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AMERICAN STORIES - Singing Woman

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And now, the VOA Special English program American Stories. Our story today is called Singing Woman. It was written by Ada Jack Carver in 1927. 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 Albertville, a community of French-speaking people of mixed race. They are part black, part white. Now, here is Mary Tillotson with the story.

Little by little, Albertville was changing and the old ways were disappearing. People did not even die as they used to in any brides 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.

Oriate and her close friend, dead old Josie * were the only singing women left on Albertville. 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 these troubled Oriate. She sat in her corner and mumbled and grumbled to God about it. "Look liking nothing in right," Numbly used to be. It had been nearly 10 years now since Oriate had wailed for a funeral. Her friend Josephine had had the last one. That was 6 years ago when Madam Mary died. That made 98 for Josephine and 99 for herself. She was one funeral ahead of her friend. How proud Oriate was of her record. She, Oriate, had sung for more buryings than any singing woman in the parish. Of course, old Josephine was a mighty close second.

Oriate 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 her own name Oriate; and underneath it 99 crosses in neat little rows of five. On the opposite page, was Josephine's name and beneath it 98 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, Oriate would take out her funeral book and named the crosses. This one was Maradio barred, and this one she * her daughter. Here was all way who died at time of Coloracam in 1860.

Sometimes, Oriate wondered sadly if she would ever wail again. There was, on Albertville, only one-person left who, if he died, would want a wailing woman. This was Tony Fildbear, the only show on Albertville, older than Oriate. Tony and Oriate and Josephine had been young folks together. Now, it became a sort of game between the two women who would get Tony when he died. "If I get Tony," Oriate would say, "me, I have two more crosses than you, I will have a hundred." And Josephine sitting back in her chair would laugh, "minority if I get him we'll be even at them, my friend." Tony himself and all old men were pleased with the fast they made over him, sometimes he would joke with them when he met them in a church.

"Well, well, old and *, I’m yet, Oriate love both you girls, just wait me, I'll show you." Sometimes, when the weather was fine and the sun not too hot or too bright, Oriate would take her stick and hobble down to Josephine's house to talk of old times. What grand living and dying they're used to be back in steamboat days.

It was like remembering a wedding festival or a muddy grave to look back to the yellow fever scare of 1890. "A funeral everyday and sometimes two."

She and Josephine had had their hands for shocks. The land was too healthy now what was training the swarm in such. The people would get into a pity out waiting death like that. Good thing after all that the automobiles bumped some of them off, Outstate would never quit the earth.

Sometimes, Oriate and Josephine would make wild little jokes, slapping at the flights with fear untiring fans. I've seen Tony last week at the church. He was looking weak, may know?" And both would laugh.

He aimed her too long, but old Tony who for almost 20 years has had one foot in the grave look like he meant to hang on to the earth for ever and ever, Amen. He has always been like that, a lover of life and living. Hey, Lord, what a lad old Tony used to be. What a way with the girls."

It was on a terribly hot August day, but Tony Fildbear had a stroke. Oriate's grandson came in and told her about it. Oriate was excited, "So, Tony was sick?" "Very low." She got down some coffee and got her stick and was off to Josphine's house. She was so heavy with news, she could hardly breathe. "Ah, well, poor old Tony 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 Tony did not mean to die after all. It was just like Tony to keep death waiting to play with death like that.

Every night, Oriate got out her funeral book, 99 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 Tony. 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, Tony died and his son came to ask Oriate to the funeral. "Papa, he told us to get you, the funeral is tomorrow at 10." In the morning, when Oriate 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 Rome toddy. But it did no good. Her throat hurt when she opened 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 Josphine's song and carried on. When Oriate thought no one was looking, she took out her funeral book from under her pillow and made a cross mark under Josephine's name. Now, they were even, each had 99 crosses. Her old hands shook, and one tear rolled out of her one eye.

The next day, Oriate awoke. She heard much excitement around the house. She sat up against her pillow. Her grandchildren crowded 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, if Josephine rolled away. Josephine asked for you in the night to come in singing for her funeral." "Well, Lord you, love you." All day, the children made preparations to take Oriate to Josephine's funeral. They said, "You stay in bed and rest many 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, let me look, mark it down one hundred funerals. You've sung for more burying than anyone in the parish." But Oriate 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 it out. She was so little, so little and thin. In her mourning veil, she looked like a little black bride. She hobbled painfully, slowly along the road. There was not much strength left than 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."

You have heard the story called Singing Woman. It was written by Ada Jack Carver. It was edited and adapted for Special English by Herald Berman. Your narrator was Mary Tilloston. Listen again next week at the same time for another Special English program of American Stories. This is Shirley Griffith.

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