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

Chapter 17

Weekdays revolved on a sameness wheel. They turned into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday’s rough draft. Saturdays, however, always broke the mold and dared to be different.

Farmers trekked into town with their children and wives streaming around them. Their board-stiff khaki pants and shirts revealed the painstaking care of a dutiful daughter or wife. They often stopped at the Store to get change for bills so they could give out jangling coins to their children, who shook with their eagerness to get to town. The young kids openly resented their parents’ dawdling in the Store and Uncle Willie would call them in and spread among them bits of sweet peanut patties that had been broken in shipping. They gobbled down the candies and were out again, kicking up the powdery dust in the road and worrying if there was going to be time to get to town after all.

Bailey played mumbledypeg with the older boys around the chinaberry tree, and Momma and Uncle Willie listened to the farmers’ latest news of the country. I thought of myself as hanging in the Store, a mote imprisoned on a shaft of sunlight. Pushed and pulled by the slightest shift of air, but never falling free into the tempting darkness.

In the warm months, morning began with a quick wash in unheated well water. The suds were dashed on a plot of ground beside the kitchen door. It was called the bait garden (Bailey raised worms). After prayers, breakfast in summer was usually dry cereal and fresh milk. Then to our chores (which on Saturday included weekday jobs)—scrubbing the floors, raking the yards, polishing our shoes for Sunday (Uncle Willie’s had to be shined with a biscuit) and attending to the customers who came breathlessly, also in their Saturday hurry.

Looking through the years, I marvel that Saturday was my favorite day in the week. What pleasures could have been squeezed between the fan folds of unending tasks? Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.

After our retreat from St. Louis, Momma gave us a weekly allowance. Since she seldom dealt with money, other than to take it in and to tithe to the church, I supposed that the weekly ten cents was to tell us that even she realized that a change had come over us, and that our new unfamiliarity caused her to treat us with a strangeness.

I usually gave my money to Bailey, who went to the movies nearly every Saturday. He brought back Street and Smith cowboy books for me.

One Saturday Bailey was late coming back from the Rye-al-toh. Momma had begun heating water for the Saturday-night baths, and all the evening chores were done. Uncle Willie sat in the twilight on the front porch mumbling or maybe singing, and smoking a ready-made. It was quite late. Mothers had called in their children from the group games, and fading sounds of “Yah … Yah … you didn’t catch me” still hung and floated into the Store.

Uncle Willie said, “Sister, better light the light.” On Saturdays we used the electric lights so that last-minute Sunday shoppers could look down the hill and see if the Store was open. Momma hadn’t told me to turn them on because she didn’t want to believe that night had fallen hard and Bailey was still out in the ungodly dark.

Her apprehension was evident in the hurried movements around the kitchen and in her lonely fearing eyes. The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose. Any break from routine may herald for them unbearable news. For this reason, Southern Blacks until the present generation could be counted among America’s arch conservatives.

Like most self-pitying people, I had very little pity for my relatives’ anxiety. If something indeed had happened to Bailey, Uncle Willie would always have Momma, and Momma had the Store. Then, after all, we weren’t their children. But I would be the major loser if Bailey turned up dead. For he was all I claimed, if not all I had.

The bath water was steaming on the cooking stove, but Momma was scrubbing the kitchen table for the umpteenth time.

“Momma,” Uncle Willie called and she jumped. “Momma.” I waited in the bright lights of the Store, jealous that someone had come along and told these strangers something about my brother and I would be the last to know.

“Momma, why don’t you and Sister walk down to meet him?”

To my knowledge Bailey’s name hadn’t been mentioned for hours, but we all knew whom he meant.

Of course. Why didn’t that occur to me? I wanted to be gone. Momma said, “Wait a minute, little lady. Go get your sweater, and bring me my shawl.”

It was darker in the road than I’d thought it would be. Momma swung the flashlight’s arc over the path and weeds and scary tree trunks. The night suddenly became enemy territory, and I knew that if my brother was lost in this land he was forever lost. He was eleven and very smart, that I granted, but after all he was so small. The Bluebeards and tigers and Rippers could eat him up before he could scream for help.

Momma told me to take the light and she reached for my hand. Her voice came from a high hill above me and in the dark my hand was enclosed in hers. I loved her with a rush. She said nothing—no “Don’t worry” or “Don’t get tender-hearted.” Just the gentle pressure of her rough hand conveyed her own concern and assurance to me.

We passed houses which I knew well by daylight but couldn’t recollect in the swarthy gloom.

“Evening, Miz Jenkins.” Walking and pulling me along.

“Sister Henderson? Anything wrong?” That was from an outline blacker than the night.

“No, ma’am. Not a thing. Bless the Lord.” By the time she finished speaking we had left the worried neighbors far behind.

Mr. Willie Williams’ Do Drop Inn was bright with furry red lights in the distance and the pond’s fishy smell enveloped us. Momma’s hand tightened and let go, and I saw the small figure plodding along, tired and old-mannish. Hands in his pockets and head bent, he walked like a man trudging up the hill behind a coffin.

“Bailey.” It jumped out as Momma said, “Ju,” and I started to run, but her hand caught mine again and became a vise. I pulled, but she yanked me back to her side. “We’ll walk, just like we been walking, young lady.” There was no chance to warn Bailey that he was dangerously late, that everybody had been worried and that he should create a good lie or, better, a great one.

Momma said, “Bailey, Junior,” and he looked up without surprise. “You know it’s night and you just now getting home?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was empty. Where was his alibi?

“What you been doing?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s all you got to say?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All right, young man. We’ll see when you get home.”

She had turned me loose, so I made a grab for Bailey’s hand, but he snatched it away. I said, “Hey, Bail,” hoping to remind him that I was his sister and his only friend, but he grumbled something like “Leave me alone.”

Momma didn’t turn on the flashlight on the way back, nor did she answer the questioning Good evenings that floated around us as we passed the darkened houses.

I was confused and frightened. He was going to get a whipping and maybe he had done something terrible. If he couldn’t talk to me it must have been serious. But there was no air of spent revelry about him. He just seemed sad. I didn’t know what to think.

Uncle Willie said, “Getting too big for your britches, huh? You can’t come home. You want to worry your grandmother to death?” Bailey was so far away he was beyond fear. Uncle Willie had a leather belt in his good hand but Bailey didn’t notice or didn’t care. “I’m going to whip you this time.” Our uncle had only whipped us once before and then only with a peach-tree switch, so maybe now he was going to kill my brother. I screamed and grabbed for the belt, but Momma caught me. “Now, don’t get uppity, miss, ’less you want some of the same thing. He got a lesson coming to him. You come on and get your bath.”

From the kitchen I heard the belt fall down, dry and raspy on naked skin. Uncle Willie was gasping for breath, but Bailey made no sound. I was too afraid to splash water or even to cry and take a chance of drowning out Bailey’s pleas for help, but the pleas never came and the whipping was finally over.

I lay awake an eternity, waiting for a sign, a whimper or a whisper, from the next room that he was still alive. Just before I fell exhausted into sleep, I heard Bailey: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

My last memory of that night was the question, Why is he saying the baby prayer? We had been saying the “Our Father, which art in heaven” for years.

For days the Store was a strange country, and we were all newly arrived immigrants. Bailey didn’t talk, smile or apologize. His eyes were so vacant, it seemed his soul had flown away, and at meals I tried to give him the best pieces of meat and the largest portion of dessert, but he turned them down.

Then one evening at the pig pen he said without warning, “I saw Mother Dear.”

If he said it, it was bound to be the truth. He wouldn’t lie to me. I don’t think I asked him where or when.

“In the movies.” He laid his head on the wooden railing. “It wasn’t really her. It was a woman named Kay Francis. She’s a white movie star who looks just like Mother Dear.”

There was no difficulty believing that a white movie star looked like our mother and that Bailey had seen her. He told me that the movies were changed each week, but when another picture came to Stamps starring Kay Francis he would tell me and we’d go together. He even promised to sit with me.

He had stayed late on the previous Saturday to see the film over again. I understood, and understood too why he couldn’t tell Momma or Uncle Willie. She was our mother and belonged to us. She was never mentioned to anyone because we simply didn’t have enough of her to share.

We had to wait nearly two months before Kay Francis returned to Stamps, Bailey’s mood had lightened considerably, but he lived in a state of expectation and it made him more nervous than he was usually. When he told me that the movie would be shown, we went into our best behavior and were the exemplary children that Grandmother deserved and wished to think us.

It was a gay light comedy, and Kay Francis wore long-sleeved white silk shirts with big cuff links. Her bedroom was all satin and flowers in vases, and her maid, who was Black, went around saying “Lawsy, missy” all the time. There was a Negro chauffeur too, who rolled his eyes and scratched his head, and I wondered how on earth an idiot like that could be trusted with her beautiful cars.

The whitefolks downstairs laughed every few minutes, throwing the discarded snicker up to the Negroes in the buzzards’ roost. The sound would jag around in our air for an indecisive second before the balcony’s occupants accepted it and sent their own guffaws to riot with it against the walls of the theater.

I laughed, too, but not at the hateful jokes made on my people. I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a big mansion with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother. And it was funny to think of the whitefolks’ not knowing that the woman they were adoring could be my mother’s twin, except that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier.

The movie star made me happy. It was extraordinary good fortune to be able to save up one’s money and go see one’s mother whenever one wanted to. I bounced out of the theater as if I’d been given an unexpected present. But Bailey was cast down again. (I had to beg him not to stay for the next show). On the way home he stopped at the railroad track and waited for the night freight train. Just before it reached the crossing, he tore out and ran across the tracks.

I was left on the other side in hysteria. Maybe the giant wheels were grinding his bones into a bloody mush. Maybe he tried to catch a boxcar and got flung into the pond and drowned. Or even worse, maybe he caught the train and was forever gone.

When the train passed he pushed himself away from the pole where he had been leaning, berated me for making all that noise and said, “Let’s go home.”

One year later he did catch a freight, but because of his youth and the inscrutable ways of fate, he didn’t find California and his Mother Dear—he got stranded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for two weeks.