Sarny does not remember her "birthing mammy" because she was only four years old when the woman was sold away. Like the other slave children on Clel Waller's place, she has been raised by old Delie, whose job it is to take care of all the young ones until they are old enough to work in the fields. Delie, whom the little ones call Mammy, cuts a notch in a stick for each of the girls every year so that they will know when to expect their "troubles" to come and then the breeding. Mammy tells Sarny that her stick has twelve notches, but this information means little to the child, as she does not know her numbers to count.
Sarny was born "all backwards and twixt-and-twinst." She does not say much, so people think she is dumb "and maybe up to witchin'." In truth, the child is just quiet, but she is always listening so that she can "learn things." One day, Sarny is working on the roses in the flower beds underneath the window of the white house, when she hears the "missus" talking to her sister. The "missus" is complaining about Waller, who has just spent over a thousand dollars, a great deal of money, for another slave.
The slaves in the quarters are fed in large troughs. The troughs are filled with buttermilk or cooking juice, and the people dip cornbread and pieces of pork fat into it. The slaves are not supposed to know anything about God, nor are they allowed to pray, but Mammy prays anyway, "late at night when there [isn't] anybody to hear." Mammy prays for freedom, and at first, Sarny does not know what that is either. When she finally figures it out, she starts praying for it too.
The new slave, Nightjohn, is "brought...in bad." He is naked, and his body, which is "all over scars from old whippings," is drenched with sweat and covered with biting flies. Waller has put a shackle with a rope on the new slave's neck and is making him run in front of his horse as he rides, "yelling and swearing...[and] yanking on the rope." Upon arriving at the plantation, Waller unties the rope and, using a whip, drives the man straight to the fields to work, without even allowing him to get a drink of water from the pump.
Out in the fields, the slaves are worked mercilessly. Other than a brief period at noon when they are allowed to wolf down a piece of cold cornbread and pork fat while standing, they toil every minute of the day, under the threat of the whips and clubs of the "drivers." When they come in at night, the field hands are "caved in with work" and, after eating another meager meal, fall asleep "as soon as they hit the corn-shuck pallets on the floor." Nightjohn, however, is different. As Sarny lies, still awake, in a pile of sleeping children, she hears him whisper, "I need some tobacco...I'll trade something for a lip of tobacco."
Sarny idly wonders what the man might have to trade. As if he can read her mind, he continues, "I know letters. I'll trade A, B, and C for a lip of chew." Sarny has a bit of shredded bottom leaf which she has been using to spit on the roses. Curiously, she looks through the darkness over to where Nightjohn is sitting. Although she does not know exactly what letters are for, she thinks they might be something she would like to learn.
Sarny knows what reading is because she has seen the people in the white house doing it, but slaves "[are]n't allowed to understand or read nothing." Once, Sarny had seen some "funny lines" on the...
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side of a feed sack and had attempted to copy them in the dirt with a stick. Mammy had smacked her hard on the head for that, describing dire consequences if she should ever get caught having anything to do with writing or reading. The child's desire to learn, however, cannot be quenched. Heedless to Mammy's warnings, Sarny goes to Nightjohn to see what kind of knowledge he can give her.
That first night, Nightjohn teaches Sarny the letter A, and the sounds that go with it. It is so simple that Sarny is mystified as to why the white people will cut off the slaves' thumbs if they learn to read. Nightjohn explains:
'Cause...for us to know things, is bad for them. We get to wanting and when we get to wanting it's bad for them. They thinks we want what they got.
During this time, a very terrible thing has been happening on the plantation. Alice, a young slave girl with an "addled" mind, had been forced to become a breeder and had resisted so violently that "they [had] tied her to make it happen." The experience had caused her to be even worse than before. She had begun to spend her days wandering incoherently and had been caught up at the white house, where no slaves were ever allowed. The master had whipped her, and when her back "was all ripped and bleeding," he had rubbed salt in her wounds "to make more pain." Mammy has been trying to nurse Alice back to health, but the poor girl is "broken [now]...broken inside."
On the third night after Nightjohn teaches Sarny the letter A, Alice runs away. The master sets his dogs after her, and she does not fight them. The dogs tear away the whole front of her, but the young woman does not die. When Mammy tries to sew her back up as best she can, she does not make a sound, but just lies unmoving, staring sightlessly at the wall. As Alice lingers somewhere between life and death at the other end of the quarters, Nightjohn teaches Sarny the letter B. Mammy catches him. Slamming him against the wall, she demands, "Don't you know what they do to her if they find her trying to read?"
Mammy asks Nightjohn why his back is so completely knitted with the scars of the whip, and the man tells her it is because he ran. The first time he did it, he had managed to get all the way to freedom, but he had returned so that he could teach his fellow slaves to read. Nightjohn's intent had been to keep moving, "teaching a little here, a little there...[at] hidey-schools." Sadly, he had "got[ten] slow" one time and had been caught by some "crackers" hunting bear. The marks on his back are the result of the punishment they had exacted.
Tiredly, Mammy asks what difference it makes if the "young ones" learn to read. She says it will only bring them grief to "find what they don't have, can't have." Nightjohn replies that it is important for all slaves to learn to read and write so that they can record for posterity the injustice and atrocities that are being done to them. Mammy leaves the man alone then, and he goes on to teach Sarny C, D, E, F, and G.
It is not long before Sarny is able to spell her first word, BAG. She is so excited by what she has learned that she unthinkingly draws the word out in the dirt one day and is caught by Waller. Picking her up and shaking her violently, the "master" demands to know what she is doing. Although the child insists that she is only reproducing something she saw on an old feed sack, Waller does not believe her. Throwing her to the ground, he begins to bludgeon her with his feet. Sarny rolls away from him and runs to Mammy, who is tending to Alice in the quarters. Waller follows her and turns his ire on the older woman, asking her repeatedly, "Who is teaching [Sarny] to read?" Mammy claims she does not know, but Waller is unrelenting. He drags Mammy to the spring house and shackles her to the wall. Leaving her hanging there, he goes into the white house.
Wailing, Sarny runs to Mammy. She knows that the woman is going to be whipped and that it is all her fault. Mammy, however, stoically says that she would have gotten whipped eventually anyway. She directs the distraught child to bring her some water and to take care of the little ones. When the field slaves come in, Waller returns and makes them watch Mammy's humiliation. He rips the clothes from her body and hitches her to a buggy, forcing him to pull him as he wields the whip mercilessly. Nightjohn steps forward then and tells Waller that Mammy does not know anything about the reading, and asserts, "It was all me."
With an evil smile, the "master" gets out of the buggy and orders a field hand to fetch some tools from the blacksmith. He declares to the gathered slaves that it is wrong for them to learn to read, and that the punishment, as decreed by the law, is "removal of an extremity." Forcing other hands to hold Nightjohn's feet down on a stump, he cruelly chops off the middle toe from each with a chisel and hammer. When Waller finally leaves, the field hands carry Nightjohn to the quarters, and Sarny rushes over to tend to Mammy. Sarny hopes that if there is a hell, it is "the worst hell there is to be...and put Waller in it."
Mammy is back up comparatively quickly, but Nightjohn is down for longer. Despite what has happened, he continues to teach Sarny. After three nights, he is gone. Despite his condition, he manages to get "clean away." Waller is livid, but the slaves are quietly jubilant. Sarny continues to practice her letters surreptitiously, making them into words in her head.
In the fall, Sarny's "troubles" begin. She is terrified that soon she too will be sent to the breeding shed. As she sits one night in a corner of the quarters, wishing that she could return to the time where she did not yet have the "troubles," she hears a sound in the darkness and knows that Nightjohn has returned.
Nightjohn takes Sarny across the fields, into some "brushy ditches" along the river, where she finds a space lit by three crude pitch torches—a "pit school." Gathered there are slaves who have come to meet Nightjohn and to learn to read.
Nightjohn shows his incredulous students a book: it is a catalog, filled with all the things the slaves can never have. Under a picture of a horse, Sarny is excited to see a combination of letters that she recognizes. The word they form is BAG. Sarny is now able to read. After everyone has had a look, Nightjohn, with Sarny's help, teaches the letters to those who do not yet know them. Though they all must return to their quarters by daybreak, the slaves are confident that Nightjohn will come again, walking in the darkness, and that soon, they will all have "the way to know."