I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)

Chapter 13

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 just didn’t have the beard.

“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.

Even Bailey was frightened. He sat all to himself, looking at a man’s death—a kitten looking at a wolf. Not quite understanding it but frightened all the same.

In those moments I decided that although Bailey loved me he couldn’t help. I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.

I had to stop talking.

I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still—in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds.

In the first weeks my family accepted my behavior as a post-rape, post-hospital affliction. (Neither the term nor the experience was mentioned in Grandmother’s house, where Bailey and I were again staying.) They understood that I could talk to Bailey, but to no one else.

Then came the last visit from the visiting nurse, and the doctor said I was healed. That meant that I should be back on the sidewalks playing handball or enjoying the games I had been given when I was sick. When I refused to be the child they knew and accepted me to be, I was called impudent and my muteness sullenness.

For a while I was punished for being so uppity that I wouldn’t speak; and then came the thrashings, given by any relative who felt himself offended.

We were on the train going back to Stamps, and this time it was I who had to console Bailey. He cried his heart out down the aisles of the coach, and pressed his little-boy body against the window pane looking for a last glimpse of his Mother Dear.

I have never known if Momma sent for us, or if the St. Louis family just got fed up with my grim presence. There is nothing more appalling than a constantly morose child.

I cared less about the trip than about the fact that Bailey was unhappy, and had no more thought of our destination than if I had simply been heading for the toilet.