To Kill a Mockingbird- Chapter 12

JEM was twelve. He was difficult to live with, inconsistent, moody. His appetite was appalling, and he told me so many times to stop pestering him I consulted Atticus: reckon he’s got a tapeworm?’ Atticus said no, Jem was growing. I must be patient with him and disturb him as little as possible.

This change in Jem had come about in a matter of weeks. Mrs Dubose was not cold in her grave – Jem had seemed grateful enough for my company when he went to read to her. Overnight it seemed, Jem had acquired an alien set of values and was trying to impose them on me; several times he went so far as to tell me what to do. After one altercation when Jem hollered, ‘It’s time you started bein’ a girl and acting right!’ I burst into tears and fled to Calpurnia.

‘Don’t you fret too much over Mister Jem—’ she began.

‘Mis-ter Jem?’

‘Yeah, he’s just about Mister Jem now.’

He ain’t that old,’ I said. ‘All he needs is somebody to beat him up, and I ain’t big enough.’

‘Baby,’ said Calpurnia, ‘I just can’t help it if Mister Jem’s growin’ up. He’s gonna want to be off to himself a lot now, doin’ whatever boys do, so you just come right on in the kitchen when you feel lonesome. We’ll find lots of things to do in here.’

The beginning of that summer boded well: Jem could do as be pleased; Calpurnia would do until Dill came. She seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.

But summer came and Dill was not there. I received a letter and a snapshot from him. The letter said he had a new father whose picture was enclosed, and he would have to stay in Meridian because they planned to build a fishing-boat. His father was a lawyer like Atticus, only much younger. Dill’s new father had a pleasant face, which made me glad Dill had captured him, but I was crushed. Dill concluded by saying he would love me for- ever and not to worry, he would come get me and marry me as soon as he got enough money together, so please write.

The fact that I had a permanent fiancé was little compensation for his absence; I had never thought about it, but summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string. Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel. With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable. I stayed miserable for two days.

As if that were not enough, the state legislature was called into emergency session and Atticus left us for two weeks. The Governor was eager to scrape a few barnacles off the ship of state; there were sit-down strikes in Birmingham; bread lines in the cities grew longer, people in the country grew poorer. But these were events remote from the world of Jem and me.

We were surprised one morning to see a cartoon in the Montgomery Advertiser above the caption, ‘Maycomb’s Finch/ It showed Atticus barefooted and in short pants, chained to a desk: he was diligently writing on a slate while some frivolous-looking girls yelled, ‘Yoo-hoo!’ at him.

‘That’s a compliment,’ explained Jem. ‘He spends his time doin’ things that wouldn’t get done if nobody did ’em.’


In addition to Jem’s newly developed characteristics, he had acquired a maddening air of wisdom.

‘Oh, Scout, it’s like reorganizing the tax systems of the counties and things. That kind of thing’s pretty dry to most men.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Oh, go on and leave me alone. I’m readin’ the paper.’

Jem got his wish. I departed for the kitchen.

While she was shelling peas, Calpurnia suddenly said, ‘What am I gonna do about you all’s church this Sunday?’

‘Nothing, I reckon. Atticus left us collection.’

Calpurnia’s eyes narrowed and I could tell what was going through her mind. ‘Cal,’ I said, ‘you know we’ll behave. We haven’t done anything in church in years.’

Calpurnia evidently remembered a rainy Sunday when we were both fatherless and teacherless. Left to its own devices, the class tied Eunice Ann Simpson to a chair and placed her in the furnace room. We forgot her, trooped upstairs to church, and were listening quietly to the sermon when a dreadful banging issued from the radiator pipes, persisting until someone investigated and brought forth Eunice Ann saying she didn’t want to playShadrachany more – Jem Finch said she wouldn’t get burnt if she had enough faith, but it was hot down there.

‘Besides, Cal, this isn’t the first time Atticus has left us,’ I protested.

‘Yeah, but he makes certain your teacher’s gonna be there. I didn’t hear him say this time - reckon he forgot it.’ Calpurnia scratched her head. Suddenly she smiled. ‘How’d you and Mister Jem like to come to church with me tomorrow?’


‘How ’bout it?’ grinned Calpurnia.

If Calpurnia had ever bathed me roughly before, it was nothing compared to her supervision of that Saturday night’s routine. She made me soap all over twice, drew fresh water in the tub for each rinse; she stuck my head in the basin and washed it with Octagon soap and castile. She had trusted Jem for years, but that night she invaded his privacy and provoked an outburst: ‘Can’t anybody take a bath in this house without the whole family lookin’?’

Next morning she began earlier than usual, to ‘go over our clothes’. When Calpurnia stayed overnight with us she slept on a folding-cot in the kitchen; that morning it was covered with our Sunday habiliments. She had put so much starch in my dress it came up like a tent when I sat down. She made me wear a petticoat and she wrapped a pink sash tightly around my waist. She -rent over my patent-leather shoes with a cold biscuit until she saw her face in them.

‘It’s like we were goin’ to Mardi Gras,’ said Jem. ‘What’s all this for Cal?’

‘I don’t want anybody sayin’ I don’t look after my children,’ she muttered. ‘Mister Jem, you absolutely can’t wear that tie with that suit. It’s green.’

‘’smatter with that?’

‘Suit’s blue. Can’t you tell?’

‘Hee hee,’ I howled, ‘Jem’s colour-blind.’

His face flushed angrily, but Calpurnia said, Wow you all quit that. You’re gonna go to First Purchase with smiles on your faces.’

First Purchase African M.E. Church was in the Quarters out- side the southern town limits, across the old sawmill tracks. It was an ancient paint-peeled frame building, the only church in Maycomb with a steeple and bell, called First Purchase because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves. Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays.

The churchyard was brick-hard clay, as was the cemetery beside it. If someone died during a dry spell, the body was covered with chunks of ice until rain softened the earth. A few graves in the cemetery were marked with crumbling tombstones; newer ones were outlined with brightly coloured glass and broken Coca-Cola bottles. Lightning rods guarding some graves denoted dead who rested uneasily; stumps of burned-out candles stood at the heads of infant graves. It was a happy cemetery.

The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the churchyard – Hearts of Love hairdressing mingled with asafoetida, snuff, Hoyt’s Cologne, Brown’s Mule, peppermint, and lilac talcum.

When they saw Jem and me with Calpurnia, the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekday gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us. Calpurnia walked between Jem and me, responding to the greetings other brightly clad neighbours.

‘What you up to, Miss Cal?’ said a voice behind us.

Calpurnia’s hands went to our shoulders and we stopped and looked around; standing in the path behind us was a tall Negro woman. Her weight was on one leg; she rested her left elbow in the curve of her hip, pointing at us with upturned palm. She was bullet-headed with strange almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, and an Indian-bow mouth. She seemed seven feet high.

I felt Calpurnia’s hand dig into my shoulder. ‘What you want, Lula?’ she asked, in tones I had never heard her use. She spoke quietly, contemptuously.

‘I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.’

‘They’s my comp’ny,’ said Calpurnia. Again I thought her voice strange: she was talking like the rest of them.

‘Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week.’

A murmur ran through the crowd. ‘Don’t you fret,’ Calpurnia whispered to me, but the roses on her hat trembled indignantly.

When Lula came up the pathway towards us Calpurnia said, ‘Stop right there, nigger.’

Lula stopped, but she said, ‘You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here – they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?’

Calpurnia said, ‘It’s the same God, aint’ it?’

Jem said, ‘Let’s go home, Cal, they don’t want us here—’

I agreed: they did not want us here. I sensed, rather than saw, that we were being advanced upon. They seemed to be drawing closer to us, but when I looked up at Calpurnia there was amusement in her eyes. When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of coloured people.

One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. ‘Mister Jem,’ he said, ‘we’re mighty glad to have you all here. Don’t pay no ’tention to Lula, she’s contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She’s a trouble-maker from way back, got fancy ideas an’ haughty ways – we’re mighty glad to have you all.’

With that, Calpurnia led us to the church door where we were greeted by Reverend Sykes, who led us to the front pew.

First Purchase was unceiled and unpainted within. Along its walls unlighted kerosene lamps hung on brass brackets; pine benches served as pews. Behind the rough oak pulpit a faded pink silk banner proclaimed God Is Love, the church’s only decoration except a rotogravure print of Hunt’s The Light of the World. There was no sign of piano, organ, hymn-books, church programmes – the familiar ecclesiastical impedimenta we saw every Sunday. It was dim inside, with a damp coolness slowly dispelled by the gathering congregation. At each seat was a cheap cardboard fan bearing a garish Garden of Gethsemane, courtesy Tyndal’s Hardware Co. (You-Name-It-We-Sell-It).

Calpurnia motioned Jem and me to the end of the row and placed herself between us. She fished in her purse, drew out her handkerchief, and untied the hard wad of change in its corner. She gave a dime to me and a dime to Jem. ‘We’ve got ours,’ he whispered. ‘You keep it,’ Calpurnia said, ‘you’re my company.’ Jem’s face showed brief indecision on the ethics of withholding his own dime, but his innate courtesy won and he shifted his dime to his pocket. I did likewise with no qualms.

‘Cal,’ I whispered, ‘where are the hymn-books?’

‘We don’t have any,’ she said.

‘Well how—?’

‘Sh-h,’ she said. Reverend Sykes was standing behind the pulpit staring the congregation to silence. He was a short, stocky man in a black suit, black tie, white shirt, and a gold watch-chain that glinted in the light from the frosted windows.

He said, ‘Brethren and sisters, we are particularly glad to have company with us this morning. Mister and Miss Finch. You all know their father. Before I begin I will read some announcements.’

Reverend Sykes shuffled some papers, chose one and held it at arm’s length. ‘The Missionary Society meets in the home of Sister Annette Reeves next Tuesday. Bring your sewing.’

He read from another paper. ‘You all know of Brother Tom Robinson’s trouble. He has been a faithful member of First Purchase since he was a boy. The collection taken up today and for the next three Sundays will go to Helen – his wife, to help her out at home.’

I punched Jem. ‘That’s the Tom Atticus’s de—’


I turned to Calpurnia but was hushed before I opened my mouth. Subdued, I fixed my attention upon Reverend Sykes, who seemed to be waiting for me to settle down. ‘Will the music superintendent lead us in the first hymn,’ he said.
Zeebo rose from his pew and walked down the centre aisle, stopping in front of us and facing the congregation. He was carrying a battered hymn-book. He opened it and said, ‘We’ll sing number two seventy-three.’

This was too much for me. ‘How’re we gonna sing it if there ain’t any hymn-books?’

Calpurnia smiled. ‘Hush baby,’ she whispered, ‘you’ll see in a minute.’

Zeebo cleared his throat and read in a voice like the rumble of distant artillery:

‘There’s a land beyond the river.’

Miraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo’s words. The last syllable, held to a husky hum, was followed by Zeebo saying:

‘That we call the sweet forever.’

Music again swelled around us; the last note lingered and Zeebo met it with the next line: ‘And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree.’

The congregation hesitated, Zeebo repeated the line carefully, and it was sung. At the chorus Zeebo closed the book, a signal for the congregation to proceed without his help.

On the dying notes of ‘Jubilee’, Zeebo said, ‘In that far-off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river.’

Line for line, voices followed in simple harmony until the hymn ended in a melancholy murmur.

I looked at Jem, who was looking at Zeebo from the corners of his eyes. I didn’t believe it either, but we had both heard it.

Reverend Sykes then called on the Lord to bless the sick and the suffering, a procedure no different from our church practice, except Reverend Sykes directed the Deity’s attention to several specific cases.

His sermon was a forthright denunciation of sin, an austere declaration of the motto on the wall behind him; he warned his flock against the evils of heady brews, gambling, and strange women. Bootleggers caused enough trouble in the Quarters, but women were worse. Again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.

Jem and I had heard the same sermon Sunday after Sunday, with only one exception. Reverend Sykes used his pulpit more freely to express his views on individual lapses from grace: Jim Hardy had been absent from church for five Sundays, and he wasn’t sick; Constance Jackson had better watch her ways - she was in grave danger for quarrelling with her neighbours; she had erected the only spite fence in the history of the Quarters.

Reverend Sykes dosed his sermon. He stood beside a table in front of the pulpit and requested the morning offering, a proceeding that was strange to Jem and me. One by one, the congregation came forward and dropped nickels and dimes into a black enamelled coffee can. Jem and I followed suit, and received a soft, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ as our dimes clinked.

To our amazement, Reverend Sykes emptied the can on to the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, ‘This is not enough, we must have ten dollars.’

The congregation stirred. ‘You all know what it’s for – Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime, we’ll have it—’ Reverend Sykes waved his hand and called to someone in the back of the church. ‘Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here till we have ten dollars.’

Calpurnia scratched in her handbag and brought forth a battered leather coin-purse. ‘Naw Cal,’ Jem whispered, when she handed him a shiny quarter, ‘we can put ours in. Gimme your dime, Scout.’

The church was becoming stuffy, and it occurred to me that Reverend Sykes intended to sweat the amount due out of his flock. Fans crackled, feet shuffled, tobacco-chewers were in agony.

Reverend Sykes startled me by saying sternly, ‘Carlow Richardson, I haven’t seen you up this aisle yet.’

A thin man in khaki pants came up the aisle and deposited a coin. The congregation murmured approval.

Reverend Sykes then said, ‘I want all of you with no children to make a sacrifice and give one more dime apiece. Then we’ll have it.’

Slowly, painfully, the ten dollars was collected. The door was opened, and the gust of warm air revived us. Zeebo lined On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, and church was over.

I wanted to stay and explore, but Calpurnia propelled me up the aisle ahead of her. At the church door, while she paused to talk with Zeebo and his family, Jem and I chatted with Reverend Sykes. I was bursting with questions, but decided I would wait and let Calpurnia answer them.

‘We were ’specially glad to have you all here,’ said Reverend Sykes. ‘This church has no better friend than your daddy.’

My curiosity burst: ‘Why were you all takin’ up collection for Tom Robinson’s wife?’

‘Didn’t you hear why?’ asked Reverend Sykes. ‘Helen’s got three little’uns and she can’t go out to work—’

‘Why can’t she take ’em with her, Reverend ?’ I asked. It was customary for field Negroes with tiny children to deposit them in whatever shade there was while their parents worked – usually the babies sat in the shade between two rows of cotton. Those unable to sit were strapped papoose-style on their mothers’ backs, or resided in extra cotton bags.

Reverend Sykes hesitated. ‘To tell you the truth. Miss Jean Louise, Helen’s finding it hard to get work these days … when it’s picking time, I don’t think Mr Link Deas’ll take her.’

‘Why not, Reverend?’

Before he could answer, I felt Calpurnia’s hand on my shoulder. At its pressure I said, ‘We thank you for lettin’ us come.’ Jem echoed me, and we made our way homeward.

‘Cal, I know Tom Robinson’s in jail an’ he’s done somethin’ awful, but why won’t folks hire Helen?’ I asked.

Calpurnia, in her navy voile dress and tub of a hat, walked between Jem and me. ‘It’s because of what folks say Tom’s done,’ she said. ‘Folks aren’t anxious to – to have anything to do with any of his family.’

‘Just what did he do, Cal?’

Calpurnia sighed. ‘Old Mr Bob Ewell accused him of rapin’ his girl an’ had him arrested an’ put in jail—’

‘Mr Ewell?’ My memory stirred. ‘Does he have anything to do with those Ewells that come every first day of school an’ then go home? Why, Atticus said they were absolute trash – I never
heard Atticus talk about folks the way he talked about the Ewells. He said—’

‘Yeah, those are the ones.’

‘Well, if everybody in Maycomb knows what kind of folks the Ewells are they’d be glad to hire Helen … what’s rape, Cal ?’

‘It’s somethin’ you’ll have to ask Mr Finch about,’ she said. ‘He can explain it better than I can. You all hungry? The Reverend took a long time unwindin’ this morning, he’s not usually so tedious.’

‘He’s just like our preacher,’ said Jem, ‘but why do you all sing hymns that way?’

‘Linin’?’ she asked.

‘Is that what it is?’

‘Yeah, it’s called linin’. They’ve done it that way as long as I can remember.’

Jem said it looked like they could save the collection money for a year and get some hymn-books.

Calpurnia laughed. ‘Wouldn’t do any good,’ she said. ‘They can’t read.’

‘Can’t read?’ I asked. ‘All those folks?’

‘That’s right,’ Calpurnia nodded. ‘Can’t but about four folks in First Purchase read … I’m one of ’em.’

‘Where’d you go to school, Cal?’ asked Jem.

‘Nowhere. Let’s see now, who taught me my letters? It was Miss Maudie Atkinson’s aunt, old Miss Buford—’

‘Are you that old?’

‘I’m older than Mr Finch, even.’ Calpurnia grinned. ‘Not sure how much, though. We started rememberin’ one time, trying to figure out how old I was – I can remember back just a few years more’n he can, so I’m not much older, when you take off the fact that men can’t remember as well as women.’

‘What’s your birthday, Cal?’

‘I just have it on Christmas, it’s easier to remember that way – I don’t have a real birthday.’

‘But Cal,’ Jem protested, ‘you don’t look even near as old as Atticus.’

‘Coloured folks don’t show their ages so fast,’ she said.

‘Maybe because they can’t read. Cal, did you teach Zeebo ?’

‘Yeah, Mister Jem. There wasn’t a school even when he was a boy. I made him learn, though.’

Zeebo was Calpurnia’s eldest son. If I had ever thought about it, I would have known that Calpurnia was of mature years – Zeebo had half-grown children – but then I had never thought about it.

‘Did you teach him out of a primer, like us?’ I asked.

‘No, I made him get a page of the Bible every day, and there was a book Miss Buford taught me out of – bet you don’t know where I got it,’ she said.

We didn’t know.

Calpurnia said, ‘Your Granddaddy Finch gave it to me.’

‘Were you from the Landing?’ Jem asked. ‘You never told us that.’

‘I certainly am, Mister Jem. Grew up down there between the Buford Place and the Landin’. I’ve spent all my days workin’ for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.’

‘What was the book, Cal?’ I asked.

‘Blackstone’s Commentaries.’

Jem was thunderstruck. ‘You mean you taught Zeebo outa that?’

‘Why yes sir, Mister Jem.’ Calpurnia timidly put her fingers to her mouth. ‘They were the only books I had. Your granddaddy said Mr Blackstone wrote fine English—’

‘That’s why you don’t talk like the rest of ‘em,’ said Jem.

‘The rest of who?’

‘Rest of the coloured folks. Cal, but you talked like they did in church…’

That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.

‘Cal,’ I asked, ‘why do you talk nigger-talk to the – to your folks when you know it’s not right?’

‘Well, in the first place I’m black—’

‘That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,’ said Jem.

Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. ‘It’s right hard to say,’ she said. ‘Suppose you and Scout talked coloured-folks’ talk at home – it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it ? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbours? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.’

‘But Cal, you know better,’ I said.

‘It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike – in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.’

‘Cal, can I come to see you sometimes?’

She looked down at me. ‘See me, honey? You see me every day.’

‘Out to your house,’ I said. ‘Sometimes after work? Atticus can get me.’

‘Any time you want to,’ she said. ‘We’d be glad to have you.’

We were on the sidewalk by the Radley Place.

‘Look on the porch yonder,’ Jem said.

I looked over to the Radley Place, expecting to see its phantom occupant sunning himself in the swing. The swing was empty.

‘I mean our porch,’ said Jem.

I looked down the street. Enamoured, upright, uncompromising, Aunt Alexandra was sitting in a rocking-chair exactly as if she had sat there every day of her life.