Birdie by Wandeka Gayle

Birdie ran into the empty church, letting the old wooden doors bang against the concrete walls. She spotted the careful way his red and white robe draped over the throne-like chair on the pulpit, reminding her of things past, and she knew she had to set it ablaze. She would let the whole defiled thing burn from steeple to ground. She would make them all remember how they had stripped her of everything – her grandmother, her home, her son.

She ran up the aisle and took the canister of oil from under the pulpit where she had seen it many times, oil used to anoint the saved and to light the lamps at midnight vigils. She slowly poured it over herself, and over the reverend’s robe, making a small pool around her feet and the ornate chair. There were no tears now, but she was shaking with something else entirely. There would be no more singing. No more laying on hands. No more clapping and twirling and getting in spirit. Not in this place. Not after what he had let happen here.

She looked behind her in the choir loft and saw how neatly the hymnals were piled on the piano. With more strength than she knew she had, she tossed the empty canister at them and watched the books topple to the ground, but it did not satisfy the thing that tugged at her still. So she went to them and began ripping the music sheets from the book down to the spine, grunting with every motion. She could not sing in the festival all those years ago, they had said. She could not represent the church with big belly for a man they all knew but no one would say aloud.

Then, the tears came ugly hiccupping and deep from her diaphragm. She felt the oil trickle from her thick curls, down her back and through the folds of her cotton dress. Wiping her eyes, she looked at the box of matches that sat just in reach next to where the canister had been. She snatched them up. Then she paused.

Could she leave Jacob? Could she really leave her son?

She thought with renewed distress how he would not come to her just now, how he did not know her. She had defied her banishment, had come back to this god-forsaken back-o-wall Bramblewood to take back for her child. She had stood outside the church, away from view under the guango tree and watched the women with tied heads and the men in bush jackets file out after service to shake the hand of Reverend Eugene Hawthorne, his red and white robe near regal under the glare of the afternoon sun. She had watched him, feeling her pulse race and the bone begin to twitch at her temple. Then, she saw the little boy. Her little boy.

He was chewing the begonia stalks near the steps of the church and she knew him immediately. She was crying before she realized what was happening. His face mirrored hers, but he was also doing something she had done herself countless times when she was a girl, when her grandmother was still inside the church dancing and chanting with the warner women and could not see her sucking the tender green stalks of the plant.

She did not know how long she stood there transfixed, watching him, wondering how she could have let herself be persuaded to give him up. Then she saw the reverend’s wife, Rachel, take his hand and the little boy squealed when she tried to take the plant from him.

Birdie had walked out from under the tree unsure what she would say but something about the gentle way Rachel held him grated on her. And when she had revealed herself, had ignored Rachel’s surprised inquires and she had called to the boy, Jacob had clutched the folds of Rachel’s floral skirt and pressed himself away from Birdie. Tears filmed her eyes and she tried to smile as she had knelt and opened her arms, but Jacob had burrowed deeper in the folds and whimpered. It made something inside Birdie ache when she thought of how lonely it had been away from her child, wondering for so long only if she would know him.

When Jacob turned one, Birdie was walking across the stage at a new high school at graduation time all the way in the north coast. She could not forget that her child was being cradled by another woman, or learning to walk toward the man who abandoned her. In the early days, she would be found crying in the bathroom when her breasts were still swollen with milk, the pain tearing at her insides. The next year when he was two, she had gone to work for a woman in Montego Bay as a shop front girl, but Jacob had never left her mind. Every little boy entering the shop was Jacob, even the ones entering primary school, some in khaki pants and gingham shirt.

Then, just as she had settled in the drudgery of work, a letter came in perfect cursive but without address saying: “You grandmother got strokes. She in the bosom of the Lord.”

One month late.

She knew she had to return to Bramblewood to take back her child before he too was lost to her forever.

Birdie had not been there to say a word at the funeral, but she had cried for her grandmother because she was the only one who truly seemed to love her. She had cried even though the silence had stretched on between them so long, though her grandmother had been the one to bring her in front of the reverend, had shown him her uniform taut with their shame and said she believed her granddaughter and knew all the police constables, and corporals and inspectors for miles who would not have trouble putting a man of God behind bars for less. She had cried for her grandmother even though the woman had told her the story over and over how it was River Mumma that had come for Birdie the night she was born but had taken her mother instead.

She cried for her grandmother though she had told the reverend he should take the child.

So, standing there as her child rejected her, she had begun to see that perhaps, like her mother, she too was damned. She had come in the world while Hurricane Gilbert ripped a path of destruction through the island, so she would not go out quietly.

She wiped the tears that had mixed with the oil on her face. Her fingers trembled as she opened the small box and took out a match stick. She looked up to find the reverend in the doorway, peering up at her in the pulpit quizzically. His face was hard lines and shadow, different than when he was just Eugene and she was his Birdie.

He was coming toward her now and without a word, Birdie struck the match.

Wandeka Gayle is a Jamaican writer, visual artist, and the Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction at Southern Utah University. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and Callaloo Fellow who received her PhD in English with a Creative Writing (Fiction) concentration from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her writing has appeared in the aaduna, Susumba, Spectrum, the Sunday Gleaner, the Southwestern Review, Rigorous, and others and is forthcoming in midnight & indigo and Duende.