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Two Plantation Portraits

ISSUE:  Winter 1935

I. Uncle Jimbilly

Uncle Jimbilly was so old and had spent so many years bowed over things, putting them together and taking them apart, making them over and making them do, he was bent almost double. His hands were closed and stiff from gripping objects tightly while he worked at them, and they could not open altogether even if a child took the thick black fingers and tried to turn them back. He hobbled on a stick; his purplish skull showed through patches in his wool, which had turned greenish gray and looked as if the moths had got at it.

He mended harness and put half soles on the other Negroes’ shoes; he built fences and chicken coops and barn doors; he stretched wires and put in new window panes and fixed sagging hinges and patched up roofs; he repaired carriage tops and cranky plows. Also he had a gift for carving miniature tombstones out of blocks of wood: give him almost any kind of piece of wood and he could turn out a tombstone, shaped very like the real ones, with carving, and a name and date on it if they were needed. They were often needed, for some small beast or bird was always dying and having to be buried with proper ceremonies: the cart draped as a hearse, a shoe-box coffin with a pall over it, a profuse floral outlay, and, of course, a tombstone. As he worked, turning the long blade of his bowie knife deftly in circles to cut a flower, whittling and smoothing the back and sides, stopping now and then to hold it at arm’s length and examine it with one eye closed, Uncle Jimbilly would talk in a low, broken, abstracted murmur, as if to himself; but he was really saying something he meant one to listen to. Sometimes it would be an incomprehensible ghost story: listen ever so carefully, at the end it was impossible to decide whether Uncle Jimbilly himself had seen the ghost, whether it was a real ghost at all, or only another man dressed like one; and he dwelt much on the horrors of slave times.

“Dey used to take ‘em out and tie ‘em down and whup ‘em,” he muttered, “wid gret big leather strops inch thick, long as yo’ ahm, wid round holes bored in ‘em so’s evey time dey hit ‘em de hide and de meat done come off dey bones in little round chunks. And when dey had whupped ‘em wid de strop till dey backs was all raw and bloody, dey spread dry cawnshucks on dey backs and set ‘em afire and pahched ‘em, and den dey poured vinegah all ovah ‘em . . . yas-suh. And den, the ve’y nex day dey’d got to git back to work in the fiels or dey’d do the same thing right ovah agin. Yassah. Dat was it. If dey didn’t git back to work dey got it all right ovah agin.”

The children—three of them: a serious, prissy older girl of ten, a thoughtful, sad-looking boy of eight, and a quick, flighty little girl of six—sat disposed around Uncle Jim-billy and listened with faint tinglings of embarrassment. They knew, of course, that once upon a time Negroes had been slaves; but they had all been freed long ago and were now only servants. It was hard to realize that Uncle Jim-billy had been born in slavery, as the Negroes were always saying. The children thought that Uncle Jimbilly had got over his slavery very well. Since they had known him, he had never done a single thing that anyone told him to do. He did his work just as he pleased and when he pleased. If you wanted a tombstone, you had to be very cafeful about the way you asked for it. Nothing could have been more impersonal and far-away than his tone and manner of talking about slavery, but they wriggled a little and felt guilty. Paul would have changed the subject, but Miranda, the littie quick one, wanted to know the worst. “Did they act like that to you, Uncle Jimbilly?” she asked.

“No mam” said Uncle Jimbilly, “Now whut name you want on dis one? Dey nevah did. Dey done ‘em dat way in de rice swamps. I always worked right here close to de house or in town with Miss Sophia. Down in de swamps . . .

“Didn’t they ever die, Uncle Jimbilly?” asked Paul.

“Cose dey died,” said Uncle Jimbilly, “cose dey died— dey died,” he went on, pursing his mouth gloomily, “by de thousands and tens upon thousands.”

“Can you carve ‘Safe in Heaven’ on that, Uncle Jimbilly?” asked Maria in her pleasant, mincing voice.

“To put over a tame jackrabbit, Missy?” asked Uncle Jimbilly indignantly. He was very religious. “A heathen like dat? No mam. In de swamps dey used to stake ‘em out all day and all night, and all day and all night and all day wid dey hans and feet tied so dey couldn’t scretch and let de muskeeters eat ‘em alive. De muskeeters ud bite ‘em tell dey was all swole up like a balloon all over, and you could heah ‘em howlin’ and prayin’ all over the swamp. Yas-suh. Dat was it. An’ nary a drop of watah noh a moufful of braid. . . . Yassuh, dat’s it. Lawd, dey done it. Hosannal Now take dis yere tombstone and don’ bother me no more . . . or I’ll . . .”

Uncle Jimbilly was apt to be suddenly annoyed and you never knew why. He was easily put out about things, but his threats were always so exorbitant that not even the most credulous child could be terrified by them. He was always going to do something quite horrible to somebody and then he was going to dispose of the remains in a revolting manner. He was going to skin somebody alive and nail the hide on a barn door, or he was just getting ready to cut off somebody’s ears with a hatchet and pin them on Bongo, the crop-eared brindled dog. He was often all prepared in his mind to pull somebody’s teeth and make a set of false teeth for Ole Man Ronk. . . . Ole Man Ronk was a tramp who had been living all summer in the little cabin behind the smokehouse. He got his rations along with the Negroes and sat all day mumbling his naked gums. He had skimpy black whiskers which appeared to be set in wax, and angry red eyelids. He took morphine, it was said; but what morphine might be, or how he took it, or why, no one seemed to know. . . . Nothing could have been more unpleasant than the notion that one’s teeth might be given to Ole Man Ronk.

The reason why Uncle Jimbilly never did any of these things he threatened was, he said, because he never could get round to them. He always had so much other work on hand he never seemed to get caught up on it. But some day, somebody was going to get a mighty big surprise, and meanwhile everybody had better look out.

II. The Last Leaf

Old Nannie sat hunched upon herself, expecting her own death momentarily. The Grandmother had said to her at parting, with the easy prophecy of the aged, that this might be their last farewell on earth: they embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks, and once more promised to meet each other in heaven. Nannie was prepared to start her journey at once. The children gathered around her: “Aunt Nannie, never you mind! We love you!” She paid no attention; she did not care whether they loved her or not. Years afterward, Maria, the elder girl, thought with a pang that they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie. They went on depending upon her as they always had, letting her assume more burdens and more, allowing her to work harder than she should have. The old woman grew silent, hunched-over more deeply; she was thin and tall also, with a nobly modeled Negro face, worn to the bone, and a thick fine sooty black—no mixed blood in Nannie—and her spine seemed suddenly to have given away. They could hear her groaning at night on her knees beside her bed, asking God to let her rest.

When a black family moved out of a little cabin across the narrow creek, the first cabin empty for years, Nannie went down to look at it. She came back and asked Mister Harry, “Whut you aim to do wid dat cabin?” Mister Harry said, “Nothing,” he supposed; and Nannie asked for it. She wanted a house of her own, she said; in her whole life she never had a place of her very own. Mister Harry said, of course she could have it. But the whole family was surprised, a little wounded. “Lemme go there and pass my last days in peace, chil’ren,” she said. They had the place scrubbed and whitewashed; shelves were put in and the chimney cleaned; they fixed Nannie up with a good bed and a fairly good carpet and allowed her to take all sorts of odds and ends from the house. It was astonishing to discover that Nannie had always liked and hoped to own certain things, she had seemed so contented and wantless. She moved away, and the children remarked to each ofter afterward, ruefully, that it was almost funny and certainly very sweet to see how she tried not to be too happy the day she left. They felt rather put upon, just the same.

Thereafter she sat in the serene idleness of making patchwork and braiding woolen rugs. Her grandchildren and her white family visited her, and all kinds of white persons who had never owned a soul related to Nannie, went to see her, to buy her rugs or leave little presents with her.

She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and a white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been precise and neat in her ways, and she still was. But she was no more the faithful old servant Nannie, a freed slave; she became almost at once an aged Bantu woman of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing the free air. She began wearing a blue bandanna wrapped around her head, and at the age of eighty-five she took to smoking a corn-cob pipe. The black iris of the deep, withdrawn old eyes turned a chocolate brown and seemed to spread over the whole surface of the eyeball. As her sight failed, the eyelids crinkled and drew in, so that her face was like an eyeless mask.

The children, brought up in an out-of-date sentimental way of thinking, had always complacently believed that Nannie was a real member of the family, perfectly happy with them, and this rebuke, so quietly and firmly administered, chastened them somewhat. The lesson sank in as the years went on and Nannie continued to sit on the doorstep of her cabin. They were growing up, times were changing, the old world was sliding from under their feet, they had not yet laid hold of the new one. They missed Nannie every day, as their fortunes went down. They had very few servants, and they needed her terribly. They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge. Work did not accomplish itself as it once had. They had not learned how to work for themselves; they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning. They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves. Now and then Nannie would come back up the hill for a visit. She worked then as she had before, with a kind of satisfaction in proving to them that she had been almost indispensable. They would miss her more than ever when she went away. To show their gratitude, and their hope that she would come again, they would heap upon her baskets and bales of the precious rubbish she loved, and one of her great grandsons, Skid or Hasty, would push them away beside her on a wheelbarrow. She would again for a moment be the amiable, dependent, like-one-of-the-family old servant: “I know my chil’ren won’t let me go away empty-handed.”

Uncle Jimbilly still pottered around, mending harness, currying horses, patching fences, now and then getting out a few plants or loosening the earth around shrubs in the spring. He muttered perpetually to himself, his blue mouth always moving in an endless, disjointed comment on things past and present, and even to come, no doubt, though there was nothing about him that suggested any connection with even the nearest future. . . . Maria had not realized until after her Grandmother’s death that Uncle Jimbilly and Aunt Nanny were husband and wife. . . . That marriage of convenience, in which they had been mated with truly royal policy, with an eye to the blood and to family stability, had dissolved of itself between them when the reasons for its being had likewise dissolved. They took no notice whatever of each other’s existence, they seemed to forget they had children together (each spoke of “my chil’ren”), they had stored up no common memories that either wished to keep. Aunt Nannie moved away into her own house without even a glance or thought for Uncle Jimbilly, and he did not seem to notice that she was gone. . . . He slept in a little attic over the smokehouse, and ate in the kitchen at odd hours, and did as he pleased, lonely as a wandering spirit and almost as invisible. . . . But one day he passed by the little house and saw Aunt Nannie sitting on her steps with her pipe. He sat down a while, groaning a little as he bent himself into angles, and sunned himself like a weary old dog. He would have stayed on from that minute, but Nannie would not have him. “Whut you doin’ with all this big house to yo’self ?” he wanted to know. “ ‘Taint no more than jus’ enough fo’ me,” she told him pointedly; “I don’ aim to pass my las’ days waitin’ on no man,” she added. “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my do, and dat’s all.” So Uncle Jimbilly crept back up the hill and into his smokehouse attic, and never went near her again. . . .

On summer evenings she sat by herself long after dark, smoking to keep away the mosquitoes, until she was ready to sleep. She said she wasn’t afraid of anything: never had been, never expected to be. She had long ago got in the way of thinking that night was a blessing: it brought the time when she didn’t have to work any more until tomorrow. Even after she stopped working for good and all, she still looked forward with longing to the night, as if all the accumulated fatigues of her life, lying now embedded in her bones, still begged for easement. But when night came, she remembered that she didn’t have to get up in the morning until she was ready. So she would sit in the luxury of having at her disposal all God’s good time there was in this world.

When Mister Harry, in the old days, had stood out against her word in some petty dispute, she could always get the better of him by slapping her slatty old chest with the flat of her long hand and crying out: “Why, Mister Harry, you, ain’t you shamed to talk lak dat to me? I nuhsed you at dis bosom!”

Harry knew this was not literally true. She had nursed three of his older brothers; but he always said at once, “All right, Mammy, all right, for God’s sake!”—precisely as he said it to his own mother, exploding in his natural irascibility as if he hoped to clear the air somewhat of the smothering matriarchal tyranny to which he had been delivered by the death of his father. Still he submitted, being of that latest generation of sons who acknowledged, however reluctantly, however bitterly, their mystical, never to be forgiven debt to the womb that bore them.


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