Disturbed by Paul D’s information about Halle and missing the soothing presence that Baby Suggs once provided, Sethe seeks comfort in a place called the Clearing. She takes Denver and Beloved with her. Before Baby Suggs fell into a depression, for which Sethe blames herself, the older woman used to preach to the black community of Cincinnati in the Clearing. She would begin by having the people participate in a cathartic mixture of crying, laughter, and dance, and she would then preach self-love. She would instruct them to love their hands that had been bound, their mouths that had been silenced, and, most of all, their hearts.
Sethe recalls the day she arrived at 124 and met Baby Suggs for the first time. After Denver’s birth and Amy Denver’s departure, she came across a black man fishing with two boys. The man, Stamp Paid, wrapped Denver in a jacket and poled Sethe across the Ohio. On shore, he left a signal for Ella, another organizer of the Underground Railroad, which alerted her to the presence of a “passenger” who needed help. When Ella arrived, Sethe explained that she was heading to Baby Suggs’s house on Bluestone Road. Ella, noting Sethe’s attachment to Denver, voiced her opinion that one shouldn’t love anything too much.
When Sethe got to 124, Baby Suggs welcomed and bathed her before allowing her to see her two boys and her “crawling already? girl.” To amuse her daughter, Sethe jingled the earrings that Mrs. Garner had given her. During the twenty-eight days she spent in Cincinnati before her daughter’s death, Sethe enjoyed being a part of the community. In the Clearing, she had felt for the first time as though she owned herself.
As she sits on Baby Suggs’s old rock in the Clearing, Sethe calls silently for the calming fingers of her deceased mother-in-law. She begins to feel Baby Suggs massaging her neck, but the touch turns suddenly violent and Sethe realizes she is being strangled. Denver reacts with alarm, and Beloved caresses and kisses the bruises on Sethe’s neck. Beloved’s breath smells like milk to Sethe, and her touch feels like that of the baby’s ghost. Alarmed, Sethe pushes Beloved away, saying, “You too old for that.” Later, Denver accuses Beloved of strangling Sethe. Beloved runs away in anger, insisting that Sethe was being choked by the “circle of iron,” not by her.
We learn that as a seven-year-old Denver attended school lessons with other black children at the home of a woman they called Lady Jones. Denver had been studying there for a year when her classmate Nelson Lord upset her by asking, “Didn’t your mother get locked away for murder?” Denver repeated the question to her mother, but she went “deaf” before she could hear an answer. This deafness was cured by the sound of the baby ghost climbing the stairs. It was the first time the ghost had appeared. But after this first innocuous manifestation, the ghost proceeded to become spiteful, angry, and deliberately abusive. Thinking back to these acts of rage, Denver wonders what havoc Beloved might now wreak on Sethe. Yet she believes she has no power to stop her, especially since she so often feels captivated by the girl. When she goes to Beloved to seek forgiveness for fighting with her, she sees Beloved watching two turtles mate.
Paul D was sent to prison in Alfred, Georgia, because he tried to kill Brandywine, the man to whom schoolteacher sold him. The prison had forty-six inmates, all of them black men. They were locked in small boxes in the ground at night and were subject to sexual abuse and chain gang work during the day. During this time Paul D began to tremble chronically, and his trembling only subsided when he was actively working and singing in the chain gang. Once, during a long rainstorm, the ground turned to mud, which allowed the prisoners to work together and escape. Linked together with one chain, they walked to a camp of ailing Cherokees, who broke their chains. They directed Paul D northward by telling him that he should follow the blooms of the flowers as the warm spring temperatures spread from south to north. In Delaware he met a weaver woman with whom he proceeded to live for eighteen months. As time went on, he locked all his painful memories of the prison and Sweet Home into “the tobacco tin lodged in his chest.”