from The Color Purple

by Alice Walker


"When you ask me about peace, Suwelo," said Miss Lissie, "if I've ever in all my lifetimes experienced peace, I am nearly perplexed. Could it be possible that after hundreds of lifetimes I have not known peace? That seems to be the fact. In lifetime after lifetime I have known oppression: from parents, siblings, relatives, governments, countries, continents. As well as from my own body and mind. Some part of every life has been spent binding up my wounds from these forces. In the memory, I would have to say, there are only moments ~at most, days~ of peace, except for the times I have been shaman or priest and have lived, for months on end, in a kind of trance. But as you

probably know, these blessed periods are a vacation,

[Image] in a sense, from life, and one screaming infant or

barking dog can force one home again.

[Image] "In the dream world of my memory, however, there

is something. I do not remember this exactly, as I

[Image] remember the other things of which I have told you.

But the memory, like the mind, has the capacity to

[Image] dream, and just as the memory exists at a deeper

[Image] level of consciousness than thinking, so the dream

world of the memory is at a deeper level still. I

[Image] will tell you of the dream on which my memory, as


[Image] well as my mind, rests. When I think of it I realize

there was at least a peaceful foundation.

[Image] "In the dream memory we are very small people,

all of us, not just the children, who are really

small, and the children live with the mothers and the

aunts; our fathers and uncles are nearby, and we

visit and are visited by them, but we live with the

women. We are in a forest that, for all we know,

covers the whole earth. There is no concept of

finiteness, in any sense. The trees then were like

cathedrals, and each one was an apartment building at

night. During the day we played under the trees as

urban children today play on the streets. Our aunts

and mothers foraged for food, sometimes taking us

with them and sometimes leaving us in the care of the

big trees. When you knew every branch, every hollow,

and every crevice of a tree there was nothing safer;

you could quickly hide from whatever might be

pursuing you. Besides, we shared the tree with other

creatures, who, in raucous or stealthy fashionÑthere

was a python, for instanceÑlooked out for us. Well,

our aunts and mothers were often tired after a day

gathering foodÑroots and fruits, mostlyÑand

occasionally cross. Those were the times they could

not stand us children, and so we were sent to our

cousins' trees. Our cousins, like our fathers and

aunts, lived in different trees from ours, and it was

fun to visit them.

"Our cousins were bigÑas big as we were

smallÑand black and hairy, with big teeth, flat black

faces, and piercingly intelligent and gentle eyes.

They seemed strange to us because they lived together

as a family; that is, the fathers and uncles lived

with the mothers and aunts, and all of them played

with and looked after the children. They loved us,

too, and would chatter with joy when we crept up on

them. We crept because they were so serene, their

trees so quiet that loud noises startled and

frightened them. We were, by comparison, regular din

makers. The only analogy I think of in this lifetime

would be the experience, as small children, of being

sent south to your grandparents' for the summer.

Grandpa and Grandma might be old and decrepit, quiet,

mellow, and unused to noise. They know a visit from

the 'grands' might do them in for a while, but they

let you know every day they're thrilled you are

there. Same with our cousins. And I loved the little

baby cousins, with their hairless pale faces, who

were always clinging to somebody's back. It was a

lovely feeling to hold a little cousin under one's

chin, and how the parents delighted at this means of

holding it! We had no hair on our bodies, you see,

for the little fingers to clutch. It was from these

cousins that I learned to love babies and to want to

grow up and give birth.

"There was such safety around their trees. The

fathers and uncles were gigantic and mean-looking

when provoked, with a roar that hurt your ears. The

mothers and aunts could bare their teeth viciously.

They could bite through the fiercest neck. I used to

practice baring my teeth and biting the way they did.

My imitation tickled them very much. But they were

menacing only when someone or something came into

their domain uninvited. WeÑour mothers and aunts,

fathers and uncles, tooÑwere always welcome, and

almost always, if there was anything to fear, we

gathered at our cousins' trees. They had long sharp

nails on their hands and feet, strong arms, and hard

teeth, and they ripped rather large animals apart

with one swipe. They protected us, and seemed to have

great fun doing it. After they destroyed an attacker

they chattered gaily and slapped each other on the


"They liked to feed us children, too. They did

everything as if it were a game. I liked to go on the

hunt with them because, unlike our fathers and

mothers, who ate meat and therefore killed small game

all the time, the cousins ate only plants. They would

hide roots they'd already dug, just for us, who were

clumsy and had hopelessly weak hands, to find.

"My mother, whose name was Guta Ru, was often

angry with me; consequently, I spent a lot of time

with the cousins. The days were long and full, with

food gathering and grooming taking up a good part of

each day. But what adventures there were during the

hunt for food; what fascinating other relatives,

besides the cousins, one saw, and grooming was the

most satisfyingly sensual experience I've ever had,

in the dream memory or not. Because I lacked body

hairÑwhich I regretted no end!ÑI had a very short

groom period, compared to theirs, which could last

most of the day. The big cool teeth clicking over my

steamy little body felt wonderful. The rough-tongued

licking for lice, too. At least I had hair on my

head, a ton of it. They could work on that for an

hour or two, and I was beneath their teeth and

tongues, perfectly content.

"They were always trying to dress me. Leaves,

skins from dead animals, moss, tree bark. It was

funny. But it was from their experiments that I

learned to dress and to want to be dressed; I learned

to fasten a couple of pieces of leopard or panther

skin fore and aft, and this pleased them, though I

could tell they thought of my costume as a sort of

prosthetic device. They seemed nearly unable to

comprehend separateness; they lived and breathed as a

family, then as a clan, then as a forest, and so on.

If I hurt myself and cried, they cried with me, as if

my pain was magically transposed to their bodies.

"When I reached an age to mate, I did so with

one of my playmates, a boy I had known and loved all

my life. After we mated and I became pregnant, he was

expected, by custom, to move back with the men. This

he refused to do. And I refused with him. We wanted

very much to be together all the time with our

babies, as we had seen happen in our cousins' trees.

Well, you know adults. They haven't changed in a

million years; they weren't going to have this. The

women complained that he would only be in the way and

possibly throw off our common monthly menstrual

cycle; the men insisted they needed him for

ceremonies and hunts. They punished us by isolating

us from each other. We stood it as long as we could.

But when the baby was born, we ran away to stay with

the cousins, who in most things took a decidedly more

progressive attitude than our parents. We were happy

with them. They thought it natural that we would want

to live together. They made a special bed out of moss

for us to sleep on.

"I realize that in our smallness we were like

perpetual children to them and that our babies were

like the tiniest dolls. We were so small that one of

their babies was too heavy for us to carry by the

time it was a week old. Meanwhile, the cousins could

easily carry me and my mate in one arm or with us

clinging to a hairy back.

"There was no violence in themÑthat is to say,

they did not initiate it, everÑonly thoughtfulness. I

used to look at them and wonder how we, so little, so

naked, so easily contentious, had splintered off.

"In the dream memory there are suddenly days and

nights of terror, and the faces of fathers and uncles

who looked like us but were much bigger. They carried

sticks with sharp points on them, and they hurled

these at our cousins, striking them in the chest. To

our horror, they took our cousins' skins and

sometimes cooked and ate our cousins bodies. Us, so

little, they brushed off as if we were flies, and we

dashed to the tops of the trees screaming and crying.

"Over time and after many attacks, our cousins

and we ourselvesÑthe little people, as we now

recognized ourselvesÑwere driven into the most remote

reaches of the forest. We learned to make the sharp

pointed stick and to poison its tip as well. We

learned to make blowguns and slingshots. The trust

that had been between us now disappeared. We were

perceived as helpless and cute no longer, and, for

our part, there were those among us who gloried in at

last having the means to make our giant cousins fear.

"But my mate and I never forgot what we learned

from the cousins. We brought up our children to be as

much like them as possible; and we stayed together

until death, just as the cousins did. It was this way

of living that gradually took hold in all the groups

of people living in the forest, at least for a very

long time, until the idea of ownershipÑwhich grew out

of the way the forest now began to be viewed as

something cut into pieces that belonged to this tribe

or thatÑcame into human arrangements. Then it was

that men, because they were stronger, at least during

those periods when women were weak from childbearing,

began to think of owning women and children. This

very thing had happened before, and our own parents

had forgotten it, but their system of separating men

and women was a consequence of an earlier period when

women and men had tried to live togetherÑand it is

interesting to see today that mothers and fathers are

returning to the old way of only visiting each other

and not wanting to live together. This is the pattern

of freedom until man no longer wishes to dominate

women and children or always have to prove his

control. When man saw he could own one woman and her

children, he became greedy and wanted as many as he

could get. There is a popular African singer today

who has twenty-seven. Idi Amin had so many that the

ones he is rumored to have killed aren't even missed.

"My life with the cousins is the only dream

memory of peace that I have. In one of the worst

lifetimes, many lifetimes later, I was, by some

accident, permitted to marry another man I myself

actually picked and loved, and there was peace for a

time, a beautiful 'rightness' about the world, but

because I was apparently born without a hymen and

therefore there were no bloodstains to show the

villagers after our wedding nightÑduring which I had

responded to him passionately, or, as he later

claimed, shamelesslyÑhe denounced me to the village

and my parents turned me out. After that I was the

lowest sort of prostitute for the men of the village,

including the husband I'd loved, until I died of

infection and exposure at the age of eighteen.