April 8, 2022
The Trinity River Trilogy - Third Place Winner of the 2021 First Chapter Contest
By Karen Brenner
“If I cannot fly, let me sing!”
— Stephen Sondheim
Her mother told her that she was born just as the sun climbed up over the shortleaf pines and the air was filled with the singing of birds. The birdsong that marked her birth also marked her life. The birds sang her into life, and then they gave their songs to her.
The very first thing she remembered was sitting under the kitchen table, hiding behind the flowered cotton tablecloth. She was staring down at the toes of his boots as they poked under her mama’s tablecloth. She was listening to the steady rhythm of her mother’s gold hoop earrings hitting the kitchen table, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Then he cried out, and the earrings stopped. She watched his boots walk out of their kitchen. That was the very first thing she remembered.
The next thing she remembered was the sound of the cloth as it hit the water in the bucket. Her mother was on her knees, and she was washing a kitchen floor. The cloth made a plop sound when her mama dunked it in the water, then she would squeeze it out real good and start making circles and circles on the green tiled floor. Birdy liked going with her mother when she cleaned the white people’s houses. Those houses were so different from their house. They smelled different, too. Some of them smelled cold, and some of them smelled warm, but none of them smelled like their house. Her mama baked bread once a week and kept a sourdough starter in a green bowl on the kitchen counter. The yeasty mixture bubbled and winked underneath the blue striped cotton towel that kept the ants and the flies away. The sourdough starter and the baking bread kept their house smelling so sweet. It was always shining clean and warm in their little yellow house.
Birdy loved the way her mama smelled, too. She was all soap and sunshine. Birdy did not like the way that white man smelled. His boots walked in cow shit and mud and all manner of stinking things. Mama always scrubbed and scrubbed the kitchen table and floor after he left. Sometimes, she cried while she scrubbed, and sometimes, she swore things softly under her breath. Birdy couldn’t hear what Mama was saying, but she knew they were angry things.
Her mama kept Birdy smelling like starch and freshly ironed clothes. The dresses she wore to school were so stiff their sharp edges cut into Birdy’s legs when she sat down at her desk. Her hair was cornrowed about to death. Birdy wanted to let her hair go free and wild, but her mother would not hear of it. It wouldn’t have been respectable. Sometimes, her mama would thread little ribbons or beads in the cornrows, and that helped a little. But mostly, Birdy’s hair itched her or pulled on her scalp. Someday, she would let it go wild. She didn’t care about being respectable. She wanted to be free.
They cleaned Miss Elder’s big old rambling house on Fridays. Every Friday evening, Miss Elder would sit down with Birdy at the grand piano in her parlor. Birdy loved that piano with its smooth yellow and black ivory keys. When Miss Elder propped open the top of the piano, Birdy would strum the golden strings until they vibrated and hummed under her fingers. Best of all, Birdy liked to sit under the piano and read the books Miss Elder gave her. One Christmas vacation, Birdy spent almost every afternoon sitting under Miss Elder’s piano reading Dickens’ Great Expectations. Miss Elder was always telling Birdy that she had great expectations for her.
“You have a natural singing ability, child, and you are as pretty as a picture. However, I do not intend to let you slide by on your looks and your voice. You must work very hard in school, and you must work very hard on your singing. A lot of people can sing, but only a true artist hits the notes perfectly every time. You must be perfect. You have a big mountain to climb; you must overcome prejudice and hatred. You must be better than all the rest. God gave you two great gifts, my dear, your voice and your beauty, and you must use both for the greater good and to glorify His name. Do you understand?”
Birdy called this frequent talk “Miss Elder’s must-must-must speech.” She heard it at least once a week from the time she was a little girl. But she didn’t mind. She loved Miss Elder, and she loved her big old house with the wraparound porch and the bank of French windows that opened up to the garden. It was always felt so breezy and free in that house. Birdy believed when she was safe inside Miss Elder’s house, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that she could not do. So, she listened intently each time to Miss Elder’s must-must-must talk. Birdy looked directly into Miss Elder’s large, protruding pale blue eyes. She saw the whiskers on her chin bobbing up and down as Miss Elder nodded emphatically at Birdy, her bony finger shaking in Birdy’s face. Miss Elder hardly ever smiled at her, and she never, ever petted her, but once in a while, Miss Elder’s faded blue eyes would well up with tears, and she would shake her head.
“I swan, Birdsong, sometimes, I believe that I was put on this earth just to teach you to sing.”
Some days, Mama would tell Birdy to go out and sit in the garden while she and Miss Elder had a talk. Birdy would climb the peach trees or stroll among the rose bushes, filling her lungs with the breath of the old velvety roses Miss Elder was partial to. It was a Friday evening high summer when Birdy decided she would sneak up onto the porch and try to listen to her mother and Miss Elder. Miss Elder was sitting on the far side of the parlor, but her mother was standing close by the window. She sounded like she had been crying.
“I’m worried about her, too, Miss Elder. I’m savin’ up every dime I can to get her up north where she can stay by my sister and her family. You’ve taught her so much, ma’am, and we are both so grateful to you. I can’t never repay you for all the kindness you showed us both. I got to get my Birdy away from this place, away from him. So far, I kept her hid, but in a little place like this, he’s bound to see her, and then, oh Lord, Miss Elder, I’m so afraid. Why’d she have to be so pretty?” Birdy couldn’t hear what Miss Elder said to her mother. But she saw the white woman take her mother into her arms and pat her back. It made Birdy cry to see that.
Birdy thought the cornrows her mother made her wear was bad enough, but then her mama started taking wide strips of cotton and wrapping them tightly around and around Birdy’s chest. Those straps really hurt her and made her breasts sore and achy. No matter how often she asked or how much she begged, Mama would not allow Birdy to walk outside without the tight bands of cloth pushing her growing breasts down flat.
“Please, Birdy, child, try to understand. That man can’t see you’re growing up. He’ll never give you no peace, just like he never give me none. I promise this will stop someday soon. Just wait a little, Birdy.”
That day it happened, Birdy woke up with a bad pain in her stomach. Her mama gave her a teaspoon of paregoric and told her to take a warm bath in the washtub in the kitchen, wrap up real good, and rest in bed. Her mama told her not to let anyone in the house. She always said that. She kissed Birdy on her forehead and told her that she would come home and check on her in a little bit. Birdy was lolling in the big washtub in the middle of the kitchen, letting the warm water wash over and over her stomach. The paregoric and the warmth of the bath were beginning to make her feel better. She sat up straight when she heard the soft knock on the kitchen door. She knew that knock. But this was not the day for the white man to come visit her mother. Birdy froze. If she got up to run and hide, he would hear her and then what? Birdy ducked under the bath water, holding her breath, hoping the silence would convince him no one was home and he would go away. When her lungs felt like they would just about burst, Birdy came up out of the water, gasping for air. That is when she saw him watching her through the kitchen window, just a little sliver of window where the curtains didn’t quite close. But she could see his hot eyes staring at her. They were the eyes of a wolf, glittering and hungry. She jumped up and grabbed the sacking towel and wrapped it around her body. She almost made it to the kitchen door when she felt his hot breath on her neck and his hands in her hair.
He laid her out on the kitchen table just like he always did with her mother, but her mama usually had on a house dress that he would push up around her hips. Birdy was naked. She was shivering. He rubbed his hard, rough hands all over her body. She watched him unbutton his overalls and saw a snake head pop out of his drawers. He took her hand and tried to make her touch the snake head, but she didn’t want to, and now she started to cry. His glittering green eyes never left her face. Birdy looked up at the kitchen lamp hanging just above her and saw that it was covered in fly specks. Mama wouldn’t like those old fly specks. It made her cry even harder to think of her mama and how mad she would be about the fly specks on her kitchen lamp. She watched the lamp swinging above her now as the table bumped and bumped. And then the man fell down on top of her, and it was very quiet.
Her mother pushed the man off her, the handle of their butcher knife sticking out of the
middle of his back and his shirt turning dark red. She took Birdy’s hand and pulled her out of the kitchen while Birdy kept looking back at the man on the floor bleeding all over her mother’s shining kitchen. Her mother never said a word. She washed Birdy, crying softly. And then she dressed her daughter. Her mama knelt down and lifted up one of the floorboards. She handed Birdy a leather pouch.
“Birdy, now listen to me. You take this money, and you run to Miss Elder right now. You tell her that the man hurt you and let her hide you ’til morning time. Then, you take this money, and you go down to the train station tomorrow with Miss Elder, and she gonna help you buy yourself a ticket to Chicago. No, no, baby, don’t cry. You got to be a really big girl now. When you get to Union Station in Chicago, you go to a phone booth there, and you call your Aunt Josie. I put down her phone number for you on this here piece of paper. You wait right there in Union Station, and Aunt Josie or Uncle Bill will come to carry you home with them. You gonna stay by them at their house for a while. No, baby, don’t cry no more. We cain’t go together. I have to stay here and take care of some things. We’ll be together again by and by.”
Birdy’s mother took her daughter’s beautiful face in her two hands.
“Birdy, listen to me, girl.” Her mother smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead. “You forget about what that man did to you today. He had no right to hurt you like that. You didn’t do nothing wrong. He was a very bad man, and he done bad things to you. You forget all about it, promise me? Remember what Miss Elder always told us. You got a real beautiful singing voice and a real pretty face. Miss Elder always tells me that my Birdy will go far in this world.”
Birdy’s mother held her shoulders tight and looked right into her eyes.
“You go to school and learn to be a singer, you hear me, daughter? And you don’t go with no man until he marries you in a church with a priest and puts a ring on your finger. You got to promise me now, Birdy, that you will do those two things. Promise me now, girl!”
Birdy sobbed out her promise to her mother and clung to her, taking in the sweet smell of soap and sunshine. She suddenly stepped away from her mother; something smelled different, something smelled wrong. Then she saw the blood on her mother’s house dress, all down the front. Birdy stood apart from her mother. She forced her eyes to leave the blood on her dress and to look at her mother’s face. She fell on her mother’s neck.
“Mama, mama, they’s fly specks all over the kitchen lamp.”
Birdy stood on the station platform with Miss Elder, waiting for the Panama Limited that would take her to Chicago. As they stood silently together, waiting for the train that would take her to a new life, Birdsong felt the blast throughout her body—a boom that shook the platform and filled the sky. She turned and saw the smoke and flames leaping into the air. The little yellow house that her mama had kept shining clean was gone. It disappeared into the smoke and flames. She saw the people shouting and running. Birdy stared at the flames rising higher and higher into the sultry sky. She heard Miss Elder cry out, “Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh, my Lord!”
That was when she knew she would never see her mother again. Miss Elder held her tightly, with one arm around her thin shoulders.
“Don’t turn around again, child. That’s all done now.” Birdy had never heard Miss Elder’s voice shake before. “You’re going to Chicago to become a great singer. You keep looking straight ahead.”
* * *
Eleven-year-old Birdsong Olivier sat on the Panama Limited train watching the snow-covered fields of southern Illinois rolling past the window. She grasped the picnic basket Miss Elder had given her tightly on her lap. She knew the basket held slices of the Sunday ham on freshly baked rolls wrapped in wax paper with the last of Miss Elder’s garden tomatoes sliced in a little covered dish with paper twists of salt and pepper. There was a thermos of sweet tea and some pecan pie too. But Birdy could not eat any of it. She kept feeling that snake head choking her throat, and when that happened, she had a hard time swallowing. Birdy could still smell the blood, and it made her feel sick. She took deep breaths like Miss Elder showed her how to do when she was singing. She put her hand on the side of her stomach—her diaphragm, Miss Elder called it—and breathed slowly in and out, until the smell and the sick feeling left her.
She liked the train. It felt like someone was rocking her. She had not spoken one word since Miss Elder kissed her on the cheek and told her to call home when she got up to Chicago and her auntie’s house. Birdy had not even gone to the bathroom. She wasn’t sure how people used the bathroom on the train. Was she allowed to use the same toilet as white people? It was easier to sit very still and look out the window. She had never seen snow before, and she thought it was just beautiful. She would tell Mama about the snow. She was sure that Mama had never seen the snow either. And then she remembered. She would never be able to tell Mama anything ever again. She could feel the hot tears stinging her eyes, but she would not let them fall. She would never cry again. Never again.
Aunt Josie held her tightly in the back seat while Uncle Bill drove them home. Birdy was still shaking from the shock of the cold wind that whipped at her clothes as they walked from Union Station to her uncle’s car. Uncle Bill told her, “We’ll have to get you a warm coat, Birdy. That’s the wind off the lake. We call it ‘the hawk.’ It slice right through you, don’t it?”
Josie held her tightly and rocked her, like the train. “Oh, my sweet baby girl. My little angel. Lord Jesus, help our little girl here.”
Uncle Bill drove through the wide boulevards of the south side of Chicago, adding “amen” to his wife’s spoken prayers. Birdy would have liked to look out the windows. She had never been to Chicago before. But her Aunt Josie held her so tightly that she couldn’t raise her head to look. Birdy nestled down into the soft warmth of her mother’s sister and was asleep before they arrived at the brick two-flat.
She woke in the middle of the night in a sweat of panic and fever. She didn’t know where she was. Her eyes searched the darkened room wildly, looking for some clue to tell her what had happened to her. She felt the cry building in her throat, and then she remembered. She was in Aunt Josie’s house in Chicago, and her mother was dead. Her mother was gone forever. Birdy stifled the cry. She would never cry again.
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