Strong Horse Tea

by Alice Walker

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Snooks, Rannie Mae Toomer’s infant son, is dying of double pneumonia and whooping cough. Rannie has no one else in the world, is unmarried, and lives in an unheated, drafty shack somewhere in the South.

Sarah, a neighbor who is expert in country medicine and home remedies, suggests that one of these remedies might help Snooks, but Rannie will have none of it. She has supreme confidence in white medicine and wants a white doctor for her son. She is also certain that the white mail carrier whom she has begged to call for the doctor will send him as soon as possible. Despite the drenching rain and bone-chilling winds that enter the shack, Rannie is sure that the doctor will soon arrive and give Snooks an injection that will make him well again.

Rannie recalls two past meetings with the mail carrier. Once, she had inquired whether the advertising circulars she received meant that someone would come later to deliver the things she needed: sweaters, shoes, rubbing alcohol, a heater for the house, a fur bonnet for Snooks. When he explained to her the meaning of the word “sale,” which was always written on the circulars in red capital letters, Rannie was amazed, for she could never afford to buy any of the items advertised. Her conclusion was that this was simply the way things were; no one could do anything about it.

She met the mail carrier again on the morning Snooks was so ill. She had waited in the winter rain, had no umbrella, and had only leaky plastic shoes. At this second meeting she insisted that he send her a real doctor. The mail carrier first suggested Sarah’s home remedies, but when Rannie remained adamant that a real doctor give Snooks real medicine, he said that he would do what he could and stuffed a new consignment of advertising circulars in Rannie’s hand. Rannie recalls that she had once asked the mail carrier for any extra circulars he had so she could patch the drafty walls of her house with them.

A doctor finally arrives, but it is Sarah, not the white doctor whom Rannie has expected. Sarah is the “doctor” the mail carrier sent. At this point, Rannie realizes that no white doctor will come, and she places all the confidence she can muster in “Aunt” Sarah. Sarah frankly tells Rannie that Snooks is dying but suggests that she has one remedy if Rannie has the stomach to help. Snooks must drink some “strong horse tea,” and Rannie must collect it.

Once again Rannie ventures outside in rain, thunder, and lightning. She waits for nearly an hour in the pouring rain before the gray mare begins to spread its legs, only to realize that she has brought nothing in which to catch the “tea.” Nevertheless, Rannie is determined to save Snooks, so she quickly slips off one of her plastic shoes and runs after the mare. When she realizes the shoe leaks, she places her mouth over the tiny crack so as not to lose any of the precious “medicine.” Even as Rannie slips and slides through the mud to return with the “tea” that Sarah needs, the reader is told that Snooks’s frail breathing has already stopped with the thunder.

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