Sweat

Instructions: Read the following passage carefully (at least twice) before your attempt to answer any of the questions.

Sweat

Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was rejected each time. Heaps according to colour, and humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and wagon.

Just then something long, round 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 liked to carry when he drove. She lifted her eyes to the floor and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fight. She screamed at him.

“Sykes what you throw dat whip on me for? You know it would scare me- looks just like a snake, and you know how scared I is of snakes.”

“Course I know it. That’s how come I done it.” He picked up the whip, swung it in his hand and glared down at her. Delia went on with her work.  She went out in the yard and returned with a galvanized tub and set it on the wash bench. She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way, truculently, his whole manner, praying for an argument. But she walked calmly around him and began to resort the things.

He stepped roughly upon the whitest of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room. His wife gave a little scream, and quickly gathered them together again.

“Sykes, you stop dirtying these clothes! How can I get through by Saturday if I don’t start on Sunday?”

“I don’t care if you never get through. Anyhow, I ain’tgoin’ to have it in my house. Don’t give me no lip, woman, else I’ll throw them all out and put my fist upside your head to boot.”

Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet, her poor little body, her knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.

“Look here, Sykes, you done gone too far. I been married to you for fifteen years, and I been takin’ in washing for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”

“What’s that got to do with me?” he asked brutally.

What’s it got to do with you, Sykes? My tub of suds has filled your belly with food more times than your hands have filled it. You ain’t paid for nothing on this place and I’m going to stay right here till I’m toted out foot-foremost.”

She seized the iron skillet and struck a defensive poise. The act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did. A little awed by this new Delia, he sidled out of the door and slammed the back gate after him. He did not say where he had gone, but she knew only too well. She knew very well that he would not return until nearly daybreak also. Her work over, she went to bed, but not to sleep at once. She lay awake gazing at the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trial. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She sifted through the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he returned penniless, even before the first year had passed. She drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big fathered bed. Too late now to hope for love. Too late now for anything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.

Delia came home later that week and found Sykes there before her. She wondered why but started to go on into the house without speaking, even though he was standing in the kitchen door and she must either stop under his arm or ask him to move. He made no room for her. She noticed a soap box beside the steps, but paid no attention to it, knowing that he must have brought it there. As she was stooping to pass under his outstretched arm, he suddenly pushed her backward, chuckling.

“Look in the box dere, Delia. I brought you something.”

She nearly fell upon the box in her stumbling, and when she saw what it held, she all but fainted outright.

“Sykes! Sykes! My God! You take dat rattlesnake away from here! You gotta! Oh, Jesus, have Mercy!

Don’t ask me to do nothin’ for you. No, I aintgoin’ to kill it. Dat’s a nice snake and anybody who don’t like him can just hit the road.”

The six-foot snake stayed on. His box remained by the kitchen door with its screen wire covering. Three days later, Delia opened the subject as soon as Sykes sat down to the table.

“Sykes I want you to take dat snake away from here. You done staved and I put up with you, you done beat me and I took dat, but you done kill my insides bringing dat snake here.”

“A whole lot I care about how you feel inside or out. Dat snake ain’tgoin’ nowhere until I ready for him to go. So far as beating is concerned, you ain’t take near all dat you goin’ to take if you stay ‘round me.”

Delia pushed back her plate and got up from the table. “I hate you, Sykes,” she said. “I don’t want to see you around me at all. Gone away from me and my house. I hate you like a suck egg dog.”

Sykes almost let the huge wad of corn bread he was chewing fall out his mouth in amazement. He had a hard time whipping himself up to the proper fury to answer her.

“Well, I’m glad you hate me. I’m sure tired of you hanging onto me. I don’t want you. Look at your stringy ole neck! You can’t hate me no worse than I hate you. I been hating you for years.

Delia spoke with no sign of fear. “Don’t think I’m going to be running away from my house. I’m going to the law about you the next time you lay a hand on me. My cup is done run over.

Sykes departed from the house, threatening her, but made not the slightest move to carry out any of them. That night he did not return at all. The next day being Sunday, Delia hitched up her pony and drive the four miles to the church in Woodbridge. She stayed to the night service. Complete silence. She went on into the house with a new hope in its birth struggles. She felt in the match container behind the stove at once for a match. There was only one there.

Presently she brought on the tubs to put the white things to soak. This time she decided she need not bring in the hamper out of the bedroom; she would go in there and do the sorting. She picked up the po-bellied lamp and went in. The hamper stood by the foot of the white iron bed. She threw back the lid of the basket almost gaily. Then, moved by horror and terror, she sprang back toward the door. There lay the snake in the basket! She saw him pour his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed, then seized the lamp and ran as fast as she could to the kitchen. The wind from the open door blew out the light and the darkness added to the terror. She sped to the darkness of the yard, slamming the door after she thought about setting down the lamp. She did not even feel safe on the ground, so she climbed up in the hay barn.

There for an hour or more she lay sprawled upon the hay, a gibbering wreck.

She went to sleep- a twitching sleep- and woke up to a faint gray sky. There was a loud hollow sound below. She peered out. Sykes was at the wood-pile, demolishing a wire-covered box. She watched him hurry to the kitchen door where he hung outside some minutes before he entered and stood some minutes more inside before he closed it after him.

The gray in the sky was spreading. Delia descended without fear now, crouched beneath the low bedroom window. The drawn shade shut out thedawn, shut out the night. But the thin walls held back no sound.

Inside Sykes heard nothing he knocked a pot lid off the stove while trying to reach the match container in the dark. Then the rattling sound sank into his brain. Sykes, made a quick leap into the bedroom. In spite of the gin he had, his head was clearing now.

“My God,” he chattered. “If I could only strike a Light!

The rattling ceased for a moment as he stood paralyzed. He waited. It seemed that the snake waited also.

“I need a light! I thought he’d be too sick…”Sykes was muttering to himself when the whirr began again, close underfoot. The rattler is a ventriloquist. Its whirr sounds to the right, to the left, straight ahead, behind, close underfoot everywhere except where it is. Sometimes it strikes without rattling at all. Sykes leapt onto the bed.

Outside, Delia heard a cry that might have come from a stricken gorilla. It was all the terror, all the horror, all the rage that a man could possibly express in an inhuman sound. There came the whirr of the reptile again followed by a series of animal cries. The shade was torn violently down from the window, letting in the red dawn, and hug brown hand seized the window stick and rained great blows upon the wooden floor. The rattle of the snake subsided. All this Delia could see from her place beneath the window, and it made her ill. She crept over to the flower garden and stretched herself on the cool earth to recover.

She lay there. “Delia, Delia!” She could hear Sykes calling in a despairing tone as one who expected no answer. The sun crept up and he called. Delia could not move. She never moved, he called, and the sun kept rising.

When Delia finally got up from her flower- bed, the sun was growing warm. She approached the kitchen door and saw Sykes on his hands and knees. He crept an inch to toward her – all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shinning with hope.

Short Answer Questions

  1. In no more than 150 words, describe Sykes character. Support all that you say with information from the passage. (9 marks)