I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.7Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
For weeks after, he said nothing to me, except the gruff hellos which were given without ever looking in my direction.
This was the first secret I had ever kept from Bailey and sometimes I thought he should be able to read it on my face, but he noticed nothing.
I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement in his big arms. Before, my world had been Bailey, food, Momma, the Store, reading books and Uncle Willie. Now, for the first time, it included physical contact.
I began to wait for Mr. Freeman to come in from the yards, but when he did, he never noticed me, although I put a lot of feeling into “Good evening, Mr. Freeman.”
One evening, when I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I went over to him and sat quickly on his lap. He had been waiting for Mother again. Bailey was listening to The Shadow and didn’t miss me. At first Mr. Freeman sat still, not holding me or anything, then I felt a soft lump under my thigh begin to move. It twitched against me and started to harden. Then he pulled me to his chest. He smelled of coal dust and grease and he was so close I buried my face in his shirt and listened to his heart, it was beating just for me. Only I could hear the thud, only I could feel the jumping on my face. He said, “Sit still, stop squirming.” But all the time, he pushed me around on his lap, then suddenly he stood up and I slipped down to the floor. He ran to the bathroom.
For months he stopped speaking to me again. I was hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever. But then I forgot about him, and even the memory of his holding me precious melted into the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood.
I read more than ever, and wished my soul that I had been born a boy. Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I could have developed the first two virtues, but becoming a boy was sure to be difficult, if not impossible.
The Sunday funnies influenced me, and although I admired the strong heroes who always conquered in the end, I identified with Tiny Tim. In the toilet, where I used to take the papers, it was tortuous to look for and exclude the unnecessary pages so that I could learn how he would finally outwit his latest adversary. I wept with relief every Sunday as he eluded the evil men and bounded back from each seeming defeat as sweet and gentle as ever. The Katzenjammer kids were fun because they made the adults look stupid. But they were a little too smart-alecky for my taste.
When spring came to St. Louis, I took out my first library card, and since Bailey and I seemed to be growing apart, I spent most of my Saturdays at the library (no interruptions) breathing in the world of penniless shoeshine boys who, with goodness and perseverance, became rich, rich men, and gave baskets of goodies to the poor on holidays. The little princesses who were mistaken for maids, and the long-lost children mistaken for waifs, became more real to me than our house, our mother, our school or Mr. Freeman.
During those months we saw our grandparents and the uncles (our only aunt had gone to California to build her fortune), but they usually asked the same question, “Have you been good children?” for which there was only one answer. Even Bailey wouldn’t have dared to answer No.
On a late spring Saturday, after our chores (nothing like those in Stamps) were done, Bailey and I were going out, he to play baseball and I to the library. Mr. Freeman said to me, after Bailey had gone downstairs, “Ritie, go get some milk for the house.”
Mother usually brought milk when she came in, but that morning as Bailey and I straightened the living room her bedroom door had been open, and we knew that she hadn’t come home the night before.
He gave me money and I rushed to the store and back to the house. After putting the milk in the icebox, I turned and had just reached the front door when I heard, “Ritie.” He was sitting in the big chair by the radio. “Ritie, come here.” I didn’t think about the holding time until I got close to him. His pants were open and his “thing” was standing out of his britches by itself.
“No, sir, Mr. Freeman.” I started to back away. I didn’t want to touch that mushy-hard thing again, and I didn’t need him to hold me any more. He grabbed my arm and pulled me between his legs. His face was still and looked kind, but he didn’t smile or blink his eyes. Nothing. He did nothing, except reach his left hand around to turn on the radio without even looking at it. Over the noise of music and static, he said, “Now, this ain’t gonna hurt you much. You liked it before, didn’t you?”
I didn’t want to admit that I had in fact liked his holding me or that I had liked his smell or the hard heart-beating, so I said nothing. And his face became like the face of one of those mean natives the Phantom was always having to beat up.
His legs were squeezing my waist. “Pull down your drawers.” I hesitated for two reasons: he was holding me too tight to move, and I was sure that any minute my mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save me.
“We was just playing before.” He released me enough to snatch down my bloomers, and then he dragged me closer to him. Turning the radio up loud, too loud, he said, “If you scream, I’m gonna kill you. And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey.” I could tell he meant what he said. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to kill my brother. Neither of us had done anything to him. And then.
Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.
I thought I had died—I woke up in a white-walled world, and it had to be heaven. But Mr. Freeman was there and he was washing me. His hands shook, but he held me upright in the tub and washed my legs. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ritie. I didn’t mean it. But don’t you tell … Remember, don’t you tell a soul.”
I felt cool and very clean and just a little tired. “No, sir, Mr. Freeman, I won’t tell.” I was somewhere above everything. “It’s just that I’m so tired I’ll just go and lay down a while, please,” I whispered to him. I thought if I spoke out loud, he might become frightened and hurt me again. He dried me and handed me my bloomers. “Put these on and go to the library. Your momma ought to be coming home soon. You just act natural.”
Walking down the street, I felt the wet on my pants, and my hips seemed to be coming out of their sockets. I couldn’t sit long on the hard seats in the library (they had been constructed for children), so I walked by the empty lot where Bailey was playing ball, but he wasn’t there. I stood for a while and watched the big boys tear around the dusty diamond and then headed home.
After two blocks, I knew I’d never make it. Not unless I counted every step and stepped on every crack. I had started to burn between my legs more than the time I’d wasted Sloan’s Liniment on myself. My legs throbbed, or rather the insides of my thighs throbbed, with the same force that Mr. Freeman’s heart had beaten. Thrum … step … thrum … step … STEP ON THE CRACK … thrum … step. I went up the stairs one at a, one at a, one at a time. No one was in the living room, so I went straight to bed, after hiding my red-and-yellow-stained drawers under the mattress.
When Mother came in she said, “Well, young lady, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen you go to bed without being told. You must be sick.”
I wasn’t sick, but the pit of my stomach was on fire—how could I tell her that? Bailey came in later and asked me what the matter was. There was nothing to tell him. When Mother called us to eat and I said I wasn’t hungry, she laid her cool hand on my forehead and cheeks. “Maybe it’s the measles. They say they’re going around the neighborhood.” After she took my temperature she said, “You have a little fever. You’ve probably just caught them.”
Mr. Freeman took up the whole doorway, “Then Bailey ought not to be in there with her. Unless you want a house full of sick children.” She answered over her shoulder, “He may as well have them now as later. Get them over with.” She brushed by Mr. Freeman as if he were made o
As Bailey left the room, Mr. Freeman advanced to the bed. He leaned over, his whole face a threat that could have smothered me. “If you tell …” And again so softly, I almost didn’t hear it—“If you tell.” I couldn’t summon up the energy to answer him. He had to know that I wasn’t going to tell anything. Bailey came in with the towels and Mr. Freeman walked out.
Later Mother made a broth and sat on the edge of the bed to feed me. The liquid went down my throat like bones. My belly and behind were as heavy as cold iron, but it seemed my head had gone away and pure air had replaced it on my shoulders. Bailey read to me from The Rover Boys until he got sleepy and went to bed.
That night I kept waking to hear Mother and Mr. Freeman arguing. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I did hope that she wouldn’t make him so mad that he’d hurt her too. I knew he could do it, with his cold face and empty eyes. Their voices came in faster and faster, the high sounds on the heels of the lows. I would have liked to have gone in. Just passed through as if I were going to the toilet. Just show my face and they might stop, but my legs refused to move. I could move the toes and ankles, but the knees had turned to wood.
Maybe I slept, but soon morning was there and Mother was pretty over my bed. “How’re you feeling, baby?”
“Fine, Mother.” An instinctive answer. “Where’s Bailey?”
She said he was still asleep but that she hadn’t slept all night. She had been in my room off and on to see about me. I asked her where Mr. Freeman was, and her face chilled with remembered anger. “He’s gone. Moved this morning. I’m going to take your temperature after I put on your Cream of Wheat.”
Could I tell her now? The terrible pain assured me that I couldn’t. What he did to me, and what I allowed, must have been very bad if already God let me hurt so much. If Mr. Freeman was gone, did that mean Bailey was out of danger? And if so, if I told him, would he still love me?
After Mother took my temperature, she said she was going to bed for a while but to wake her if I felt sicker. She told Bailey to watch my face and arms for spots and when they came up he could paint them with calamine lotion.
That Sunday goes and comes in my memory like a bad connection on an overseas telephone call. Once, Bailey was reading The Katzenjammer Kids to me, and then without a pause for sleeping, Mother was looking closely at my face, and soup trickled down my chin and some got into my mouth and I choked. Then there was a doctor who took my temperature and held my wrist.
“Bailey!” I supposed I had screamed, for he materialized suddenly, and I asked him to help me and we’d run away to California or France or Chicago. I knew that I was dying and, in fact, I longed for death, but I didn’t want to die anywhere near Mr. Freeman. I knew that even now he wouldn’t have allowed death to have me unless he wished it to.
Mother said I should be bathed and the linens had to be changed since I had sweat so much. But when they tried to move me I fought, and even Bailey couldn’t hold me. Then she picked me up in her arms and the terror abated for a while. Bailey began to change the bed. As he pulled off the soiled sheets he dislodged the panties I had put under the mattress. They fell at Mother’s feet.
In the hospital, Bailey told me that I had to tell who did that to me, or the man would hurt another little girl. When I explained that I couldn’t tell because the man would kill him, Bailey said knowingly, “He can’t kill me. I won’t let him.” And of course I believed him. Bailey didn’t lie to me. So I told him.
Bailey cried at the side of my bed until I started to cry too. Almost fifteen years passed before I saw my brother cry again.
Using the old brain he was born with (those were his words later on that day) he gave his information to Grandmother Baxter, and Mr. Freeman was arrested and was spared the awful wrath of my pistol-whipping uncles.
I would have liked to stay in the hospital the rest of my life. Mother brought flowers and candy. Grandmother came with fruit and my uncles clumped around and around my bed, snorting like wild horses. When they were able to sneak Bailey in, he read to me for hours.
The saying that people who have nothing to do become busybodies is not the only truth. Excitement is a drug, and people whose lives are filled with violence are always wondering where the next “fix” is coming from.
The court was filled. Some people even stood behind the churchlike benches in the rear. Overhead fans moved with the detachment of old men. Grandmother Baxter’s clients were there in gay and flippant array. The gamblers in pin-striped suits and their makeup-deep women whispered to me out of blood-red mouths that now I knew as much as they did. I was eight, and grown. Even the nurses in the hospital had told me that now I had nothing to fear. “The worst is over for you,” they had said. So I put the words in all the smirking mouths.
I sat with my family (Bailey couldn’t come) and they rested still on the seats like solid, cold gray tombstones. Thick and forevermore unmoving.
Poor Mr. Freeman twisted in his chair to look empty threats over to me. He didn’t know that he couldn’t kill Bailey … and Bailey didn’t lie … to me.
“What was the defendant wearing?” That was Mr. Freeman’s lawyer.
“I don’t know.”
“You mean to say this man raped you and you don’t know what he was wearing?” He snickered as if I had raped Mr. Freeman. “Do you know if you were raped?”
A sound pushed in the air of the court (I was sure it was laughter). I was glad that Mother had let me wear the navy-blue winter coat with brass buttons. Although it was too short and the weather was typical St. Louis hot, the coat was a friend that I hugged to me in the strange and unfriendly place.
“Was that the first time the accused touched you?” The question stopped me. Mr. Freeman had surely done something very wrong, but I was convinced that I had helped him to do it. I didn’t want to lie, but the lawyer wouldn’t let me think, so I used silence as a retreat.
“Did the accused try to touch you before the time he or rather you say he raped you?”
I couldn’t say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close before he thought I had peed in the bed. My uncles would kill me and Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry. And all those people in the court would stone me as they had stoned the harlot in the Bible. And Mother, who thought I was such a good girl, would be so disappointed. But most important, there was Bailey. I had kept a big secret from him.
“Marguerite, answer the question. Did the accused touch you before the occasion on which you claim he raped you?”
Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be No. Everyone except Mr. Freeman and me. I looked at his heavy face trying to look as if he would have liked me to say No. I said No.
The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn’t get air. How I despised the man for making me lie. Old, mean, nasty thing. Old, black, nasty thing. The tears didn’t soothe my heart as they usually did. I screamed, “Ole, mean, dirty thing, you. Dirty old thing.” Our lawyer brought me off the stand and to my mother’s arms. The fact that I had arrived at my desired destination by lies made it less appealing to me.
Mr. Freeman was given one year and one day, but he never got a chance to do his time. His lawyer (or someone) got him released that very afternoon.
In the living room, where the shades were drawn for coolness, Bailey and I played Monopoly on the floor. I played a bad game because I was thinking how I would be able to tell Bailey how I had lied and, even worse for our relationship, kept a secret from him. Bailey answered the doorbell, because Grandmother was in the kitchen. A tall white policeman asked for Mrs. Baxter. Had they found out about the lie? Maybe the policeman was coming to put me in jail because I had sworn on the Bible that everything I said would be the truth, the whole truth, so help me, God. The man in our living room was taller than the sky and whiter than my image of God. He ju
“Mrs. Baxter, I thought you ought to know. Freeman’s been found dead on the lot behind the slaughterhouse.”
Softly, as if she were discussing a church program, she said, “Poor man.” She wiped her hands on the dishtowel and just as softly asked, “Do they know who did it?”
The policeman said, “Seems like he was dropped there. Some say he was kicked to death.”
Grandmother’s color only rose a little. “Tom, thanks for telling me. Poor man. Well, maybe it’s better this way. He was a mad dog. Would you like a glass of lemonade? Or some beer?”
Although he looked harmless, I knew he was a dreadful angel counting out my many sins.
“No, thanks, Mrs. Baxter. I’m on duty. Gotta be getting back.”
“Well, tell your ma that I’ll be over when I take up my beer and remind her to save some kraut for me.”
And the recording angel was gone. He was gone, and a man was dead because I lied. Where was the balance in that? One lie surely wouldn’t be worth a man’s life. Bailey could have explained it all to me, but I didn’t dare ask him. Obviously I had forfeited my place in heaven forever, and I was as gutless as the doll I had ripped to pieces ages ago. Even Christ Himself turned His back on Satan. Wouldn’t He turn His back on me? I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people?
Grandmother Baxter said, “Ritie and Junior, you didn’t hear a thing, I never want to hear this situation nor that evil man’s name mentioned in my house again. I mean that.” She went back into the kitchen to make apple strudel for my celebration.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes