Billie Holiday croons in the heat of the afternoon, the soft sizzle of the old LP, adding to the melancholy she feels. She remembers her grandmother and her grandfather telling stories of when they would visit the wicked south, the dirty south, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. She remembers thinking as a child how lucky she was, that she and her friends didn’t live in a world like that: afraid to look into a another’s eyes; taking the back seats in the bus; being beaten just walking down the street minding your own business. Imagine seeing a lifeless body hanging from a tree on the side of a road: face unrecognizable; eyes bulging; tongue bloodied and swollen three times its normal size; limbs bent awkwardly, bones like broken match sticks. That’s what Billie is singing about. Emmett Till was only 14, lynched in Mississippi as late as 1955. Bernice’s own mother was born just the following year making the story still relevant, at least to her. Billie’s voice hauntingly sad, Bernice Toucan let the words tumble across her mind, over her tongue and spill into silence. She switched on her Nina Simone version on her cd player. It was hard to choose which one she preferred so she just didn’t bother and often played both.
Her thoughts went to the events the day before. Little Melanie Chickadee had come home from school, clutching her raincoat against her forehead. She and her older sister, Marion had come straight to her. Marion was screeching her name, “Aunt Bernice! Aunt Bernice! Pleeease, come quick!” At first Bernice hadn’t realized what was going on and was about to send her housekeeper to check what all the noise was about, when she heard the flapping at her window. She looked out and there was Marion and Melanie, blood dripping from Melanie’s head. She rushed to let them inside and got the housekeeper, Maisy, to get a clean wet towel and some water for the girls to drink. She gingerly cleaned Melanie’s head while asking Marion to calmly tell her what happened.
“Aunt Bernice. I don’t know how ih end up dis way. We midi come home from school when one of the boys in another group started to make jokes about the man they stoned on George Street. He was singing “Boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head” and the other kids were laughing and shouting “all batty man need fi get shot”. Melanie turned around and said to Leroy, the main bwoi who midi do it, ‘God seh fi luv eviadi. How you wuda like it if dami you?’ Then Leroy get vex and come up to Melanie and tellah ‘Tek dat back! I nuh gay! what? da musi yu gay!’ Melanie shake ih head and telah, ‘ah nevah seh u gay but my ma seh dat people whe talk di mos gat di most fi hide.’ Den he try push ah dung and Melanie push ah back. Suh I get Melanie and tell ah mek wi goh home. Den wen wi miya jus turn di cawna, ah feel sumting knack mi back and den ah si Melanie drop dung pan di street.”
At this point Marion’s voice is rising and her breath is quickened. She swallows and hi cupped a few times so Bernie reaches over and gives her a glass of water.
“Marion. Just sip it slowly, sweetie. Everything is ok now. Take your time.”
“Oh, Aunt Bernice,” wailed Marion. She was sobbing now and so was Melanie.
Bernice just gathered them both under her wings and rocked them as their bodies shook. By now, her own children were in the room, quietly standing by the doorway. She beckoned them to come and they did so quietly. Their eyes were wide and fear made them still. Bernie realized that she was still holding the bloody towel and could only imagine what they must be thinking. She smiled reassuringly and said, “Melanie and Marion were attacked by one of their school friends on the way home from school.”
Her daughter made a clucking sound and said, “Some friend.”
‘Katherine, I am sure the boy who hurt Marion and Melanie doesn’t even understand what he was doing or why he was saying what he was saying.”
“Oh, mom! Why you always have to be like this? Can’t you just get mad like everybody else? Nelson ma miwa dun di walk to da lee bwoi house fi bus fi hi head!” Bernice shot Katherine her ‘you bettah stop that now’ glare and Katherine stopped her tirade. Katherine sighed and asked in a lowered voice, “Whe hi seh?”
“Well, he was making fun of the incident that happened on George Street and saying derogatory things and Melanie stood up to him.”
“Way to go Melanie!” said Katherine.
Melanie raised her head and smiled weakly at the compliment.
Katherine tried not to react but Henry gasped. Even with the wound cleaned, it still looked frightening.
Bernice got up and said to the girls, “I think we had better call your mother. We can go pick her up at the factory and then go see your doctor or the ER whichever your mother prefers. I think you might need stitches Meli Mel.”
“Ok, Aunt Bernice,” Marion dried her eyes and hugged her sister close to her.
“Maisy, please have the driver pick up Lindsey and bring her and Darnell over here to stay with Henry and Katherine. You guys play some games while we are gone ok?”
Katherine and Henry nodded, not saying anything.
Bernice called her friend and quickly relayed the details. They decided to take Melanie and Marion to Bernice’s private doctor. She really didn’t want the girls at the public hospital facing all kinds of stares and even more trauma. Bernice felt it was the least she could do. Melanie had stood up to a bully today and she paid the price. She needed to know that it wasn’t in vain and that people would respect her for being so brave. Bernice felt that by taking care of the wound and quickly trying to get Melanie and Marion to bed with some dinner and tea, the sooner the girls could recover.
At the doctor’s office, while Melanie was receiving her stitches, Bernice and Dodes waited in the lobby. Dodes started to cry.
“How could this happen Bernie? They are just kids. Melanie is still just a baby. And this boy? What would possess him to stone my children? Did you see the bruise on Marion’s back?’ Of course she had but she just nodded. She knew Dodes didn’t really want her to talk. She just needed to cry and vent. “I feel like it’s all my fault. She told that little boy something I said.”
Bernice grabbed Dodes by the shoulders and turned her to face her. “Now stop it, Dodes. You only try to raise your children to be fair and just. She stood up to that boy because of what she believes and you are the one who gave her those beliefs. And they are good beliefs Dodes. Don’t let some ignorant little boy who has no idea what he is talking about change what you are teaching your children. There will always be bullies out there. And we all have to learn how to deal with them. Now. Get yourself together. We have to call the police as soon as we get home and the kids are gonna come out here any minute now.”
Dodes had nodded silently and sniffed loudly, trying to regain her composure. Bernice softened as she saw her friend try to calm herself. “Dodes. I am so proud of you. You are a great mom. Look at the wonderful children you raised. You need to let them know that you are proud of them ok? They did the right thing and they want to know that from you, ok?’ Bernice hugged her friend and felt herself start to tear up. Just then the girls came out all patched up and smiling, each with a lollipop their new favourite doctor had given them.
Bernice presses replay and listens to Nina again. She sings about murder and cruelty. Facts race through Bernie’s head. At one time, there were 4 million members in the KKK, made up of doctors, lawyers and even religious ministers. They justified their hatred with biblical quotes. They let their children cheer at lynchings, then let them go home to have the wives and sisters of those they lynched, cook their food and kiss their bruises and scrapes. And here it was, happening again, this time directed against sexual orientation. Did we never learn? History seems bent on repeating itself, lessons lost. Yesterday, a stoning, tomorrow a hanging. What would it take to satisfy these bigots? How could self-proclaimed devout Christians incite such hatred and not feel an ounce of Christian love and tolerance for their fellow creatures, God’s creatures?
Bernice sighs and presses replay. She had begged Dodes to be strong and take pride in her good sound beliefs she taught her children. Bernice shared these beliefs and expected no less from her own children. But, she could not help but be painfully aware of the difference. Bernice was definitely more insulated against such assaults as that just perpetuated against two little girls by a little boy. Dodes was alone, her children subject to dangers Bernice’s weren’t. Melanie and Marion hadn’t gone to school today. It was Friday anyway. Dodes had decided she wanted them to recover as well as have the next three days for the incident to fade in the schoolmates’ memories. But Bernice decided that even though the police had been called and the little boy arrested, that was not enough. She needed to go to that school and talk to the principal. Dodes had not gone because she needed to go to work but Bernice could and decided she would.
Nina sings about bodies swinging and the image of ropes hanging from trees flashes across Bernie’s mind. She is at the end of her rope. She is tired, tired of the inexplicable hate fueled by ignorance and fear. She could not just stand and watch this escalate. She makes a silent promise to all those who had hurt and all those who continue to hurt. She would not stand down or stand aside. She would stand up and stand beside and fight for what was only right and decent. She rises and goes to her room. She would go to that school and demand some sort of corrective action. She would get the media involved and send a strong message that this would not be tolerated. She wants to take that little boy, and others like him, and show him there is a different way to live, to think, to act. Plans blossom in Bernie’s head and hope flickers and then brightens. She is at the end of her rope but she will turn around and use it as a lasso, gather those wayward children and teach them to love and be accepting of difference. Bernice giggled out loud and shook her head. She marvels at herself. Even while she is thinking very dark morose thoughts, a funny image pops into her head of herself lassoing these boys. Bawk! Bawk! Bawk! Her giggles give way to hysterical laughter borne out of her own anxiety and apprehension about what she is about to do.