"You can go," I said.
But the bees remained there like planes on a runway not knowing they'd been cleared for takeoff. They crawled on their stalk legs around the curved perimeters of the glass as if the world had shrunk to that jar. I tapped the glass, even laid the jar on its side, but those crazy bees stayed put.
The bees were still in there the next morning when Rosaleen showed up. She was bearing an angel food cake with fourteen candles.
"Here you go. Happy birthday," she said. We sat down and ate two slices each with glasses of milk. The milk left a moon crescent on the darkness of her upper lip, which she didn't bother to wipe away. Later I would remember that, how she set out, a marked woman from the beginning.
Sylvan was miles away. We walked along the ledge of the highway, Rosaleen moving at the pace of a bank-vault door, her spit jug fastened on her finger. Haze hung under the trees and every inch of air smelled overripe with peaches.
"You limping?" Rosaleen said.
My knees were aching to the point that I was struggling to keep up with her. "A little."
"Well, why don't we sit down on the side of the road a while?" she said.
"That's okay," I told her. "I'll be fine."
A car swept by, slinging scalded air and a layer of dust. Rosaleen was slick with heat. She mopped her face and breathed hard.
We were coming to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where T. Ray and I attended. The steeple jutted through a cluster of shade trees; below, the red bricks looked shadowy and cool.
"Come on," I said, turning in the drive.
"Where're you going?"
"We can rest in the church."
The air inside was dim and still, slanted with light from the side windows, not those pretty stained-glass windows but milky panes you can't really see through.
I led us down front and sat in the second pew, having room for Rosaleen. She plucked a paper fan from the hymnbook holder and studied the picture on it - a white church with a smiling white lady coming out the door.
Rosaleen fanned and I listened to little jets of air come off her hands. She never went to church herself, but on those few times T. Ray had let me walk to her house back in the woods, I'd seen her special shelf with a stub of candle, creek rocks, a reddish feather, and a piece of John the Conqueror root, and right in the center a picture of a woman, propped up without a frame.
The first time I saw it, I'd asked Rosaleen, "Is that you?" since I swear the woman looked exactly like her, with woolly braids, blue-black skin, narrow eyes, and most of her concentrated in her lower portion, like an eggplant.
"This is my mama," she said.
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.
From The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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