Summary of Part I
The story begins with a dialogue between Three Basket, a sixty-year-old Indian, and another Indian named Louis Berry. They are going to look for the slave of their recently deceased chief, whom they call "the Man," Issetibbeha. They do not expect to find the slave there; they do not approve of slavery, because they say the slaves "are like nothing in this sensible world. Nothing contents them save sweat. They are worse than the white people." They do not like slavery because they are annoyed by the black slaves; however, they recognize their value in terms of trade with white people. The reader also learns in this first conversation that the Indians are cannibalistic.
The two Indians enter the cabin where the slaves are gathered in the dark, and they comment how they can smell the fear in the room. The slaves don't say anything, and the Indians decide that the slave they are looking for must have run away; they are not surprised because they know that "they do not like to die." They decide to go talk to the new Man, Moketubbe. They discuss how Moketubbe used to wear the shoes with the red heels behind Issetibbeha's back, and now that Issetibbeha is dead, he can wear them all the time. They also comment passively on how "Issetibbeha became dead, who was not old, and the shoes are Moketubbe's, since he is the Man now." They regard this suspicious information as unwise to think about.
Summary of Part II
The Indians return to the house, and the narrator describes how it came to be built. One side of it is made of a steamboat that ran ashore. Doom, Issetibbeha's father, moved it to its current location over the span of five months. Now the narrator describes Doom's life: he was born a subchief, but traveled from north Mississippi to New Orleans, where he met the Chevalier Soeur Blonde de Vitry, who became his patron and friend. He met a West Indian girl, who came to live with him in north Mississippi. He had become chief by the time he got there, by killing his uncle and cousin. Doom began to accumulate slaves, but did not know how to occupy them, so they lived in "utter idleness."
When Doom died, Issetibbeha became the Man, and discussed with his "hierarchy of cousins and uncles who ruled the clan" what do do about the slaves. Some suggested eating them, but they decide that since white people find them so valuable, they will continue raising and selling slaves. But they don't know what they will do with the money; this conversation is clearly absurd, and disturbing. They decide to use the slaves to clear the land and plant grain, and build cabins for them to live in.
Issetibbeha sold forty slaves, and with the money travels to Paris. He loans three hundred dollars to the Chevalier Soeur Blonde de Vitry, and returns home a year later with a gilt bed, a pair of girandoles, and a pair of slippers with red heels. He only takes them out sometimes, so his son, Moketubbe, can play with them. Moketubbe's mother was a slave. Issetibbeha used to watch Moketubbe try to force his feet into the shoes and laugh, but stopped laughing when his newest wife reported that a twenty-five-year-old Moketubbe had stolen and hidden them. He sent for his son and told him, "I give them to you," but when Moketubbe reacts without much pleasure, his father asks, "Why will it not be the same if I give the slippers to you?" When Moketubbe doesn't explain, Issetibbeha sighs, "Well, a man cannot live forever," as if he knows his son will kill him. Five years later, he died; the day before the story starts. People are now arriving for the funeral.
Summary of Part III
Three Basket and Louis Berry return to the house, and discuss whether Moketubbe will start wearing the shoes with the red heels right away, and whether he will "lead the hunt" for the slave. They encounter an old man who is complaining about the slaves, and who claims that when Doom died, it took three weeks to find his slave to bury with him.
They pass through the house to a back room where the gilt bed that Issetibbeha brought back from Paris is hanging. Issetibbeha had tried to make his newest wife sleep in it, but she would sneak out and sleep on the floor for the night, then sneak back onto the gilt bed in the morning. Issetibbeha was awake, so he was not fooled, and he "laughed and laughed."
Now, Moketubbe sits motionless with his eyes closed, wearing the slippers with the red heels, being fanned by a stripling. The stripling discusses with the two Indians why the slave ran away; he points out to Three Basket that it is not unreasonable that the slave should not wish to die. The two Indians talk to Moketubbe about how his father, Issetibbeha, searched for the slave of his father, Doom, when Doom died. Moketubbe does not move as the Indians try to convince him that he should lead the hunt for the slave. When the stripling removes the shoes with the red heels from Moketubbe's feet, he begins to pant, and the Indians decide this means that he will lead the hunt.
Summary of Part IV
Issetibbeha's body servant, who is referred to as the Negro, has been hiding in the barn all day. The night before, when he returned to the slave quarters, the slaves reported that Issetibbeha would be dead soon. They said, "Let us let the drums talk." The drums are hidden in the creek bottom, guarded by a fourteen-year-old mute boy. That night, the Negro heard the beating of the drums three miles away and talked to himself, saying:
"So he is not dead yet."
"Who not dead?"
"You are dead."
"Yao, I am dead."
He remembered traveling to America from Africa as a boy, living ninety days in a three-foot-high "'tween-deck in tropic latitudes." He ate a rat, and lay in the barn all night. He observed the behavior of the Indians as they dug a trench for the funeral feast, and as Louis Berry tied Issetibbeha's horse and dog to a tree. Then he began to run in the darkness.
By sunset of the second day, he has run thirty miles, and he sees the Indians in pursuit of him for the first time. He forces himself to rest in a pawpaw thicket, but begins to move quickly again once darkness falls. He comes across the other slaves, who are drumming. The headman approaches him and says, "Eat, and go. The dead may not consort with the living; thou knowest this." The Negro takes some of the cooked meat, and walks steadily until daybreak. Then, he squats in the swamp to go to sleep; when he wakes up, he sees two Indians, but they do not see him.
In the early afternoon, the Negro has returned to the plantation, and looks down at it from his hiding spot in a tree. He can see Issetibbeha's body and all the funeral preparations. He sees the Indians bring out Moketubbe in a litter, and realizes that "that man whose body has been dead for fifteen years, he will go also." In the middle of the afternoon, he meets another Indian on a footlog across a slough. The Indian does nothing, just watches the Negro jump into the slough and escape. Just before sunset, he finds a line of ants on the log he is lying behind. He watches them and eats them. At sunset, a cottonmouth moccasin "slashed him suddenly across the forearm with a thick, sluggish blow." He touches its head and watches as it slashes him again and again, saying, "It's that I do not wish to die."
Summary of Part V
Moketubbe has taken the slippers with him as he is carried through the forest. As they travel, the stripling sometimes puts them on his feet for a while until he looks uncomfortable; then the shoes are removed and he can breathe again.
The food runs out on the plantation, so the guests go home and return with more. At dusk on the sixth day, the couriers approach the litter and report that they have found blood. Three Basket comments that he hopes the Negro is not too badly injured, since injured he will be no use to Issetibbeha in the afterlife. They hurry back to the swamp, but forget that Moketubbe is still wearing the slippers, so he faints.
When it is dark, the litter stops near the swamp, and a courier appears. He reports that he has conversed with the Negro, who asked him to kill him right there so he would not have to see the face of his murderer in the darkness. He had showed the couriers his arm, which was "no larger than that of a child," and smelled; he asked for a hatchet to chop the arm off, but they didn't give him one, and he went back into the swamp. Three Basket tells the Man, and the couriers to return to their posts.
The Negro wakes them with shouting "sometime after midnight," and when they enter the swamp, he is singing. They decide to "let him have time," and wait patiently for him to finish. Then they lead him back to the plantation, saying, "Come. You ran well. Do not be ashamed."
Summary of Part VI
They return to the plantation, and the Negro "looked this way and that continuously, as if he were not seeing, as though sight never quite caught up with the looking." Three Basket asks if he wants to eat first (presumably, before his death), and the Negro says yes. He sits on the edge of the deck of the steamboat-house, but fails to keep any of the food down. Finally, he asks for water, and they go to the well. The Indians give him a gourd full of water from the well, but though his throat is working, he doesn't swallow any water. He tries twice, and "his black throat aped the vain motion of his frustrated swallowing." The story ends with Three Basket saying, "Come," and hanging the gourd back in the well.
The shoes with the red heels represent Moketubbe's lust for power, and tie him to the white race as he imitates Europeans by wearing them. It is absurd, however, since his feet don't fit inside and he faints whenever he wears them for too long. His father, Issetibbeha, brought them back from Paris, and they are entirely out of place in north Mississippi. When Moketubbe was a child, Issetibbeha would watch him "struggle with the slippers with a certain monstrous repudiation of fact." But when Moketubbe steals the shoes, Issetibbeha recognizes this as a threat; they represent the power his son wants to steal from him.
The Indians' attempts to emulate white slaveholders, and Europeans, are ridiculous. They have too many slaves and don't know how to occupy them all; they see them as bothersome and useless. They believe they must chase Issetibbeha's servant in order to bury him with his master, and though they are patient and let him run for a while, they are annoyed that he does not wish to die.
Eyes are indicators of life; their movement parallels that of their owner. The Negro's eyes are described over and over as "ceaseless," and moving "as though they were worked from lungs." They represent the will to live within him; he is most alive at this point when he knows his life is coming to an end. He runs without stopping much while the Indians hunt for him, just as his eyes move ceaselessly. In contrast, Moketubbe, who is described as basically dead already because of his disgusting sloth, keeps his eyes closed.
When the Negro is finally caught and brought back to the plantation, he asks for food and water, but cannot consume them. He tries to swallow, but the food falls out of the corner of his mouth. Though his throat makes swallowing motions when he holds the gourd to his lips, the water spills down the front of his muddy body. This frustrated attempt to eat or drink indicates that the Negro is already dead in a sense; his doom is sealed, and his body no longer needs to help him consume.
The reader does not understand why the Negro lets the cottonmouth moccasin slash his arm again and again, until a later conversation among the Indians. It is revealed that they will only kill the Negro along with Issetibbeha if he will be useful to his master in the afterlife; with a damaged arm, or no arm at all (the Negro wishes to cut off the injured limb), he won't be helpful. Thus, he allows himself to be attacked in the hopes that he will appear useless to the Indians, and thus allowed to continue living.
"Red Leaves" was first published in the Saturday Evening Post on October 25, 1930. The story is said to be heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway's 1932 non-fiction book about bull-fighting, Death in the Afternoon.
In "Faulkner and the Mississippi Indians," Elmo Howell maintains that Faulkner "makes no pretensions to accuracy in his treatment of Indian life." The Chickasaws were not, in fact, cannibalistic, as Faulkner suggests by relating how they discussed the slaves' "bitter" flesh and the possibility of eating it.