Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

The finish was rubbed off the sides of the picture where her thumbs had held it. Her shelf had to do with a religion she'd made up for herself, a mixture of nature and ancestor worships. She'd stopped going to the House of Prayer Full Gospel Holiness Church years ago because it started at ten in the morning and didn't end till three in the afternoon, which is enough religion to kill a full-grown person she'd said.

T. Ray said Rosaleen's religion was plain wacko, and for me to stay out of it. But it drew me to her to think she loved water rocks and woodpecker feathers, that she had a single picture of her mother just like I did.

One of the church doors opened and Brother Gerald, our minister, stepped into the sanctuary.

"Well, for goodness' sake, Lily, what are you doing here?"

Then he saw Rosaleen and started to rub the bald space on his head with such agitation I thought he might rub down to the skull bone.

"We were walking to town and stopped in to cool off."

His mouth formed the word "oh," but he didn't actually say it; he was too busy looking at Rosaleen in his church, Rosaleen who chose this moment to spit into her snuff jug.

It's funny how you forget the rules. She was not supposed to be inside here. Every time a rumor got going about a group of Negroes coming to worship with us on Sunday morning, the deacons stood locked-arms across the church steps to turn them away. We loved them in the Lord, Brother Gerald said, but they had their own places.

"Today's my birthday," I said, hoping to send his thoughts in a new direction.

"Is it? Well, happy birthday, Lily. So how old are you now?"

"Fourteen."

"Ask him if we can we have a couple of these fans for your birthday present," said Rosaleen.

He made a thin sound, intended for a laugh. "Now, if we let everybody borrow a fan that wanted one, the church wouldn't have a fan left."

"She was just kidding," I said, and stood up. He smiled, satisfied, and walked beside me all the way to the door, with Rosaleen tagging behind.

Outside, the sky had whited over with clouds, and shine spilled across the surfaces, sending motes before my eyes. When we'd cut through the parsonage yard and were back on the highway, Rosaleen produced two church fans from the bosom of her dress, and, doing an impersonation of me gazing up sweet-faced, she said, "Oh, Brother Gerald, she was just kidding."

We came into Sylvan on the worst side of town. Old houses set up on cinder blocks. Fans wedged in the windows. Dirt yards. Women in pink curlers. Collarless dogs.

After a few blocks we approached the Esso station on the corner of West Market and Church Street, generally recognized as a catchall place for men with too much time on their hands.

I noticed that not a single car was getting gas. Three men sat in dinette chairs beside the garage with a piece of plywood balanced on their knees. They were playing cards.

"Hit me," one of them said, and the dealer, who wore a Seed and Feed cap, slapped a card down in front of him. He looked up and saw us, Rosaleen fanning and shuffling, swaying side to side. "Well, Look what we got coming here," he called out. "Where'e you going, nigger?"

Firecrackers made a spattering sound in the distance. "Keep walking," I whispered. "Don't pay any attention."

But Rosaleen, who had less sense than I'd dreamed, said in this tone like she was explaining something real hard to a kindergarten student, "I'm going to register my name so I can vote, that's what."

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