The day does not begin with the first suggestion of sunrise; a lazy purple haze filtering through the gnarling witch fingers of a live oak; a breeze, not yet weighed down by the sultry sizzle heat of Indian Summer, howling the chorus of an Old Negro Spiritual in the dead tobacco field; a dreamy night mist clinging in blood streaks to the side of the old red barn out yonder, before oozing into the slimy mud patch between the gate and the barn door. There is nothing, not the relentless creak of a swinging outhouse coffin door, nor the soft ghost flutter of a sheet left on the line, to excite the first timid cry of the whippoorwill. There is not yet the sagging left shoulder and the odd limp of a tree shadow cast long by a setting moon; nothing to suggest that the night demon has grown toothless and weary in the brooding pass of time since midnight; nothing to splash bright, whimsical color into the sepia tones of the old and worn out nightmare; nothing to rebuff the hand of eternity on an innocent soul squirming sweat into a sheet.
No, the day does not begin with any color or texture, but the unforgiving blackness of pure night. There is an eye opened; then another; but the world is as dark as when the old and worn out nightmare finally meanders over this way and that into the claustrophobic confines of a buried coffin. For a moment, it is as if the whole world is the inside of that coffin, shut in, dank, as charcoal dark as the skin of a Negro escaped from a slave ship and free to run wild in the long tobacco stalks after sunset. It is a menacing world; a boogeyman writ large in a boy’s imagination; a crazed beast scream not heard, but felt in the beating of a heart weighed down by so much blackness. It is a world forever unredeemed by the Man of Sorrows, so that those poor souls stuck in the buried coffin; those at the rotting wood bottom of the pecking order; remain as mired in their fears as ever. It is a world fit for a little boy who must shove his blanket aside, and drag his shit boots out from under his bed, no more than five minutes after that sick and brooding grandfather clock in the hall chimes four times into his half-sleep.
There is little solace when Hannah lights the candle on his bed stand and looks over his barren room. He tries to recall everything that used to be in here before the fat Bank Jew in the pinstripe suit parked his shiny, black Studebaker truck on top of his Radio Flyer and hauled out more than half of his Papa’s belongings in the span of about twenty minutes. There had been the oak mirror chest that Papa had built for Mama before she quickened with her first boy; the bookshelf full of dreams bound in leather and a Family Bible with lots of names and dates; the roll top secretary desk into which he had tossed his Raggedy Ann one night, when she came alive, turned her head to face his, and told him with her black, round eyes that she was going to strangle him for wetting his blanket all the time. Even his toy chest had been dragged out of his bedroom; the claw streaks in the wooden floor still visible; leaving behind nothing, but the smiling Mamie doll that had not been in the chest at that moment. Every day, it is just a bit harder to remember all these things; the image behind the eyes taking on a bit more of a sepia tone; and Hannah fears that one of these days, he is going to open his eyes in the pale candlelight and see nothing at all, but that termite infested sawhorse that is the only other thing beside his oak bed and his Mamie remaining in his bedroom. He is not sure if he will be able to shed a single tear on that day, since his Papa tells him that he has shed more tears already than a Negress wailing at the Moon and that’s more than any decent white boy should.
Hannah walks over to his closet. There is nothing in there, but his ripped overalls and his “Sunday’s Best.” His Papa never goes to the white church down the hill. He says the preacher man is a half spook; and while Hannah cannot say for sure what a half spook is, he knows all too well that the preacher man’s son is a pasty white, chunky, nine year old demon boy. And so he never bothers his Papa about going to the white church down the hill, even though he wishes just once he could wear his “Sunday’s Best” for an occasion other than a wake. It is as if there is no reason for a good suit, but to stare at waxy dead old white men draped in their own “Sunday’s Best” and to hear the muffled cries of old ladies in black veils. Always a sad thought, especially in the gloom of candlelight, and so Hannah keeps his “Sunday’s Best” hung in the far corner and out of his sight.
He swims into his overalls. They’re two sizes too large; like everything in his own life they’re originally intended for his older brother, Seth; but since his older brother is sleeping now beside his Mama in Christ Resurrection Graveyard, they’ve been passed down to him. They’re ripped at both of his scrawny knees.
Hannah sits on the edge of his bed, and he squirms into his shit boots. All he can do is to shut his eyes and to bite his lower lip so as not to faint, because they’re two sizes too small and originally intended for a girl. He remembers the time his Papa came home with the shit boots, wrapped snugly in old newspaper and tucked beneath his right arm, and told him with a big smile that he had an Early Christmas gift for him. He remembers the awful smell; a sudden punch of rancid shit, like something unearthed from the Nigger Tombs near Old Harlow’s swamp; and he remembers dropping just one of those patented Negress wailing at the Moon tears, and yet knowing one is enough to break his Papa’s old heart.
His shit boots no longer smell so bad. Or maybe he is used to them. He is able to smell the chicken shit from the day before; a dry wheat scent that sifts in and out of his nostrils much of the time and reminds him of the barrel of old oatmeal grains in the back of the shed; and he now finds a kind of comfort in it that he once had thought impossible. It is as if he truly belongs out there in the chicken coup, shoveling shit into the weeds beyond the chicken wire, cupping a fresh egg gingerly, kicking back at a red rooster that’s getting too ornery with a hen, and the smell reminds him that, even when it is completely black and still outside his window, it is really a short hump from his bedroom to his sanctuary.
Hannah blows out his candle. He steps through the darkness and into the hall. There is another chime from the grandfather clock hidden in a permanent shadow several paces behind him. It is not really a shadow so much as the dark and damp far corner of the hall; an out of the way corner, even when someone happens to stare directly into it; a corner left undisturbed by the fat Bank Jew, when he had strutted his way in and out of the rooms with a court order in one hand and a sweaty handkerchief in the other; and the grandfather clock chimes do not sound from there so much as they seem to bleed out from behind a dark veil and to reverberate like gelatin in the mind of the hearer. This time there is a soft chime; no more than a tap along the side of a bell; and so it is 4:15 in an ageless world of still, black shades; 4:15 now; and, in a way, 4:15 forevermore.
He steps into the living room. He stops dead in his tracks when he sees…
Well, he is not sure at first. It seems to be a big, black form sleeping on the rocking chair that Papa had built for Mama after the midwife had handed to her the healthy, rose skinned, smiling flesh of her first boy. Its round shoulders are slumped forward; its bulbous nose knocking gently into its chest; its snore a baby rattle more indicative of smoldering firewater than of natural tiredness. It is not a scary form. It is sad, defeated, and alone in its dreams. It appears alive in his left, peripheral vision; but then when he faces it head on, it appears way too contorted to be anything, but a gross fragment from one of his nightmares, or perhaps a ghost rocking its chair up and down with its sterile corpse breaths.
And then he yawns, and he sees clearly that this is his Papa; fast asleep; by now, at least five or six sheets to the wind; too beaten by Jack Daniels even to sleepwalk into what is left of his master bedroom. He is seeing him now with the silver light of a cold and remorseless Moon; a light breaking through cuts in the drawn curtain; a light bathing Papa within the tender glow of recent death.
Except, of course, Papa is not dead. He is a sick, old man in overalls and shit boots, clutching a dead bottle, and snoring into a sweat stain by his heart; but when he awakens soon enough, he will be a strong man again at battle with a cruel and unforgiving life. The same big, black form here will smile at him, as he is finishing the chicken coup and staring through the chicken wire at sunrise.
There is static by Papa’s side; a sound not distinguished at first, as it has the same texture and tone as Papa’s snoring; and Hannah steps over to turn off the Philco console radio. Papa no doubt had been listening to a weak signal just barely reaching him all the way from WSM Radio in Nashville; the fast fingers of a Grandpa Jones or a String Bean Akeman sounding like ghost taps on a piano in static waves; and he had slunk into his snores sometime before the last curtain.
There is nothing else in the living room. If he had had his way then, that fat Bank Jew would have left with the rocking chair and the radio too; but Papa had grabbed the court order from his sweaty hand and had seen that those two items were not listed. There had been an exchange of harsh words, but that fat Bank Jew had left without taking Papa’s last tenuous grasp of peace in this life.
Hannah stops a moment, switches off the radio, and steps into the night.
There is an unexpected breeze beyond the back door. It does not blast a strident path through the total stillness, so much as slink up from the earth and breathe a warm gust of late summer soot into his face. It is the exhale of a soft and furtive devil; a tingle rather than a jolt that leaves behind no more than an odd, unsettling, vague sense of foreboding; really, no more than a tease that is not going to be enough to make the boy return to his bedroom but, at the same time, is going to add a slight tepidness to his steps. In this respect, it is just the plain and unadulterated meanness of a night still allowed to fester everywhere.
Hannah walks over to the shed. It is the outhouse that Papa had changed into a shed, when he managed to connect a pipe into the nascent sewer around these parts. It still smells of the kind of hard shit that pops a blood vessel, as it is being pushed through a man’s version of a birth canal; a hard and dry odor in the sweltered air of a shed that does not mush into the nostrils, like the rancid, sour sweet smell of a loose stool, but lingers as a vaguely bad taste on the lips, broken only by the smell of oatmeal grains in the back of the shed and the faint whiff of the decomposing flesh of whatever critters have fallen into their traps.
He does not like to linger there, not so much because of the gross smell, but because it too is about as barren as his bedroom. As much as he may desire to do so, he cannot lay the blame at the fat hands of the Bank Jew, who had no eye for the farm supplies behind the main house. He sneaks a peek through the shredded curtain in his bedroom window, whenever his Papa’s buddies arrive in their clickety-clack farm trucks sometime after midnight for trade. He observes how his father hands them one shed supply after another for a dusty half bottle of Old Jack. He can see how his Papa smiles; broad and stupid; rosy cheeked on a fat face; bloodshot eyes swimming out from their sockets, as one of the good ole boys cracks a coonskin of a pun and slaps him in the folds of his upper back.
Papa’s buddies seldom come around these days. Hannah guesses there is not enough left in the shed to curl a shrewd grin out from their poker faces. He imagines that one of these days they’ll stop showing up altogether, though one or two of them may show up in their “Sunday’s Best” when Papa is all smiles in his open casket. They won’t say a damn thing to Hannah, but they’ll linger way too long at the buffet and pass around Old Jack out by the red barn. That’s the way of old, white men in these parts; sneaking in the shadows, always out back somewhere, to commit the same sins everyone else is committing; sealing their lips, except when coughing out tobacco spit in response to a joke (usually some sort of country witticism about an uptight, white woman and her nigger lovers); but mostly just staring, like beaten dumb animals, until its their turn to take an everlasting walk into the woodshed. At least the escaped Negro puts on a smile and shuffles his stolen shoes, when the Harvest Moon sits up on her dark throne and beams sensual warmth upon her charges, white and black, young and aged, all caressed alike in her seductive embrace; but the old, white men just rock in their chairs and stare out over their dead tobacco fields, loaded rifles on top of their laps, their eyes searching the stalks for the first sign of the night intruder.
Hannah stuffs his overalls pockets with chicken feed and rests the broom on his left shoulder as if it is a homemade fishing pole. He always thinks of Tom Sawyer at this moment. He reckons he’ll never read that book again; not in this lifetime anyway; as it had been in the bookcase that that fat Bank Jew had had the gall to drag out from his bedroom. Like his memory of his old furniture and toys, the images he has treasured of Tom and Becky are also starting to fade in his mind. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the whole world now is the same cave in which Tom and Becky had been lost and that he can no longer set aside his childhood fears as a distinct impression in his mind simply by snapping shut a leather book. He has a vague sense that this is what it actually means to be getting older; his tenth year after all being just around the corner; and so in his own way he relishes whatever opportunity he has to fantasize that he is just an innocent boy goin’ a fishin’ in the dead of night, though of course in his case he’ll be returning from his silent and still pond with brown eggs instead of bass.
He even whistles a tune; nothing in particular; just the soft and mindless melody of a boy losing himself for a while inside his innocence; and he kicks his right foot against a smooth stone that happens to be in his path. He cannot see its flight through the sky, but he can hear the soft rustle when it snaps a gangly tobacco stalk on its arch back into the dust. It sounds like an old woman’s skirt.
As he approaches the coup, he hears that the chickens are more restless than usual; their feathers fluttering manically in the darkness up ahead; and his vague sense of foreboding resurfaces. He stops whistling and feels every last bit of saliva retrenching to the back of his throat. His stomach is tied into a knot of excruciating fear by an invisible hand reaching up from the depth of his bowels.
The warm breeze that had struck him at the back door is now an anxious purr flickering leaves in and out of the tobacco stalks off in the distance; a wild tiger that had been stalking him in silence but that is now beginning to show its agitation; but he senses that there is something else out there in the blackness, something more real and immediate than a temperamental ghost cat, that is at this very moment inspiring a near frenzy in the chicken coup. He senses that, if anything, the warm breeze is as much afraid of this black menace as it is full of contempt for him; the leaves swirling away from the devil’s imp in the tobacco stalks like the outward reach of a tornado breaking away from its core; the fire breaths sucking the heat out from that core and leaving whatever is in there as cold and immovable as the lowest demon in hell. He knows that much of this is a gruesome play in his own mind; a nightmare projected into the nightfall living and breathing all about him; and yet, even still, there is something, or, maybe, someone, that is out there and that really has nothing to do with his own fears.
He hears a whistle; a sound that reminds him of a deflating balloon; and, somewhere in the back of his conscious mind, he tries to believe that he is just hearing his own frightened exhale. But the stronger part of his mind, that deep and visceral extension of his basic survival instinct, tells him that he has been a silent, trapped mouse this whole time. He could not vocalize a timid peep even if his life depended on it. He cannot even be sure that he is breathing just now.
The hens fly into the chicken wire. The red rooster flares its feathers; an anxious but also proud display of its sheer temerity in the face of battle; and at once belts the naked black air with its ear-splitting crow. There is unrestrained mayhem inside the coup; and, for an awful moment, Hannah fantasizes that his charges are being burnt alive in the devil’s furnace. It is as if a surreal, and yet all too familiar, image of hell has erupted from within the darkness before him.
Hannah screams, but no sound comes out of his mouth. Nevertheless, he clamps his hands over his lips; dropping his broom to the side; clutching his soft and mushy stomach inward as if recoiling from a powerful body punch; because there is a superstitious corner of his psyche that contends that if he does not so barricade himself, his soul will fly out from his flesh and disappear in the night.
He is so trapped in this fear that he does not heed the shit boots leaping out from behind the tobacco stalks and splashing through the thick mud toward his back. He does not hear how the dried up, summer leaves crinkle and crunch beneath the heels. He cannot feel the haggard breaths of the deranged, fat boy barreling hot and sweaty flames into the ball of his neck just before the tackle.
He does not grab a hold of his conscious mind; a task much like grabbing the reins of a delirious bronco; until he has been pushed to the warm earth and rolled onto his back. Even then, when he sees the silver moonlight reflected off of the dead eyes staring down at him, and the pudgy face quivering in the wild, orgasmic throes of hate, he cannot tell if he is looking into the face of a demon or the nine year old lunatic son of the preacher man. Yes, the distinction really is academic; but at that moment, not being able to tell the difference inspires a lot more fear than the physical assault. He is on the sharp edge of insanity; a tepid breathe separating him from the endless descent; and he knows that if he falls, he will be broken skin and bones at the very bottom of the pecking order; a nigger even among the niggers; a sissy boy without even his memory of pride.
Sissy, the demon boy screams down at him. Sissy boy with a girl’s name…
Abram, please don’t, Hannah finally manages to croak into the madness.
The demon boy does not flinch. He does not seem to know his own name at that moment. He is just incarnate rage; fire and brimstone condemnation; a mindless warpath thinly veiled beneath the guise of his righteous judgment of a soft and weak sinner. He is his father’s son; a preacher in the making; a soon to be Man of God, Born Again Christian, Proud White Man, flaring his sweaty snout and stomping his meaty hooves on the weak kneed flesh of a heathen farm boy.
Sissy boy with a girl’s name, the demon boy repeats, as he kicks his side.
Hannah crouches into the fetal position. He starts to bawl like a sad girl.
He does not see what happens next, but he feels the excruciating pain of a broom handle cracking in two against his left thigh. He hears the halves snap as if brittle bones upon a smooth marble surface; a sharp and tinny tone that is much more grating to the soul than frightening in the ears; the sound of a final, irrevocable defeat, as the horde stomps the skeletal remains of the army fallen before them. He is in too much shock to feel physical pain; but he is exploding, bursting the unseen anguish of a black pulsar, somewhere deep in his mad soul.
The chickens must be making a louder ruckus than he had thought, since all of a sudden, and in spite of his mental confusion, he glimpses the back light switch on and the back door swing open. He can hear heavy, bare feet shuffling towards him. He knows consciously that this is his rescue; his Papa arising from his stupor to the anxious flutters and cries of his chickens; and yet on a deeper, subconscious level, he senses that the frightened energy coming his way will be just enough to push him over the edge. On that level, he really does not desire to be rescued, so much as for everything to be just still and silent forevermore.
The demon boy may be his father’s son, but he is not yet a preacher man able to withstand the torrential assault of a grown man. He scampers back into the dead tobacco fields and seems to drag the hot devil breeze along with him.
* * *
In the Deep South, the sun never rises; soft string accompaniment to the song of the whippoorwill; the succession of rainbow colors from charcoal black, menacing, strong, and still, to divine white, glistening, evocative, and fluttery, like a poem literally coming alive, one stanza after another, in the unfolding of a light spectrum; but rather pierces the veil, suddenly and viciously, an assault of brilliant, white heat against black soil, when the shroud between the heaven and the earth has been shredded at once. It is dark; then it is light; an escaped Negro; then a hooded Klansman; night and day equally fugitives, hiding in long, spent tobacco stalks, until suddenly in your face without remorse. No doubt, as the time turns, so does the mind; and so the lack of subtlety between night and day encourages a resolute and clearheaded sense that the whole of existence is divided into black and white, good and bad, strong and weak. And the men who so think tend to wrinkle early, squint their eyes into the sun, rub their callused and muddied hands against their overalls, flick their straw hats over the beaten backs of their heads, and vocalize little more than the earthy witticisms better known around these parts as country sense. Yes, there is a whole lot of country sense, acknowledged as true by a quick nod and a spit of yellowed phlegm, and taken to heart to the very extent that it is colorful in language but lacking even the slightest subtlety in substance. Even a Yankee interloper can tell that there has been an exchange of country sense, as he’ll observe two or more Rebels on a porch, puffing their pipes, staring stonily into a memory swaying with a warm wind in the fields before their eyes, moving their old, chapped lips just enough to say words like all, always, and every, and finishing off their wry observations with a soft chuckle about how some dumb coon one night danced too closely to a campfire and burnt his dick off. Makes sense, someone else will say; shitloads a common sense, another one will reflect; Red Letter Jesus Truth, another sick hound will pip in; and then the long day will be as instantaneously night, as the night had been instantaneously day; and every man, every act, every rendition of country sense, will be in its proper place in the order of things; known really as it is; known without those messy shades of meaning that them sissified, soft-soled college boys all dream up; known like the back of a white hand on an old, weepy coon face; simple; direct; to the point; without the fuss; the God Truth.
Every heron peaked shit poke strutting about his farm in his sweat stains and his straw hat is a walking encyclopedia of country sense; holy hell, with all them Jew farms, subsidized by that nigger loving Harry S. Truman, and labored by wetbacks even dumber than coons, pushing down the price of tobacco, a big reservoir of country sense is about all he has to spend in this world; but if there is a licensed professional in the art of country sense, a go-to man when even an old tried and true remedy in the back cupboard is an inadequate solution to the problem at hand, it is the country doctor. The country doctor really is the same geezer in a tweed jacket, no matter the quaint town or the unincorporated shit stain; a best friend of the mortician; a Job’s Deacon in the local chapter of the White Knights; a gnome shuffled in and out of the back room just as grandma is about to give up her ghost. He may be the acknowledged King of Country Sensearound these parts, but he never offers his observations with the dried up as an old baked prune humor of a shit poke farmer. So far as anyone can tell, he does what he needs to do, and says what he needs to say, without so much as a grin.
Doc removes the penlight from Hannah’s right eye. He stares down at his charge quizzically and then returns the instrument to the old fashioned medical bag on his lap. He is a gnome with a bald eagle face, a widow’s peak of brittle, white hair, and a blood stained handkerchief poking out from his jacket pocket like an extended middle finger; and yet his most unsettling feature is his crazy, old man eyes; cross eyed and creepy; swimming in the first hints of a dementia that, in due time, will make him less capable as a country doctor even in these parts and yet, concurrently, more capable with the White Knights. No, he is not going to don the sheet of a Cyclops; he’s not broad shouldered, not at all fat at the midsection, and not in the first three pews down at the First Baptist Church in Salvation Hall; but someday, before long, he’ll be enough of a rambling, old crank to fit in just fine with the Magi. Rumor has it that, queer coot that he is, he has embroidered already his own Magi Robe and is keeping it folded all nice and neat at the back of his closet for the dark and still night he finally gets the secret knock on his front door. He even may grin just a bit at that blessed hour.
Doc steps away from the bed; his stooped shoulders leading the way; his bird face jutting forward, like he has a permanent kink in his long neck; and he waits by the window for Papa to return from the pisser. The curtains are pulled back, and Doc is bathing in the glow of the morning sun; but the brilliant white light on his lanky body just makes him look even more ghostly than normal, like a man doomed in his afterlife to roam the barren bedrooms and creaky floors in this little corner of the Deep South until finally the devil pities his soul. But the strange thing is that, even though he will be doomed, he will not be any sadder or angrier than he is now. Indeed, if anything, then the Ghost Doc will be a fine feather in this Eternal Limbo, because at least he will know his rightful place in the order of things. And if all the country sense ever spit into the weeds can be encapsulated into one truism it is that a man is happy when he knows his place, usually somewhere between a Grand Wizard and a nigger, and only stays there.
Papa returns; bloodshot and woozy; still fumbling with the small buttons over his crotch; but managing just the same to return Doc’s intense gaze with a lighthearted smile. Papa is scared shitless; a defendant in the docks waiting for his verdict; and the best a good man can do in that condition is to smile widely.
Your boy’s gonna be fine, the Doc drawls after an especially long silence between the two men. Just a shiner on his left thigh. Must a slipped on the wet mud doin’ the kind of work best left to the coon boys. Ya have a boy, don’t ya?
Bucks left for California during the war; Papa responds sheepishly. I keep an old timer out passed the barn. He tends the hog when his shakes will let him get off of his rocking chair. But he won’t get near the birds. Insists to my white face they’re the ghosts of tarred and feathered killers. Pecking one another all the way down to the bottom of Hell. Can you believe all that coon shine? Just a convenient spook tale to get out from cleaning the chicken shit, I reckon. But it is no good to try to knock sense into him. Not when he’s the last one. And when he’s in the Nigger Tombs we’ll have to clean the chicken shit ourselves anyway.
Your son needs to be more careful ‘round them birds; Doc nods his long, grizzled, bird’s beak of a nose towards Hannah. They pecked him way too good.
Doc leads Papa to the bed, pulls down the blanket, and shows him scores of chicken pecks on Hannah’s left thigh. He had smeared some sort of hell jelly on the wounds a few minutes earlier; and while the initial sting had subsided, a burning sensation continues to spread out from the left thigh like oil on a pond.
Hannah does not think that they’re chicken pecks. He never made it into the chicken coup, and he does not remember the chickens getting out. But as is his norm, he ponders in his own heart what actually happened a few hours ago, and he stares blankly at the dust flakes floating in the sunbeam in his bedroom.
Did Red mess with you, son? Papa asks in reference to the big red rooster that lords over the hens and once or twice has snapped at Hannah’s ankle when he is careless. ‘Cause if he did this, then I know what we’re having for supper…
It’s not Red, Hannah says without looking at his Papa straight in the eye.
Papa and Doc share a glance, and Hannah catches their look of disbelief.
It’s not Red, Hannah says more emphatically. I tripped outside the coup.
I found you outside the coup; Papa corrects him. But you must of gone in ‘cause the door was open, and the broom was leaning against the inside corner.
Hannah knows that’s not how it happened. The demon boy probably just opened the door and tossed in the broom, before Papa arrived at the scene. He is as sneaky as he is temperamental and very capable of altering a crime scene, especially as the victim is going to be able to point an accusatory finger at him otherwise. He is probably smiling this very moment at how he had pulled it off, an oily grin on a piggy face, a glint in his eyes as he relives it all in his memory.
Hannah is not fond of Red. The old coot rooster with the mangy feathers and the crazy left eye; the pudgy waddle that resembles a well-fed Napoleon in full battle regalia strutting before his tired men at Waterloo; the sharp beak on a crinkled face that glistens in the silver moonlight; no doubt will be served hot and steamy on a plate someday; and none too soon, in his mind. And yet for no good reason that he can tell, Hannah senses that he must defend Red right now and let that irascible bully live for another day. He hates thinking this way, but the urge is undeniable; and the consequence of not saving Red from his Papa at this time will be horrendous. Like everything else in the Deep South, the choice before him truly makes no sense, and yet it is also as stark as black from white.
It’s not Red, Hannah screams out in agony. Please, don’t snap his throat.
Papa is taken aback by this outburst. He steps back and fumbles again at the small buttons over his crotch. He is ashamed to be so close to his hysterical son. It is as if the boy is coming clean with the fact that he is a perverted sissy; and, even worse, he is confessing his diseased soul before a Job’s Deacon in the White Knights. It is as if the boy actually wants his neck stretched, rubbery and long, exposed to vultures swooping down from heaven, by the boys in the hood.
Doc smiles slightly. He rubs his hands together like he is about to dig into the Thanksgiving turkey. Behind his old eyes, he is checking over his Magi Robe.
Promise me, Papa; Hannah whispers. Promise me you’ll leave Red alone.
Papa looks down. He does not say a word, but Hannah knows in his heart that Red is going to be safe to pluck his bloody beak into his ankles once again, to look savagely at him with his evil eye, and to lord over the gossipy, old hens.
* * *
Hannah remains in bed the rest of the day. He sleeps on and off beneath his blanket; the burn in his left thigh cooling into a tired numbness; the pond of sweat behind his back evaporating into a mildly unsettling odor that just lingers as an unseen cloud above his face; the sunbeam drooping back toward his dusty window, like a reprimanded beast returning to the cave from which it once had emerged with so much brilliant courage and freshness. He is in less pain as that long and dreary day progresses, and yet he is sadder; his bedroom turning grey, then harsh purple blue, and finally cold and limitless black, as the memories all surrender, one by one, before the slow and creeping scythe. The only farmer in these parts still making a profit is time; an old man with a mad smile, brooding from one harvest to the next in his long, black robe and heavy shit boots, never making a sound, except in how the necklace that he wears clinks upon his chest (a necklace that the white debtors insist is the Star of David but that the Negro farmhands know is the Hangman’s Noose), always smirking with his eyes just as he lowers his scythe on the next stalk to be harvested for the great big banquet in the sky. And Hannah can feel this farmer making the rounds, checking off his list, getting closer to the little homestead that he and his Papa still have at the very edge of a long and hot summer. The farmer is as much a boogeyman as the demon boy; really, an old and skinny mirror image to the young and fat son of a preacher man; and like the demon boy, one of these nights the farmer will leap out at him from within the dead tobacco field, and when his Papa scampers out the back door to save him, he’ll lower the scythe on him, too. The farmer then grins and walks away, leaving the still and silent death to the howling wind and the beating sun, letting Mother Nature pluck away at the blue skins on the flesh and the mildew paint on the walls, forsaking the tired ghosts that linger to that inevitable wrecking ball that follows shortly on his heels. Yes, the farmer reaps what the devil sows; and the angels above glory in the incense from those tired and grey sinners like Hannah and his Papa, who are harvested by the old scythe and then burnt by the eternal flame into a sweet offering unto our Joyous God.
The next morning Hannah awakens as usual into the deadness of eternal, unforgiving nightfall; and though he is still physically weak, and as depressed as when he and his Papa had last walked out to the cemetery to leave flowers and miniature Confederate flags for his Mama and Seth, he is well enough to attend to his chores. He dresses as fast as possible, slips passed his snoring Papa in the living room, switches off the radio, and escapes to the sanctuary. He is sweaty, warm, and shivery; perhaps a slight fever in the silver bead of droplets clinging stubbornly to the top of his forehead; but, somehow, he knows that the demon boy is not out there this time. It is as if the assault of the previous morning had switched on his antennae, leaving him more aware of the signals that are there to be retrieved, and yet allowing him the sure step of knowing that the path up yonder is safe at this moment. It is a comfort he does not want, since the price to be paid to the fat Bank Jew is what scant remains of his boyhood innocence; perhaps no more than a bit of string that he had been clutching in his fists; but now hauled in the shiny, black Studebaker truck along with his other lost items.
Sure enough, there is no incident. The hens sleep on their eggs, and they hardly stir as he holds their feet up to retrieve the booty. Only Red is waddling about the chicken coup; a mad general checking over his men before the battle to come; and yet this time not pecking his ankle, nor even squawking angrily in his direction, as if in that vague way that is peculiar to animals Red knows that this same boy saved his neck from the fryer. Red remains his cantankerous, old, coot self, to be sure; but Hannah will never again need to avoid his sharp beak.
Hannah boils the grits later that same morning; an uncomfortably warm, even steamy, sunrise beating through the cracks in the kitchen window to lay a siege on his feverish forehead, while he dutifully stirs the pot on the old, wood burning stove; the whir of his Papa’s exhausted snores gurgling into the kitchen like the coughs of a spent motor; the whippoorwill cries in the dried, diseased, tobacco stalks sounding like the mad chuckles of a hyena. There is an intensity in so much sickness; a squirming, sweaty, nauseous vitality that calls attention to itself; and as the morning progresses into a sweltering afternoon of chores in the barn, Hannah feels as if he is moving through an unctuous electrical charge that is now blanketing over everything. Inside his flesh, this charge is a hand on his bowels; squeezing; twisting; but outside, it is inchoate energy slapping hard against his face and yet, simultaneously, pushing his slow feet to the next task.
He returns from the barn in the early evening; draped in long and jagged streaks of sweaty dirt; punctuated here and there by the mane hair of the tired and sickly Shire horse that spends all its time now whinnying from arthritic pain in the far corner of the barn. He remembers the day that his Papa had returned from the Grange ever so gently pulling Clare by her halter. It had been a warm, late summer day; much like today; except that then he had been no more than a tyke of five and watched over by Negra Jean, a kind, old woman with a shiny false left eye who is now sleeping for eternity somewhere in the Nigger Tombs. That had been the last summer before school began; before the demon boy had first seen Hannah in the schoolyard and had pushed him into a thorny rose bush by the flagpole; and it had been the last really good time for Papa and Hannah. Beside acquiring Clare, they had been able to watch as the ‘lectric switched on the lights for the very first time; Papa had bought his Philco from Old Man Lane down at the Sears and Roebuck; and Papa had mortgaged the home to purchase another hundred acres of tobacco. There had been nothing but future ahead of them; a sweet, honeysuckle scent in the summer air that would never abandon the little paradise that they had carved out for themselves; even the walks out to the cemetery seeming to be more bittersweet than teary-eyed sad, as if the good memories could be taken along with them, and the throbbing pain left off in the shadows somewhere. For Hannah, it had been his first taste of hope; and for Papa, it had been his last; and so that time would stand out in both of their minds as a poignant reminder of what can be when the warm, summer wind out in the field just happens to sing out the litany for those good and joyous saints.
Hannah closes the back door behind him. He slumps over to the kitchen.
There is no sound in the stillness, not even the faint rustling of a chicken feather from the coup out back, nothing at all, but the stirring, virile melody of The William Tell Overture just managing to poke through the cyclonic waves of static on the Philco. Beneath the music is the ghostly sound of pistols firing and horses galloping; a Hi-Yo Silver, Away, that is reminiscent of a dank cat wailing for food in the relentless wind; a sense of foreboding doom barely veiled by the ecstatic rush of battle. It is the quietness after the storm intimated in the same storm; crestfallen even as the blood is pumping still; alone among ones friends.
Hannah steps into the living room to join with his Papa. He loves nothing more than to sit on his Papa’s lap and to snuggle into his Papa’s heart while the two of them listen to the latest exploits of The Lone Ranger. It is the final show that they can hear every weekday, before the weak signal cuts out entirely and leaves them with nothing, but the warm and still nights. Of course, there is The Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights; but Hannah is in bed when the first banjo is broadcast from the Nashville stage. For him, Kemosabe and Tonto ride together as brothers; the same blood pumping through both their veins because they are equally outcasts in a savage world; the same place in the societal pecking order reserved for a white man and a red man, so that while so very different in most respects they can and do trace the path of the sun each day from the same pit.
Papa already is alone with his bottle; rocking in and out of consciousness in time with the repetitive creak in his chair; mumbling something or other into the drool stain over his own heart; and after awhile, as if slapped briefly out of his despondency, looking at his only remaining son and gesturing for him to join with him beside the radio. He smiles affectionately; but his eyes seem afflicted by the kind of sadness that cannot be washed away by firewater; a mad despair not even for a moment lost in dreams of discharged pistols and galloping horses out west; a passion for love that cannot be met even in the embrace of his son.
The Radio Man breaks from the action to announce this week’s sponsors; and while some other voice (though as deeply resonate and masculine) informs American boys that four out of five doctors recommend Camel cigarettes, Papa struggles to speak through a film of spit glued over his lips. He finally hawks his best loogie yet; one for the record books, in the mind of his wide-eyed son; and speaks in the clear, but distant, manner of a ghostly voice unearthed on an old, sepia toned 78rpm; a voice airy and wide, because there is so little furniture in the living room to absorb it; a voice remote and searching, because its speaker, large and strong as he is physically, in fact is as much a troubled boy as his son.
Did you mind your chores? Papa asks, as Hannah steps into his long arms.
Yes, Papa, Hannah responds, as he looks adoringly into his Papa’s face.
Good, ‘cause there ain’t nothin’ worse than a boy who shirks his chores…
Papa stares off. He seems caught inside one of his sad memories and, for a moment at least, altogether unaware of Hannah. He drops his smile. His large forehead glowers; his jowls quiver from an unseen gush of tears; and his literal, physical transformation from affectionate Papa to despondent, old man, a man seemingly unable to live outside of what he has lost, a man ready to give up his claim to what little he has left in this world, is so fast and complete that it is a wonder if he had been sincere in smiling at his son and in gesturing for him. His quiet sadness drains the sunlight out from the living room, so that regardless of where the sun may be in the sky at that moment it feels anyway as if they both are mired in the dead of night. Everything seems distant; the familiar character voices on the radio tinny and muffled, like some vague clatter on the other side of an endless wall; and the more Hannah clutches at his Papa, the more Papa in turn seems to be unaware that there is anyone left in this world who loves him.
Digger came by the other day, Papa says after a while. Looked me in the eye and said flat out that Truman is a Big Nigger Lover; allowing miscegenation in the Army, he says; trolling for votes from the kind of perverts who prefer the company of monkey ass over our women, he explains; and he just looked at me like I’m supposed to do something about it. Like I could do something about it…
Hannah cannot really understand his Papa. But he can feel his brooding, hulking impotence; his unseen gush of tears flowing from his jowls to his cheek; and he wants nothing more at this moment than to nurture him as Mama would.
Old Man Barley’s grandson is going to Korea, Papa continues. Lots of sons and grandsons are going away to kill communists on the other side of the globe.
Papa looks around his living room. He takes in everything that he has lost in there; and when he sees his son in his arms, he regards him also as lost to his world. He has nothing, but his creaky rocking chair and the vague sound coming out from his Philco; and even those tenuous attachments appear to be slipping, draining away, until there is nothing left then, but the darkness in his own soul.
We can kill communists over there, Papa laments. But we can’t keep the Bank Jews over here from crossing our property lines. Still, I’d send Seth out to Korea; put my right hand on my heart and shed a tear, as I watched him march on parade in the town square; wait anxiously for news from the front; just so in those proud and worrisome moments, I could fit into the order of things around here. A good man who knows his place is able to keep something in the end, his home, his barn, maybe just his pride. Even Old Jumper out back has something; his shed; his shakes; his ornery mouth, when he tells me flat out he’s not gonna tend the hog today. I have the rights to whoop him; drag him from his chair and tie him to a post; just whip his bare back ‘till his skin is the same golden red as the sun at high noon; literally whip the black out from him; but I don’t, and not likely I’ll ever, ‘cause he’s also a man, maybe not a good man, but a man, who knows his place and bides his time. But I no longer have a boy to offer to a war.
Hannah is snapped away from his Papa’s monologue by the crisp sound of pistols firing and horses galloping away. Apparently, Kemosabe and Tonto have pushed the bad guys into a corner and are coming in for the final kill. He knows that at the end they will not knock the bad guys into their shallow graves. They will just hand them over to the law and remind American boys everywhere that four out of five doctors prefer Camel cigarettes. But that’s okay, as he suspects that the law will string them high after the show ends. When the good guys just do what is right and just, the bad guys get their necks stretched before sunrise.
Seth used to run strong and proud in his pack, Papa continues. He had all the country sense; the good judgment; the right way; never any sissy foot in his step; and I suspect if he’d a lived, gone off to Korea, come home and married a fine woman like his Mama, he’d a climbed up from the farm, maybe even had a general store in town, been able to look the selectman straight in the eye, and do a good turn every now and then with the preacher. He’d a mattered, ‘cause like a dog moving up from the runt of the litter he’d a been smart enough to be in his place in the pack while thinking all the time how to replace the dog right in front of him. Wise as a serpent; Gentle as a dove; that’s what the Good Book tells us, doesn’t it? Knowing your place; keeping what’s yours; that’s really not the same as staying in place. The man who just stays in his place; never fussing much; never telling his superior that he ain’t gonna do the hog today; well that man is just gonna backslide into his grave; lose everything; even lose the queer look in his eyes, the sissy foot in his step, the strangeness that he thinks makes him original, but that in fact just makes him as dumb as a heifer mooing on the wrong side of the fence. No doubt about it. Seth is sleeping beside his Mama in eternity; just handing over what’s left of his flesh to the worms; but he’s more alive than we are. He’s a name on a tombstone bought and paid for; a fine slab of marble even the Bank Jews cannot haul away; and he’ll be there still, a fine name on a fine slab of marble, when we’re long and gone. But he won’t be still and silent, like we are. He’ll be the ghost raising hell at the third hour; the sad wail in the wind, when lovers sneak into the cemetery after dark to learn just a bit more about each other; the cantankerous rebel calling God Almighty to task for the cards dealt to him. And if only I could hear his belligerent ghost cry; his good and righteous wail at the moon; then I could sleep without having to drink myself silly. Maybe even show that Bank Jew a thing or two about what’s right; what’s fair; what’s still the law of the land in these parts. Oh, Hannah, I reckon you can’t understand what I’m saying. You’re too young; too feeble; but one of these days, when the Bank Jews haul us away to our own graves, maybe at that last moment you’ll understand that it never profited you to be a goddamn sissy in overalls. I suppose I shouldn’t use the Lord’s Name in vain. Now, isn’t that as well in the Good Book? Seems like it should be; but no matter; no matter at all; ‘cause there ain’t no God in the Heavens, or if there is He ain’t listening to the likes of a drunk fool and his sissy boy. He’d a rather listen to a fat, old Negress, chanting her spells, wailing her songs, than pay respect to a white man and his little, sissy boy who do not even respect themselves enough to do what is right.
Papa stares at the radio. His eyes appear troubled; pupils quivering in his bloodshot lenses with all the uncertainty of a beast confronted at once by what it cannot comprehend in its conscious mind; lower lip protruding outward in an expression of dumbfounded tiredness; cheeks sagged and colorless, like they’ve been slapped silly by a memory now no longer tangible; and so he holds Hannah closer to his chest, not as an outward expression of love (though there is a very real love still there in the warmth of his chest and the softness of his fingers on his son’s back), but as an indication of his despair before the everlasting void in front of him. He is holding onto the only buoy not yet hauled away and desiring nothing more than just a moment of lazy ease before the darkness snatches out from his heart the last of those soft dreams that had given him so much dare in his younger years. He suspects that he’ll be going down in a blaze of glory; and there is some real comfort in the thought that, just before he succumbs to that blackness, he will take down his enemies; but, for now, he just wants to feel at ease on his rocking chair. There may be no God left for those at the very end of their rope; but there can be a quiet moment of mental and spiritual resignation before the radio console visage of that which has been made incomprehensible.
Hannah must have been captured into the same uncomprehending mind; his life no longer distinguishable from his Papa’s impending death; their lives in each other’s arms the texture and the tone of any old married couple very long passed the possibility of passion and new life; their lives habitual, tired, cut off from whatever intimations of joy may have brought them together initially; and so he hears the pistol shots, the galloping horses, the Hi-Yo Silver, Away, when Kemosabe and Tonto head off toward the sunset in the search of other sinister, accented, vaguely Mexican sounding villains, but he can no longer imagine that they’re real or at least meaningful to his own life. He can no longer get caught up in the drama; no longer contort his tired lips into a smile in the thought that he too is riding beside Kemosabe; so that, as with his Papa, there is nothing for him, but to hold on, to keep his head above the waves, and to wait for the end.
And like the thief in the night, even when vaguely anticipated as an old, gnawing fear in the back of the mind, the end is as much a surprise as the burst and the gaseous fizz of a blown light bulb. Yes, the light may have been as sick and gloomy as a hot, nightmarish night. It may have cast the most menacing of shadows, even in a living room so bereft of furniture as to be freed presumably from the possibility of shadows. It may have provided just enough brightness to the eye for a despondent mind to imagine all the coziness and charms of a dark coffin six feet under and invaded by worms. But when finally the end comes; an only light bulb dying in the center of a barren room; the absolute darkness that results is as surprising as the very first light bulb ever to be switched on before an adoring crowd; expected, and yet still so different from past experiences as to be unsettling, unreal, like a surreal fragment from a nightmare once thought to be safely buried in the subconscious mind now suddenly seen to be out there in the world. We may be the creators of our own despair; but when finally that despair hits us, it hits us hard, leaving us frazzled, spent, little more than loony idiots grasping for the straws that are no longer there. And then even that buoy on which we have been holding on for our dear lives feels as foreign to us as all that darkness. We toss aside what had been giving us some sense of consolation only a moment prior. We are mad chickens running about the old coup with our heads cut off and bleeding beneath our feet; what had been our home now just as foreign as the most distant land; what had been our lives the same as death.
All of this happens in the blink of an eye; and then, after that knock out punch, the swollen and stupefied grey matter has a chance slowly to figure out what actually had happened to cause so much immediate dislocation. The radio went dead (just as Kemosabe and Tonto were about to capture the last holdout desperado and then to hand the show over to the Radio Man, who in turn would remind American boys yet again of the Doctors’ Choice in Cigarettes); the lights went dead; the entire home had fallen back to that singular moment just prior to the ‘lectric switching on the juice. Like the Bank Jews, the ‘lectric will wait only so long for the balance to be paid before it hauls away whatever it is owed and leaves a man and his son all alone and desperate in the darkness that never ends. Such is the world where the debt cannot be paid before the curtain falls; everything inky black; every sound an echoed scream; every fright a nightmare.
Hannah stays in his Papa’s arms. He inhales his Papa’s sniffles and offers his in turn. He adds his weight to his Papa’s lap; no more than a tiny feather on a boulder, it seems; and so together, they rock an even louder creak out from a chair that had been burdened already by the pressing thighs of the besieged old drunk. He just wants to rock on that chair forevermore; and as the evening sun falls, and the closed curtain suffocates the last remnants of afternoon sunlight, it seems as if they may remain together that way into an eternity all their own.
But then, sometime in the middle of the night, Papa pushes Hannah off, shoves his own lumbering flesh off of his chair, and walks agitatedly about their living room. He is mumbling something or other that Hannah cannot understand and every now and then is peering through a cut in his curtain like some sort of demented Peeping Tom. Whatever is out there in that eternal nightfall must be so explicit, so stark a contrast from what could have been seen by the sunlight, as to excite a prurient response even from the likes of a despondent mind, as it is clear enough that Papa has been seized by a dirty, no, dirty fun, no, actually slithering naked about the hog pen fun, idea that is much more virile than what Hannah anyway has experienced before this time. There is a sweaty rush; a soft and mushy smell in the air reminiscent of dank shit boots that have been stored inside a cramped closet for a while; and then an anticlimactic silence, an aged, spent breath, and a strangely contemplative mood. Papa now leans against the living room window; his lips kissing the glass; his arms sprawled outward like an unsightly man crucified; and Hannah observes him glow in the silver moonlight, his flesh assuming a deathly countenance, his stillness seeming somehow much more visceral, than when he had been wandering compulsively about the room.
He always turns off the lights before he comes, Papa remarks in a voice, even more so, in an overall posture, that is tinged with just enough madness to be altogether unsettling. That’s his way; his sign; what he does to toy with us a moment longer, before barging in with his warrant and hauling away what little life remains. The poets have it all wrong. The Grim Reaper is not a skinny, sick, old man in a black hood. He’s a fat pork belly; a well-stuffed Bank Jew in fancy clothes; driving a shiny, black Studebaker; grinning glossy lips on a pudgy face; all dolled up with no where to go, but our little farm in the woods. He’s coming to haul the rest; armed with nothing, but his legal form; and we’re supposed to sit here in the dark and play with our willies until he knocks on the door. I have no idea what you think about this, boy; but I know that Seth would fight; roll in the mud with that fat Bank Jew and tear out his long fingernails one by one ‘till one of them finally gave up the ghost; and Mama would fight alongside him. No doubt about it. Even in their graves, they’re aching for the fight. Just aching to see the look on his fat face, when they respond with the same sheer tenacity in their behavior as had won the west and tamed the niggers back in the good, old days. American Pioneers, they’d be. A white man and his white mama, tearing out Jew blood, slithering in Jew sweat, hauling what’s left of that interloper on a cross and grinning and nodding their fingers up at him. That’s what that Good Book says. That’s what they’d do. And, no, we’re not them, not by a long shot, but we’re gonna follow their example, even if we need to die in our shit boots, just fall right here in this here room, just fall while still aiming our hot rifles at the pork rinds in his belly, just fall onto our butts with loony grins on our faces.
Hannah clamps his mouth shut. He knows that it is too dark inside for his Papa to see him with his physical eyes; but he senses, vaguely, intuitively, that his Papa is no longer observing much of anything with his physical eyes. He’s all psychic vision right now; the kind Negra Jean had; the kind Old Jumper has; all the past and the future at a glance; and like every prophet, he’s mad enough in his wild eyes, his strange utterings, his silver moon glow, to snatch a little sissy boy out from the darkness and to give him a firm hand for not believing in what he’s preaching. And, the more he thinks upon it, maybe Hannah is just as much ashamed of himself as he is afraid of his Papa. Just maybe he’s ashamed not to have more of the good fight in him; afraid that he’ll fall before his task; scared shitless that his rifle will stall, when he’s got the fat Bank Jew in his crosshairs, and that because of his failure they’ll die without so much as scratching his old and sallow skin. And then, mixed in with all that fear, there’s that stir inside of his bowels; not a quiver so much as a wave sloshing back and forth; that sounds in his boyish mind like the fun of splashing his shit books in and out of a puddle.
But his Papa never looks back at him. He just keeps staring through a cut in his curtain; waiting; planning; speaking in tongues, howling at the moon, like the Good Book says. He is not coming down from his cross, not even when he is beginning to stink like death on account of the warm piss inside of his trousers, not even when he is turning withered grey in the soft lights of the next sunrise, lest he be caught sleeping when the thief returns to haul away whatever is left.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak; and so Hannah is curled in the fetal position and long into sleep, when Papa nudges his left side with the stock of an antique Baker rifle. Hannah opens his eyes and sees that his Papa is aglow in the pale white morning sunlight falling into the living room from the kitchen; a ghost vision that startles a quick breath out from his throat; an intimation the likes of which he has never known except when he is dreading the return of the demon boy. The momentary fear passes, and Hannah then sees that his Papa is smiling down at him; a cherubic grin that calls to mind a fat clown; and leaning a second antique Baker rifle against his own right shoulder. His Papa is issuing a weapon of war to his son; the two antique Baker rifles all that had been left to them, after the fat Bank Jew had departed; and at once the still morning turns warm and sticky with the promise of death, and the air smells awash in a blood that is never going to be redeemed even by the sacred wood cross on Golgotha.
Hannah stands up and takes the Baker rifle. Strangely, he is not afraid of what this means, but neither he is stirred by that anxious, boyish excitement of the prospect of battle that he had presumed would be his initial reaction to the issuance of arms. He is numb; weighed down; accepting the card dealt with the kind of grim determination he senses to be indicative of adulthood. He is a man at that moment, though he has yet ever to fire a rifle at anything other than an old and doddering raccoon, because he has the mind of a person who has killed those who would presume to knock him out from his rightful place in the world.
He remembers how last night he had wanted to jump in and out of water puddles; relishing the prospect of battle as a game of Cowboys and Indians writ large; hearing still the orchestral rush of The William Tell Overture in his mind, even though by then the radio had been switched off along with the rest of the electrical appliances; but that memory seems very distant and unreal now; just the passing joy of a boyhood vanquished by the night; even worse, just the kind of fancy for which he should be ashamed now that he has awakened into a hard and unforgiving manhood. He is not wistful at what he has lost. His morose, and ultimately self-destructive, desire to reclaim the innocence lost just then is not going to be an ache in his heart for some time. It is the old man who wishes for his youth, the old man who dreams, the old man who despairs. The young man, first blossoming into his maturity, is much too focused on the armor plate he is wearing over his chest and legs, and the rifle he is leaning upon his shoulder, to be all that mindful of the fact that Eden’s old gate has been closed behind him.
I can’t send my boy to Korea, Papa remarks, while shedding a single tear from his left eye. But, soon enough, a little bit of Korea is going to arrive at our doorstep; and when that happens we have to be ready. ‘Cause if we don’t fight the Jew Devil, then we’re no better than a coon who sees that the gate is wide open before him, but who refuses to depart from his slavery. Either we fight to hold onto our place in the pecking order, or we fall outside of that order, like a nigger slave with no name, no legal rights, no inscription in the Book of Life, as the Good Book says. So be it in this lifetime. A man is either white or black; his father Abraham, or his father Cain; and there ain’t no God in the Heaven above who is gonna save the white man who acts like a nigger, or turn back the nigger who acts like a white man. They’re gonna rise or fall on their own measure; all the glory earned; all the hardship warranted. And, yes, I know all too well that the better half of our family is six feet under; but so long as we can stay awake at our post, load our muskets, and fire into a fat Jew belly, we’re gonna rise or fall on our own measure. And, in the end, that’s all the control we have in this world. The mercurial, old buggers on top of Mount Olympus control all the rest.
The day is still young; the sunlight fresh; the air seeping into their house from the outside fragrant in summer blooms; and yet already they are besieged in the Little Alamo that they’ve set up for themselves. That’s what it means to be a man. That’s what it means to be in the order of things. And, yes, when all has been said and done, that’s what it means to be a free man in a slave world.
And so Papa smashes a hole in the living room window. He points his rifle muzzle through the hole and hides his bulky flesh in the drawn curtain. He sees nothing, even though he stares out the window all day, but what that prophetic vision of his chooses to see. And that psychic eye is showing him that sometime soon the shiny, black Studebaker is going to rumble down their private lane and park beneath the large sunburst of a red oak tree out front. Then, the fat Bank Jew is going to step out from behind his wheel, brandishing a wide grin, waving a warrant like a woman’s handkerchief, thinking himself the victor until he has stepped into range. He will not even know what’s hit him as his belly explodes; not even see the pork rinds splattering out from his midsection; not even feel a bit of pain, until he awakens all of a sudden inside the old pit reserved for him.
Hannah follows his Papa’s example. He smashes a hole lower in the same living room window; points his rifle muzzle through the hole; and hides his thin, but hard, flesh in the drawn curtains. He does not share his Papa’s psychic eye. He just sees the summer birds flying in and out of the red oak tree all day long.
* * *
There is virility in the life of the besieged; vicious intuitiveness veiled as the long hours of a sentry standing his post, or of an infantryman calibrating his rifle, or of a quartermaster skulking back from the kitchen with canned fruits in his arms; the acute senses of a snake ready to pounce, but masked beneath the slow and silent movement of men in dark shadows; the hot and steamy blood of a would be murderer pulsing out from a heart primed for its mission, but veiled in the careful and steady behavior reminiscent of dour monks in prayer; so that if viewed dispassionately from high above the clouds, the men waiting inside of the Alamo would seem tired, morose, just resigned to an unavoidable death for which their souls have not been prepared, when in fact these same men are all consumed in their sleepless energy, beastly senses, not at all resigned to death but rather embracing the pressure of a life lived at the very edges of blackness.
The sick, little truth that the dispassionate observer cannot ever fathom is that the warrior (not to be confused with the conscripted soldier plucked out from his farm and forced against his will into Pickett’s Charge) loves his steady, calculated, whispered preparations for war almost as much as he loves real war in all of its bloody excess. He lives in how his nerves twist and toil into serpents of electrified pain; hot and steamy lines writhing beneath his skin; pressurized, charged flesh so ready to pounce at the enemy that every muscle is stiffened in its resolve, contorted and hardened into instruments of death, a feeling as real and intense as the moment before a sweaty orgasm. He cannot dream of peace as anything, but a relapse into his former weakness; and so he broods in steady contemplation of how his enemy will look the moment he punctures his blubber and splashes his innards in every direction. Until his pulls back on his trigger for real, he is no more alive than when hiding in shadows and indulging this dream.
For the besieged, the days bleed into one another; every calendar day as timeless as the others; and so there is nothing, but the wait and the attack; the former seeming to go on without end; the latter over even before it has started in earnest. The build-up always outweighs the release; the former so gradual in its development in the mind as to leave a lasting imprint on the soul; the latter just fast and spasmodic shrieks of adrenaline; so that the warrior who manages, by the chance roll of the dice, to walk away from the last pistol shot is scarred forever by his sheer inability after the great struggle to find anything in his new world as compelling. Life after war is anticlimactic; his place in that proverbial pecking order set in stone; his life a ticking down of his clock until finally done.
Perhaps Papa is thinking along these lines. He seems to know that all the preparation for war, the long hours staring through a cut in the curtain, the old and cantankerous failures indulged in his mind in the ribald comments escaping from his lips after he has downed another bottle of Old Jack, is as exhilarating, indeed as momentous, as anything he has or ever will experience in his sad life. He seems to realize that whatever happens the next time the fat Bank Jew has the gall to show up on his property, it is going to be determinative; a victory or a defeat that will not be turned back; a wound that will leave its mark on what remains of his soul. And it is for that reason principally that he is afraid; so fear consumed, in fact, that he must veil it behind a veneer of sure, contemplative, dispassionate preparation broken up every now and then by a late night fall off the wagon; and as much as he hates himself for being so afraid, he hates much more the prospect of just taking the punches that life is going to inflict on him.
Hannah senses his Papa’s fear. It is the same as his own, whenever he is forced by the grandfather clock chimes to leave their living room sanctuary and to attend to the chickens. He does not sense the demon boy; the warm stillness outside not quivering in the stench of a fat and temperamental hyena; the long dead tobacco stalks not veiling anything, but the overfed rats that scurry away from the back of the shed when he retrieves his broom; but he knows that that demon boy will be back, if he and his Papa fail at the Battle of Armageddon for which they are preparing. There is a heavy price to be paid for not keeping the boogeyman in the black closet, or in this case not shooting him down before he reaches the doorstep; a life to be hauled away; an order to be lost; and while a lot of this remains vague in his imagination; an inchoate insinuation, more than a defined fear; it is enough to age him beyond his years, even when he is doing those tasks in the chicken coup that used to be able to quiet his troubled mind.
Notwithstanding his heavy heart, Hannah cannot know the real extent to which he has been slowed by the unrelenting pressure of this siege. There is no past experience with which he can compare it; not enough maturity with which he can put his feelings into perspective; and so he is surprised, indeed ashamed beyond measure, at how slowly he reacts to the feathered frenzy that he hears and then sees in the chicken coup one morning. He had heard his hens waddling madly into the chicken wire; the wings flapping; the tightened throats clucking irritably; but he had not been able to register anything really amiss. Even when Red had crowed in anxious defiance, he had done no more than stop a moment, grip his broomstick more tightly, and wonder why his dream indeed is persisting into his waking mind. As he takes in all of these sensations, and tries to make a bit of sense from it all, he is not able to realize anything more substantial than that he is confused; his mind a flower petal that will not quite open to the dark and menacing night; his intuition a sick breeze that will not even carry the loud chicken shrieks from the subconscious depths of his brain. He is just plain stuck in his youthful inexperience; no, even worse, in his shamefully sissy life; just as immediate and courageous action is most needed. And he would have remained right there; cowering in his own mental blankness; had his rosy baby cheeks not been slapped by the vicious crack of a rifle shot, followed by the pungent smell of gunpowder. A hoarse scream; bloodcurdling hot in the stark darkness; and he is able finally to snap out from his head just enough to rush back into his home.
Hannah drops his broom on the kitchen floor, while he is pushing himself toward the living room. He hears the stark clank of his broom striking the floor, but he imagines that it is another rifle shot. He falls instinctively to his knees in a single, convulsive spasm of fear; and he is blinded by hot sweat, pouring over his eyes, and sticking to his face like the thin leather just ripped off of a snake.
There is another rifle shot, followed by the sound of a shattered window and an even more intense smell of gunpowder. All of this chaos combines in his mind to sound like a mad, high-pitched, womanish scream; the cackle of a sick, old witch jumping out from the darkness and into the living room; and Hannah, again frozen in mental blankness, can do no more than curl into a fetal position and shed a single tear. At that very moment, he is alone in a universe of vicious screams and sick laughs; a dark cauldron full of witches; a place of nightmares; and he is unable to remember having ever been anywhere else but in that spot.
Papa screams; a long and scraggly sound that is anger trying to mask real pain; and Hannah is able to break out from his paralysis just enough to crawl on the floor toward him. He has no idea what he’s going to do when he gets there. He is acting purely on instinct; blind forward movement fueled by fears that do not play on the mind, but pummel the heart and twist the bowels; and courage is as far from his soul as the pale white sunrise from this nightmarish blackness.
Crawling into the living room, he is stunned by a blinding white light that is streaming through every cut in the curtain; an image reminiscent of a landing flying saucer that he had seen once in a comic book; a diffracted spotlight from the black heavens spreading as demonic tentacles across the hardwood surface.
Hannah wipes his eyes repeatedly with the back of his right hand, like he can shove the white light away from his vision. He has lost his mind, no doubt a way of shielding his soul from the sheer horrors; and yet he is conscious enough to be able to feel the white light against his skin. It is as if the light is alive; an organism with its own heat and texture; a mind pulsing in and out of trillions of charged electrons and deliberately projecting eviscerating death into their last holdout. It is the fat Bank Jew writ large in the imagination; the enemy as high and as deep as the unfathomable reaches of the universe; and somewhere in all the madness and the fear at that moment, Hannah senses that their real enemy now and for all time, the enemy only intimated in the salacious grin on that fat Bank Jew’s face, the enemy only partially revealed in everything that has been hauled away or buried in the cemetery, is in fact the technology that allows for so much blinding white light to be projected into their darkness. No, even more so, it is not the technology, so much as the passage of time in which such new, innovative, transformative technology arises. The enemy is change. The enemy is loss. It is the old giving way to the new even within the most remote reach of the Deep South; time unrestrained even down here; Eden retreating a step with every new day, notwithstanding the prayers of the good people, and the nooses twisting the necks of the bad. It is the last farm at the very edge of the cosmos finally and irrevocably giving way to the chronological march of a time never to be turned back; never to be redeemed; never to be sanctified by a god man on a cross. It is the last farm at the very edge of the cosmos escheated to despair.
And as soon as Hannah senses what the real enemy is, the blinding white light loses much of its intensity in his imagination. It ceases to be a living mind; ceases even to be an organism with its own heat and texture; and, instead, can be seen readily for what it is: the white headlights of a shiny, black Studebaker idling beneath the red oak tree out front and providing a cover to that fat Bank Jew and the two or three goons that apparently he employed for this fire fight.
Papa had not anticipated so many men. He is no more than a contorted, black shadow; a hulking man bent over by his fear and desperation into the size and the bearing of a crazed midget silhouetted against the diffracted spotlight; and at this moment, he is scrambling about the living room floor in search of a bit of gunpowder with which to reload his muzzle. He has as much chance as an old and deranged dog beaten into the ground by the heel of a boot; his manner defiant, rabid, foaming at the mouth; and yet his responses so ineffectual as to be laughable. At one point, he slips on spilt gunpowder; and as he endeavors to regain his footing, he looks like a chuckin’ and jivin’ coon dancing by an unseen campfire; a reverse minstrel show, where his face is white, but everything else about him is charcoal black; a sad and pitiful fall to the very bottom of the hill.
There is another rifle shot. The living room window shatters completely; the curtain flaps inward, like a huge bird about to take flight; and the whizzing bullet ricochets back from the wall and strikes the crazed midget man. There is a loud groan, as the crazed midget man pirouettes on his feet with all the class and subtlety of a drunken ballerina. And then, there is a floorboard crackling as finely as a snapped collarbone, as that same ballerina drops into the hardwood.
Hannah hears someone barking an order. He hears the shuffling of boots.
Probably, the fat Bank Jew and his goons think that the coast is clear for the home invasion. If they are not deterred right now, then they will be in their sanctuary within seconds, hauling what is left, and kicking them like their dogs.
Hannah glimpses his rifle leaning against the wall. He had loaded it much earlier, so he only has to add his spark and to pray that something explodes out from the muzzle. Even if it turns out to be no better than a noisemaker, he has to hope that that alone will be enough to deter them from their advance, since the alternative is just to lay there and to take it like the slave who will not exit from the plantation even though he sees that the gate is wide open before him.
He stands in the middle of the open window; adds his spark; presses the butt against the soft spot beneath his right shoulder; and stares through the old and distorted crosshairs. He cannot see anything but white light; and just then, he imagines that he is about to fire into heaven and to try to take out an angel.
He pulls the trigger. The blast seems louder than it had been in the past, when he had fired the same rifle at retreating raccoons. It also seems to recoil so much more. It is as if everything is magnified in the course of a real life war.
Hannah has no idea, if he hit anyone; but he recognizes that, at the very least, he has surprised them enough to stall their advance. The heavy boots are no longer stomping towards the door. Two of them are whispering agitatedly at one another; and while Hannah cannot make out their words, he can sense that they are arguing about whether they should press onward or retreat. Of course, as any battle veteran will attest, once an army has stopped to argue that point, it is not very likely to regain the mind and the spirit needed to press forward at that time. The moment passes, and there is nothing left to ponder but the very real prospect of death at the hands of an enemy no longer able to be surprised.
Sure enough, after an agonizing minute or so of indecision, that fat Bank and his goons just collapse. No one barks out an order, so far as Hannah is able to hear from the open window. Rather, it seems as if they all just arrive at that conclusion at the same time; and once the decision has been made, they throw aside any semblance of military order and run back to the Studebaker like boys who have committed a prank. The Studebaker rumbles off soon thereafter, and Hannah is left defenseless and alone in the ephemeral glow of silver moonlight.
Actually, he is not alone. His Papa is squirming and moaning beside him; and, no doubt, he will continue to make a big ruckus, until Hannah can retrieve Doc at sunrise. But Papa’s cries are no more substantial than the breeze picking up the red oak leaves outside and tossing them into the living room; and so it is easy enough for Hannah to see that indeed he is standing inside a ghost’s dress; the silver moonlight caressing against his skin like the fluttering fabric of an old skirt; the breeze rustling like the same old skirt sliding up and down a bony leg; and no one there to protect him from the quiet kiss of a living, breathing night.
* * *
The light plays on the mind when it shines into total darkness. As Hannah had stood in the open window; his body shivering like a wet hen; his Baker rifle splattering gunpowder back unto his own arms and face; his feet, nevertheless, unmovable stones on cracked hardwood; he had not been able to see anything, not even the fluttery outline of ghosts, in the glare of the headlights. His vision impaired he had imagined much more acuity with his other senses; every sound from beyond his window a sharp sting, and then a reverberating echo, inside of his head; every scent a tingle of his nose hairs; indeed, every thought feeling as if telekinetically captured by his own mind. He had felt as if he could feel what the fat Bank Jew and his goons were doing out there in between their quivering red oak tree and their mud stained front doorstep. Indeed, it had been a sordid and unnatural trick in his own young mind; a parlor game more akin to a séance that is meant to part an old lady from her purse, than an actual explosion of his mental prowess; but it had been enough to add clarity in purpose, and strength in resolve, as he did what he felt needed to be done in defending their holdout from the ravages of time. The aerial view observer would have called his action courage; but Hannah knew better, maybe not so much then, but certainly when the spotlight left, and the darkness slowly gave way to sunrise. For Hannah, the mind trick, and the action that sprang from it like the projectile from his Baker rifle, had been nothing more than the barest grasp of survival, a scared shitless rabbit just managing to stumble back into its hole before the predator boar, its muzzle already stained by blood, its tusks dirtied by hairy flesh, is able at once to tear its head from its neck. For Hannah, the thrill of warfare had turned out, in retrospect, not to be exhilarating, so much as exhausting, and morally spent.
The fat Bank Jew and his goons (three men in total, but presumed by the minds of those besieged inside the living room to be as innumerable as the dark hearted horde from hell, for all intents and purposes) had been able to observe Hannah in all his glory. Indeed, that fierce spotlight had set Hannah apart from his own backdrop like a 3-D film seems to pull the focused character away from everything else in his scene; and, precisely for that reason, at that one moment in time, Hannah had been able to snap into their minds as a creature magnified many times above his normal size and strength. Hannah had been a giant with a bazooka, not a boy with a flintlock rifle, and that had instilled just enough fear to halt their advance all at once. The giant image would have faded, and those men would have continued their assault, except that that spotlight then played its next trick on their minds. Everything in the background; the big man holding his shoulder on the floor; the rocking chair knocked onto its side; the dark, and strangely impenetrable, Philco radio console looming as the silent and brooding face of a corpse; even the smoldering crack in the wall from where their bullet had ricochet into the left deltoid muscle of the mad, old farmer firing at them; everything seemed to come alive and to blend into one another as if the surreal images and nightmarish fragments of a Cubist painting. There had been nothing back there that their minds could grab; no puzzle piece that could be definitely and irrevocably joined with another to create the lower, right hand corner of a recognizable picture; and that visual madness had twisted their minds like sand inside a kaleidoscope. That had sent their boot splashing through the mud back to the Studebaker. That had left their hearts smoldering in the dirt beneath the red oak tree long after their tire tracks had cooled in the lily breeze at sunrise.
Hannah has all the time in the universe to contemplate this, as he sits on the hardwood beside his Papa and waits patiently for the sunrise. He can see in the first soft intimations of daylight; a kind of purple haze bleeding through the open window and mixing in with the last traces of silver moonlight to set aglow their living room with the color and the texture of a corpse; that his Papa has a minor flesh wound; really, no more than a bad scrape; and that Doc will not be necessary after all. And yet, as soon as he hears Red crow, and imparts a subtle nod to his agonized Papa, he sets out for Doc, sensing correctly that the enemy is not going to return for a rematch so soon after their rout, and desiring in the back of his mind the kind of helpful reflection that can come only from a walk, face down, arms folded at the chest, through the fresh airs of a brand new day.
He had hoped that the clarifying of his impressions might lighten his load and if not curl a grin out from the edges of his lips, then at least dab a little bit of color into his cheeks; but, in fact, it turns out that a precocious boy working out his salvation in fear and trembling (or at least in the strained movements of a walk alongside endless dead tobacco fields and abandoned slave sheds) is not necessarily going to stumble upon a vision that is beatific. And so when Hannah finally steps away from the main road, and kicks through the mud of the windy, narrow trail that leads to Doc’s unremarkable home beside fallow farmland, he has no choice but to acknowledge the hands of fate and of chance in what truly happened only a few hours earlier. There is no God; at least no Old Man, sitting all day on a golden throne, and doling out salvation to those of us in the middle of the pecking order somewhere who plead for a bit of relief from the tax man, or the sheriff, of the Bank Jew; but there is a wild-eyed monster, long haired in the unkempt manner of a greasy pervert, perpetually puckered into a dark, and yet temptingly insincere, kiss that if indulged could persist for the remainder of a life and then some, and that monster reaches out to each and every one of us with two hands. One of his hands is a lobster claw; red and scaly; so strong that it cannot possibly lose its grip; and that hand is called fate. The other hand is a wet and slippery leather glove; charcoal black; sliding off from every surface in which it comes into contact and yet, strangely, unsettlingly, leaving its distinct mark just the same; and that hand is called chance. The monster is forever just around the bend; no more than a queer, little devil in the mind, until seen face to face as the glowering, gigantic, old bugger that it is; and so it truly does not matter if or how a man may prepare for his private war; whether by reasserting his old alliances; or paying homage to his gods; or just by steeling his heart in a still night; because, in the end, the outcome will be whatever that monster has so determined. If a man, or even a precocious boy, is going to lose his own spot in the order of all things, and end up in the same graveyard as the gloried kings and the defeated Negroes, then there really is not anything he can do about it, no matter the gunpowder discharged and the corpses strewn about an old field.
Hannah looks up from his thoughts to behold Doc in all his glory. He is his usual gnomish self; scraggly torso and limbs that hang loosely from his stooped, creaky shoulders, like shriveled moss leaves on a spent branch; eagle eyes that are swimming in the first wave of dementia; insipid grin that looks like the old, gnarled bark of a tree that has reached down and snatched away innocent boys since primordial time; and yet he is different than Hannah has seen him before. He is shrouded in mystery; strangely regal; brilliantly colorful, yet obscured by the very weirdness of it all; and the closest approximation that Hannah can see in his own mind is the image of Merlin the Magician from a quaint storybook the fat Bank Jew had hauled away, except that there is no benevolent cheer in this gnome, and there is no learned, white beard hanging playfully from his old chin and whiskers. He is Merlin the Magician only to the extent of his robe; a bright, red stream of thick fabric that seems to drag an endless train from its waist; an embroidered, hooded, wedding dress from hell with a golden crescent moon on its chest and a pattern of silver diadems on its skirt; and then with just a subtle shift of the mind, he is not Merlin the Magician but rather one of the Magi Kings from the manger scenes at Christmas. So Doc is sitting on his front porch in the Magi Robe that he had sewn for himself sometime ago in anticipation of moving up the ladder within the White Knights; and while Hannah cannot be sure, since the robe covers every last sin but what appears on the narrow face, he suspects that Doc is stark, raving naked beneath all that fabric and, perhaps, more than a bit glad between his thighs, as he observes this new day from his porch chair.
Kinda early for a call, boy, Doc remarks irritably, though without looking down at Hannah. I’ve got my office hours, just like the Jew Docs in them fancy brownstones. Even posted ‘em. Large white print against black, so that even an ornery sissy can read ‘em. So I reckon you best be leavin’ my fine field, weirdo.
Doc grins. He seems particularly proud of his own smarts in referencing a weirdo, as if the usage of such a fine and artful word showcases his far superior sophistication. His eyes sparkle like a mad rat caught in a trap, as his wrinkled, gnomish face contorts into the grin of a pedophile about to fondle his tiny prey.
Read the office hours yourself, weirdo, Doc gestures with his right arm in the direction of his front door. And don’t tell me you’re too stupid to read time numbers. Even silly niggers nowadays can read time numbers, like 9AM to 5PM, if you scold ‘em hard enough. So if you pretend to be stupid, then I’m gonna be as mad as a ratty coon in a shed at how your tryin’ to pull a fast one over me. I don’t cotton to a fast one, boy. You mind me, boy? You mind me, little weirdo?
Hannah looks at the front door. There is no sign there. If ever there had been a sign, then it had been blown away by the hot summer wind a while ago, since there is not even any blue glue smudge that would indicate a recent sign.
Papa needs help, Hannah blurts out. He’s been shot in the left shoulder.
Knocked to the floor by the Bank Jew, Doc remarks with a knowing grin.
But how did you know? Hannah inquires. Did you hear us before sunrise?
Doc chuckles. He drops his right hand onto the waistline of his robe, and gropes around for something or other under the fabric. His sick eyes dart in the general direction of Papa’s old farm, like he can see Papa from his porch chair, and take in all of Papa’s painful moans in the soft breeze now ruffling his hood.
Please, papa needs help, Hannah cries. He needs help from his own kind.
Doc now looks at Hannah directly for the first time. He arches his bushy, right eyebrow into a gesture of incredulity and seems really stunned a moment.
His own kind, huh? Doc snarls. Your papa needs his own kind. If that’s so, then why does he send his weirdo to deliver the message? Answer me that. And while you’re at all, tell me: Why does he have the gall to send his weirdo to me before my opening time? Am I lower than those Jew Docs in them brownstones? Am I too much of a hillbilly to keep hours, ‘cept by the sun in the big, blue sky? Am I a colored with as much sense of fixed time numbers as of right and wrong?
No, sir, Hannah just manages to croak, as he senses in his own great fear and shame that he is no more a man now than he had been before the firefight hours ago; really, no more than only a boy trembling before an angry, old man; notwithstanding how he had stood in the open window and had fired out a shot.
Suppose your papa could identify his own kind in a line-up? Just stand in the dark and point ‘em out with no more than a quiet nod? Doc asks cryptically.
Hannah has no idea what Doc is saying. He is just frightened; and though he knows in the back of his head that his Papa really does not need any medical attention, he is determined to overcome his fear and to convince Doc to get up from his porch chair and to return to his Papa’s farm by his side. He just knows that getting Doc to return with him is the most important task to do right then. He senses vaguely that everything hinges on whether Doc accepts his Papa, now and in the years to come, as one of his own kind in a world that is falling away, subtly, but irreversibly, and being replaced by a reality they will not recognize, not even see, like a fat Bank Jew and his goons veiled in a blinding, white light.
Papa’s your family, Hannah remarks, as he thinks about his Mama and his brother Seth now resting forever side by side in the last white man’s graveyard.
Seems your Papa’s family is an uppity nigger and a sissy boy, Doc scowls.
Hannah looks down. He slowly shifts his feet restlessly from side to side.
Doc stares at the boy; squinting his eyes like an old man who is studying something he has never seen in his many years under a brutal sun; twinkling his nose and groping the waistline of his robe like a penny short queer; and after a silent treatment that lingers just a bit too long, he shoos the sad boy away with a broad gesture that madly flaps his sleeves. He is a cantankerous, old coot just then; but there is something oddly magical in his behavior, as if somehow those shimmering sleeves are releasing invisible fairy dust sprinkles into the dawn air.
Scoot, sissy boy, Doc hisses, like a mad snake wrapped inside a red robe.
Papa’s born on his land, Hannah continues. He’s worked the tobacco ‘till his fingers have bled; paid the man at the Grange; torched the Old Man’s Cross.
I never seen your Papa’s eyes at the Old Man’s Cross; Doc wags his right, index finger defiantly at the boy. Never seen him raise his eyes and follow that white man’s smoke all the way from the cross to the heavens. He’s too busy all smilin’ and lovin’ with his nig out yonder; too proud and fine; too independent, even though he’s wearin’ the same overalls and shit boots as the rest of us. Oh, I have no doubt about his blood; but a man can forsake his lineage, just toss his good name into the grave long before his body gets there, if he’s a sissy soft on the Eve of Armageddon. And make no mistake about it, boy. We’re on the Eve; the Eve of Armageddon; and it’s only gonna get worse what with a nigger lovin’ haberdasher in the White House, a scalawag editor of the Beulah Democrat, all them coloreds leavin’ our lands on the heels of the Oakies. Pretty soon the only mules we’re gonna keep to plow our fields will have four hooves and a muzzle. Sad, dumb animals, them mules, about as dumb as old hens laying eggs in their own shit, and what’s your Papa doin’ about it all? Where’s he when we’re goin’ coon huntin’ by the light of the full moon? Where’s he when the noose snaps all the demon breath out of a beast? Just sittin’ there with his Old Jack, all weepy when Hank sings, “I saw the light,” like a biddy feelin’ wet in her linen panties for the first time in fifty years. And don’t think for a moment we don’t know all about your Papa’s cry baby ways late at night; and how he has you doin’ nigger work, while his favorite nig out yonder is fast asleep on a cotton mattress; and, frankly, lots of other dark secrets I reckon you’re too young to know. We know. The hoods on our faces ain’t over our eyes; no, not ever by the Lord Most High; and so we’re gonna know whose our own kind and whose chuckin’ and jivin’ by the campfire with the devils. We’re gonna know. And we’re gonna remember….
Hannah drops to his right knee. He lowers his face like an old man lost in prayer. He does not really know what he is doing but feels compelled to do it in this time of despair, even though he fears no one is listening to his simple plea. It is as if his supplicant posture, his unvoiced prayer, his solitary tear zigzagging down his right cheek, are all the outward expressions of a pair of unseen hands hidden in his soul and working even now to contort and to mold him into a sick, timid, groveling beast, the kind of monster that will be kicked into fallow fields and wrapped in dead tobacco stalks, until finally he snaps the neck of someone even lower in the pecking order than himself. They are the hands of fate and of chance; the hands he had seen in his imagination; the hands he will not escape, even when the last of the nightmares gives way to the endless darkness. And in that last darkness his simple plea will not be heard; he and his Papa will not be saved from the Bank Jew; he and his Papa will not be spared the touch of time.
Doc cannot read any of this. The hood may not cover his eyes; but he has no sight, regardless, except for what he sews onto his robe and steals away in a dark and still night. And so what he sees right now is what he always sees: a big opportunity in the small gestures of a boy; a boy so defeated, he will believe in earnest any hope offered unto him; a boy so weak, he will give up his own little place in the order of things in favor of the ambition of an old and senile doctor.
Doc steps down from the porch. He eyes the boy lecherously. He looks at his own right hand. It is cold, sweaty, and arthritic, in spite of the warmth that is now creeping into the morning; but it is strong enough for him to do what he pleases at that moment. It is strong enough to be the heavy hand of judgment, hard and forbidding, on the head of a boy losing his grip on youthful innocence.
Doc puts the palm of his right hand on the boy’s head; and with the long train of his robe fluttering in a breeze; he looks like a bishop blessing one of his faithful servants. His cold hand, though, is anything but pastoral. It seems to be saying, “You’re doomed,” even as he plasters a cherubic smile on his face, and endeavors to replace his prior scowl with a kind, even playfully cheerful, voice.
Seems like your Papa’s only been grazed, Doc says. More like a rug burn, than a gunshot wound. You wanna know my prescription, little boy? Nothin’ but an Old Jack and a bandage, shed a tear by that Philco of his, maybe even giggle ‘bout them good ol’ days with his nig out yonder, and he’ll be as fit as a fiddle.
Hannah is not really in his own head; more like he’s floating out there in the fallow field beside Doc’s house; and yet he is conscious enough to ask in his own mind: Just how the heck does Doc know about Papa’s wound? Did he get a report from one or more of the fat Bank Jew’s goons? And just supposing one or more of the goons also don white sheets and burn crosses, how could they have seen Papa’s condition from so far beyond the open window during the firefight?
Maybe I’m not hearing Doc at all, Hannah thinks. Maybe I’m here, talking to myself in his voice, pretending to be engaged in a conversation with a scary, demented, old man. Maybe if I just look up, and open my eyes, I’ll see that this has been a sick and twisted dream, like the strange images and verses that had been in my head in the sad nights after most everything had been hauled away.
Hannah looks up; but Doc is still there, looking back down at him with an odd, distant, paternalistic look on his face, and twitching in and out of a loopy, fake grin. He imagines briefly that Doc has been there always blessing his head.
No, the flesh is not our concern, Doc continues. Never has been, really. I have been a country doctor many years, and I can tell you that a patient can be riddled with sores, coughing up piss and blood, practically swimming in his own cancer; but he’s not gonna be a contented man ‘till his spirits been put right. It is not the doctor he’s seeking, so much as the magician; the medieval wizard in a hooded robe who can wave his wand and appease the gods. Your Papa’s spirit is out of sorts; and ‘till he’s back in good step with his own kind, he’s not going to be right in his mind, let alone in his heart. He needs his place again; his seat at the round table; his white robe and his cross of fire; his protection especially from the likes of fat Bank Jews. And, God knows, just maybe if Papa’s right, his sissy boy will turn out right, too. Surely nothin’ in the end is impossible for God and His Beloved White Knights, if only the Prodigal Son returns to his own kind.
Hannah recalls the Prodigal Son from his Children’s Bible Picture Book. It is gone; hauled away like most of his belongings; and yet it lives on in his quiet, subdued memories. It is his favorite parable, not on account of what it teaches about salvation (since Hannah does not retain any more hope for salvation than what his Papa seems to have), but because the son is able to return to his right place in the pecking order; where he should have been all along; where he will be forevermore, regardless of all those Bank Jews and goons beyond the fence.
Go home, boy; Doc orders, while stepping back towards his porch chair. I want you to tell your Papa that the White Knights are gonna call upon him very soon. Maybe tonight; maybe tomorrow night; maybe next week; when it’s right for the brotherhood. He’s gonna have a chance to return to his own kind; and if he’s got half a brain, he’s gonna make sure he’s clean-shaven and washed up as nice and pretty as he can be. Redemption’s a hard business, especially for men who’ve fallen away like your Papa; so it’s best we treat it as a real business. So go home. Pass the word. And try not to irritate that Bank Jew in the meantime.
* * *
The high-pitched, scratchy, deafening wail that is bristling the leaves on the branches of the red oak tree is neither a late summer wind, nor a powerful, gas guzzling engine, so much as the voice of discontented night. It is the fear in a time and a place beyond the reach of the sun; no longer touched by that light by which the eye may discern distance and proportion; no longer tamed by that capacity for judgment with which a soul may separate out the threats from the trifles; so that everything out there is as if magnified up close and personal, all the small and tinny voices in the mind are writ large and sonorous in the cosmic landscape, and the individual caught in the midst of such conflagration is as if a wandering troubadour among the gods; wide-eyed; a warm heart about to burst into song; and yet also aware that he is outside of his depth and his hand taken by that vicious love that conjures fear and loathing. He hears beautiful, sweet, ethereal music; the subtle perfection of the stars moving across a silvery black sky; the wild peace of beasts slumbering in the tall grass; the melodic shimmer of branches and leaves swaying to the breaths of a living earth; and yet he who has mastered the meter, harnessed the verse, ridden the back of a prickly mad song has no choice but to stand naked and weak, no more than a boy trembling in his own nightmares, as the night surges in and out of everything at once. For the sojourner, the path goes no further than the red oak tree; the open window of their living room no more than fifty paces behind his back; and yet it may as well have led him into a magical wasteland of snarling gnomes glimpsed in long and gnarled tree branches, wailing ghosts heard in loose and overgrown leaves, and festering wounds felt in warm and shadow marked soil. He is as far away as a lost kingdom, as distant from hearth and home as to be able to look upon the sky and to behold unrecognizable constellations, as remote from his innocence, once so unquestioned, now a fairy dream hauled away, as to be compelled by a cruel and pernicious fate to stand watch all night with a rifle in hand. Timeless fear casts her shadow as a mad woman the train of her gown; so imperious, and haughty, and strangely seductive; so that the boy so lured into her chamber has no life left inside of him, no mind able to congeal about a thought, no emotions able to well inside of his heart, nothing whatsoever, but the numb weariness of having been defiled by knowing hands. He is what has been left behind; the old hopes squandered; the long tears dried into cracks in the bed sheets; the young eyes narrowed, not by sleepiness, nor even by maturity (though the boy dreams himself to be a man), but by a searching madness, a wanton lust for the untold, discombobulated, surreal puzzle pieces strewn all about him and now incapable of being reassembled, an eternal vision of the hairy, snaggletoothed, one-eyed, two-handed (one the claw of fate, the other the gloved hand of chance), spider legged monster that had been hidden inside his little toy box once upon a time.
Hannah endures nothing, but the life of a sentry with his rifle at his side.
And so he endures then those fears; those lusts; those pernicious dreams in the wayward hours; that are not given reign to rise up from the bones and to tremble his otherwise silent and steady posture. He is a cauldron of submerged emotions; muted reflections; intuitions set aside so as not to hamper the higher voice of his responsible duty. He is the blackness scourged so harshly during the day hours, not by the snap of the whip, nor even by the sting of a word, but by persistent reminders that he and his Papa have no more strength in their hands than will be necessary to watch their sad lives being hauled from them, that his is the lot of the Escaped Negro before sunrise. He has no more strength than to stand firm at his post and to fester in his fears. He is free, and yet he hovers all the hours within the reach of his master, never more than a stone’s throw away from hearth and home, no more distant than the rustle in the tobacco stalks on the side. He has the bearing of a man; firm, strong, resolute; and yet he stands before the monsters as no more than a boy; soft, weak, distracted; the old fate trampling him as a wild horse a fallow field; the spirited chance striking him as a perfumed bitch her paramour. He is paralyzed in every contradiction at once; his paralysis coming across as fidelity to duty with a rifle at his side; and yet at the same time, his paralysis eating away at his sanity, burrowing a horrible fear into his heart, and leaving him vulnerable to the whim and the fancy of eternal nightfall, where fate and chance dance discontentedly within the silver light of the moon, and the sojourner has no choice but to await his turn upon the floor.
The deafening wail bristling the leaves of the red oak tree carries within its sorrows the chimes of a grandfather clock; four chimes, in particular, as if a quadruplet of deformed chicks hatched from the same filthy egg, snatched out from the chicken coup by an old witch, and given free reign to squawk stupidly, unsettlingly, into the still night from within the folds of her skirt; four tones off of the bell of a grandfather clock that nevertheless calls to mind a dark chicken coup out back, a black spot in the shadows, a domain of feces and broken eggs.
What has been left behind. What has been left behind to be swept out of the chicken wire and dispersed by the night wind. Time tolls the child sweeper, and what has been left behind then is as dispersed as the silly dreams of youth.
The last of the chimes ripples into the stillness, so that it is not heard by the sentry beneath the red oak tree, but rather felt as the unsettling chill in his lower spine. It is a flutter in the sad blackness that opens his eyes wide; just as three sets of headlights cut a strident path through their dead tobacco field off to the side; and just as he hears his Papa emerging from his slumber within the living room to strike a defiant pose on the front doorstep. It is this same flutter quivering up his cold spine that clenches his fingers even more tightly about his rifle, so that for a moment he feels like a warrior statue carved out from stone.
The headlights take their sweet time; their path meandering; juvenile; a joy ride across their private property every now and then occasioned by bratty, sophomoric hurrahs. Their stridency is indicated not in the straightness of their path, but in the callous extent of their trespass. The men behind those steering wheels out there see themselves as above the laws and beyond moral reproach.
Later, the headlights fall into single file. As they blend into one another, they suggest the oversized, glowing, white eyes of a monstrous snake, snapping this way and that through the dead tobacco, and yet manifesting the sentience of a beast put on this earth for no other purpose than to lash out at what is left of their holdout. That snake is an intruder, no doubt; and yet, incongruously, it seems as if it has been out there in the field since Papa mortgaged his home to speculate alongside the big boys in the tobacco trade. It seems to belong there in that vast and dead darkness and to be calling out Hannah and his Papa as the interlopers. It is here now to reclaim its own; and it will not leave until it does.
The vehicles roar onto the private road, kicking up filmy clouds of grime that sparkle within the silver moonlight as if gaseous bubbles infested by gnats, and puttering out greasy exhaust fumes that seem to hang in the air above as a death blanket. There is a strange, coppery scent in this exhaust, reminiscent of dried blood and cheap gas, that inspires queasy knots in the back of the throat; and when that sensation passes, either because the man vomits, or manages to stuff that nausea back into his bowels, there is nothing left, but a vague feeling of pain and retribution. It is a hellish odor, full of despair, and devoid of grace.
Hannah looks straight into the snake eyes. He raises his rifle to his chest.
He sees that that snake is going straight for his heart; and yet it does not seem to be driving so much as lurching; coiling, and then snapping; coiling, and then snapping. The leaky hiss that is sputtering out from each of the cab-overs; the steady hum that is sliding out from their slick bellies; even the old drunk as a skunk hurrahs from the pickup truck beds; all together suggest a snake that is as much afflicted by its own madness as it is directed by its conscious resolve in this moment in time to poison the last trace of innocence from the warrior boy.
The vehicles break out from their single file; two braking into a cloud of leaves beneath the red oak tree; one braking just as fast nearer the front door; and the snake illusion is gone as suddenly as it first had appeared. Indeed, that illusion is gone so fast, and so completely, that the whole experience feels as if it had been unreal from the start, like a sick and twisted manifestation of fears once identified with the boogeyman in the closet, or with the fat Bank Jew out there, but now with this snake slithering out from literally everywhere at once; too otherworldly to be real; and yet, at the same time, too expressive of all of the troubles stored in the heart to be set aside as easily as a childhood fantasy.
Papa walks up to Hannah and hugs his shoulders from behind. Only then, as Hannah smells his Papa’s rancid, white lightning breath, and feels his Papa’s wet crotch against his back, does Hannah realize just how alone he had been as the crazed snake had been approaching him from inside the dead tobacco field.
The vehicles are identical 1940 Ford COE pickup trucks; blood red paint, yellowed over time by rust, and splattered here and there by swirls and streaks of charcoal black mud and tobacco leaves; cab-overs with such oversized grills, and beady eyed front windows, as to look like swollen beetle masks; and blood red hubcaps with white crosses painted on them. The one difference is that the truck parked nearer the front door has a Texaco Star painted on the driver side door and a rickety rust bucket of a tow crane surrounded by old stinky fertilizer bags in its bed. The Texaco Star truck idles, spewing out exhaust that blends in with the fertilizer to produce a toxic mix, as the other trucks’ engines go dead.
Hannah looks back at his Papa. He is looking for reassurance, or at least a glint of hope; but his Papa offers nothing, but bloodshot eyes on a blank face.
Hannah looks back at the burly men who are jumping down from the bed of one of the two pickup trucks beneath the red oak tree. They are scary ghosts in his imagination, even though undoubtedly he would recognize them from the general store, the one-room schoolhouse, the sheriff’s office (more than half of them are retired or current sheriff’s deputies), even the First Baptist; large and sweaty slugs of masculinity wrapped tightly inside long, white, hooded robes; a pair of cat’s eyes cut into every one of their hoods so that they can see; an old pair of shit boots on every one of their feet so that they can slosh through mud.
Hannah looks more closely. He sees that there are twelve of them in all; ten jumping down from the bed; two climbing out from the cabin; and that the driver already has a lit torch in his hand and is using his torch to light the other ghosts’ torches. He can smell how sauced they are; their breaths sickened by a strange blend of Old Jack and fire that does not float away but rather seems to fill in the air beneath the red oak tree; and yet he sees that they are quite well ordered in their movements; their heads held back; their beer bellies sucked in as much as possible; their inebriated sways held in check somewhat by an even fiercer determination not to be disrespectful with respect to the solemn liturgy in which they are about to participate. And, indeed, liturgy is the best word to describe their behavior, as they are lining up across the private road (thus, as a side note, not allowing Papa and Hannah to escape, even if they should want to do so at some point) in a manner reminiscent of a church choir. There is a dark and frightening sense of pageantry about how they line up shoulder to shoulder and hold their torches in front of their chests like offerings to the gods; a queer calm that masks the writhing death snakes that can be intimated, nevertheless, in their hearts; an ancient mystical rite that works on the subconscious level to dull the mind into numb acquiescence, and yet at the same time suggests a hell fire horde just waiting for the chance to spring out from within their sheets and to lurch forward in the guise of upright, obese, cat eyed snakes. They are here, and they are out there; their shapes appearing to shift back and forth between our dimension and some other in the shimmers of the torchlights; their masked, blank slate faces taking on the appearance and, even more so, the mad temper of a devil’s visage in how their orange red torchlights blend in and out from the silver moonlight. Together, side-by-side, they are a line of devils bathed in soft and ethereal hell light; and in contrast to the shadowy backdrop of twisted, old tobacco stalks on either side of the private road, they seem more real in a way than their surroundings. And yet, at the same time, there is an unsettling sense that even that is an illusion; that, really, they are not all that substantial apart from their fire and light show; and that, when all has been said and done, they will turn out to have had a small role to play in the drama now about to unfold.
They are the Twelve; loyal keepers of the flame; teachers through hymn and liturgy of the secrets of the old ways; and so as soon as they are assembled they start to praise with voices that are surprisingly good; hearty and masculine to be sure, but also at times as soft as the flutter of angels’ wings, in spite of a drunken slur and a gurgling croak every now and then. More so than their bulky frames and bristling flames, their solemn voices in chorus suggest no escape for those who happen to be at the center of their attention; no freedom paths that will be breaking through their line; and so a hopelessness veiled in joyful hymn.
What a friend we have in Jesus
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit
O what needless pain we bear
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
As the Twelve continue with their hymn, two men step forward from the pickup truck parked besides theirs. Hannah recognizes the driver as Doc draped in his embroidered robe. There is a maniacal joy plastered on his face; a queer look suggesting a pervert pedophile the moment after he has come inside of his trousers; and his white hair sparkles in the silver moonlight like temperamental snakes on the head of a Gorgon. Indeed, Doc is unnervingly effeminate, a gross, even laughable contrivance, in his dress, his posture, his affected walk. He has to exert a lot of willpower to keep his shoulders from slumping forward and, as a result, of breaking the illusion; and that willpower comes across as the steely intensity of the Stepford Wife grin on his narrow face. He has struggled so hard and long for this moment; the opportunity finally to don his Magi Robe in public and for an official purpose; the chance to show the world that he has been able to move up the old pecking order; and he is not going to let anything go wrong; no, not even let one gnomish hair strand on the top of his eagle head go askew.
His companion carries himself with even more self-importance. He is the tallest and biggest man in the horde; a beefy assortment of limbs centered on a beer belly that hangs over a golden belt buckle like a big bag of greasy pork fat literally about to burst at the seams; a pig face with rosy, high cheekbones that seem to push his narrow eyes into his forehead; and topped by his mad sheriff’s hat barely held together by sweat stained bands. He is not wearing a robe; not carrying a torch; not even assuming a solemn and liturgical posture; and it is all too evident in how the silver moonlight reflects off of his golden sheriff’s badge that he stands apart from the pageantry precisely because he can. No doubt he has a title; probably something involving a Wizard and a Cyclops; maybe even a reference to a Handmaiden thrown into that long and meandering title for good measure; but informally he is the Big Cheese; and he probably prefers that title to whatever had been bestowed upon him officially in that secret rite long ago.
Another geezer limps from the Texaco Star truck over to the Big Cheese. He is a thin, stooped, mad eyed, wrinkled mess of humanity; his weight carried by a shotgun that he uses as a makeshift cane; his temperament so irascible, so ready to strike at the slightest provocative, that it is a wonder he is not already in the pen for murder. Most likely, he saves his aggression for the dark skinned; and around these parts no one goes to the pen for killing a spook in the dead of night. And so he remains just on this side of the line of respectability, and he is always wearing his Texaco Star uniform, no matter the time or the occasion, as a way of reminding everyone that, notwithstanding his reputation for grotesque brutality and his hermit life outside of town, he is and intends to remain a man with a definable and acknowledged role in the community. The big, red Texaco Star on his white work shirt tells everyone that he is the official Gas Man; there to help in a pinch, when your car breaks down on the side of a bleak and lonely country road; and then there to spray some gas from a can, when the flames on the wooden cross are too small and putrid to do justice to the solemn occasion.
The Big Cheese, Texaco Star, and Doc stand side-by-side in the middle of the private road. The Twelve stand side-by-side about twenty paces behind this Trinity; and as the Twelve transition from singing the solemn lyrics to humming the soft and evocative melody of the traditional hymn; their torches seeming to ebb and to flow in sync with the beats in the music; their white sheets blending in with the orange red glares bristling up from their torches, and with the silver moonlight wafting in and out of the scene like a dreamy fog bank, to suggest an ethereal fire snake dividing the here and the now from the great beyond; there is the vague, but growing, impression of a sanctuary. The Twelve constitute the choir stall; the Trinity the Bishop, the Priest, and the Deacon (although it is not very clear which is the Priest and which is the Deacon between Texaco Star and Doc, a confusion as unsettling to everyone else, as it is politically advantageous to the Bishop in this mad affair); and Hannah and his Papa the congregants who are being offered either a chance at communion or an encounter with the lash. Even the red oak tree joins into this queer fantasy, as the overarching branches and leaves glow from the torchlights, like a cathedral dome sparkling feverishly from the candles lit on the altar. Everything seems all at once inflamed with all the holiness ever to be conceived in an otherwise dark and cold cosmos; but, of course, it is a black holiness; an affectation of solemnity arising in virtue of the very oddness and secretiveness of black magic; and the mind intuits this fakery as a vague creepiness. A real mass invites the soul of the believer to be at rest; a black mass invites the soul of the ensnared to be in a state of restless horror, first of her own madness, then of her own despair, and then of her final death.
Hannah senses intuitively that this is a hellish perversion; a sickness just veiled as a solemnity; a prison just veiled as a sanctuary; and so he looks away.
He glances at the Texaco Star pickup truck idling nearer their house. The Texaco Star painted on the side catches his eye at first, but then he looks up to see a beautiful woman in the driver side window. She is a startling enticement; an opportunity for sinful indiscretion tossed into the rumbling stream of time in order to lure men; the kind of Bathsheba denounced by the preachers, but then offered special counselingby the same preachers in their small, private offices; and yet, notwithstanding her buxom and voluptuous body forever working itself out of her bordello red gown, and her ridiculous red wig reminiscent of a seedy vaudeville act, she really is no more than a wide-eyed and glossy lipped girl no older than her early twenties. No one knows for sure her real age, let alone the sound of her voice or the taste of her soft lips, as she is almost always observed sitting behind a window or shutting the upstairs door behind herself; her face a brief contortion of seduction and fear, before it is hidden behind a wall or in an ugly cloud passing beneath the sun; her very soul allowed no more than a small quiver of attention, enough to excite the imagination, but not enough really to be loved. Texaco Star guards her jealously; claims she is his wife; and no one in the community presses, mostly because they do not want to strike a match too near the cheap gasoline streaming through his veins, and also because, frankly, they do not care enough about her. She is a debauched plaything; better left in a closet anyway, lest we all start to unfold, and then to shred altogether, those many fine and delicate fabrics that together fashion Southern Womanhood; and so much more likely to be the subject matter of whispered gossip, the occasion for lowered eyes and condemning eyes, than a woman known and discussed in a clear and discerning sunlight. And yet, in spite of the many sordid tales, callous lies and half-truths blended together, oh so deliciously, there is that something in her pouty eyes and witchy smile that suggests that she is playing us as much, if not more, then she is played. It is something like patience; endurance; a lady waiting out the years until her chance should come; and it is that vague quality that startles the back of the mind, and then inhabits the nightmares, of even a casual observer. No one can put their finger on it, except to fear that someday, and God only knows how, she is going to do something that will be more vicious than is the common fare of whispered talk among the church mice. There is the most black anger glimpsed every now and then in that made up face of hers; an old Gorgon snarling inside of her own manipulations; a witch cackling in silence as the seconds tick away to the moment; and the response of every single man, and not a few women, is at first to recoil and then to be enamored. There is no one who loves her; but there are many who are in love with her; not lust, mind you, but love; the kind of perverse love reserved for those who practice a black magic over our souls and who lure us into dark places. She is what we desire to find, when we creep onto a cemetery at the witching hour, or when we remain in a morgue after closing time, or when we share a bed with a stranger who has not captured our eyes, nor even caressed our hearts, so much as tingled our old and worn out spines. Her formal name is Lana; but there is probably not a birth certificate anywhere that would attest to that, unless of course Satan turns out to be as meticulous a record keeper as men fear when approaching their deaths and contemplating their afterlives. Surely, there are no school records, nor job applications, nor even police reports (notwithstanding the scurrilous rumors for which the biddies give so much of the small amount time that remains to them) that would attest to that either. She is Lana, then, for no other reason any man can tell than that that is what Texaco Star calls her on the rare occasions he is willing to acknowledge her to someone else. And for most everyone it seems as if that is good enough; and for everyone else, they are keen to remain silent on the delicate matter, lest the water that runs so still and deep ever be troubled.
Hannah has seen Lana on the few occasions that he has accompanied his Papa to the Texaco Gas and Grill. Like everyone else, he has managed only the slightest glimpse, before she then fades behind the curtain in the attic window, or steps into the kitchen closet; and yet he senses that he knows her better, or at least more honestly, than anyone else. He has compared her eyes to those in the unsightly face of her purported husband; and while he would never admit it to anyone, not even his own Papa, he knows in his heart that, indeed, Lana and Texaco Star share the same blood; the kinship of father and daughter, as much as husband and wife; the legacy spurned at birth, and veiled in sinister glances.
Morning, gentleman, Papa says. So nice of y’all to drop by ‘fore sunrise…
There is just a hint of sarcasm in Papa’s voice. Hannah knows that that is his attempt to veil his fear; but the Trinity does not seem to notice, or at least it does not seem to be put out by the manner in which he has greeted them. On any normal occasion, Hannah would be calmed a bit by the fact that his Papa’s acid tongue had not stirred an immediate reaction. But this time it is different. It is as if the Trinity did not so much fail to notice how he had spoken, as it did not bother to notice, since it is in a much stronger position than him right now.
Hear you been cavorting with ol’ pork belly, the Big Cheese snickers. All fine and cozy with that Jew York Bankster. Even handing him your heirlooms on a gold platter, no doubt as a testament to your good will and affection for him.
Doc follows this snicker with an identical snicker of his own. Texaco Star does not see the humor in this exchange, or in much of anything else, it seems. He just glares at Papa like he is imagining how it would feel to rip his skin from his bones in confetti shreds. He does not move; indeed, does not even twitch a line on his face; and yet the geezer leaning forward on his own shotgun appears at this moment to be just a bit excited in the crotch of his white work trousers.
Papa must also feel the intensity of emotion starting to bubble inside the Gas Man. He darts his eyes from the Big Cheese and addresses Texaco Star with an exaggerated niceness that cannot be interpreted as anything but insincerity.
Now, Digger, it is so good to see you, Papa grins. Fills my heart with joy.
For a brief moment, really no more than a flash, the Big Cheese snarls in irritation at how Papa has turned his attention away from his fatso face; but he is quick to twist that snarl into a beaming smile. He is determined to be totally nonplussed, no matter what Papa may say or do in the course of their nice chat beneath the red oak tree. It is as if his capacity for controlling his outward face is the key to his leadership of the White Knights and in the community at large.
News ‘bout town is that the Bankster’s got your numbers, the Big Cheese continues. All of ‘em stored in his Pig Jew Head, like a gentleman will keep his whore’s numbers in his head, so no one else is the wiser. ‘Course there’s never a secret in a small town; not for very long at least; and so by now just ‘bout all the folks that matter know that that Bankster’s been makin’ his calls and takin’ his whore for a ride. Just ridin’ his whore, as if he is one of the Four Horsemen, or something Biblical anyway. Now, as a Man of the Law, I’d never urge a white man to shirk his duty. If his woman’s giving him lip, he’s got a duty to smack it. If his coon’s lazy on the job, he’s got a duty to hang him high. And if a Jew in a suit, all fine and feathered pork rinds, all dapper in his shiny, black Studebaker ‘round town, if that pig’s got the gall to ride his whore like an Old Armageddon Freak, well then what’s a white man to do? Ask yourself: What do you think our Lord and Savior would do, if one of them Four Horsemen were to pay Him a call and try to lay claim to His Ass as if it is one of his saddles? Don’t you think He’d whoop his Jew Butt? Maybe call upon His White Knights, if by chance He needed reinforcement? Now, if that’s what Jesus would do, then certainly a white man has a duty to do the same. The white man’s burden ain’t to educate niggers, or bring the Bible to the Injun, or even toss the scraps to his own dogs. No, it’s no more nor less than to guard what he’s got; his ass, his woman, his tobacco; and to exercise his Second Amendment Right as needed to twist the neck of any pig or coon or rabid dog who thinks he’s gonna take it from him. It’s that duty that makes him a man. And if he shirks that duty, he disgraces not only himself, but all the other white men who came before him, like he’s just decided to darken his own skin, make his own lips big and stupid, and wage a war on his own race.
Truman’s a Nigger Lover; Texaco Star adds to the diatribe. Hides his sick nigger lovin’ ways by pretending to kill them Asian Monkeys; blowing them back to Buddha with the A-Bomb; making them bow all hari-kari like on the Missouri; but every white man knows in his soul the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ain’t nothin’ but Jew Hollywood movies; just an updated version of an Orson Wells radio show meant to convince stupid people that Truman is for the white man; just a carnival show, I reckon. But the white man ain’t fooled ‘cept when he wants to be fooled. And so every white man with the truth in his heart supported the Dixiecrat ticket; prayed for Strom, like he prays for rain before a harvest; and the race traitors, them half-breeds cavorting with lies, they voted for the Jew Haberdasher. And guess what? Turns out I ain’t never seen you and your sissy boy at a Dixiecrat rally; and so far as I can tell, when we burned that Witch Margaret Truman in effigy out by the Nigger Tombs, I ain’t see you there either. I ain’t no college boy; but I can put two and two together, just like any man with country sense in his head. And so when it comes to you, two plus two means you’re a Truman Man, and a Nigger Lover, and a Jew Bankster’s Whore…
You made your pact with the devil, and then you wonder why there is so much shit over your head, the Big Cheese interrupts Texaco Star so brusquely it is clear that he is desperate to regain his leadership role over this interrogation at once. Let me tell you something. Very soon, Jesus is gonna untie Satan; give him free reign over the white man; allow him to do a number on us, just like he did to Job in the old times; and when that day comes, the happy niggers will be the ones tossin’ the nooses over the branches, and burnin’ the old crosses, and offerin’ the smoke from our burnt flesh as the incense to their jungle gods. And when all that happens, do you think they’re gonna pass you by ‘cause you made your pact? Do you think they’re gonna kiss you on the cheek ‘cause you gave no mind to the White Knights? Do you think they’re gonna invite you to their bacon fat and fried chicken potlucks ‘cause you raised a sissy boy? You’re ass will be a swayin’ in the wind along with ours, ‘cept we’ll be on our way to a whites’ only paradise, while you’re droppin’ your bars of soap in the shower stalls in hell. So what’s it gonna be? Are you gonna go that way or are you gonna return with us?
The Big Cheese steps forward. He plants his juicy right hand onto Papa’s left shoulder; and he stares into Papa’s eyes, like a cross between a Man of the Law reading the crimes and misdemeanors in the eyes of the suspect now in his custody, and a Preacher Man offering the sinner a last opportunity at salvation.
Papa seems to sink a few inches within this stare. His shoulders slump to his chest, and his lips quiver like a feeble boy in a beanie on the verge of tears.
I need help, Papa whispers softly. I need manpower to fight off the Jew.
What about your sissy boy? The Big Cheese grins. I hear he did a fine job scaring the Bankster and his Goons back into their snake holes. I say he’s pretty good for a gal in overalls and shit boots. Maybe he’s the manpower you require.
The Big Cheese laughs. Doc emulates his laugh, like a puppet on a string.
Papa licks his lips and stares at the ground. He is so disconsolate then he really cannot imagine doing anything else, no matter the injury to his old pride.
I could fend them off with my Seth, Papa mutters. But Seth is in his rest.
Seth is coon huntin’ above them clouds, the Big Cheese remarks with the false empathy of a tent revival preacher. Even now, he’s leadin’ his wolf pack, followin’ the coon scent, and fistin’ the coon guts with his bare knuckles. He is a proud man, and you have every right to love him still. But he ain’t gonna help a white man who ain’t gonna help himself, even if that white man just happens to be his beloved pappy. So are you gonna be with Seth, takin’ your place in his wolf pack, searchin’ for coons, or are you gonna betray him as you betrayed us?
I’m so sorry, Papa whispers, as a dirty tear slithers down his right cheek.
What did you say? The Big Cheese feigns not hearing him. Speak up, boy.
I’m so sorry, Papa repeats, even more pathetically than the initial time.
The Big Cheese nudges Hannah aside. He pulls Papa into his arms, turns around so that they both are facing the rest of the White Knights, and puts on a comically wide grin. He is the Great Man presenting his boy to the brotherhood, not on account of any charity he may feel towards his boy, but as an expression of his own leadership. He knows that this sublime moment is all about himself, notwithstanding all the attention fixed on that blubbering idiot within his arms.
Behold the Prodigal Son, the Big Cheese announces. Begging for a feast…
The White Knights laugh. It is a sound reminiscent of a barrel full of sick, hissing snakes. It lingers in the air like a venomous cloud, after the laugh finally ceases and gives way to that ominous silence that fills the void between words.
A penitent man earns his supper, the Big Cheese remarks after sometime has passed. Oh, sure, he is fed the fat of the lamb. The Good Books says so. But he first travels the long and windy road back to his home; discarding the untold signs of his former debauchery along the way, so that by the time he returns to his own loving pappy he is as white and as naked as the lamb to be slaughtered. He’s earned his supper, so when he’s sittin’ at the feast, he’s a gettin’ his due.
Papa shifts awkwardly on his tired feet. He kicks a stone off to one side.
So mind me, boy. How you gonna earn your supper? The Big Cheese asks.
Papa again shifts awkwardly on his feet. He seems to be immobilized, his slow and clueless behavior reminiscent of a burly man who is punch drunk from some dawning realization that he would prefer not to be having, and as a result he looks to everyone there as if he is sinking into a crack in the earth intended just for him. He is drunk in his fears, because he knows in the back of his mind, somewhere where the nightmares move in and out of the shadows, that all that is transpiring right now really is his own fault, and that what is to follow cannot be avoided, like his free will is going to be transformed by a mind much greater than his own life into the pathetic fate of a dark skinned man; his life no longer his own; his future a grave in a swamp beside the coloreds over whom he ruled.
Texaco Star flares his nostrils, like he practically can smell Papa’s fears. His face contorts into a look of devilish glee; perverse and comical, like a loony old dog in a cartoon salivating at its bitch; and he juts out an accusatory finger.
I know how you gonna earn your supper; Texaco Star spits out his words.
And how is that? The Big Cheese smiles and responds in such a fashion as to make it abundantly clear that this small part of the talk has been rehearsed.
You Truman Lover; Texaco Star snarls, in spite of some difficulty in even pronouncing the defiled President’s surname all of a sudden. You’re gonna give the White Knights permission to do a coon hunt on your land. No, even more so, you’re gonna host it. Take up your rifle, and lead the wolf pack from the front, and smile all pretty when that cursed coon of yours is swaying from the branch.
And wag your finger at him; Doc joins in. And accuse him of being a lazy, old nigger when he should have been tending the hog. And letting out a big, old belly laugh, when you see his eyes pop out of their sockets from a neck stretch.
Texaco Star and Doc laugh uproariously at their own comments; and just then it is quite impossible to distinguish the two men, in spite of their different clothes. It is as if they are two halves of a mad snake slithering into each other and creating something altogether new and grotesque; what passes for a sexual liaison in hell; what will be born when making love is just a dirty, old man lust.
They’re right, you know; the Big Cheese whispers into Papa’s ear, like an old, but smooth, pedophile seducing his next soft boy into unbuckling his jeans.
What are you saying? Papa asks no one in particular. So what am I to do?
You know what you gotta do; the Big Cheese taunts him with his big grin.
Papa looks around helplessly. He sees Hannah, and he almost smiles; but then he remembers that Hannah is surely not Seth. He starts to bawl like a girl.
The Big Cheese winks at the other White Knights. He pats Papa on his big back, caresses his tense shoulders, and even hands him his snotty handkerchief.
No reason to cry; the Big Cheese says with all the charm of a mortician. I know that in the light of day you’ll see that we’re right. Your nigger’s gotta go. It’s as simple as that. Soon as we all see Old Jumper hanging limp from this red oak tree, you can be sure that that Bank Jew is never again gonna call on you. I personally will see that he is run out of town with his pigtail in between his big, fat legs. And then you’ll be a white man again. And you’ll stand tall and proud, a member of the brotherhood, a ghost rider in the wind guided by the light of a devil moon, a dark shadow lingering still when time tears down everything else.
Overcome by his grief, Papa stumbles to his knees. He pounds both of his fists into the earth. He forms a slick puddle with his tears. He even grabs at his heart and crawls several feet, as if a man overwhelmed by the heat in a desert.
And, indeed, it is getting warm all of a sudden, as the torchbearers walk side-by-side closer to the action. They are closing the space; turning a perverse sanctuary into a hot and smoky closet; and reminding Papa in particular that in Hell a plea eventually turns into a bristling twig snap inside a flaming cauldron; a large matter reduced to something forgettable; a whole life, sometimes good but more often self-indulged, petty, or just plain snarly, reduced to warm soot; a fate shown to be nothing but a trifle plaything in the mind of a sick devil god.
And so Papa may make his stand; but the White Knights are telling him in no uncertain terms that, no matter his moral courage at the moment, his stand is not going to matter when the white-sheeted devils reclaim him. The nigger’s gotta go, and the nigger’s gonna go, and any man who tries to get in the way of that eventuality is going to be reduced, brought down, turned into a dark stain.
It is futile; but, regardless, Papa finally stands up and confronts them as best as he can. He is all shakes and sniffles, and yet he is also ever determined.
There ain’t no Negro to blame for what’s happening, Papa declares with as much defiance as he can muster. No Negro indebted me to the Bank Jew. No Negro buried my Sharon and my Seth. No Negro made me sell out a close friend to a G-Man. No Negro made me a stubborn mule every time I drink an Old Jack. A lot can be said about them spooks, but making me a sinner ain’t one of them.
Nigger’s a Son of Ham, Texaco Star snarls. Nothin’ but guilty before God.
And you’re knowin’ them, Doc blurts out. I seen it in how your skin peels and how your piss smells. I diagnose you to be knowin’ niggers. Just a complete abandon of your country sense, if you ever really had any, and knowin’ niggers, like some sort of deranged flea-bitten alley cat in heat every day of the month.
Knowin’ a Son of Ham, Texaco Star says with all the finality of rendering a verdict. Lovin’ miscegenation, and Truman, and evolution in our schools, and fluoride in our water. Lovin’ these times, like it’s a warm goo up your butthole.
No, I ain’t lovin’ these times, Papa protests. I agree that the devil’s now runnin’ rabid and loose, like the end times. But there ain’t no Negro to blame…
The nigger is the end times, Texaco Star shouts. The devil’s black eyes. I know you ain’t no churchman, but you cannot be that ignorant of what’s inside the Good Book. Hell, even them Hindu Jews know what’s inside the Good Book.
The Good Book, the Doctor’s Manual, the Farmer’s Almanac, every book, science or faith, that’s professin’ wisdom, and reason, and just plain old sense, hell, even them UFO picture books, they all show that the nigger is guilty as sin ‘fore the face of the law. It’s why his skin’s already burnt black by them flames in hell. It’s like he’s already down there long ‘fore his beast flesh turns to dust, conspirin’ with them devils and so pollutin’ the rest of us, while he’s still alive; Doc concludes this rant with a triumphant sniffle that he wipes upon his sleeve.
Listen to them, the Big Cheese whispers, like a grinning, old devil hissing into an ear. They speak the truth, and the truth will set you free. Come back to the law. Come back to what is noble. Lead the rest of us in a coon hunt on your land ‘fore the next sunrise and know what it feels like to be a white man again. Know what it feels like to have a son who is not a sissy boy. Know what it feels like to hold your head high in the brotherhood and to beat back this devil time.
Papa looks down at his own hands. He moves his fingers, like he is trying to mold something out from the thin air. It is a futile gesture, and so he sheds a single tear that splashes into that slick puddle in between his grubby shit boots.
There ain’t no Negro to blame for what’s happening, Papa reiterates in a tone that is no longer defiant, but just resigned, defeated, wrapped in sorrows, like a voice that has been mummified by the slings and the arrows of the times.
The Big Cheese steps away from Papa. He feigns washing his hands of the matter. He looks over his fellow White Knights and declares the final judgment.
The Prodigal Son has not returned; the Big Cheese says, while pretending to be saddened by the judgment he must render. No, the Prodigal Son is still as far away as Xanadu. What we have here is an Unrepentant Sinner; a man who is disavowing his race even now; a rabid dog deserving a good spank. And so what we have is a solemn and moral duty to see to it that he gets what he deserves…
Knowin’ a Son of Ham, Texaco Stars blurts out. This race traitor deserves to know what it really feels like to be knowin’ a Son of Ham. Cold, hard, lubed, feelin’ so good, ‘till it’s in too deep, and then the most greasy, throbbin’ pains.
Sort of like labor pains, Doc interrupts. ‘Cept the only thing being born is a lot of dried up black shit, and piss, and blood. Nothin’ but a nigger stillbirth…
Please, don’t hurt my Papa, Hannah blurts out like a pathetic, little girl.
The Big Cheese looks down at the sissy boy tugging at his left thigh. Even though he had referred to him, he seems rather surprised that the sissy boy has inserted himself into this situation. His surprise quickly transitions into disgust, which he masks with the kind of big and beefy grin that a Man of the Law would provide a little boy dropping by to visit him in his office. He even pats the sissy boy on his feverish head for good measure, and waits for the sissy boy to speak.
Hannah looks up. He is wide-eyed and scared at the foot of an evil giant.
Please, don’t hurt my Papa; Hannah repeats his plea. Spank me, instead.
Little child, we ain’t gonna do nothin’ to your Papa that he ain’t already done to himself, the Big Cheese responds. If you’d ever been to Sunday school, then you would know that all men reap what they sow under the harvest moon; and while the niggers just pick the cotton, the white men get to pick the souls.
Pickin’ souls, Texaco Star snarls, while jutting his shotgun forward like a bayonet and observing how the silver moonlight then reflects off of his muzzle.
That’s right, the Big Cheese continues without missing a beat. We’re the White Knights; God’s Harvesters; His Chosen Men; ordained before time to be a pickin’ ‘em, stabbin’ ‘em, even burnin’ ‘em back to the Father. Clearin’ out all the weeds, so that when Our Lord and Savior returns to us in all His white light, He can seed His chosen people in a pure and undefiled land. Your Papa’s stolen virtue out from the land; harbored the devil’s seed; given free reign to an ugly, old ape masquerading as a man. And he refuses to help us pull out that one last weed; refuses to be a part of the solution; refuses to be counted among devout and righteous men. His legacy is his own; his punishment self-inflicted; his dark and insidious hell the idol he has pursued, rather than give himself over to God.
Hannah steps back and cries in silence. He realizes that the Big Cheese is speaking the truth, even though he cannot follow all of the big words. Papa has been desiring this martyrdom ever since Seth died; perhaps ever since he came to understand way back when that the world was never going to give him a fair shake; and while he may think of his behavior now as a principled fidelity to an old and scary Negro living in a shack out back, in fact he is committing suicide; a selfish act; an abandonment of his race, of his land, of his last remaining son.
Hannah concedes that his Papa also may be acting in fidelity to a higher principle; that, indeed, there may be a kernel of virtue even in an act as selfish as suicide; but the implication for his own sad life is so obvious and severe that he cannot see that there is anything at all good about how his Papa is behaving.
And so, for the first time in his life, Hannah learns what it feels like truly and unreservedly to hate his Papa. He sets that emotion aside as soon as he has been able to figure out what it is; but in that moment of absolute despair, he is in total agreement with the Big Cheese. He is willing to don the white sheets in the haze of the silver moon, to hoist the torchlight above his hooded head, and to join the horde in picking and in stabbing the life out of his whimpering Papa; his blood thirst never to be quenched until his Papa’s pitiful tears have been all smothered under foot; his madness never to be eased until his Papa’s wretched corpse has been tossed to the Nigger Tombs. He relishes in this absolute hatred and despair; indeed, feels more alive in this feeling than when his old fears had been mitigated by his enduring love; and so when he sets the emotion aside, he senses vaguely that he has lost something; a potency; a survival mechanism; an exhilarating foretaste of his own maturity. He loves his Papa once more; but he now senses that there is a big price to be paid in loving a man so contemptible.
Hannah feels a hand on his right shoulder. He looks back and beholds the mysterious woman he had glimpsed in the cabin of the Texaco Star truck. She is beautiful; her red hair glistening in the silver moonlight; the creases of her red dress slithering up and down her voluptuous body like snakes; the heart behind her buxom chest beating within his own ears as if a wild beast let loose to roam the inner chambers of his sissy boy soul. On one level, he knows readily enough that this is Lana; the much younger wife of the Texaco Star; the scandalous and reviled woman seen only in shadows or behind curtains; but, on a deeper level, he intuits that this is a kindred soul; the daughter of the Texaco Star and a long dead Negress; the woman whose very conception had fated her to be outside of the proper and recognized order of things. They are not bonded in a friendship. There is no love between them. But there is an eye that they share; a vision of the world that is theirs alone; an observation from outside this dark universe of lost and tortured men. He feels at home in her touch, even while also sensing a murderous rage beneath the surface of her fair and supple flesh. He knows that the sensation must be the same for her, as their lives are so intimately aligned.
Lana looks down at Hannah and smiles. She nudges him back into the old and timeless shadows. They will watch what follows as if from far away; and as a result of the shared perspective, they will be of one mind on what to do next.
The White Knights pay no attention to them. They are consumed by their savage lusts; their base instincts masked as higher principles; their pagan minds veiled in the many verses in the Good Book that they have taken out of context and writ large in their hideous imaginations. They are closing in on their pitiful, whimpering, poor excuse for a prey; and in their minds, they are seeing all the glories of a battle victory well earned. This lust is what passes for love in them.
And when lust ascends its fevered crest; undulating wave of white sheets and ghostly torches; writhing death orgasm in sweaty hoots and hollers; rasping boots clutching dead leaves into the lining of their heels; what passes next is in the tortured memory a defined chain of events, but is at the time a queer splat of confused grasps and shoves; screaming notes rocketed everywhere without a melody to direct their course; beady snake eyes sliming into their own sockets, so that there is nothing unmoved in the melee, but black holes staring lifelessly from behind the white veils of witching whores. There is no order; nothing with which a mind trained in chronological sequence may identify; and yet there is a primordial dance just beneath the surface that draws the Gorgons back from an edge over which they are about to fall; a savage resolve not captured in reason but hinted in the base excess of a sex passion turned violent and cruel; a lunge, ravenous, beastly, the sudden sprint of the horde, that converges upon the one to be stabbed and shredded; a high-pitched hymen tear as the victim’s trousers fall over quivering ankles; a gurgled moan as hot and heavy fingers squeeze the last traces of blood out from the victim’s flaccid cock; a dead thump when that victim falls face forward into the earth and arches his bare, white butt into the ejaculating mess of muddy kneed nymph men. So much is spent in so little; the futility of sin when the firecracker can do no more at the end than to limp back to the earth as cold and dispirited flares; and so as soon as the lust ascends, it is dormant and stupid, a bunch of masked rednecks milling about a crying, bare assed buffoon prostrate on the earth before them, a few hunching shoulders in slithery robes seeming to ask no one in particular: Huh, so what do we do next?
As if in answer to their own question, the torchbearers resume the lyrics to their hymn, except that now those soft and beautiful words slice through the stillness like discordant wolf howls, a sound reminiscent of queer beasts in heat in the deadness of an unforgiving summer night, a tone burying over innocence.
Doc hovers like a gnomish apparatchik beside the Big Cheese. He plasters a silly grin on his face; a sycophant mirroring his boss’s expression; but, like all court jesters, a would be master endeavoring to be regarded as the true master of all of the mayhem before his eyes; and so there is a studied confidence, just quivering beneath the surface of the lips, but spreading out for all to behold in the steadiness of his gaze. He is too ridiculous to be a threat, and yet he grows ever more dangerous as he fades beside the rapturous glow of his beaming boss and takes on the posture of a quiet confidential. He is the real devil here, even as he remains on the sideline in the soul numbing horror that is about to follow.
The rabid dog advances. It is Texaco Star shuffling forward; drooling sick spittle; flaring nostrils to the memory of a charcoal black pussy swimming in its own aboriginal stream; sniffing the flatulent anus before him with the hard end of his oily muzzle, as if his shotgun is an extension of his beady, dumb dogface.
Texaco Star glances knowingly at his girl. He is tired; stooped downward by his sin; and so when he turns back to his victim, and first thrusts the shotgun muzzle into the shit hole, he appears as resigned as raptured by his own crime.
But, of course, he will not be nearly as tired as the wretched man who is convulsing into spasms every time the oily muzzle rams into his constipated shit and opens another blood wound. No physical exhaustion or pain really describes the nature and the extent of the suffering. Nothing can do justice to this gross, severe, humiliating anguish, but the fear and the sorrow of the condemned soul first realizing that he is about to step into hell for all eternity. It is not so much the assault, but the prospect of what may follow, that haunts victims just then.
And, indeed, what may follow such an assault? Is it not the certainty of a disgraced name in the community? Is it not the fallen heart that knows that, no matter future attempts at rehabilitating a reputation, it will be eternally stung by despair and given over to the darker currents of life? Is it not the crazed, old mind that knows that, no matter its perspectives over time, it will be eternally balanced on the fine line between sanity and madness? Is it not the beaten soul that knows that, no matter a prayer rendered, it will be eternally unredeemed?
Rape victims stand outside the shade cast by the cross. They realize that intuitively, no matter the tenets of faith, nor the voices of reason. And so rape continues long after the blunt instrument has been tossed aside and the zippers raised. It is there in the downward glances and the trembling fingers thought of as demure. It is there in the feminine graces thought of as charming. It is there when the woman breathes her last. It is there when she is laid beneath the soil and given back to the gods; the rape even then polluting her ghost light before those divinities; the humiliation even then inhibiting her from knowing real joy.
* * *
Hannah watches as the torchbearers drag the mutilated carcass across a path of limp twigs and brittle leaves; the grey earth beneath the bloodied flesh coughing up a sticky flatulent cloud that clings to the yellowing patches of man sweat on the white robes; the hot winds gurgling in and out of this cloud as if a radioactive gas unleashed from the bowels of hell; the men moving in that slow and haggard way of deacons bringing forth their offering to an altar somewhere deep inside Satan’s sanctuary. There is unbearable sorrow, tiredness; indeed, a pressing weight that clutches the skin like the glued straps on a beaten mummy and that intimates to the physical senses the spiritual despair already torturing the life out from the soul; but the sheer bleakness of the occasion arises not as a result of a life taken, nor even of an innocence stolen from the heart of a boy not yet ten years in this world, but in contrast to the demonic girth that had so energized their passions just a moment earlier. This close to hell even the very blackest of spirits waxes mighty and strong only the duration of a spark, before waning into that lukewarm grey that persists into eternity; even the violence of the horde shown to be listless, impotent, in the span of times without end; and for the beastly mind capable of finding refuge only in the thrill of the hunt, the snatch of the hymen, the thrust of the pointed end, the endlessness afterwards cannot but be despair. This is their debt to the smiling devil who gives them on occasion a sick black man to lynch or a whimpering white man to rape; the gift a moment of butchery; the debt an eternity of sunken eyes, stooped shoulders, heavy shit boots, as beefy fingers pull slimy, dead flesh across a path of leaves.
They drop him beside the chicken coup. The hens flutter into the muddy chicken wire like prisoners trapped inside of a burning tabernacle. Red uses his beak to pull himself midway up the chicken wire and to observe the offering as if from a position of authority; his long, red feathers draping over his grey flesh like the fabric of an old chasuble; his comb bristling in the silver moonlight like a miter. He glares at the torchbearers with the calm intensity of a butcher long familiar with the blood sport that appeases the devils; the repeated pecks that break the innocent skin and unleash the trembling soul; the beaks saturated by oil, blood, and grime and coarsened into ugly daggers; nothing left behind, but a weapon of war beneath remorseless eyes and stupid cries on the eve of dawn.
Hannah sees all of this. He looks up at Lana and observes how her whore lips twitch into an image that he cannot understand; perhaps the kind of kiss a mature woman would share with a minor boy behind the lowest branches of the red oak tree; perhaps the crazed snarl on the face of the Bank Jew, when he is dragging his chest out from his bedroom; either way, the passionate lips on the face of a thief at the very moment of the crime; the look of triumph and doom, as the thief knows that he is then getting what he wants, but also taking on the sin that will ensnare him in the end. And so he knows that she sees all of this as he does; that she is relishing as much as she is fearing the crime brought before the altar; and that in this queer mixture of relish and fear, these contradictions held together at once in their minds, they are focusing in on themselves and, in so doing, casting aside the sheer finality of what has happened to the victim. In that moment, they are the blessed saved by the fallen blood that have no mind at all for the fleeced carcass just then dragged into a grave of silver moonlight. What matters is what the lamb means for them, not the lamb itself, so that the most solemn of moments this close to hell cannot but be tinged by a selfishness without compare, a total lack of empathy that manifests the selfish heart to be in fact cold and hardened in its own self-loathing, a death living in its darkness.
Hannah cannot understand the deeper meaning behind all of this, but he feels it as the cold and indifferent numbness clouding over his rational thoughts and lowering his butt into a hole of dead leaves about ten feet or so from what remains of his Papa. He just crouches there with his knees up to his chin; a pair of droopy eyes fighting off the first indications of dawn; a sick breath wheezing through his nose every few seconds and sinking heavily into the earth. He does not see the horde climb back into their trucks and putter forlornly back to their wives and sons; and in spite of their instant connection to one another, he does not miss Lana, since her spirit, indeed the very sweetness of her skin, lingers in the sticky cloud hanging over the chicken coup and the grey corpse of his Papa.
Hannah is not sure how long he is there. At some point, he feels the hot, unforgiving sun beating upon his shoulders; but in his numbness it is little more than a tingle. He senses vaguely the pangs of hunger, but they too are just soft distractions easily enough set aside by a soul lost altogether in her despair. His Papa’s death stink generates no more than a single tear down his right cheek, a bit of salted water not even wiped away, a droplet lost in a crease of his pants.
He is startled awake when someone pokes his left cheek with the muzzle of a rifle. He tries to clamor to his feet; but his legs had fallen asleep long ago, and so he manages only to fall back onto his butt and to try to slither backward on his elbows. He hits the back of his head on something or other; most likely a jagged rock on the edge of the tobacco field; and he starts to slide into a black hole in the back of his skull somewhere when he is jostled back by a whimsical, effeminate laugh, a chuckle more appropriate to a Loony Tunes cartoon before the Saturday serials than to a murder scene, a mirth so out of place it is wholly perverse, like the sound a pedophile makes when he sees his boy’s cock is stiff.
Hannah recognizes that it is his rifle. He must have dropped it during the altercation that took the life of his Papa, though he cannot be sure of what did or did not happen in that fog of war. More than anything else that has occurred since then, this vague and incomplete memory focuses his mind on the death of his Papa; and he begins to wail like the sad sissy boy everyone thinks that he is.
The portly, cherubic, bald man in the stiff collared, white shirt and dark dress pants removes the rifle from the boy’s face. He is not moved by sympathy so much as by confusion. The Good Lord had told him in a clear vision; thunder and lightning, just like what hit Brother Paul on the Road to Damascus; all that he would see at this mercy mission. The Good Lord has been providing him such clear visions ever since he said that Jesus Christ is his Personal Lord and Savior and then belly-flopped into the Beulah River. He has never steered him wrong; never withheld the sordid secrets that the townspeople presume to hide behind their locked doors and drawn curtains; never given him a reason to doubt all of that Resurrection Power jolting through his veins like lightning on a wire fence.
Well, that is not entirely true. The Good Lord has omitted some of those juicier details, the ones that stir the bowels when first confessed before all the brethren, the ones to which he should have been made privy in one of those Big Bang over Hiroshima Visions beforehand; and, truth be told, the Good Lord has seen fit on occasion to withhold a vision altogether. Yes, indeed, the Good Lord has more than once sent His Moses before Pharaoh without providing His Soldier so much as a map and a compass. Ever pious and humble before the Glory Seat, he has not complained; not even when the Good Lord has given him permission to declare whatever he wants, while he is bathing with his yellow rubber ducky in hand every other Thursday morning; but privately he has been seething from the obvious lack of follow through by the Man Upstairs. Clearly, the covenant is supposed to go both ways; and like Job before him, this Christian Soldier has to wonder if perhaps the Big White Baptist Boss Man on Cloud Nine is now shirking one or two of His divine obligations. Now, admittedly, the Fat Burger and Extra Cheese Chef on High has a lot more on His plate what with running the universe and all; but, really, does that justify sending out one of His best troops; no, let us be honest, His Second in Command; without giving him a real rootin’ tootin’ Road to Damascus thrill up his leg? At the very least, should not the Good Lord, Praise Be His Name, be taking care of His Chosen Man before rendering visions, and miracles, and them flailing hands and hip thrusts unto the nigger churches?
Pastor Porkins had started out this day all smiles above his thick jowls, a skip to his step even, since the previous night the Good Lord had seen fit finally to give him a real doozy of a vision. He had heard how his Deacons, good family men each and every one of them, Beulah’s First Citizens, had decided to go on one of their late night hunts; how the torchbearers had carried the Light of the Good Lord before their eyes; and how they had bagged a white demon, a frothy sick in the crotch coon lover, before the sun should see fit to shine on our land.
Charmed by the report, Pastor Porkins retired to bed, and had his vision.
No, vision is not a good enough word. Better to call it a revelation; what the cinema screen in the sky will be showing just after the angels blow through their trumpets; what will charm the hearts of the raptured few and drop terror into the bowels of everyone else; a vast field of weeds and chaff caught up in a terrible bonfire; fires crackling over the earth; smoke titillating the big nostrils of God Himself; sinful plants so pained by the purgation washing over them that they manage to take voice and to scream like leafy banshees; horrendous pains as the leaves and stems bristle off of their stems, like muscles twisted and then yanked off of bones; snapping, crackling, sizzling retribution, when the blessed may laugh at the damned and savor the smell of a field aflame into eternity. In the midst of this revelation, Pastor Porkins manages to soar over the smoke and to behold the triumph of righteousness as if it is his very own; his tearful eyes, so caught in thankful prayers at this moment of victory, seeing as God sees; his glossy lips mouthing What a friend we have in Jesus, except that he substitutes his boyhood name of Porky for the Name of the Son of God. Because he can see as God sees, the smoke moves away from wherever he sets his eyes, and all the weeds and the chaff reveal themselves to be the Sons of Ham, the colored men with their bulging eyes and dangling lips, the Jezebels with their haughty grins now burning off of their faces, the scalawag coon lovers with their shifting eyes now popping out of their sockets like rockets, the carpetbaggers with their top hats and silk tuxedos now melting off of their flesh and revealing that their soft white skin had been black all along, and even Abraham Lincoln, the Treasonous Ape Man, revealed in the midst of all this confusion to be a mongoloid monkey, a half-bred miscarriage from the Jungles of the Congo, indeed, the Devil’s Imp crawling out from the anus of a dead Mamie. Pastor Porkins watches from high in the sky, well above the crackling heat, as the Treasonous Ape Man endeavors in vain to avoid the flames. He chuckles, when he observes how that gangly old chimpanzee in a borrowed suit tries to inspire his army of burning coloreds and Republicans to rally around what is left of his precious Washington. And he is as if a swooning girl, playful giggles rolling up and down his butterball belly, when he observes how the flames snap Lincoln’s bare chimpanzee butt and send him scurrying back into the dead anus from which he has been born. Pastor Porkins, so inebriated in his glee he fears momentarily that the Good Lord may suspect that he has again fallen off the wagon, regains his pastoral composure. He thins his lips and turns up his nose as if about to deliver a sermon. He waves his right hand out from his chest, like he is literally tossing his heart out to the brethren for whom he has given so much; and with that ecclesiastical gesture, he is once more moving forward through the heavens, soaring as the Man of Steel, smiling as the Man of Sorrows must have smiled when He stared down from His cross on Golgotha and imagined all the flames of hell in store for those Jews below Him.
And if that had been the end of the revelation, if indeed there had been nothing beneath his gaze but endless miles of sinners writhing in their inflamed flesh, then Pastor Porkins would have awakened this fine morning with a broad, drooling grin on his face; but he would not have felt the need to press his white shirt, squeeze into his sequined Jesus boots, and venture away from his blessed hearth and home on a mercy call. He had had other plans for this day, and with his gout acting up again he could find no pleasure in the thought of traveling so far out of town and casting his eyes upon this unsaved sissy boy in torn overalls.
But that had not been the end of the revelation. As his grandfather clock chimes six times, and dawn creeps into his bedroom, he is aware that there is a small patch of weeds and chaff in the distance not touched by the inferno. He soars over this remnant of sin in a kingdom otherwise redeemed. It is a simple farm on the edge of eternity; a house heavily mortgaged and bereft of most of its furniture; a barn dilapidated from lack of maintenance; a hog pen no longer cleaned and repaired by the old coon out back; a storage shed consumed by the smell of dead rats and dried up turd; and, finally, a chicken coup, a tabernacle on dead land, a domain of crazed and malnourished hens overseen by a bully red rooster. It is a sad place that he had seen with his own eyes some time ago, when he had shown up himself in a final effort to persuade the sad sack and his sissy boy to put on their Sunday’s Best and to be saved in the Beulah River; and because he had seen it with his own eyes, an ugly, little voice in the back of his head had tried to convince him that this was not a revelation at all, but a bit of memory unearthed on account of the report he had received earlier that same morning of the successful hunt on that same land. But the faith in him; indeed, the Resurrection Power just then warming his old cotton underpants; had been able to strangle that ugly, little voice and discard its carcass somewhere in that dustbin set aside for inconvenient thoughts. He had receive a revelation, Pastor Porkins tells himself in his dresser mirror; a revelation from God Himself; and a call to finish the purge, to cleanse the world of sin, and to pull God’s Only Son, even the Good Lord Jesus Christ, across the finish line. And certainly, with God leading the way, and with God’s Soldier remaining faithful to the mercy call for which he has been clad in the armors of righteousness, Pastor Porkins envisions that the sissy boy will be silenced by the sheer poignancy of what God’s Soldier has been commissioned to do. Maybe that sissy boy will look upon God’s Soldier with adoring eyes. Maybe he will offer to help God’s Soldier set fire to the land and then finish off by tossing himself into the cauldron. But surely, God will not stain the most solemn of moments by giving the boy license to cry out as a girl.
And yet here is this sissy boy, so obnoxious with his tears, staring at that beaten blood mound that used to be his Papa’s butt. Now, didn’t his Papa ever tell him that children should be seen and not heard? Even a heathen knows that much, and this dirty scarecrow in torn overalls certainly qualifies as a heathen.
Get thee away, Jezebel; Pastor Porkins scolds Hannah. God’s Soldier will not be turned from his mercy call, no matter the sympathy inspired by your sad tears. There is a purge in the air; the sweet scent of burning sin; and yours will fall before the righteous hand of God Most High and give way to the holy flame.
Hannah stares into the eyes of the overstuffed pastor standing over him. They are demented eyes; but, even more so, they are exhausted, worn down in their flabby sockets, watery and woozy, like his Papa’s after a night of boozing.
Pastor Porkins sees how Hannah stares at him. He turns away at once, as if somehow the revelation that brought him to this pigsty in the first place will be discredited. He had seen himself reflected only a brief moment in those sad and penetrating eyes, and yet that had been enough to instill in him a fear that he is just one more sick and worn out fraud waiting his turn to be burned alive.
Your Papa had it coming; Pastor Porkins reflects, while avoiding Hannah like the plague by staring at the blood splatters on the bare butt beneath him. I warned him. Told him to accept Jesus Christ as his Personal Love and Savor and to bury his past sins in the Beulah River. Reminded him that he’s been born and bred to be a covenant man; one of the lost ten tribes; a white man so very tall and proud, even if the nigger horde should some day force us back into a desert exile. All he had to do was to give up his nigger. Just give him over to the First Citizens and toss the rope over the branch. God asks so very little, and He gives so much more in return; and yet your Papa would not even hand over an elderly coon. Well, his sin is yours now; passed into your small hands when he coughed out his last cry; buried into the earth beneath your feet; growing in them dead tobacco plants spread out from your homestead; the fate of the damned taking a hold of everything here and falling away only before the mad retribution fire.
Pastor Porkins looks back at Hannah. He no longer hears the boy bawling like a little girl. He wants to see if maybe now the boy is staring up at him with the fawning, stupid eyes of a lamb prepared for the slaughter; if indeed the sad boy is acknowledging his preeminence in this last movement of the historic war started in heaven and ended in a remote farm just outside of Beulah; and thus, if he can dispel any doubt in his own mind that he is on a mission from God just now. He is searching for the kind of affirmation that may be discerned only in a blank and subservient face. After all, he is God at this moment; the one critical and decisive actor in the events to follow on which even the Good Lord Himself must rely; and he knows in his heart that when God looks upon the flock that is gathered by the legs of His throne, He beholds sheared sheep with glazed eyes.
Yes, indeed, Hannah has stifled his tears, at least for this brief moment; but there is insolence in those eyes of his. The cursed heathen wants his Papa, no matter that he is so sin stained that the blood splatters on his corpse is now turning charcoal black; and perhaps even more so, he wants to grasp onto what little name and place he has in this world of ours, even if that means indulging the sin of his own Papa and fighting back the fires from on high. Really, Hannah is Jezebel, scandalous, seductive, tempting the righteous to let down their own guard and to partake of her lies. He veils himself in the weakness of a girl; frail repose; soft words; gushing tears; but in fact he indulges the very strength of a woman most foul. He is much like that whore that Digger keeps back at the old Texaco Gas and Grill; that red-headed wench with the big boobs; and someday, blessed be the God of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the two of them will get what is coming to them; Lana and Hannah buried side by side in the Nigger Tombs; the miscreants forgotten on the Last Day, so that their bones do not rise with ours, nor pollute the memories of the saved, nor darken the white lights awaiting us.
Please, don’t burn Papa; Hannah pleads. He should rest here on his land.
There is no rest for the wicked; Pastor Porkins snaps. And a thief cannot lay claim to what he has stolen. Righteous men carved out these acres from the heathens of old. They burned the Seminole tomahawks at the foot of the cross, praising Old Hickory and Jesus Christ, remembering at that moment of ultimate triumph how the valor of their Norse ancestors still pulsed in their veins. And so they sanctified before the God of the Covenant that this land will remain freed from sin, preserved for the white man, seeded only by the blood of we who are chosen, and guarded off from the Sons of Ham and the Jezebels. And so it was, until your Papa inherited his share of the Kingdom of God and then transformed it into a sanctuary for niggers and boozers and one queer, little boy. Oh, do not take my word for it. Seek it out in Holy Writ. Unearth it in whatever feeble bits of country sense you may have in that heathen skull of yours. They will tell you that conversion is as much thievery as buggery is fornication. Indecent motives, scandalous states of mind, occasions for gossip. Your Papa stood apart from us; snubbed us with his indifference; and so invited us to see the sins in his strange character that we might downplay in the charitable disposition of a churchgoer or a leading citizen. He invited us all to take note, to furrow our brows, to thin our lips, to cast down our eyes, when he did or did not do something that might very well be indecent. He invited us to judge. He invited us to be righteous. He invited us to don the crown of God Himself, while he assumed the shabby robes and shit boots of a modern day Job. Wretched Man, he asked us, indeed begged us, to see that he had taken his rightful inheritance and converted it over time into a place where sinners could squat and eventually quiet title. He ripped his deed out from the hands of Brother Peter and handed it over to Beelzebub; his stamped and sealed paper one more addition to the Records of Infernal Sin; his blood signature yet another glory in the annals of hell. And all for what? So that he may protect Cain’s Son and share his cup with those who do not stand under the shadow of the Eternal Cross? So that he may suckle a boy better left to the wolves? He shrank from his manhood; darkened his skin; perverted his seed; the outer man still white and strong, the inner man black and contemptible. And so he has had his reward, as the Good Book says. He lies here, like a rabid dog put down; his ass a bitch for the righteous sword; and there is nothing left then but to finish the job and to cry out in gratitude to the God who redeems us in what befalls His enemies. Praised Be Our Resurrection in the fallen blood of our foes.
Hannah senses that Pastor Porkins is trying to convince himself that he is on a mission from God. If Hannah had been a few years older, and frankly much better educated, then he would have said to himself just then that the sweaty, red-faced pastor protests too much. By putting a concise phrase to what he had intuited, he would have had a bit more confidence at that moment and perhaps had had a chance to take control of the events to follow before they got out of hand. But he could do little more than watch in amazement at how a grown up, and one so highly esteemed in the community, turned at once into a mad devil.
The cursed little boy does not believe a word I am saying; Pastor Porkins almost thinks aloud. He certainly understands me. He is brighter than I had had occasion to consider. I can see his keenness of mind in those contemptible eyes of his. No, it is not that he cannot follow. It is that he chooses not to follow. So insolent in his disbelief; so proud in his faithlessness; surely the God who stands behind my sword and shield should have prepared him better to receive me. All those Indians fell like the buffalo before a rifle; all those heart eaters down the Rio Grande fell like the fly before a bout of yellow fever; and yet this little boy in torn overalls resists me. He defies me. He hears my words, understands them well enough, and yet does not shudder before the hellfire awaiting him. So how am I to act? What does this say about the God who calls me to this awful place?
Best to forget; Pastor Porkins mumbles. Indeed, crossing the River Styx is a blessing after all. For what is the alternative, but to be haunted by ourselves?
Pastor Porkins reaches into his right Jesus boot. He fumbles in there, like a boy digging into a toy chest, and then manages to retrieve an old, silver flask that had been lodged ages ago in between his sweaty sock and the moldy inner lining of the boot. He sniffs the top and lapses briefly into the kind of playfully demonic smile that suggests that he is not all that adverse to the devil’s charm after all. He catches himself, resumes his disagreeable face, and sprinkles a bit of Old Jack on the bare butt and the back of the corpse beneath his mad gaze. He looks up, offers a prayer that is immediately stifled by the sickening groans of a late afternoon breeze, and tosses a lit match into the bloodied anus below him. His lips twitch unevenly; a gesture in search of a confident smile, and yet unable to quell the passions of the moment; and he steps back to behold all the glory of a purgation bonfire arising up and away from the dead flesh of a sinner most foul. He has never before observed anything so beautiful, so ecclesiastical indeed, not even when he ascended from beneath the Beulah River and saw the face of God descending unto his own in the image of a black crow from on high.
Hannah attempts to shield his eyes from the intense, blue flare crackling up from his Papa’s anus and back. It is a radioactive geyser; first as inky blue as a photograph of the sea he remembers from one of the large picture books that the Bank Jew had taken from him; then, in a matter of seconds, consumed by a cloud of fleshy soot bubbling up from the source of the flame; so that when the flame reaches its high point directly above them, mushrooming outward like an old patio umbrella sagging from the effect of too much sun, it is a hideous, sick beast; a gnarled miscarriage of fire, soot, bristling bone chips, and fiery strings of flesh; a last cough of constipated shit and dried blood that had been clinging still to the inner linings of the anus and that is now gliding back to the earth as reams of fecal confetti. But this grotesque volcano; a stomach churning and ear splitting reminder of the wage of sin; however harsh to the eye is even more so calamitous to the ear, since the crackling of the fireball is nearly overwhelmed by the sound of sulfur wheezing out from an unseen balloon; all the flatulence, the gurgling gas occasioned by death, the bloated cavity full of the warm fumes that will work with the maggots and the flies to break down the flesh into dust, indeed, all of that hot air that is every man’s final legacy, and that would have been released in spurts over the next few days, is now excreted all at once. For the ear, it is a sound akin to a croak, or maybe a fraternity party belch, but for the imagination, overheated already by the surreal nature of a bloodied corpse caught up in a bonfire, it is an inhuman wail, a deep throated laugh emitted all at once from the bowels of hell, an incantation that turns the hearer’s blackest despair into red hot madness. There is no escape, because the mind just then is incapable of rational thought; the normal chronology of cause and effect, even of before and after, declining into the tortured moans and loony chuckles of an unrestrained descent into a hellish take on Fantasia; and so the hearer does not have a choice but to ride out the waves of madness that are simultaneously and thus confusingly reverberating down from the fireball and up from his heart. In that confusion, a spurt lasting no more than a second in time, but lingering into eternity, there is the clearest exposition of hell on earth and reminder that we men are but minor playthings in the hands of the powers and the principalities.
Hannah cannot manage to hold his hands over his eyes. The intense heat singes his own flesh; and as a result, his hands flail about in vain search of even the smallest pockets of cool air. He tries to clench his eyes shut, but the warm waves of adrenaline beating outward from his heart compels his eyes to remain open, in spite of the soot and the flesh sprinkles now grasping at his tear ducts.
And so he observes how Pastor Porkins grins maniacally; how his typically ruddy, cherubic face has assumed the crispy, black appearance of the inflamed Hindenburg just a moment before it exploded; and how, strangely, the already big and powerful preacher man seems to be so much bigger and more powerful, his countenance monstrously large in scope, his spirit uncontainable even by his inhumanly grandiose girth, the closer he is to the edge of hell. Indeed, he is so much more himself, as he stands beside absolute depravity; so much more fired up by his own spirit, as he wallows in the debauched excess of the blast that he had instigated; and while only dimly understood, Hannah senses that the pastor of souls is really more at home among the devils; no more than another dumb, decrepit goat when wandering among his fellow sinners; but the perfect lamb, unblemished, mighty and strong in his transfigured raiment, when conferring in this or that ecstatic moment with the spiritual beasts from which his soul really had been spawned. Pastor Porkins is fully alive only in the orgiastic thrill of the righteous man wielding a hammer unto the forehead of the sinner; the joy that comes from knowing in the back of ones mind that forgiving those who trespass against us really means biding our time until we righteous ones have our chance to sock it to them; the confident afterglow that comes from knowing that Jesus Christ Himself grins triumphantly when He beholds Dives thirsting in Hell. He is the devil playing his part in the work of redemption; the sinister underside to a bargain that drives Job to the edge of despair; the evil that displaces men from their places in the world, and leaves them adrift on the turbulent seas of a God whose ways and purposes cannot be known by men except in hardship and loss.
Hannah glimpses Abram, the demon boy son of Pastor Porkins, within the transfigured face of the brute standing above him. Indeed, as he remembers his Papa saying more than once, the acorn does not fall far from the tree; and with an insight beyond what would be expected of his years, he senses that if he had knowledge of the genealogy leading down to the demon boy, then he would see a long line of miscreant devils; pirates of souls masked in the high white collars and long black coats of pastors of souls; buccaneers masquerading as patrolmen on that hazardous oceanic trek we call life; and precisely because of their keen capacity for deception, interrupted by moments of severe brutality in dark and remote corners, weeds and chaff snatching the good seed from the earth for no other purpose than to sprout desolation from one end of the earth to the other.
Hannah beholds the terrible power in Pastor Porkins, but God’s Soldier in turn beholds nothing but his own weakness and inadequacy; his inability at that solemn moment to know for sure that he is achieving what the Good Lord could not do on His own; his fear that once again he has not been granted the kind of revelation that God reserves for His Chosen One; and, even more so, his great and abiding anger that those angels on high are laughing at his abject failure to soar over the damned as they do. He wants nothing more then than to hide out from his fears; unleash that mad rush of anger that divorces a fearful soul from her memories, and leaves behind an unvanquished spirit in the smoldering ruins of moral and ethical depravity; even if only for a brief moment in time, be that Vishnu god that resides in the majesty and the glory of the Great White Father.
And so to that end Pastor Porkins waddles away from the bonfire. He has to endure considerable pain on account of his advanced gout, and his wheezing shortness of breath bleeds out from his fat flesh in the form of an unctuous and stinky sweat stain spreading over the chest of his white shirt, and yet he moves with the determination of a soulless murderer; his heart inflamed in the bestial lusts of a rabid dog about to mount its bitch; his mind insensate to anything but fire and earth; his soul found to the extent that she is lost. An outside observer would think that he is mad. He clutches at his high collar; rolls his blank eyes in every direction; rambles out a rendition of What a friend we have in Porky that flails in search of the right words and then descends altogether into the crazed, deep throated tongues of a man in need of an exorcist. And, indeed, he is truly crazy, as crazy as a fox honing in on its moment of triumph, and thus as mighty as he is laughable. The outside observer would be well advised to snicker all he wants at him and then to step aside from the path of this madman on the hunt.
Pastor Porkins grabs a hold of a dried up tobacco stalk. He returns to his bonfire long enough to catch its flame, and then he turns with his flaming torch held high above his head. He studies the tobacco field before him; his face just dumb blubber, but his eyes searching frantically for the right place in which to insert his strike. He must have found it, because he barrels into the field, like a bull zeroing in on its red flag; and when he steps out again, there is nothing but an ocean of crackling fire and moaning soot where once there had been wilting leaves. He is all smiles and a shivering belly beside this ocean he has fashioned.
Hannah clamors to his feet, as a howling wind reaches up from the earth and pulls the flames from the field to the shed. He is transfixed in his horror; a nine year old sissy boy in torn overalls; and though he sees that the mad pastor had dropped his rifle beside his Papa’s carcass, and that, miraculously, the rifle has not been scorched by the flame, he cannot muster enough rational thought to pick up the rifle and to fight off the devil. Again, he is failing at the moment that matters; his spirit willing, but his flesh weak; and yet he is too stunned for the time being even to drop a tear down his cheek and to hate his own sad life.
There must have been cheap booze bottled away still in the shed; maybe hidden in the barrel of oats for the day Papa could no longer barter anything of value for another swig of Old Jack; because as soon as the cascading fire is able to penetrate the mildewed walls, the shed explodes upward and outward like a malfunctioning V-2 rocket. Wood and glass shards blast everywhere; the barrel, still mostly intact, but pissing out a stream of oats through its bung hole, takes flight on an arch that ends on the roof of the house; the shed door is a sheet of brilliant fire twirling top over bottom and crashing through the kitchen window.
The house is no more than dried kindling. Bereft of most of its furniture, of its living room window, and now of its sad owner, it appears to embrace this opportunity to die the only glamorous death that a house may know. It moans a horrible cry of dereliction, as the beaten walls fall in on themselves, and as the sagging roof collapses into the spreading inferno. It belches shards of glass, and what little had remained of the kitchen appliances, through the enormous hole in the kitchen window cut by the shed door. And then, almost as soon as it had erupted into flames, it is no more than smoldering waste and ashes in a breeze.
Hannah cannot see Pastor Porkins anymore, but he senses that he is out there somewhere; a doughy black face and a sweaty white shirt flailing joyfully in and out of the fire; an ecclesiastical song of praise just on the cusp of his old and quivery lips, but unable to be mouthed on account of that happy confusion that is now run amuck through his soul; one hand still clutching feverishly at his high collar, while the other waves his torch through the air in exaltation of the dark and sinister gods that permit men to have such power every now and then.
Hannah glances at the chicken coup. It remains untouched by the flames now consuming what is left of his Papa’s corpse; and somewhere in the back of his head, he knows that when the ocean of fire has run its course, and the farm is nothing but a smoldering ruin beneath a thick cloud of soot and embers, that chicken coup will be there still; the hens most anxious for their next meal; and Red, stoic and cocky in the far corner, waiting in silence for that moment when he will be able to waddle forward, to puff out his chest, and to even the score.
* * *
Hannah searches the tobacco field. He sees nothing but a wall of flames; red and orange beasts with long faces and drooping eyes dancing feverishly in a late afternoon summer wind; inflamed leaves and twigs caught up in whirlwinds that ride the undulating shoulders of these beasts; a vibrato groan, interrupted by a high screech whenever a mad flock bursts out from the cauldron to seek a last moment of refuge in the poisoned cloud that has darkened the sky a purple black, but then returning with a vengeance to deaden the ears of any individual man or beast still able to run or the writhe in this corner of hell. Somewhere in this confusion there is a laugh; inhuman; maniacal; too loud to be the demon in the high collar, though Pastor Porkins continues to reign large and impressive in the imagination of a frightened boy in torn overalls; and Hannah intuits that his small place in the world is being attacked by an evil force not contained by the skin and the bones of any particular man. What is out there has no name, but it is the frantic beating of the heart when the predator dashes out from the silent and still shadow; the coppery taste on the lips when the predator opens a vein; the fire warmth in between the thighs when the predator unleashes the kind of fear that opens the bladder and stills the breath midway in the windpipe. And, at the same time, it is the orgiastic flow of power through widened veins, when the prey succumbs feebly to the attack; the warm quiver on the lips, when the prey grasps stupidly for its opened vein; the fire warmth in between the thighs, when the prey inspires the kind of mad excess that opens the cock and stiffens the spine midway up the back. What is out there has no name, but it is the sick confusion of love and spite, sex and rape; a kaleidoscope that blends aspects of each to create a beautifully hideous beast, a lure through the gates of hell, and a torment when the same gates have been shut and locked behind one of those clueless sojourners on the yellow brick road we call life. This is that everlasting spiritual confusion only intimated in the surreal interplay of red and orange fire beasts and purple black whirlwinds; that final reality only tasted here or there, when we happen to stumble into a particularly nasty predicament, or relinquish what little goodness may reside in our hearts to our baser instincts; that hell in which we have been crafted and for which we are destined, no matter all those hallelujahs in the church choir, or testimonies before the congregation, or even cries of dereliction and psalm verses offered by the Good Lord in His sufferings.
Surely, that inhuman, maniacal laugh stirs nothing, but an overwhelming sense of futility; a resignation before the beastly prince of this world; a despair wrapping the heart in frozen bandages and tightening the last measly coughs of blood out from the body; and yet, inexplicably, there is just enough grit within the nine year old sissy boy in torn overalls to inspire him to run toward the one, small patch in the tobacco field not yet consumed by the maelstrom. And so, in spite of the wretched laugh, and the purple black smoke stinging his lungs, and the hot furnace air blasting through his skin like pebbles through a thin sheet of paper, Hannah escapes through a meandering path in the dead tobacco stalks; his face scratched and gnawed by leaves that seem intent on restraining him on his way and offering him unto the flames as a sacrifice; his tender feet bruised and bloodied by the jagged rocks burrowing through the thin lining of his boots.
He stumbles on the remains of a wild hare trap; a claptrap of rusted, old nails and splintery wood that had been abandoned to nature ages ago; and then he scabs his right knee on a rock that once had been chiseled into a weapon. As a result of the excruciating pain that spasms out from his knee, he explodes out from the fog in which his mind has been mired ever since he observed the dark blue flame geyser out from his Papa’s anus. His elation at being able once more to think clearly temporarily drowns out the pain, and he climbs back to his feet in time to behold a growling, old cur with vampire teeth skulk out from behind a wall of tobacco leaves. He sees the dementia in the old dog’s eyes; a sickness in the glare of its pupils that suggests that anything or nothing could happen on a dime; and he catches his breath before uttering the wail lodged in his throat.
What steps out next scares him even more so than the mangy, black dog. It is a tall, slumped, charcoal black beast wrapped in skin so dry it seems to be crackling off of his haggard bones with every measured step that it takes. It is a hideous thing; a misshapen, bald head adorned by a wide nose, a bristling, grey mustache, and a pair of big lips swimming in the saliva drool that seeps through yellowed dentures; a scrawny torso draped by muddied overalls; a pair of long, muscular legs that once had been capable of a quick escape but that is now too enfeebled by arthritis and scars to do anything more than to shuffle awkwardly; and a pair of inhumanly large feet bandaged in tobacco leaves. It is too black in color, too foreign, too ugly in its features to be a man, properly speaking; and, no doubt, the fine folk who sell their wares in Beulah, and who warm the pews beneath the observant gaze of Pastor Porkins every Sunday morning, would say that this beast is just another in a long line of miscreant devils to have savaged the earth since Cain eloped with an ape. And yet, somehow, Hannah knows the strange and frightening form standing before him is as much a man as his Papa. Indeed, he is the man for whom his Papa gave his own life, and his name is Old Jumper, the colored man who tends the hog when he chooses to do so, and the man who may provide him a bowl and a pillow until this maelstrom should pass.
Massa Hannah, Old Jumper whispers, as if not wanting to tempt the mad fire gods now wreaking havoc in the distance. You best come with me and right quick. The Man ain’t gonna let up on your tail, ‘till he snatches you in the bush.
Hannah steps forward. He is conscious again of the pain in his right knee, and he lets out a blubbery wail. He grasps his wound and begins to fall forward.
Old Jumper catches him. The demented cur skulks back, but still growls.
Massa Hannah, you best come with me, Old Jumper repeats, as if indeed there is a chance in hell that the whimpering sissy boy will try to go elsewhere.
Hannah leans against the shuffling, old man, while the two of them push aside the tobacco leaves in their path. The demented cur limps behind them in the slow and pained manner of a beast wanting only to curl up in its own grave.
Eventually, they make their way to a tiny shack with a thatched roof and a dirt floor. It blends in so well with the dried tobacco leaves and thorny weeds that it would remain incognito, but for the lit lantern in the doorway, a moldy, misshapen washbasin, a clay pot of cold, watered down stew dangling unevenly over a dead fire pit, and a partially smoked joint wrapped in a tobacco leaf and still smoldering on a cracked ashtray. On the ashtray is a black and white image of a 1920s Dream Girl swinging daintily on the crescent moon, wearing nothing but a long strand of white pearls, and blushing innocently at the photographer.
Old Jumper must stoop inside his own shack. Apparently, he is careful to keep his thatched roof lower than the top of the tobacco stalks around it, so as not to be conspicuous from a distance. He is burdened by his advanced age, but he manages nonetheless to move very stealthily about his own small space. And even more strangely, he never raises his smoky voice above an anxious whisper.
Old Jumper acts like a convict on the lam, not just in the careful manner by which he walks and talks, but in the tormented guilt written within his eyes.
Hannah reads the guilt in those eyes. It is like one of those picture books that he used to have in his bedroom before the Bank Jew arrived, except this is a black and white image of a crazed Negro with mangy hair and yellow vampire teeth mounting the rear end of a screaming ape. The caption explains that this is Cain honeymooning with his bride. Further down the page is an excerpt from a sermon delivered by Pastor Porkins: ‘And so God set a mark on Cain, even the blackness of his skin, and the foreignness of his features, and the coarseness of his hairs, and the wantonness of his lusts, so that we who are chosen may strike him from his place in the world, thief and outlaw that he is, and preserve what God has sown for the righteous harvesters. How blessed are we that theirs is an unredeemed guilt, fit only for the last fire, then plucked from the mind of God. And how blessed are we that our righteousness be manifest in their depravities; our favor in their disfavor; our freedom in their slavery; our life in their death.’
Like every country boy, Hannah knows that sex is what animals do when in heat. The idea of a man in heat repulses him, because it erases that fine line between man and beast that is critical in maintaining order within a homestead and a way of life so close to nature. He understands at once why he must share in the murderous hate of the white man towards the Negro; that without such a deep and abiding disdain, the white man would have rent his robes and crawled back into the wilderness long ago; that without the Negro swinging from a rope beneath a harvest moon, the white man would be howling with the mangy dogs for whatever scraps the Good Lord might be willing to toss from His linen table.
And yet as repulsed as he is, Hannah does not turn away from the image. He cannot understand all of the words in the sermon excerpt, but he knows the pastor of souls is castigating him as much as he is the colored man stooping low in his own shack. Perhaps that is why Papa did not hand over Old Jumper, even though his own life depended on it. Perhaps Papa understood that his place and his sissy son’s place in this world is to be counted among the unredeemed; that notwithstanding their difference in skin color, and features, and hair, and even wantonness, he and his sissy son are as much Negroes as is Old Jumper; the two of them slaves to the bank; the two of them scoffed by the First Citizens of the town; the two of them destined not for the respectable cemetery, where Mama and Seth reside into eternity, but for the ghostly wails and the wretched moans that prevail in the Nigger Tombs. Hannah and his Papa have a place; something to be preserved from the ravages of time; and that is the place of the despised and the wretched man; the failed farm and the broken family on the very edge of the wilderness; the drunk and the sissy boy who fail the First Citizens and do not ever find a reason to don their Sunday’s Best; the man and the boy who are just not fit to be counted among the white men. And so while repulsed, Hannah knows that Old Jumper is his brother and that this filthy shack is his true home.
Old Jumper reads the same picture book in Hannah’s eyes. He grins, sits on a pile of dried tobacco leaves near his ashtray, and takes a toke on his joint.
He smiles at his demented cur in the doorway and nods for him to enter.
Massa Hannah, I give Moses the eyes to eat, Old Jumper reflects. What’s good for the dog is good for the boy. So go on, boy, get while the goin’ is good.
Hannah realizes then that he is starving, but he cannot find a bowl and a spoon anywhere in the dimly lit space. He looks back at Old Jumper and shrugs.
Old Jumper laughs. He scoots over to the clay pot, and he dips his mouth into the stew. He slurps as much hare and broth as the mangy mutt beside him.
Hannah crawls over to the clay pot. There is space enough for him to be a third in this trough, and he slurps in before the other two finish off that stew.
Hannah manages only a few swallows, but never before has he felt more satisfied with a meal. He looks at Old Jumper and Moses, and smiles. He is still sad for his Papa, and he realizes that he has many more heavy tears to shed for him; but here, in this place, he feels safe. He is home, and so he falls asleep on a pile of dried tobacco leaves beside Moses, while Old Jumper finishes his joint.
* * *
Hannah still hears the four chimes ringing in his ears; each of the chimes a ghostly reverberation that blends into the other to unleash an earthen vibrato moan somewhere in the back of his skull; so that as he opens his tired eyes into the cramped darkness of the shack, he is reminded not of the grandfather clock back home, but of the fire that had taken most everything from him; the flame that had blackened his entire world to that fourth hour of the morning; the hot soot that had so coated his soul he could not find himself, except in the intense black face of a man beyond redemption. He stumbles forward from his crinkling bed of tobacco leaves beside the washbasin as if drawn by an unseen rope into the pre-dawn darkness. He always quivers a bit in terror; the cold wind flowing through the tobacco stalks outside startling him; the hard crunch of a dead leaf under Moses’ paw sending a chill down his spine; and yet, strangely, he is really most at home at this hour. He is setting out to do his first of those many chores that now define his education and his play; his life cut off from every white boy in town; his developing mindset that of a squatter on his own property, his eyes more alert than ever before for any sudden movements in the charred remains of the tobacco field, his head slinking beneath the top of the stalks, his swollen and bruised feet wrapped in tobacco leaves instead of shit boots in order to be more stealthy in the bush. He has not seen anyone yet, since he moved in with Old Jumper and took Moses as his companion, but he knowsthat the demon boy is out there, somewhere, just waiting to finish the job started by his porky dad.
Hannah does not light a torch. He senses that a flame bobbing through a big stretch of deadness likely will catch the squinting eye of a man out there, a White Knight returning from a late night hunt, perhaps, or a Deacon wandering the forest before dawn with a song of praise on his lips. Also, the truth be told, he does not need it. There is nothing to see out there for miles on end, but one crisped gnome after another flaking away what little remains of their branches and leaves whenever a howling wind happens to twirl up from the surface. And, no matter if pre-dawn exhaustion presses down on his eyelids now and then, he knows the ashen wasteland as if the back of his hand, and practically can smell the chicken coup long before he views the feathers fluttering in soft moonlight.
He glances over at the dark form that is sleeping silent and still beside a smoldering joint. There is always a joint smoldering inside the small shack, and in the several weeks that he has been living with his new family he has become accustomed to the fizzy flash of light, followed by the serpentine smoke trails, of medicinal weed taking flight. It is the one thing that Old Jumper does that is not safe, since Hannah suspects that the pungent odor can be sensed from afar.
Perhaps Old Jumper has earned this minor transgression. Hannah is sure, after all, that his colored brother is the oldest outlaw in the world; maybe even that same Negro who had escaped the slave ship and can be heard whistling his defiance through the tobacco stalks after sunset, except that Old Jumper does not do much at all after sunset anymore; but, regardless, he is certain that this old beast is more spirit than man; his sad ghost life in the Nigger Tombs already etched in his face; his eternal wretchedness among the outcasts already hinted in his devilish grin, when he first puckers his cracked lips about a flaming joint.
Old Jumper does not do much, except fuss with his hare traps and, when the chronic pain spurts suddenly to an unbearable point, rest his swollen hips in the shade of a sturdy oak tree out yonder. He no longer tends the hog at all, as the fire had burnt the skin off of its pork belly and sizzled its bulging eyes black and crispy, so even that intermittent chore is off his plate. And yet he is a real, abiding presence this far out in the bush; liable to pop out from behind a thick wall of burnt tobacco leaves at any time; aware of what particular chore has or has not been done, as if receiving secret reports from the leaves and the twigs rattling in the wind. He remains as much in charge of his little world as he ever has been; indeed, his command seems even more evident when he sits inside of his shack like a Grand Pooh-Bah and puffs away at his joint, like somehow all of the world has been tamed silent and still by the mere fact that he is stoned out of his mind; an outcast among men and yet so very much in his time and place.
Hannah skulks out the open doorway. The air is especially cold this early morning; the first intimation of an autumn chill that will give way to the winter sleet and fog before summer has been forgotten; but, as always, Moses is there in the darkness growling dementedly for his new friend. Hannah no longer fears this growl. He realizes now that it is the only vocal expression of which Moses is capable, and so he pats the cur on its mangy head and gestures for it to follow.
He passes several hare traps. He cannot see them in the darkness; but as there is no sound to be heard from any one of them; neither the frantic breaths nor the twitching hind legs of a trapped hare just waiting anxiously for a dagger or a jagged rock to pummel it into hard and stringy stew meat; he realizes that their meal tonight will consist of whatever dead chicks and eggs he may gather from the chicken coup. Indeed, the chicken coup has kept them going since the firestorm scared away most of the game; and so his first chore of any given day has turned out to be the most important for their survival; a fact that inflames in his heart a mixture of trepidation and pride; a fierce reality that has lowered his chin, stooped his shoulders, and added years to his halting steps on his land.
He stops at the barrel that he had found in the forest out yonder the day after moving in with his new family. In spite of his throbbing right knee, he had rolled it back to the shack, and then found a good spot in which to hide it. It is where he keeps the chicken feed that he steals every Saturday night from their crotchety neighbor; a bit of thievery that takes him all night to do, because the senile widower with a cow pasture littered with rusted and ramshackle Model T trucks resides more than ten miles away; and it is what passes for a shed, since the firestorm had turned the old outhouse beside his house into a failed rocket.
He fills the muddied bag that he keeps in the back pocket of his overalls.
Invariably at this moment, Moses limps over to his friend, stares pitifully into his eyes, and growls with a little more intensity than usual. Hannah nods in agreement; and so Moses leans on the barrel, and swallows a few gulps of feed. It wags its tail as much as its arthritis will let it, and then it slumps back to the earth and follows a few paces behind. Its breath then will smell of chicken feed the rest of the day; a fact that later inspires a pissy moan of disapproval out of Old Jumper; but, still, a pleasant smell for Hannah as he goes about his chores.
Hannah continues through the cold and murky darkness. The dirt is slimy wet beneath his bruised feet, and he senses the slithering mist that is often the precursor of a harsh autumnal rain. The sky above is still clear and starry; but a fleet of storm clouds can sweep in very swiftly this time of year, so the relative tranquility in the heavens does not provide much solace. What matters really is what he smells, and tastes, and even feels in the brisk breezes snapping against his skin now and then; and such indicate a downpour before the break of dawn.
As he approaches the chicken coup, he notices that Moses has picked up its step, at least as much as it can in its sad condition. It is not able to trot past him, though clearly it wants to do so. It must settle for limping by his right side and nudging its muzzle agitatedly in the direction of the unseen menace ahead.
Hannah stops in his tracks. He catches a slithery hiss in the cold breezes; a sound reminiscent of hot air bleeding out from a tire; and then the high pitch of a whistle; not just an eerie tone floating through the wind, but a tone that is suggestive of a sentient source, like a catcall intended to haunt the hearer into crawling back into his own skin. Someone or something is toying with him; very deliberately, insidiously, giving him a damned good scare before pouncing onto him; and at once he remembers the demon boy jumping out from the blackness and pummeling him into the earth. He remembers his pudgy face, the sickly fat boy glint in his eyes the demonic flame in his pupils just before he strikes him; and all he can do at that moment is to be still and to feel his heart bursting out from his chest. He is nothing but the lamb waiting in the stall for the slaughter; the beast of burden about to be bloodied for the sake of the chosen; and finally the carcass about to be defiled before the eyes of a greedy and pernicious God.
All for me, he hears God say. And none for you; not even a little patch of land on the edge of eternity; indeed, not even your own unredeemed sissy soul.
And with that he hears what first sounds like a maniacal laugh, but then turns out to be a cacophony of chicken clucks and scratches. There is a vicious, unrelenting, autumnal storm already inside the chicken coup; a feathery frenzy as hens smash up against the wire and fall back into the dirt; and above it all a militant rooster crow that splits the ears and calls to mind a clarion call to war.
Hannah breaks out of his spell and rushes to the coup. He feels the brisk wind snapping against the butt of his overalls. He hears the charred remains of his house ahead crackling into ashes and twirling into a cauldron of frigid gusts.
He observes his hens up close. To him, they seem as if they are starving, which is not possible, since he has fed them every morning; and yet, what else may he deduce then from their bulging eyes, quivering beaks, scrawny throats, and blood marked feathers? What else, but that they have been pecking bits of feed out from the feathers of their very sisters; or perhaps, even snatching odd bits of flesh out from those not likely to survive the torture of an endless night?
And yet they seem plump enough. Indeed, several of the bigger hens are downright fat. Also, he can see a number of good eggs; ripe for his picking; and a coup full of starving hens would not have enough vitality in them to lay them.
Red crows again, and Hannah beholds him standing proudly behind all of his hens. Red is looking straight at him; its glaring eyes piercing his scared soul; its beak opening and shutting in such a way that it appears to be chastising him for not doing what he should have done already. Red is telling him that yes, the hens are hungry, even it is hungry, but they are not hungry for the chicken feed he tosses into their coup every morning. No, they are hungry for that one, holy, and sufficient sacrifice that will set right what has been wronged, reclaim what has been stolen, and reestablish that place in the order of things that has been repossessed and resold for pennies on the dollar. Oh, yes, they may be a bunch of simple chickens, cockle doodle doo and all that jazz, but at least their heads are in the game and their claws and beaks are ready for the moment. They are just starving for the cursed sissy boy in overalls to get off his laurels and to act.
Hannah is so mesmerized by Red’s glaring eyes that he does not note the passage of time; or, perhaps, he had fallen asleep against the chicken wire; his right cheek caving into the wire; his tongue tasting the mildewed feathers; but, regardless, the very next thing that he notices is Moses growling by his side and the rumble of an old truck motor approaching from the distance. He steps back at once; his head aching in the bitter cold; his skin and clothes drenched by the dew that is now so much thicker, and truth be told creepier, than when he had set out for his chores; and as he stares into the sky, he sees a swirling cauldron of purple and pink splotches that will coalesce soon enough into belching storm clouds. He can smell the first droplets just waiting to descend from this witch’s brew; a fragrance that is simultaneously soft and charged, like a high heaven of down pillows electrocuted by ill tempered angels; and he is awash in a strange, even otherworldly, blend of peace and trepidation that stills him in his tracks a lot longer than the circumstance would advise. It is as if the angels themselves, miscreant devils each of them, are setting him up for the fall; and he would be there as their axes fell, but for the snap of a gunshot and the wail of his friend.
He instinctively crouches down, and looks toward the charred remains of his house in the distance. He is suddenly very much aware that with everything in between burned to the ground, he is in plain view of anyone who may look in his direction. He has a flash memory of standing in the wide open space, where his living room window used to be, and with nothing but the glare of headlights to protect him from the enemy in the shadows, except that now he cannot find even an ounce of that courage that had sustained him at that momentous time. Now, there is nothing, but sick fear for himself, and concern that his demented friend may have been felled by a bullet; and he senses that the stress emerging from the blend of these two emotions soon enough will relieve him of his mind.
There is a 1940 Ford COE pickup truck parked where his living room used to be. He zeroes in on the blood red hubcaps with the white crosses painted on them. He can hear the engine wheezing and coughing, as it is idling right where he and his Papa used to listen to Kemosabe and Tonto fight back the Bank Jews and protect all that is decent about mamas, apple pies, and the American Way.
Hannah next sees the Big Cheese. He cannot quite make out his pig face; his facial features from this distance scrunching together in such a way as to be reminiscent of a blubbery snout; but he can see the golden belt buckle and the golden sheriff’s badge glistening purple pink in the morning haze. And of course there is that oversized, sweat stained hat; an unctuous trapping of body odor in a band so stretched and distorted the hat hardly looks like something issued by a legitimate law enforcement agency; an icon of an even bigger ego tilted high on a forehead; and there is no doubt that Beulah’s First Citizen has paid a visit.
What is much more interesting is the man accompanying the Big Cheese. He is not one of the White Knights; not even a respected Deacon of God; but an old devil sweating profusely in a fine suit; a heart attack just waiting to happen in a pair of polished loafers. He is the Bank Jew; and he is crouching behind the Big Cheese and fluttering a silken handkerchief wildly in the air above his head.
The Big Cheese is raising his pistol. He is scanning the burnt debris as far as his eye can see, since this time he wants to make sure he does not miss that cursed dog. He wants to see the blood geyser as that mangy, old, nigger’s mutt twists unnaturally in the air and then slumps to the ground. He wants the slimy kike grabbing at his butt to know that the law is the law even in the boondocks.
Hannah then sees Moses hobbling away as fast as it can, which is actually not much more than a pathetic shuffle. Its black coat blends in so well with the charred earth that it is camouflaged; but it is not yet far enough away, and this time the piggy sheriff is going to make sure that he sees it clearly first and then he is going to knock its muzzle from its head. There will be no doubt about that next shot, and so Hannah has no option but to act now for the life of his friend.
He grabs a rock from the ground. In so doing, he drops his bag of chicken feed. The hens scatter rambunctiously throughout the coup, trying to peck out from the air whatever pebbles of chicken feed the cold breeze happens to blow in their direction, and creating a ruckus that captures the sheriff’s attention at the moment his thick finger pulls on the trigger. The bullet veers harmlessly off to the side, and once again Moses wails in horrendous fright but is not touched.
The Big Cheese is one pissed pig. His belly is wiggling like pork on a grill.
He tries a third shot, but this time the pistol is jammed. He smashes the pistol into the earth, like a petulant child with a broken toy; and the Bank Jew, red faced by his asthma, falls onto his swishy butt and leans against a rear tire.
Hannah runs over to Moses. He crouches low in the hopes that the sheriff will not see him, and somewhere along the way he forgets that he has a rock in his hand. He drops it on the ground, before he catches up with his friend. He is not able to give Moses anything at all, but his solidarity in fright and loneliness.
As they begin their trek back to the shack, the storm clouds rip open and unleash a first wave of droplets. There is a cry in the air that intimates more to come; and Hannah now quickens his step, and urges Moses to keep up with him.
In spite of the quickened pace, it still takes a long time to return; and as the rain pours in intermittent sheets, and they stumble over grimy pools of wet ashes, Hannah has plenty of time to think. His initial shock subsides into a tired and melancholic numbness; a war weariness that is not so much thankful to be alive as too exhausted to fall into the mud and to die; and for a long while, the whole world seems to be the cold and overcast bleakness behind his eyes, a sad dream trapped inside of his own head, and a slow moving ooze slinking through his veins and into his bowels. Everything outside of his head seems vague, even unreal, just prickles on his skin that he is not really sentient enough to identify as rain, and deafening howls in his ears that speak to him in wind words that he has neither capacity nor care to decipher. And yet precisely because he is shut off from that grey world, except to the extent necessary every now and then to glance behind his right shoulder and to see that Moses is limping still behind his heel, he can think in a way that had not been possible since before that demon boy leapt out from the shadows. Indeed, he can wallow in his thoughts, and the opportunity gives him a certain sense of calm, a kind of ownership over his own soul, that he had not thought possible. It is as if he is his own person, not just a silly sissy boy caricature, or even his Papa’s son, and whatever place he is able to carve out for himself in this demonic world will turn out to be his own place.
Mostly what he thinks is that the devils are not invincible. They are cruel and always to be feared, to be sure; but the Big Cheese never struck his friend.
He tried three separate times, and he ended up with nothing to show for it, but a jammed pistol. The powers and the principalities also know their share of futility. It is perhaps the cross that all living creatures carry to their personal Golgothas, and that means that Hannah has just as much a chance as any other to win or to lose in the frenzy to carve out his own place in the order of things.
Hannah looks up from his thoughts as he prepares to slink into the shack.
He expects the charcoal black face of his friend. Instead, he receives the muzzle of a rifle, a pair of steel nostrils flaring six inches in front of his nose, a rusted, but still deadly, instrument of war poking out from inside the old shack.
Moses winces. It has seen too much violence for today. It slinks off to an oak tree nearby and curls beneath the diseased leaves of a low hanging branch.
It’s me; Hannah whispers in the hope that maybe Old Jumper is afraid he is someone else. I’ve come back so soon, ‘cause the law took a shot at Moses….
I know Massa Hannah; Old Jumpers interrupts him. I hear you a comin’ in the rain. But you have no more time here. No more time to be a sad, little boy.
Hannah does not fear the rifle. He knows that if Old Jumper had wanted to kill him, then he would have done so long before he had arrived at the open doorway. But try as he may, he cannot see his friend in the darkness inside. He knows that he is in there, somewhere, holding up the rifle and speaking to him from behind a serpentine cloud of marijuana smoke. But he is indistinguishable from the darkest shadow, and for that reason Hannah starts to tear up as a girl.
No more time to bawl, Massa Hannah; Old Jumper insists. You best stop.
Hannah tries his best to restrain the tears, but they blubber out anyway.
You best stop ‘fore the Man comes and licks your hide; Old Jumper says.
Hannah remembers how his Papa’s whole body shivered, when the steel nostrils at the end of the muzzle first penetrated his anus and tore open a vein.
And with that thought, Hannah starts to cry uncontrollably, much worse than a girl in ponytails, more like a baby in a crib. He is trapped inside of a crib that is as big as the universe, but that crib is closing in on him as the tears fall.
Old Jumper lowers the rifle, reaches out from the dark, and grabs a hold of his overalls. He holds him a while, and then musters the strength to pull him into the shack. They are both out of breath by the time Hannah is curling into a corner of the shack and sucking manically at his right thumb. Only the rain that is splattering down against the thatched roof seems to be fully alive just then; and, as a result, the cramped shack feels as if a tomb housing two tired ghosts.
Old Jumper crouches beside Hannah. The old man is hidden in the thick, pungent blackness; nothing to see, but the fizzle of orange red fire eating away at the joint that he has in his right hand; and yet Hannah feels that he is closer than ever. It is as if the two are occupying the same point in space and in time; the universe squeezed down to a pair of lonely outsiders cramped together in a dilapidated shack; their stories the history of everything, and yet their lives, all the bruises on their souls, all the fears twisted about their hearts, all the grand and silly failures already suffered or to be suffered, as inconsequential as a pair of crumpled tobacco leaves beneath the rain. And so the rain battering on their thatched roof is more than just alive. It is overwhelming; a locomotive with red beast eyes in place of headlights, and a devil’s forked tongue in place of an old cowcatcher; burrowing into their space, like a train crashing through frail rock; and crushing over their souls, like a train wheel on twigs snagged onto the rails.
The one blessing of an oncoming train, its high whistle blaring, its smoke hyperventilating out of its long stack; its wheels rumbling the rails into writhing snakes, is that it compels the would be victim to act. There is an urgency in the affair; an immediate coming to terms; and so the victim either exits his terrible predicament or turns into a blood splat on government property. Perhaps, such is the one virtue of violence imposed by nature: the pressure to stop the cursed dithering and to act now, definitively, even regretfully, in order to have even a small chance at survival. That violence is the fuel behind natural selection; the first and the last impetus to throw the other guy before the threat and to grasp for whatever that other guy had been hording; the very reason why ones unique place may be acquired only in shedding someone else’s blood, or in compelling someone else’s trail of tears, or in dining on someone else’s hopes and dreams.
Massa Hannah, you best see now that your Papa was done in by the Man, and your house was done in by the Lord; Old Jumper whispers with the sagacity of a timeless teacher, while at the same time puffing hungrily on his joint. The Good Book says we must give Caesar what’s his and God what’s his, but ask any nigger and he’ll say there’s not a dime a difference. Don’t matter, ‘cause them Massas whip your back just the same. Long time ago, I was a boy, your age, and a lot like you. Back then they used to call us a Mama’s Nipple, ‘cause we be all full of baby’s milk, when them other boys are drinkin’ piss and blood. Just fools ‘cause we be thinkin’ that the hunt will pass us; leave us alone to play like the girls; when all along the hunt’s there in the shadows, just waitin’ its time to be jumpin’ on us, ‘cause we be not jumpin’ on it. Well, that was the day Sherman, the devil man, is passin’ his way to the sea. A Union man, the niggers say, here to kill the Massa, an’ burn his house, an’ open the gates to freedom. ‘Fore he is gone, he calls us in from the tobacco, an’ he shows us the open gate, nothin’ in front of us, but tobacco on fire, and Massa hangin’ from an oak tree with a rifle stuck in his butt. An’ he says that’s freedom out there. An’ I’m no better than a Mama’s Nipple, but I’m thinkin’ that freedom smells a lot like them hell fires. Most of them niggers walk out; nothin’ but the rags on their backs; not even all them shoes them Union men promise; but a few of us stay behind. So Sherman, the devil man, leaves for Georgia, but says Captain Johnson will be stayin’ back to watch the niggers that ain’t leavin’ for freedom. Now, Captain Johnson sings on the Lord’s Day, an’ we hear he’s the son of a preacher man in Massachusetts an’ fired up for the Lord. But when he talks on the Lord’s Day, ‘an he talks just like he’s full of the Spirit, he never talks ‘bout the Lord. Says a whole lot ‘bout Abolition and Abraham Lincoln, but says nothin’ makes sense. So we niggers, all twelve of us, like them Lord’s Disciples, we hear Captain Johnson’s gonna close down the tobacco and whip us into freedom. Just whip us ‘till we walk out that open gate. Now, we twelve be nothin’ but women, an’ old men, an’ myself, so they look to me. They say that here we’re slaves, but at least we have a place, a time to get up every morn, a tobacco to harvest, a place as much ours as the Massa’s even when he had ruled over us with his whip. But out there we’re just fools, Mama’s Nipples but without any Mamas, no place our own, no time in the morn we must get up, no tobacco waitin’ for our fingers to pull ‘em. Ain’t time for me to be a Mama’s Nipple, they say. An’ I want nothin’ to do with ‘em. Just leave me to my daydreams ‘neath the old oak tree, I say. But them niggers only laugh me to shame. So that night, I sneak into the shed and steal a bayonet the Massa had hidden there ‘fore Sherman came. I wait for Captain Johnson side his tent, ‘an when I hear him singin’ to Jesus ‘neath the silver moon, I jump out of the shadows, all hollerin’ like them Rebels we hear takin’ on Sherman ‘fore he arrived, ‘an I stab him in his belly. He falls back, ‘an I step on his bloody wound and stab him in his face and chest; more times than there are stars in the sky, I reckon; ‘an when the day breaks, an’ the others see what I’ve done, we all just lower our heads in thanksgiving to God and go to our chores. We never talk the whole day, like we’re the deacons in a church, an’ Captain Johnson is the body and the blood up on the Lord’s Table. But ‘fore the day is done, I shut the gate an’ throw away the key, leavin’ Captain Johnson to rot on a slab of stone near his tent, so he can tell us how much blood he shed so we could keep our place.
Old Jumper finishes his joint. He tosses his smoldering stub into the pot.
There is a lightning bolt that temporarily lights the inside of the shack. It is a soft blue tinted freeze frame that shows that, notwithstanding his sagacity, Old Jumper has enough tears streaming down his cheeks to call to mind Mama’s Nipple. It is as if the old man is still nine years old; still living on the plantation on which he had been born; still there, and ready as always, to butcher with an old bayonet the man who would give him his freedom and deny him his place; a moment in time that is his eternity; and a moment in time almost immediately drowned by the whip snap and the crackle of a rabid thunderbolt from his own, personal hell. It is a vicious and sudden end to a tale; and like the end of a life, its sad finality is incongruent with all that that life has unleashed into eternity.
Old Jumper scoots away from Hannah. He has said his piece. He has had his joint. He just hangs his head between his knees and breathes heavily, like a man trying to force a snore out of his gut in the hope that that will put him into the sleep he so craves. At the same time, he watches Hannah with an intensity; a sure focus of his crazy old mind; that is not likely to induce any kind of sleep.
Hannah steps out of the shack. He is sucking his thumb and sniffling still.
Nevertheless, he has a clarity of mind on what he has to do next that is a lot more mature than his years would suggest. He glances at Moses beneath the low hanging branch. His friend is in a deep sleep but otherwise remains unhurt, ready to hurl its demented growl another day, and living proof the demons that would presume to rob us of our own places on the plantation are not invincible.
* * *
Hannah knows where to go, but he does not know how to get there. If he tries to find the directions in his mind, burrowing his heavy brow in an effort to remember the last time he had been out there with his Papa, appealing to that compass in his head that has steered him well enough in the past, he is going to meander in frustration through the back woods and the lonely trails, until he is as much lost in body as he is in soul. But if he sets all that aside, and follows an ugly and mischievous whim crawling out from his heart, he is going to tap a tiny bit into the black magic that will steer him right on this stormy afternoon. The cold winds howl, not directions whispered into his ears, so much as an approval slapped against his wet skin. And the periodic lightning bursts do not brighten a path, so much as blast away those inhibitions that may have him scurrying back to the shack otherwise. The storm plays at his fears, like the maestro his piano; and so rather than paralyze him, his fears imprint tenacity to his fast steps and steeliness to his spine, like the maestro taking a jarring phrase of sound and, as subtly as his talent will allow, incorporating it seamlessly into a beautiful score of music. This is the fear of the inspired killer; the warrior moving beyond even his own considerable instincts to tap into the basest forces, fear, jealousy, and ultimately loathing of anything not yet torn out of the ground and swept to the fires, so as to be a weapon in the invisible hands of a primordial demon; and so this is the fear that blinds the soul from its moral lights, and breathes a kind of demented life into the death and destruction that that tired soul may wrought.
There is an ear-shattering clap of thunder following by the rumbling of a pair of indigenous bongo drums, and Hannah steps through a gnarled wall of old and sticky thorns. He is now on the side of the main highway leading out of the town; a stretch of greying asphalt not yet imprinted with a yellow median line; a storm ravaged path still exhibiting the grooves from covered wagon wheels; a trail of tears beneath the thinnest veneer of modern times that breaks through altogether when the traveller on foot or behind the wheel stumbles upon a sick mule dying on the shoulder or a black index finger carelessly dropped by an old game hunter returning with his bagged trophy. There is always a nightmare, an insipid tale, a tragic wail, along the long stretches and beyond the bends. Most often, these roadside reminders of the prince of this world cannot be seen with the naked eye; the blood long since washed away; the memorial cross torn into shreds by a wind tunnel; but usually they can be intuited in the icy shiver down a spine or the tired numbness in the back of the head. That intuited dread, just a momentary disquiet in most travelers, magnifies into unadulterated fear, the wellspring of suicidal self-loathing, when a storm sways the branches alongside the road, and bristles the asphalt pebbles on the surface, in such a manner and degree as to make that dead road appear alive. And thus Hannah imagines he is walking atop the skin of a long and winding snake, his destination the forbidden fruit, his eyes searching for that unbolted gate that leads back into Hell’s Eden.
He does not literally see a gate; but as night descends, and finally calms the storm, he makes out a solitary, red light in the distance. It is the womanish hue of a light softly bleeding through a torn curtain; too fragile to be much of a beacon; more like an alluring whisper through a veil; and like all the manners of the fairer sex as deceitful as straightforward and as deadly as vulnerable. In this light there is the softest insinuation of what it is like to romance the devil; and the extent to which such entices the wayward seaman to drop his anchor is as much a statement of what a man hopes to get from love, as what a woman is willing to offer; lies exchanged beneath white sheets; murders rendered in soft kisses; and everywhere the sweetest perfume masking the sick stench of death.
Hannah is drawn to the red light. It is snaking out from the attic window of a tall and imposing A-frame house along the side of the road. That is the one and only window above the first floor and thus appears as if the wide-open, red eye of a bewitched Cyclops. Behind this round window is a bordello red curtain, swaying in the cold breeze, and fluttering its tinsel like the dainty eyelashes of a debauched woman of the night. And behind this curtain is a vague shadow; an unmoved thought that seems to be the source of the motion everywhere else; a feminine form with loose and flowing hair haloed by the light of her own divine throne; and then, the moment passing, no more than a beautiful, sad woman in her attic window, staring into the dark night, and waiting for her time to come.
The A-frame is the infamous Texaco Gas and Grill; a Texaco Star sign on a tall pole not yet hooked up to the ‘lectric, so it is all but invisible after dusk; a couple of gas pumps beneath an overhang; and on the overhang a weathered, ugly sign: Trust your car…and your gut…to the man who wears the Texaco Star.
Just a typical country roadside, except that the large window beside the door leading into the diner is cluttered by political posters and Rebel flags; one Neanderthal shout of defiance after another; the most prominent a smiling and bespectacled image of President Truman overlaid by a red X and a caption that yells: Defeat the Nigger Loving Jew Haberdasher…Wake Up and Vote Dixiecrat.
Hannah pokes inside the diner. It is a small and dismal space made even more cramped by a mad assortment of mildewed round tables and patio chairs, a collage of KKK posters on the walls, and a cash register by the door that looks like it is being held together by wires and strings. The sawdust scattered across the warped floorboards seems to be speckled with spots of dried blood; and the gooey, purple smear stained into the countertop on the far side suggests a very horrendous murder scene that is never going to make the papers. Hunted game has to be bled and skinned somewhere, and so the Texaco Gas and Grill acts as a secret butcher shop as much as a family friendly hamburger joint, a greasy oil pit well down the highway to Hell, and just under the radar of J Edgar’s G-Men.
Hannah does not linger. The wiry proprietor in his work uniform is asleep at his own countertop; his grey lips kissing the purple smear; his arms sprawled forward, one clutching his shotgun, the other a bottle of Old Jack not officially sanctioned by the First Citizens of a Dry County. He is mumbling something sad, even pathetic, as he too is one of those nightmares littered along this highway; a nightmare that awakens every now and then to commit some grievous harm; but now no more than a drooling idiot lost in a dreamscape of his own creation.
Hannah steps away from the diner and looks up at the attic window. The regal apparition leans forward, pulls the curtain aside, and speaks down to him in a voice that seems as much born of the wind as carried by the wind. It is the buxom, red headed, scandalous Lana; but it is also a witch seducing out from a nine year old boy whatever scant trace of innocence may remain in his old soul.
Oh, sweet, little boy, Lana laughs. Have you ever seen how a wolf hunts?
Hannah is taken aback. He loves the sound of her voice, but somehow he knows that this is the kind of love that is wrong; deliciously sinful; born of sick, wretched, even perverse fornication; expressed in the writhing lusts he cannot yet understand, but which nevertheless draw him into the shadows of manhood a bit more with each passing day. It is as if he can feel hair growing on his skin, his penis stirring, his mouth watering, as he indulges the voice of the temptress in the rippling, low cut, red nightgown. He is not sure if he should be ashamed, happy, or just altogether frightened; and with the surge of heretofore unknown emotions raging like a wildfire out from his heart and through his veins, he has no real choice but to be as bewitched as a wet dog first hearing a thunder clap.
Lana can see his befuddlement; indeed, even more so, she can taste it in the cold breeze snapping up from the gravel driveway; and she tilts her head to the silver moon just breaching the horizon, as if offering a gesture of gratitude.
She does not smile, though, in spite of her lovely laugh. She is much too taken, even transfixed, in the grand and subtle energy born from a delicate ray of silver moonlight caressing her silken nightgown in an open window. She veils much with her mastery of the scandal; the boldness by which she turns heads in the town; the shyness by which she raises questions among the patrons; and no doubt she is doing a number on the boy beneath her haughty gaze; but truth be told, she too is relatively new to the ways of witches and wolves. And so all the energies that will become commonplace to her with time are now quivering the basest fears out from her own heart. Deny it so she may the single eye that she shares with the boy below has been born from their similar experiences of fear.
Lana steps back from the open window. The curtain flutters inward, as if it is trying to tear itself free from its own rod and to wrap snugly about her soft and sugar sweet body. Without her flowing hairs and nightgown there, the open window resembles an eye stripped of its pupil; a ghastly blindness staring into a severe and uncompromising night; a garish eyelash fluttering into its own skull; an omen of a witch and a wolf walking hand in hand to the lowest grave in hell.
Hannah does not notice that she has left. Lana seems to be everywhere; a cry in a gust of cold wind suddenly blasting against his backside; a ring of the gas pump bell behind him; a ghost quiver in the one light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the diner. She even seems to be floating in and out of the snores that he knows rationally are coming from the countertop but that he sees intuitively are gurgling up from beneath the earth. And she is also nowhere; just a fleeting flutter in a shadow that turns out to be a trick of a tortured imagination; just a severe hunger in the bowels that turns out to be satiated by the immediate and irrevocable embrace of manhood; so that Hannah wonders if his queer feelings, his sense of being caught up in a cyclone and of going nowhere simultaneously, are not entirely the result of his own imminent passage from a sissy boyhood to a cruel manhood; if she is not, somehow, a projection of his own desire; and if, like all women he suspects, she is or is not a witch only to the extent that such facilitates the deepest need and impulse of a man. Maybe she is led, more than she leads, and maybe the taming of the shrew is no more than a boy setting his childish discretion aside and embracing once and for all time his own manhood; a heady experience at first, like a boy first firing a rifle into the gut of another; but also, Hannah dimly suspects, an experience fraught with its own moral and ethical implications. Maybe the man who tames a shrew must lose his own soul.
Hannah cannot hold onto this thought very long. It is much too wise for a boy not yet ten years old; even more so, much too sad and sinister; and so he is left with nothing more than a vague sense that the path on which he is walking, certainly since he left the shack, but perhaps since he was born, is about to be much more dark and foreboding than even his nightmares have intimated. He is dimly aware that the path is about to turn sharply to the left and veer straight down a steep and slippery hill. Try as he may he cannot unearth any last bit of that childish enthusiasm he used to have for an adventure; not even a fragment of a memory of what it was like to have a bit of fun with the silly beasts lurking in dark shadows; not even those fading bits and pieces that he had been able to salvage of his life before the Bank Jew; so that he is left with no feature on his face, but a grim tenseness to his lips and a despairing, haunted look in his eyes.
Lana steps outside of the diner. She is careful to close the creaking door behind her as quietly as possible, lest Digger be disturbed from his sleep. She is not much more than a girl herself, sneaking out of the house long after curfew, and setting out to do something with a boy that she realizes is going to be bad, no, even more so, naughty, for which she and the boy will pay before the first, hazy rays of sunrise breach the horizon. Somehow, at this moment, she is even more beautiful precisely because she is a real girl, not just a figment inside the queer head of a would be man; a real girl with a hint still of the innocence that had once made her cheeks so plump and rosy; a real girl about to toss aside the last of what is decent for what writhes and slithers beneath the forbidden fruit.
She stands beside Hannah and strokes the top of his head. He nuzzles his right ear into her side. Together, they are the witch and the wolf; girl and boy; caressing one another for their battle ahead; standing near a rattling gas pump.
The wolf never kills its prey in the bush; Lana whispers after a long while and as another cold gust flutters her nightgown above her knees. It is enough at that moment that the prey be beaten; scared into paralysis; wounded in spirit; not able to offer any more resistance than a sad wail. The wolf drags its prey in its teeth back to its cave; and there, under the cover of darkness, it begins the long and beautiful process of tearing off its prey’s flesh, bit by bit, just a single vein snapping and bleeding out at a time. Oh, how its prey squirms, until finally there is not enough flesh and blood to contain its little prey soul. So, you see, a wolf does not hunt and devour. It stalks and murders. And in so doing, the wolf establishes itself in the pecking order of things. Do you want a home, a family, a place in this world? Then, take down whatever takes yours; drag it out of the bush and back to your secret altar; and smile when you rip its soul from its gut.
There is a scream in the air that splatters dew on their faces. Lana twirls and twists her lips into the barest semblance of a smile, as the moisture streaks down her cheeks. She takes a hold of Hannah’s right hand and pats it adoringly.
Come, little man, Lana whispers into his right ear. It is our time to stalk.
* * *
The witch and the wolf escape to the night. It is beckoning them; a Siren call in the cold gusts beating against their backsides; a seductive whisper, deep throated and molasses sweet, in how the low hanging branches of red oak trees along the way drag back and forth through the creamy mud earth at their thick roots; a barely perceptible kiss on their cheeks, though one that lingers, in how the silver moonlight intermittently breaks through the heavy leaves above them and catches up with their strides; and as they move deeper into the forest, off the highway, even avoiding the dirt trails that pass for county roads, it beckons them with all the subtlety of a demanding wench. Love begins in a glance, and there it remains for a while; but it ends with a full body embrace or a smack in the mouth, death or divorce, divine glory or demonic despair; and as the witch and the wolf lose more of themselves in the hunt, they are that much less able, or even willing, to try to decipher the one from the other. And so should there be any surprise that what is naughty feels some damned good? For that matter, is it not true that the good deed ends up being a pain in the ass? So let us set a sail to the winds, the witch and the wolf think, and leave the morals behind us.
Still, they must contain their flowing limbs and bestial chuckles; the girl and the boy unleashing their spirits in the witch and the wolf; the man and the woman nurturing their murderous rage in the same; if they are going to sustain any element of surprise. And so once they giggle themselves through the last of the foliage, and behold the ramshackle remains of what had been the very best of the antebellum mansions prior to the War of Northern Aggression, they tense their lips, squint their eyes, and crouch into the snarling and stooped likenesses of identical night predators. They hear nothing then, but the rapid fire beating of their own hearts, and the creaking of the porch floorboards in the cold wind gusts blowing in from the tobacco fields. They see nothing then, but the dismal façade of a Greek Revival home falling back to the earth one cracked and paint chipped column at a time, a Rebel flag snapping defiantly at half-mast, as if an ugly rage softens the sting of defeat, and a ghostly candlelight in the first floor study. They cannot see their prey; the sick gloom that veils the entire façade is so especially dark and menacing in the upper half that the several second floor windows appear as if smeared by a black cloud; but they know intuitively which window will lead to him and how they will get in there when their time is right.
In the meantime, they crouch closer to the first floor study window. The curtain is drawn, but the fabric is so threadbare they can observe easily enough Pastor Porkins. He is his usual unctuous pig self; his heaving chest and fat belly wrapped tightly in a white robe; a crimson red cross stitched into the robe over his heart; a leather bound black Bible gripped so hard by his sweaty, right hand that the cover is being squished into a taco. He is marching back and forth with all the agitation of Napoleon at Waterloo; mouthing the meandering and stuffy prose of his next fire and brimstone exhortation; and practicing each and every one of his pregnant pauses, fiery fist thrusts, and dramatic dried shit stuck in a cramped anus butt wiggles. He is as wet as a sweat hog; his juicy lips contorted into a creepy snarl; his eyes bulging out of their sockets; a melodramatic spasm of energy more appropriate to the last reel of The Birth of a Nation. Indeed, as he remains silent throughout his rehearsal, and as the putrid yellow candlelight mires the entire room in a sepia tone, he is a silent film caricature; a loony and demented Fatty Arbuckle, though without any of the humor that had permitted the real star eventual forgiveness by the public; an over the top villain masking his demon behind a starched, high collar and a holier than thou, bellicose face.
The witch and the wolf watch him dispassionately. He is not their target.
Eventually, the fever breaks; and the preacher man tosses his Bible onto the red cross painted on the top of his desk, fumbles with the white belt that is now dangling from the loops about his big waistline, and limps out of the study.
The witch and the wolf eye one another. The time for murder is at hand.
They skulk to the front of the mansion. The witch studies the scene; her lips twitching and her eyes darting in every direction, while a gurgling cauldron of cold air frizzles and snaps her red hair into the image of an orgasmic Gorgon; her body nevertheless centered and still, as she folds her soft hands before her buxom chest in the manner of a young sister in prayer. The wolf is a turmoil of itching nerves beside her; his lips snarling like a ravenous, rabid dog; his eyes a blank stare into the soul of darkness with which he identifies his own manhood; his feet stamping up and down in anticipation of the blood lusts to be satisfied.
The witch gestures toward an ancient red oak tree. They climb the wet, slimy bark; their inner thighs turning reddish brown, as they slide their genitals up the long and prickly tree; their faces blistered by jagged bumps on the way; their hairs drenched webs of twigs and sticks; so that when they reach the very highest branch, and start to edge out on that branch towards one of the second floor windows, they are slimed tree beasts with bloody lips and bloodshot eyes.
The witch twists a gnarled limb off of the branch. It is a bit larger than a baseball bat, rock hard, and frozen; and she has to bite her already injured lips to be able to hold onto her weapon. It has punctured her own hands so terribly a gooey stream of purple red blood is dripping down each of her shivering arms.
Another gust of wind flutters her nightgown above her waist, as the soft moonlight catches her in the darkness and gives her a transformative glow. She howls something that sounds like a cross between a whistle and a feline cry; an ugly, paralyzing, ear-piercing scream battering against the window; and with a tremendous exertion of agility and strength, she swings her limb into the glass, shattering the window at once, and blasting silver sparkling shards into a young child’s bedroom. Her howl transitions into a witch’s cackle, as she perceives in the silver moonlight the extent of the damage she causes in a moment of time.
She scoots into the bedroom. The wolf tries to emulate her mad scream, though his sounds more like the traditional howl of a wolf. He scoots in as well.
There is a pudgy boy in pajamas sitting upright in his bed and screaming.
The witch snatches him into her chest, muffling his nightmarish cry, and pressing the breath out of his lungs. She cuts her feet on the shards, and nearly slips to the floor at one point, but she is unfazed. Her adrenaline spike propels her out the bedroom door and down the dark and narrow hall toward the stairs.
The wolf follows her heel. His wild enthusiasm has been replaced by mad fear. He is afraid to be inside the belly of the beast; disoriented by the surreal, vague images and sounds; captured by the fog of a war as much in his own soul as in the events he has helped to perpetuate. He snarls as aggressively as ever, but in the back of his mind he senses that there is a leash around his own neck, that he is as much prey as predator, and that the sun will arise on his carcass in due time. By then, he will have been eaten alive; no more than a few scattered bones in the mud left behind; his fate the same as the piggy boy he has hunted.
Pastor Porkins stumbles out of the master bedroom. He is clad still in his white robe; the white belt still dangling loosely from his belt loops; and he has a lit candle in his sweaty, right hand. The wax is melting into his shaky fingers, and the light is imparting a sad haze upon his trembling face and heaving chest.
The wolf runs over to the preacher man and shoves the lit candle against his chest. The red cross over his heart erupts in flames, and he jumps backward in a spasm of fear and pain. The preacher man wants to scream, but his fat and sweaty throat has been so strangled by distress that he cannot even manage an ugly croak. He falls back into his bedroom and rolls on his rug like a pig in mud.
The witch drags the piggy boy down the staircase and out the front door.
The wolf stumbles down the creaky steps and strikes the right side of his forehead against an unseen obstruction. He nearly blacks out altogether at the bottom of the staircase, but he glimpses the witch’s red hair escaping into the forest beyond the reach of the moon. He pushes himself out the open door; and he wails like a wolf that has its paw caught in a trap as he scurries towards her.
* * *
Lana does not let go of the piggy boy, until she has reached the chicken coup on Hannah’s charred and fenced off farm. She then dumps him like a sack of potatoes and falls to her knees beside him in a fit of exhaustion and distress.
Hannah catches up to her. He is clutching at his chest and crying. All he wants to do is to curl into a hole somewhere and to suck his thumb, but he has neither the mind nor the physical control to raise his quivery thumb to his dried lips. And so he just stands near the sack of potatoes, and stares blankly at him.
No doubt, this is Abram, the son of the preacher man, the piggy boy with the cherubic face who is slated to succeed his father in the care of the faithful.
But there is something wrong. This boy seems so much smaller than that monster that had attacked Hannah at the chicken coup. This boy is weak, teary eyed, paralyzed not by any physical injury, but by a terrible fear twisting at his heart. Even worse, there is a naïve innocence in the boy’s eyes; a look that has no more manipulation in it than that of a baby in a crib recoiling from its initial interaction with the boogeyman; a look that has yet to be hardened by the kind of moral abandon that would allow for a boy to leap out from behind a tobacco stalk and to attack another; a look that has yet to be sculpted by a devil’s hand into a representation of wanton violence. The boy is afraid, but he has no trace of despair in his chaste soul; and that disturbs Hannah more than anything else.
Am I so sure he attacked me? Hannah ponders. Really, can I be so certain that this fat weakling beneath me is the devil’s imp? Doc said I just fell into the dirty chicken coup, and right now I cannot say for sure that he had been wrong.
Lana senses his uncertainty. She is still trying to catch what is left of her breath, but she manages anyway to talk to Hannah in a strong and sultry voice.
Finish the hunt, Lana taunts him in her sexiest bedroom voice. Finish the hunt ‘fore you lose your nerve, little man. Remember, you’re the wolf; and the wolf drips the blood of the innocent prey from its muzzle and down its chest. It keeps its place in the world, demands it, tramples the weak so that it is strong.
Hannah glances at her. He looks back at the terrified child, and he cries.
Every white man has his nigger. Every wolf has its prey. Finish the hunt, Lana excoriates Hannah with a viciousness no longer veiled by her sultry allure.
Hannah notes that the hens are clucking their beaks and fluttering their feathers furiously. Red is pacing impatiently at the rear of the chicken coup. In that cramped space full of chicken shit and spoiled eggs, there is a mad frenzy, like men of war psyching themselves for the assault, and a clear sense that the time is so near; the eyes determined; the beaks sharpened; the feathers flared.
Hannah stares down at his mangled hands; nothing but bleeding cuts and bark stains; and through the tears in his eyes he can see his Papa trembling like a washed up loser before his own judge and executioner. He wants to resist but is sure that it is futile. He wants to do what is right but is sure that he will lose his place in the world as a result; an unmarked grave in the Nigger Tombs; just one more anonymous ghost wail in a graveyard dedicated to life’s pitiful losers.
Finish the hunt, Lana screams like a bitchy little girl not getting her way. Finish the hunt, you goddamn, poor excuse for a white man, insipid, little cunt.
Hannah has never heard that last word before this moment, but it slices him like a knife. He breaks out from his paralysis and grabs a strong hold of the piggy boy’s cherubic face. He wipes away his blubbery tears with his other arm.
He kicks open the door to the chicken coup, while pulling the piggy boy’s upper lip and cheeks. He slumps his shoulders forward and heaves the boy onto the chicken shit floor. He swings back at the feathers in his face; and he jumps back outside the chicken coup, as if Christ Jesus coming down from his cross at the last moment. He shuts the door behind him, and he stares into the darkness that is stretching out in every direction from this one tiny point in the universe.
Lana grabs a hold of his shoulders, and she turns him around to eye what he has wrought. She will not let go, no matter how much he squirms, until he is as damned as the rest of the old white men who roam the darkness in search of their game. She chuckles into his ear, as she senses his skin grow cold and limp.
Red flutters onto the piggy boy’s chest; lets out a triumphant, loud crow that can be heard miles away; and starts to peck at the whimpering face under its beak. It is relentless; mechanically inhuman in how its sharp beak thrusts up and down; totally blank in its eyes; forever incapable of the slightest shreds of real empathy. It is puncturing skin, rupturing veins, chipping bones, and tossing off to the ravenous hens those specks of dirty flesh and blood able to be eaten.
Red works so quickly that it looks like a geyser of human meat is blasting out from inside a squirming face. The hens crowd about this geyser like starving fish competing for a chunk of bread thrown into a pond. But most frightening of all is the piggy boy. His arms and legs spasm involuntarily for a while; and then, all at once, they sink into the chicken shit, like deflated balloons. His drenched and mushy torso has been scarred by the scratchy feet of a remorseless rooster hell bent on desecrating what it has murdered. His skin is draped by the purple pool of blood that streams down from the pecked face and resembles a shroud.
Red avoids the eyes, so by the time the sun peeks over the horizon there is a pecked skull attached still to a piggy corpse staring blankly at the heavens. The hens have had their fill, so they are content to sleep beside the dead flesh. Red stands majestically on the compressed chest, turns to face the quiet dawn, and lets out another surly crow that can be heard miles away. There is a vague sadness; an anti-climatic malaise; a stillness that suggests the impotency of the black magic that had ruled the scene hours earlier. And so the corpse will fade away unnoticed, and the chickens will return to their lives, and the cloudy days of a short and dismal autumn will slip imperceptibly into the coldest of winters.
And Hannah will live out his years; a white man on his own acres; a place somewhere between the Negro and God that he can call all his own; and a soul living in the cold and achy frost that shivers the bones in the dead of the night.