Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is nominally a ghost story. Perhaps her most celebrated novel, it tells the tale of Sethe, an escaped slave from the American south, who remains haunted by an act of infanticide she was compelled to commit whilst on the run. The pivotal moment in the early sections of the novel centres on the appearance of her daughter’s ghost almost twenty years after she was desperately killed by Sethe. Emerging from the river running alongside her mother’s home, the ghost (who comes to be known as Beloved) arrives to interrupt and stake a powerful claim over Sethe’s new life. I want to reprise this scene of Beloved’s arrival and return in order to listen to it, to listen closely to a music Morrison has at work deep within its structure:
By late afternoon when the carnival was over, and the negroes were hitching rides home if they were lucky – walking if they were not – the woman had fallen asleep again. The rays of the sun struck her full in the face, so that when Sethe, Denver and Paul D rounded the curve in the road all they saw was a black dress, two unlaced shoes below it, and Here Boy nowhere in sight.
“Look,” said Denver. “What is that?”
And, for some reason she could not immediately account for, the moment she got close enough to see the face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity. She said, “Oh, excuse me,” and ran around the back of 124. Not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight-year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had an emergency that unmanageable. She never made the outhouse. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless. Like a horse, she thought, but as it went on and on she thought, No, more like flooding the boat when Denver was born. So much water Amy said, “Hold on, Lu. You going to sink us you keep that up.” But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now. She hoped Paul D wouldn’t take it upon himself to come looking for her and be obliged to see her squatting in front of her own privy making a mudhole too deep to be witnessed without shame. Just about the time she started wondering if the carnival should accept another freak, it stopped. She tidied herself and ran around to the porch. No one was there. All three were inside – Paul D and Denver standing before the stranger, watching her drink cup after cup of water.
“She said she was thirsty,” said Paul D. He took off his cap. “Mighty thirst look like.”
The woman gulped water from a speckled tin cup and held it out for more. Four more times Denver filled it, and four more times the woman drank as though she had crossed the desert. When she finished there was a little water on her chin, but she did not wipe it away. Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested – good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat.
This is a passage soaked in the trails of amniotic fluid. Morrison has assembled a spectral reimagining of birth. Beloved, the ghost of a child killed too young, has risen from the water with an unquenchable thirst. Conversely her mother, Sethe, is saturated. She is overcome with a need to void, to flush out the water from inside her. Morrison structures this scene by way of implication. A residual connection, a previousness is being named between Beloved and Sethe, but only in the absence of its naming. And it is water – a thirst that needs to be quenched and liquid that needs to be flushed – which carries all this information.
I’m interested in Morrison’s structuring of this passage around the showing of something that is never adequately named, but instead carried by water. In fact, I’m fascinated by how, in the absence of something being said, something being named, a musicality emerges (like water) to fill its space. Morrison, in short, writes this passage in a way that sounds like Aretha Franklin’s “Drown In My Own Tears”. Listen:
“Drown In My Own Tears” is a tale of water substituting for a traumatic absence. A relationship ended, the ties that bind irrecoverably broken, her thirst for affection continually threatens to drench her. Franklin’s performance is defined by a precariousness. A deep breach has been opened and the thirst that follows can only be satisfied by water enough to drown. It is this precariousness which activates the sensory experience of hearing “Drown” rolling into action whilst reading Morrison shape the reencounter between Beloved and Sethe. There is never enough water to fill the void, yet it is also always overflowing. There is always desire for more, but sometimes more is just too much. This then is the monumental achievement of “Beloved”. Morrison is able to build her writing in a way that sounds like Franklin singing in all her profound simplicity.