Authors: Reba White Williams
Well, Dinah talked to her, and Ida talked to her, and I did, too. When we couldn’t move her, we asked Mr. Guthrie, the Presbyterian minister, to come over and reason with her. He’s good with children, and he was patient with Coleman.
“Child, the Ten Commandments don’t tell us not to drink alcohol. Why are you so concerned about it?” he said.
“Mr. Guthrie, the Ten Commandments don’t say ‘Suffer the little children,’ either. But we know it’s the Lord’s will that people take care of children, because Jesus told us so. People who partake of the demon drink cain’t even remember they
children,” she said.
Someone had been teaching her the Bible, and we couldn’t argue with the word of God. And we knew she’d come by how the “demon drink” affected parents from personal experience. We were sorry she had to learn such a hard lesson so early. We decided to let her be; she was a Methodist, and a Methodist she would remain. (Truth to tell, I don’t think we could have budged her, no matter what we said or did.) What’s important is that the child worships the Lord and goes to church.
On Sunday morning, she looked pretty as a picture in a yellow dress I’d made her—I wanted her to have at least one new church dress—and we walked her to the Methodist Church on our way to the Presbyterian Church (in our town, the churches are lined up in a row on Church Street), and picked her up on the way home. She looked so alone and little when we left her, and even smaller when we walked towards her where she waited for us after church; my heart bled for her. But it was what she wanted, and that’s the way it remained. It was not the last discussion we had with Coleman about religion.
Coleman doesn’t talk much about her life before she came to live with us, but she remembers Jenny Byrd, the nurse her granny sent to Richmond. She said she cried and cried when Miss Jenny left. But she said cryin’ didn’t make her feel better, and it didn’t bring Miss Jenny back, and she made up her mind to quit cryin’ and do what needed to be done to get along—she thought that’s what the Lord had in mind for her. It’s good she’s not a crybaby. Aunt Polly says crybabies should ask the Lord to help them accept His will. Sounds like after she mourned for Miss Jenny, she went her own way without payin’ much heed to her daddy—he was “a victim of the demon drink”—or his lady friends.
When her Daddy died, that Gloria didn’t tell her, just rolled Coleman up in her pallet and shoved her in a car. A woman Coleman didn’t know drove ‘em all the way to New Orleans, Coleman sleeping in the back seat. I heard Aunt Polly tell Miss Ida that it sounded like Gloria gave Coleman a pill to make her sleep, so Coleman wouldn’t cry or fuss about bein’ snatched away like that. I told them what Coleman said about Gloria wanting to sell her, and Aunt Polly said we should all be even more thankful that Coleman had been found and brought home. Miss Ida just looked sick as an owl and didn’t say a word.
Coleman said living with that Gloria in New Orleans was mighty bad, ‘specially right before she came to us. She wanted to find her kin, but she didn’t know where in North Carolina we lived, and anyway, she didn’t have money for a bus or a train. She thought of asking at the church for help, but she put it off, fearin’ they’d want to send her to an orphanage. Then Miss Laura Byrd turned up. “I knew her right away,” Coleman said. “I wouldn’t ‘a gone off with a stranger, but she looked and talked just like Miss Jenny, so I knew she was a friend.”
When she met all the Byrds that came to call, Coleman’s eyes got big as saucers. She hadn’t known that the Byrds were a huge family—Aunt Polly says they’re more like a clan. She thought there were only the two she’d met, Miss Jenny and Miss Laura. She liked Aunt Mary Louise and the other grown-ups right away, and when she saw the little Byrds—some of them even smaller than she is—she laughed out loud. A bunch of little Byrds together is a mighty fine sight, and Byrd babies are as cute as kittens. I think Coleman likes bein’ with little ones, so she gets to be bigger than somebody.
Coleman met Byrd children down at the river where I took her to play. The Good Hope River runs through Slocumb County on its way to the ocean, and it’s deep in some places—there’s a big pool down river we musn’t go near—but right behind our house it’s shallow, with rocks to climb on, and a sandy beach, and vines hanging from the trees. The water’s the color of tea, and warm where the sun shines on it, and icy cold in the shade. The river smells like sweet shrub flowers—some folks call it Carolina spice bush—except in real cold weather. Then it smells so icy, it hurts your nose, but it’s a clean, good smell even then. Parts of heaven must be like the Good Hope River.
Most hot afternoons after they’ve finished their chores, the children from around here come to play in the water—Byrds, and black children, and white children—black hair, brown, blonde, towheads, and carrot tops; curly heads and silky ones; pigtails and buzz-cuts; and all ages, up to maybe twelve, and babies toted by their brothers and sisters. Mostly we walk or ride bikes to the river, but the Atkins children come on a mule, and once in a while, somebody’s daddy or big brother drops off kids in a truck. We make a lot of noise, laughing and splashing and yelling, but there’s nobody near to complain. Aunt Polly says it’s a place children can use their “outdoor voices.”
That day there were maybe twenty young’uns playing in the river, and they all ran up to greet Coleman. I thought she might be shy of all those strangers, but not a bit of it. She smiled a great big smile and said, “Oh I just love those clean children! Ain’t they the purtiest things you ever saw?”
Aunt Polly wouldn’t have liked how she talked, but I didn’t say a word. I decided early on I wouldn’t be a bossy boots just ‘cause I’m older than Coleman. Miss Ida and Aunt Polly can tell her what to do and how to mind her manners and how to talk right. (I get fussed at all the time about speakin’ lazy, and losin’ my
’s, and I know how tiresome hearing it over and over can be.) Anyway, she’ll have to listen to plenty from everybody else about how to talk and act. I’m just goin’ to love her, and enjoy her.
The children swarmed over Coleman like bees on a mimosa tree, pettin’ her, and strokin’ her hair, and tellin’ her about the river and the fish that swim in it and the critters that live in the woods and in the swamp across the river. Freddy Byrd—he’s ten and in the fifth grade and wants to work in a zoo when he grows up—sat with her on a big rock in the middle of the river, and they talked and talked. I sat nearby, but I knew most of what he was tellin’ her, and after a while I only half-listened. A breeze rippled the water and stirred the trees, and the sun warmed my back. The leaves rustled and bees hummed and buzzed. A red dragonfly rested on my knee, and I was so happy I thought I would bust. I thanked the Lord for this wonderful day.
I half-heard Freddy warning Coleman about snakes, and describing the possums and ‘coons and squirrels and deer and rabbits folks around here depend on for food. He said there were bobcats and foxes and coyotes and maybe wolves nearby, and lots of birds all around us. He stole her heart making bird calls, so that a cardinal and a chickadee and a catbird all flew down to visit with him.
“Are there any great big birds here? I saw big birds in the sky in New Orleans,” Coleman said.
“Prob’ly buzzards—they’re everywhere. You’ll see ‘em here, too. But there’s others—there’s pelicans and ospreys—they’re big. And a huge woodpecker—they call it the Lord God bird.”
I broke in. “Freddy, you know that’s a tall tale about that Lord God bird. That bird’s like the dinosaurs—long gone.”
He glared at me and shook his head. “Nobody knows that for sure. They used to think all the red wolves were extinct, and now there’s a bunch of ‘em right here in North Carolina. I think that big ol’ woodpecker lives in the swamp. Nobody can prove it
“Why do they call it the Lord God bird?” Coleman asked.
“Because it’s so big and so beautiful, they want to thank Him for makin’ that bird,” Freddy said. “I believe it’s really ‘the Lord God’s bird.’”
I didn’t think that was right—I thought people said “Lord God” ‘cause they were so surprised when they saw it. Kind of like people say “good God” or “good Lord,” which Aunt Polly says is takin’ the Lord’s name in vain. I like Freddy’s explanation better, though.
“I tell you what: I got a new bird book last Christmas. I’ll bring you my old one, and I’ll show you the pictures, and you can draw the birds, and keep a list of those you see, and put everything in a scrapbook. Pretty soon you’ll know all the birds,” Freddy told Coleman.
Coleman jumped off the rock and bounced up and down in the water, makin’ big splashes. “Oh yes, let’s us do that!” she shouted.
It was the first time I heard her makin’ noise, and I was glad to hear it. She was a sight to see: a real live child with water sparkling on her skin, and that buttercup hair shining. I hate for her to act growny. Aunt Polly told Miss Ida Coleman has an “old soul.” I don’t know what that means, but I want her to laugh and have fun. It makes me feel bad to see her actin’ like a little ol’ lady.
Freddy came over the next day and brought the bird book and a scrapbook he’d bought for her with his pocket money. Those two started right in on their nature studying, and he took her out for a bird walk, showing her where and how the birds live and what they eat—berries, seeds, bugs, whatever. From that day on, Coleman was a friend to every feathery and furry critter in North Carolina, and Freddy adopted her as his little sister. He’s going to take her on bird walks whenever he can.
I liked seeing her make a friend. She’ll be glad of friends when she goes to school. Some of the big boys are mean as snappin’ turtles, and I reckon Coleman will be the smallest child in school. She might not have an easy time of it. I’ll take care of her the best I can, and the Lord is surely watchin’ over her, but it’s always good to have friends.
June is busy for us, because it’s the wedding month. We’ve been able to keep body and soul together all these years because Ida is such a good cook, and wedding cakes are one of her specialties. But she can cook anything, and people come from miles around for her baking, and to pick up party meals to serve company. June is her busiest month, and after June, December. When the New Year’s feasting is over, there’s a long spell when no one is much interested in food—or new clothes, for that matter—and we hunker down and wait it out. But Easter is good, and May is better, and June is best of all.
Most days in June—except Sundays, of course—Ida gets up at four and cooks all day, and Dinah helps her. The house is full of the sugary aroma of cakes and cookies baking—chocolate, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, lemon; the saltier smell of frying and roasting chicken and ham; the yeasty aroma of rolls; and the buttery scent of biscuits and corn bread. I stay hungry breathing in the mouthwatering smells that drift through the house.
Dinah’s helped in the kitchen ever since she could walk, even when she had to stand on a chair to reach the counter or the sink. She can measure and sift and grease pans and wash dishes and beat egg whites—whatever Ida needs her to do. Ida couldn’t get along without her. Coleman offered to help, too. Ida and Dinah have their own ways of doing things, and they don’t need her in the kitchen, but they welcomed her taking over the garden chores—weeding and pulling green onions, picking lettuce and new peas, and shelling beans and such. They make much of everything she does, and she beams. You can tell kind words were in short supply with that Gloria.
Between April and June I’m busy making Easter dresses, graduation dresses, prom dresses, wedding dresses, bridesmaids’ dresses, and mother-of-the-bride dresses. The rest of the year, I do alterations and hems, and make whatever people want—baby clothes, Christmas party dresses, back-to-school clothes, curtains, and slipcovers. I
need help, and when Coleman had been with us a week, I started teaching her to sew. In a few years, that child will sew as well as I can.
We settled down as peaceful as peas in a pod, then Coleman took another of her notions. This time, it was about a dog. Dogs are always wandering around the place, but we don’t pay them much heed. They’re yard dogs—yellow or brown, bony and short-haired. They’re not strays or homeless; they live around here, and their owners feed them table scraps. But nobody pens them up, and they come and go as they please. Coleman wanted to make pets of them, but we can’t afford to feed them—our scraps go to the chickens and a pig when we’re lucky enough to have one—and truth to tell, yard dogs aren’t interested in being pets. They’re not exactly unfriendly, but they have their own lives to live, and they make no bones about it.
Then a scrawny yellow bitch had a litter under the back porch, and we didn’t know a thing about it till three little balls of brownish fluff waddled out. Coleman was entranced. But their mama growled if anybody got too near. (Coleman named her Nana after the Peter Pan dog—I can’t imagine how she knows about Peter Pan. Did that Gloria read to her? Seems unlikely.)
Three days later, two of the puppies had disappeared, and Nana looked miserable. She didn’t even protest when Coleman picked up the remaining puppy. Coleman cuddled the little dog—she named him Peter—and fretted over the missing puppies. I was trying to decide what to tell her—any number of predators could have grabbed them—when Dinah spoke up.
“I ‘spect the owl got ‘em,” she said.
Coleman frowned. “What owl? Why?”
“The big horny owl that lives by the river,” Dinah said. “He probably ate ‘em.”
“Dinah means the great horned owl,” I said. “I’ll show you its picture in the bird book. Dinah might be right. That owl could easily take a small dog. I’ve known a horned owl to take a cat bigger than one of those puppies.”
Coleman scowled. “That’s horrible, eatin’ puppies. I never heard of such a thing. That ol’ owl ain’t a-goin’ to get this one; I’m keepin’ him safe inside. He’ll sleep with me and Dinah.” She stuck out her chin, and her cheeks flushed. I fear the look on her face means she’s made up her mind, and nothing will change it. Like about the Methodist Church.