Words Wrapped In A Song

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt

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Drama Coming of Age African American

Wren was lying on her bed reading when she heard her mother scream. Barkley, who was tucked in the crook of her legs, popped his head up, ears alert. He uncurled himself, hopped to the floor and clicked down the hall. Wren followed him, her heart beating fast. The house still smelled like dinner, warm and comforting. Water was running in the kitchen. 

 

In the den, the TV set was on. The soft, familiar murmur of the evening news filled the room with urgent words. Wren’s mother stood stock still, her hands over her mouth, a dish towel over her shoulder. “Turn it up,” she whispered. Wren’s father reached for the knob. 

 

Walter Cronkite sat against a silvery-blue background, his face serious. Murder,

he said in his clipped voice. All points bulletin. Shots fired. Bullets exploded. Turbulent racial situation.

 

“What happened?” Wren asked quietly. Barkley plopped down at her feet and began to scratch his chin, tags jingling.

 

“Oh honey,” her mother turned, eyes wet. “It’s Dr. King. He was killed tonight.”

 

“Dr King? Martin?” Wren had read about him in the newspaper. He had been on the

Evening News a lot lately, surrounded by people marching and praying and singing. She liked him. He seemed strong and kind. His voice sounded like words wrapped in a song. 

 

Wren’s mother had told her that Dr. King was a hero who fought for others. “A lot people in this country don’t have basic rights,” she had said. “Imagine not being able

to vote.”

 

Her father had shaken his head, “It’s criminal.” 

 

“Who killed him? Why?” Wren folded onto the couch, strange feelings catching in her throat. She hugged a scratchy pillow, tears springing to her eyes. Barkley hopped up next to her.

 

“No one knows.” Her mother plucked the afghan from the back of the couch and passed it to Wren. “But his words had power, and somebody didn’t like that.” 

 

Wren’s father stood, grabbed the dish towel from her mother’s shoulder and headed towards the kitchen. “He was a good man,” he muttered gruffly, the smoke from his cigarette following him. Wren heard the water turn off. Dishes clinked. The news droned on.

 

Wren went to school the next day with the newspaper headline swimming in her head. DR KING SLAIN BY SNIPER IN MEMPHIS. Kids streamed around her in the chilly hallway, chattering excitedly about the news. Some of them looked happy. Some of them looked confused. Some of them looked like they’d rather be talking about Gunsmoke. Nobody seemed to carry the grief that sat in Wren’s chest, except for

Bernadette.

 

Bernadette was the new kid. Bold and brassy, braids bouncing with every word, she told anyone who would listen, “We moved here from Alabama in the summer. It’s hot

here but it’s nothin’ compared to the South.”

 

She sat in the desk in front of Wren’s and she was the smartest kid in class. She raised her hand at every question, answering in her soft drawl. When Mrs. Anderson didn’t call on her, she waved her hand impatiently. When kids made fun of her, she snapped right back with flashing eyes. She could win any debate, fight her way through every dodgeball game on the blacktop, and she had read more books than Wren, which was saying something. Wren had never met anyone like her. 

 

Mrs. Anderson stood the front of the classroom with a ruler in her hand. “Settle down, class.” she shouted over the chatter. “Let’s all stand at attention.” Wren set her bag down, took her math book out and laid it on her desk, then placed her hand over her heart. Bernadette turned towards the flag, her movements like Robot from Lost in Space. Her lips moved along, One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, but her usually animated face was ashen. 

 

“Now,” clipped Mrs. Anderson, “Let’s turn to page six. Who can give me the answer to

question number four?” For the first time since she’d arrived at Andrew Jackson Elementary in September, Bernadette’s hand stayed in her lap.

  

Wren sat at her desk for the rest of the morning, working through math problems and writing paragraphs, her thoughts far away, swirling around Dr. King. She thought about seeing him on the evening news Special Report as he led all those people across the bridge in Alabama. She thought about his speeches. Let us March. She thought about the river of people marching, their faces filled with hope. The dignity and worth of all God’s people. She thought about her mother weeping in front of the TV set. Truth crushed to earth will rise again. Words wrapped in a song.

 

By lunch time, Bernadette was back to her usual self. Wren stood behind her in line,

clutching her canvas bag, waiting for the big, heavy cafeteria doors to open. 

 

“I’m going to change out of these braids,” she said to Wendy Wilkins, “My momma said I could have curly hair, just like Diana Ross.”

 

With a warm whoosh that smelled like a meaty mix of bread and mashed potatoes, the pale green doors finally opened. The line unspooled onto benches at long wooden tables as new lines branched out and formed around shiny metal serving windows and a damp table stacked with cartons of milk. 

 

Wren found her seat at the edge of a long table and peered into her bag. This room had always been a gauntlet of confusing rules. Sit here, you don’t belong with us; don’t

eat hot lunch, unless it’s Thursday; never tell if you see who shot the straw wrapper into Mrs. Bellwether’s cleavage.  She took an apple out of her bag and began to nibble on its mottled skin. Her mother had made her a sandwich on homemade bread with sprouts grown on the kitchen windowsill in a big glass jar. Wren liked her homemade sandwiches and she liked the sprouts, but the kids waved their bologna and cheese sandwiches on soft white bread and laughed at her brown one, so she always saved it until recess.

 

Mrs. Bellwether blew her whistle, two sharp tweets. The kids jumped up, leaving piles of trash and wobbling milk cartons behind on the tables. They raced each other to the blacktop, jostling and pushing their way onto dodgeball court. They reminded Wren of tiny armies going off to battle. She imagined them on a giant chess board, strategizing, preparing to attack.

 

Harold Bowler, the shortest and meanest kid in class, was Napoleon Bonaparte. She

imagined him commanding his troops in a tall fringey hat and a fluttering scarf. He stalked up and down the court, ball in hand, yelling at the other kids in his raspy voice. Jenny Parker was Mary Queen of Scots, constantly scheming, making comments that seemed nice until you thought about them twice. Elizabeth McGowen and Betsy Bell were the evil stepsisters, following Jenny around school, cat-like, purring, with soft paws hiding sharp claws. Bernadette was Harriet Tubman, in the middle of it all, eyes flashing, chin jutted out against Harold’s tyranny. 

 

A long time ago, Wren tried to join in the game, but the rules were confusing and she was always tagged out, so she took her library books and she leaned against an ash tree with branches that reached for the clouds scooting across the bright blue sky. Day after day, she sat with her back against the tree's giant trunk, tucked into a hollow between it's gnarled roots, watching the game, grateful to be bad at dodgeball. 

 

Wren took her sandwich out of her bag and opened her book, savoring bites of bread that tasted like home. She tumbled into the story, allowing it to calm her topsy-turvy

thoughts. Sounds of the dodgeball game floated towards her; the yelling and shouting, the big red ball bouncing and whizzing between the kids, yelps of surprise when it hit a target, more shouting. 

 

Suddenly, the shouting stopped. Harold’s voice cut through the quiet. “I said,” he advanced towards Bernadette, “you’re out.”

 

Bernadette held her ground, hugging the big red ball against her chest. “You cheated,” she shot back. “I’m not out.”

 

“You’re out,” Harold said again, a little louder this time. 

 

“I’m not,” Bernadette’s voice matched Harold’s.

 

Suddenly, Harold pulled up his sleeve, pointed at his arm and pushed his face into Bernadette’s.

 

“What color am I?” He snarled. Birds sang in the treetops, the cool breeze ruffled the leaves of the old ash tree.

 

Bernadette dropped the ball. Wren watched as it bounced across the blacktop and rolled onto the grass. The kids on the dodgeball court sucked in a breath. Someone

whistled.

 

“You’re white,” Bernadette’s words were clear and matter of fact.

 

“And that,” Harold stood on his tiptoes, inches away from Bernadette’s face, “makes me the one in charge.”

 

Wren felt her body unfurl from her spot against the tree. I have a dream. Her book flew to the ground. All men are created equal. Her legs moved underneath her, propelling her towards the blacktop and straight into Harold Bowler. She hit him so

hard that he flew to the ground with a surprised shout.

 

“Hey!” He tried to scramble to his feet, but Wren stood over him, her shadow falling on his face.

 

“How dare you,” she said, her voice quivering. “How dare you, Harold Bowler. You leave her alone.”

 

Bernadette stood motionless, staring at Wren. Her face was unreadable. Wren stood

over Harold, rooted in place, her whole body shaking.

 

Harold narrowed his eyes and looked up at Wren, then he sat back on his heels and he started to laugh. The other kids followed, nervously at first, then louder, like the steam that hissed out of her mother’s pressure cooker. 

 

Harold gasped for breath, held his side dramatically and stood up. He made a show of

brushing off his pants, then he looked directly at Wren, his little eyes glittering with hatred.

 

“Now we know why Wren never talks!” he said, spreading his arms out to the crowd. “It's because she’s crazy!” 

 

He tucked his arms under, like the wings of a bird, and he began to chant and flap.

“Cu-coo! Cu-Coo Bird!” The other kids joined in, circling Wren, happy to have a new target. Tears pricked in the corner of her eyes and her face burned under the wall of eyes staring, mouths chanting. She pushed through the crowd, and she ran. 

 

The bell rang loudly. Kids scattered to pick up lunch boxes and books. Lines formed and curled around the blacktop, the thrum of chanting following Wren as she ducked

into the bathroom. Cu-Coo! Cu-Coo Bird! The taunts bounced off cold tile and around the cavernous room as she turned on the spigot and splashed cold water onto her face. 

 

The bathroom door opened with a loud scrape. Wren braced herself for more taunting, but instead, Bernadette stepped into the room. She walked silently to the

long sink and stood next to Wren. Without looking her, she turned on the spigot. She pumped granules of soap from the dispenser, washed her hands with the foamy suds and dried them with the long cloth towel hanging from the wall. Never taking her eyes away from her hands, she spoke.

 

“When we first came here,” her voice was soft and vulnerable, “someone burnt a cross on our lawn.” 

 

She looked up at Wren, eyes like deep pools. “They did it again last night.” 

 

Wren stared at Bernadette, imagining the flames climbing higher and higher, lighting the dark sky. She pictured her own house flickering in angry red light. She felt a pang

of fear. She didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

 

“Thank you,” Bernadette said. Then, she straightened her back, she held her head up high, she opened the heavy bathroom door with a loud scrape, and she walked back out into the noisy hallway.

 

February 13, 2021 03:33

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12 comments

Kristin Neubauer
16:53 Feb 13, 2021

Powerful, Julie - so powerful - I have chills. From a writing perspective, you captured everything so well, particularly the kids at recess...playing dodgeball, getting into a fight, making fun of Wren. It's not that I could see it happening...I felt like I was actually there, hearing, seeing all their faces, their words. That is some really strong writing when you are able to do that. But the theme and how you executed it....that's what really got me. You portrayed Wren's innocence and confusion so well - her sense of outrage, though n...

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Julie Ward
19:01 Feb 13, 2021

Thank you Kristin! I can't believe I got it in this week-just under the wire!! The whole story started on the dodgeball court and kind of sent tendris out from there. I had the characters floating around in my head for awhile too - Wren as a shadow on the fringes of the class, Bernadette as a brave, bright ball of light. I read a lot of Dr. King's speeches and it made think about how all the different emotions around that time must have felt similar to what we're all feeling now - especially as they trickle down through families to kids....

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Scout Tahoe
15:31 Feb 27, 2021

I just tumbled upon this little treasure and couldn't stop reading... It's really powerful. I especially loved the name of the characters (hated Harold though) and I feel like Dr. King was in the background singing wise words into Wren's ear. However, I feel like it ended on a cliffhanger, but it didn't. I guess I just want more. :P

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Julie Ward
17:58 Feb 27, 2021

Ooh Scout!! That's exactly the kind of comment I want to hear! Everything in me wanted to wrap this story up with a neat and tidy bow - Wren and Bernadette, best friends forever. But life is so much more complicated than that. I think there's a lot more story to tell here...but I'm not sure where it's going quite yet. I'm so happy you found it, though, and took a minute to read!!

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Thom Brodkin
22:48 Feb 16, 2021

I don’t have the words to tell you how good this was. When I was eight years old I wrote a paper on Dr King. He’s been one of my hero’s ever since but this story was so much more than just a tribute. It was real. It was a commentary. It was deep and thoughtful and applicable today. I really love reading you. What a treasure.

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Julie Ward
14:32 Feb 17, 2021

Thank you, Thom! I had already started writing a story set on the playground in the 1970's, but I didn't get it fleshed out in time. When I saw this prompt, I felt like it really fit so I reworked it and scooted it back a couple of years. I really think that the playground is always the same-no matter the era - and that so much of what happened back then in terms of how kids process the upheavals of history is the same as what's going on now. Plus, I'm so inspired by Dr. King - it was a pleasure to go back to his famous speeches and his ...

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Thom Brodkin
14:34 Feb 17, 2021

Maybe the world would be a better place if we adults got together on the playground at lunch everyday. Maybe but I'm not sure. :-) I have a new one up. Would you be so kind as to give it a look?

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Julie Ward
15:05 Feb 17, 2021

I hate to say it, but I think there's a Harold in every bunch. But you're right, as long as he's not behind a keyboard there's hope. I can't wait to read! Heading over now. I'm working on a very light rom-com with lots of rom-com tropes for this week. Since you're so good at romance, I can't wait to hear what you think. It's a story I've had rolling around in my head for awhile, so I'm having fun playing around with it. I'll let you know when I finish! (Fingers crossed!)

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Roger Crane
21:08 Feb 17, 2021

A very nice story, and told with feeling. Some of the language, or grammar, was not correct, but that's easy with Word's spell/grammar checker, which you should always use. If you are writing in Apple, I don't know. I think that you may have tried just a little too hard to be expressive, but better than being droll. Some redundancy also, and the format was a little confused--but maybe that is the result of what this software does. When you carefully select the best of what you have written and avoid saying things twice, etc. your writing wil...

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Julie Ward
14:50 Feb 20, 2021

Thank you Roger! Yes, I had some issues with the format on this one - it took me forever to fix, but some of it didn't budge so I had to leave it. Either way, I'm glad you liked the story. It started off as something else, but this prompt was much better suited for the idea I had in my head. I really appreciate your comment about carefully selecting the best of what I've written. That's really helpful and I'll be using it, along with grammar check. (Never my strongest suit, but stronger than math!)

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K. Antonio
23:08 Feb 15, 2021

This is what I came here for! I loved your take on the prompt, that it was essentially a base for such a powerful story. The way you organized the scenes, the characters, the moral. I enjoyed this a lot! It's not easy to juggle so many characters, events, scenes, all in a short story. This was powerful, well crafted and certainly one of the best stories I read for this particular prompt. STELLAR JOB!

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Julie Ward
00:44 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you so much, K.! First of all for stopping by to read, and second, for your kind words. I started this story for the previous week's prompt, but it really came to life in the context of a historical event. Also, I think the playground is one of the most real and raw places you can be in terms of human behavior, especially when there's upheaval in the adult world. Thanks again for commenting, I really do appreciate your feedback!

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