I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
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 of cotton. “Come on, Junior. Get some cool towels and wipe your sister’s face.”
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.