The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 11

The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 11
The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 11

At first, there was the faintest sound of movement in the forest. A kind of low humming. Then there was chopping and the sound of dragging. Then a scent, some days, of smoke. But now, after two months, during which I or the children or Corrine has been sick, all we hear is chopping and scraping and dragging. And every day we smell smoke.

Today one of the boys in my afternoon class burst out, as he entered, The road approached! The road approaches! He had been hunting in the forest with his father and had seen it.

Every day now the villagers gather at the edge of the village near the cassava fields and watch the building of the road. And watching them, some on their stools and some squatted down on their haunches, all chewing cola nuts and making patterns in the dirt, I feel a great surge of love for them. For they do not approach the road builders empty-handedly. Oh, no. Each day since they saw the road’s approach they have been stuffing the road builders with goat meat, millet mush, baked yam and cassava, cola nuts, and palm wine. Each day is like a picnic, and I believe many friendships have been made, although the road builders are from a different tribe some distance to the North and nearer the coast, and their language is somewhat different. I don’t understand it, anyway, though the people of Olinka seem to. But they are clever people about most things and understand new things very quickly.

It is hard to believe we’ve been here five years. Time moves slowly but passes quickly. Adam and Olivia are nearly as tall as me and doing very well in all their studies. Adam has a special aptitude for figures and it worries Samuel that soon he will have nothing more to teach him in this field, having exhausted his own knowledge.

When we were in England we met missionaries who sent their children back home when it was no longer possible to teach them in the bush. But it is hard to imagine life here without the children. They love the open feeling of the village, and love living in huts. They are excited by the hunting expertise of the men and the self-sufficiency of the women in raising their crops. No matter how down I may be, and sometimes I get very down indeed, a hug from Olivia or Adam completely restores me to the level of functioning, if nothing else. Their mother and I are not as close as we once were, but I feel more like their aunt than ever. And the three of us look more and more alike every day.

About a month ago, Corrine asked me not to invite Samuel to my hut unless she were present. She said it gave the villagers the wrong idea. This was a real blow to me because I treasure his company. Since Corrine almost never visits me herself I will have hardly anybody to talk to, just in friendship. But the children still come and sometimes spend the night when their parents want to be alone. I love those times. We roast groundnuts on my stove, sit on the floor, and study maps of all the countries in the world. Sometimes Tashi comes over and tells stories that are popular among the Olinka children. I am encouraging her and Olivia to write them down in Olinka and English. It will be good practice for them. Olivia feels that, compared to Tashi, she has no good stories to tell. One day she started in on an “Uncle Remus” tale only to discover Tashi had the original version of it! Her little face just fell. But then we got into a discussion of how Tashi’s people’s stories got to America, which fascinated Tashi. She cried when Olivia told how her grandmother had been treated as a slave.

No one else in this village wants to hear about slavery, however. They acknowledge no responsibility whatsoever. This is one thing about them that I definitely do not like.

We lost Tashi’s father during the last rainy season. He fell ill with malaria and nothing the healer concocted saved him. He refused to take the medicine we use for it or to let Samuel visit him at all. It was my first Olinka funeral. The women paint their faces white wear white shroud-like garments and cry in a high keening voice. They wrapped the body in bark cloth and buried it under a big tree in the forest. Tashi was heartbroken. All her young life she has tried to please her father, never quite realizing that, as a girl, she never could. But the death brought her and her mother closer together, and now Catherine feels like one of us. By one of us, I mean me and the children and sometimes Samuel. She is still in mourning and sticking close to her hut, but she says she will not marry again (since she already has five boy children she can now do whatever she wants. She has become an honorary man) and when I went to visit her she made it very clear that Tashi must continue to learn. She is the most industrious of all Tashi’s father’s widows, and her fields are praised for their cleanliness, productivity, and general attractiveness. Perhaps I can help her with her work. It is in work that the women get to know and care about each other. It was through work that Catherine became friends with her husband’s other wives .

 

 

This friendship among women is something Samuel often talks about. Because the women share a husband but the husband does not share their friendships, it makes Samuel uneasy. It is confusing, I suppose. And it is Samuel’s duty as a Christian minister to preach the bible’s directive of one husband and one wife. Samuel is confused because to him since the women are friends and will do anything for one another—not always, but more often than anyone from America would expect—and since they giggle and gossip and nurse each other’s children, then they must be happy with things as they are. But many women rarely spend time with their husbands. Some of them were promised to old or middle-aged men at birth. Their lives always center around work and their children and other women (since a woman cannot

 

 really have a man for a friend without the worst kind of ostracism and gossip). They indulge their husbands if anything. You should just see how they make admiration over them. Praise their smallest accomplishments. Stuff them with palm wine and sweets. No wonder men are often childish. And a grown child is a dangerous thing, especially since, among the Olinka, the husband has life and death power over the wife. If he accuses one of his wives of witchcraft or infidelity, she can be killed.

Thank God (and sometimes Samuel’s intervention) this has not happened since we’ve been here. But the stories Tashi tells are often about such gruesome events that happened in the recent past. And God forbid that the child of a favorite wife should fall ill! That is the point at which even the women’s friendships break down, as each woman fears the accusation of sorcery from the other, or from the husband.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, dear Celie. We celebrate it here on the “dark” continent with prayer and song and a large picnic complete with watermelon, fresh fruit punch, and barbecue!

God bless you,

Nettie


The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 9

 

I meant to write you in time for Easter, but it was not a good time for me and I did not want to burden you with any distressing news. So a whole year has gone by. The first thing I should tell you about is the road. The road finally reached the cassava fields about nine months ago and the Olinka, who love nothing better than a celebration, outdid themselves by preparing a feast for the roadbuilders who talked and laughed and cut their eyes at the Olinka women the whole day. In the evening many were invited into the village itself and there was merrymaking far into the night.

I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. The Olinka definitely hold this view. And so they naturally thought the road being built was for them. And, in fact, the road builders talked much of how quickly the Olinka will now be able to get to the coast. With a tarmac road, it is only a three-day journey. By bicycle, it will be even less. Of course, no one in Olinka owns a bicycle, but one of the road builders has one, and all the Olinka men covet it and talk of someday soon purchasing their own.

Well, the morning after the road was “finished” as far as the Olinka were concerned (after all, it had reached their village), what should we discover but that the road builders were back at work. They have instructions to continue the road for another thirty miles! And to continue it on its present course right through the village of Olinka. By the time we were out of bed, the road was already being dug through Catherine’s newly planted yam field. Of course, the Olinka was up in arms. But the road builders were literally up in arms. They had guns, Celie, with orders to shoot!

It was pitiful, Celie. The people felt so betrayed! They stood by helplessly—they really don’t know how to fight, and rarely think of it since the old days of tribal wars—as their crops and then their very homes were destroyed. Yes. The road builders didn’t deviate an inch from the plan the headman was following. Every hut that lay in the proposed road path was leveled. And, Celie, our church, our school, my hut, all went down in a matter of hours. Fortunately, we were able to save all of our things, but with a tarmac road running straight through the middle of it, the village itself seems gutted.

Immediately after understanding the road builders’ intentions, the chief set off toward the coast, seeking explanations and reparations. Two weeks later he returned with even more disturbing news. The whole territory, including the Olinkas’ village, now belongs to a rubber manufacturer in England. As he neared the coast, he was stunned to see hundreds and hundreds of villagers much like the Olinka clearing the forests on each side of the road, and planting rubber trees. The ancient, giant mahogany trees, all the trees, the game, everything of the forest was being destroyed, and the land was forced to lie flat, he said, and bare as the palm of his hand.

At first, he thought the people who told him about the English rubber company were mistaken, if only about its territory including the Olinka village. But eventually, he was directed to the governor’s mansion, a huge white building, with flags flying in its yard, and there had an audience with the white man in charge. It was this man who gave the road builders their orders, this man who knew about the Olinka only from a map. He spoke in English, which our chief tried to speak also.

It must have been a pathetic exchange. Our chief never learned English beyond an occasional odd phrase he picked up from Joseph, who pronounces “English” “Yanglush.”

But the worst was yet to be told. Since the Olinka no longer owns their village, they must pay rent for it, and in order to use the water, which also no longer belongs to them, they must pay a water tax.

At first, the people laughed. It really did seem crazy. They’ve been here forever. But the chief did not laugh. We will fight the white man, they said.

But the white man is not alone, said the chief. He has brought his army.

That was several months ago, and so far nothing has happened. The people live like ostriches, never setting foot on the new road if they can help it, and never, ever, looking towards the coast. We have built another church and school. I have another hut. And so we wait.

Meanwhile, Corrine has been very ill with African fever. Many missionaries in the past have died from it.

But the children are fine. The boys now accept Olivia and Tashi in class and more mothers are sending their daughters to school. The men do not like it: who wants a wife who knows everything her husband knows? they fume. But the women have their ways, and they love their children, even their girls.

I will write more when things start looking up. I trust God they will.

Your sister, Nettie

 

 

This whole year, after Easter, has been difficult. Since Corrine’s illness, all her work has fallen on me, and I must nurse her as well, which she resents.

One day when I was changing her as she lay in bed, she gave me a long, mean, but somehow pitiful look. Why do my children look like you? she asked.

Do you think they look so much like me? I said. You could have to spit them out, she said.

Maybe just living together, loving people makes them look like you, I said. You know how much some old married people look alike.

Even these women saw the resemblance the first day we came, she said. And that’s worried you all this time? I tried to laugh it off

But she just looked at me.

When did you first meet my husband? she wanted to know.

And that was when I knew what she thought. She thinks Adam and Olivia are my children, and that Samuel is their father! Oh, Celie, this thing has been gnawing away at her all these years!

I met Samuel the same day I met you, Corrine, I said. (I still haven’t got the hang of saying “Sister” all the time.) As God is my witness, that’s the truth.

Bring the bible, she said.

I brought the bible, placed my hand on it, and swore.

You’ve never known me to lie, Corrine, I said. Please believe I am not lying now.

Then she called Samuel and made him swear that the day she met me was the day he met me also. He said: I apologize for this, Sister Nettie, please forgive us.

As soon as Samuel left the room she made me raise my dress and she sat up on her sickbed to examine my stomach.

I felt so sorry for her, and so humiliated, Celie. And the way she treats the children is the hardest part. She doesn’t want them near her, which they don’t understand. How could they? They don’t even know they were adopted.

The village is due to be planted with rubber trees this coming season. The Olinka hunting territory has already been destroyed, and the men must go farther and farther away to find the game. The women spend all their time in the fields, tending their crops and praying. They sing to the earth and the sky and their cassava and groundnuts. Songs of love and farewell.

We are all sad, here, Celie. I hope life is happier for you.

Your sister, Nettie


The war of the worlds: Friday night: Chapter Eight

 

 

Guess what? Samuel thought the children were mine too! That is why he urged me to come to Africa with them. When I showed up at their house he thought I was following my children, and, soft-hearted as he is, didn’t have the heart to turn me away.

If they are not yours, he said, whose are they? But I had some questions for him, first.

Where did you get them? I asked. And Celie, he told me a story that made my hair stand on end. I hope you, poor thing, are ready for it.

Once upon a time, there was a well-to-do farmer who owned his own property near town. Our town, Celie. And as he did so well farming and everything he turned his hand to prospered, he decided to open a store and try his luck selling dry goods as well. Well, his store did so well that he talked two of his brothers into helping him run it, and, as the months went by, they were doing better and better. Then the white merchants began to get together and complain that this store was taking all the black business away from them, and the man’s blacksmith shop that he set up behind the store, was taking some of the white. This would not do. And so, one night, the man’s store was burned down, his smithy destroyed, and the man and his two brothers were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and hanged.

The man had a wife whom he adored, and they had a little girl, barely two years old. She was also pregnant with another child. When the neighbors brought her husband’s body home, it had been mutilated and burnt. The sight of it nearly killed her, and her second baby, also a girl, was born at this time. Although the widow’s body recovered, her mind was never the same. She continued to fix her husband’s plate at mealtimes just as she’d always done and was always full of talk about the plans she and her husband had made. The neighbors, though not always intending to, shunned her more and more, partly because the plans she talked about were grander than anything they could even conceive of for colored people, and partly because her attachment to the past was so pitiful. She was a good-looking woman, though, and still owned land, but there was no one to work it for her, and she didn’t know how herself; besides she kept waiting for her husband to finish the meal she’d cooked for him and go to the fields himself. Soon there was nothing to eat that the neighbors did not bring, and she and her small children grubbed around in the yard as best they could.

While the second child was still a baby, a stranger appeared in the community, and lavished all his attention on the widow and her children; in a short while, they were married. Almost at once, she was pregnant a third time, though her mental health was no better. Every year thereafter, she was pregnant, and every year she became weaker and more mentally unstable, until, many years after she married the stranger, she died.

Two years before she died she had a baby girl that she was too sick to keep. Then a baby boy. These children were named Olivia and Adam.

This is Samuel’s story, almost word for word.

The stranger who married the widow was someone Samuel had run with long before he found Christ. When the man showed up at Samuel’s house with first Olivia and then Adam, Samuel felt not only unable to refuse the children, but as if God had answered his and Corrine’s prayers.

He never told Corrine about the man or about the children’s “mother” because he hadn’t wanted any sadness to cloud her happiness.

But then, out of nowhere, I appeared. He put two and two together, remembered that his old running buddy had always been a scamp, and took me in without any questions. Which, to tell the truth, had always puzzled me, but I put it down to Christian charity. Corrine had asked me once whether I was running away from home. But I explained I was a big girl now, my family back home was very large and poor, and it was time for me to get out and earn my own living.

Tears had soaked my blouse when Samuel finished telling me all this. I couldn’t begin, then, to tell him the truth. But Celie, I can tell you. And I pray with all my heart that you will get this letter if none of the others.

Pa is not our pa!

Your devoted Sister, Nettie

 

 

That’s it, say Shug. Pack your stuff. You coming back to Tennessee with me. But I feel dazed.

My daddy lynch. My mama was crazy. All my little half-brothers and sisters no kin to me. My children, not my sister and brother. Pa, not pa.

You must be sleeping.

 

  

For the first time in my life, I wanted to see Pa. So I and Shug dress up in our new blue flower pants that match and big floppy Easter hats that match too, cept her roses red, mine yellow, and our clam in the Packard and glide over there. They put in paved roads all up and down the county now and twenty miles go like nothing.

I saw Pa once since I left home. One day I and Mr. was loading up the wagon at the feed store. Pa was with May Ellen and she was trying to fix her stocking. She was bent down over her leg and twisting the stocking into a knot above her knee, and he was standing over her tap-tap-tapping on the gravel with his cane. Look like he was thinking bout hitting her with it.

Mr. went up to them all friendly, with his hand stuck out, but I kept loading the wagon and looking at the patterns on the sacks. I never thought I’d ever want to see him again.

Well, it was a bright Spring day, sort of chill at first, like it is around Easter, and the first thing we notice soon as we turn into the lane is how green everything is like even though the ground everywhere else is not warmed up good, Pa’s land is warm and ready to go. Then all along the road, there are Easter lilies and jonquils and daffodils and all kinds of little early wildflowers. Then we notice all the birds singing the little cans off, all up and down the hedge, that itself is putting out little yellow flowers smell like Virginia creeper. It is all so different from the rest of the country we drive through, it makes us really quiet. I know this sounds funny, Nettie, but even the sun seemed to stand a little longer over our heads.

Well, say Shug, all this is pretty enough. You never said how pretty it was.

It wasn’t this pretty, I say. Every Easter time it used to flood, and all of us children had colds. Anyhow, I say, we stuck close to the house, and it sure ain’t so hot.

That ain’t so hot? she asked, as we swung up a long curving hill I didn’t remember, right up to a big yellow two-story house with green shutters and a steep green shingle roof.

I laughed. We must have taken the wrong turn, I say. This is some white person’s house. It was so pretty though that we stop the car and just sat looking at it.

What kind of trees is all of them flowering? ask Shug.

I don’t know, I say. Look like peach, plum, apple, maybe cherry. But whatever they are, they sure pretty.

All around the house, all in the back of it, nothing but blooming trees. Then more lilies and jonquils and roses clammed over everything. And all the time the little birds from all over the rest of the county sit up in these trees just going to town.

Finally, after we look at it awhile, I say, it is so quiet, nobody home, I guess. Now, say Shug, probably in church. A nice bright Sunday like this.

We better leave then, I say, before whoever it is lives here gits back. But just as I say that I notice my eye is staying on a fig tree it recognizes, and we hear a car turning up the drive. Who should be in the car but Pa and some young girl look like his child?

He got out on his side, then go round to open the door for her. She dresses to kill in a pink suit, big pink hat, and pink shoes, a little pink purse hanging on her arm. They look at our license tag and then come up to the car. She put her hand through his arm.

Morning, he says, when he gets up to Shug’s window. Morning, she says slowly, and I can tell he is not what she expects.

Anything I can do for you? He ain’t notice me and probably wouldn’t even if he looked at me. Shug says, under her breath, Is this him?

I say, Yeah.

What shocked Shug and shock me too is how young he look. He looks older than the child he is with, even if she is dressed up like a woman, but he looks young for somebody to be anybody that got grown children and nearly grown grandchildren. But then I remember, that he was not my daddy, just my children's daddy.

What does your mama do, as Shug, rob the cradle? But he is not so young.

I brought Celie, say Shug. Your daughter Celie. She wanted to visit you. Got some questions toast.

He seems to think back a second. Celie?. he says. Like, Who Celie? Then he says, Yall git out and come upon the porch. Daisy, he said to the little woman with him, go tell Hetty to hold dinner. She squeezes his arm, reaches up, and kisses him on the jaw. He turns his head and watches her go up the walk, up the steps, and through the front door. He follows us up the steps, up on the porch, helps us pull out rocking chairs, then says, Now, what yall want?

The children here? I asked.

What children? he says. Then he laughs. Oh, they went with their mama. She up and left me, you know. Went back to her folks. Yeah, he says, you would remember May Ellen.

Why does she leave? I asked.

 

 He laughs some more. Got too old for me, I reckon.

Then the little woman comes back out and sits on the armrest of his chair. He talks to us and fondles her arm. This Daisy, he says. My new wife.

Why say Shug, you don’t look more than fifteen. I ain’t, say Daisy.

I’m surprised your people let you marry.

She shrugs and looks at Pa. They work for him, she says. Live on his land. I’m here people now, he says.

I feel so sick I almost gag. Nettie in Africa, I say. A missionary. She wrote me that you ain’t our real Pa. Well, he says. So now you know.

Daisy looked at me with pity all over her face. It's just like him to keep that from you, she says. He told me how he brought up two little girls that weren’t even his, she say. I don’t think I really believed it, till now.

Now, he never told them, say Shug.

What an old sweetie pie, says Daisy, kissing him on top of the head. He fondle and fondle her arm. Look at me and grin.

Your daddy didn’t know how to git along, he says. White folks lynch him. Too sad a story to tell pitiful little growing girls, he says. Any man would have done what I did.

Maybe not, say Shug.

He looks at her, then looks at me. He can tell she knows. But what does he care?

Take me, he said, I know how they are. The key to all of ’em is money. The trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn’t want to give the white man anything else. But the fact is, you got to give ’em something. Either your money, your land, your woman, or your ass. So what I did was just right off offer to give ’em money. Before I planted a seed, I made sure this one and that one knew one seed out of the tree was planted for him. Before I ground a grain of wheat, the same thing. And when I opened up your daddy’s old store in town, I bought me my own white boy to run it. And what makes it so good, he said, I bought him with white folks' money.

Ask the busy man your questions, Celie, say Shug. I think his dinner getting cold. Where is my daddy buried, I ask. That's all I really want to know.

Next to your mammy, he says.

Any marker, I ask.

He looks at me like I’m crazy. Lynched people don’t git no marker, he says. Like this is something everybody knows. Did mama get one? I asked.

He says, Naw.

The birds sing just as sweet when we leave as when we come. Then, look like as soon as we turn back on the main road, they stop. By the time we got to the cemetery, the sky was gray.

We look for Ma and Pa. Hope for some scrap of wood that says something. But we don’t find anything but weeds and cockleburs and paper flowers fading on some of the graves. Shug pick up an old horseshoe somebody horse lose. We took that old horseshoe and we turned around and round together until we were dizzy enough to fall out, and where we would have fallen we stuck the horseshoe in the ground.

Shug says, Us each other’s people now, and kiss me.

 

 

I woke up this morning bound to tell Corrine and Samuel everything. I went over to their hut and pulled up a stool next to Corrine’s bed. She’s so weak by now that all she can do is look unfriendly—and I could tell I wasn’t welcome.

I said, Corrine, I’m here to tell you and Samuel the truth.

She said, Samuel already told me. If the children are yours, why didn’t you just say so? Samuel said, Now, honey.

She said, Don’t Now Honey me. Nettie swore on the bible to tell me the truth. To tell God the truth, and she lied. Corrine, I said, I didn’t lie. I sort of turned my back more on Samuel and whispered: You saw my stomach, I said.

What do I know about pregnancy, she said. I never experienced it myself. For all I know, women may be able to rub out all the signs.

They can’t rub out stretch marks, I said. Stretch marks go right into the skin, and a woman’s stomach stretches enough so that it keeps a little pot as all the women have here.

She turned her face to the wall.

Corrine, I said, I’m the children’s aunt. Their mother is my older sister, Celie. Then I told them the whole story. Only Corrine was still not convinced.

Are you and Samuel telling so many lies, who can believe anything you say? she asked.

You’ve got to believe Nettie, said Samuel. Though the part about you and Pa was a real shock to him.

Then I remembered what you told me about seeing Corrine and Samuel and Olivia in town, when she was buying cloth to make her and Olivia dresses, and how you sent me to her because she was the only woman you’d ever seen with money. I tried to make Corrine remember that day, but she couldn’t.

She gets weaker and weaker, and unless she can believe us and start to feel something for her children, I fear we will lose her.

Oh, Celie, unbelief is a terrible thing. And so is the hurt we cause others unknowingly.

Pray for us,

Nettie

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