Bertha was in the kitchen with the hummingbird man. He came from the same part of South Carolina as she did, and every year when he came up to supply the Newport hostesses with their favourite party trick, he would bring Bertha a message from what was left of her family. She had not seen any of them since the day ten years ago when she had been picked by the Reverend to go North, but sometimes when she walked through the kitchens on baking day and smelt the hot sweet smell, she thought she saw the swish of her mother"s blue and white striped skirt. These days she could barely remember her mother"s face but that smell would knock her back into the old cabin so fast it would bring tears to her eyes. She had sent letters at first with the presents and the money, figuring that her mother would find someone to read them to her, but now she had stopped, she didn"t want some stranger reading aloud to her momma the secrets of her heart.
"Your momma said to say that your Uncle Ezra passed," said the hummingbird man, removing his bowler hat, perhaps as a sign of respect, perhaps to impress Bertha with the noble planes of his skull. Bertha bowed her head; she had a dim memory of being carried into church on Uncle Ezra"s shoulders and wondering if it was safe to hold on to the hair coming out of his ears.
"It was a fine burial, even Mrs Calhoun came to pay her respects."
"And Momma, how"s she doing? Is she wearing the shawl I sent her? Tell her that the mistress brought it back from Europe."
"I"ll be sure to let her know " The hummingbird man paused and looked down at the shrouded cage on the floor where the hummingbirds slept. Bertha knew there was something wrong; the man had something to say that he didn"t quite have the words for. She should help him, ask him the question that would let him reveal what was troubling him, but a strange reluctance came over her. She wanted her mother to stay in her blue and white striped dress, warm and sweet and whole.
There was a crash from the kitchen behind and the hummingbirds stirred, their short futile flights disturbing the air like sighs.
"What colour are they this time?" asked Bertha, welcoming the distraction.
"I was told to make "em all gold. Wasn"t easy. Hummingbirds don"t like to be painted; some of "em just give up, just lay themselves down and don"t fly no more."
Bertha knelt down and lifted up the cloth. She could see flickers of brightness moving in the darkness. When all the guests sat down for supper at midnight they would be released into the winter garden like a shower of gold. They would be the talking point of the room for maybe a whole ten minutes; the young men would try and catch them as favours for the girls they were flirting with. The other hostesses would think a touch grimly that Nancy Cash would stop at nothing to impress, and in the morning the maids would sweep the tiny golden bodies into a surrendered heap.
"Did Momma give you any message for me, Samuel? Is there something wrong?" Bertha asked quietly.
The hummingbird man was speaking to his birds, making small popping noises with his mouth. He clucked his tongue and looked at Bertha sadly.
"She told me to tell you that everything was fine, but she ain"t fine, Bertha. She"s so skinny now she looks like she might blow away in the hurricane season. She"s wasting away, I don"t give her another winter. If you want to see her again, you should make it quick."
Bertha looked down at the birds fizzing like Roman candles in their cage. She put her hands to her hair, which was smooth. Her mother"s hair was frizzy - it had constantly to be suppressed under headscarves. She knew that the hummingbird man was expecting emotion from her, tears at least. But Bertha had not cried for years, ten years in fact, since she had come North. What would be the point? After all, there was nothing she could do. Bertha knew how lucky she was, she knew of no other coloured girls who had become lady"s maids. From the moment she had been made Miss Cora"s maid, she had tried to speak, dress and behave like her as far as she was able. She remembered her mother"s calloused hands and found she could not look at the hummingbird man.
The American Heiress. Copyright © 2010 by Daisy Goodwin Productions.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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