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I couldn’t stop looking at him, at his smile and his hair. I had never seen locks up close. His were thick and black and spiraling down over his shoulders. I wanted to touch them, to touch his face. I wanted to hear him say his name again. For a moment we stared at each other, neither of us saying anything. There was something familiar about him, something I had seen before. I blinked, embarrassed suddenly, and turned away from him.
Then Jeremiah rose and I rose.
“Well_._._._good-bye. I guess_._._._I guess I’ll see you around,” he said softly, looking at me a moment longer before turning away and heading down the hall, his locks bouncing gently against his shoulders.
“Jeremiah,” I whispered to myself as I walked away from him. I could feel his name, settling around me, as though I was walking in a mist of it, of him, of Jeremiah.
ALSO BY JACQUELINE WOODSON
After Tupac and D Foster
Beneath a Meth Moon
Between Madison and Palmetto
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Dear One
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun
The House You Pass on the Way
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This
Last Summer with Maizon
Maizon at Blue Hill
Table of Contents
At first sight
Also by Jacqueline Woodson
Questions for Discussion
An Excerpt from Brown Girl Dreaming
An Excerpt from Behind You
The tide and the poem “If You Come Softly” by Audre Lorde are from
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde published by W. W. Norton and
reprinted by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by G. P. Putnam’s Sons,
a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1998
Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2003
Reissued by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2006
All rights reserved
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS EDITION AS
If you come softly / Jacqueline Woodson.
Summary: After meeting at their private school in New York,
fifteen-year-old Jeremiah, who is black and whose parents are separated,
and Ellie, who is white and whose mother has twice abandoned her,
fall in love and then try to cope with people’s reactions.
For the ones like Jeremiah
If you come as softly
as the wind within the trees
You may hear what I hear
See what sorrow sees.
MY MOTHER CALLS TO ME FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE stairs, and I pull myself slowly from a deep sleep. It is June. Outside the sky is bright blue and clear. In the distance I can see Central Park, the trees brilliant green against the sky. I was dreaming of Miah.
“Elisha,” Marion calls again. She sounds worried and I know she is standing at the bottom of the stairs, her hand moving slowly up and down the banister, waiting for me to answer. But I can’t answer yet. Not now.
Is there a boy? Marion asked me that fall, when Miah was new. And I lied and told her there wasn’t one.
She is standing at the door now, her arms folded in front of her. “Time to get up, sweetie. Are you all right?”
I nod and continue to stare out the window, my hair falling down around my eyes, my pajamas hot and sticky against my skin.
No, Marion, there isn’t a boy. Not now. Not anymore.
She comes to the bed and sits beside me. I feel the bed sink down with the weight of her, smell her perfume.
“I dreamed about Miah last night,” I say softly, leaning my head against her shoulder. Outside, there are taxicabs blowing their horns. In the seconds of quiet between the noise, I can hear birds. And my own breathing.
Marion moves her hand over my head. Slowly. Softly. “Was it a good dream?”
I frown. “Yes ... I think so. But I don’t remember it all.”
“Remember what you can, Elisha,” Marion whispers, kissing me on the forehead. “Remember what you can.”
I close my eyes again.
And remember what I can.
YOU DO NOT DIE. YOUR SOUL STEPS OUT OF YOUR BODY, shakes itself hard because it’s been carrying the weight of your heavy skin for fifteen years. Then your soul lifts up and looks down on your body lying there—looks down on the blood running onto concrete, your eyes snapped open like the pages in some kid’s forgotten picture book, your chest not moving. Your soul sees this and feels something beyond sadness—feels its whole self whispering further away. Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh—past the trees in Central Park, past the statues and runners and children playing on swings. Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh. Over yellow taxicabs and late-afternoon flickering streetlights. Shhhh away from the dusting of snow, the white tips of trees, the darkening sky. Already you hear your mother screaming. Already you see your father dropping his head into his hands. Helpless. Already you see your friends—walking through the halls of Percy Academy. Stunned. But you do not die. Each breath your soul takes is cool and reminds you of a taste you loved a long time ago. Licorice. Peppermint. Rain. Then your soul is you all over again, only lighter and freer and able to be a thousand and one places at once. Your new soul eyes look around. See two cops standing there with their mouths hanging open. One cop curses and kicks a tree. Slowly your soul realizes it’s in a park. There are trees all around you. And both cops look scared.
He’s dead, one cop says.
And the other curses again. Your soul doesn’t like the way the curse word sounds. Too hard. Too heavy in the new soul-light air.
The cops can’t see you. They see a dead body on the ground—a young boy. A black boy. They know this is not the man they’d been looking for. They know they’ve made a mistake. Your soul looks at the boy and knows his friends called him Miah but his full name was Jeremiah Roselind. Tall. Dark. He has locks and the locks are spread over the ground. His eyes are opened wide. Greenish gray lifeless eyes. Your soul thinks—somebody loved that boy once. Thinks—once that boy was me. The wind blows the snow left, right and up. You are so light, you move with the wind and the snow. Let the weather take you. And it lifts you up—over a world of sadness and anger and fear. Over a world of first kisses and hands touching and someone you’re falling in love with. She’s there now. Right there. Look closely. Yeah. That’s her. That’s my Ellie.
FOR A LONG TIME AFTER MIAH DIED, SO MANY PEOPLE DIDN’T sleep. At night, we lay in bed with our eyes wide open and watched the way night settled down over wherever we were. I was in a room on the Upper West Side, in a house my parents moved to a long time ago. Not a house—a duplex apartment in a fancy building with a doorman. My dad’s a doctor. My mother stays at home. I go to Percy Academy. Some people look at me and see a white girl in a uniform—burgundy jacket and gray skirt—and think, She has all the privilege in the world. I look back at them, thinking, If only you knew.
If only they knew how we were sprinkled all over the city—me in my big room, Nelia in her Fort Greene brownstone, Norman in his girlfriend’s apartment, aunts and uncles and cousins, even strangers—all over New York City—none of us slept. We lay there staring up at our ceilings or out into the darkness. Or some days we stopped in the middle of doing something and forgot what it was we were doing. We thought, Jeremiah’s dead. We whispered, Jeremiah’s dead. As if the whispering and the thinking could help us to understand. We didn’t eat enough. We peed only when the need to pee got so big, we thought we’d wet our pants. We pulled the covers off ourselves in the mornings then sat on the edge of our beds, not knowing what to do next. If those strangers looked, really looked into my privileged white girl face, they would have seen the place where I wasn’t even there. Where a part of me died too.
Miah died on a Saturday afternoon. That evening, the calls started coming. First his mom, Nelia, asking if Miah was still with me. Then his dad, Norman. Then the cops. Then silence. Silence that lasted into the night and into the next dawn. Then the phone ringing one more time and Nelia saying, Ellie, Miah’s been shot. . . .
I don’t remember much more than that. There was a funeral. There were tears. There were days and days spent in my bed. A fever maybe.
There was no more Miah.
No more Miah.
No more Miah and me.
HE LOVED THE LIGHT IN HIS MAMA’S KITCHEN. THE yellow stained-glass panes across the top of the windows buttered the room a soft gold-even now, in the early evening with the rain coming down hard outside.
“Your daddy left a message,” his mama said. “Said he had to go out to L.A. Be back Sunday night. Left a number.”
“Guess I’m spending the week here then.” Jeremiah glanced out the kitchen window. There was no light on in his father’s apartment. He was glad he didn’t have to make a decision. Every night it was the same thing. You gonna stay here? You gonna stay here? His mama and daddy’s voices beating against the side of his head, begging him as if they were really saying, Choose me. No, choose me. For the hundredth time, no, maybe the thousandth time, he wished he had a brother or sister—somebody to go up against them with. Someone to help relieve some of the stuff they put him through. How long would it have to be like this anyway? Two addresses. Two phone numbers. Two bedrooms.