I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.13Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
During Passover week we weren’t allowed to go to the movies (Momma said we all must sacrifice to purify our souls), and Bailey and Joyce decided that the three of us would play house. As usual, I was to be Baby.
He strung the tent and Joyce crawled in first. Bailey told me to sit outside and play with my doll baby, and he went in and the flap closed.
“Well, ain’t you going to open your trousers?” Joyce’s voice was muffled.
“No. You just pull up your dress.”
There were rustling sounds from the tent and the sides pooched out as if they were trying to stand up.
Bailey asked, “What are you doing?”
“Pulling off my drawers.”
“We can’t do it with my drawers on.”
“How are you going to get to it?”
Silence. My poor brother didn’t know what she meant. I knew. I lifted the flap and said, “Joyce, don’t you do that to my brother.” She nearly screamed, but she kept her voice low, “Margaret, you close that door.” Bailey added, “Yes. Close it. You’re supposed to be playing with our doll baby.” I thought he would go to the hospital if he let her do that to him, so I warned him, “Bailey, if you let her do that to you, you’ll be sorry.” But he threatened that if I didn’t close the door he wouldn’t speak to me for a month, so I let the end of the blanket fall and sat down on the grass in front of the tent.
Joyce poked her head out and said in a sugary, white-woman-in-the-movies voice, “Baby, you go get some wood. Daddy and I going to light a fire, then I’m going to make you some cake.” Then her voice changed as if she was going to hit me. “Go. Git.”
Bailey told me after that Joyce had hairs on her thing and that she had gotten them from “doing it” with so many boys. She even had hair under her arms. Both of them. He was very proud of her accomplishments.
As their love affair progressed, his stealing from the Store increased. We had always taken candy and a few nickels and of course the sour pickles, but Bailey, now called upon to feed Joyce’s ravening hunger, took cans of sardines and greasy Polish sausage and cheese and even the expensive cans of pink salmon that our family could seldom afford to eat.
Joyce’s willingness to do odd jobs slackened about this time. She complained that she wasn’t feeling all that well. But since she now had a few coins, she still hung around the Store eating Planter’s peanuts and drinking Dr. Pepper.
Momma ran her off a few times. “Ain’t you said you wasn’t feeling well, Joyce? Hadn’t you better get home and let your aunty do something for you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then reluctantly she was off the porch, her stiff-legged walk carrying her up the hill and out of sight.
I think she was Bailey’s first love outside the family. For him, she was the mother who let him get as close as he dreamed, the sister who wasn’t moody and withdrawing, and teary and tender-hearted. All he had to do was keep the food coming in and she kept the affection flowing out. It made no difference to him that she was almost a woman, or possibly it was just that difference which made her so appealing.
She was around for a few months, and as she had appeared, out of limbo, so she disappeared into nothingness. There was no gossip about her, no clues to her leaving or her whereabouts. I noticed the change in Bailey before I discovered that she was gone. He lost his interest in everything. He mulled around and it would be safe to say “he paled.” Momma noticed and said that he was feeling poorly because of the change in seasons (we were nearing fall), so she went to the woods for certain leaves, made him a tea and forced him to drink it after a heaping spoonful of sulfur and molasses. The fact that he didn’t fight it, didn’t try to talk his way out of taking the medicine, showed without a glimmer of doubt he was very sick.
If I had disliked Joyce while she had Bailey in her grasp, I hated her for leaving. I missed the tolerance she had brought to him (he had nearly given up sarcasm and playing jokes on the country people) and he had taken to telling me his secrets again. But now that she was gone he rivaled me in being uncommunicative. He closed in upon himself like a pond swallowing a stone. There was no evidence that he had ever opened up, and when I mentioned her he responded with “Joyce who?”
Months later, when Momma was waiting on Joyce’s aunt, she said, “Yes ma’am, Mrs. Goodman, life’s just one thing right after the other.”
Mrs. Goodman was leaning on the red Coca-Cola box. “That’s the blessed truth, Sister Henderson.” She sipped the expensive drink.
“Things change so fast, it make your head swim.” That was Momma’s way of opening up a conversation. I stayed mouse-quiet so that I’d be able to hear the gossip and take it to Bailey.
“Now, you take little Joyce. She used to be around the Store all the time. Then she went up just like smoke. We ain’t seed hide nor hair of her in months.”
“No’m. I shamed to tell you … what took her off.” She settled in on a kitchen chair. Momma spied me in the shadows. “Sister, the Lord don’t like little jugs with big ears. You ain’t got something to do, I’ll find something for you.”
The truth had to float to me through the kitchen door.
“I ain’t got much, Sister Henderson, but I give that child all I had.”
Momma said she bound that was true. She wouldn’t say “bet.”
“And after all I did, she run off with one of those railroad porters. She was loose just like her mammy before her. You know how they say ‘blood will tell’?”
Momma asked, “How did the snake catch her?”
“Well, now, understand me, Sister Henderson, I don’t hold this against you, I knows you a God-fearing woman. But it seems like she met him here.”
Momma was flustered. Such goings on at the Store? She asked, “At the Store?”
“Yes, ma’am. ’Member when that bunch of Elks come over for their baseball game?” (Momma must have remembered. I did.) “Well, as it turned out, he was one of them. She left me a teenincy note. Said people in Stamps thought they were better than she was, and that she hadn’t only made one friend, and that was your grandson. Said she was moving to Dallas, Texas, and gone marry that railroad porter.”
Momma said, “Do, Lord.”
Mrs. Goodman said, “You know, Sister Henderson, she wasn’t with me long enough for me to get the real habit of her, but still I miss her. She was sweet when she wanted to be.” Momma consoled her with, “Well, we got to keep our mind on the words of the Book. It say, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’”
Mrs. Goodman chimed in and they finished the phrase together, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I don’t know how long Bailey had known about Joyce, but later in the evening when I tried to bring her name into our conversation, he said, “Joyce? She’s got somebody to do it to her all the time now.” And that was the last time her name was mentioned.
The wind blew over the roof and ruffled the shingles. It whistled sharp under the closed door. The chimney made fearful sounds of protest as it was invaded by the urgent gusts.
A mile away ole Kansas City Kate (the train much admired but too important to stop in Stamps) crashed through the middle of town, blew its wooo-wee warnings, and continued to an unknown glamorous destination without looking back.
There was going to be a storm and it was a perfect night for rereading Jane Eyre. Bailey had finished his chores and was already behind the stove with Mark Twain. It was my turn to close the Store, and my book, half read, lay on the candy counter. Since the weather was going to be bad I was sure Uncle Willie would agree, in fact, encourage, me to close early (save electricity) and join the family in Momma’s bedroom, which functioned as our sitting room. Few people would be out in weather that threatened a tornado (for though the wind blew, the sky was as clear and still as a summer morning). Momma agreed that I might as well close, and I went out on the porch, closed the shutters, slipped the wooden bar over the door and turned off
Pots rattled in the kitchen where Momma was frying corn cakes to go with vegetable soup for supper, and the homey sounds and scents cushioned me as I read of Jane Eyre in the cold English mansion of a colder English gentleman. Uncle Willie was engrossed in the Almanac, his nightly reading, and my brother was far away on a raft on the Mississippi.
I was the first to hear the rattle on the back door. A rattle and knock, a knock and rattle. But suspecting that it might have been the mad wife in the tower, I didn’t credit it. Then Uncle Willie heard it and summoned Bailey back from Huck Finn to unlatch the bolt.
Through the open door the moonshine fell into the room in a cold radiance to rival our meager lamplight. We all waited—I with a dread expectancy—for no human being was there. The wind alone came in, struggling with the weak flame in the coal-oil lamp. Pushing and bunting about the family warmth of our pot-bellied stove. Uncle Willie thought it must have been the storm and told Bailey to close the door. But just before he secured the raw wooden slab a voice drifted through the crack; it wheezed, “Sister Henderson? Brother Willie?”
Bailey nearly closed the door again, but Uncle Willie asked, “Who is it?” and Mr. George Taylor’s pinched brown face swam out of the gray and into view. He assured himself that we hadn’t gone to bed, and was welcomed in. When Momma saw him she invited him to stay for supper and told me to stick some sweet potatoes in the ashes to stretch the evening meal. Poor Brother Taylor had been taking meals all over town, ever since he buried his wife in the summer. Maybe due to the fact that I was in my romanticist period, or because children have a built-in survival apparatus, I feared he was interested in marrying Momma and moving in with us.
Uncle Willie cradled the Almanac in his divided lap. “You welcome here anytime, Brother Taylor, anytime, but this is a bad night. It say right here”—with his crippled hand he rapped the Almanac—“that November twelfth, a storm going to be moving over Stamps out of the east. A rough night.” Mr. Taylor remained exactly in the same position he had taken when he arrived, like a person too cold to readjust his body even to get closer to the fire. His neck was bent and the red light played over the polished skin of his hairless head. But his eyes bound me with a unique attraction. They sat deep in his little face and completely dominated the other features with a roundness which seemed to be outlined in dark pencil, giving him an owlish appearance. And when he sensed my regarding him so steadily his head hardly moved but his eyes swirled and landed on me. If his look had contained contempt or patronage, or any of the vulgar emotions revealed by adults in confrontation with children, I would have easily gone back to my book, but his eyes gave off a watery nothing—a nothingness which was completely unbearable. I saw a glassiness, observed before only in new marbles or a bottle top embedded in a block of ice. His glance moved so swiftly from me it was nearly possible to imagine that I had in fact imagined the interchange.
“But, as I say, you welcome. We can always make a place under this roof.” Uncle Willie didn’t seem to notice that Mr. Taylor was oblivious to everything he said. Momma brought the soup into the room, took the kettle off the heater and placed the steaming pot on the fire. Uncle Willie continued, “Momma, I told Brother Taylor he is welcome here anytime.” Momma said, “That’s right, Brother Taylor. You not supposed to sit around that lonely house feeling sorry for yourself. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
I’m not sure whether it was Momma’s presence or the bubbling soup on the stove which influenced him, but Mr. Taylor appeared to have livened up considerably. He shook his shoulders as if shaking off a tiresome touch, and attempted a smile that failed. “Sister Henderson, I sure appreciate … I mean, I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for everybody … I mean, you don’t know what it’s worth to me to be able to … Well, I mean I’m thankful.” At each pause, he pecked his head over his chest like a turtle coming out of its shell, but his eyes didn’t move.
Momma, always self-conscious at public displays of emotions not traceable to a religious source, told me to come with her and we’d bring the bread and bowls. She carried the food and I trailed after her, bringing the kerosene lamp. The new light set the room in an eerie, harsh perspective. Bailey still sat, doubled over his book, a Black hunchbacked gnome. A finger forerunning his eyes along the page. Uncle Willie and Mr. Taylor were frozen like people in a book on the history of the American Negro.
“Now, come on, Brother Taylor.” Momma was pressing a bowl of soup on him. “You may not be hungry, but take this for nourishment.” Her voice had the tender concern of a healthy person speaking to an invalid, and her plain statement rang thrillingly true: “I’m thankful.” Bailey came out of his absorption and went to wash his hands.
“Willie, say the blessing.” Momma set Bailey’s bowl down and bowed her head. During grace, Bailey stood in the doorway, a figure of obedience, but I knew his mind was on Tom Sawyer and Jim as mine would have been on Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, but for the glittering eyes of wizened old Mr. Taylor.
Our guest dutifully took a few spoonfuls of soup and bit a semicircle in the bread, then put his bowl on the floor. Something in the fire held his attention as we ate noisily.
Noticing his withdrawal, Momma said, “It don’t do for you to take on so, I know you all was together a long time—”
Uncle Willie said, “Forty years.”
“—but it’s been around six months since she’s gone to her rest … and you got to keep faith. He never gives us more than we can bear.” The statement heartened Mr. Taylor. He picked up his bowl again and raked his spoon through the thick soup.
Momma saw that she had made some contact, so she went on, “You had a whole lot of good years. Got to be grateful for them. Only thing is, it’s a pity you all didn’t have some children.”
If my head had been down I would have missed Mr. Taylor’s metamorphosis. It was not a change that came by steps but rather, it seemed to me, of a sudden. His bowl was on the floor with a thud, and his body leaned toward Momma from the hips. However, his face was the most striking feature of all. The brown expanse seemed to darken with life, as if an inner agitation played under his thin skin. The mouth, opened to show the long teeth, was a dark room furnished with a few white chairs.
“Children.” He gum-balled the word around in his empty mouth. “Yes, sir, children.” Bailey (and I), used to be addressed so, looked at him expectantly.
“That’s what she want.” His eyes were vital, and straining to jump from the imprisoning sockets. “That’s what she said. Children.”
The air was weighted and thick. A bigger house had been set on our roof and was imperceptibly pushing us into the ground.
Momma asked, in her nice-folks voice, “What who said, Brother Taylor?” She knew the answer. We all knew the answer.
“Florida.” His little wrinkled hands were making fists, then straightening, then making fists again. “She said it just last night.”
Bailey and I looked at each other and I hunched my chair closer to him. “Said ‘I want some children.’” When he pitched his already high voice to what he considered a feminine level, or at any rate to his wife’s, Miz Florida’s, level, it streaked across the room, zigzagging like lightning.
Uncle Willie had stopped eating and was regarding him with something like pity. “Maybe you was dreaming, Brother Taylor. Could have been a dream.”
Momma came in placatingly. “That’s right. You know, the children was reading me something th’other day. Say folks dream about whatever was on their mind when they went to sleep.”
Mr. Taylor jerked himself up. “It wasn’t not no dream. I was as wide awake as I am this very minute.” He was angry and the tension increased his little mask of strength.
“I’ll tell you what happened.”
Oh, Lord, a ghost story. I hated and dreaded the long winter nights when late customers came to the Store to sit around the heater roasting peanuts and trying to best each other in telling lurid tales of ghosts and hants, ba
Mrs. Florida Taylor’s funeral in June came on the heels of our final exams. Bailey and Louise and I had done very well and were pleased with ourselves and each other. The summer stretched golden in front of us with promises of picnics and fish frys, blackberry hunts and croquet games till dark. It would have taken a personal loss to penetrate my sense of well-being. I had met and loved the Brontë sisters, and had replaced Kipling’s “If” with “Invictus.” My friendship with Louise was solidified over jacks, hopscotch and confessions, deep and dark, exchanged often after many a “Cross your heart you won’t tell?” I never talked about St. Louis to her, and had generally come to believe that the nightmare with its attendant guilt and fear hadn’t really happened to me. It happened to a nasty little girl, years and years before, who had no chain on me at all.
At first the news that Mrs. Taylor was dead did not strike me as a particularly newsy bit of information. As children do, I thought that since she was very old she had only one thing to do, and that was to die. She was a pleasant enough woman, with her steps made mincing by age and her little hands like gentle claws that liked to touch young skin. Each time she came to the Store, I was forced to go up to her, while she raked her yellow nails down my cheeks. “You sure got a pretty complexion.” It was a rare compliment in a world of very few such words of praise, so it balanced being touched by the dry fingers.
“You going to the funeral, Sister.” Momma wasn’t asking a question.
Momma said, “You going ’cause Sister Taylor thought so much of you she left you her yellow brooch.” (She wouldn’t say “gold,” because it wasn’t). “She told Brother Taylor, ‘I want Sis Henderson’s grandbaby to have my gold brooch.’ So you’ll have to go.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes