by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
“I’m jus’ lookin’ for my grandbabies. And maybe you seen my grandbabies?”
The old woman’s voice whines in my mind at odd times, grieving me, urging me, who can do nothing, to do some little thing after all. Oh, the humble supplications are the most horrible, since they enlist the conscience, and it is the conscience that echoes forever until I bend and put it to rest.
“Woman! What, what between me and thee?” Conscience. Common humanity. The heart’s language commonly spoken, and you speak it, and I understand it, though I do not always choose to understand, but we are members of the same Body, various extremities, and I am commanded to understand-
I will do something.
I will name you Rachel; and I will magnify your cry by writing it; and with it I will fill the ears of the people.
At eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night I left and locked my office, then stepped into dark night and a thin drizzle. Oily concrete in the close and cratered city. When I slid into my truck, both my hair and my feet were damped-and my spirit. I sat utterly still awhile, tired.
It is not unusual, at the end of the day, quietly to wish for endings absolute and to nurse the dream.
But then I heard what sounded like a wailing outside the rain’s whisper: “Hoo-ooo. Hoo-ooo.”
No, it was a high, broken, desolate voice, as though someone cried “Please, please” without words. Two simple notes, high and low, one simple song. But I saw no one, and I would have thought it the noise of my own weariness, or distant brakes, except that it became insistent, and when I opened the truck door, I heard it the louder: “Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”
It came from the alley that dead-ends at Gum street. Louder, and yet infinitely patient.
Then a bent figure emerged from the alley, stood at the mouth of it, and the wailing turned to words: “They ain’t bad boys. It ain’t that they is bad, oh, no,” she said. “I’m jus’ lookin’ for them, you know. But these old eyes is dim, and I cain’t seem to see them no ways.” She turned aside and raised a hand: “Hoo-ooo!” She turned to the other side, like the poor picture of an orator: “Hoo-ooo!”
Talking, she was. But there was no one, absolutely no one, near the woman, neither companions to hear her talk, nor grandbabies to come at her call. She was alone.
I stepped from the truck, winking against the mist.
Street-light glinted on her face, gnarled, wrinkled, deepdark and harder than black walnut. She wore a man’s vest and a man’s shoes. Her eyes jerked left and right, so intent on the search that she didn’t see me. She was a tiny bit of woman.
“It ain’t no time,” she said full reasonably, “it ain’t no place for them to be about. And it’s a dirty, weathery night. Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”
Who was she speaking to? God? The eyeless night? But her purpose was so inarguably right that I couldn’t leave her now; and it was clear that love and yearning together had driven her into the rain.
“Hey, Mon!” She saw me. “I’m jus’ lookin’ for my grandbabies.”
She came immediately and clutched my arm in a bird’s claw, her head at my chest. I smelled her tight, neat hair. Raindrops hung from earlobes pierced and ripped a long time ago. She was not ashamed to look me in the eye. “And maybe you seen my grandbabies?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said, though I wished with all my heart that I had. I thought of brown infants potching in puddles. “How old are they?”
“Oh, they be strapping big boys,” she nodded, holding my eye. “Each of him could give a head to you, Mon.” I’m six one. So they were big, these boys. They didn’t need me.
My wish to assist her melted in the chilly drizzle.
But the lady was earnest. Her fingers had sunk between muscle and arm-bone. “How long,” I asked, “have they been missing?”
“You gonna look?” she demanded, bright old eyes drilling mine. She reached her other hand to my cheek.
“Well,” I said lamely-she was buying me by touching my cheek— “yes—”
“Ooo, God bless you, child!” she said. “They been gone two lonely years, now, and I’m thinkin’ they hurt, Mon, and I’m feared they be troubled. Oh, Mon, you help me to find them!”
Two years! I spluttered in the manner of educated people whose education is meaningless before the bare, forked animal.
“Mon?” She drew down my face so that I had to look at her.
“It’s a promise? You use the powers Jesus given you? You be helpin’ me to find them?”
She had no teeth. Gums black and a darting red tongue and lines at her eyes that enfolded the soul.
I said, “Okay.”
Immediately she released me, forgot me standing there, and limped down Gum to Governor, a tiny and tinier bit of woman: “Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”
Mad, I thought driving home and dripping in the cab of my truck. Ho, ho, crazy lady! Midnight’s citizen!
And despite my vow I tried to forget her desperate, patient, weary search for grandbabies.
But I can’t, you see, forget it. Like spasms of conscience her voice keeps recurring inside of me. Certain sights, certain sounds trigger the cry, and I groan to remember her face, black walnut shell. Neither rain nor the late, exhausting nights do this to me, though one would think so by association. Rather, it’s a moral memory.
Listen, and I’ll tell you when I hear the pleading song, “Hoo-ooo. “
When I see young strapping men slouch into Bayard Park beside my house-
They carry beer cans low at their sides, and bottles in packages. They drink, they laugh unmindful of anyone else, they gaze with vacant eyes to the void-blue skies, they leave a most unsocial mess behind. And compulsively I wonder with the crazy lady’s sweet irrationality: Are these her grandbabies? These, the handsome, strong, and lost? Do they know what they have done to her? Can’t they hear the old woman’s call, “Hoo-ooo?”
So much for intellect and my education. The woman’s infected me with madness.
Or, when I smell the strapping young men in front of my house—
Smell, because their car windows are open, and the acrid smoke of marijuana cannot be disguised. “Hoo-ooo!” And they gather in front of Doc’s Liquor Store, those who could give a head to me, those beloved of an old and searching woman. And they park at the Eastland Mall; and they ride wild on the North Side, the East and West sides in loud careless cars; and they live in a thousand homes throughout the city, great weights upon an already crippled system, strapping youths who have chosen to live according to their own desires alone, full of their own boredom, forgetful.
“Is that old lady your grandma?” I want to say. “Don’t you know that every private choice which you make for yourself is not private at all, but hurts her? Don’t you know that she still is looking, a singular figure in the night, still is looking for you? There are no private choices. There is no such thing as ‘your own thing’! All selfish action damages those in love with you!”
No. The lady is not mad. She simply has a love that will not quit against reality—and that only looks like madness. She is Rachel.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they were not.”
Oh, go home again, you strapping, slouching youth, so full of promise, so full of yourselves! Bow down before mad, merciful Rachel. Ask her forgiveness. Then give her love for love.