they had just been turned on aboard a small craft. Just as suddenly the water-lady removed her hand and the man swam toward the boat anchored in blue water and not the green.
As he neared it, he circled. He heard nothing and saw no one. Moving port side, he made out Seabird II and a three-foot rope ladder gently tapping the bow. He grabbed a rung and hoisted himself up and aboard. Panting lightly he padded across the deck. There was no trace of the sun and his canvas shoes were gone.
He sidled along the deck, his back against the walls of the wheelhouse, and looked into its curved windows. No one was there, but he heard music from below and smelled food cooked with a heavy dose of curry. He had nothing in mind to say if anyone suddenly appeared. It was better not to plan, not to have a ready-made story because, however tight, prepared stories sounded most like a lie. The sex, weight, the demeanor of whomever he encountered would inform and determine his tale.
He made his way aft and cautiously descended a short flight of stairs. The music was louder there and the smell of curry stronger. The farthest door stood ajar and from it came the light, the music and the curry. Nearer to him were two closed doors. He chose the first; it opened into a dark closet. The man stepped into it and closed the door softly after him. It smelled heavily of citrus and oil. Nothing was clear so he squatted where he was and listened to what seemed to be radio or record-player music. Slowly he moved his hand forward in the dark and felt nothing as far as his arm could reach. Moving it to the right he touched a wall. He duck-waddled closer to it and sank to the floor, his back against the wall.
He was determined to remain alert at all costs, but the water-lady brushed his eyelids with her knuckles. He dropped into sleep like a rock.
The engine did not wake him—he had slept with the noise of heavier ones for years. Nor did the boat’s list. Before the engines was the forgotten sound of a woman’s voice—so new and welcoming it broke his dream life apart. He woke thinking of a short street of yellow houses with white doors which women opened wide and called out, “Come on in here, you honey you,” their laughter sprawling like a quilt over the command. But nothing sprawled in this woman’s voice.