Milkman is struggling through a thick forest, thinking of the gold he will shortly obtain. The narrator compares him to Hansel and Gretel, hungry and tired but spurred on by the promise of a reward. He thinks about the car that took him to the forest, driven by Reverend Cooper’s teenage nephew, who's name is Nephew. Milkman has come to Danville, Pennsylvania, where Macon and Pilate used to live with their father before he was murdered, and made up a lie to disguise his true purpose of finding the gold.
This chapter opens with Milkman in the middle of a dense, claustrophobic forest that resembles a prison. This suggests the mental prison he’s in — he’s traveled across the country, to a place we’re not yet familiar with — to find gold that, we sense, may not be there at all. For the time, though, he’s more than happy to continue searching — his desire for wealth eclipses everything else, even something as basic as hunger.
Milkman thinks about his journey to Danville. He flew in a plane, which dazzled him, though he was saddened that Guitar wasn’t coming with him. Guitar had wanted to join, but Milkman told him that it would be suspicious if two men were searching in the woods. Before saying goodbye to Guitar, Milkman explains that he needs the gold to escape from his town and family. Guitar replies that everyone wants the life of a Black man: white men want Black people to be quiet and docile, and even other Black people — Milkman’s father, for instance — want to control Black men. Guitar adds that many Black people live in a state of self-imposed slavery; for instance, Pilate carried the bones of a white man instead of taking his treasure. Guitar recalls how nauseated he felt after his father died in a sawmill accident: his mother cheerfully accepted money from the foreman, and bought her children candy. He reminds Milkman that Macon has evicted him from his home.
Morrison gives us another “flight” — a literal plane flight across the country. It will become significant, and poignant, that Milkman wanted Guitar to accompany him on his journey. For all his selfishness, Milkman isn’t all bad — he loves his friend, Guitar, in spite of the rocky relationship between Guitar and Macon. For his part, Guitar shows great willingness to overlook Macon’s greed, and stays friends with Milkman. It’s ironic that Guitar is so insightful about the self-imposed prisons in which other people put themselves when it’s clear that he and Milkman are in their own prison of this kind — they have no choice but to look for gold because of their own desires.
Milkman flies into Pittsburgh and from there takes the bus to Danville, where he realizes how difficult it will be to find the cave Macon told him about. He asks a man if he knows where Circe lived, and the man refers him to Reverend Hooper. Milkman finds Reverend Cooper, who knew Macon and is overjoyed to meet his son. Cooper asks Milkman about Pilate, and recalls that his own father made Pilate’s earring.
Throughout Milkman’s journey in the second half of the novel, he will encounter wild coincidences. One can stop there and accept them as coincidences, or interpret them more spiritually — it’s almost as if something (Morrison might even call it God) is guiding Milkman in his quest. This is a classic trope in Christian literature — even at the protagonist’s greatest point of confusion, God is pointing him in the right direction.
Over dinner and whiskey, Reverend Cooper tells Milkman about the Dead family’s history. The Butlers, a wealthy white family for whom Circe worked for many years delivering babies, were the people who murdered Macon’s father. No trial or investigation was ever held, because the Butlers were influential in the community, and nobody with any power cared about a Black man’s death. After Macon’s father’s death, Circe secretly sheltered Macon and Pilate at the Butlers’ house. Milkman is confused that no one tried to prosecute the Butlers or take revenge; Cooper is amused and asks if things are different for Black people where Milkman comes from. Milkman doesn’t answer, but asks if he could see the farm where the Butlers lived, thinking that this will be a good time to look for the gold. Cooper agrees to drive him there in four days time.
Milkman’s innocence is plain when he asks Cooper why his grandfather’s murderers weren’t brought to justice. In part, this is because he lives in the North, where there is slightly more equality for Black people, but for the most part, he’s confused because he’s been brought up wealthy and powerful, and doesn’t have much exposure to the way Black people are really treated. (There are barely any white people in Song of Solomon.) In this way, Milkman’s journey isn’t only a quest to find gold; it’s also, if inadvertently, a personal journey, during which Milkman learns about himself, and about how his race is treated in other parts of the country.
While Milkman waits the four days for the trip, he meets other men who remember Macon Dead and Macon’s father as powerful, successful men who overcame racism and poverty. They’re delighted to hear that Macon owns an expensive car and multiple houses, and Milkman is happy to give them details about his success.
By this point, we know that Macon’s wealth and power don’t bring him, or the other people in his family, much happiness. In fact, they’re a barrier to happiness. It’s touching to hear others praising Macon for his success — clearly, it’s more attractive from a distance.
Cooper and Nephew accompany Milkman to the farm, where Milkman wanders through the forest. He imagines himself as his father and aunt, thinking that the Butlers’ house looks like a dark, murderous place. He goes into the Butler house and climbs up the stairs, remembering the nightmares he had about witches as a child, which would always end in his waking up with an erection.
Milkman’s nightmares encapsulate his contradictory relationship with women. He’s afraid of them, but also strangely attracted. Also in the section, Milkman begins to lose his narcissism and egocentrism, imagining himself in other people’s position. It’s the first step toward the selflessness he’ll eventually embody.
Upstairs in the Butler house, Milkman is surprised to find a pack of well-groomed dogs and an old, crazy-looking woman. Milkman wonders if the woman is Circe and notices that she is speaking, despite her great age, with the voice of a young woman. The woman, who calls herself Circe, tells Milkman she knew he’d come one day. Milkman tells Circe that Macon is now 72 years old. Circe seems both interested and uninterested; she tells Milkman that the dogs she’s taking care of belonged to Miss Butler, who committed suicide. Circe claims that she brought Miss Butler into the world just as she brought Miss Butler’s mother and grandmother into the world.
Song of Solomon blends psychological and social realism with moments like this, which, by any reasonable estimate, can’t possibly be real. Circe would have to be older than anyone on the planet to have delivered Macon and Pilate, as well as the Butlers. This is another example of Morrison’s magical realism — the extraordinary in this section arguably isn’t meant to be extraordinary; we’re supposed to accept it and focus on the interaction between the characters instead.
Circe mentions Macon’s mother, a woman named Sing who was of Black and Native American descent and bragged that she was never enslaved. Circe asks Milkman if Pilate ever married Reba’s father; Milkman says no. She remembers Pilate’s shame at her lack of a navel, mentions that Pilate lived in a Virginia town called Charlemagne after her father died, and recalls that Pilate “birthed herself” without Circe’s help. Finally, she mentions the cave where Pilate and Macon lived after leaving the Butler house; it’s called Hunters Cave, and Macon’s father was supposedly left there after he died — he was originally dumped in a river, but men pulled him out and left him in the cave.
Circe’s perspective on Pilate reinforces her Christ-like aura — it seems as if she was immaculately conceived. Circe doesn’t ask any questions about why Milkman wants to go to the cave where his father ended up; it’s not clear if this is because she doesn’t care or because she wants Milkman to go there whatever his motives are. The way others treat Macon I’s corpse is a grisly reminder of Black people’s inferior place in the United States — a reminder of the kind Milkman has been avoiding for most of his life. We also begin to sense that there’s a connection between Macon I’s corpse and the bones Pilate carries — even if Milkman doesn’t.
Milkman thinks to himself that Circe, a woman who has spent her entire life selflessly caring for other people, will die poor and surrounded by dogs. In another life, he thinks, she would have been the head nurse at Mercy Hospital. He offers Circe money, which she refuses, and asks her why she’s caring for the dogs of a racist white woman. Circe insists that she’s not loyal to Miss Butler herself; she merely wanted to help the dogs and preserve the house. Before Milkman leaves, Circe tells him Macon’s father’s real name: Jake.
Milkman’s interactions with Circe broaden his perspective on life, and make him aware of racial injustice to an extent he’s never shown before. This section also reminds us of the novel’s opening scene, in which the actual head nurse of Mercy seems oblivious to other people’s suffering — we know first-hand that Circe would have done a better job than she. It’s also here that Milkman begins to learn the “real names” of his family members. It’s not yet clear what this accomplishes.
Milkman leaves the Butler house and heads for Hunters Cave, noting that he has plenty of time before Nephew will be looking for him. He travels through the woods and rocks, thinking with disgust about the white men who stole his grandfather’s property. He enters the cave, but after a great deal of searching, doesn’t find the gold. Furious and starving, he realizes that many hours have elapsed, and Nephew must have left without him. He hitchhikes back to Danville with a man named Fred Garnett, who gives him a Coke. Back in Danville he feeds himself, and walks back to Reverend Cooper’s station house, where he discovers that he’s just missed Cooper.
Almost as soon as Milkman fails to find the gold, he begins to feel hungry. It’s as if the thought of gold distracted him from his most basic human needs, and now he has to confront them once again. Yet even after Milkman fails in his quest, the universe continues to smile on him — it seems highly unlikely, for instance, that a stranger would offer Milkman a ride back to town and give him a Coke.
Dejected at having failed to find the gold and annoyed with Reverend Cooper’s friends, Milkman boards a Greyhound bus to Virginia. He remembers that Pilate told him she’d returned to Hunter’s Cave to collect the dead body four years after finding the gold; this would mean that she entered the cave after men dragged her own father’s body there. Milkman concludes that Pilate lied: if, as she says, she returned to the cave four years later, she would have noticed that there were two bodies there. Instead, she must have entered the cave shortly after her brother left her, and taken the set of bones there, along with the gold. With this in mind, Milkman resolves to trace Pilate’s travels and go to Virginia to look for the treasure.
Milkman seems to regress morally at the end of the chapter. Where before he had enjoyed the company of strangers, and felt a selfless sympathy for Circe, he now thinks only of gold. Throughout the novel, we’ve been given access to Milkman’s most secret thoughts, but here, we begin to see that his thoughts are delusional. It’s unlikely, for instance, that Pilate lied about the gold, particularly when one considers what Circe said — all sorts of people come into the cave, and could have moved the bodies or the gold before Pilate returned there. Milkman continues to believe what he wants to believe, because he’s obsessed with money.