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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And now, the VOA Special English program American Stories.
Our story today is called "Singing Woman." It was written by Ada Jack Carver. She won an O. Henry Award for the story.
"Singing Woman" is about an old professional mourner in the southern state of Louisiana. She lives on Isle Brevelle, a community of French-speaking people of mixed race. They are part black, part white. Now, here is Mary Tillotson with the story.
MARY TILLOTSON: Little by little, Isle Brevelle was changing and the old ways were disappearing. People did not even die as they used to in any beds with time to receive the sacrament and be pardoned for their sins. They died just anywhere, everywhere killed by trains or the growing number of automobiles that raced by on the big new roads.
No wondered the buryings were often poor, hurried affairs without even a singing woman. Henriette and her close friend, fat old Josephine Remon, were the only singing women left on Isle Brevelle.
There was a time when a singing woman was as necessary as a priest. No one who amounted to anything would be buried without a professional mourner.
Nowadays, people seemed to have lost the fear, the dignity of death. They did not care how they died or were born. They just came into and went out of the world, any old way.
All this troubled Henriette. She sat in her corner and mumbled and grumbled to God about it -- "Look liking ain't nothing right, not what it used to be."
It had been nearly ten years no since Henriette had wailed for a funeral. Her friend Josephine had had the last one. That was six years ago, when Madame Rivet died. That made ninety-eight for Josephine and ninety-nine for herself. She was one funeral ahead of her friend.
How proud Henriette was of her record! She, Henriette, had sung for more buryings than any singing woman in the parish. Of course, Old Josephine was a mighty close second.
Henriette kept a record of her own and Josephine's funerals, in a little black book locked up in a safe place. On one page was here own name, Henriette, and underneath it ninety-nine crosses in neat little rows of five. On the opposite page was Josephine's name, and beneath it ninety-eight crosses, in neat little rows of five. Well, they had served death long and loyally, she and Josephine.
There was a time when, as a special treat, Henriette would take out her funeral book and name the crosses: "This one was Marie Lombard, and this one Celeste, her daughter. Here was Henri, who died the time the cholera came, in eighteen-sixty.
Sometimes, Henriette wondered sadly if she would ever wail again. There was on Isle Brevelle only one person left who, if he died, would want a wailing woman. This was Toni Philbert, the only soul on Isle Brevelle older than Henriette.
Toni and Henriette and Josephine had been young folks together. Now it became a sort of game between the two women – who would get Toni when he died.
"If I get Toni," Henriette would say, "me, I'll have two more crosses than you. I'll have a hundred." And Josephine, sitting fat in her chair, would laugh – "mais non, and if I get him," we'll be even, Etta, my friend."
Toni himself, an old, old man was pleased with the fuss they made over him. Sometimes he would joke with them when he met them at church. "Well, well, old ‘uns. I'm here yet. Ha! Ha! I'll outlive both you girls. Just wait – me, I show you!"
Sometimes when the weather was fine, and the sun not too hot or too bright, old Henriette would take her stick and hobble down to Josephine's house to talk of old times.
What grand living and dying there used to be, back in steamboat days! It was like remembering a wedding festival or a Mardi Gras to look back to the yellow-fever scare of eighteen-ninety. A funeral every day, and sometimes two. She and Josephine had had their hands full…Shucks! The land was too healthy now, what with draining the swamps and such. The people were getting too uppity, outwitting death like that. Good thing after all that the automobiles bumped some of them off, else they would never quit the earth.
Sometimes, Henriette and Josephine would make wild little jokes, slapping at the flies with their untiring fans. "I seen Toni Last week, at the church. He's looking weak. Mai non!" And both would laugh. "He ain't here too long."
But old Toni, who for almost twenty years has had one foot in the grave, looked like he meant to hang on to the earth forever and ever, amen. He has always been like that, a lover of life and living. Heylaw! What a lad old Toni used to be…What a way with the girls!
It was on a terribly hot August day that Toni Philbert had a stroke. Henriette's grandson came in and told her about it. Henriette was excited. So Toni was sick, very low! She gulped down some coffee and got her stick and was off to Josephine's house. She was so heavy with news she could hardly breathe. Ah, well, poor old Toni was dying! Which one would he want to sing for him, herself or old Josephine?
A week went by, and another, and it began to look as if old Toni did not mean to die after all. It was just like Toni to keep death waiting, to play with death like that.
Every night Henriette got out her funeral book. Ninety-nine crosses for herself. A record any singing woman might be proud of! If only she could get one more, to complete her final five! If only she could get Toni. How she would crow over Josephine then…"Me, I got one hundred crosses. One hundred funerals I've sung for."
Then, one night in late September, Toni died and his son came to ask Henriette to the funeral. "Papa, he told us to get you. The funeral is tomorrow at ten."
In the morning, when Henriette awakened, she found that something terrible had happened to her voice. It was gone. She could not speak…too much excitement, and she let herself get wet outside. Her grandchildren put warm things on her throat and gave her a rum toddy. But it did no good. Her throat hurt when she opened her mouth. She sounded like a frog. She had to stay in bed.
In the evening the family returned from the burying. But they said nothing about the funeral and how nice Josephine had sung and carried on.
When Henriette thought no one was looking, she took out her funeral book from under her pillow and made a crossmark under Josephine's name. Now they were even! Each had ninety-nine crosses. Her old hands shook and one tear rolled out of one eye.
The next day, when Henriette awoke, she heard much excitement around the house. She sat up against her pillow. Her grandchildren crowed around her bed and told her that Josephine had gotten sick in the night and passed away early this morning.
"How do you feel, Granny?" Is your throat all right? Josephine asked for you in the night, to come and sing for her funeral…Well, le bon Dieu loves you."
All day, the children made preparations to take Henriette to Josephine's funeral. They said, "You stay in bed and rest, Mammy, so your voice will be good tomorrow."
The next morning they came in to help her. When she was dressed and ready to go, they brought her the funeral book. "Now, Mammy, look! Mark it down – one hundred funerals. You have sung for more buryings than anyone in the parish."
But Henriette brushed them away. "Don't interfere," she cackled. "You wait till I come home from Josephine's burial."
She was unsteady on her feet as they started out. She was so little, so little and thin. In the mourning veil she looked like a little black bride. She hobbled painfully, slowly along the road. There was not much strength left in her. A loneliness passed over her…a loneliness and heartache…"Josie," she called… "Josie…I'm coming."
She reached the turn of the road where the willows grew and had to stop. She could go no further. She became dizzy…weaker…sick with fear. She turned her face toward Josephine's house and whispered – "Josie."
Everything around her seemed less clear…a darkness took hold of her – "Josie…Josie…I believe, my friend that…after all…you and me will quit even."
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: You have heard the story called, "Singing Woman." I was written by Ada Jack Carver. It was edited and adapted for Special English by Harold Berman. Your narrator was Mary Tillotson. Listen again next week at the same time for another Special English program of AMERICAN STORIES. This is Shirley Griffith.