Burly Chapter Eleven

(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school and his brother Tad was nicer. A black family moved into the barn to help them pick the cotton. Mama continued to have dizzy spells.)
“Mrs. Johnson says she knows all kinds of medicine to make you feel better,” Herman offered. He became nervous when his parents talked about how they couldn’t afford to go to the doctor when they felt sick.
Mama laughed. “I’m sure she does.”
“Don’t call her Mrs. Johnson,” Papa instructed.
“Why? What do I call her?”
“Call her Josie. That’s her name,” Mama replied. Her attention now was on the potatoes.
“Or the Johnson woman,” Papa instructed.
“Why? Isn’t she Mrs. Johnson?” Herman pushed.
Papa raised his eyebrows. “We don’t know if they’re married or not.”
“But they have children.”
“Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.” Mama laughed again.
Papa interrupted sternly. “Now that’s enough of that. Stay out of the barn. Don’t call her Mrs. Johnson. Don’t ask why. Just do it.”
Mama shook her head. “Herman’s always full of questions.”
Herman stared at the floor. “Yes, Papa.” Then he went up to the loft so he could be alone with his bear family.
“I don’t think Mama and Papa are very nice about the Johnsons,” he confided to Burly and his parents.
“But your mama and papa are very nice to you,” Burly reminded him. “Don’t ever forget that.”
“Burly’s right,” Pearly Bear added. “Their love for all three of you children fills this house and makes it warm.”
“But that doesn’t mean you should pretend they’re nice to the Johnsons,” Burly Senior interjected. “Sometimes even parents can be wrong.”
“Even you?” Burly asked.
Burly Senior shuffled his burlap body a bit and cleared his throat. “Well, I haven’t been around long enough to make any mistakes. But I imagine I will, some day.”
Pearly giggled at her husband, and soon all four of them were having a good laugh.
The next day out in the field Herman sat next to Mrs. Johnson during lunch even though Tad gave him an angry look. Herman ignored his brother and looked at a nearby tree.
“Those birds sure are singing pretty,” he said, munching on a sandwich.
Mrs. Johnson quickly swallowed a mouthful of food and waved her hand at the tree. “Oh, those are turtledoves. They’ve got a beautiful song to sing all right, but you better not let one get in your house.”
“Why not?” Herman asked.
“Lord sakes alive, baby,” Mrs. Johnson exclaimed. “You let a turtledove in your house, and it starts to cooing and such, and sure enough somebody in your family will wind up dead.”
Tad snorted in disbelief. Herman couldn’t help but notice the three Johnson boys glowering at Tad. He also noticed they put their hands up to their face as they whispered to each other. One of them laughed but the other two hit him on his shoulder.
“Now, Josie,” her husband said in a reproving tone, “you know you shouldn’t be telling your stories to those boys.”
Before she could reply, Herman’s father walked up and announced, “Time to get back to work.”
Herman and Tad picked cotton side by side.
“You don’t believe that malarkey about turtledoves, do you?” Tad asked.
“N-no, I guess not,” Herman stammered. He really didn’t know what to believe but he thought it would be safer to say no to Tad.
“That’s why you shouldn’t talk to coloreds.” Tad used his I-told-you-so voice.
“You kids! Get to work!” Papa shouted, and that was the end of that.
When they were finished for the day and had emptied their sacks into a big wagon with tall chicken wire walls, Tad pulled Herman over to the side.
“Come on with me,” he whispered. “We’re going to have some fun.”
Herman smiled and ran along with him. It wasn’t often that Tad included him in his fun. Tad grabbed a burlap bag from the side of the barn and towed Herman down the road to the tree where the turtledoves were singing at noon. They carefully climbed the branches until they came to a nest. Tad threw his bag over the nest, capturing a turtledove.
“What are you going to do with it?” Herman asked.
Tad winked. “You’ll see.”
When they climbed down the tree there stood their father with his arms folded across his chest.
“And what do you boys think you’re up to?” Herman recognized that voice. That was the voice Papa used before the spanking began.
“I don’t know; just having fun,” Herman whispered.
“How about you, Tad?”
Tad tried to hide the sack behind him. “Aww, Papa, it was just a little joke. We were going to put the turtledove in the barn to scare the Johnsons.”
“Drop it! Right now! Herman, you go into the house. Tad! You follow me!”
Tad and his father marched around to the far side of the barn. When Herman got in the house he looked out the window to see what was going on. He could hear the whacks all the way to the house. Just then, the youngest of the Johnson boys ran out of the barn and into the woods. He turned to his mother and Callie who were cutting up vegetables for a stew.
“Papa’s beating Tad again.”
“What on earth for?” She dried her wet hands on her apron.
Herman explained how Mrs. Johnson told them about the turtledove curse and about how Tad was going to catch a turtledove and put it in the barn to scare the Johnsons. They had one in a sack when Papa came up and stopped the whole thing.
“Woody’s going to kill that boy before he makes it to manhood. Well, I could use that turtledove in the stew. Where is it?”
“In the woods,” Herman replied.
“Come take me to it.”
“Oh, I want to go with you too!” Callie pleaded. “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time!”
When they arrive at the tree where the turtledove nest was, they found the burlap bag but it was empty.
“It must have worked its way out. Oh well, we tried.” Mama took a step but stopped to bend over. “There’s that dizziness again.” She lifted her head to smile at Herman. “Did anything else happen today?”
“After Papa took Tad out behind the barn, one of the Johnson boys ran into the woods,” Herman replied.
“Maybe he went to get the turtledove,” Callie offered.
“Why on earth would he do that? And how did he know there was a turtledove in a bag out there?”
“Maybe he overheard Papa and Tad talking out behind the barn.” Callie wringed her hands, looking down.
“No, they wouldn’t do that,” Mama said, shaking her head.
“Why not?” Herman asked.
“You ask too many questions, Herman. Stop it,” she ordered. “Let’s get back to the house. Woody and Tad must be there by now.”
When they entered the house, Tad and his father were looking up in the rafters. A turtle dove was cooing.
“What on earth is that noise?” Callie asked.
“Oh, somehow a turtledove got in the house,” their father said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it. Maybe your mama can put it in the stew.”
“Tad!” His mother glared at him. “Did you bring that bird into my house?”
“No!” Tad looked frustrated. “I didn’t. Honest.”
The bird continued cooing, flitting away every time their father got near.
“The cooing is pretty, but it’s getting on my nerves,” Callie said.
“You’re not the only one,” her mother murmured.
Herman watched mama closely. It looked to him like she must be getting dizzy again. “Mama, are you all right?”
“Of course, I am, baby. It’s just that….” Their mother’s voice trailed off as she fell to the floor.
“Papa! Mama’s fainted!” Herman yelled.
His father jumped down from the rafters, swooped his wife up into his arms and rushed her into their bedroom. Callie ran in after them and closed the door. Herman and Tad stared at each other for what seemed like hours. In a few minutes Callie came out crying. She slumped into one of the kitchen table chairs and sobbed uncontrollably. Her brothers approached her slowly, as though they were treading on holy ground.
“What’s wrong?” Tad whispered.
Callie looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks and her eyes puffy and red. She could hardly get the words out.
“Mama’s dead.”
Herman and Tad were stunned. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t speak. They couldn’t think. Slowly Herman’s eyes focused on the shadows of the rafters. The turtledove was gently cooing.

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