“He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.”

“I never thought I was worthy of you,” he said, thinking of the dead Henry, when he asked her to marry him.  She said, “We are all worthy of one another.”

“On the way to town or on the way back, he would suffer what he called small storms, thunder and lightening, in the brain.”

“Despite vowing never to own a slave, Skiffington had no trouble doing his job to keep the institution of slavery going, an institution even God himself had sanctioned throughout the Bible.”

“An Irish prayer was obviously worth only a tenth of what a German prayer was worth.”

“A black man had owned them, a strange thing for many in that world, and now that he was dead, maybe a white man would buy them, which was not as strange.  No matter what, though, the sun would come up on them tomorrow, followed by the moon, and dogs would chase their own tails and the sky would remain just out of reach.”

“Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known.  He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.”

“Though there was to be no work in the fields that day, there were things to be done if the world was to go on.  Milking cows, a mule to be shod, eggs collected, a plow to be repaired, cabins to be swept if more dust and dirt were not to join what was already inside.  And the bodies of slaves and animals required nourishment and fires needed tending to.”

“His first hours [chained] in the stall were spent thinking how he could kill everyone around him, first everyone on the plantation, then everyone in the county, in Virginia.”

“The sparrows were no longer flying, just chirping somewhere above their heads.  Elias could see them in his mind, arranging the straw and turning around and around on it to make a place smooth enough to be a home to the eggs.”

“The marriage was approaching the far side of the hill from where they had started out and Fern looked into his eyes and did not move.”

“It was at such a time that he had always imagined he would slip away to freedom, a time when all the world had their heads turned the other way.”

“When he tried to get close to her, to walk a little bit beside her, hoping that closeness would say what he did not have words for, she would hurry away, believing he only wanted to see her life with a terrible limp.”

“We can do another one.” He reached up and picked out the comb’s teeth that had broken off in her hair.
“I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.”  She began to cry.
“Thas easy to say today cause the sun be shinin.  Tomorrow, maybe next week, there won’t be no sun, and you won’t be studying no comb.”
He said again, “I’ll  make you a comb for every hair on our head.”  He dropped the broken teeth onto the ground and she closed her hand tight over what was left of the comb.”

“Henry stood watching Elias for some time, and in all that time Elias did not look at Celeste.  His feelings were all the looking he needed, Henry realized.  And he realized too, that what was happening was better than chains.  He had them together, bound one strong man to a woman with a twisted leg, and there was not a chain in sight.”

“He was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.”

“That is not it.” Travis said to Barnum.  “It is not why he and I are doin it, but why you aren’t doin it.  That is the question for all time.  Why a man, even somethin worthless like you, sees what is right and still refuses to do it.”

“He tried to make out her face in the dark, tried to remember what little of it he had seen during the evening, but all he could pull forward was the face of a woman in Alabama who passed him in her wagon with her belongings and her family.”

“There was so much of civilization in the east, near the Atlantic Ocean, so much certainty.  Here, away from what he always knew, was a world he did not believe he could ever make peace with.”

“He had seen a dark old man driving the wagon, not really a Negro, not really from any race that was recorded in any of the books in his destroyed library.  As he looked between the pregnant women he saw a tiny blond-haired boy standing with his arms around the dark man’s neck, hanging on for support.  The boy turned and looked at him. Counsel wondered if the authorities knew about all these people.  There was something wrong here and the government of Texas should be doing something about it.”

“Fern knew how death and the mourning that followed could set a life adrift and how important it was for family and friends to guide a soul back to shore, back home.”

“It was a good day outside where their babies were playing; it was the kind of day made for running away.  A good strong man without a family could run all the way to freedom and stand on the other side, his arms high above his head, and cuss out the patrollers and the masters and the sheriff, just cuss them out all day and get up the next day and do it again before getting on with the life God meant for him.  Yes, a good strong man could do.  He kissed the top of Celeste’s head.”

“She was thinking that such a lovely day could only mean that they would kill poor Moses when they found him.  The God of that Bible, being who he was, never gave a slave a good day without wanting something big in return.”

“The professors, being gods, did not like to share their heaven with anyone, dead or alive,  and they sent the young man home in the middle of his second year. ” [for hearing voices]

“The kiss went through the breast, through skin and bone, and came to the cage that protected the heart…She woke immediately and she knew her husband was gone forever…Only in the yard could she begin to breathe again.  And breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of.”

“I’m tired a this mess of a weather.  I really am.  I wish the Lord would reach down in that big bag a days of his and pull us out some good-weather days that would last and last.  Some nice and plump days layin over there in the corner right next to day fore yesterday.  God could give us some nice days, Stamford, if he had a mind to.  He could even lend em to us.  By now he should know we a people that take care a things and we’d hand em back just the way he give em to us.”

“Barnum rode away, rode toward his home and his family.  There was not anything in Virginia for him anymore.  He had been treading water all his life in Virginia – not enough water to drown him, but just enough to always keep his feet and britches wet.  He was many miles away before he heard Moses stop screaming.”

Copyright 2003 by Edward P. Jones
author’s bio:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-P-Jones
photo:  Jill Krementz