Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1938


Death of Tea Cake

Death of Tea Cake:

He gave her a look of full blank ferocity and gurgled in his throat. She saw him sitting up in bed and moving about so he could watch her every move. And she was beginning to feel fear of this strange thing in Tea Cake’s body. So when he went out to the outhouse she rushed to see if the pistol was loaded. It was a six-shooter and three of the chambers were full. She started to unload it but feared he might break it and find out she knew. That might urge his disordered mind to action. If that medicine would only come! She whirled the cylinder so that if he even did draw the gun on her it would snap three times before it would fire. She would at least have warning. She could either run or try to take it away before it was too late. Anyway Tea Cake wouldn’t hurt her. He was jealous and wanted to scare her. She’d just be in the kitchen as usual and never let on. They’d laugh over it when he got well. She found the box of cartridges, however, and emptied it. Just as well to take the rifle from back of the head of the bed. She broke it and put the shell in her apron pocket and put it in a corner in the kitchen almost behind the stove where it was hard to see. She could outrun his knife if it came to that. Of course she was too fussy, but it did no harm to play safe. She ought not to let poor sick Tea Cake do something that would run him crazy when he found out what he had done.

She saw him coming from the outhouse with a queer loping gait, swinging his head from side to side and his jaw clenched in a funny way. This was too awful! Where was De Simmons with that medicine? She was glad she was here to look after him. Folks would do such mean things to her Tea Cake if they saw him in such a fix. Treat Tea Cake like he was some mad dog when nobody in the world had more kindness about them. All he needed was for a doctor to come on with that medicine. He came back into the house without speaking, in fact, he did not seem to notice she was there and fell heavily into the bed and slept. Janie was standing by the stove washing up dishes when he spoke to her in a queer cold voice.

"Janie, how come you can’t sleep in de same bed wid me no mo’?"

"De doctah told you tuh sleep by yo’self, Tea Cake. Don’t yuh remember him tellin’ you dat yistiddy?"

"How come you ruther sleep on uh pallet then tuh sleep in de bed wid me?" Janie saw then that he had the gun in his hand that was hanging to his side. "Answer me when Ah speak."

"Tea Cake, Tea Cake, honey! Go lay down! Ah’ll be too glad tuh be in dere wid yuh de minute de doctor say so. Go lay back down. He’ll be heah wid some new medicine right away."

"Janie, Ah done went through everything tuh be good tuh you and it hurt me tuh mah heart tuh be ill treated lak Ah is."

The gun came up unsteadily but quickly and leveled at Janie’s breast. She noted that even in his delirium he took good aim. Maybe he would point to scare her, that was all.

The pistol snapped once. Instinctively Janie’s hand flew behind her on the rifle and brought it around. Most likely this would scare him off. If only the doctor would come! If anybody at all would come! She broke the rifle deftly and shoved in the shell as the second click told her that Tea Cake’s suffering brain was urging him on to kill.

"Tea Cake, put down dat gun and go back tuh bed!" Janie yelled at him as the gun wavered weakly in his hand.

He steadied himself against the jamb of the door and Janie thought to run into him and grab his arm, but she saw the quick motion of taking air and heard the click. Saw the ferocious look in his eyes and went mad with fear as she had done in the water that time. Hope that he’d see it and run, desperate for her life. But if Tea Cake could have counted costs he would not have been there with a pistol in his hands. No knowledge of fear nor rifles nor anything else was there. He paid no more attention to the pointing gun than if it were Janie’s dog finger. She saw him stiffen himself all over as he leveled and took aim. The fiend in him must kill and Janie was the only thing living he saw.

The pistol and the rifle rang out almost together. The pistol just enough after the rifle to seem its echo. Tea Cake crumpled as his bullet buried itself in the joist over Janie’s head. Janie saw the look on his face and leaped forward as he crashed forward in her arms. She was trying to cover him as he closed his teeth in the flesh of her forearm. They came down heavily like that. Janie struggled to a sitting position and pried the dead Tea Cake’s teeth from her arm.

It was the meanest moment of eternity. A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap. She had wanted him to live so much and he was dead. No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep. Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her a chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time. Then the grief of outer darkness descended.  



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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