Their Eyes Were Watching God
Since Tea Cake and Janie had friended with the Bahaman workers in the ’Glades, they, the “Saws,” had been gradually drawn into the American crowd. They quit hiding out to hold their dances when they found that their American friends didn’t laugh at them as they feared. Many of the Americans learned to jump and liked it as much as the “Saws.” So they began to hold dances night after night in the quarters, usually behind Tea Cake’s house. Often now, Tea Cake and Janie stayed up so late at the fire dances that Tea Cake would not let her go with him to the field. He wanted her to get her rest.
So she was home by herself one afternoon when she saw a band of Seminoles passing by. The men walking in front and the laden, stolid women following them like burros. She had seen Indians several times in the ’Glades, in twos and threes, but this was a large party. They were headed towards the Palm Beach road and kept moving steadily. About an hour later another party appeared and went the same way. Then another just before sundown. This time she asked where they were all going and at last one of the men answered her.
“Going to high ground. Saw-grass bloom. Hurricane coming.”
Everybody was talking about it that night. But nobody was worried. The fire dance kept up till nearly dawn. The next day, more Indians moved east, unhurried but steady. Still a blue sky and fair weather. Beans running fine and prices good, so the Indians could be, must be, wrong. You couldn’t have a hurricane when you’re making seven and eight dollars a day picking beans. Indians are dumb anyhow, always were. Another night of Stew Beef making dynamic subtleties with his drum and living, sculptural, grotesques in the dance. Next day, no Indians passed at all. It was hot and sultry and Janie left the field and went home.
Morning came without motion. The winds, to the tiniest, lisping baby breath had left the earth. Even before the sun gave light, dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man.
Some rabbits scurried through the quarters going east. Some possums slunk by and their route was definite. One or two at a time, then more. By the time the people left the fields the procession was constant. Snakes, rattlesnakes began to cross the quarters. The men killed a few, but they could not be missed from the crawling horde. People stayed indoors until daylight. Several times during the night Janie heard the snort of big animals like deer. Once the muted voice of a panther. Going east and east. That night the palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain. Several people took fright and picked up and went in to Palm Beach anyway. A thousand buzzards held a flying-meet and then went above the clouds and stayed.
One of the Bahaman boys stopped by Tea Cake’s house in a car and hollered. Tea Cake came out throwin’ laughter over his shoulder into the house.
“Hello Tea Cake.”
“Hello ’Lias. You leavin’, Ah see.”
“Yeah man. You and Janie wanta go? Ah wouldn’t give nobody else uh chawnce at uh seat till Ah found out if you all had anyway tuh go.”
“Thank yuh ever so much, ’Lias. But we ’bout decided tuh stay.”
“De crow gahn up, man.”
“Dat ain’t nothin’. You ain’t seen de bossman go up, is yuh? Well all right now. Man, de money’s too good on the muck. It’s liable tuh fair off by tuhmorrer. Ah wouldn’t leave if Ah wuz you.”
“Mah uncle come for me. He say hurricane warning out in Palm Beach. Not so bad dere, but man, dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust.”
“Ah naw, man. Some boys in dere now talkin’ ’bout it. Some of ’em been in de ’Glades fuh years. ’Tain’t nothin’ but uh lil blow. You’ll lose de whole day tuhmorrer tryin’ tuh git back out heah.”
“De Indians gahn east, man. It’s dangerous.”
“Dey don’t always know. Indians don’t know much uh nothin’, tuh tell de truth. Else dey’d own dis country still. De white folks ain’t gone nowhere. Dey oughta know if it’s dangerous. You better stay heah, man. Big jumpin’ dance tuhnight right heah, when it fair off.”
’Lias hesitated and started to climb out, but his uncle wouldn’t let him. “Dis time tuhmorrer you gointuh wish you follow crow,” he snorted and drove off. ’Lias waved back to them gaily.
“If Ah never see you no mo’ on earth, Ah’ll meet you in Africa.”
Others hurried east like the Indians and rabbits and snakes and coons. But the majority sat around laughing and waiting for the sun to get friendly again.
Several men collected at Tea Cake’s house and sat around stuffing courage into each other’s ears. Janie baked a big pan of beans and something she called sweet biscuits and they all managed to be happy enough.
Most of the great flame-throwers were there and naturally, handling Big John de Conquer and his works. How he had done everything big on earth, then went up tuh heben without dying atall. Went up there picking a guitar and got all de angels doing the ring-shout round and round de throne. Then everybody but God and Old Peter flew off on a flying race to Jericho and back and John de Conquer won the race; went on down to hell, beat the old devil and passed out ice water to everybody down there. Somebody tried to say that it was a mouth organ harp that John was playing, but the rest of them would not hear that. Don’t care how good anybody could play a harp, God would rather to hear a guitar. That brought them back to Tea Cake. How come he couldn’t hit that box a lick or two? Well, all right now, make us know it.
When it got good to everybody, Muck-Boy woke up and began to chant with the rhythm and everybody bore down on the last word of the line:
<!– rend=’;’ –>
Yo’ mama don’t wear no Draws
Ah seen her when she took ’em Off
She soaked ’em in alcoHol
She sold ’em tuh de Santy Claus
He told her ’twas aginst de Law
To wear dem dirty Draws
<!– end poetry block –><!– end rend –>
Then Muck-Boy went crazy through the feet and danced himself and everybody else crazy. When he finished he sat back down on the floor and went to sleep again. Then they got to playing Florida flip and coon-can. Then it was dice. Not for money. This was a show-off game. Everybody posing his fancy shots. As always it broiled down to Tea Cake and Motor Boat. Tea Cake with his shy grin and Motor Boat with his face like a little black cherubim just from a church tower doing amazing things with anybody’s dice. The others forgot the work and the weather watching them throw. It was art. A thousand dollars a throw in Madison Square Garden wouldn’t have gotten any more breathless suspense. It would have just been more people holding in.
After a while somebody looked out and said, “It ain’t gitting no fairer out dere. B’lieve Ah’ll git on over tah mah shack.” Motor Boat and Tea Cake were still playing so everybody left them at it.
Sometime that night the winds came back. Everything in the world had a strong rattle, sharp and short like Stew Beef vibrating the drum head near the edge with his fingers. By morning Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum. So when Janie looked out of her door she saw the drifting mists gathered in the west—that cloud field of the sky—to arm themselves with thunders and march forth against the world. Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking.
It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble. The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore heard the big lake and wondered. The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always. Chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy of the Lord. The bossman might have the thing stopped before morning anyway. It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
A big burst of thunder and lightning that trampled over the roof of the house. So Tea Cake and Motor stopped playing. Motor looked up in his angel-looking way and said, “Big Massa draw him chair upstairs.”
“Ah’m glad y’all stop dat crap-shootin’ even if it wasn’t for money,” Janie said. “Ole Massa is doin’ His work now. Us oughta keep quiet.”
They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn’t use another part of their bodies, and they didn’t look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God.
Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall, seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him.
In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, “Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo’ big house ’way from such as dis, don’t yuh?”
“Yeah, naw. People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all.”
“Thanky, Ma’am. But ’sposing you wuz tuh die, now. You wouldn’t git mad at me for draggin’ yuh heah?”
“Naw. We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.”
He dropped to the floor and put his head in her lap. “Well then, Janie, you meant whut you didn’t say, ’cause Ah never knowed you wuz so satisfied wid me lak dat. Ah kinda thought—”
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. Water everywhere. Stray fish swimming in the yard. Three inches more and the water would be in the house. Already in some. He decided to try to find a car to take them out of the ’Glades before worse things happened. He turned back to tell Janie about it so she could be ready to go.
“Git our insurance papers tuhgether, Janie. Ah’ll tote mah box mahself and things lak dat.”
“You got all de money out de dresser drawer, already?”
“Naw, git it quick and cut up piece off de table-cloth tuh wrap it up in. Us liable tuh git wet tuh our necks. Cut uh piece uh dat oilcloth quick fuh our papers. We got tuh go, if it ain’t too late. De dish can’t bear it out no longer.”
He snatched the oilcloth off the table and took out his knife. Janie held it straight while he slashed off a strip.
“But Tea Cake, it’s too awful out dere. Maybe it’s better tuh stay heah in de wet than it is tuh try tuh—”
He stunned the argument with half a word. “Fix,” he said and fought his way outside. He had seen more than Janie had.
Janie took a big needle and ran up a longish sack. Found some newspaper and wrapped up the paper money and papers and thrust them in and whipped over the open end with her needle. Before she could get it thoroughly hidden in the pocket of her overalls, Tea Cake burst in again.
“ ’Tain’t no cars, Janie.”
“Ah thought not! Whut we gointuh do now?”
“We got tuh walk.”
“In all dis weather, Tea Cake? Ah don’t b’lieve Ah could make it out de quarters.”
“Oh yeah you kin. Me and you and Motor Boat kin all lock arms and hold one ’nother down. Eh, Motor?”
“He’s sleep on de bed in yonder,” Janie said. Tea Cake called without moving.
“Motor Boat! You better git up from dere! Hell done broke loose in Georgy. Dis minute! How kin you sleep at uh time lak dis? Water knee-deep in de yard.”
They stepped out in water almost to their buttocks and managed to turn east. Tea Cake had to throw his box away, and Janie saw how it hurt him. Dodging flying missiles, floating dangers, avoiding stepping in holes and warmed on the wind now at their backs until they gained comparatively dry land. They had to fight to keep from being pushed the wrong way and to hold together. They saw other people like themselves struggling along. A house down, here and there, frightened cattle. But above all the drive of the wind and the water. And the lake. Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t. A huge barrier of the makings of the dike to which the cabins had been added was rolling and tumbling forward. Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
“De lake is comin’!” Tea Cake gasped.
“De lake!” In amazed horror from Motor Boat, “De lake!”
“It’s comin’ behind us!” Janie shuddered. “Us can’t fly.”
“But we still kin run,” Tea Cake shouted and they ran. The gushing water ran faster. The great body was held back, but rivers spouted through fissures in the rolling wall and broke like day. The three fugitives ran past another line of shanties that topped a slight rise and gained a little. They cried out as best they could, “De lake is comin’!” and barred doors flew open and others joined them in flight crying the same as they went. “De lake is comin’!” and the pursuing waters growled and shouted ahead, “Yes, Ah’m comin’!”, and those who could fled on.
They made it to a tall house on a hump of ground and Janie said, “Less stop heah. Ah can’t make it no further. Ah’m done give out.”
“All of us is done give out,” Tea Cake corrected. “We’se goin’ inside out dis weather, kill or cure.” He knocked with the handle of his knife, while they leaned their faces and shoulders against the wall. He knocked once more then he and Motor Boat went round to the back and forced a door. Nobody there.
“Dese people had mo’ sense than Ah did,” Tea Cake said as they dropped to the floor and lay there panting. “Us oughta went on wid ’Lias lak he ast me.”
“You didn’t know,” Janie contended. “And when yuh don’t know, yuh just don’t know. De storms might not of come sho nuff.”
They went to sleep promptly but Janie woke up first. She heard the sound of rushing water and sat up.
“Tea Cake! Motor Boat! De lake is comin’!”
The lake was coming on. Slower and wider, but coming. It had trampled on most of its supporting wall and lowered its front by spreading. But it came muttering and grumbling onward like a tired mammoth just the same.
“Dis is uh high tall house. Maybe it won’t reach heah at all,” Janie counseled. “And if it do, maybe it won’t reach tuh de upstairs part.”
“Janie, Lake Okechobee is forty miles wide and sixty miles long. Dat’s uh whole heap uh water. If dis wind is shovin’ dat whole lake disa way, dis house ain’t nothin’ tuh swaller. Us better go. Motor Boat!”
“Whut you want, man?”
“De lake is comin’!”
“Aw, naw it ’tain’t.”
“Yes, it is so comin’! Listen! You kin hear it way off.”
“It kin jus’ come on. Ah’ll wait right here.”
“Aw, get up, Motor Boat! Less make it tuh de Palm Beach road. Dat’s on uh fill. We’se pretty safe dere.”
“Ah’m safe here, man. Go ahead if yuh wants to. Ah’m sleepy.”
“Whut you gointuh do if de lake reach heah?”
“S’posing it come up dere?”
“Swim, man. Dat’s all.”
“Well, uh, Good bye, Motor Boat. Everything is pretty bad, yuh know. Us might git missed of one ’nother. You sho is a grand friend fuh uh man tuh have.”
“Good bye, Tea Cake. Y’all oughta stay here and sleep, man. No use in goin’ off and leavin’ me lak dis.”
“We don’t wanta. Come on wid us. It might be night time when de water hem you up in heah. Dat’s how come Ah won’t stay. Come on, man.”
“Tea Cake, Ah got tuh have mah sleep. Definitely.”
“Good bye, then, Motor. Ah wish you all de luck. Goin’ over tuh Nassau fuh dat visit widja when all dis is over.”
“Definitely, Tea Cake. Mah mama’s house is yours.”
Tea Cake and Janie were some distance from the house before they struck serious water. Then they had to swim a distance, and Janie could not hold up more than a few strokes at a time, so Tea Cake bore her up till finally they hit a ridge that led on towards the fill. It seemed to him the wind was weakening a little so he kept looking for a place to rest and catch his breath. His wind was gone. Janie was tired and limping, but she had not had to do that hard swimming in the turbulent waters, so Tea Cake was much worse off. But they couldn’t stop. Gaining the fill was something but it was no guarantee. The lake was coming. They had to reach the six-mile bridge. It was high and safe perhaps.
Everybody was walking the fill. Hurrying, dragging, falling, crying, calling out names hopefully and hopelessly. Wind and rain beating on old folks and beating on babies. Tea Cake stumbled once or twice in his weariness and Janie held him up. So they reached the bridge at Six Mile Bend and thought to rest.
But it was crowded. White people had preempted that point of elevation and there was no more room. They could climb up one of its high sides and down the other, that was all. Miles further on, still no rest.
They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other.
Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island. A tin roof of a building hung from the branches by electric wires and the wind swung it back and forth like a mighty ax. The man dared not move a step to his right lest this crushing blade split him open. He dared not step left for a large rattlesnake was stretched full length with his head in the wind. There was a strip of water between the island and the fill, and the man clung to the tree and cried for help.
“De snake won’t bite yuh,” Tea Cake yelled to him. “He skeered tuh go intuh uh coil. Skeered he’ll be blowed away. Step round dat side and swim off!”
Soon after that Tea Cake felt he couldn’t walk anymore. Not right away. So he stretched long side of the road to rest. Janie spread herself between him and the wind and he closed his eyes and let the tiredness seep out of his limbs. On each side of the fill was a great expanse of water like lakes—water full of things living and dead. Things that didn’t belong in water. As far as the eye could reach, water and wind playing upon it in fury. A large piece of tar-paper roofing sailed through the air and scudded along the fill until it hung against a tree. Janie saw it with joy. That was the very thing to cover Tea Cake with. She could lean against it and hold it down. The wind wasn’t quite so bad as it was anyway. The very thing. Poor Tea Cake!
She crept on hands and knees to the piece of roofing and caught hold of it by either side. Immediately the wind lifted both of them and she saw herself sailing off the fill to the right, out and out over the lashing water. She screamed terribly and released the roofing which sailed away as she plunged downward into the water.
“Tea Cake!” He heard her and sprang up. Janie was trying to swim but fighting water too hard. He saw a cow swimming slowly towards the fill in an oblique line. A massive built dog was sitting on her shoulders and shivering and growling. The cow was approaching Janie. A few strokes would bring her there.
“Make it tuh de cow and grab hold of her tail! Don’t use yo’ feet. Jus’ yo’ hands is enough. Dat’s right, come on!”
Janie achieved the tail of the cow and lifted her head up along the cow’s rump, as far as she could above water. The cow sunk a little with the added load and thrashed a moment in terror. Thought she was being pulled down by a gator. Then she continued on. The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge. Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived. The dog raced down the backbone of the cow to the attack and Janie screamed and slipped far back on the tail of the cow, just out of reach of the dog’s angry jaws. He wanted to plunge in after her but dreaded the water, somehow. Tea Cake rose out of the water at the cow’s rump and seized the dog by the neck. But he was a powerful dog and Tea Cake was over-tired. So he didn’t kill the dog with one stroke as he had intended. But the dog couldn’t free himself either. They fought and somehow he managed to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone once. Then Tea Cake finished him and sent him to the bottom to stay there. The cow relieved of a great weight was landing on the fill with Janie before Tea Cake stroked in and crawled weakly upon the fill again.
Janie began to fuss around his face where the dog had bitten him but he said it didn’t amount to anything. “He’d uh raised hell though if he had uh grabbed me uh inch higher and bit me in mah eye. Yuh can’t buy eyes in de store, yuh know.” He flopped to the edge of the fill as if the storm wasn’t going on at all. “Lemme rest awhile, then us got tuh make it on intuh town somehow.”
It was next day by the sun and the clock when they reached Palm Beach. It was years later by their bodies. Winters and winters of hardship and suffering. The wheel kept turning round and round. Hope, hopelessness and despair. But the storm blew itself out as they approached the city of refuge.
Havoc was there with her mouth wide open. Back in the Everglades the wind had romped among lakes and trees. In the city it had raged among houses and men. Tea Cake and Janie stood on the edge of things and looked over the desolation.
“How kin Ah find uh doctor fuh yo’ face in all dis mess?” Janie wailed.
“Ain’t got de damn doctor tuh study ’bout. Us needs uh place tuh rest.”
A great deal of their money and perseverance and they found a place to sleep. It was just that. No place to live at all. Just sleep. Tea Cake looked all around and sat heavily on the side of the bed.
“Well,” he said humbly, “reckon you never ’spected tuh come tuh dis when you took up wid me, didja?”
“Once upon uh time, Ah never ’spected nothin’, Tea Cake, but bein’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come ’long and made somethin’ outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together.”
“You was twice noble tuh save me from dat dawg. Tea Cake, Ah don’t speck you seen his eyes lak Ah did. He didn’t aim tuh jus’ bite me, Tea Cake. He aimed tuh kill me stone dead. Ah’m never tuh fuhgit dem eyes. He wuzn’t nothin’ all over but pure hate. Wonder where he come from?”
“Yeah, Ah did see ’im too. It wuz frightenin’. Ah didn’t mean tuh take his hate neither. He had tuh die uh me one. Mah switch-blade said it wuz him.”
“Po’ me, he’d tore me tuh pieces, if it wuzn’t fuh you, honey.”
“You don’t have tuh say, if it wuzn’t fuh me, baby, cause Ah’m heah, and then Ah want yuh tuh know it’s uh man heah.”