Read Angels Online

Authors: Reba White Williams

Tags: #FIC044000

Angels (2 page)

BOOK: Angels
8.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Coleman smiled up at her. “Yes, ma’am,” she said.

Oh, good. She might look and smell like a piglet, but somebody’s taught her manners. Aunt Polly and Miss Ida set a lot of store by manners, and it would be easier on us all if she was good with the “pleases” and “thank-yous” and “ma’ams.” Aunt Polly is still schoolteachery, and she’ll be telling Coleman enough without havin’ to teach her manners, too.

“Dinah, please go fetch Coleman one of your nighties. Y’all left so fast you came off without any of Coleman’s clothes, didn’t you?” Miss Ida said to Miss Laura Byrd, who was waitin’ to talk to her.

“Yes, ma’am, Miss Ida. And we didn’t take time for her to bathe either—we just drove and took naps beside the road,” Miss Laura said.

None of us believed Coleman had anything to leave behind, but it was polite to pretend she did. We didn’t want to shame her by lettin’ on we knew she had nothing but the rags she stood up in. Miss Laura and Miss Ida went in the kitchen, and Aunt Polly and I took Coleman upstairs to the bathroom. We filled that big ol’ tub to the brim and didn’t worry for once about wasting hot water or soap or shampoo.

Coleman stripped off and climbed in. Aunt Polly gave her a wash rag, and Coleman scrubbed and scrubbed.

She cleaned up real good but for being so skinny. You can see all her bones. She’s the same color as me—sort of pink—‘cept she has a bunch of purple bruises all over her. (It took a while before she told me how she came by those bruises—Gloria was a drinker, and a mean drunk with it, and hit Coleman when she could catch her. I hated hearing it.) The big surprise was Coleman’s hair: it’s yellow as a dandelion, and curly as a lamb. When Aunt Polly went downstairs to tell Miss Ida we were ‘bout done and fixin’ to come to supper, I reached out and touched Coleman’s hair—I couldn’t help it, it was that pretty.

She smiled up at me and said, “I put ditch dirt on it. I heard that Gloria tell a man a yeller-haired girl was easy to sell, so I made it look ugly as I could. I didn’t think much of that Gloria, but I might’ve landed in a worse place if she’d sold me. An’ that’s why we didn’t stop to clean me up—she’s probably lookin’ for a yeller-haired white child.”

I felt sick to my stomach thinking about somebody selling Coleman, but I didn’t say a word. Aunt Polly came back and dried Coleman off, being real careful ‘round those bruises. She towel-dried Coleman’s hair, and brushed out the tangles, and pulled the nightie over Coleman’s head. I have two nightgowns, and I’d washed and ironed my best one for her when Aunt Polly told me Coleman might have nothin’ to sleep in. It was way too long, but we tied it up with an old ribbon ‘round her waist and rolled up her sleeves. Aunt Polly wrapped a shawl around her to keep her from getting chilled after the hot water and the steam in the bathroom, and we went down to thank Miss Laura for bringing Coleman home. Miss Ida asked her to stay to supper, but she said Aunt Mary Louise was expecting her, so we thanked her again, and Coleman gave her a big goodbye hug.

It was such a special night, we’d set the dining room table where we have Sunday dinner, and I’d put roses in a vase in the middle. I said the blessing: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food. And thank you, God, for bringin’ Coleman home.” Everybody said “Amen,” and we commenced supper.

Coleman ate like she was starving—I never saw such a hungry child. I was hungry too, but seein’ Miss Ida and Aunt Polly watching Coleman, I almost forgot to eat. They’re in their fifties, but Miss Ida is older than Aunt Polly. They say she was a great beauty when she was a girl, and to my way of thinking, she still is. Her hair is cotton white and hangs to her waist when she lets it down to brush it. But she mostly wears it piled on her head, puffed up around her face, with a knot on top, like a picture I saw of what Teacher said was called a Gibson Girl in the olden days. Her eyebrows are black, and she has soft brown eyes, and a rosy face she powders every day with a big puff and face powder that smells like lilacs. She wears starched shirtwaist dresses in light colors—pink, lavender, blue—and even faded and worn as they are, she always looks nice. She pulls on an old cardigan sweater of the Judge’s in the cold months, and Aunt Polly makes patchwork aprons and smocks for her to wear over her dresses when she’s cooking. She wears thick hose even on the hottest days, and white nurse’s shoes, ‘cause she’s on her feet in the kitchen so much.

Folks say Aunt Polly was the plain sister, born to be an old-maid schoolmarm, and her clothes
are
kind of schoolteacher-ish—starchy shirts and droopy skirts and lace-up shoes. But her smile could charm a bobcat to eat out of her hand. She wears her hair like Miss Ida’s, but hers is streaky gray and black. Her eyes are brown, too, and she wears glasses—Miss Ida maybe
should
wear ‘em, but she just uses hers for reading the newspaper—and Aunt Polly’s are always slippin’ down. Most of the time both of ‘em look so tired and worried, I forget how pretty they are. But watching Coleman eat, and knowing she’s home to stay, they were all smiles, and pretty as a picture.

When I turned to my supper, it was ‘bout the best I ever ate. Miss Ida is famous for her cooking, and there was a gracious plenty, ‘cause Miss Ida and I had put the little pot in the big pot for Coleman’s homecoming. We had fried chicken and green beans and corn and stewed tomatoes—all we’d canned last summer—and biscuits and butter. Miss Ida had said we should kill a chicken and clean out the pantry; there’d never be a better time for a feast. I thought so, too, but both our ol’ freezer and our pantry are gettin’ to look like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Miss Ida says we must trust in the Lord; He’ll show us what to do about food.

Miss Ida is best known for her desserts, especially cakes, and she’s teaching me. For Coleman’s homecoming, we’d fixed everybody’s favorite: chocolate fudge cake with chocolate pecan frosting. The pecans come from our own trees, and I shelled and picked out every one. That cake smelled so good baking I could hardly wait to get at it, and Miss Ida let me scrape the frosting bowl. Me and Coleman had two pieces each.

Coleman ate till I thought she’d bust, and I b’lieve she’d have kept at it till breakfast, but for being so sleepy. When she nodded off, and her head ‘bout fell in her plate, Aunt Polly picked her up and toted her off to bed.

After I helped Miss Ida clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes, I went upstairs, brushed my teeth, put on my other gown, and climbed in bed beside Coleman. After all that scrubbin’ she smelled like violet talcum powder. The rose scent was still in the room, too, and the lavender of the sheets, and the pine tree smell coming through the windows—I breathed it in and listened to the frogs croaking, and the river talking to itself, and a whippoorwill calling way off. When I said my prayers, I thanked the Lord for sendin’ me a sister, and for our good home.

Polly

For the first few weeks, Coleman couldn’t seem to get enough baths or shampoos. To save electricity and oil, instead of running hot water from the tap, we usually heat water over the wood fire in the stove and haul it up in the old dumbwaiter to the bathroom to add to the cold from the tap. And we use homemade soap and shampoo we buy from Rena Dorman, the Herb Lady. Rena makes candles, too, and all kinds of remedies, and sells them at reasonable prices. She scents everything she makes with the herbs and flowers in her garden, and they’re better than anything you can buy in a store, and a lot cheaper.

Coleman was careful to follow our ways, but she was in that tub every time I turned around. I never said a word, because cleanliness is next to godliness, and I surely do want that child to be close to God. I have a feeling she didn’t get many baths when she was with that Gloria.

After Coleman went to bed the first night, I made her a pale green cotton day frock, a blue denim play dress, two white cotton nighties, a bright red swim suit, and two pairs of panties, all from bits and pieces in the scrap bag. I couldn’t sew for her earlier because I didn’t know her size, and it’s a good thing I didn’t guess at it, because she’s tiny for five, only about as big as a three-year-old. I sewed all night, and I loved doing it. I wanted her to have clothes to meet folks in, and so she could play and swim with Dinah and the other children.

In the morning, Coleman pulled an old robe of Dinah’s on over her gown and rushed downstairs to the kitchen. I think the smell of breakfast cooking woke her up. Coleman was as hungry as a wolf despite her big supper. She put away huge helpings of grits with our home-churned butter, and scrambled eggs, and last night’s leftover biscuits toasted in the oven with more butter, and two glasses of milk.

I loved watching her eat, but I worried we wouldn’t have enough to feed her, and I prayed to the Lord for His help. He heard my prayers, for by ten o’clock that morning, neighbors began stopping by to welcome Coleman home, and not a soul arrived empty-handed. Friends brought us a ham, country sausage, bacon, roast and fried chicken, chicken salad, chicken pie, and so many cakes and casseroles, our freezer was full again. The home-canned tomatoes, strawberry jam, beans, pickles and pickled peaches, fig preserves, and the frozen butter beans, black-eyed peas, and corn—all the delicious food our neighbors took from their own larders as homecoming gifts for Coleman—filled our pantry and our freezer. Our cups ran over, thanks to the Lord and His servants.

One of our early visitors must have told Rena Dorman about Coleman’s beautiful hair, because around noon, Rena stopped by with some special shampoo for blondes. Everyone brought hand-me-down clothes, too: shorts and shirts and dresses and nighties their children had outgrown. Mary Louise phoned and said when Laura Byrd had told her how tiny Coleman is, she’d sent one of the big Byrd girls to the store to buy sandals, and church shoes, and socks, and seven-day panties with the days of the week on them.

Mary Louise brought her gifts over herself, and the minute she saw Coleman, she picked her up and hugged her. I was afraid Coleman might not like being picked up, but she hugged right back. I was glad. Mary Louise is the best person in the world, but she might intimidate some children. She’s nearly six feet tall, and thin. Her face is long and bony, and her eyes are a goldish color. She looks like a picture in
National Geographic
, exotic and foreign, and she moves like the dancer Judith Jamison I saw on TV when I was living in Raleigh. On weekdays, she wears bright colored turbans and caftans; today her turban was red, and her caftan was black with red flowers on it. On Sundays she wears plain dark church dresses and hats trimmed with flowers and feathers and such—she makes the hats herself, but I make her dresses and caftans. She is a glorious sight no matter what she wears. She and Coleman sat down in the porch swing and chattered away like they’d known each other all their lives.

When everyone left, I went through all the clothes they’d brought, and after that, every spare minute, I altered and hemmed hand-me-downs. As soon as I made the clothes the right size, Dinah washed and ironed them. (If the clothes were big enough for Dinah, I left them alone; there’s no shame in wearing hand-me-downs in our part of the world, and she needs clothes almost as much as Coleman does.) Coleman tried to help, but she’d never ironed, and she’d have to stand on a chair to reach the ironing board, and I wouldn’t let her—I was afraid she’d burn herself.

No one had taught Coleman a thing about keeping house, but she’s a good worker. She’ll do whatever needs doing in the garden, and she’d stay out there from first light to dark if we’d let her. She never sits down without asking if she can shell peas or pecans or wash lettuce—whatever needs doing. She’s taken over feeding the chickens and fetching the eggs. She wanted to learn to milk, but I said I’d have to think about it—I didn’t say so, but she’s way too little to milk. Maude, our old cow, wouldn’t like her tiny hands.

But when she offered to help with the sewing, I put her to picking out hems and pulling out basting thread. Those little hands are as quick as minnows flitting through the shallows. I made up my mind I’d teach her to sew.

Coleman seemed like a biddable child, another Dinah. But on her first Saturday night with us, we learned how she’d survived before she came to live with us: she’s strong-minded and set in her ways. Anybody who tried to boss her would get exhausted trying and not have moved her an inch.

We’d had an early picnic supper on the screened porch—pimiento cheese sandwiches and stuffed eggs and young lettuce salad—and we were sitting out there rocking and enjoying a heavenly breeze, when Miss Ida asked Coleman if she went to church.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m a Methodist,” she said, sounding as proud as if she’d won a medal at the state fair.

“You
are
? My goodness, we’re Presbyterian,” Dinah said.

“But you’ll go to the Presbyterian Church now that you’re living with us, won’t you, dear?” Ida said.

“No, ma’am, I cain’t do that,” Coleman said, raising her chin and looking Miss Ida straight in the eye. “I’m a member of the Methodist Church, and that’s where I have to go.”

“Not
cain’t
, can’t,” I said automatically. I could see Ida was as puzzled as I was: how had this tiny child, who’d been living with a heathen—surely child-stealer Gloria didn’t claim to be a Christian—become a member of a church? And why Methodist? There’s nothing wrong with the Methodist Church, but I’d like to know how she found them, or they found her.

“I have seen the ways of the sinners who drink alcohol,” Coleman said, solemn as a preacher. “I have took the pledge. I have sworn never to touch the ‘demon drink.’ Us Methodists stand firm on drink.” She stuck out her chin, and her cheeks were flushed. I could see this would not be easy to resolve.

I tried to think what to say to her. It is true that some churches persuade children to sign a pledge never to drink (even when they’re too young to write their names and have to sign with an
X
). I don’t see any harm in it, although it is not our way. But the Slocumbs and the Greenes and the Fairgroves—all Coleman’s kin—have always been Presbyterian. What will people think if she goes to the Methodist Church?

BOOK: Angels
8.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
For All of Her Life by Heather Graham
The Third Victim by Lisa Gardner
Absence of the Hero by Charles Bukowski, Edited with an introduction by David Calonne
The Scottish Companion by Karen Ranney