Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

My knees had been tortured like this enough times in my life that I'd stopped thinking of it as out of the ordinary; it was just something you had to put up with from time to time, like the common cold. But suddenly the look on Rosaleen's face cut through all that. Look what he's done to you.

That's what I was doing -- - taking a good long look at my knees -- - when T. Ray stomped through the back door.

"Well, look who decided to get up." He yanked the bread out of my hands and threw it into Snout's food bowl. "Would it be too much to ask you to get out to the peach stand and do some work? You're not Queen for a Day, you know."

This will sound crazy, but up until then I thought T. Ray probably loved me some. I could never forget the time he smiled at me in church when I was singing with the hymn book upside down.

Now I looked at his face. It was full of anger and despising.

"As long as you live under my roof, you'll do what I say!" he shouted.

Then I'll find another roof, I thought.

"You understand me?" he said.

"Yes, sir, I understand," I said, and I did, too. I understood that a new rooftop would do wonder for me.

Late that afternoon I caught two more bees. Lying on my stomach across the bed, I watched how they orbited the space in the jar, around and around like they'd missed the exit.

Rosaleen poked her head in the door. "You all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"I'm leaving now. You tell your daddy I'm going into town tomorrow instead of coming here."

"You're going to town? Take me," I said.

"Why do you wanna go?"

"Please, Rosaleen."

"You're gonna have to walk the whole way."

"I don't care."

"Ain't nothing much gonna be open but firecracker stands and the grocery store."

"I don't care. I just wanna get out of the house some on my birthday."

Rosaleen stared at me, sagged low on her big ankles. "All right, but you ask your daddy. I'll be by here first thing in the morning."

She was out the door. I called after her. "How come you're going to town?"

She stayed with her back to me a moment, unmoving. When she turned, her face looked soft and changed, like a different Rosaleen. Her hand dipped into her pocket, where her fingers crawled around for something. She drew out a folded piece of notebook paper and came to sit beside me on the bed. I rubbed my knees while she smoothed out the paper across her lap.

Her name, Rosaleen Daise, was written twenty-five times at least down the page in large, careful cursive, like the first paper you turn in when school starts. "This is my practice sheet," she said. "For the Fourth of July they're having a voters' rally at the colored church. I'm registering myself to vote."

An uneasy feeling settled in my stomach. Last night the television had said a man in Mississippi was killed for registering to vote, and I myself had overheard Mr. Bussey, one of the deacons, say to T. Ray, "Don't you worry, they're gonna make 'em write their names in perfect cursive and refuse them a card if they forget so much as to dot an i or make a loop in their y."

I studied the curves of Rosaleen's R. "Does T. Ray know what you're doing?"

"T. Ray," she said. "T. Ray don't know nothing."

At sunset he shuffled up, sweaty from work. I met him at the kitchen door, my arms folded across the front of my blouse. "I thought I'd walk to town with Rosaleen tomorrow. I need to buy some sanitary supplies."

He accepted this without comment. T. Ray hated female puberty worse than anything.

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