O sister, sister, thy first-begotten,
The hands that cling and the feet that follow,
The voice of the child's blood crying yet,
Who hath remembered me? who hath forgotten?
Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow,
But the world shall end when I forget.
[On the meaning of the bar of music]
"Unto you a child is born," sang the bit ofyellow paper that fluttered into my room one brown October morning. Then thefear of fatherhood mingled wildly with the joy of creation; I wondered how it looked and how it felt -- what were its eyes, and how its hair curled andcrumpled itself. And I thought in awe of her, -- she who had slept with Death to tear a man-child from underneath her heart, while I was unconsciouslywandering. I fled to my wife and child, repeating the while to myself halfwonderingly, "Wife and child? Wife and child?" -- fled fast andfaster than boat and steam-car, and yet must ever impatiently await them; awayfrom the hard-voiced city, away
from the flickering sea into my own Berkshire Hills that sit all sadly guardingthe gates of Massachusetts.
Up the stairs I ran to the wan mother and whimperingbabe, to the sanctuary on whose altar a life at my bidding had offered itselfto win a life, and won. What is this tiny formless thing, this newborn wailfrom an unknown world, -- all head and voice? I handle it curiously, and watchperplexed its winking, breathing, and sneezing. I did not love it then; itseemed a ludicrous thing to love; but her I loved, my girl-mother, she whom nowI saw unfolding like the glory of the morning -- the transfigured woman.Through her I came to love the wee thing, as it grew strong; as its little soulunfolded itself in twitter and cry and half-formed word, and as its eyes caughtthe gleam and flash of life. How beautiful he was, with his olive-tinted fleshand dark gold ringlets, his eyes of mingled blue and brown, his perfect littlelimbs, and the soft voluptuous roll which the blood of Africa had moulded intohis features! I held him in my arms, after we had sped far away from ourSouthern home, -- held him, and glanced at the hot red soil of Georgia and thebreathless city of a hundred hills, and felt a vague unrest. Why was his hairtinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not thebrown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue? -- for brown were hisfather's eyes, and his father's father's. And thus in the Land of theColor-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil.
Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there withinshall he live, -- a Negro and a Negro's son. Holding in that little head -- ah,bitterly! -- he unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tiny dimpledhand -- ah, wearily! -- to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, and seeing withthose bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is tous a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of the Veil as it passedover my baby, I saw the cold city towering above the blood-red land. I held myface beside his little cheek, showed him the star-children and the twinklinglights as they began to flash, and stilled with an even-song the unvoicedterror of my life.
So sturdy and masterful he grew, so filled with bubblinglife, so tremulous with the unspoken wisdom of a life but
eighteen months distant from the All-life, -- we were not far from worshippingthis revelation of the divine, my wife and I. Her own life builded and mouldeditself upon the child; he tinged her every dream and idealized her everyeffort. No hands but hers must touch and garnish those little limbs; no dressor frill must touch them that had not wearied her fingers; no voice but herscould coax him off to Dreamland, and she and he together spoke some soft andunknown tongue and in it held communion. I too mused above his little whitebed; saw the strength of my own arm stretched onward through the ages throughthe newer strength of his; saw the dream of my black fathers stagger a steponward in the wild phantasm of the world; heard in his baby voice the voice ofthe Prophet that was to rise within the Veil.
And so we dreamed and loved and planned by fall andwinter, and the full flush of the long Southern spring, till the hot windsrolled from the fetid Gulf, till the roses shivered and the still stern sunquivered its awful light over the hills of Atlanta. And then one night thelittle feet pattered wearily to the wee white bed, and the tiny hands trembled;and a warm flushed face tossed on the pillow, and we knew baby was sick. Tendays he lay there, -- a swift week and three endless days, wasting, wastingaway. Cheerily the mother nursed him the first days, and laughed into thelittle eyes that smiled again. Tenderly then she hovered round him, till thesmile fled away and Fear crouched beside the little bed.
Then the day ended not, and night was a dreamless terror,and joy and sleep slipped away. I hear now that Voice at midnight calling mefrom dull and dreamless trance, -- crying, "The Shadow of Death! TheShadow of Death!" Out into the starlight I crept, to rouse the grayphysician, -- the Shadow of Death, the Shadow of Death. The hours trembled on;the night listened; the ghastly dawn glided like a tired thing across thelamplight. Then we two alone looked upon the child as he turned toward us withgreat eyes, and stretched his stringlike hands, -- the Shadow of Death! And wespoke no word, and turned away.
He died at eventide, when the sun lay like a broodingsorrow above the western hills, veiling its face; when the winds spoke not, andthe trees, the great green trees he loved,
stood motionless. I saw his breath beat quicker and quicker, pause, and thenhis little soul leapt like a star that travels in the night and left a world ofdarkness in its train. The day changed not; the same tall trees peeped in atthe windows, the same green grass glinted in the setting sun. Only in thechamber of death writhed the world's most piteous thing -- a childless mother.
I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full ofstriving.
I am no coward, to shrink before the rugged rush of thestorm, nor even quail before the awful shadow of the Veil. But hearken, ODeath! Is not this my life hard enough, -- is not that dull land that stretchesits sneering web about me cold enough, -- is not all the world beyond thesefour little walls pitiless enough, but that thou must needs enter here, --thou, O Death? About my head the thundering storm beat like a heartless voice,and the crazy forest pulsed with the curses of the weak; but what cared I,within my home beside my wife and baby boy? Wast thou so jealous of one littlecoign of happiness that thou must needs enter there, -- thou, O Death?
A perfect life was his, all joy and love, with tears tomake it brighter, -- sweet as a summer's day beside the Housatonic. The worldloved him; the women kissed his curls, the men looked gravely into hiswonderful eyes, and the children hovered and fluttered about him. I can see himnow, chang- ing like the sky from sparkling laughter to darkening frowns, andthen to wondering thoughtfulness as he watched the world. He knew nocolor-line, poor dear -- and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yetdarkened half his sun. He loved the white matron, he loved his black nurse; andin his little world walked souls alone, uncolored and unclothed. I -- yea, allmen -- are larger and purer by the infinite breadth of that one little life.She who in simple clearness of vision sees beyond the stars said when he hadflown, "He will be happy There; he ever loved beautiful things." AndI, far more ignorant, and blind by the web of mine own weaving, sit alonewinding words and muttering, "If still he be, and he be There, and therebe a There, let him be happy, O Fate!"
Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and songand sweet-smelling flowers. The trees whispered to the grass,
but the children sat with hushed faces. And yet it seemed a ghostly unreal day,-- the wraith of Life. We seemed to rum- ble down an unknown street behind alittle white bundle of posies, with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busycity dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men andwomen; they did not say much, -- they only glanced and said,"Niggers!"
We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, forthe earth there is strangely red; so we bore him away to the northward, withhis flowers and his little folded hands. In vain, in vain! -- for where, O God!beneath thy broad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace, -- where Reverencedwells, and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free?
All that day and all that night there sat an awfulgladness in my heart, -- nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darklythrough the Veil, -- and my soul whispers ever to me saying, "Not dead,not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free." No bitter meanness now shallsicken his baby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden hishappy boyhood. Fool that I was to think or wish that this little soul shouldgrow choked and deformed within the Veil! I might have known that yonder deepunworldly look that ever and anon floated past his eyes was peering far beyondthis narrow Now. In the poise of his little curl-crowned head did there not sitall that wild pride of being which his father had hardly crushed in his ownheart? For what, forsooth, shall a Negro want with pride amid the studiedhumiliations of fifty million fellows? Well sped, my boy, before the world haddubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taughtyou to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than asea of sorrow for you.
Idle words; he might have borne his burden more bravelythan we, -- aye, and found it lighter too, some day; for surely, surely this isnot the end. Surely there shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the Veiland set the prisoned free. Not for me, -- I shall die in my bonds, -- but forfresh young souls who have not known the night and waken to the morning; amorning when men ask of the workman, not "Is he white?" but "Canhe work?" When men ask artists, not "Are they black?" but"Do they know?" Some morning this may be,
long, long years to come. But now there wails, on that dark shore within theVeil, the same deep voice, Thou shalt forego! And all have I foregone atthat command, and with small complaint, -- all save that fair young form thatlies so coldly wed with death in the nest I had builded.
If one must have gone, why not I? Why may I not rest mefrom this restlessness and sleep from this wide waking? Was not the world'salembic, Time, in his young hands, and is not my time waning? Are there so manyworkers in the vineyard that the fair promise of this little body could lightlybe tossed away? The wretched of my race that line the alleys of the nation sitfatherless and unmothered; but Love sat beside his cradle, and in his earWisdom waited to speak. Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to bewise. Sleep, then, child, -- sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice andthe ceaseless patter of little feet -- above the Veil.