There she was, smiling from a photo on a flyer, taped to a light post.
Marjorie Louise Jenkins, the obituary reads.
Born in 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Funeral services to be held April 23, 1968 at 7pm at the Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church 2365 Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
That is today, Hannah thinks to herself. Today is her funeral. Hannah feels dull. When had she seen her last? Was I sitting on the campus steps of Low Library? Hannah tries to remember.
The Birdwoman was sitting in the sun singing, coffee in hand. She often had a coffee, lipstick smeared on the rim of the cup. Students on campus brought her coffee, particularly the beatniks. It held a certain caché to be seen talking with her. She was always dressed in a brightly colored silk robe. Her small feet in pink ballet slippers with delicate anklebones bare, insinuating slender calves, thighs and above. On her head she wore a small hat with feathers—a velvet fascinator. A couturier’s envy; each spine of every feather in the hat was hand-embroidered with colored silk threads and sewn at an angle so they splayed in a dove’s tail against the sides of her head. The Birdwoman reminded Hannah of a figure from the Hieronymus Bosch painting Garden of Earthly Delights, half-human, half-something else.
Hannah takes down the obituary and slipped it inside her coat pocket.
Outside of Dodge Gymnasium, Student Afro-American Society, SAAS organizers were already on their bullhorns, they were not allowed inside. Chattering groups gathered holding handmade signs— GYM CROW MUST GO. Mostly black students wearing army fatigue jackets and bellbottoms, their afros aloft like seeded dandelions. The crowd’s collective breath rises in the cold, and in the morning light it collected above their heads—words turned to smoke. Hannah recognizes Nate Montgomery, the organizer and leader of SAAS. She changes course and starts down the stairs to the street, away from the crowd. Both his parents were prominent professors in the Psychology Department at Columbia. His mother was white and his father was black, and they were famous for their research, and their interracial marriage.
Nate and Hannah were in a seminar together last semester, and he asked her out for coffee to discuss Freud’s essay Fetishism that was assigned reading.
Do you think Freud is alluding to racial fetishism? I mean by the translation of “shine on the nose”? My father thinks so, I discussed it with him. I am not sure. Nate said to her, smiling. They sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam, discussing the class. Their knees touched under the table, and she nodded, not sure what he meant.
Yes, maybe so. I am not sure if the translation is correct though?
After that, she avoided him.
She could hear Nate’s voice on the bullhorn making an announcement and the protesters cooed in agreement and cheered. Hannah knew why they were gathering; there had been signs for meetings and debates up everywhere all week. The SAAS were protesting the gymnasium that the University was building in Morningside Heights. Columbia’s proposition was that there be a backdoor entrance for the residents of the neighborhood to use the gym. The fact that most of the residents were black had incited anger and accusations of racism.Jim Crow all over again, protestors had scoffed. Hannah was not sure why this mattered. The community was not, in fact, students or faculty. Hannah went to a few meetings of the Student Democratic Society, a mostly white liberal group that supported SAS. Everyone was talking about marching. She could relate to the group’s passionate decry, so she stopped going.
She pulls the obituary out of her pocket. Hannah looks at the photo of the Birdwoman--she looks different, not just younger. Marjorie Jenkins. Her face was fuller then, no make-up, and she is smiling with her mouth closed. Only her eyes look the same. Her clothing is old-fashioned, a Peter Pan collar buttoned tightly around her slim neck. It was, Hannah thought, the kind of photo a family has of a relative they have not seen for many years.
* * * * *
Hannah slips in through the back door of the church where the service is taking place. Holding the door with her fingers until the last moment as it closes so as not to make any noise. Her trench coat is soaked through, and her hair sticks in thin wisps to her neck and temples. Hannah missed the last bus to 125th Street, so she walked, her stomach grumbling. She should have eaten before setting out to the church, but the decision to come to the memorial was a spontaneous one—she just found herself headed in that direction. Not having ever been above 116th Street, she didn’t known that the blocks suddenly were much longer on the avenues in Harlem and so she had gotten soaked to the skin on the way. The church is lit at the altar with fluorescents, giving it a green cast. Hannah wriggles out of her dripping coat. She feels faint.
Why didn’t I eat something? Why did I come?
All afternoon she had been preoccupied during her classes with the death of the Birdwoman—Marjorie Jenkins—Hannah says her name over and over in her mind.Hannah feels the slight weight of the announcement still in her pocket. It is moist from the wet fabric. Maybe, if she had left it up others from school would have seen it and would have come. The church is nearly empty as Hannah slides into a pew at the back. It struck her now, that the Birdwoman could be a name of a heroine from a comic book. A woman with supernatural powers who could sprout wings when in danger and fly.
But that was not why Marjorie was called Birdwoman. It was because she was bird-like, with her eccentric dress, her delicate bones and her small eyes. Not a sparrow, more of a bird of paradise. Hannah had heard Majorie called other names related to birds. Hannah feels a tightness in her chest as she remembers how once she had been behind a group of men on the street who clucked and bawked as they chased Marjorie across the street. One of them threw quarters at her and sneered as he pointed toward the crotch of his pants; That’s for our date later, Chickenhead.
The preacher began to speak, and as he talked, Hannah remembers snippets that Marjorie had told her about her childhood.
Marjorie Jenkins was born to illiterate sharecroppers in Birmingham, Alabama. One of 6 siblings, her parents moved from Alabama to Harlem as part of the Great Migration. Marjorie was 7 when they moved. The preacher paused. But she already could see things others couldn’t. Hannah thought.
She could hear the Birdwoman’s voice.
These black aint niggers in Harlem, theys are high minded. My Daddy used to say. Me, too. I thought to myself then. She had looked hard at Hannah after she spoke these words, and now in remembering that moment, Hannah feels ashamed. The preacher continues.
During the day, Marjorie worked with her mother in a factory on 8th Avenue sewing buttons on mens’ shirts. They lied about her age so she could work.
But Hannah isn’t listening to the preacher, instead she hears the lilting voice of Marjorie Jenkins;
At night I would sneak off to the woods in the park. I loved to sit there in the dark and sew my babies, that is what I called them, these dolls I made. Things at night in my house were not peaceful with Daddy’s drinking, so I would just go to the woods. I collected scraps from the factory where we were working, nothing big, just odds and ends. And I was always looking out for bits of metal and buttons, feathers, anything, to make them. I could sew so well I sewed such dolls as you have never seen in your life in the pitch black near the little bridge up there in the woods. One night I was on the bridge though, dancing with one of my babies- I loved to rock them and sing to them. This boy from the block came up on me, scared the daylights out of me. I swear, I jumped out of my skin and threw that baby off the bridge. Well, you know what that boy did? he told everyone on the block that I thrown a real live baby off that bridge. I went back the next morning searching for her, but the river had taken her away. I sat right down and cried my eyes out as if she was a real baby.
Hannah can still see Marjorie’s face telling the story—the hair on woman’s head so short under her hat that you could see the sheen of her skin beneath. Her mouth moving quickly as she spoke, lips full and poised, her crooked teeth revealed when she laughed. Now she was lying somewhere, cold, ashen, dead. How strange she is dead. Hannah thought about slipping into death herself. She thought it would not be unlike swimming in a flat sea. An eternal horizon open in front of you with no obstructions. But for Marjorie, Hannah imagined death differently. A tapestry of beautiful embroidered fabrics like the stories Marjorie told, patched together, representing her life; colorful and richly detailed in threadbare silks and velvets.
The choir begins to sing a gospel hymn, and as Hannah stands voices rise, the church is now full.