Monday is no different from any other weekday in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees […] to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry, which makes the round on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motorcars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees, apparitionlike, behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long, diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk.
But fifteen years ago, on Monday morning the quiet, dusty, shady streets would be full of Negro women with, balanced on their steady, turbaned heads, bundles of clothes tied up in sheets, almost as large as cotton bales, carried so without touch of a hand, between the kitchen door of the white house and the blackened washpot beside a cabin door in Negro Hollow.
And then about half the time we’d have to go down the lane to Nancy’s cabin and tell her to come on and cook breakfast. We would stop at the ditch, because father told us not to have anything to do with Jesus – he was a short, black man with a razor scar down his face – and we would throw rocks at Nancy’s house until she came to the door, leaning her head around it without any clothes on.
So we thought it was whiskey until that day they arrested her again and were taking her to jail and they passed Mr. Stovall. He was a cashier in the bank and a deacon in the Baptist church, and Nancy began to say: “When you going to pay me, white man?” […] Mr. Stovall knocked her down but she kept on saying, “When you going to pay me, white man?” […] until Mr. Stovall kicked her in the mouth with his heel and the marshal caught Mr. Stovall back, and Nancy lying in the street, laughing. She turned her head and spat out some blood and teeth and said, “It’s been three times since he paid me a cent.”
She didn’t shut up until almost daylight, when the jailor began to hear a bumping and scraping upstairs and he went up there and found Nancy hanging from the window bar. He said that it was cocaine and not whisky, because no nigger would try to commit suicide unless he was full of cocaine, because a nigger full of cocaine wasn't a nigger any longer. The jailer cut her down and revived her; then he beat her, whipped her. She had hung herself with her dress […] So the jailer heard the noise and ran up there and found Nancy hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon.
When Dilsey was sick in her cabin and Nancy was cooking for us, we could see her apron swelling out; that was before father told Jesus to stay away from the house. Jesus was in the kitchen, sitting behind the stove, with his razor scar on his black face like a piece of dirty string. He said it was a watermelon that Nancy had under her dress.
“It never come off of your vine, though,” Nancy said.
“Off of what vine?” Caddy said.
“I can cut down the vine it did come off of,” Jesus said.
“What makes you want to talk like that before these chillen,” Nancy said […]
“I can’t hang around white man's kitchen,” Jesus said. “But white man can hang around mine.”
“Mother wants to know if you are through,” I said.
“Yes,” Nancy said. She looked at me. “I done finished.” She looked at me.
“What is it?” I said. “What is it?”
“I aint nothing but a nigger,” Nancy said. “It aint none of my fault.”
She looked at me, sitting in the chair before the cold stove, the sailor hat on her head. I went back to the library. It was the cold stove and all, when you think of a kitchen being warm and busy and cheerful. And with the cold stove and the dishes all put away, and nobody wanting to eat at that hour.
“You'll leave me alone, to take Nancy home?” mother said. “Is her safety more precious to you than mine!”
“I won’t be long," father said.
“You'll leave these children unprotected, with that Negro about?”
“I'm going too," Caddy said. “Let me go, Father.”
“What would he do with them, if he were unfortunate enough to have them?" father said.
“I want to go, too,” Jason said.
“Jason!” mother said. She was speaking to father. You could tell that by the way she said the name. Like she believed that all day father had been trying to think of doing the thing she wouldn't like the most and that she knew all the time that after a while he would think of it.
“Well, he's gone now,” father said.
“There's nothing for you to be afraid of now. And if you'd just let white men alone.”
“Let what white men alone?” Caddy said. “How let them alone?”
“He aint gone nowhere," Nancy said. "I can feel him. I can feel him now, in this lane. He hearing us talk, every word, hid somewhere, waiting. I aint seen him, and I aint going to see him again but once more, with that razor in his mouth. That razor on that string down his back, inside his shirt. And then I aint going to be even surprised.”
The floor was cold. Our toes curled away from it while we listened to the sound. It was like singing and it wasn't like singing like the sounds that Negroes make. Then it stopped and we heard father going down the back stairs, and we went to the head of the stairs. Then the sound began again, in the stairway, not loud, and we could see Nancy's eyes halfway up the stairs, against the wall. They looked like cat's eyes do, like a big cat against the wall, watching us.
Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no, I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stairs that they had got printed on my eyeballs, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun. “Jesus,” Nancy whispered. “Jesus.” “Was it Jesus?” Caddy said. “Did he try to come into the kitchen?” “Jesus” Nancy said. Like this: Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus, until the sound went out like a match or a candle does.
“Hush,” Nancy said. She was talking loud when we crossed the ditch and stooped through the fence where she used to stoop through with the clothes on her head. Then we came to her house. We were going fast then. She opened the door. The smell of the house was like the lamp and the smell of Nancy was like the wick, like they were waiting for one another to begin to smell. She lit the lamp and closed the door and put the bar up. Then she quit talking loud, looking at us […] There was something about Nancy's house; something you could smell besides Nancy and the house. Jason smelled it, even. “I don't want to stay here,” he said.
She came and sat in a chair before the hearth. There was a little fire there. Nancy built it up, when it was already hot inside. She built a good blaze. She told a story. She talked like her eyes looked, like her eyes watching us and her voice talking to us did not belong to her. Like she was, living somewhere else, waiting somewhere else. She was outside the cabin. Her voice was inside and the shape of her, the Nancy that could stoop under a barbed wire fence with a bundle of clothes balanced on her head as though without weight, like a balloon, was there. But that was all.
We left her sitting before the fire. “Come and put the bar up,” father said. But she didn't move. She didn't look at us again, sitting quietly there between the lamp and the fire. From some distance down the lane we could look back and see her through the open door. “What, Father?” Caddy said. “What’s going to happen?” “Nothing,” father said. Jason was on father's back, so Jason was the tallest of all of us. We went down into the ditch. I looked at it, quiet. I couldn't see much where the moonlight and the shadows tangled. “If Jesus is hid here, he can see us, cant he?” Caddy said. “He's not there,” father said. “He went away a long time ago.”