I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
The wind blew over the roof and ruffled the shingles. It whistled sharp under the closed door. The chimney made fearful sounds of protest as it was invaded by the urgent gusts.
A mile away ole Kansas City Kate (the train much admired but too important to stop in Stamps) crashed through the middle of town, blew its wooo-wee warnings, and continued to an unknown glamorous destination without looking back.
There was going to be a storm and it was a perfect night for rereading Jane Eyre. Bailey had finished his chores and was already behind the stove with Mark Twain. It was my turn to close the Store, and my book, half read, lay on the candy counter. Since the weather was going to be bad I was sure Uncle Willie would agree, in fact, encourage, me to close early (save electricity) and join the family in Momma’s bedroom, which functioned as our sitting room. Few people would be out in weather that threatened a tornado (for though the wind blew, the sky was as clear and still as a summer morning). Momma agreed that I might as well close, and I went out on the porch, closed the shutters, slipped the wooden bar over the door and turned off the light.
Pots rattled in the kitchen where Momma was frying corn cakes to go with vegetable soup for supper, and the homey sounds and scents cushioned me as I read of Jane Eyre in the cold English mansion of a colder English gentleman. Uncle Willie was engrossed in the Almanac, his nightly reading, and my brother was far away on a raft on the Mississippi.
I was the first to hear the rattle on the back door. A rattle and knock, a knock and rattle. But suspecting that it might have been the mad wife in the tower, I didn’t credit it. Then Uncle Willie heard it and summoned Bailey back from Huck Finn to unlatch the bolt.
Through the open door the moonshine fell into the room in a cold radiance to rival our meager lamplight. We all waited—I with a dread expectancy—for no human being was there. The wind alone came in, struggling with the weak flame in the coal-oil lamp. Pushing and bunting about the family warmth of our pot-bellied stove. Uncle Willie thought it must have been the storm and told Bailey to close the door. But just before he secured the raw wooden slab a voice drifted through the crack; it wheezed, “Sister Henderson? Brother Willie?”
Bailey nearly closed the door again, but Uncle Willie asked, “Who is it?” and Mr. George Taylor’s pinched brown face swam out of the gray and into view. He assured himself that we hadn’t gone to bed, and was welcomed in. When Momma saw him she invited him to stay for supper and told me to stick some sweet potatoes in the ashes to stretch the evening meal. Poor Brother Taylor had been taking meals all over town, ever since he buried his wife in the summer. Maybe due to the fact that I was in my romanticist period, or because children have a built-in survival apparatus, I feared he was interested in marrying Momma and moving in with us.
Uncle Willie cradled the Almanac in his divided lap. “You welcome here anytime, Brother Taylor, anytime, but this is a bad night. It say right here”—with his crippled hand he rapped the Almanac—“that November twelfth, a storm going to be moving over Stamps out of the east. A rough night.” Mr. Taylor remained exactly in the same position he had taken when he arrived, like a person too cold to readjust his body even to get closer to the fire. His neck was bent and the red light played over the polished skin of his hairless head. But his eyes bound me with a unique attraction. They sat deep in his little face and completely dominated the other features with a roundness which seemed to be outlined in dark pencil, giving him an owlish appearance. And when he sensed my regarding him so steadily his head hardly moved but his eyes swirled and landed on me. If his look had contained contempt or patronage, or any of the vulgar emotions revealed by adults in confrontation with children, I would have easily gone back to my book, but his eyes gave off a watery nothing—a nothingness which was completely unbearable. I saw a glassiness, observed before only in new marbles or a bottle top embedded in a block of ice. His glance moved so swiftly from me it was nearly possible to imagine that I had in fact imagined the interchange.
“But, as I say, you welcome. We can always make a place under this roof.” Uncle Willie didn’t seem to notice that Mr. Taylor was oblivious to everything he said. Momma brought the soup into the room, took the kettle off the heater and placed the steaming pot on the fire. Uncle Willie continued, “Momma, I told Brother Taylor he is welcome here anytime.” Momma said, “That’s right, Brother Taylor. You not supposed to sit around that lonely house feeling sorry for yourself. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
I’m not sure whether it was Momma’s presence or the bubbling soup on the stove which influenced him, but Mr. Taylor appeared to have livened up considerably. He shook his shoulders as if shaking off a tiresome touch, and attempted a smile that failed. “Sister Henderson, I sure appreciate … I mean, I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for everybody … I mean, you don’t know what it’s worth to me to be able to … Well, I mean I’m thankful.” At each pause, he pecked his head over his chest like a turtle coming out of its shell, but his eyes didn’t move.
Momma, always self-conscious at public displays of emotions not traceable to a religious source, told me to come with her and we’d bring the bread and bowls. She carried the food and I trailed after her, bringing the kerosene lamp. The new light set the room in an eerie, harsh perspective. Bailey still sat, doubled over his book, a Black hunchbacked gnome. A finger forerunning his eyes along the page. Uncle Willie and Mr. Taylor were frozen like people in a book on the history of the American Negro.
“Now, come on, Brother Taylor.” Momma was pressing a bowl of soup on him. “You may not be hungry, but take this for nourishment.” Her voice had the tender concern of a healthy person speaking to an invalid, and her plain statement rang thrillingly true: “I’m thankful.” Bailey came out of his absorption and went to wash his hands.
“Willie, say the blessing.” Momma set Bailey’s bowl down and bowed her head. During grace, Bailey stood in the doorway, a figure of obedience, but I knew his mind was on Tom Sawyer and Jim as mine would have been on Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, but for the glittering eyes of wizened old Mr. Taylor.
Our guest dutifully took a few spoonfuls of soup and bit a semicircle in the bread, then put his bowl on the floor. Something in the fire held his attention as we ate noisily.
Noticing his withdrawal, Momma said, “It don’t do for you to take on so, I know you all was together a long time—”
Uncle Willie said, “Forty years.”
“—but it’s been around six months since she’s gone to her rest … and you got to keep faith. He never gives us more than we can bear.” The statement heartened Mr. Taylor. He picked up his bowl again and raked his spoon through the thick soup.
Momma saw that she had made some contact, so she went on, “You had a whole lot of good years. Got to be grateful for them. Only thing is, it’s a pity you all didn’t have some children.”
If my head had been down I would have missed Mr. Taylor’s metamorphosis. It was not a change that came by steps but rather, it seemed to me, of a sudden. His bowl was on the floor with a thud, and his body leaned toward Momma from the hips. However, his face was the most striking feature of all. The brown expanse seemed to darken with life, as if an inner agitation played under his thin skin. The mouth, opened to show the long teeth, was a dark room furnished with a few white chairs.
“Children.” He gum-balled the word around in his empty mouth. “Yes, sir, children.” Bailey (and I), used to be addressed so, looked at him expectantly.
“That’s what she want.” His eyes were vital, and straining to jump from the imprisoning sockets. “That’s what she said. Children.”
The air was weighted and thick. A bigger house had been set on our roof and was imperceptibly pushing us into the ground.
Momma asked, in her nice-folks voice, “What who said, Brother Taylor?” She knew the answer. We all knew the answer.
“Florida.” His little wrinkled hands were making fists, then straightening, then making fists again. “She said it just last night.”
Bailey and I looked at each other and I hunched my chair closer to him. “Said ‘I want some children.’” When he pitched his already high voice to what he considered a feminine level, or at any rate to his wife’s, Miz Florida’s, level, it streaked across the room, zigzagging like lightning.
Uncle Willie had stopped eating and was regarding him with something like pity. “Maybe you was dreaming, Brother Taylor. Could have been a dream.”
Momma came in placatingly. “That’s right. You know, the children was reading me something th’other day. Say folks dream about whatever was on their mind when they went to sleep.”
Mr. Taylor jerked himself up. “It wasn’t not no dream. I was as wide awake as I am this very minute.” He was angry and the tension increased his little mask of strength.
“I’ll tell you what happened.”
Oh, Lord, a ghost story. I hated and dreaded the long winter nights when late customers came to the Store to sit around the heater roasting peanuts and trying to best each other in telling lurid tales of ghosts and hants, banshees and juju, voodoo and other anti-life stories. But a real one, that happened to a real person, and last night. It was going to be intolerable. I got up and walked to the window.
Mrs. Florida Taylor’s funeral in June came on the heels of our final exams. Bailey and Louise and I had done very well and were pleased with ourselves and each other. The summer stretched golden in front of us with promises of picnics and fish frys, blackberry hunts and croquet games till dark. It would have taken a personal loss to penetrate my sense of well-being. I had met and loved the Brontë sisters, and had replaced Kipling’s “If” with “Invictus.” My friendship with Louise was solidified over jacks, hopscotch and confessions, deep and dark, exchanged often after many a “Cross your heart you won’t tell?” I never talked about St. Louis to her, and had generally come to believe that the nightmare with its attendant guilt and fear hadn’t really happened to me. It happened to a nasty little girl, years and years before, who had no chain on me at all.
At first the news that Mrs. Taylor was dead did not strike me as a particularly newsy bit of information. As children do, I thought that since she was very old she had only one thing to do, and that was to die. She was a pleasant enough woman, with her steps made mincing by age and her little hands like gentle claws that liked to touch young skin. Each time she came to the Store, I was forced to go up to her, while she raked her yellow nails down my cheeks. “You sure got a pretty complexion.” It was a rare compliment in a world of very few such words of praise, so it balanced being touched by the dry fingers.
“You going to the funeral, Sister.” Momma wasn’t asking a question.
Momma said, “You going ’cause Sister Taylor thought so much of you she left you her yellow brooch.” (She wouldn’t say “gold,” because it wasn’t). “She told Brother Taylor, ‘I want Sis Henderson’s grandbaby to have my gold brooch.’ So you’ll have to go.”
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 pneumonia. 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.”