that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches
from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course,
there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the
valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is
called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was
called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and
chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now,
and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down
through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been
allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the
road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze
the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once
pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust
Irene's Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads
back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their
hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba's
Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn't
remember the ingredients without it.
There will be nothing left of the Bottom (the footbridge that
crossed the river is already gone), but perhaps it is just as well,
since it wasn't a town anyway: just a neighborhood where on quiet
days people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes, banjos
sometimes, and, if a valley man happened to have business up in
those hills--collecting rent or insurance payments--he might see a
dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of
black bottom, a bit of "messing around" to the lively notes of a
mouth organ. Her bare feet would raise the saffron dust that
floated down on the coveralls and bunion-split shoes of the man
breathing music in and out of his harmonica. The black people
watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy
for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult
pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their
head rags and soft felt hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand,
somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew's curve,
He'd have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew's and let
the tenor's voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the
spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight years) and let the
fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin. Otherwise the pain would
escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain.
A shucking, knee-slapping, wet-eyed laughter that could even
describe and explain how they came to be where they were.
A joke. A nigger joke. That was the way it got started. Not the
town, of course, but that part of town where the Negroes lived, the
part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in
the hills. Just a nigger joke. The kind white folks tell when the
mill closes down and they're looking for a little comfort
somewhere. The kind colored folks tell on themselves when the rain
in doesn't come, or comes for weeks, and they're looking for a
little comfort somehow.
A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to
his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the
slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of
the bargain. Freedom was easy--the farmer had no objection to that.
But he didn't want to give up any land. So he told the slave that
he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped
to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he
thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See
those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile."
"But it's high up in the hills," said the slave.
"High up from us," said the master, "but when God looks down, it's
the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of
heaven-best land there is."
So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He
preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the
hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid
down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all
through the winter.
Which accounted for the fact that white people lived on the rich
valley floor in that little river town in Ohio, and the blacks
populated the hills above it, taking small consolation in the fact
that every day they could literally look down on the white
Still, it was lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the
farm land turned into a village and the village into a town and the
streets of Medallion were hot and dusty with progress, those heavy
trees that sheltered the shacks up in the Bottom were wonderful to
see. And the hunters who went there sometimes wondered in private
if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the
bottom of heaven.
The black people would have disagreed, but they had no time to
think about it. They were mightily preoccupied with earthly
things-and each other, wondering even as early as 1920 what
Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a
woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were
all about, tucked up there in the Bottom.
Except for World War II, nothing ever interfered with the
celebration of National Suicide Day. It had taken place every
January third since 1920, although Shadrack, its founder, was for
many years the only celebrant. Blasted and permanently astonished
by the events of 1917, he had returned to Medallion handsome but
ravaged, and even the most fastidious people in the town sometimes
caught themselves dreaming of what he must have been like a few
years back before he went off to war. A young man of hardly twenty,
his head full of nothing and his mouth recalling the taste of
lipstick, Shadrack had found himself in December, 1917, running
with his comrades across a field in France. It was his first
encounter with the enemy and he didn't know whether his company was
running toward them or away. For several days they had been
marching, keeping close to a stream that was frozen at its edges.
At one point they crossed it, and no sooner had he stepped foot on
the other side than the day was adangle with shouts and explosions.
Shellfire was all around him, and though he knew that this was
something called it, he could not muster up the proper
feeling--the feeling that would accommodate it. He expected
to be terrified or exhilarated--to feel something very
strong. In fact, he felt only the bite of a nail in his boot, which
pierced the ball of his foot whenever he came down on it. The day
was cold enough to make his breath visible, and he wondered for a
moment at the purity and whiteness of his own breath among the
dirty, gray explosions surrounding him. He ran, bayonet fixed, deep
in the great sweep of men flying across this field. Wincing at the
pain in his foot, he turned his head a little to the right and saw
the face of a soldier near him fly off. Before he could register
shock, the rest of the soldier's head disappeared under the
inverted soup bowl of his helmet. But stubbornly, taking no
direction from the brain, the body of the headless soldier ran on,
with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of
brain tissue down its back.
When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed.
Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three
triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the
third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of
whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled
these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood
tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was
contained in the neat balance of the triangles--a balance that
soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus
reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where
they were--would not explode or burst forth from their restricted
zones--he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His
glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very
careful--anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps
beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme
care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached
to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he
directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to
spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion
like Jack's beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek
he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the
covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their
normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.
"Private? We're not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are
Shadrack looked up at a balding man dressed in a green-cotton
jacket and trousers. His hair was parted low on the right side so
that some twenty or thirty yellow hairs could discreetly cover the
nakedness of his head.
"Come on. Pick up that spoon. Pick it up, Private. Nobody is going
to feed you forever."
Sweat slid from Shadrack's armpits down his sides. He could not
bear to see his hands grow again and he was frightened of the voice
in the apple-green suit.
"Pick it up, I said. There's no point to this. The nurse reached
under the cover for Shadrack's wrist to pull out the monstrous
hand. Shadrack jerked it back and overturned the tray. In panic he
raised himself to his knees and tried to fling off and away his
terrible fingers, but succeeded only in knocking the nurse into the
When they bound Shadrack into a straitjacket, he was both relieved
and grateful, for his hands were at last hidden and confined to
whatever size they had attained.
Laced and silent in his small bed, he tried to tie the loose cords
in his mind. He wanted desperately to see his own face and connect
it with the word "private"--the word the nurse (and the others who
helped bind him) had called him. "Private" he thought was something
secret, and he wondered why they looked at him and called him a
secret. Still, if his hands behaved as they had done, what might he
expect from his face? The fear and longing were too much for him,
so he began to think of other things. That is, he let his mind slip
into whatever cave mouths of memory it chose.
He saw a window that looked out on a river which he knew was full
of fish. Someone was speaking softly just outside the door . .
Shadrack's earlier violence had coincided with a memorandum from
the hospital executive staff in reference to the distribution of
patients in high-risk areas. There was clearly a demand for space.
The priority or the violence earned Shadrack his release, $217 in
cash, a full suit of clothes and copies of very official-looking
When he stepped out of the hospital door the grounds overwhelmed
him: the cropped shrubbery, the edged lawns, the undeviating walks.
Shadrack looked at the cement stretches: each one leading
clearheadedly to some presumably desirable destination. There were
no fences, no warnings, no obstacles at all between concrete and
green grass, so one could easily ignore the tidy sweep of stone and
cut out in another direction--a direction of one's own.
Shadrack stood at the foot of the hospital steps watching the heads
of trees tossing ruefully but harmlessly, since their trunks were
rooted too deeply in the earth to threaten him. Only the walks made
him uneasy. He shifted his weight, wondering how he could get to
the gate without stepping on the concrete. While plotting his
course--where he would have to leap, where to skirt a clump of
bushes--a loud guffaw startled him. Two men were going up the
steps. Then he noticed that there were many people about, and that
he was just now seeing them, or else they had just materialized.
They were thin slips, like paper dolls floating down the walks.
Some were seated in chairs with wheels, propelled by other paper
figures from behind. All seemed to be smoking, and their arms and
legs curved in the breeze. A good high wind would pull them up and
away and they would land perhaps among the tops of the trees.
Shadrack took the plunge. Four steps and he was on the grass
heading for the gate. He kept his head down to avoid seeing the
paper people swerving and bending here and there, and he lost his
way. When he looked up, he was standing by a low red building
separated from the main building by a covered walkway. From
somewhere came a sweetish smell which reminded him of something
painful. He looked around for the gate and saw that he had gone
directly away from it in his complicated journey over the grass.
Just to the left of the low building was a graveled driveway that
appeared to lead outside the grounds. He trotted quickly to it and
left, at last, a haven of more than a year, only eight days of
which he fully recollected.
Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had
left him weak--too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of
the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started
again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples,
still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars
shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.
The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town.
A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart--a
pretty, quietly regulated downtown.
Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside
to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands
and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The
nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for
children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of
intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his
fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria
that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life
depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his
eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot,
frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn't even
know who or what he was . . . with no past, no language, no tribe,
no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket
handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no
soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing
nothing nothing to do . . . he was sure of one thing only: the
unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the
curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was,
and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door . .
Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively
at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into
the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny
By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a
blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when
the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a
permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail,
booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell.
Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall,
so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a
long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over
letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the
pain in his head subsided.
Like moonlight stealing under a window shade an idea insinuated
itself: his earlier desire to see his own face. He looked for a
mirror; there was none. Finally, keeping his hands carefully behind
his back he made his way to the toilet bowl and peeped in. The
water was unevenly lit by the sun so he could make nothing out.
Returning to his cot he took the blanket and covered his head,
rendering the water dark enough to see his reflection. There in the
toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so
unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish
apprehension that he was not real--that he didn't exist at all. But
when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he
wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one
edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still.
Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first
sleep of his new life. A sleep deeper than the hospital drugs;
deeper than the pits of plums, steadier than the condor's wing;
more tranquil than the curve of eggs.
The sheriff looked through the bars at the young man with the
matted hair. He had read through his prisoner's papers and hailed a
farmer. When Shadrack awoke, the sheriff handed him back his papers
and escorted him to the back of a wagon. Shadrack got in and in
less than three hours he was back in Medallion, for he had been
only twenty-two miles from his window, his river, and his soft
voices just outside the door.
In the back of the wagon, supported by sacks of squash and hills of
pumpkins, Shadrack began a struggle that was to last for twelve
days, a struggle to order and focus experience. It had to do with
making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the
smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate
it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the
unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion
that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it
out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In
this manner he instituted National Suicide Day.
On the third day of the new year, he walked through the Bottom down
Carpenter's Road with a cowbell and a hangman's rope calling the
people together. Telling them that this was their only chance to
kill themselves or each other.
At first the people in the town were frightened; they knew Shadrack
was crazy but that did not mean that he didn't have any sense or,
even more important, that he had no power. His eyes were so wild,
his hair so long and matted, his voice was so full of authority and
thunder that he caused panic on the first, or Charter, National
Suicide Day in 1920. The next one, in 1921, was less frightening
but still worrisome. The people had seen him a year now in between.
He lived in a shack on the riverbank that had once belonged to his
grandfather long time dead. On Tuesday and Friday he sold the fish
he had caught that morning, the rest of the week he was drunk,
loud, obscene, funny and outrageous. But he never touched anybody,
never fought, never caressed. Once the people understood the
boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to
speak, into the scheme of things.
Then, on subsequent National Suicide Days, the grown people looked
out from behind curtains as he rang his bell; a few stragglers
increased their speed, and little children screamed and ran. The
tetter heads tried goading him (although he was only four or five
years older then they) but not for long, for his curses were
As time went along, the people took less notice of these January
thirds, or rather they thought they did, thought they had no
attitudes or feelings one way or another about Shadrack's annual
solitary parade. In fact they had simply stopped remarking on the
holiday because they had absorbed it into their thoughts, into
their language, into their lives.
Someone said to a friend, "You sure was a long time delivering that
baby. How long was you in labor?"
And the friend answered, "'Bout three days. The pains started on
Suicide Day and kept up till the following Sunday. Was borned on
Sunday. All my boys is Sunday boys."
Some lover said to his bride-to-be, "Let's do it after New Years,
'stead of before. I get paid New Year's Eve."
And his sweetheart answered, "OK, but make sure it ain't on Suicide
Day. I ain't 'bout to be listening to no cowbells whilst the
weddin's going on."
Somebody's grandmother said her hens always started a laying of
double yolks right after Suicide Day.
Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense
enough to avoid Shadrack's call were the ones who insisted on
drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death.
"May's well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of
Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up
in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.
Excerpted from SULA © Copyright 2002 by Toni Morrison.
Reprinted with permission by Knopf, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Knopf
- ISBN-10: 0375415351
- ISBN-13: 9780375415357