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Authors: Toni Morrison

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BOOK: Tar Baby
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“God help us.”

“She wants an old-fashioned Christmas.”

“Then she can bring her old-fashioned butt in here and cook it up.”

“Pumpkin pie, too.”

“Is any of this serious?”

“I told you. The boy is coming.”

“He’s always coming. Ain’t got here yet.”

“Then you know as much as I do. Every year the same. She’ll walk on a hot tin roof till he wires saying he can’t. Then look out!”

“You can’t be serious about apples. Surely.”

“I can’t be certain, Ondine. Looks like he might make it this time. He’s already shipped his trunk. That old red footlocker, remember? Yardman supposed to pick it up Thursday.”

“She don’t know that. He call her and say so? Ain’t been no mail come in here from him, has it?”

“She called him, I believe. This morning. Making sure of the time difference.”

“That’s what she rang you up for?”

“I didn’t have time to tell you.”

“When’s he due?”

“Soon, I reckon.” Sydney dropped two sugar cubes into his Postum.

“I thought all he ate was sunflowers and molasses these days.”

Sydney shrugged. “Last time I saw him he ate a mighty lot of steak.”

“And fresh coconut cake. The whole cake as I recall.”

“That’s your fault. You spoiled him stupid.”

“You can’t spoil a child. Love and good food never spoiled nobody.”

“Then maybe he’ll fly in here for sure this time just to get some more of it.”

“No way. Not down here, he won’t. He hates this place, coconuts and all. Always did.”

“Liked it when he was younger.”

“Well, he’s grown now and sees with grown-up eyes, like I do.”

“I still say you ruined him. He can’t fix his mind on nothing.”

“I ain’t ruined him. I gave him what any child is due.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You really believe that? That I ruined him?”

“Oh, I don’t know, girl. Just talking. But between you and the Principal Beauty, he never wanted for affection.”

“Bitch.”

“You have to stop that, Ondine. Every time she comes down here you act out. I’m getting tired of refereeing everybody.”

“The Principal Beauty of Maine is the main bitch of the prince.”

“You worry me. Cut the fire out from under that pan and bring me my breakfast.”

“I just want you to know I am not fooled by all that turkey and apple pie business. Fact is he don’t want to be nowhere near her. And I can’t say as I blame him, mother though she be.”

“You making up a life that nobody is living. She sees him all the time in the States and he don’t complain.”

“Visits. Visits he can’t do nothing about, but he never comes to see her.”

“He writes her sweet letters.”

“That’s what he studied in school.”

“Letters?”

“Poems.”

“Don’t think he don’t love her. He does.”

“I didn’t say he didn’t love her; I said he don’t want to be near her. Sure he love her. That’s only natural. He’s not the one who’s not natural. She is.”

“You and Mr. Street just alike. Always thinking evil about that girl.”

“When she get to be a girl?”

“She was a girl when I first saw her. Seventeen.”

“So was I.”

“Aw, the devil. Everybody’s going crazy in this house. Everybody. Mr. Street hollering about Postum and putting cognac in his cup—she’s hollering about mangoes and turkeys and I don’t know what all and now you denying her her own son.”

“I’m not denying her nothin. She can have him. He turned out to be a different breed of cat anyway after he went to all those schools. He was a sweet boy. Now I suppose he’ll be wanting mangoes too. Well, he can have em if he’ll stop coming in my kitchen to liberate me every minute.”

“He means well, Ondine.”

“What’s this about the Postum?”

“He says no more diet stuff. Regular coffee, real salt, all such as that.”

“He’ll rue it.”

“It’s his life.”

“Okay by me. It’s bothersome trying to cook with all those concoctions. Fake this. Fake that. Tears up a meal if you ask me. That plus everything temporary like this. Seems like everything I need to cook with is back in Philadelphia. I was just going by what the doctor told him three years ago. He leave that liquor alone he could eat like regular people. Is he still constipated?”

“Nope. Other people get constipated. He gets occasional irregularity. But he wants some Maalox just in case. Tell Yardman to bring a bottle out next time.”

“He the one should be eating mangoes. Open him right up. Other than for that, I can’t think of a soul in this world eat mangoes for breakfast.”

“I do.”

They hadn’t heard her come in. She stood before the swinging doors, hands on hips, toes pointing in, and smiling. Sydney and Ondine looked around, their faces bright with pleasure.

“Here she is!” said Sydney, and reached out a hand to hug her waist. She came forward and kissed his forehead. Then Ondine’s.

“Sleep well, sugar?”

“Well and late.” She sat down and locked her arms over her head in a deep yawn. “The air. The night air is incredible. It’s like food.”

“You weren’t serious, were you?” asked Ondine. “About wanting a mango?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Jadine dug her fingernails into her hair and scratched.

“I’ve got some nice liver. Sautéed just right. With eggs.”

“What kind of liver?”

“Chicken.”

“The chicken’s eggs and its liver? Is there anything inside a chicken we don’t eat?”

“Jadine, we’re still at the table,” said Sydney. “Don’t talk like that.” He patted her knee.

“Pineapple,” she said. “I’ll have some pineapple.”

“Well,” said Ondine, “thank God somebody in this house got some sense. That hussy sure don’t.”

“Let up, woman. She’s got something to deal with.”

“So has he.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve known him practically all his life and I’ll tell you this: he gets his way. Even when he was a little boy, he got his way.”

Jadine looked up. “Valerian was a little boy? You sure?”

“Hush up.” Sydney wiped his mouth with the pale blue napkin. “You be around all day today?”

“Most of it. But I may have to take the boat back to town.”

“What for? More Christmas shopping?”

“Yep.”

“You sure you won’t have some livers?”

“No, thanks, Nanadine, but could I have a cup of chocolate?”

“In this heat?” asked Sydney. He raised his eyebrows, but Ondine smiled. She loved it when her niece called her that—a child’s effort to manage “Aunt Ondine.” “Sure you can,” she said, and went immediately to the nickel-plated door that opened on a hallway. At the end, four steps descended to the second kitchen where supplies were kept and which was equipped like a restaurant kitchen.

Back in the first kitchen Sydney grumbled in the sunlight. “Air conditioning in the shed, but none in the house. I swear. All that money.”

Jadine licked sweet wet juice from her fingertips. “I love it. Makes the nights so much better. As soon as the sun goes down it’s cool anyway.”

“I work in the daytime, girl.”

“So do I.”

“You still calling that work?”

“It is work.”

Sydney sucked his teeth. “Exercising. Cutting pictures out of magazines. Going to the store.”

“I type,” she said. “And going to the store is a twenty-three-mile boat trip,
after
driving through jungle, swamp…”

“You better not let him hear you call anything on this island jungle.”

“Well, what does he call it? The Tuileries?”

“You know what he calls it,” said Sydney, digging in his vest pocket for a toothpick. “L’Arbe de la Croix.”

“I hope he’s wrong.” Jadine laughed.

Ondine entered, limping a little from the few stairs and frowning. “There’s something in this house that loves bittersweet chocolate. I had six eight-ounce boxes, now there’s two.”

“Rats?” asked Sydney. He looked concerned. Mr. Street and the other families had pooled money to have mongooses shipped to the island to get rid of snakes and rats.

“If rats fold wrappers, then yes, rats.”

“Well, who then? Couldn’t be over fifteen people on the whole island. The Watts are gone; so are the Broughtons,” said Sydney.

“Maybe it’s one of the new staff over at Deauville. All Filipinos again, I heard. Four of them.”

“Come on, Nanadine. Why would they walk all the way over here to steal a piece of chocolate?” Her niece swirled a napkin ring on her finger.

Ondine poured a tiny bit of water into a saucepan and plopped a chocolate square into it. “Well, somebody is. And not just chocolate either. The Evian, too. Half a case.”

“Must be Yardman,” said Sydney, “or one of them Marys.”

“Couldn’t be. He don’t step foot inside the house unless I’m behind him and I can’t get them Marys further in than the screen door.”

“You don’t know that, Ondine,” said Sydney. “You not in here every minute.”

“I do know that and I know my kitchens. Better than I know my face.”

Jadine loosened the straps of her halter and fanned her neck. “Well, let me tell you your face is prettier than your kitchens.”

Ondine smiled. “Look who’s talking. The girl who modeled for Karen.”

“Caron, Nanadine. Not Karen.”

“Whatever. My face wasn’t in every magazine in Paris. Yours was. Prettiest thing I ever saw. Made those white girls disappear. Just disappear right off the page.” She stirred milk into the chocolate paste and chuckled. “Your mother would have loved to see that.”

“You think you’ll ever do that again?” Sydney asked her.

“Maybe, but once is plenty. I want my own business now.”

Once more they looked at her, pleasure shining in their faces. Ondine brought the chocolate and set it down. She touched Jadine’s hair and said softly to her, “Don’t you ever leave us, baby. You all we got.”

“Whipped cream?” asked Jadine, smiling. “Any whipped cream?”

Ondine looked in the refrigerator for cream while Sydney and Jadine turned to the window as they heard footsteps on the gravel. Yardman came alone on Saturdays, pulling his own oars in his own mud-colored boat with
Prix de France
fading in blue on the prow. Today being Saturday and no dinner party or special work to be done, he did not bring a Mary who, according to Sydney, might be his wife, his mother, his daughter, his sister, his woman, his aunt or even a next-door neighbor. She looked a little different to the occupants of L’Arbe de la Croix each time, except for her Greta Garbo hat. They all referred to her as Mary and couldn’t ever be wrong about it because all the baptized black women on the island had Mary among their names. Once in a while Yardman brought a small-boned girl too. Fourteen, perhaps, or twenty, depending on what she chose to do with her eyes.

Sydney would go down to the little dock then, in the Willys jeep, and return with the whole crew, driving through beautiful terrain, then through Sein de Veilles saying nothing for he preferred their instructions to come from his wife. Yardman sometimes ventured a comment or two, but the Mary and the small-boned girl never said anything at all. They just sat in the jeep quietly hiding their hair from the eyes of malevolent strangers. Sydney may have maintained a classy silence, but Ondine talked to them constantly. Yardman answered her but the Mary never did except for a quiet “Oui, madame” if she felt pressed. Ondine tried, unsuccessfully, for months to get a Mary who would work inside. With no explicit refusal or general explanation each Mary took the potatoes, the pot, the paper sack and the paring knife outdoors to the part of the courtyard the kitchen opened onto. It enraged Ondine because it gave the place a nasty, common look. But when, at her insistence, Yardman brought another Mary, she too took the pail of shrimp outside to shell and devein them. One of them even hauled the ironing board and the basket of Vera sheets out there. Ondine made her bring it all back and from then on they had the flat linen done in Queen of France along with the fine.

Yardman, however, was accommodating. Not only did he run errands for them in the town, he swept, mowed, trimmed, clipped, transplanted, moved stones, hauled twigs and leaves, sprayed and staked as well as washed windows, reset tiles, resurfaced the drive, fixed locks, caught rats—all manner of odd jobs. Twice a year a professional maintenance crew came. Four young men and an older one, all white, in a launch with machines. They cleaned draperies, waxed and polished floors, scrubbed walls and tile, checked the plumbing and the wiring, varnished and sealed the shutters, cleaned the gutters and downspouts. The money they made from the fifteen families on the island alone was enough for a thriving business, but they worked other private and semiprivate islands year-round and were able to drive Mercedeses and Yamahas all over Queen of France.

Now all three looked out the kitchen window at the old man as though they could discover with their eyes an uncontrolled craving for chocolate and bottled water in his. Yardman’s face was nothing to enjoy, but his teeth were a treat. Stone-white and organized like a drugstore sample of what teeth ought to be.

Ondine sighed pointedly and walked to the door. She wished he could read, then she wouldn’t have to recite a list of chores and errands three times over so he would not forget: a red footlocker, a bottle of Maalox, the Christmas tree, thalomide, putting down bricks—but she’d be damned if she’d mention a turkey.

2

A
HOUSE
of sleeping humans is both closed and wide open. Like an ear it resists easy penetration but cannot brace for attack. Luckily in the Caribbean there is no fear. The unsocketed eye that watches sleepers is not threatening—it is merely alert, which anyone can tell for it has no lid and cannot wax or wane. No one speaks of a quarter or half moon in the Caribbean. It is always full. Always adrift and curious. Unastonished but never bored by the things it beholds: a pair of married servants sleeping back to back. The man without pajama tops in deference to the heat; his wife up to her neck in percale to defy it. There is safety in those backs. Each one feels it radiating from the other, knows that the steady, able spine of its partner is a hip turn away. Then their sleep is tranquil, earned, unlike the sleep of the old man upstairs in cotton pajamas. He has napped so frequently in his greenhouse during the day that night sleep eludes him. Sometimes he needs a half balloon of brandy to find it, and even then he chats the night away, whispering first to his wrist, then to the ceiling the messages he has received that need telling. And when he has got it straight—the exact wording, even the spelling of the crucial words—he is happy and laughs lightly like a sweet boy. His wife, in another room, has carefully climbed the steps to sleep and arrived at its door with luggage packed and locked: buffered nails, lightly oiled skin, hair pinned, teeth brushed—all her tips in shining order. Her breathing is still rapid, for she has just done twelve minutes of Canadian Air Force exercises. Eventually it slows, and under her sleeping mask two cotton balls soaked in witch hazel nestle against peaceful eyelids. She is hopeful in sleep for this may be the night she will dream the dream she ought to. Next to her bedroom, adjacent to it with a connecting door (she is not in this house year-round and has chosen a guest room rather than the master bedroom as her own), a young woman barely twenty-five years old is wide-awake. Again. She fell asleep immediately when first she lay down, but after an hour she woke rigid and frightened from a dream of large hats. Large beautiful women’s hats like Norma Shearer’s and Mae West’s and Jeanette MacDonald’s although the dreamer is too young to have seen their movies or remembered them if she had. Feathers. Veils. Flowers. Brims flat, brims drooping, brims folded, and rounded. Hat after lovely sailing hat surrounding her until she is finger-snapped awake. She lay there under the eye of the moon wondering why the hats had shamed and repelled her so. As soon as she gave up looking for the center of the fear, she was reminded of another picture that was not a dream. Two months ago, in Paris, the day she went grocery shopping. One of the happiest days of her life—full of such good weather and such good news she decided to throw a party to celebrate. She telephoned all the people she loved and some she did not and then drove all the way to the Supra Market in the 19
ème
arrondissement. Everything on her list was sure to be there, and no substitutes or compromises were necessary: Major Grey’s chutney, real brown rice, fresh pimiento, tamarind rinds, coconut and the split breasts of two young lambs. There were Chinese mushrooms and arugula; palm hearts and Bertolli’s Tuscany olive oil. If you had just been chosen for the cover of
Elle,
and there were three count three gorgeous and raucous men to telephone you or screech up to your door in Yugoslavian touring cars with Bordeaux Blanc and sandwiches and a little
C
, and when you have a letter from a charming old man saying your orals were satisfactory to the committee—well, then you go to the Supra Market for your dinner ingredients and plan a rich and tacky menu of dishes Easterners thought up for Westerners in order to indispose them, but which were printed in
Vogue
and
Elle
in a manner impressive to a twenty-five-year-old who could look so much younger when she chose that she didn’t even have to lie to the agencies, and they gave what they believed was a nineteen-year-old face the eyes and mouth of a woman of three decades.

Under such benevolent circumstances, knowing she was intelligent and lucky, everything on her list would of course be there. And when the vision materialized in a yellow dress Jadine was not sure it was not all part of her list—an addition to the coconut and tamarind, a kind of plus to go with the limes and pimiento. Another piece of her luck. The vision itself was a woman much too tall. Under her long canary yellow dress Jadine knew there was too much hip, too much bust. The agency would laugh her out of the lobby, so why was she and everybody else in the store transfixed? The height? The skin like tar against the canary yellow dress? The woman walked down the aisle as though her many-colored sandals were pressing gold tracks on the floor. Two upside-down
V
’s were scored into each of her cheeks, her hair was wrapped in a gelée as yellow as her dress. The people in the aisles watched her without embarrassment, with full glances instead of sly ones. She had no arm basket or cart. Just her many-colored sandals and her yellow robe. Jadine turned her cart around and went back down the aisle telling herself she wanted to reexamine the vegetables. The woman leaned into the dairy section and opened a carton from which she selected three eggs. Then she put her right elbow into the palm of her left hand and held the eggs aloft between earlobe and shoulder. She looked up then and they saw something in her eyes so powerful it had burnt away the eyelashes.

She strolled along the aisle, eggs on high, to the cashier, who tried to tell her that eggs were sold by the dozen or half-dozen—not one or two or three or four—but she had to look up into those eyes too beautiful for lashes to say it. She swallowed and was about to try again when the woman reached into the pocket of her yellow dress and put a ten-louis piece on the counter and walked away, away, gold tracking the floor and leaving them all behind. Left arm folded over her waist, right hand holding three chalk-white eggs in the air, and what will she do with her hands when she reaches the door? they wondered. Take her elbow out of the palm of her hand and push it open? Turn around and ask for a paper bag? Drop the eggs in a pocket? Each one of them begged in his heart that it would not happen. That she would float through the glass the way a vision should. She did of course and they needn’t have worried—the door always opened when you stepped on the mat before it, but they had forgotten that or had taken it for granted so long they had not really seen it until that woman approached it with the confidence of transcendent beauty and it flew open in silent obedience.

She would deny it now, but along with everybody else in the market, Jadine gasped. Just a little. Just a sudden intake of air. Just a quick snatch of breath before that woman’s woman—that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty—took it all away.

Jadine followed her profile, then her back as she passed the store window—followed her all the way to the edge of the world where the plate glass stopped. And there, just there—a moment before the cataclysm when all loveliness and life and breath in the world was about to disappear—the woman turned her head sharply around to the left and looked right at Jadine. Turned those eyes too beautiful for eyelashes on Jadine and, with a small parting of her lips, shot an arrow of saliva between her teeth down to the pavement and the hearts below. Actually it didn’t matter. When you have fallen in love, rage is superfluous; insult impossible. You mumble “bitch,” but the hunger never moves, never closes. It is placed, open and always ready for another canary-yellow dress, other tar-black fingers holding three white eggs; or eyes whose force has burnt away their lashes.

Jadine’s luck continued. The dinner party was memorable and nowhere had anything begun to spoil. Like the arugula leaf, life was green and nicely curved. Nothing was limp. There were no tears or brown spots. The items on her shopping list were always there. The handsome raucous men wanted to marry, live with, support, fund and promote her. Smart and beautiful women wanted to be her friend, confidante, lover, neighbor, guest, playmate, host, servant, student or simply near. A lucky girl—why leave the show? cable to old relatives? write a cheery request-type, offer-type letter to a rich old pushover and split to Dominique on whatever Air France had to offer when everything on her shopping list was right there in Paris? Nothing was absent, not even the spit of an African woman whose eyes had burnt away their lashes.

Jadine slipped out of bed and went to the window. She knelt on the floor, and, folding her arms on the sill, rested her head on the pane. She lifted the back of her hand to her mouth and squeezed the soft flesh with her teeth. She couldn’t figure out why the woman’s insulting gesture had derailed her—shaken her out of proportion to incident. Why she had wanted that woman to like and respect her. It had certainly taken the zing out of the magazine cover as well as her degree. Beyond the window etched against the light of a blazing moon she could see the hills at the other side of the island where one hundred horsemen rode one hundred horses, so Valerian said. That was how the island got its name. He had pointed the three humps of hills out to her, but Margaret, who had accompanied them on the tour of the grounds when Jadine first arrived, said no such thing. One rider. Just one. Therefore Isle de
le
Chevalier. One French soldier on a horse, not a hundred. She’d gotten the story from a neighbor—the first family Valerian had sold to. Valerian stuck to his own story, which he preferred and felt was more accurate because he had heard it from Dr. Michelin, who lived in town and knew all about it. “They’re still there,” he said. “And you can see them if you go over there at night. But I don’t suppose we’ll ever meet. If they’ve been riding for as long as the story is old, they must be as tired as I am, and I don’t want to meet anybody older or more tired than I am.”

Maybe they’re not old, Jadine thought, staring out the window. Maybe they’re still young, still riding. One hundred men on one hundred horses. She tried to visualize them, wave after wave of chevaliers, but somehow that made her think of the woman in yellow who had run her out of Paris. She crawled back into bed and tried to fix the feeling that had troubled her.

The woman had made her feel lonely in a way. Lonely and inauthentic. Perhaps she was overreacting. The woman appeared simply at a time when she had a major decision to make: of the three raucous men, the one she most wanted to marry and who was desperate to marry her was exciting and smart and fun and sexy…so? I guess the person I want to marry is him, but I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl? And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside—not American—not black—just me? Suppose he sleeps with somebody else after we’re married? Will I feel the way I did when he took Nina Fong away for the weekend? He was amazed, he said, at my reaction. Weren’t we always to be honest with each other? He didn’t want a relationship with lies. Did I? And then we made up, set the date—no wedding, just a marriage—he got rid of his old mattress and bought a new one, a new one for us to grow old on, he said.

Then the magazine cover, and then her degree assured and then, the woman in yellow. And then she ran away because Ryk is white and the woman spit at her and she had to come to see her aunt and uncle to see what they would feel, think, say. White but European which was not as bad as white and American; they would understand that, or would they? Had they ever said? They liked her being in Paris, the schools she’d gone to, the friends she’d had there. They were always boasting about it. And it was not like she needed their views on anything. After her mother died they were her people—but she never lived with them except summers at Valerian’s house when she was very young. Less and then never, after college. They were family; they had gotten Valerian to pay her tuition while they sent her the rest, having no one else to spend it on. Nanadine and Sydney mattered a lot to her but what they thought did not. She had sought them out to touch bases, to sort out things before going ahead with, with, with anything. So far she had been playful with them, had not said anything definite about her plans. When they asked her was she serious about this Ryk fellow who telephoned and who sent letters every week, she pretended it was nothing. That she was thinking of going back to Paris only to get her things. There was a small assignment in New York; she would take it and then she wanted to see about opening a business of her own, she’d told them, a gallery, or a boutique or a…she’d looked at their faces then…well, something they could all do together so they could live together like a family at last. They smiled generously, but their eyes made her know they were happy to play store with her, but nothing would pull them away from the jobs they had had for thirty years or more.

Jadine kicked off the sheet and buried her head under the pillow to keep the moonlight out of her eyes, and the woman in yellow out of her mind.

         

W
HEN
J
ADINE
had gotten out of bed to stare at the hills, Valerian woke up. He had finished chatting to the ceiling and into his wrist the exact spelling of the message:
These iceboxes are brown broken perspective v-i-o-l-i-a-x is something more and can’t be coal note.
He had sipped the brandy rather quickly, annoyed by the day’s turn of events, and had lain for a while thinking how impossible it was that, unlike other men, he had been pushed into a presidency but had to fight for his retirement.

When he was thirty-nine he swore that he would quit at exactly sixty-five before he started spending his days traveling from the executive toilet back to his desk where the ballpoint pens mounted on marble had gone dry and his pencils were always long and sharp. That he would never permit himself to become the industrial nuisances his uncles had: stubborn, meddlesome, hanging on to their desks with their fingernails; flourishing once or twice a year when a crisis occurred with an old client or a new F.D.A. official that needed their familiarity or style or some other antiquated company charm. His uncles had been good to him. Their mother (Valerian’s grandmother) had four sons each of whom had married a woman who had only girls. Except Valerian’s mother who delivered one girl and one boy, who was the future of the family. When his father died and Valerian was seven, the uncles gathered to steady everybody and take over the education of their dead brother’s son since it was, they said, “self-understood” that he would inherit the candy factory. And just to show how much they loved and anticipated him, they named a candy after him.
Valerians.
Red and white gumdrops in a red and white box (mint-flavored, the white ones; strawberry-flavored, the red). Valerians turned out to be a slow but real flop, although not a painful one financially for it was made from the syrup sludge left over from their main confection—Teddy Boys.

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