“Sweat" – by Zora Neale Hurston (published 1926)
It was eleven o‟clock of a Spring night in Florida. It was Sunday. Any other night, Delia Jones would have been in bed for two hours by this time. But she was a washwoman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. So she collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost a half day‟s start. A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.
She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and buckboard.
Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband like to carry when he drove.
She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright. She screamed at him.
“Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me – looks just like a snake an‟ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes."
“Course Ah knowed it! That‟s how come Ah done it." He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. “If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don‟t keer how bad Ah skeer you."
“You aint got no business doin it. Gawd knows it‟s a sin. Some day Ah‟m gointuh drop dead from some of yo‟ foolishness.
„Nother thing, where you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony. He aint fuh you to be drivin‟ wid no bull whip."
“You sho is one aggravatin‟ nigger woman!" he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once. “Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks‟ clothes outa dis house."
He picked up the whip and glared down at her. Delia went on with her work. She went out into the yard and returned with a galvanized tub and set it on the washbench. She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way truculently, his whole manner hoping, praying, for an argument. But she walked calmly around him and commenced to re-sort the things.
“Next time, Ah‟m gointer kick ‟em outdoors," he threatened as he struck a match along the leg of his corduroy breeches. Delia never looked up from her work, and her thin, stooped shoulders sagged further.
“Ah aint for no fuss t‟night, Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house." He snorted scornfully. “Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain‟t nothing but a hypocrite.
could sit and reach through the bedposts – resting as she worked. “Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time." She was singing again. The mood of the “love feast" had returned. She threw back the lid of the basket almost gaily. Then, moved by both horror and terror, she sprang back toward the door. There lay the snake, in the basket! He moved sluggishly at first, but even as she turned round and roud
the sky was spreading. Delia descended without fear now, and crouched beneath the low bedroom window. The drawn shade shut out the dawn, shut in the night. But the thin walls held back no sound.
“Dat ol‟ scratch is woke up now?" She mused at the tremendous whirr inside, which every woodsman knows, is one of the sound illusions. The rattler is a ventriloquist. His whirr sounds to the right, to the… the stove and Sykes made a quick leap into the bedroom. In spite of the gin he had had, his head was clearing now.
“Mah Gawd!" he chattered, “ef Ah could on‟y strack uh light!" The rattling ceased for a moment as he stood paralyzed.
He waited. It seemed that the snake waited also. “Of fuh de light! Ah though he‟d be too sick" – Sykes was muttering to himself when the whirr began again, closer, right…