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I know why the caged bir.., p.14
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       I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.14

         Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
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  I had followed a few coffins up the hill from the church to the cemetery, but because Momma said I was tenderhearted I had never been forced to sit through a funeral service. At eleven years old, death is more unreal than frightening. It seemed a waste of a good afternoon to sit in church for a silly old brooch, which was not only not gold but was too old for me to wear. But if Momma said I had to go it was certain that I would be there.

  The mourners on the front benches sat in a blue-serge, black-crepe-dress gloom. A funeral hymn made its way around the church tediously but successfully. It eased into the heart of every gay thought, into the care of each happy memory. Shattering the light and hopeful: “On the other side of Jordan, there is a peace for the weary, there is a peace for me.” The inevitable destination of all living things seemed but a short step away. I had never considered before that dying, death, dead, passed away, were words and phrases that might be even faintly connected with me.

  But on that onerous day, oppressed beyond relief, my own mortality was borne in upon me on sluggish tides of doom.

  No sooner had the mournful song run its course than the minister took to the altar and delivered a sermon that in my state gave little comfort. Its subject was, “Thou art my good and faithful servant with whom I am well pleased.” His voice enweaved itself through the somber vapors left by the dirge. In a monotonous tone he warned the listeners that “this day might be your last,” and the best insurance against dying a sinner was to “make yourself right with God” so that on the fateful day He would say, “Thou art my good and faithful servant with whom I am well pleased.”

  After he had put the fear of the cold grave under our skins, he began to speak of Mrs. Taylor, “A godly woman, who gave to the poor, visited the sick, tithed to the church and in general lived a life of goodliness.” At this point he began to talk directly to the coffin, which I had noticed upon my arrival and had studiously avoided thereafter.

  “I hungered and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was sick and you visited me. In prison, and you left me not. Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of one of these, you have done it unto Me.” He bounded off the dais and approached the velvet gray box. With an imperious gesture, he snatched the gray cloth off the open flap and gazed downward into the mystery.

  “Sleep on, thy graceful soul, till Christ calls you to come forth into His bright heaven.”

  He continued speaking directly to the dead woman, and I half wished she would rise up and answer him, offended by the coarseness of his approach. A scream burst from Mr. Taylor. He stood up suddenly and lengthened his arms toward the minister, the coffin and his wife’s corpse. For a long minute he hovered, his back to the church as the instructive words kept falling around the room, rich with promise, full with warnings. Momma and other ladies caught him in time to bring him back to the bench, where he quickly folded upon himself like a Br’er Rabbit rag doll.

  Mr. Taylor and the high church officials were the first to file around the bier to wave farewell to the departed and get a glimpse of what lay in store for all men. Then on heavy feet, made more ponderous by the guilt of the living viewing the dead, the adult church marched up to the coffin and back to their seats. Their faces, which showed apprehension before reaching the coffin, revealed, on the way down the opposite aisle, a final confirmation of their fears. Watching them was a little like peeping through a window when the shade is not drawn flush. Although I didn’t try, it was impossible not to record their roles in the drama.

  And then a black-dressed usher stuck her hand out woodenly toward the children’s rows. There was the shifty rustling of unreadiness but finally a boy of fourteen led us off and I dared not hang back, as much as I hated the idea of seeing Mrs. Taylor. Up the aisle, the moans and screams merged with the sickening smell of woolen black clothes worn in summer weather and green leaves wilting over yellow flowers. I couldn’t distinguish whether I was smelling the clutching sound of misery or hearing the cloying odor of death.

  It would have been easier to see her through the gauze, but instead I looked down on the stark face that seemed suddenly so empty and evil. It knew secrets that I never wanted to share. The cheeks had fallen back to the ears and a solicitous mortician had put lipstick on the black mouth. The scent of decay was sweet and clasping. It groped for life with a hunger both greedy and hateful. But it was hypnotic. I wanted to be off but my shoes had glued themselves to the floor and I had to hold on to the sides of the coffin to remain standing. The unexpected halt in the moving line caused the children to press upon each other, and whispers of no small intent reached my ears.

  “Move along, Sister, move along.” It was Momma. Her voice tugged at my will and someone pushed from the rear, so I was freed.

  Instantly I surrendered myself to the grimness of death. The change it had been able to effect in Mrs. Taylor showed that its strength could not be resisted. Her high-pitched voice, which parted the air in the Store, was forever stilled, and the plump brown face had been deflated and patted flat like a cow’s ordurous dropping.

  The coffin was carried on a horse-drawn wagon to the cemetery, and all the way I communed with death’s angels, questioning their choice of time, place and person.

  For the first time the burial ceremony had meaning for me.

  “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” It was certain that Mrs. Taylor was returning to the earth from whence she came. In fact, upon considering, I concluded that she had looked like a mud baby, lying on the white satin of her velvet coffin. A mud baby, molded into form by creative children on a rainy day, soon to run back into the loose earth.

  The memory of the grim ceremony had been so real to me that I was surprised to look up and see Momma and Uncle Willie eating by the stove. They were neither anxious nor hesitant, as if they knew a man has to say what he has to say. But I didn’t want to hear any of it, and the wind, allying itself with me, threatened the chinaberry tree outside the back door.

  “Last night, after I said my prayers, I lay down on the bed. Well, you know it’s the same bed she died on.” Oh, if he’d shut up. Momma said, “Sister, sit down and eat your soup. Cold night like this you need something hot in your stomach. Go on, Brother Taylor. Please.” I sat down as near Bailey as possible.

  “Well, something told me to open my eyes.”

  “What kind of something?” Momma asked, not laying down her spoon.

  “Yes, sir,” Uncle Willie explained, “there can be a good something and there can be a bad something.”

  “Well, I wasn’t sure, so I figured better open ’em, ’cause it could have been, well, either one. I did, and the first thing, I saw little baby angel. It was just as fat as a butter-ball, and laughing, eyes blue, blue, blue.”

  Uncle Willie asked, “A baby angel?”

  “Yes, sir, and it was laughing right in my face. Then I heard this long moan, ‘Agh-h-h-’ Well, as you say, Sister Henderson, we been together over forty years. I know Florida’s voice. I wasn’t scared right then. I called ‘Florida?’ Then that angel laughed harder and the moan got louder.”

  I set my bowl down and got closer to Bailey. Mrs. Taylor had been a very pleasant woman, smiling all the time and patient. The only thing that jarred and bothered me when she came in the Store was her voice. Like near-deaf people, she screamed, half not hearing what she was saying and partly hoping her listeners would reply in kind. That was when she was living. The thought of that voice coming out of the grave and all the way down the hill from the cemetery and hanging over my head was enough to straighten my hair.

  “Yes, sir.” He was looking at the stove and the red glow fell on his face. It seemed as if he had a fire going inside his head. “First I called, ‘Florida, Florida. What do you want?’ And that devilish angel kept on laughing to beat the band.” Mr. Taylor tried to laugh and only succeeded in looking frightened. “‘I want some …’ That’s when she said ‘I want some.’” He made his voice sound like the wind, if the wind had bronchial pneumoni
a. He wheezed, “‘I want some ch-il-dren.’”

  Bailey and I met halfway on the drafty floor.

  Momma said, “Now, Brother Taylor, could be you was dreaming. You know, they say whatever you goes to bed with on your mind …”

  “No, ma’am, Sister Henderson, I was as wide awake as I am right now.”

  “Did she let you see her?” Uncle Willie had a dreamy look on his face.

  “No, Willie, all I seed was that fat little white baby angel. But wasn’t no mistaking that voice … ‘I want some children.’”

  The cold wind had frozen my feet and my spine, and Mr. Taylor’s impersonation had chilled my blood.

  Momma said, “Sister, go bring the long fork to take the potatoes out.”

  “Ma’am?” Surely she didn’t mean the long fork that hung on the wall behind the kitchen stove—a scary million miles away.

  “I said, go get the fork. The potatoes are burning.”

  I unwound my legs from the gripping fear and almost tripped onto the stove. Momma said, “That child would stumble over the pattern in a rug. Go on, Brother Taylor, did she say any more?”

  I didn’t want to hear it if she did, but I wasn’t eager to leave the lighted room where my family sat around the friendly fire.

  “Well, she said ‘Aaah’ a few more times and then that angel started to walk off the ceiling. I tell you I was purt’ near scared stiff.”

  I had reached the no man’s ocean of darkness. No great decision was called for. I knew it would be torturous to go through the thick blackness of Uncle Willie’s bedroom, but it would be easier than staying around to hear the ghoulish story. Also, I couldn’t afford to aggravate Momma. When she was displeased she made me sleep on the edge of the bed and that night I knew I needed to be close to her.

  One foot into the darkness and the sense of detachment from reality nearly made me panic. The idea came to me that I might never get out into the light again. Quickly I found the door leading back to the familiar, but as I opened it the awful story reached out and tried to grab my ears. I closed the door.

  Naturally, I believed in hants and ghosts and “thangs.” Having been raised by a super-religious Southern Negro grandmother, it would have been abnormal had I not been superstitious.

  The trip to the kitchen and back could not have taken more than two minutes, yet in that time I tramped through swampy cemeteries, climbed over dusty gravestones and eluded litters of night-black cats.

  Back in the family circle, I remarked to myself how like a cyclopean eye was the belly of the red-hot stove.

  “It reminded me of the time when my daddy died. You know we’re very close.” Mr. Taylor had hypnotized himself into the eerie world of horrors.

  I broke into his reminiscences. “Momma, here’s the fork.” Bailey had lain down on his side behind the stove and his eyes were shining. He was more fascinated with Mr. Taylor’s morbid interest in his story than with the tale itself.

  Momma put her hand on my arm and said, “You shaking, Sister. What’s the matter?” My skin still rippled from the experience of fear.

  Uncle Willie laughed and said, “Maybe she was scared to go in the kitchen.”

  His high little laugh didn’t fool me. Everyone was uneasy at being beckoned into the unknown.

  “No sir, I ain’t never seen nothing so clear as that little angel baby.” His jaws were scissoring mechanically on the already mushy sweet potatoes. “Just laughing, like a house on fire. What you reckon it mean, Sister Henderson?”

  Momma had reared back in her rocking chair, a half smile on her face, “If you sure you wasn’t dreaming, Brother Taylor …”

  “I was as wide awake as I am”—he was becoming angry again—“as I am right now.”

  “Well, then, maybe it means—”

  “I ought to know when I’m asleep and when I’m awake.”

  “—maybe it mean Sister Florida wants you to work with the children in the church.”

  “One thing I always used to tell Florida, people won’t let you get your words in edgewise—”

  “Could be she’s trying to tell you—”

  “I ain’t crazy, you know. My mind’s just as good as it was.”

  “—to take a Sunday school class—”

  “Thirty years ago. If I say I was awake when I saw that little fat angel, then people ought to—”

  “Sunday school need more teachers. Lord knows that’s so.”

  “—believe me when I say so.”

  Their remarks and responses were like a Ping-Pong game with each volley clearing the net and flying back to the opposition. The sense of what they were saying became lost, and only the exercise remained. The exchange was conducted with the certainty of a measured hoedown and had the jerkiness of Monday’s wash snapping in the wind—now cracking east, then west, with only the intent to whip the dampness out of the cloth.

  Within a few minutes the intoxication of doom had fled, as if it had never been, and Momma was encouraging Mr. Taylor to take in one of the Jenkins boys to help him with his farm. Uncle Willie was nodding at the fire, and Bailey had escaped back to the calm adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The change in the room was remarkable. Shadows which had lengthened and darkened over the bed in the corner had disappeared or revealed themselves as dark images of familiar chairs and such. The light which dashed on the ceiling steadied, and imitated rabbits rather than lions, and donkeys instead of ghouls.

  I laid a pallet for Mr. Taylor in Uncle Willie’s room and crawled under Momma, who I knew for the first time was so good and righteous she could command the fretful spirits, as Jesus had commanded the sea. “Peace, be still.”

  23

  The children in Stamps trembled visibly with anticipation. Some adults were excited too, but to be certain the whole young population had come down with graduation epidemic. Large classes were graduating from both the grammar school and the high school. Even those who were years removed from their own day of glorious release were anxious to help with preparations as a kind of dry run. The junior students who were moving into the vacating classes’ chairs were tradition-bound to show their talents for leadership and management. They strutted through the school and around the campus exerting pressure on the lower grades. Their authority was so new that occasionally if they pressed a little too hard it had to be overlooked. After all, next term was coming, and it never hurt a sixth grader to have a play sister in the eighth grade, or a tenth-year student to be able to call a twelfth grader Bubba. So all was endured in a spirit of shared understanding. But the graduating classes themselves were the nobility. Like travelers with exotic destinations on their minds, the graduates were remarkably forgetful. They came to school without their books, or tablets or even pencils. Volunteers fell over themselves to secure replacements for the missing equipment. When accepted, the willing workers might or might not be thanked, and it was of no importance to the pregraduation rites. Even teachers were respectful of the now quiet and aging seniors, and tended to speak to them, if not as equals, as beings only slightly lower than themselves. After tests were returned and grades given, the student body, which acted like an extended family, knew who did well, who excelled, and what piteous ones had failed.

  Unlike the white high school, Lafayette County Training School distinguished itself by having neither lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy. Its two buildings (main classrooms, the grade school and home economics) were set on a dirt hill with no fence to limit either its boundaries or those of bordering farms. There was a large expanse to the left of the school which was used alternately as a baseball diamond or a basketball court. Rusty hoops on the swaying poles represented the permanent recreational equipment, although bats and balls could be borrowed from the P. E. teacher if the borrower was qualified and if the diamond wasn’t occupied.

  Over this rocky area relieved by a few shady tall persimmon trees the graduating class walked. The girls often held hands and no longer bothered to speak to the lower students. There was a
sadness about them, as if this old world was not their home and they were bound for higher ground. The boys, on the other hand, had become more friendly, more outgoing. A decided change from the closed attitude they projected while studying for finals. Now they seemed not ready to give up the old school, the familiar paths and classrooms. Only a small percentage would be continuing on to college—one of the South’s A & M (agricultural and mechanical) schools, which trained Negro youths to be carpenters, farmers, handymen, masons, maids, cooks and baby nurses. Their future rode heavily on their shoulders, and blinded them to the collective joy that had pervaded the lives of the boys and girls in the grammar school graduating class.

  Parents who could afford it had ordered new shoes and ready-made clothes for themselves from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. They also engaged the best seamstresses to make the floating graduating dresses and to cut down secondhand pants which would be pressed to a military slickness for the important event.

  Oh, it was important, all right. Whitefolks would attend the ceremony, and two or three would speak of God and home, and the Southern way of life, and Mrs. Parsons, the principal’s wife, would play the graduation march while the lower-grade graduates paraded down the aisles and took their seats below the platform. The high school seniors would wait in empty classrooms to make their dramatic entrance.

  In the Store I was the person of the moment. The birthday girl. The center. Bailey had graduated the year before, although to do so he had had to forfeit all pleasures to make up for his time lost in Baton Rouge.

  My class was wearing butter-yellow piqué dresses, and Momma launched out on mine. She smocked the yoke into tiny crisscrossing puckers, then shirred the rest of the bodice. Her dark fingers ducked in and out of the lemony cloth as she embroidered raised daisies around the hem. Before she considered herself finished she had added a crocheted cuff on the puff sleeves, and a pointy crocheted collar.

  I was going to be lovely. A walking model of all the various styles of fine hand sewing and it didn’t worry me that I was only twelve years old and merely graduating from the eighth grade. Besides, many teachers in Arkansas Negro schools had only that diploma and were licensed to impart wisdom.

 
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