What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts. I don't know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that's one of the mysteries I haven't solved yet. I always tried to close my eyes and believe that angels, invisible in their gossamer dresses, were keeping their loving vigil. I learned, slowly, that if you don't look at the world with perfect vision, you're bound to get yourself cooked. Even though I may still be looking through the dark glass, even though I haven't finished learning the lessons, I'm the only one who tells the story from beginning to end. It can't be up to Ruby, because he has been spirited away and born again. Neither love nor prayer can bring him back. May can talk herself blue in the face and no one will hear. By rights this belongs to Justy, because he inherits the earth for a short time, but he doesn't quite count yet. He'll remember the taste of pecan balls, exactly how the powdery mash got stuck on the roof of his mouth, the color black maybe, and the color and shape of Ruby's teeth. They were rotten with sweets.
I tell myself that it should be simple to see through to the past now that I'm set loose, now that I can invent my own words, but nothing much has come my way without a price. I'm not counting on a free ride. I know the only way to begin to understand is to steal underneath May's skin and look at the world from behind her small eyes. I shudder when I think about the inside of Ruby's head, but I know I have to journey there too, if I'm going to make sense of what's happened.
Sometimes Aunt Sid shocks me into seeing myself in a new light; she'll speak to me, looking straight into my eyes, and it's as if she's talking to an adult; and then I realize she is, that I am, in fact, grown up. The bones in these legs don't get any longer.
She tells me that there has been a grave error, which is actually how I've felt for a considerable length of time, as if I'm a series of sums that doesn't come out right. She says she doesn't understand how my clear intelligence went unrecognized, but I haven't explained to her yet the confines of my mother tongue. We were the products of our limited vocabulary: we had no words for savory odors or the colors of the winter sky or the unexpected compulsion to sing. The language I had to speak to be understood is not the language of poetry or clear thinking. I only let on once to May that I had acquired other words for private use.
In the Bible it starts with the spirit of God moving upon the face of the water, but I don't buy those ideas. You couldn't pay me to take my story back that far. Everyone's probably heard of Honey Creek, where I lived with Ruby and May. There isn't anything fancy about the location, except the iron gate around the church and the pigeons with their purple breasts.
Mr. Abendroth, the oldest person in town, spends his time walking through farmers' fields picking up corn and stealing apples, and he shares his loot with the pigeons. Honey Creek is way up in the very north of Illinois; if you lean over the Abendroths' back fence your torso is in Wisconsin.
You will miss the town if you drive through listening to your favorite song on the radio or telling a story about your neighbor. The two blocks of white clapboard houses with black trim will look like nothing more than a cloudy morning. Only Mrs. Crawford's house is blue, like the color eyeshadow my friend Daisy wears, and she has a red barn in the back. She had her place painted blue after her husband, Bub, died and everyone figured she'd gone crazy with grief. Then for Christmas she put lights all over the trees in her yard, colored lights which flashed on and off. Then everyone watched to see if she would come out one day wearing hotpants and white boots, setting off to marry someone forty years younger.
Excerpted from The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton Copyright © 1989 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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