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
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 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
“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.