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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
Table of Contents


 

 

POSSESSED!

[12]

O
F all my earliest and pleasantest memories, by far the greatest number are in some way connected with books and reading. Often have I heard my mother say that I was born, not with a silver spoon under my tongue, but with a book in my hand. Book love, that peculiar passion which has shaped and controlled my life, was strangely manifested even in my cradle. I cried for books as other babies cried for the nursing bottle or the sugar treat; and a copy of Emerson's Primer  or George Fox's Journal, if laid within reach of my fingers, seldom failed to soothe my feelings and hush my infantile wailings. The very feel of the paper, its smoothness, its thinness, the cabalistic marks which it bore, had a magical influence no less potent than mysterious.

To the good people among whom fate had decreed my birth, this strange predilection seemed little short of miraculous—it was the source of much curiosity and speculation in which contempt was sometimes more strongly manifested than admiration. To my poor mother, the thought that her only son was "queer" brought seasons of infinite disquietude and silent grief. Ancient aunts and busy-minded neighbors were not slow to suggest various prenatal causes of so strange, so unnatural a twist in the mind of a child. Some wondered, and some pitied, while others were moved to the making [13] of remarks which were neither complimentary to myself nor kind to my parents.

As I grew older, my queerness became accepted as a thing which could not be cured and therefore must be endured; and our home folks, instead of continuing to grieve about it, gradually became proud of the fact that the household included at least one person of bookish habits. They humored my taste for reading, and sternly apologized for it while they were inwardly unable to understand it. Nevertheless, the friendly women of the Settlement never quite ceased to gossip and wonder, and sometimes they felt called on to show their interest by condoling with mother concerning her unfortunate son. I remember overhearing a conversation that occurred between two of our neighbors long after I had grown to the years of understanding and could fully appreciate their intented kindness. Seeing me sprawled upon the floor with the inevitable book before me, they began their palaver, as indifferent to my presence as though I has neither ears nor intelligence.

"Laws a me!" cried the elder of the two, an ancient maiden whom we knew familiarly as Mahaly Bray. "If there ain't that booky boy that we've heerd so much about. Now, it don't seem possible that sich a leetle feller as him can read, does it?"

"Well, it surely ain't natural," answered her companion, friend Liddy Ann Dobson, the sturdy mother of six overgrown sons. "It ain't nateral, and I reckon it ain't right, nother. Why, there's my Eli, he's goin' on sixteen, and he's jest now beginnin' to read in the Bible, and the rest of my boys, they seem to jest naterally hate the very sight of books—and they're bright boys, too. Thee may rest sure, Mahaly, that a screw's loose some- [14] where when thee sees such a little feller as that there Bobby Dudley a-porin' over his letters and a-learnin' things he oughtn't to."

"Well, it's too bad, I do declare," rejoined Mahaly Bray. "How did it happen, anyhow? Has thee any notion about it Debby?"

Then mother, with a quaver in her voice, began kindly to explain: "He always had a great likin' for books. I think he must have got it from his father, and it was born in him; for Stephen is a good deal that way too, only not so bad."

"Laws a me!" cried maiden Mahaly. "Could the leetle feller read as soon as he was bornded?"

"Not exactly, answered mother; "but he could read pretty well before he was done cuttin' his teeth. For a long while he was a great bother to all of us; for, whenever he seen a new word he would p'int to it and say, 'What's this? what's this? what's this?' And when he was told, he never forgot. But we don't know exactly how he learnt to read; it just sort of come nateral to him, like learnin' to eat comes to the rest of us."

"My sakes alive!" said Mahaly. "I'd be afeard to have a child like that. I'd be always a-lookin' for somethin' to happen."

"And it will happen, too," added her friend. "Sich wayward children don't never live very long. They ain't made for this world." And a great sigh escaped from her capacious bosom.

But it was Friend Margot Duberry who caused mother the greatest disquietude. Margot had been quite frequently to "speak in meetin'," and she was therefore looked up to as an oracle and a mother in Israel. She came to our house one afternoon and announced [15] that she had been drawn, in the spirit of meekness and love, to have a season of quiet waiting with father and mother and myself. She failed to notice our dear old Aunt Rachel who was sitting in the chimney corner and seemingly oblivious to her presence—oblivious to everything save the soothing joy that she was inhaling through the long stem of her clay pipe. Father was promptly called in from the field, and the "season" began. It lasted for about an hour, during which time we four sat beside the clean-swept hearth, as silent as the doorjamb and as motionless as the gate-post, waiting for the spirit to make itself manifest. Then Margot, shaking hands with us all, declared that she "felt free," but that a concern still weighed upon her mind to have a private "opportunity" with mother.

Father accordingly withdrew, and Aunt Rachel began nodding over her pipe. I shrank into the farthest corner of the room, curious to see the outcome of the opportunity, and Margot, riveting her steel-gray eyes on me, delivered her message.

"My dear friend," she began, holding mother's hand in her own and speaking very softly as if every word was oiled—"my dear friend, my heart goes out to thee in pity. But I have long been burdened with a concern for thee and thy offspring and am charged with a message which I must deliver. For if I deliver it not, the woe is already pronounced against me." Here her voice rose from mezzo to soprano, and then ascended the scale by leaps and bounds until it resembled the screeching of an unlubricated wagon wheel. "Rumors upon rumors are afloat," she continued, "yea, many and diverse rumors. It is said that this offspring of thine, tender of age though he be, is given to the study of many books, [16] and it is written that much study is a weariness to the flesh. To read the Good Book is well, but to read any other is to fall into the snares of Satan, that Old Feller who goeth about like a roaring lion. And as I look upon thy offspring and take note of the baneful things in his hands, I am moved to cry out, Lo, he is already the prey of the Evil One, he is possessed, he is possessed! The Old Feller has entrapped him; he is possessed. So I exhort thee, Deborah Dudley, to pray without ceasing; for this kind goeth out only by prayer and fasting. And I exhort thy erring offspring to repent, repent, while the offers of mercy hold out. Yea, repent, repent!"

She might have continued her senseless ranting indefinitely, but at this point old Aunt Rachel rose suddenly from her cozy armchair and came to the rescue. Knocking the ashes from her pipe, while her eyes flashed the indignation of her heart, she spoke sharply and with undisguised wrath.

"Margot Duberry, thee is younger than I am, and thee thinks thee is a saint from Heaven, but I tell thee thee's mistaken. I ain't good enough to speak in meetin', but I know that the Old Feller hain't got no possession of our Robby, and he never will have. Just because Robby likes to read, and thy big boy is so dumb that he don't know A from Izzard, thee has come here with all thy drivel about rumors and the Old Feller and repentin' and the like, as if somebody had been doin' somethin' wicked. I tell thee, Margot Duberry, the Old Feller has got thee;  and he's got thee so tight that even prayer and fastin' won't make him let loose! Thee  is the one to repent."

And having thus spoken her mind and effectually closed the mouth of a saintly nuisance, the good woman [17] returned to her favorite corner. She took up her knitting, which had been laid aside for her afternoon nap; she refilled her pipe, dropping a red-hot coal upon the fragrant tobacco; and then in a delectable cloud of smoke, she relapsed into the silence that was far dearer to her than speech.

I had never been taught to say, "I thank thee"; but a strange indefinable feeling welled up within me, tears filled my eyes, and going softly across the room, I stood beside my aunt and laid my hand gently in hers. I knew no other way to express my gratitude.

Nevertheless, that foolish "message" of foolish Margot Duberry made a deeper impression, a sadder wound, than even she could have imagined. I was at the time not more than six years of age, but so strangely did her remarks take hold of me, that for six times six years the word "possessed" had to me a sinister meaning. Whenever it was spoken in my presence it called up visions of Margot Duberry crying, "Repent, repent!" and of the enemy of souls holding a helpless white-haired lad in his clutches and urging him to do a most wicked deed. Sometimes, on dark windy nights, I could plainly hear the Old Feller tramping about on the roof of the cabin, rattling the clapboards and scraping his cloven feet against the chimney. When driving the cows home in the evening twilight I was always on the alert, lest this same evil one should leap suddenly out from behind some thorn bush and claim me for his own. And very often, even after I had outgrown the belief in devils and hobgoblins, my dreams at night were varied by visions of the Old Feller chasing me, catching me, sitting upon me and dragging me bodily to the verge of a smoking pit, while Margot Duberry fluttered above [18] us on the wings of a bat, shouting, "That's right! He's possessed. He's thine! Scorch him!"

Nor did my mother's perplexities end here. To her increased dismay, I early began to manifest other peculiar twists which were as unaccountable as the book-madness and even more to be deplored. Being the only child in the house, and neighbors being remote, the ordinary joys of companionship were almost wholly unknown to me. I therefore loved solitude, and was never so happy as when I was alone. An abnormal shyness, partly hereditary, but largely due to environment, began its restraining influence upon my life. I trembled in the presence of strangers. I shunned all intimacy with persons outside of our little home circle. Friends said that I was bashful, backward, timid; and they rubbed salt into my wounds by lightly apologizing for my weakness. Through lack of similar experiences, they were incapable of comprehending that subtle ailment which clouded my boyhood and was destined to beshrew my later existence. Nevertheless, there came moments of supreme courage when I rose superior to this besetting frailty; and there was never a day when my heart did not hunger for comradeship and the delights of friendly intercourse.

In this dilemma I found consolation no only in books but in a sort of mystic friendship with the wild creatures of the fields and woods. With the latter I grew to be on terms of peculiar intimacy, for in our common shyness there was ground for mutual sympathy. I had the habit, when alone, of talking to these little brothers, and I fancied that they often replied to me in language which I, but no one else, could understand. This habit, of course, soon became known to the rest of our household, [19] and while some ridiculed, others pitied me as a dunce and grieved because of this additional evidence that I was "not right"—perhaps really possessed.

Despite both jeers and fears, however, there was another source of comfort which I prized more highly than the friendship of singing birds or timid small beasts. This was the occasional companionship of one who was all my own, and whose existence no one else suspected. When I was in my loneliest, shyest moods, anxious to escape notice and yet eager for sympathy, an invisible playmate would come suddenly into my presence, bounding joyously from some secret place, putting his arm around me, whispering in my ear, romping with me in the sunlight. And what glorious times we had together! Sometimes, on summer days, we would lie side by side on the grass watching the procession of white clouds floating so silently in the infinite depths above us. Sometimes, in rougher weather, we would sit together on our hearth before the great wood fire, his hand in mine, his cheek against my own, while we watched the curling flames and rare moving pictures of magic in the glowing coals. And oftentimes, when duty or pleasure led me into dark places in the woods where the slightest unusual sound would send the shivers coursing along my spine, this invisible friend would make his presence known by giving courage to my heart and strength to my trembling knees.

There were occasions, also, when my loneliness was relieved by the dreaming of dreams. Then all familiar things took on new aspects, and visions of indescribable beauty unfolded themselves before my eyes. These were frequently so vivid, so thrilling, that I was forced unconsciously to give expression to my feelings, at times [20] shouting joyously, at times bursting into tears. Upon such occasions the hindering things of time and sense were for the moment forgotten, and

"The earth and every common sight,

To me did seem

Appareled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream."

Gladly would I have described my ecstatic experiences, shared my joys with others of our household; but at the slightest mention of them I was ridiculed as a dunce or reproved as a liar. Thus my mouth was closed, and I turned to my invisible playmate for sympathy; for he alone could understand.

One day when I was unusually happy, I began to describe something I had seen, and was checked with the usual reproof.

"Robert, thee mustn't tell fibs," was mother's sharp caution. "It's wicked, very wicked, and thee'll have to be punished for it."

And Cousin Mandy Jane, who stood in place of sister to me, hastened to give emphasis to the remark. "Yes," she added, "the Old Feller will git thee, sure. I reckon he is watchin' round for thee now. He's peepin' in through some crack and listenin' to everything thee says."

Then father, in his stern dignified way, rebuked us every one. "I don't think that we understand Robert very well," he said. "To my mind, his story is quite as likely as Mandy Jane's; but I wish to advise him to be careful of his words, and to speak neither foolishly nor falsely, lest the habit becomes fixed and he falls into disgrace."

[21] I looked up into his strong sun-browned face, and inwardly promised that I would follow his guidance in everything. I resolved that I would keep all my precious experiences to myself; and, as far as I was able, I would speak the plain unvarnished truth at all times.

Nevertheless, to my parents' grief and my own frequent discomfiture, I failed to live up to the latter part of this resolution, and I became known, even among the neighbors, as an inveterate "fibber." I fell into the habit of exaggeration, not because I wished to tell falsehoods, but because the plain truth seemed so plain indeed that I wished to garnish it with some sort of decoration. For example, if I saw three wild geese silently winging their way northward, my imagination straightway pictured a hundred waterfowl following their leader in mid-air and crying, "Honk! honk! honk!" in unison with the flapping of their wings. If Cousin Mandy Jane reported the finding of a single johnny-jump-up by the roadside, it was easy for me to describe the discovery of a hundred wild roses in the meadows. My imagination was forever turning prose into verse, making mountains of mole-hills, and tinting every cloud with rainbow hues. It was in vain that my fibs and hyperboles were exposed and condemned; in vain that I was solemnly warned of the Old Feller's persistent efforts to capture bad boys; in vain that my legs were vigorously tickled with the hickory switch which mother kept always in readiness—the habit of exaggeration grew upon me, and I could no more overcome it than the proverbial Ethiopian can change his skin.

At length, however, there came to our house, for a day, a beautiful old man. His face glowed with goodness and good nature, his voice was as rhythmical and [22] sweet as the song of a wood bird, and his long snow-white hair was significant of the purity that dwelt in his heart. My parents called him William, everybody called him William, and to this day I am uncertain what other name he bore. I understood that he had come from his home in some distant land to bring a message of love and truth to Friends in Injanner, and specially to those who were dwelling in that most central and most favored portion of the earth, the New Settlement. My parents, having unlimited confidence in his wisdom, told him much concerning their griefs and hopes, their disappointments and their trials. He was supposed to speak as the spirit gave him utterance, and therefore his advice was thought to be infallible, and his words were regarded as the words of an oracle.

"William," said mother, "what does thee think we had better do with our son, Robert? We are very much concerned about him."

And then she began telling him of all the twists in my mental composition, of my book-madness, of my queer goings-on when alone, and of my inveterate shyness. Friend William listened patiently, smiled benignly, patted his knee gently with his open palm, but said nothing. After some hesitation, as though fearing to approach the subject, mother went on to describe my wicked habit of telling little lies and of seeing things double—yes, much more than double; and she ended by expressing her fears that perhaps the Old Feller had indeed marked me for his own.

The saintly man remained silent for several minutes, his hands folded, his eyes half closed, as if communing with the Inner Light which I had been told was the possession of every sincere soul. At length, without [23] answering mother's questions, he beckoned to me. I came out of the corner where I had been shrinking, and with an awesome feeling in my heart, went across the room and stood by his side. He laid his big warm palm upon my submissive head, and spoke to me very gravely:

"Robert, I hear that thee loves books and reading. Is this so?"

I nodded my head, for I was too full to speak.

He went on: "I hear that thee has sometimes spoken of seeing things which other people have never seen, and that thee is given to meditation and sometimes talks to thyself when alone. Are these things so?"

I nodded and felt a little braver.

"I hear that thee sometimes says four when a stricter adherence to bare facts would require thee to say one. In other words, it is said of thee that thee enlarges the truth. Does thee acknowledge this?"

Again I nodded, and began to feel as a penitent at the confessional; and Friend William continued:

"The love of reading is a great gift, for books will not only add to thy knowledge but will make thee acquainted with good and noble thoughts. Hold fast to them, Robert. And as to seeing wonders where others see only commonplace things, I lay all that to thy gift of imagination, which may be a blessing or a curse according to thy way of using it. Let me say to thee therefore: Be guided by the Light that is in thee. Love thy mother, love the truth, cultivate thy gifts, and all will be well with thee."

Then, turning to mother, he said, "Deborah, thee asked my advice and I will give it to thee. Don't worry about the boy. Let him see visions and dream dreams [24] and love books; and if he sometimes enlarges the truth, thee may also pass that over as a gift of the imagination. If I remember rightly, I was a good deal the same way when I was his age. And as for Satan, or the Old Feller as thee calls him—well, I don't believe he has any claims worth speaking of on any of us."

He lifted his hand from my head, and at the same moment a great load was lifted from my mother's heart.


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