At the center of Paradise’s Ruby, deep in Oklahoma, is the Oven. Nails have inscribed into its surface the imperative phrase, “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” (P 7). The descendants of fifteen families, who migrated “from Mississippi and two Louisiana parishes” and the failed Restoration, live in obedient, though increasingly tested observance of this command (P 13). They, however, call it by different names. It is a command to some, a motto to others.
The Oven is Ruby’s social and psychic hearth, perhaps even its most sacred space, more sacred than the two churches that face each other on diagonal corners where two short roads cross. Built by a founding father, Zechariah (also Coffee/Kufi), who originally led the “one hundred and fifty-eight freedmen” comprising Ruby’s first generation, the Oven still shows the scarification of his tools. When the elders look at the Oven, they see the homelessness out of which Zechariah led their parents, and they see the mystery of his logic, to which they have no access but which they nonetheless obey. They obey the motto because they ignore the questions that it also poses, namely, what it means, or what is the story behind Zechariah’s choice of phrase. Serene in its force and confident in its opacity, the source of the authority behind the motto/command remains unknown and cannot be accessed.1 Its force has a linguistic form recognizable as a performative. It is a call that comes from somewhere else. And each act by which the inscription is recognized is an enactment of the command “Beware.” It is not, therefore, the content of the commandment but the gesture that summons attention, which succeeds or not. The referent—whose brow—and the rationale—why and what happens if one fails to obey—are unsignified, unknown. And thus, although the Oven