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 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...
(The entire section is 1,991 words.)