“We are all worthy of one another.”
“The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it would kill a man or make a baby just yawn.”
“A woman, no matter the age, is always learning, always becoming. But a man . . . stops learning at fourteen or so.”
“A man does not learn very well, Mr. Robbins. Women, yes, because they are used to bending with whatever wind comes along. A woman, no matter the age, is always learning, always becoming. But a man, if you will pardon me, stops learning at fourteen or so. He shuts it all down, Mr. Robbins. A log is capable of learning more than a man. To teach a man would be a battle, a war, and I would lose.”
“Whenever people in that part of the world asked Patterson about the wonders of America, the possibilities and the hope of America, Patterson would say that it was a good and fine place but all the Americans were running it into the ground and that it would be a far better place if it had no Americans.”
“Calvin had long been uneasy in his own person and so lived to put everyone else at ease.”
“You too heavy a man for me to carry...I done carried heavy men and I know how they can break your back. I ain’t got but this one back and I don’t want it broke again...”
“[He] went on to tell her that certain work songs made the work a little easier, but that there were others, depending upon the time of day, that dragged a body down, so 'you just gotta be careful with your songs and your hummin' and whatnot.”
“When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose up above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby, and he walked away quick-like, toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to the earth. And so he reached Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease her mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time, certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to the bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.
The kiss went through the breast, through skin and bone, and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner ofkeys, but it, like so many kisses, was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated, desperate, the kiss squeezed through the bars and kissed Mildred’s heart. She woke immediately and she knew her husband was gone forever. All breath went and she was seized with such a pain that she had to come to her feet. But the room and the house were not big enough to contain her pain and she stumbled out ofthe room, out and down the stairs, out through the door that Augustus, as usual, had left open. The dog watched her from the hearth. Only in the yard could she begin to breathe again. And breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of. Augustus died on Wednesday.”
“He knew he was going to die but he thought this little thing might provide him with a nothing stool way off in the corner of heaven reserved for fools, people too stupid to come out of the rain. People got to that corner by heaven's back door.”
“His oldest child from his second marriage, Matthew, stayed up all the night before he was buried, putting his father’s history on a wooden tombstone. He began with his father’s name on the first line, and on the next, he put the years ofhis father’s coming and going. Then all the things he knew his father had been. Husband. Father. Farmer. Grandfather. Patroller. Tobacco Man. Tree Maker. The letters ofthe words got smaller and smaller as the boy, not quite twelve, neared the bottom ofthe wood because he had never made a headstone for anyone before so he had not compensated for all that he would have to put on it. The boy filled up the whole piece ofwood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end ofsuch a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could not live without a verb.”
“Priscilla watched her husband as he slowly drifted into sleep, and once he was asleep, she took hold of his hand and put it to her face and smelled all of the outside world that he had brought in with him and then she tried to find sleep herself.”
“God is in his heaven and he don't care most of the time. The trick of life is to know when God does care and do all you need to do behind his back.”
“Augustus wasn’t driving the wagon very fast because he had his family together again and all time was now spread out before him over the valley and the mountains forever and ever.”
“A few women had cried, remembering the way Henry smiled or how he would join them in singing or thinking that the death ofanyone, good or bad, master or not, cut down one more tree in the life forest that shielded them from their own death; but most said or did nothing.”
“Without all that young stuff, Stamford, you will die a slave. And it will not be a pretty die.”
“His droning on and on was a bit soothing, far more than Calvin’s hand on her arm or the children’s smiling up at her. His talking told her in some odd way that one day the pain would at least be cut in half.”
“She went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do. No goin out into them woods without Papa or me knowin about it. No steppin foot out this house without them free papers, not even to go to the well or the privy. Say your prayers every night...Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don't look them people in the eye. You see a white woman riding toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don't go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.”
“Best hurry, he thought. Best get outa this weather. He wanted to die but he really didn't want to catch a cold to do it.”
“Mary O'Donnell had been nursing that baby, and the day after Agnes was committed to the sea, her milk stopped flowing. She thought it only a natural result of grieving for Agnes. She would go on to have three more children with her second husband, the seller of Augustus Townsend's walking sticks, but with each child the milk did not return. "Where is my milk?" Mary asked God with each of the three children. "Where is my milk?" God did not give her an answer and he gave her not one drop of milk. With the second and third children, she asked Mary the mother of Jesus to intercede with God on her behalf. "Didn't he give you milk for your child?" she asked Mary. "Wasn't there milk aplenty for Jesus?”
“But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave . . . if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns around and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter”
“Render your body to them" his father had taught, "but know your soul belongs to God.”
“Celeste was practically talking to herself now because Stamford and the baby were in a world of their own. The baby's hands had reached the man's face and he was tapping every feature of it, doing everything that was necessary for the man to say the words the baby had come to expect in their brief history together. Stamford's mouth opened more and more. 'You here early this mornin,' Stamford Crow Blueberry would say to Ellwood Freemen that day some twenty years later in Richmond. Ellwood would be walking up the street with the reins of his horse in his hand, and Stamford would be walking with a baby resting on his shoulder, the newest member of the Richmond Home for Colored Orphans. Mother and father killed in a fire. Walking and singing to the baby in the morning seemed to calm the infant for the rest of the day. Ellwood Freemen would say, 'I have come to fulfill my duty, just as I promised, Mr. Blueberry. Is that to be one of my pupils?' Stamford would shake his hand, nodding. Ellwood said, 'You look as if you didn't believe I would keep my word.' 'Oh,' Stamford said, 'I whatn't worried. I know where your mama and papa live. I know where I could find them to tell em that their boy didn't keep his word.' Ellwood told him he had to tend to some business elsewhere in Richmond and would return shortly to settle in at the home for orphans. He got on his horse and rode slowly out to the main street, the street that would be named for Stamford Blueberry and his wife Delphie. Blueberry, with the new orphan on his shoulder, followed. He watched Ellwood take his time going off and Stamford that day would realize for the first time just how far they had come. He would have cried as he had that day after the ground opened up and took the dead crows, but he had in his arms a baby new to being an orphan. Stamford, it don't matter now, he told himself, watching Ellwood and the horse saunter away. It don't matter now. The day and the sun all about him told that was true. It mattered not how long he had wandered in the wilderness, how long they had kept him in chains, how long he had helped them and kept himself in his own chains; none of that mattered now. He patted the baby's back, turned around and went back to the Richmond Home for Colored Orphans. No, it did not matter. It mattered only that those kind of chains were gone and that he had crawled out into the clearing and was able to stand up on his hind legs and look around and appreciate the differences between then and now, even on the awful Richmond days when the now came dressed as the then. Behind him, as he walked back, was the very corner where more than a hundred years later they would put that first street sign - Stamford and Delphie Crow Blueberry Street.”
“Calvin had said, his hands hard at his sides.”
“A weapon you held and didn't know how to use belonged to your enemy.”
“But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad's coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit?”
“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.”
“Are we not all creatures of chance?”
“Such was the vainglory of a black boy who may have been alone among his race in bondage to have actually read pages from Sir Walter Scott and who knew the product of nine multiplied by nine, the name of the President of the United States, the existence of the continent of Asia, the capital of the state of New Jersey, and could spell words like Deuteronomy, Revelation, Nehemiah, Chesapeake, Southampton, and Shenandoah.”
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