I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country. I would never
get used to the sounds o f water going down the toilets, or the
packaged foods, or doorbells, or the noise o f cars and trains and
buses. In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks. As
quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I
returned to the storybook world o f Robin Hood, where all
reality was unreal and even that changed every day. I had the
same attitude that I had used in Stamps: “ I didn’t come to stay.”
Mother was good at providing for us. Although she was a
nurse, she never worked at her profession while we were with
her. Mr. Freeman brought in the necessities and she earned extra
money working in gambling houses. The regular eight-to-five
world didn’t have enough excitement for her, and it was twenty
years later that I first saw her in a nurse’s uniform.
Mr. Freeman was a manager in the Southern Pacific train yards
and came home late sometimes, after Mother had gone out. He
took his dinner off the stove, where she had carefully covered it
and which she had warned us not to touch. He ate quietly in the
kitchen while Bailey and I read separately and greedily our own
Street & Smith* magazine. We had spending money now and
bought magazines with colorful pictures. When Mother was
away, we were put on the honor system. We had to finish our
homework, eat dinner, and wash the dishes before we could read
or listen to the radio.
Mr. Freeman moved gracefully, like a big brown bear, and
seldom spoke to us. He just waited for Mother and put his whole
self into the waiting. He never read the paper or tapped his foot
to the radio. He waited. That was all.
If she came home before we went to bed, we saw the man
come alive. He would jump out o f the big chair, like a man
coming out o f sleep, smiling. When her key opened the door,
Mr. Freeman would have already asked his usual question, “Hey,
Bibbi, have a good time?”
His question would hang in the air while she ran over to kiss
him on the lips. Then she turned to Bailey and me with the
lipstick kisses. “Haven’t you finished your homework?” If we had
and were just reading—“OK, say your prayers and go to bed.” If
we hadn’t—“Then go to your room and finish . . . then say your
prayers and go to bed.”
Mr. Freeman’s smile never grew, it stayed the same. Sometimes
Mother would go over and sit on his lap, and the grin on his face
looked as if it would stay there for ever.
Because o f the stories we read and our lively imaginations and,
probably, memories of our brief but full lives, Bailey and I
suffered—he physically and I mentally. He stuttered, and I sweated
* Street & Smith: a company that produced very popular books and magazines,
through frightening dreams. He was constantly told to slow down
and start again, and on my particularly bad nights my mother
would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr.
Freeman. After the third time in Mother’s bed, I thought there
was nothing strange about sleeping there.
One morning she got out of bed early, and I fell back asleep
again. But I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg. It
was too soft to be a hand, and it wasn’t the touch of clothes.
Whatever it was, I hadn’t experienced it in all the years o f sleeping
with Momma. It didn’t move, and I was too surprised to. I turned
my head a little to the left to see if Mr. Freeman was awake and
gone, but his eyes were open and both hands were above the cover.
I knew, as if I had always known, that it was his “thing” on my leg.
He said, “Just stay right here, Ritie, I ain’t gonna* hurt you.” I
wasn’t afraid—a little uncertain, maybe, but not afraid. O f course
I knew that lots o f people did “it” and that they used their
“things” to do this deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to
anybody. Mr. Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand
between my legs. He didn’t hurt, but Momma had always said:
“Keep your legs closed, and don’t let nobody see between them.”
“Now, I didn’t hurt you. D o n ’t get scared.” He threw back the
blankets and his “thing” stood up like a brown ear o f corn. He
took my hand and said, “Feel it.” Then he dragged me on top o f
his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast
and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid he would die.
Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me
so softly that I wished he wouldn’t let me go. I felt at home. From
the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let
anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real
father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled
over, leaving me in a wet place, and stood up.
* gonna: short for “going to”
“I have to talk to you, Ritie.” He pulled off his shorts, which
had fallen to his ankles, and went into the bathroom.
It was true the bed was wet, but I knew I hadn’t had an
accident. Maybe Mr. Freeman had one while he was holding me.
He came back with a glass o f water and told me in a sour voice,
“Get up. You peed in the bed.” He poured water on the wet spot,
and it did look like my bed on many mornings.
Having lived in Southern strictness, I knew when to keep
quiet around adults, but I did want to ask him why he said I peed
when I was sure he didn’t believe that. If he thought I was
naughty, would that mean that he would never hold me again?
Or admit that he was my father? I had made him ashamed o f me.
“Ritie, you love Bailey?” He sat down on the bed and I came
close, hoping. “Yes.” He was bending down, pulling on his socks,
and his back was so large and friendly I wanted to rest my head
“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.”
What had we done? We? Obviously he didn’t mean my peeing
in the bed. I didn’t understand and didn’t dare ask him. There was
no chance to ask Bailey either, because that would be telling what
we had done. The thought that he might kill Bailey shocked me.
After he left the room I thought about telling Mother that I hadn’t
peed in the bed. But then if she asked me what happened I’d have
to tell her about Mr. Freeman holding me, and I couldn’t do that.
For weeks after that he said nothing to me, except brief hellos
which were given without ever looking in my direction.
This was the first secret I had ever kept from Bailey and
sometimes I thought he should be able to read it on my face, but
he noticed nothing.
I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and being wrapped in
his big arms. Before, my world had been Bailey, food, Momma,
the Store, reading books, and Uncle Willie. Now, for the first
time, it included physical contact.
I began to wait for Mr. Freeman to come in from the yards,
but when he did he never noticed me, although I put a lot of
feeling into “Good evening, Mr. Freeman.”
One evening, when I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I
went over to him and sat quickly on his lap. Fie had been waiting
for Mother again. Bailey was listening to the radio and didn’t
miss me. At first Mr. Freeman sat still, not holding me or
anything, then I felt a soft lump under my thigh begin to move. It
hit against me and started to harden. Then he pulled me to his
chest. He smelled o f coal dust and grease, and he was so close I
buried my face in his shirt and listened to his heart. It was beating
just for me. Only I could hear it, only I could feel the jumping
on my face. He said, “Sit still, stop moving around.” But all the
time, he pushed me around on his lap, then suddenly he stood up
and I slipped to the floor. He ran to the bathroom.
For months he stopped speaking to me again. I was hurt and
for a time felt lonelier than ever, but then I forgot about him.
I read more than ever, and wished in my soul that I had been
born a boy. Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world.
His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I
could have developed the first two qualities, but becoming a boy
was sure to be difficult, if not impossible.
When spring came to St. Louis, I took out my first library
card, and since Bailey and I seemed to be growing apart, I spent
most of my Saturdays at the library. The little princesses who
were mistaken for servants became more real to me than our
house, our mother, our school, or Mr. Freeman.
During those months we saw our grandparents and our
uncles, but they usually asked the same question, “Have you been
good children?” for which there was only one answer. Even
Bailey wouldn’t have dared to answer “No.”
On a late spring Saturday, after our chores (nothing like those in
Stamps) were done, Bailey and I were going out, he to play
baseball and I to the library Mr. Freeman said to me, after Bailey
had gone downstairs, “Ritie, go get some milk for the house.”
He gave me money and I rushed to the store and back to the
house. After putting the milk in the refrigerator, I turned and had
just reached the front door when I heard, “Ritie.” He was sitting
in the big chair by the radio. “Ritie, come here.” I didn’t think
about the holding time until I got close to him. His pants were
open and his “thing” was standing out of them by itself.
“No, sir, Mr. Freeman.” I started to back away. I didn’t want to
touch that thing again, and I didn’t need him to hold me
anymore. He grabbed my arm and pulled me between his legs.
His face was still and looked kind, but he didn’t smile. He did
nothing, except reach his left hand around to turn on the radio
without even looking at it. Over the noise o f the music, he said,
“Now, this ain’t gonna hurt you much. You liked it before,
I didn’t want to admit that I had in fact liked him holding me
or that I had liked his smell or the hard heart-beating, so I said
nothing. And his face became mean.
His legs were squeezing my waist. “Pull down your underpants.”
I hesitated for two reasons: he was holding me too tight to move,
and I was sure that any minute my mother or Bailey would run in
the door and save me.
“We were just playing before.” He released me enough to pull
down my underpants, and then dragged me closer to him. Turning
the radio up loud, too loud, he said, “If you scream, I’m gonna kill
you. And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey.” I could tell he meant
what he said. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to kill my
brother. Neither of us had done anything to him. And then.
Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even
the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old
body is a matter o f the child’s body breaking open, because the
body can, and the mind of the rapist cannot stop.
I thought I had died—I woke up in a white-walled world, and
it had to be heaven. But Mr. Freeman was there and he was
washing me. His hands shook, but he held me upright in the tub
and washed my legs. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ritie. I didn’t
mean it. But don’t you te ll. . . Remember, don’t you tell anyone.”
I felt cool and very clean and just a little tired. “No, sir, Mr.
Freeman, I won’t tell.” I was somewhere above everything.
“But I’m so tired I’ll just go and lay down a while, please,” I
whispered to him. I thought if I spoke out loud, he might
become frightened and hurt me again. He dried me and handed
me my underpants. “Put these on and go to the library. Your
mother ought to be coming home soon. You just act normal.”
Walking down the street, I felt the wet on my underpants and
my body hurt between my legs. I couldn’t sit long on the hard
seats in the library, so I walked by the empty lot where Bailey
played ball, but he wasn’t there. I stood for a while and watched
the older boys playing and then headed home.
After two blocks, I knew I’d never make it. Not unless I
counted every step. I had started to burn between my legs. The
insides o f my thighs shook. I went up the stairs one step at a time.
No one was in the living room, so I went straight to bed, after
hiding my red-and-yellow stained underpants under the sheets.
When Mother came in she said, “Well, young lady, I believe
this is the first time I’ve seen you go to bed without being told.
You must be sick.”
I wasn’t sick, but the pit o f my stomach was on fire—how
could I tell her that? Bailey came in later and asked me what the
matter was. There was nothing to tell him. When Mother called
us to eat and I said I wasn’t hungry, she laid her cool hand on my
forehead and cheeks. After she took my temperature, she said,
“You have a little fever.”
Mr. Freeman took up the whole doorway. “Then Bailey ought
not to be in there with her. Unless you want a whole house full
o f sick children.” She walked by Mr. Freeman. “Come on, Junior.
Get some cool towels and wipe your sisters face.”
As Bailey left the room, Mr. Freeman advanced to the bed. He
leaned over, his whole face a threat. “If you te ll. . . ” And again so
softly, I almost didn’t hear it—“If you tell.” I didn’t have the
energy to answer him. He had to know that I wasn’t going to tell
anything. Bailey came in with the towels and Mr. Freeman
That night I kept waking to hear Mother and Mr. Freeman
arguing. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I did hope
that she wouldn’t make him so mad that he’d hurt her too. I
knew he could do it, with his cold face and empty eyes.
Maybe I slept, but soon morning was there and Mother was
pretty over my bed. “How’re you feeling, baby?”
“Fine, Mother.” An automatic answer. “Where’s Bailey?”
She said he was still asleep but that she hadn’t slept all night.
She had been in and out o f my room, checking on me. I asked
her where Mr. Freeman was, and her face filled with remembered
anger. “He’s gone. Moved this morning.”
Could I tell her now? The terrible pain assured me that I
couldn’t. What he did to me, and what I allowed, must have been
very bad if already God let me hurt so much. If Mr. Freeman was
gone, did that mean Bailey was out o f danger? And if so, if I told
him, would he still love me?
That Sunday goes and comes in my memory. Once Bailey was
reading to me, and then Mother was looking closely at my face.
Then there was a doctor who took my temperature and held my
“Bailey!” I supposed I had screamed—he appeared suddenly,
and I asked him to help me and we’d run away to California or
France or Chicago. I knew that I was dying. In fact, I longed for
death, but I didn’t want to die anywhere near Mr. Freeman. I
knew that even now he wouldn’t have allowed death to take me
unless he wished it to.
Mother said I should be bathed and the sheets had to be
changed since I had sweat so much. But when they tried to move
me I fought, and even Bailey couldn’t hold me. Then she picked
me up in her arms and the terror lessened for a while. Bailey
began to change the bed. As he pulled off the wet sheets he
found the underpants I had hidden. They fell at Mother’s feet.
In the hospital, Bailey told me that I had to tell who did that
to me, or the man would hurt another little girl. When I
explained that I couldn’t tell because the man would kill him,
Bailey said knowingly, “He can’t kill me. I won’t let him.” And of
course I believed him. Bailey didn’t lie to me. So I told him.
Bailey cried at the side o f my bed until I started to cry too.
Almost fifteen years passed before I saw my brother cry like that
Using the brain he was born with (those were his words later
that day), he gave his information to Grandmother Baxter.
Mr. Freeman was arrested, avoiding the awful anger o f my uncles.
I would have liked to stay in the hospital the rest o f my life.
Mother brought flowers and candy. Grandmother came with
fruit and my uncles walked around my bed, guarding me. When
they were able to bring Bailey in, he read to me for hours.
The court was filled. Some people even stood behind the benches
at the back. Grandmother Bailey’s clients were there. The gamblers
and their women whispered to me that I now knew as much as
they did. I was eight, and grown. I sat with my family (Bailey
couldn’t come) and they rested still on their seats. Unmoving.
Poor Mr. Freeman turned in his chair to look empty threats
over to me. He didn’t know that he couldn’t kill Bailey.. . and
Bailey didn’t lie .. . to me.
“Was that the first time the accused touched you?” Mr.
Freeman’s lawyer asked. The question stopped me. Mr. Freeman
had surely done something very wrong, but I was certain that I
had helped him to do it. I didn’t want to lie, but the lawyer
wouldn’t let me think, so I remained silent.
“Did the accused try to touch you before the time you say he
I couldn’t say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for
a few minutes and how he had held me close before he thought I
had peed in the bed. My uncles would kill me and Grandmother
Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry.
And Mother, who thought I was such a good girl, would be so
disappointed. But most important, there was Bailey. I had kept a
big secret from him.
“Marguerite, answer the question. Did the accused touch you
before the occasion on which you claim he raped you?”
Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be “No.”
Everyone except Mr. Freeman and me. I looked at his face, and I
The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn’t get air. How I
hated the man for making me lie. The tears didn’t comfort my
heart as they usually did. I screamed, “Old, mean, dirty thing,
you. Dirty old thing.” Our lawyer brought me off the stand and
into my mother’s arms.
Mr. Freeman was given one year and one day, but he never got
a chance to go to prison. His lawyer (or someone) got him
released that very afternoon.
In the living room, Bailey and I played a board game on the
floor. I played badly because I was thinking how I would be able
to tell Bailey that I had lied and, even worse for our relationship,
kept a secret from him. Bailey answered the doorbell, because
Grandmother was in the kitchen. A tall white policeman asked
for Mrs. Baxter. Had they found out about the lie? Maybe the
policeman was coming to put me in jail because I had sworn on
the Bible that everything I said would be the truth, the whole
truth. The man in our living room was taller than the sky and
whiter than my image o f God.
“Mrs. Baxter, I thought you ought to know. Freemans been
found dead on the lot behind the meat factory.”
Softly, she said, “Poor man.” She wiped her hands on the
dishtowel and just as softly asked, “Do they know who did it?”
The policeman said, “Seems like he was dropped there. Some
say he was kicked to death.”
Grandmothers face turned a little red.“Tom, thanks for telling
- Poor man. Well, maybe it’s better this way.”
And he was gone, and a man was dead because I lied. Where
was the balance in that? One lie surely wouldn’t be worth a man’s
life. Bailey could have explained it all to me, but I didn’t care to
ask him. Obviously I had given up my place in heaven for ever
and I had no courage. I could feel the evil flowing through my
body and waiting to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my
mouth. I held my teeth tightly shut. If it escaped, wouldn’t it
flood the world and all the innocent people?
Grandmother Baxter said, “Ritie and Junior, you didn’t hear a
thing. I never want this situation nor that man’s evil name
mentioned in this house again. I mean that.” She went back into
the kitchen to make apple pie for my celebration.
Even Bailey looked frightened. He sat alone, looking at a
man’s death. Not quite understanding it but frightened anyway.
In those moments I decided that although Bailey loved me, he
couldn’t help. I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be
no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to
everyone except Bailey. Somehow I knew that because I loved
him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else
that person might die too.
I had to stop talking.
In the first weeks my family accepted my behavior as a postrape,
post-hospital problem. (Neither the word “rape” nor the
experience was mentioned in Grandmothers house, where
Bailey and I were again staying.) They understood that I could
talk to Bailey, but to no one else.
Then came the last visit from the visiting nurse, and the
doctor said I was healed. That meant that I should be back on the
sidewalks playing ball or enjoying the games I had been given
when I was sick. When I refused to be the child they knew, I was
For a while I was punished for not speaking; and then came
the whippings, given by any relative who felt himself offended.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from