Sula’s return to Medallion coincides with a “plague of robins.” The birds fly, die, and poop all over the neighborhood though nobody can explain how they came to be there. The people of the Bottom are accustomed to such odd phenomenon. They experienced a similar plague of pigeons before as well as bouts of extreme cold, extreme heat, drought, and flooding. Whenever such phenomena occur, they don’t resist their presence but rather come to accept the oddity.
When Sula returns after attending college in Memphis, she is dressed in very fancy clothing. Townspeople come out of their homes and businesses to see her as she walks towards Eva’s house. A young boy approaches her and asks to help her with her bag, but before she can answer, his mother calls him away. Only a few of the people greet Sula, most of them simply stare.
Sula arrives at Eva’s house where she is greeted by four dead robins on the porch. Kicking them aside, she enters the house and goes up to Eva’s room. Eva greets Sula with the same uncertainty that characterized her reunion with Boyboy many years earlier.
Within a short time the two get into an argument about Sula being unwed. Sula strongly asserts that she does not need a man or any babies, but Eva insists that it is not right for her to be without a man. They also exchange harsh words about Eva’s leg, and the burning of Plum and Hannah. Sula ends the conversation by saying that she does not need Eva and makes a threatening suggestion that she may come into her room one night and light her on fire just as Eva did Plum. Shaken by Sula’s words, Eva begins to lock her door. However, that April, Sula assumes the role of guardian, and has Eva taken away to Beechnut, a nursing home owned by a white church.
Nel is greatly pleased by the return of her friend Sula. She feels rejuvenated when Sula returns. Sula comes to visit Nel and the two reminisce about their girlhood together. Nel’s children are initially startled by the sound of their mother’s laugher but are later pleased to see that she is happy. Nel is startled and confused when she hears that Sula has placed Eva in Beechnut, which is known for its poor facilities and unqualified staff. The two make a plan to transfer Eva’s checks to Sula’s name in order to pay for special provisions during Eva’s stay at Beechnut. As they discuss these plans, Jude returns home from work. He is frustrated by something at work and before Nel can comfort him Sula jumps in and tells him that his life is not as bad as he thinks it is.
Though Jude initially appears annoyed by Sula, he ends up having an affair with her. Nel discovers the two having sex in their bedroom. Nel is hurt by the look Jude gives her when she discovers him with her best friend because it reminds her of the look of contempt her mother received during their trip to New Orleans years earlier. After being found by Nel, Jude packs his things and leaves Nel and the children.
Nel is devastated by the loss of her husband and more devastated that she does not have the comfort of her best friend to ease the pain. She seeks solace in a small, bright place and finds herself crouched beside the toilet in the bathroom. However, even there a grey ball that hovers just out of sight haunts her. Nel begins to sleep with her children, more for her own comfort than for theirs. She laments the uselessness of her thighs and is sadden that no other man will ever lie between them again.
Extreme nature returns as a symbol here as does superstition. Sula’s return is marked by a “plague of robins” in the Bottom. It is revealed that such natural phenomena are not uncommon in the neighborhood and consequently, bring little worry to the people. Because they do not resist the changes, the strange occurrences seem to be welcomed. People are resigned to their presence. This is in part because the things that happen are often considered premonitions or signs of something coming. Eva believes the robins are a signal of Sula’s return, they do not merely appear on the same day that she does but they also herald her presence.
Upon seeing her, Eva remarks, “‘I might have knowed those birds meant something’”. This is not the first time she views an image superstitiously. Like the wedding dress, the robins symbolize that something dramatic is on its way. The book contains other instances of superstition. The wind that blows through begins the series of strange things in 1923 and the four dead robins that Sula sweeps away outside the doorstep may foreshadow her similar removal of Eva from the home.
Though it has been ten years since they last saw each other the friendship remains strong between Nel and Sula. They are happy to see each other again and delight in exchanging memories from their childhood. Nel is a picture of domesticity however with children and a husband. Her children do not even recognize her mother’s laughter and are at first frightened to hear it. This suggests that Nel has sacrificed some happiness in fulfilling her duties as mother and wife yet Sula is able to restore it for a short time.
Jude meets Sula and Nel in the kitchen after returning from work. Before Nel is able to console him about his bad day, Sula begins to talk about how his life is not so bad. He is put off at first by Sula’s strong personality but the antagonism becomes affinity, and the two begin an affair. Jude, Nel’s husband, perceives Sula’s birthmark differently. When Jude sees Sula’s birthmark, he thinks it looks like a copperhead, or a snake. This may be a Biblical reference, alluding to Satan appearing in the form of a snake to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
After the affair, Nel feels betrayed. They symbol of the grey ball appears at this point after Jude leaves. She is unable to confront it or look at it and for a long time she misunderstand it as pain and sorrow related to her husband’s departure. As predicted in an earlier chapter, the friendship is tested by the consequences of sexual transgression.