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Tennessee Williams


The Yellow Bird

by Tennessee Williams


           Alma was the daughter of a Protestant minister named Increase Tutwiler, the last of a string of Increase Tutwilers who had occupied pulpits since the Reformation came to England.  The first American progenitor had settled in Salem, and around him and his wife, goody Tutwiler, née Woodson, had revolved one of the most sensational of the Salem witch trials.  Goody Tutwiler was cried out against by the Circle Girls, a group of hysterical young ladies of Salem who were thrown into fits whenever a witch came near them.  They claimed that Goody Tutwiler had appeared to them with a yellow bird which she called by the name of Bobo and which served as interlocutor between herself and the devil to whom she was sworn.  The Reverend Tutwiler was so impressed by these accusations, as well as by the fits of the Circle Girls when his wife entered their presence in court, that he himself finally cried out against her and testified that the yellow bird named Bobo had flown into his church one Sabbath and, visible only to himself, had perched on his pulpit and whispered indecent things about several younger women in the congregation.  Goody Tutwiler was accordingly condemned and hanged, but this was by no means the last of the yellow bird named Bobo.  It had manifested itself in one form or another, and its continual nagging had left the Puritan spirit fiercely aglow, from Salem to Hobbs, Arkansas, where the Increase Tutwiler of this story was preaching.
            Increase Tutwiler was a long-winded preacher.  His wife sat in the front pew of the church with a palm-leaf fan which she would agitate violently when her husband had preached too long for anybody’s endurance.  But it was not always easy to catch his attention, and Alma, the daughter, would finally have to break into the offertory hymn in order to turn him off.  Alma played the organ, the primitive kind of organ that had to be supplied with air by an old Negro operating a pump in a stifling cubicle behind the wall.  On one occasion the old Negro had fallen asleep, and no amount of discreet rapping availed to wake him up. The minister’s wife had plucked nervously at the strings of her palm-leaf fan till it began to fall to pieces, but without the organ to stop him, Increase Tutwiler ranted on and on, exceeding the two hour mark.  It was by no means a cool summer day, and the interior of the church was yellow oak, a material that made you feel as if you were sitting in the middle of a fried egg.
            At last Alma despaired of reviving the Negro and got to her feet.  “Papa,” she said.  But the old man didn’t look at her.  “Papa,” she repeated, but he went right on.  The whole congregation was whispering and murmuring.  One stout old lady seemed to have collapsed, because two people were fanning her from either side and holding a small bottle to her nostrils.  Alma and her mother exchanged desperate glances.  The mother half got out of her seat.  Alma gave her a signal to remain seated.  She picked up the hymnbook and brought it down with such terrific force on the bench that dust and fiber spurted in all directions.  The minister stopped short.  He turned a dazed look in Alma’s direction.  “Papa,” she said, “it’s fifteen minutes after twelve and Henry’s asleep and these folks have got to get to dinner, so for the love of God, quit preaching.”
           Now Alma had the reputation of being a very quiet and shy girl, so this speech was nothing short of sensational.  The news of it spread throughout the Delta, for Mr. Tutwiler’s sermons had achieved a sort of unhappy fame for many miles about.  Perhaps Alma was somewhat pleased and impressed by this little celebration that she was accordingly given on people’s tongues the next few months, for she was never quite the same shy girl afterwards.  She had not had very much fun out of being a minister’s daughter.  The boys had steered clear of the rectory, because when they got around there they were exposed t Mr. Tutwiler’s inquisitions.  A boy and Alma would have no chance to talk in the Tutwiler porch or parlor while the old man was around.  He was obsessed with the idea that Alma might get to smoking, which he thought was the initial and, once taken, irretrievable step toward perdition.  “If Alma gets to smoking,” he told his wife, “I’m going to denounce her from the pulpit and put her out of the house.”  Every time he said this Alma’s mother would scream and go into a faint, as she knew that every girl who is driven out of her father’s house goes right into a good-time house.  She was unable to conceive of anything in between.

            Now Alma was pushing thirty and still unmarried, but about six months after the episode in the church, things really started popping around the minister’s house.  Alma had gotten to smoking in the attic, and her mother knew about it.  Mrs. Tutwiler’s hair had been turning slowly gray for a number of years, but after Alma took to smoking in the attic, it turned snow-white almost overnight.  Mrs. Tutwiler concealed the terrible knowledge that Alma was smoking in the attic from her husband, and she didn’t even dare raise her voice to Alma about it because the old man might hear.  All she could do was stuff the attic door around with newspapers.  Alma would smoke; she claimed it had gotten a hold on her and she couldn’t stop now.  At first she only smoked twice a day, but she began to smoke more as the habit grew on her.  Several times the old man had said he smelled smoke in the house, but so far he hadn’t dreamed that his daughter would dare take up smoking.  But his wife knew he would soon find out about it, and Alma knew he would too.  The question was whether Alma cared.  Once she came downstairs with a cigarette in her mouth, smoking it, and her mother barely snatched it out of her mouth before the old man saw her.  Mrs. Tutwiler went into a faint, but Alma paid no attention to her, just went on out of the house, lit another cigarette, and walked down the street to the drugstore.
            It was unavoidable that sooner or later people who had seen Alma smoking outside the house, which she now began to do pretty regularly, would carry the news back to the preacher.  There were plenty of old women who were ready and able to do it.  They had seen her smoking in the White Star drugstore while she was having her afternoon coke, puffing on the cigarette between sips of the Coke and carrying on a conversation with the soda jerk, just like anyone from that set of notorious high school girls that the whole town had been talking about for several generations.  So one day the minister came into his wife’s bedroom and said to her, “I have been told that Alma has taken to smoking.”
            His manner was deceptively calm.  The wife sensed that this was not an occasion for her to go into a faint, so she didn’t.  She had to keep her wits about her this time—that is, if she had any left after all she had been through with Alma’s smoking.
            “Well,” she said, “I don’t know what to do about it.  It’s true.”
            “You know what I’ve always said,” her husband replied.  “If Alma gets to smoking, out she goes.”
            “Do you want her to go into a good-time house?” inquired Mrs. Tutwiler.
            “If that’s where she’s going, she can go,” said the preacher, “but not until I’ve given her something that she’ll always remember.”
            He was waiting for Alma when she came in from her afternoon smoke and Coke at the White Star drugstore.  Soon as she walked into the door he gave her a good, hard slap, with the palm of his hand on her mouth, so that her front teeth bit into her lip and it started bleeding.  Alma didn’t blink an eye, she just drew back her right arm and returned the slap with good measure.  She had bought a bottle of something at the drugstore, and while her father stood there, stupefied, watching her, she went upstairs with the mysterious bottle in brown wrapping paper.  And when she came back down they saw that she had peroxided her hair and put on lipstick.  Alma’s mother screamed and went into one of her faints, because it was evident to her that Alma was going right over to one of the good-time houses on Front Street.  But all the iron had gone out of the minister’s character then.  He clung to Alma’s arm.  He begged and pleaded with her not to go there.  Alma lit up a cigarette right there in front of him and said, “Listen here, I’m going to do as I please around here from now on, and I don’t want any more interference from you!”
            Before this conversation was finished the mother came out of her faint.  It was the worst faint she had ever gone into, particularly since nobody had bothered to pick her up off the floor.  “Alma,” she said weakly, “Alma!”  Then she said her husband’s name several times, but neither of them paid any attention to her, so she got up without any assistance and began to take a part in the conversation.  “Alma,” she said, “you can’t go out of this house until that hair of yours grows in dark again.”
            “That’s what you think,” said Alma.
            She put the cigarette back in her mouth and went out the screen door, puffing and drawing on it and breathing smoke out of her nostrils all the way down the front walk and down to the White Star drugstore, where she had another Coke and resumed her conversation with the boy at the soda counter.  His name was Stuff—that was what people called him –and it was he who had suggested to Alma that she would look good as a blonde.  He was ten years younger than Alma but he had more girls than pimples.
            It was astonishing the way Alma came up fast on the outside in Stuff’s affections.  With the new blond hair you could hardly call her a dark horse, but she was certainly running away with the field.  In two weeks’ time after the peroxide she was going steady with Stuff; for Alma was smart enough to know there were plenty of good times to be had outside the good-time houses on Front Street, and Stuff knew that, too.  Stuff was not to be in sole possession of her heart.  There were other contenders, and Alma could choose among them.  She started going out nights as rapidly as she had taken up smoking.  She stole the keys to her father’s Ford sedan and drove to such nearby towns as Lakewater, Sunset, and Lyons.  She picked up men on the highway and went out “juking” with them, making rounds of the highway drinking places; never got home till three or four in the morning.  It was impossible to see how one human constitution could stand up under the strain of so much running around to night places, but Alma had all the vigor that comes from generations of firm believers.  It could have gone into anything and made a sensation.  Well, that’s how it was.  There was no stopping her once she got started.
            The home situation was indescribably bad.  It was generally stated that Alma’s mother had suffered a collapse and that her father was spending all his time praying, and there was some degree of truth in both reports.  Very little sympathy for Alma came from the older residents of the community.  Certain little perfunctory steps were taken to curb the girl’s behavior.  The father got the car key out of her pocket one night when she came in drunk and fell asleep on the sofa, but Alma had already had some duplicates made.  He locked the garage one night. Alma climbed through the window and drove the car straight through the closed door.
            “She’s lost her mind,” said the mother. “It’s that hair bleaching that’s done it.  It went right through her scalp and now it’s affecting her brain.”
            They sat up all that night waiting for her, but she didn’t come home.  She had run her course in that town, and the next thing they heard from Alma was a card from New Orleans.  She had got all the way down there.  “Don’t sit up,” she wrote.  I’m gone for good.  I’m never coming back.”

           Six years later Alma was a character in the old French Quarter of New Orleans.  She hung out mostly on “Monkey Wrench Corner” and picked up men around there.  It was certainly not necessary to go into a good-time house to have a good time in the Quarter, and it hadn’t taken her long to find that out.  It might have seemed to some people that Alma was living a wasteful and profligate existence, but if the penalty for it was death, well, she was a long time dying.  In fact she seemed to prosper on her new life.  It apparently did not have a dissipating effect on her.  She took pretty good care of herself so that it wouldn’t, eating well, and drinking just enough to be happy.  Her face had a bright and innocent look in the mornings, and even when she was alone in her room it sometimes seemed as if she weren’t alone—as if someone were with her, a disembodied someone, perhaps a remote ancestor of liberal tendencies who had been displeased by the channel his blood had taken till Alma kicked over the traces and jumped right back to the plumed-hat cavaliers.
            Of course, her parents never came near her again, but once they dispatched as emissary a young married woman they trusted.
            The woman called on Alma in her miserable little furnished room—or crib, as it actually was—on the shabbiest block of Bourbon Street in the Quarter.
            “How do you live?” asked the woman.
            “What?” said Alma, innocently.
            “I mean how do you get along?”
            “Oh,” said Alma, “people give me things.”
            “You mean you accepts gifts from them?”
            “Yes, on a give-and-take basis,” Alma told her.
            The woman looked around her.  The bed was unmade and looked as if it had been that way for weeks.  The two-burner stove was loaded with unwashed pots in some of which grew a pale fungus.  Tickets from pawnshops were stuck round the edge of the mirror along with many, many photographs of young men, some splitting their faces with enormous grins while others stared softly at space.
            “These photographs,” said the woman, “are these—are these your friends?”
            “Yes,” said Alma, with a happy smile.  “Friends and acquaintances, strangers that pass in the night!”
            “Well, I’m not going to mention this to your father!”
            “Oh, go on and tell the old stick-in-the-mud,” said Alma.  She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke at her caller.
            The woman looked around once more and noticed that the doors of the big armoire hung open on white summer dresses that were covered with grass stains.
            “You go on picnics?” she asked.
            “Yes, but not the church ones,” said Alma.
            The woman tried to think of something more to ask but she was not gifted with an agile mind, and Alma’s attitude was not encouraging.
            “Well,” she said finally, “I had better be going.”
            “Hurry back,” said Alma, without getting up or looking in the woman’s direction.
            Shortly thereafter Alma discovered that she was becoming a mother.

            She bore a child, a male one, and not knowing who was the father, she named it John after the lover that she had liked best, a man now dead.  The son was perfect, very blond and glowing, a lusty infant.
            Now from this point on the story takes a strange turn that may be highly disagreeable to some readers, if any still hoped it was going to avoid the fantastic.
            This child of Alma’s would have been hanged in Salem.  If the Circle Girls had not cried out against Alma (which they certainly would have done), they would have gone into fifty screaming fits over Alma’s boy.
            He was thoroughly bewitched.  At half past six every morning he crawled out of the house and late in the evening he returned with fists full of gold and jewels that smelled of the sea.
            Alma grew very rich indeed.  She and the child went North.  The child grew up in a perfectly normal way to youth and to young manhood, and then he no longer crawled out and brought back riches.  In fact that old habit seemed to have slipped his mind somehow, and no mention was ever made of it.  Though he and his mother did not pay much attention to each other, there was a great and silent respect between them while each went about his business.
            When Alma’s time came to die, she lay on the bed and wished her son would come home, for lately the son had gone on a long sea voyage for unexplained reasons.  And while she was waiting, while she lay there dying, the bed began to rock like a ship on the ocean, and all at once not John the Second, but John the First appeared, like Neptune out of the ocean.  He bore a cornucopia that was dripping with seaweed and his bare chest and legs had acquired a greenish patina such as a bronze statue comes to be covered with.  Over the bed he emptied his horn of plenty which had been stuffed with treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons: rubies, emeralds, diamonds, rings, and necklaces of rare gold, and great loops of pearls with the slime of the sea clinging to them.
            “Some people,” he said, “don’t even die empty-handed.”
            And off he went, and Alma went off with him.
            The fortune was left to The Home for Reckless Spenders.  And in due time the son, the sailor, came home, and a monument was put up.  It was a curious thing, this monument.  It showed three figures of indeterminate gender astride a leaping dolphin.  One bore a crucifix, one a cornucopia, and one a Grecian lyre.  On the side of the plunging fish, the arrogant dolphin, was a name inscribed, the odd name of Bobo, which was the name of the small yellow bird that the devil and Goody Tutwiler had used as a go-between in their machinations. (1947)



Last updated:
June 13, 2009
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