Mavis does not notice any descent into absolute blackness, nor does she have any awareness of that absolute blackness brightening into an endless grey limbo. If there is any such transition, then she does not bother to pay even the slightest attention to it. She is too angry for some sort of ethereal light show. If she has her way, and at eighty-nine she is no longer willing not to have her way in most matters, then that phantom will be putting a bar of soap into his mouth for speaking to her in such a demeaning manner.
She opens her eyes, and sits up in her chair. It turns out the voice is not a phantom at all. It belongs to a man, who is standing inside of the living room, and staring at her with an expression that is equally confused and irate. He is a middle aged, pudgy, slovenly, white man (no surprise there). He sports a bushy and greying walrus mustache on his dumb face. It is the kind of facial hair that had been popular in the ‘old times,’ as Mavis would call the nineteenth century if ever asked to elaborate. His disheveled and sweaty clothes look decidedly to be ‘old time’ as well. He grips a whip coil in his right hand so tightly one would imagine it is a lifeline for him. He seems to have no mind for the rest of his old fashioned appearance. Indeed, he does not seem to have much of a mind at all.
You will not call me a nigger, white man, Mavis screams while bolting up from her chair and waving her right index finger towards him. I’m no goddamn ‘African American,’ but I ain’t nobody’s ‘nigger,’ either.
The man’s eyes shine red, like he is an incensed devil beast; but his lips open and shut, like a fish out of water. He is pissed, but also unable to devise a plan as to what to do next. He had figured his vocal command would be all that was necessary. Heck, he’d never had to do anything more than to yell a couple of words at a shiftless nigger back from where and when he came. So what’s so different since his cock tease daughter tossed him into the lake near his house? What’s with this uppity nigger speaking out of turn? Does the world turn upside down the moment you awaken from the fog on the other side of the River Styx?
So what’s with that whip in your right hand? Mavis asks him.
The man looks down. He seems to be genuinely surprised to see it.
I ain’t about to answer a damn nigger, the man snarls. So get on out.
Mavis ignores his order. She walks up to him, and touches the whip.
I want to know what you’re up to, Mavis says. Can’t be anything good.
The man is dumbfounded. He cannot imagine having this conversation. It had been easier for him to jettison that sophisticated, debonair, cigar smoking, ‘doctor’ alter ego, and to be once more the do-nothing, trust fund baby named Bertrand Spencer, than it is for him now to answer questions posed by a nigger.
Just leave me alone, the man mutters lamely, and turns away from her.
Mavis follows closely at his heels, as he stomps slowly and heavily up the staircase. She no longer smells Grace’s advanced decomposition. She does not hear the buzzing flies, either. The staircase creaks as always; but otherwise, it is as if she walking up the steps in an entirely different house. No, that’s really not right. Better to say that she is walking up the steps in an entirely different time. This is Grace’s lakeside chateau, but this is not 2014. Feels more like it is the mid-twentieth century. There is scant reason why she should think as such, since the chateau has not seen much change in its décor since about the era of the flapper girls. Still, Mavis notes privately that the automated stair lift is not at the top of the steps anymore, nor is there even a mechanism installed which would support a stair lift. So at the very least this is before Grace turned into a little, old lady; but Mavis’s intuition tells her that this is long before that time. The past definitely haunts the present. Indeed, the past predominantly defines the present, so that we can think of the present as little more than the sins and the failures from the past that have yet to be buried inside a grave somewhere.
Mavis briefly considers the possibility that she is having a dream. It is not possible after all that she could bolt up from her chair just now and confront a belligerent white man almost twice her size. Hadn’t she been nauseas and hard of breathing only a minute ago? Hadn’t she been so exhausted and confused she had to lean on Apollo, while he helped her to the chair? But now, she feels like a young and vibrant woman; to be exact, a nineteen year old girl with the flash and the stamina needed to work in a library all day and a whorehouse all night; a girl who has yet to walk up to a Studebaker on the side of the highway and to look upon the dashing and mysterious face of her beast husband. She feels like a girl on the cusp of womanhood. She could do just about anything, save up the cash needed to relocate to Chicago or to Harlem, find a man who’d really treat her right, have a good daughter she could keep and raise in a world freed from Jim Crow; or she could marry a madman with a hatchet, and become the blind, cantankerous woman she is.
Except that she is not truly that blind and cantankerous woman, which is another reason she suspects that she is dreaming. Rather than provide her a bit of sight, her Coke bottle glasses now make the world beyond the lenses appear blurry and out of focus. It is as if she is a person with 20/20 vision trying now to wear lenses that are meant for someone who is clinically blind.
Finally, and most importantly, time travel does not happen, except once in a while in dreams. If this feels like the mid-twentieth century, then it is only because she dreams it to be so.
Then, just as the pudgy man with the walrus mustache turns the knob on the door leading into the upstairs bedroom, Mavis senses that this is not at all a dream. She is a dead woman who has gone over to the other side. It turns out a person who has died is not nearly as uptight about her death as she had been in the years prior, when she fretted about dying, or when she feared those surreal premonitions of her own death that would hit her now and then. The dead may be uptight about unfinished business left over on the living side. The dead may want to comfort their grieving relatives by letting them know that they are just peachy over here; or the dead may want to get revenge on the SOB who’d done some harm to themselves or to a loved one; but as for death itself, the dead on the whole shrug it off as much ado about nothing.
At least, that is Mavis’s initial feeling on the matter. After all, now she is young and healthy. She thinks she can see just fine. She will know for sure just as soon as she takes off those ugly glasses. She is not sure why she simply does not remove them now. Perhaps, she is so used to not seeing she would be much too startled if suddenly the world in view became altogether clear and focused.
So if this is death, then indeed death is peachy. Or is it?
Mavis senses that something is terribly wrong the moment the man opens the creaky door and steps inside. She does not see or smell anything yet, but in this death world her intuition remains as sharp as ever. Being dead may not be an issue, but what the dead do to one another may be as unpredictable, and as crass, as what the living do. It seems that human nature survives the short trek across the River Styx. We do not cease to be who we are when we kick that old rowboat back out to the bloody river and face the endless wilderness before us.
Mavis wrings her hands nervously. She takes in a deep breath and follows the burly man into the bedroom.
She is taken aback by how dark it is in there. When she had stepped into this bedroom a few minutes ago, and had seen Grace’s bloated corpse upon the hospital bed, it had been around noon on a sunny day. Now, it is night; and the crack of thunder outside suggests that there is a great storm desecrating Crater Lake. Only a dim candlelight provides some light. The flame flutters within the breeze that is streaming in from outside. It may be snuffed out at any moment.
Of course, this is a different time, Mavis reminds herself.
Still, there is something about that blackness, and that storm outside on the lake, that suggests to Mavis that this is not a different time, so much as the end of time. Maybe this is not the end of time for all of creation; but it feels as if it is the end of time for Mavis and for whomever else is inside this dark room.
The burly man stomps over to the candle. He raises it from the top of an enormous piano. He walks over to the center of the room, and kneels down. As soon as he does so, Mavis sees a blurry image of an irate tigress. She steps back in fear, and then immediately the image changes to that of two or three ladies hogtied and muzzled together.
Mavis removes her Coke bottle glasses. She tosses them aside, and looks straight into the aggrieved eyes of her loving white sister, Grace.
Grace sees Mavis at the same time. She wants to warn Mavis to get away from this madman, but she cannot make a sound through the fabric stuck deep inside her mouth. She tries to squirm, but there is not enough slack in her rope.
Here’s your nigger friend, Gracie, the man says with a debauched grin on his face. For a nigger, she’s a looker; but she makes herself so goddamn ugly by talking out of turn. Ain’t nothing worse than a nigger with lip, wouldn’t you say Gracie? She may be your friend, but admit it. Isn’t this nigger as ugly as an ape?
The man puts the candle on the carpeted floor next to Grace. He squats, and bounces on his knees, in an apelike manner.
Grace ignores what he is saying. She just tries to speak to Mavis with her eyes. ‘Get out of here,’ her eyes say. ‘Get out of this room while you still can.’
I warned you not to call me a nigger, Mavis says angrily to the burly man.
The man stands up, and faces her down. His eyes glow red, but this time they are equally mad and frightened. He starts to uncoil his whip; but he moves his fingers in a slow and twitchy way, like he is unsure what he will do with the whip when it has been uncoiled.
I made a decision, Mavis says in a slow and steely whisper. I decided that I would act like God is on my side, even though I know He is long gone…
God ain’t sticking with no niggers, the man snarls.
And I decided I’d love, Mavis continues. ‘Cause I ain’t afraid when I love.
Sounds like nigger bullshit to me, the man smiles.
Maybe it is, Mavis says. But I was afraid when I gave up my girl; and I was afraid when I killed my husband; and I was afraid when I helped Grace kill that son of a bitch who took my daughter. Oh, I tried to hide my fear…
How’d you do that? The man feigns interest, while he slowly walks up to Mavis and begins to wrap the whip around her neck.
Mavis either does not notice what he is doing right now, or she does not care one way or another what he may do. She simply continues to look into her old and sad memories. The more she insists she is going to love the more those memories of when she gave up Abby, or when she bit down on George’s rod, or when she stood beside Grace in the Boss Man’s tenement apartment, seem very distant, if not altogether unreal. She had thought that she would want to grasp onto them. After all, they are her lowest points; and by holding onto what is so dark and low, she can punish herself for having had the temerity to want a life better than what a nigger is supposed to have. But now, she is unashamed that she’d wanted a better life for herself; and so she feels no distress that she is in the process of letting go of those old and sad memories. She will not forget the past, but she will relive the past only to the extent necessary to remind herself that the shit simply does not matter anymore.
I was afraid to be a mother, Mavis explains. So I hid my fear by acting as if I gave up my Abby just to make her life better. I was afraid George would kill me, so I hid my fear by smiling like a devil’s whore when I bit off his manhood…
The man winces when he hears that one. He continues to wrap that whip around Mavis’s neck, but the look on his face suggests he wishes he could be as far as possible from this mouthy nigger woman.
I was afraid the Boss Man would kill my Grace, if I allowed her to go out to his apartment by herself, Mavis continues. So I hid my fear by acting as if my conscience was against murdering the son of a bitch. Even before we burst into his place, I tried to reason Grace out of this deed, not because I had a problem with seeing him dead, but because I was afraid something bad would happen to her. Always lying to cover up fears, that is the story of my life; but I can’t love and lie, and I can’t love and be afraid. I let that damn Boss Man drag me all the way down here, ‘cause I didn’t love enough. I suspect Grace is all tied up now, ‘cause she didn’t love enough. No matter. That’s the past. Today, I’m a woman full of love, love for myself, love for God, and love for everyone else. So I ain’t afraid of you, and I surely ain’t afraid of your silly ass whip.
The man pulls at the whip, so that it will tighten about her thin neck. As he does so, though, he looks increasingly unsure, like a man who is in way over his head. He handles the whip with skittish fingers. His eyes dart away from her eyes, so that he looks like a boy who is about to be reprimanded by his mother.
Sure enough, ‘Mother Mavis’ reprimands him by directing all of the virile love in her soul towards him. She loves him. She wants the best for him. She is reprimanding him only to the extent that the sin in a man must be condemned, so that that man may be freed to pursue his better nature. She experiences the inner peace of knowing that she has no hidden agenda, that she is not trying to obtain some sort of tactical advantage, and that she is totally honest with who she is and what she is directing towards him. She has no fear. She is fully alive.
The man feels something. It is a twitchy, hot sensation that seems to be reverberating out from the handle of the whip. It is a bit creepy, but not nearly enough for him to decide whether he should drop the handle or keep on pulling it. He is paralyzed by this indecisiveness. He stares stupidly down at his fingers.
The whip handle pulses blood red. Now, the man wants to drop it to the floor and to run away; but he cannot do so. At first glance, he seems now to be holding onto that handle as firmly as he had been holding onto the coiled whip downstairs; but then it is clear that he is not gripping the handle at all. Rather, the handle has wrapped itself around his hand. It is pressing into his hand. The knuckles cave inward from the pressure. The fingers reach out and vibrate, like each finger is the forked tongue of an advancing snake. There is the sick sound of a bone crackling. None of this makes sense rationally, because ghosts should not have knuckles that can cave inward or bones that can crackle. There seems to be a physical aspect to the ‘second death.’ It is all the wrenching pain of the first death, except magnified exponentially by the realization that the end will not be the release of a momentary pain, but the annihilation of an eternal soul into the darkness that has neither beginning nor end. The rational mind cannot conceive any of this, but that does not make the pain any less real for the man.
The rest of the whip uncoils itself from Mavis’s neck. It is a snake. It has no mind, but to snap back at the man who is being eaten alive just then by the snake’s rattle. It snaps repeatedly against his anguished face, opening cracks in his face, splattering blood out from these new wounds, and kicking out shavings of bone and brain puss from his skull.
The man stumbles backward, while that rattle digs deeper into his hand, and that snake snaps every last bit of sin out from his bloody face. He screams, but the scream is cut off when he starts to choke on the blood that is streaming into his cavernous, twitching mouth.
There is a growling tigress where Grace and the others had been tied up. That tigress cannot go very far, as she is chained to the floor; but she need not go very far anyway. The man staggers back into her outstretched paws, and the tigress pulls him back. She holds him down, and tears into his neck. Warm, red blood geysers out from his throat, as the tigress chews deeper into his writhing, mutilated flesh. There is a glint of satisfaction in the eyes of the tigress; just a moment of intense hunger satiated; but then the tigress goes about her work of tearing apart his body with no more passion than a thoughtless machine. She is doing as she has been ordained to do; and when she is done chewing and licking away the sin from that man, there is nothing left, but several ribs and a spleen.
And also a burning cigar left on the carpet near Grace’s feet. The flame crackles briefly as if it is trying to steal a bit more life for itself from the stale, moldy oxygen in that bedroom. Then, with no fanfare, the flame just dies; and the old cigar is as dormant and cold as if it never had been lit in the first place.
* * *
Mavis had looked away when the tigress chewed open that man’s throat. She felt no satisfaction in the fact of that man’s ‘second death,’ even though in the back of her mind she knew that the cosmic scales had been tilted slightly in the direction of the good as a result of his annihilation. Any impartial observers at that moment might have regarded her as a saint. Mavis surely did not regard herself that way. She just had experienced too much violence, retribution, and insane rage for one lifetime. She knew in a way that only a victim of prolonged domestic abuse can know that in the end ‘an eye for an eye’ serves no purpose than to justify another round of beatings. There is no justice in revenge. There is justice only in beating swords into plowshares. Yes, she had learned that line in the Bible; but, really, she had internalized it in the course of her hard life as the wife of a madman with a hatchet and as a colored woman in the South. Her looking away had nothing to do with embracing sainthood. It had everything to do with being honest about who she is and how she wants to face a dark world. Facing by looking away; fighting by turning the other cheek; even with the final demise of this man she is still not sure that this approach to life will save her in the end. Perhaps it will hasten her fall into the frying pan reserved for the likes of colored women who bite off the cocks of their husbands and help their white sisters kills the kidnappers of their children. If so, then what can she do? This is God’s will; the same God who has abandoned her now; the same God who lends a deaf ear to the cries of poor and despised nigger women. But even if God has chosen the frying pan for her eternity, then that does not mean that she will be abandoning love and restraint in whatever time she has left.
Mavis looks back, when she no longer hears the tigress licking up the last of the man’s blood. She sees Grace in the candlelight. Grace is actually tied up to two other ladies; one a little girl about the same age her Abby had been the night the Boss Man took her; and one the same age as Grace and herself. So the three ladies here are the white side of a generational curse that has beaten the Spencers into the grave all these years. Mavis suspects that somewhere her own black relatives are tied up in much the same way.
Mavis rushes forward, and releases the three ladies. Grace embraces her the moment she can. The two of them sob uncontrollably in each other’s arms. The other white ladies, Abigail and Shirley, put their arms around each other’s backs and observe Mavis and Grace embrace from several feet away. All of this time, the candlelight flickers feebly by their feet, and sends up a dim light that makes all four of them look like exhausted ghosts fading in and out of darkness.
I thought I’d lost you, sister, Grace says when her tears finally subside.
I did, too, Mavis responds, while wiping her tears from her right cheek.
They stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, and then hug again, though at this time they do so without sobbing. The joyful tears have been spent for now.
That man had been my father; the other nineteen-year-old white woman says apologetically. On the other side his name had been Bertrand Spencer. I’m Abigail. I take it you and my granddaughter here had known one another in life.
Mavis moves over to Abigail, and they embrace one another. Then, Mavis and Abigail embrace Grace, while the little girl fidgets off to the side.
All three women notice her at the same time, but only Mavis scoots over to where she is. Mavis puts her arm around her, and looks deeply into her eyes.
What’s your name, sister? Mavis asks the trembling, little girl in her arm.
Shirley, the little girl whispers almost inaudibly. Shirley Temple.
Mavis smiles kindly. She remembers the precocious child movie star.
That is a good name, Mavis whispers back. Mine is Mavis.
Nice to meet you, Mavis, Shirley says with a relieved smile.
Grace scoots up to Mavis. Grace looks as deeply into Shirley’s face as she had when Shirley first arrived. She still sees what she observed then.
Can you see the resemblance? Grace whispers into Mavis’s ear.
Mavis turns to Grace. There are tears in Mavis’s eyes.
Of course, I can, sister, Mavis whispers. She’s as white as you and Abigail are; but use that eye that can view beyond race, and she is the mirror image of my daughter. Oh, how much our fates intertwine, like vines growing on a white picket fence.
Mavis stands up, and steps away from the others. She is deep in thought.
We all know the Boss Man, don’t we? Mavis asks them after a while.
The White Spencers remain on the floor. They all look down and squirm. Each of them feels ashamed, as if they alone had invited the Boss Man into this drama on account of some indiscretion that they had committed. Shirley has no reason to be ashamed, but even she feels the sting of sin. It had been passed to her from her father. While Abigail and Grace can conceptualize sin as some sort of moral failing, she sees it as something inherited, like that ‘original sin’ many pastors and theologians have denounced over the years. For Shirley, the actual punishment for sin is not the harm suffered by the sinner, but the fact that the price shall be borne by the innocent. Is this fair? No, it is not, which means the God of the Bible does not exist, or the God of the Bible only pretends to extend mercy. ‘Suffer the little children’ really means nothing, so far as Shirley knows.
Mavis can read all this in their subdued faces. She is pissed, not at them, but at a God who would let them suffer under the illusion that they are at fault in all that has happened here.
But we are at fault, Mavis thinks in the alternative. Except for Shirley, it is evident that at one point or another we all chose to abandon what we should have protected, or lied when we should have told the truth, or remained with a devil long after we knew that devil would only do us harm.
But what about Shirley? Mavis thinks further. For that matter what about my Abby? They never did a damn thing wrong. What type of a God really passes on the sins of the fathers to their innocent daughters? He says, ‘suffer the little children,’ but then He allows them to suffer through no fault of their own. This Boss Man fellow calls it ‘justice,’ like ‘justice’ is literally beating the brains out of an innocent because a woman way back when dared to go away to school, or dared to romp with someone out of her race, or dared to sneak off the Massa’s plantation when the bully overseer was too damn drunk to be paying attention. So somewhere along the line a woman’s uppity, and this means that Shirley and Abby need to suffer so? What a crock. I ain’t going to believe in a God that acts that way, and I ain’t going to suffer a ‘Boss Man’ that beats this ‘justice’ into a little child. Right now, this bullshit ends, or I’ll die again trying to make it end.
Listen to what I have to say, Mavis speaks after coming to terms with her own decision to confront the Boss Man. Except for the little children, we are all at fault for not loving enough. We were scared, when we just should have been brave. We were liars, when we just should have been honest. Okay, so we have got blood on our hands. But the real problem is that we did not invite this Boss Man into our lives. Oh, he wants us to think we did, so that we are half done in by our guilt. But the fact is he moved us, and we let him do it. He scared us all weak and stupid, and we let him scare us. He came at us with his big stick, and we practically gave him our heads, so that he’d have a clear shot. But even we women; we who have blood on our hands; we who handed over our babies; well we ain’t saints, that is true, but even we have the right to say, ‘we shall not be moved.’ Sure, that makes us uppity bitches; but really, when you think about it honestly, how can any mother protect her child from the wolves and the snakes out there, if she’s not an uppity bitch? How can she survive at all, if she’s not a goddamned cunt? We can’t live, unless we’re cursed. So be it. They say we’re a bunch of mouthy whores, so then open your legs. They say we’re murderers, so then hold your fingers up, so they can see the blood dripping down your hands. Just don’t let them move you no more. Don’t even let God move you, unless at first you said to yourself that you want to be moved by Him.
What are you saying? Grace asks, as she stands up and approaches Mavis.
I’m saying we all thought we were so strong and independent, Mavis says in a defiant tone. Giving up our babies, whoring with the wrong men, marching straight into a mob of kooks and racists; but we were being moved across a big chessboard the whole time. The Boss Man’s been moving us. I suspect the Massa who hired him in the first place has been moving him. And I know God’s sitting on His throne and moving all of us; maybe ‘cause He has a plan we can’t really understand; or maybe just for shits and giggles.
Grace looks down, when Mavis mentions God. Grace obviously accepts an afterlife now that she is living in it, but she accepts God as much as she does a flying, pink elephant. There is no omniscient deity watching over this drama for reasons we cannot really understand. There are just good and bad souls waging the same old war they have fought always with one another, and there are out of the way places to hide. It is ironic that Grace should think about where good people like herself and her sisters can hide.
Perhaps Alice had been right all along, Grace thinks. Perhaps I would’ve been happier if I’d embraced the life of a widow. Just hidden my life in all the pomp and circumstance of polite society…
Don’t look down, Mavis continues. You don’t believe in God, but He very much believes in you. Oh, He may not care enough to stand beside you. He may not even notice when the devil grabs a hold of your red hair and yanks you into his pit. Still, He believes in you, like a chess player believes in the pawn he just moves willy-nilly over his board.
Mavis looks at all three of the White Spencers. She raises her voice so as to emphasize her next comment.
Like I said, even when God tries to move us across that board, we’ve got to say, ‘we shall not be moved,’ Mavis concludes with a look in her eyes that is both loving and mad, as when a girl is first in love, or when an old lady dies.
So you’re staying here with us, Grace pleads.
Mavis turns to Grace. She puts her hands on Grace’s shoulders, and looks squarely into her eyes. She remembers when the roles had been reversed. That night, Grace had wanted to act, and Mavis had tried to keep her inside the bus.
‘We shall not be moved’ is not ‘we shall not move,’ Mavis answers.
You cannot defeat him, Grace whispers.
You’re right, Mavis whispers back, as she sways her right fingers through Grace’s red hair. I can’t do a damn thing.
Mavis turns abruptly on her heels, and leaves the bedroom. Grace at first is too stunned to move, but then she rushes after her. Abigail and Shirley walk hand in hand several paces behind Grace.
Please, don’t go out there, Grace pleads. You can’t survive.
Mavis stops at the front door. She turns and faces Grace, though it is too dark in the foyer for Mavis to be able to see her. She nevertheless can feel and smell Grace’s trembling breaths only inches from her face.
Grace, I love you, Mavis says. But I’m dead again, if I stay here with you.
Please, Grace cries.
Sister, I’ve been a nigger too many years, Mavis remarks. Invisible when I was alive. I’ll be damned, if I’m an invisible ghost in this house.
Mavis turns away. She opens the front door. She beholds the darkness of the night. It is an impenetrably thick darkness, and so there is no distant light on which she can focus her eyes to get any sense of perspective. She feels as if she is about to step over a cliff and to fall down an abyss.
Then, somewhere overhead, there is the crackle of thunder; and Mavis is able to see and to hear the rain that all along has been pounding upon the roof of the chateau. She had heard the thunder prior; but now with the rain beating down like a baton tapping quickly against a bare skull, this is her private storm. This is the insane fury awaiting her step into the darkness. This is the conniving beast hiding somewhere within the night for a chance to pounce upon her. This is what she is taking upon herself, so that she can be an uppity, old, black lady.
Mavis takes in a deep breath. She steps out into the torrential raindrops.
A howling wind slams the front door shut. Mavis is now completely alone.
Abigail and Shirley walk down to the foyer. They extend their arms, until they walk into Grace. They wrap their arms about her, and hold ever so tightly.
Grace is totally disconsolate, but she returns their hug. The three ladies huddle together beside the front door. They wait in silence and in fear for what may happen out there in that confused and brutal storm. They then would offer a prayer, if only to console themselves, but they know there is no God to listen to them. Indeed, there is nothing at all, but shivering shadows lost in the night.
* * *
Mavis does not stand in the rain very long. The raindrops smash into her flesh like falling bullets. Most of the wounds are no more than pockmarks upon her skin, but even these tingle like tiny fire pits and release smoke into the air. Some of the wounds break through the skin entirely, thereby exposing flesh and bone. Chunks of burning meat fly off her body and into the howling storm wind.
One burning meat chunk flies into her hair. It ignites the strands flowing over her upper back, so that as she runs for the dark trees small flames crackle away from her. From a distance this discharge looks like a fiery tail of a comet.
By the time she reaches the cover of an overhanging branch, the rain has burned away the skin over her right foot. Her bones there are exposed. Her left foot is not much better. There is just a raw, thin sheet of skin wrapped around her muscles and bones there. The skin looks as if it may crackle into pieces any moment. Portions of both her legs, and her torso, have been ripped open. Only her arms and neck are completely clothed by skin, though they have been very much pockmarked into ghoulish versions of what they had been seconds before.
Fortunately, Mavis cannot see her own face and back. Otherwise, all the mutilations from this storm would snap away what little sanity she has. Most of her back has been ripped into confetti shreds of flaming skin. Her spine arches out from behind these open wounds and looks like a bony snake slithering down from the back of her neck. Her face hangs heavily upon her skull, as if her face is in the early stages of melting off. Her eyes seem to be bulging out from their sockets, because the skin around her eyes has burned away completely. She is a hideous, black ghoul cowering under a tree branch and staring into the storm with scared, stupid eyes. She could be ‘missing link’ beast that has never been exposed before to rain, or she could be a creature in a nightmare that hides in the trees more so from debilitating fright than anger of what has assaulted her.
The overhanging branch is a blessing, but she knows that it is at best just a momentary respite. Some rain breaks through the leaves and pockmarks more of her raw skin. She will melt away her as assuredly as out there, though it will take considerably more time. Is Chinese water torture really better than being deluged by a waterfall? Mavis thinks not, so to the extent that this cover in fact is a blessing at all it is only because it affords her a bit of time to haul her mind back from the edge of madness. Mavis clears her mind, first by calming her fast and haggard breathing, and then by staring at her two knees, which are resting just below her chin. For all the flesh mutilation, she remains as flexible as she had been so many years ago. After all, at eighty-nine she could not sit upon the ground with her two knees bent up to her chin; but at nineteen she could do as much as she wanted to do physically. That self-awareness is enough to fight off the last traces of her panic, so that finally she can think about what to do next.
So this is justice, Mavis sighs. Striking me down with fire and brimstone, like I am a one-woman Sodom and Gomorrah. So be it. If the nigger’s a curse in the eyes of God, then I’ll be a curse. Still, I won’t be moved in such a way that I no longer love.
Mavis cannot see much beyond where she now hides, except when a long streak of lightning flashes through the moonless sky and radiates the night for a second or two. Then she manages to snatch bits and pieces about where she is; and as that lightning reoccurs, she is able to put enough puzzle pieces together to figure out that she is in a line of trees that descends down to the black lake.
She crawls from one overhanging branch to the next. The raindrops still penetrate the leaves now and then, so she discards chunks of burning meat and confetti skin shreds behind her.
At one point, her hair ignites again. She loses the rest of her pretty hair.
Mavis reaches the lake. She crouches beneath a swaying tree branch that hangs over the torrential cauldron of lake water. She feels like a girl, who has been crawling under the overflowing skirts of a line of mothers. These mothers are taking the brunt of the punishment; the punches from the inebriated, angry husbands; the kicks from the jealous boyfriends; the swings from the madman’s baton, so that she can stay in one piece. She imagines that the entire earth is a tribe of mothers, spanning the generations, some beautiful in appearance, and some altogether hideous, some white and privileged, and some despised nigger women, but all together taking the punches and the kicks from the Boss Man in the sky. Maybe, that Boss Man is working for the Massa of Massas, the Alpha and the Omega dude who sits in a rocking chair on His porch, smokes His cigars, sips His mint juleps, and watches over a plantation that stretches from one end of a fallen universe to another. Maybe, that Boss Man is a free agent as much in real rebellion against his own boss as he is against the rest of us. It does not matter, because the mothers will protect their children regardless from the old fire and brimstone routine. For that reason, the male half of the equation, and that will include God, of course, will never trust their loyalty to anyone, but to the tiny and weak ones they hide under their own skirts. They will hate them almost as much as they fear them, and so put them down as whores, or cunts, or bitches, or just plain, old wives. Mavis sees all this in an epiphany moment that startles her as much as it empowers her. She will face the enemy alone. Still, there is a dedicated tribe of womenfolk nurturing her body and soul for the ordeal ahead.
Then, she thinks about the tiny and weak one she hid under her muumuu all those months. George had rained down his terror, but she had kept Abby all safe and sound. That is, until Abby had been born; and then, because Mavis had been afraid and selfish, she stopped protecting her daughter. She gave her up, when there was another rainstorm round the bend.
Mavis wants to love. She wants to be brave. Nevertheless, as she recalls looking away, while the midwife left with her baby in her arms, she breaks into tears. She looks out at the rain, and thinks that it would be no loss at all, if she ran out into the fire and brimstone and allowed herself to be annihilated within seconds. She is not worthy of anything, she thinks; not even worthy of a chance of loving someone other than herself.
Mavis clenches her eyes shut, and beats at her breast. She lets her scary, half melted face sink into the mud beneath the overhanging branch. She wants to wallow in that mud, just lose what is left of her ugly face in the dirt and the grime, and then push herself out from this safe position. She wants to feel how her flesh burns, when the raindrops pour through the open wounds in her back and anus. Perhaps, if there is just an ounce of mercy in God’s mind, then He is going to spare her the long and torturous burn. Perhaps, she will be annihilated so quickly it will seem as if she never had marred the earth with her pitiful life.
She opens her eyes. She is about to jump into the rain, when she views a stage of sorts across the lake. There is a raging campfire over there covered by enough fallen branches not to be doused by the rain. The campfire elicits a dim light; but with everything else being so dark, that light illuminates more than it would seem capable of doing. Still, she cannot really make out that stage, until another lightning bolt snaps across the growling heavens.
She sees a Cyclops staring back at her. It is a menacing, radiant, red eye tearing into her soul. Then, with a subtle shift of her mind, it is an oval window in the attic of an A-frame building.
There is a banner hanging on the building just below the oval window. It is fluttering madly in the howling winds. The rain furthermore has smudged the lettering, so that at first glance it looks like an indiscriminate blood scrawl on a moving surface. Another lightning flash reveals the actual words that had been printed: Wake Up White Man! Eat that nigger, before he eats you.
Mavis opens her mouth like she wants to scream but cannot get anything up her throat. She clenches her hands into fists. She used to do the same just a second before George would hit her. She felt that by doing so the horrible bolts of pain from that first strike would be lessened somehow. It never appeared to make a difference, but she kept clenching her fists anyway, when she observed that looks in George’s eyes. Now, that banner feels like one of George’s strong, unrestrained smacks to her face. It hits her so hard she is blinded momentarily.
She darts her eyes away from the banner. She instead stares at what she first had thought was an outdoor stage. In fact, it is a makeshift gallows. It is a crude platform constructed quickly from the fallen trees nearby to lynch slaves who had run from their masters one too many times. The white devils built the gallows so as to make the hanging more ‘theatrical’ for the slaves compelled to watch. The old noose hanging from a tree limb just would not do apparently, so they’d force the slaves (including the captured slave destined for the noose) to build the gallows, hang the repeat offender, and then force the same slaves to tear it down. The purpose was not just to kill, but to pass on the fear of ‘white man’s justice’ from one generation of colored folk to the next. To that extent, the ‘theatrical’ nature of the hangings from gallows managed to work its poison into the generations, because Mavis is as frightened as if she were one of those slaves forced to build the damn thing.
There is a single noose hanging over the gallows. It sways in the rain and the wind. Mavis imagines that she hears the mildewed rope creaking every time a gust of wind pushes it side to side.
Lightning flashes again. Now, there are four nooses. Three of those four had been dropped already. There are corpses hanging from them: an old, black woman in an ‘old time’ dress and bonnet, like the slaves used to wear inside of the Massa’s house; a black woman in her late thirties in mid-twentieth century skirt and blouse that Mavis recognizes is her twin sister, Linda; and a black girl, so small and innocent, so much like an angel’s sweet face, notwithstanding the hellish campfire flames reflecting off of her serene pose, that Mavis recognizes to be her daughter, Abby. So these are the Black Spencers; their stiff bodies no more substantial than props swinging in the wind; their lives cut short by a mad Boss Man, so that in this dark and stormy afterlife they may be grotesque icons of this particular white devil’s justice. The fourth noose remains unused above the gallows. It is meant for Mavis of course, and it swings in the torrential wind as an invitation to come on over and to join the party, while the night is young.
Before Mavis can look away, she sees foliage off to the side shaking. It is much too controlled of a shake to be the result of the loud winds flowing every which way. There is a malevolent intelligence behind that foliage; a beast or a man doing something behind the veil of leaves and thorns; and Mavis senses the beast or the man is checking in on something he had stashed back there a while ago. There is no specific reason why she should think that way, except that the shaking seems vaguely suspicious, like when a man is checking in on a body that he had hidden away a long time ago and has to shake things around to get to it.
The overhanging branch touches the top of her scalded head. She winces from the burn pain up there, but is grateful just the same to be reminded that, indeed, the tree mouth still protects her. She is no longer contemplating what passes for ‘suicide’ in this afterlife. She is not even sad just then, even though she’d just seen her twin sister and her daughter swinging lifelessly from a slave gallows. Rather, she is determined to save the Black Spencers from this morbid fate just as she had saved the White Spencers from theirs, not because she is a hero, but because she is sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I gave you up once, Mavis screams out towards her dead daughter across that torrential lake. I’m not giving you up again…
But wait a minute, Mavis thinks. Isn’t this obviously a trap? Look how far it is to the other side of the lake. Even with my sight back, I should not be able to see much of anything over there without binoculars; and yet I see everything as if I am sitting in the front row of a play put on just for me. Isn’t this just the Boss Man luring me into his web? How do I know Linda and Abby are even there?
But all three of them are there. Mavis can feel them. Sure, this probably is a trap; but what is she to do when she sees what the Boss Man is doing to her own people? If she is going to love, then she must act, even if her first instinct is to hide. Jesus knew what awaited Him at Calvary, and yet in the end He took up His cross. Mavis must go to her own Calvary and hope her love triumphs over death. Perhaps, that kind of hope is foolhardy, but right now that is all she has.
* * *
You’re late, but I still have one more noose available, a male voice says.
Mavis intuits that this is the Boss Man’s voice from across the lake. It is a deep, guttural, demonic voice that could not possibly be heard from so far just now, except that it seems to be crawling up from a tomb inside her imagination as much as it is travelling through the rain and the wind. The voice is different than when she had seen and heard the Boss Man briefly in his tenement so long ago. It is a little closer to what she has heard in her nightmares since then, but even then it is different enough that she would never identify the voice as truly belonging to him but for her heightened intuition. Of course, rationally she also knows that no one else would be speaking to her just now in this storm; but her reason is secondary to her intuition in pretty much everything she does now.
The male voice chuckles madly. That is quite unlike the Boss Man, who is normally understated to the point of shyness. Indeed, most of the time that she has interacted with him in her nightmares, she has sensed that he is an exhaled breath and a shutting of the eyes away from death. Perhaps, he swings that big baton of his now and then, not just because he has made his personal pact with the devil and is thus long gone in sin, but because the violence pumps his juices just enough to keep him going for another generation or so.
Why is the Boss Man acting so out of character? Why does he chuckle like he is the one at the end of his rope, even while he is talking about putting that same rope around her neck? Perhaps time is winding down for him, rather than for Mavis. Perhaps this big storm is his last gasp, before his unnatural extension of life comes to an end. Perhaps his overtime is not being renewed, and he is in the process of seeing firsthand the deep grave that awaits those calculating law and hatchet men who would presume to supplant their own masters. After all, when all has been said and done, he is a man under orders, even if he wants to think of himself as the boss of his own fate. His orders are simple enough: neck stretch three generations of Black Spencers, just as he had allowed those three generations of White Spencers to be handed over to that lunatic tigress trainer, so that there is ‘justice’ for some transgression way back when. Maybe, if he is able to deliver his boss some of that perverse ‘justice,’ then he will be paid yet another extension of his miserable and lonely life wandering down the highway towards generations yet to be born. Certainly, there will be no extension at all, if he fails to get her neck into that noose, and then to pull the board under her feet. The devils may admire his psychopathic deviousness, but it is not as if the psychopathic deviant is a rare commodity in hell. If he cannot produce, then he can be replaced. There is no genuine job security in Hell’s laissez faire market.
So maybe the best thing to do is to wait here under this branch, until his time winds up completely. But that would be like Christ Jesus forsaking His own cross until the devil should happen to be annihilated by the passage of time. No doubt there is a hidden ‘game clock’ for everything that is created. Only God is eternal. Nevertheless, there would be something altogether wrong with making a conscious decision not to defeat the devil and instead relying on his own little ‘game clock’ to wind down. The devil must be defeated, so that it is clear that goodness actually prevails over evil.
Moreover, Mavis senses that unless the Boss Man is actually defeated in a confrontation, he will take his ill gotten gains with him into his eternal grave in due time, even if in this ‘second death’ he will have no real consciousness with which to get some sort of perverse joy out of having these others souls down in the pit with him. In the end, evil is mad, craving spite. It hurts just to hurt, no matter that it can no longer get any satisfaction whatsoever from the raw pain.
Mavis knows this from her own experience. She had seen within George’s eyes how he no longer got any real pleasure from beating her so. If George had managed to kill Abby, and later to kill her, then he would not have gotten any pleasure from that bloodshed, either. His life would have seeped out of his soul long before that hangman finally got around to securing a noose about his neck.
And yet George would have kept on beating her anyway. There is a cold, heartless logic that prevails in Hell: Keep doing what you’re doing, even if you no longer get any pleasure out of it, simply because you can. Abstaining is truly for pussies; and no one wants to be a pussy in the hell they have created out of whole cloth for themselves, least of all a tall, thin, young, vaguely effeminate man like that Boss Man. If any male frets about his ‘pussification,’ then it is he.
Mavis looks across the lake at the stage that seems closer than it can be.
She no longer sees the three Black Spencers swaying in the wind. Instead she sees the single noose hanging over the gallows. It is directly below the red, glaring, Cyclops eye in the A-frame house behind it. It could be a teardrop from that eye, just as the gallows platform itself could be tense lips below that eye. The overall suggestion is a blank, white face barely concealing the generational blood hatred just inside its thin skin.
As anticipated, the Boss Man steps out from the foliage. He looks small, almost inconsequential, in comparison to this imaginary, large face behind him.
Mavis thinks of the Professor in the Wizard of Oz. It is as if he has walked out from behind his curtain and is now standing in front of the enormous, scary Oz. The Professor is the man pulling the levers, or is he? When standing in front of the glaring face, he looks like a man more controlled than controlling. Surely he pulls the levers, but from this vantage point Oz seems quite capable without the Professor’s intercession. Perhaps that is the deeper reality here. Perhaps at one point the Boss Man had been his boss of his own fate; but now, he is a slave like everyone else to the hell that he had helped to unleash way back when. He may stand tall and stroke his baton, but he is really a Howdy Doody on a string.
Don’t get all uppity with your thinking, nigger, the Boss Man responds to Mavis’s reading of the situation before her. I’m not about to fall into any grave.
But does he not boast too much? Mavis thinks so.
What it all comes down to is this, the Boss Man continues. Either you die out there in the rain, slowly burning to death one raindrop at a time, or you die up here on my gallows next to your twin sister and daughter. Even a silly nigger woman can tell which death is better.
The Boss Man chuckles again, but this time his maniacal laugh sounds dry and haggard. He tries to stand tall and proud beside his gallows, but he feels to Mavis anyway like a little boy, who is anxious about the beating he will get if in the very near future he does not give the boss what the boss wants. Mavis looks carefully at his flesh. He seems even skinnier than a moment prior, if that is at all possible. His black pants seem to hang loosely from his waist. His baton just swings in the wind on his belt like he is too weak to restrain his beast anymore.
Not much time left, before he’s gone, and Linda and Abby are gone with him, Mavis mutters.
Plenty of time for me, the Boss Man replies to her in a gravelly dry voice that is almost impossible to understand. Not much time for you out in that rain.
* * *
Mavis looks at the lake. It had been a dark, thick, gurgling mass; but now that she focuses much more on what is between her and her twin sister and her daughter, she sees that it is actually a deep burgundy red. She imagines a thick menstrual flow from the roots of the mother trees now protecting her from the fire and brimstone. There is even the faint odor of a woman’s period in the air.
She sees a pier nearby, but there is no rowboat tied to it. Apparently, in the primordial past, the fates had decided that she should swim across the lake at this moment. That is actually a blessing. She remembers that she had been a good swimmer when she was nineteen, and the lake surface will be able to give her some protection from the raindrops.
She pushes herself into the lake. As expected, the rain eviscerates what little marred skin remains on her scalp and back. She is an exposed skeleton on her backside all the way down to her legs. The scalding pain is so horrendous it very nearly paralyzes her, but somehow she manages to drop her head into the lake and to beast stroke the rest of her mutilated body underwater.
There is not enough light for her to view the raindrops battering into the lake surface above her, but she hears what sounds like rapid fire bullets only a few inches above her head. It is a deafening roar, but it is also the sound of the mad storm chuckling at her.
You can’t hide for long; the raindrops tease her. You may be dead in the other world, but here you need to breathe the air we are willing to give you. So what is going to happen when you poke your head up for a breath? Maybe, we’ll burn your face off; or maybe, just your nose and mouth, so you cannot breathe or talk. You’ll be a mouthy ape nigger without her big chimp lips.
Mavis tries to ignore the vitriol, but it pounds into her head like nails. All at once she wonders if it had been a mistake to jump into the lake. She has not been underwater more than ten seconds, and yet already she focuses her mind on what to do when she needs to breathe again. She feels a nervous fear in her bowels that could erupt into hyperventilation at any moment. Then, she will be inhaling the sooty lake water, or she will be bouncing up to the air above to get another dose of fire and brimstone.
Got to keep going, Mavis thinks, as she breaststrokes herself deeper into the abyss. Can’t let the Boss Man play with my head. He’s the one at the end of his rope, not me, and don’t you ever forget that.
Eventually, she swims far enough down that she barely hears the rain on the surface. The water itself seems less sooty, even though the opposite should be the case. She feels a quiet peace that soothes her limbs, so that her strokes almost feel effortless. She loses her sense of time and for a while forgets she is going to have to go back up for air sometime.
Then, something remarkable happens. The soot clears to such an extent that she feels like she is swimming through a bright and cloudless sky. There is a light source from down below that illuminates the water into an endless, soft oasis. Mavis has the distinct impression that she is swimming into a memory, an actual moment in time captured forever in the airy twilight between conscious, waking thought and dreams. She is swimming down to a particular point within a memory landscape that stretches eternally in all directions.
She would feel indecent, like she is a ‘Peeping Tom’ observing a moment in time that had belonged to someone else, except that she senses that this is a memory of an event that had set into motion all the travails that have afflicted her own life. Furthermore, she observes that this dream landscape seems to be materializing out from the burgundy red water, like a message imparted from a mother to her tiny daughter in a menstrual flow. Therefore, she is not about to eavesdrop on a scene not meant for her to know, but rather to watch what the lake mother has chosen to unveil to her. Just as the trees had sought to protect her from the torrential rain, so is the lake evidently imparting a memory that is going to help her in confronting the Boss Man. All the memories lost when going over the River Styx end up in lakes such as this one. The lakes may unveil what they choose, so who is Mavis Spencer to deny the key memory offered unto her?
As Mavis descends further, she sees a barren landscape. The sun shines a bit too brightly over the deadness, like it is literally trying to scorch away what evils had been perpetrated upon this very soil only hours or days before. This is a place best forgotten; and indeed, many years later, nature will do her part to eradicate the memory of this place by changing the terrain through erosion and foliage growth. Man himself will do his part in eliminating the black memory by paving over this very spot with an interstate. Nevertheless, at this time there is nothing to ameliorate the sting of what a person is capable of doing to another.
The terrain is marked here and there by the blood drenched soot and the craggy, misshapen, concave scars from discharged cannonballs. The armies do a decent job in removing their respective dead. There are the military honors to be performed, and the wives to be notified of their widowhood; but still, there are decapitated heads and torn off limbs that never make it into the old, horse drawn carriage. Mavis winces whenever she observes one of those young, white faces staring up at her with burnt out eye sockets or half closed, dead eyes. So much potential reduced to a corpse with a questioning stare in his dead face, a look that asks everything that soars overhead, ‘Are you the angel now come for my soul? Or should I continue to look for another, until I have decayed to dust?’
There is only one tree in the area that had not been felled by artillery. It is an old, diseased, oak tree with spindly, malformed limbs. The tree looks like a person in the last stages of muscular dystrophy; its top half hunched; its ugly limbs bent erratically; its bark pockmarked by hardened puss. There is only one branch that seems strong enough to carry a load, and even it sags downward at several points along its reach.
There is a slave woman hanging from that branch. Mavis realizes that she is the same woman in ‘old time’ dress and bonnet that had been swinging from the gallows beside Linda and Abby. Her weathered face had never been all that attractive, but now it is a contorted, snarling, droopy eyed beast on account of the noose. There is a hot breeze that swings her corpse gently. The rope creaks like an old door hinge every time she sways side to side. She could be a charred and disfigured pendulum in a grandfather clock, though instead of tolling every quarter hour she creaks about every half minute.
In the background, and at a higher elevation, there is a cannon pointing towards her. From Mavis’s vantage point, it is a dark and senseless Cyclops eye; and the rope from which the woman hangs could be the teardrop from this eye.
There is a campfire not too far from that dead slave woman’s bare feet. The flames crackle noisily in the otherwise silent air. Now and then, the flames shoot up as if in response to a witch’s herb thrown into the faggots. Given that it is a hot afternoon the campfire is a most improbable addition into this scene.
It is improbable until one observes that tall, thin, young, white man with the short haircut and the scarred chin, who is crouching before this hell pit and staring blankly into the strange forms he sees in the flames. Apparently, for the bounty hunter, the campfire is not about warmth, so much as it is about focus. He stares into the spooky flames whenever he tries to concentrate his thoughts into coherent action. This ritual is usually the calm before he unleashes his sick and twisted rage, sometimes upon a hapless white man, but usually upon those slaves that he is hired to find and to return to their chains. He has been injured by his own rage almost as much as he has injured or killed others. After all, the masters who employ him do not want dead slaves. Therefore, most often, he is staring into the flames in an effort to dissuade himself from killing the good for nothing nigger. Sometimes, he just restrains himself. Other times, he does not.
Today, he did not. Ida had been a real pain in the neck in comparison to the other Spencer slaves for some time. He had had to fetch her several times, and each time she had gotten further away from the plantation. This time he’d found her just before she managed to seek refuge with General Sherman’s men on the way to Atlanta.
God only knows why the old man doesn’t just let this bitch go, he would think repeatedly, as he pursued her into territory that had been just retaken by Lincoln’s horde. Rumor is that she’s his wench. She is damn ugly to be a whore.
Ugly and troublesome, fit only for the rope, he had thought when finally he had caught up with her on this dead battlefield.
And so, impulsively, he had snatched her from behind and had strung her high. That had been a few hours ago, before the sun really got hot, and now he is staring into his campfire and wondering how the hell he is going to tell Massa Spencer that from now on his wench is going to be a dead fuck.
You’ll be up here too ‘fore long; a gravelly witch’s voice speaks out from the dead face of Ida the Nigger Wench.
The unanticipated voice startles the man. He jolts back from the flames.
He glances over at the contorted corpse hanging from the tree limb just a few feet away. The sun is directly behind Ida’s head. As a result, the sunrays creep out from behind her head and body, and thus give her the appearance of having a halo. The sun also blinds him to her actual face, so that she looks like a blank, black slate from which his thoughts and fears can bounce back to him. He has a vague sense that this is what hell is: Every other creature down there is no more than a blank and empty mirror for ones own personality, which is an earnest narcissist’s dream, of course, until enough time in this state passes for him first to get lonely, then to endure despair, and finally to slide into the self-cannibalizing madness that is the ultimate end of narcissism.
Better to get out of his own head, than to sense the hell that is starting to set up shop in there. Thus, the man shuts out the idea that this is some sort of self-conversation, perhaps instigated by the heat of the flames on a hot and muggy afternoon, and instead insists that Ida the Nigger Wench is really talking to him. At least, if he accepts that there is a ghost speaking into his mind, then he need not feel the absolute loneliness that comes from being shut in himself.
Shut up, nigger, the man barks back.
Good, the man thinks. That’ll establish that I am here, and she is there, and this is not some sort of disease in my own head.
Don’t work no more, Ida responds with a knowing chuckle. You can name me ‘worm food’ or ‘maggot chow’ if you want, but ‘nigger’ don’t matter when I ain’t on no man’s plantation no more.
What makes you think you’re free? The man asks, as he gets up from the ground, and walks over to her blank face. If you’re so free, then get down from that rope, and walk away.
I kind of like it up here, Ida responds. You can worship me, like I’m right there on the cross. They can worship you too, when you’re swinging in the wind from Massa’s oak tree back home.
Shut up, nigger, the man snarls. You ain’t talking sense.
If you’re free, then why don’t you walk away? Ida asks with another soft chuckle that absolutely infuriates the man.
I told you to shut up, the man screams, and then pushes the stiff corpse.
Ida swings back and forth like she is standing upon an invisible swing set. The rope creaks loudly, and starts to fray. The winds pushes against her corpse at one point, and she twists counter-clockwise several times. Then, she rotates back to her starting position. The noose must have tightened considerably then since the man hears crackling bones and snapping muscles, as she rotates back.
Ida stops speaking for a while. The man steps back. He pays no attention to the campfire and is singed briefly by the flames behind him.
Get used to it, Ida screeches in a voice that could reflect both deep pain and crazed laughter at the same time. ‘Cause after you’re up here, running on the wind a moment, then you’ll be just another twisted neck and stiff dick that is swinging side to side. There ain’t nothing left for you, but the hot, trash fire.
I ain’t gonna die like some damned nigger, the man says unconvincingly, while staring down into the campfire.
But of course he will, and he knows it. Once Massa Spencer discovers his favorite slave has been strung high, he will send out his posse for the mercurial bounty hunter. The young man will run; maybe even all the way out to the gold mines in California or the tequila saloons in Mexico; but one of these days that price on his head will be paid. Somebody will shoot him in the back; maybe just as he is leaving a whorehouse or a saloon with no cares in the world; and go on to mail his severed head to Massa Spencer or his heir. That’s the proof required to collect the loot. His head will be a trophy on the wall alongside a big, stupid buffalo with glass eyes. If this ain’t a dumb nigger’s fate, then what the hell is?
Ida is laughing at him again. The man is royally pissed to be startled out of his doldrums a moment. He unclips the baton hanging from his belt, and just stares at the blank form illuminated from behind by the sun. He is thinking only about which part of her stiff corpse he will strike first. Perhaps, he should start with the mouth, even though right now he cannot very well see it, since that is the nigger face anus through which she is laughing at him now. Or perhaps, just to be on the safe side, he should strike repeatedly at her cunt, so that she does not give birth to any more mouthy slaves. It is a documented fact that coloreds can give birth years after they’ve been dead and buried. Those snaggletoothed, black eyed, tar babies literally gnaw themselves out from their mamas’ coffins, up the six feet of dirt, and into the swamps. The man has heard this story since he was a pup himself; and if it is true about any nigger, then it will be true for Ida, who has demonstrated an uncanny ability over the years to do whatever in the end she wants to do. He knows Ida well enough to figure that if she desires anything more than her actual freedom, then it is to curse he and his boss with as many generations of Nigger Spencers as she can squeeze out from her womb.
His eyes dart over to her breasts. They still look mighty plump and juicy for an old hag. Best to start there, so that she cannot nurse any tar babies that she may squeeze into her dark and moldy coffin. Let them die from starvation, before they can chew through the thin wood between themselves and freedom.
He grasps his baton tightly in his right hand. He taps it into his left hand.
He walks up to the corpse. He stares at her breasts, and licks eagerly his chapped lips. Just as he lifts his baton above his head in order to strike it down against her, he observes something wiggling in between her breasts. At first he thinks it may be a last breath still quivering up from her lungs. Too many hours have passed, though, since her neck stretched for there to be still air inside her lungs. Also, the quiver is not rising into her throat, but remaining right where it is. Given the location he thinks it may be a sick, sexual enticement on her part.
Wanna reach in, and take a look? Ida asks in a seductive ‘fuck me’ voice.
The man drops his baton by his side. He is startled as much by her young and sexy voice, which is so very different from that gravelly witch’s caw he had heard before, as by the mysterious quivering thing in between her firm breasts.
Go on and see for yourself why I’m the Massa’s favorite, Ida entices him.
The man could break away at that moment, but he caves to the passions gnawing at his heart just then. He really wants to see for himself what actually makes Ida so special in Massa’s eyes. He really wants a slice of her black magic.
He looks like a scared boy reaching his hand into the cookie jar. He darts his eyes every which way to make sure no one can see him, but of course there is no one else around, but fallen soldiers. When he is sure the coast is clear, he slides his right index finger and thumb down her dress.
He removes a crass, wood figurine. It looks like something a drunk Indian might sell from a roadside stand; a cheap souvenir a soldier might purchase for his wife while patrolling the western territories; or maybe a trinket he’d taken from a whore, so as to remember his one time experience with ‘native love.’ It is no surprise to him that this dead slave has it. Niggers are compulsive stealers and would stoop even to rob a pitiful Indian of his last trinkets, the man thinks.
He holds the figurine closer to his eyes. The carved, wood face looks like a crass facsimile of his own. So Ida did not steal this from some Indian. Indeed, she carved it herself, based on having seen his face over the past several years.
The man almost tosses it to the ground, when suddenly he sees how the torso breathes and the limbs wiggle. It could be a toy made from springs, but it no longer feels like wood at all. It feels organic, a tiny, warm body in his hand, or more so like a hairless baby rat just learning how to wiggle in the real world.
The man screams. He drops the figurine to the ground, and staggers back a few steps. He clutches at his heart so as to be certain that it is still pumping. It takes every last bit of his will neither to hyperventilate nor to pass out then.
You give up on yourself so fast, Ida teases him, and then chuckles madly.
The man sits on the ground near the campfire. He watches that damned figurine wiggling through the dirt like some sort of creepy crawler from Hell. It just terrifies him, and yet at the same time he does not want to lose sight of it.
What is it? The man speaks in a frightened and almost inaudible whisper.
Yourself in God’s eyes, Ida responds. You can keep it yourself. God don’t want it no more. Keep it, and you’re both the Massa and the slave of yourself, I reckon. A big plantation reduced to the life of one man, that’s what you desire most, is it not? Never die, unless you choose to whip yourself on the wood post. Never judged, except by your own definition of justice. Pretty good life, if you can keep a hold of yourself, and not lose what you hold most dear…
Lose what I hold most dear, the man whispers, as he sees that the small, wood figurine is about to wiggle under a bush.
He licks his lips like a hungry beast. He eyes the figurine covetously, and then leaps forward to grab it before it is lost from his sight. He stuffs it into his shirt. It wiggles down his chest, and he feels a firm erection inside his trousers.
Maintain justice, and you maintain your own life, Ida remarks.
The voice no longer sounds like Ida’s, though; and the spoken words are too sophisticated to be coming out of the mouth of an uneducated slave woman hanging from a tree. The man must accept that this conversation is in his head, where madness reigns just beneath a thin veil. But so what? Why be afraid of a little repartee with oneself? Sure, that may be the first step down the primrose path to narcissistic self-cannibalism, and all that jazz; but none of that is going to happen, if he can keep himself from dying in the first place. The dead go to Hell. The undead keep walking down the highway in command of whatever soft delusions they choose to retain in front of their eyes; and so long as that is the case, everyone else’s head will be cracked open by his baton, before he begins to feel even the first subtle hints of his own mortality. Perhaps, this is not then the life of a saint; but, really, who wants to spend eternity singing tired hymns at the foot of God’s throne? Is it not better, more manly, frankly more overtly, domineeringly heterosexual, to be a bounty hunter swinging his big, thick baton for justice? The devil’s boy may be damned, but at least he grabs a lot of those uppity white whores and mouthy niggers before he falls into his queer madness. Even then, unlike those saints, he does not die, at least not in his own mind. In his mind, he remains a hard killer plodding proudly into his own private sunset.
As much as he enjoys feeling the figurine wiggle down his torso, he does not want to have an erection in front of this dead slave woman. No one appears to be around, except the blasted remains of dead soldiers. But what if they see him? And what if they start to laugh at him in that peculiar way that only dead people laugh? He is usually a poker face, but if that were to happen then likely he would start to blush like a weak girl. Better to remove the figurine now, but to keep it inside something that will remain close to him over the untold years. The figurine will be his one travelling companion, his private buddy on the long road, but it need not be so close that he walks about with a boner all the time.
The man walks back to the foliage behind which he had hidden his small bag and keepsakes. He puts the figurine inside of a cigar case. He imagines the cigar case is a kind of coffin for the little guy; but it is a coffin that will not be buried, so long as he continues to maintain justice over the untold generations.
That night, while the man rests beside his campfire, and Ida continues to swing in the gathering winds, a man steps out from the shadows. He is a drunk, old fool with a pistol; but the man recognizes him at once as one of the Massa’s hatchet men. He must have been following him all this time to make certain he did not kill or injure the Massa’s property. Now that he has seen what the man did with Ida he intends to kill the man in order to remain in the Massa’s graces.
There are no words spoken. The man intuits this all within the seconds it takes for the intruder to fire a bullet into his forehead. The man falls backward and slams the back of his head into a rock. There is a trickle of blood from that wound, but surprisingly no blood slithers out from the ‘third eye’ above his fine nose. He is dead, though. The intruder can see as much when he stands a while over his still corpse. He is dead still when the intruder leaves with Ida’s corpse.
And then, with a startled gasp of air, and a wink of his ‘third eye,’ he is not dead anymore. He is not really alive, either. He is the undead, and he has a long road to travel. He must get on his way soon, before the future generations manage to get out from the ‘justice’ that he intends to impose upon them. Just before he leaves, though, he is careful to gather up his few things, to see again that the figurine is safe inside his cigar box, and to see in his hand held mirror that the gunshot wound in his forehead has healed. After all, it is one thing for him to be a modern day Cain wandering the outback. It is quite another for him to be sporting an open gunshot wound in his forehead when he happens upon a passerby. Fortunately, the wound heals completely just as the very first hint of dawn may be felt overhead. He is finally on his way as the sun greets the earth.
The image disperses as the man wanders away. Mavis again realizes that she is deep underwater and that some time has passed since she last inhaled. It is imperative that she do so now, even though she knows that the raindrops up there most likely will scorch the rest of her drooping face when she resurfaces. She fears that likelihood, but she knows that death by drowning is a certainty if she remains under the surface. Thus, with a heavy heart, she breaststrokes now towards the top. She winces as she hears the fast raindrops and smells the fire.
* * *
Mavis breaks through the surface. As anticipated, her entire face burns; and she screams out in pain before she can take in any air. She cannot see as a result of the smoke billowing up from her own face. She tries to keep her arms, neck, and torso underwater; but instinctively, her fingers spring up to grasp at her face. Her fingers erupt into flames, so that from a distance she resembles a wild configuration of candles bobbing erratically on the top of a blood red lake.
She is about to lose consciousness when she feels something tugging and scratching at her left armpit. She has no idea what may be reaching for her, or even if this is a figment of her imagination; but regardless, she is startled back into consciousness. She drops her face into the water. The fires on her face are doused almost immediately, but she senses that there is now considerably more skull than skin above her chin. What little skin remains is peeling off in confetti shreds, so that she calls to mind a skull face emerging from inside a dark onion.
Notwithstanding her love for Linda and Abby, she wants to drown in this lake and be done with this struggle. There is only so much she can do. She still has a vague sense that she wants to love, but she no longer has any hope at all that this love will be enough even to cross the lake, let alone to save Linda and Abby from that maniacal Boss Man. His days may be numbered, but now it is all too clear that her seconds are numbered.
But then that mysterious something or other manages to grab a real hold of her left armpit and to haul her upwards. Mavis resists. She does not desire to be burnt all over again.
Whatever is pulling her up, though, is stronger than her determination to sink to the bottom of this lake. She bursts through the surface, but this time no rain falls on her. There seems to be some sort of cover over her face and body, as she is being hauled onto a rowboat.
Mavis is rolled over the hull and onto the floor of the boat. She looks up, and sees what looks like the underside of a huge umbrella. Interestingly, while the raindrops burn her flesh, it does no such thing to the umbrella. Indeed, the rowboat seems unaffected, as had been the mother trees back on the shore. So this storm really is about her. Seems strange that the Boss Man would desire to burn her alive, if he desires for her to come on over and to stick her throat into his noose. Then again, is not the storm an incentive to hurry on over before her entire body has been burned away? Surely, she cannot take her time in crossing the lake under these circumstances.
This conclusion flashes through her mind. For all her pain and anxiety at this moment, she is at least capable of rational thought; and that alone relaxes her just enough to keep her from hyperventilating, or descending into madness.
A concerned, white face comes into view. Mavis recognizes that the face belongs to Grace. Mavis is totally surprised, and wonders if maybe she is having a hallucination. That thought goes away, when she realizes that indeed the rain is not now burning off the rest of her skin and flesh. If the umbrella is for real, then Grace is for real.
Another face comes into view. It is a girl’s face. Mavis must think several seconds before she recalls that the girl’s name is Shirley Temple. Shirley is now carrying a lit candle, which apparently serves as the headlight for this rowboat.
Mavis tilts her head up just enough to observe that Abigail is sitting up at the back of the rowboat. She is obviously an athlete, because she seems totally unfazed by the wind and the waves, as she paddles their boat to the other side.
All of them are huddled under an oversized umbrella that Grace clutches with every bit of her strength and will. She has average strength, but her will is indomitable. No matter how hard the wind blows against the umbrella, she has what it takes to hold it steady.
Sister, what are you doing out here? Mavis asks Grace in a voice that has been marred by her disfigured mouth.
Notwithstanding how Mavis’s voice sounds, Grace is able to understand it with little effort. There seems to be a mysterious telepathic connection that is filling in the gaps. Neither lady has a clue why this power has taken hold at this time, but neither resists it. Indeed, the unspoken words flowing between them seem as natural now as if they had conversed all along to one another this way.
I don’t know, Grace answers. Frankly, I did not believe we would get this far. Earlier, I had not even been able to breathe, when I stood beside this lake.
It’s the Boss Man, Mavis says. He wants my path to be hard. He wants me to be weak and half-mad when I get there. But he does not want my path to be impossible.
Grace considers what Mavis has said. Grace is noticeably concerned with the idea that their conniving opponent has planned all this ahead of time. He is able to give and to withhold air as he pleases. He can drop rain that only burns flesh. He is the god in this little part of hell, and they are all pawns moved this way or that over his chessboard. Without faith in God, Grace can only see their struggle as doomed. Mavis really is not that far removed from Grace’s mind, for Mavis may believe in God, but she also believes that God totally has abandoned her. And yet for all their pessimism, Mavis decided to venture out into the rain; and Grace, Abigail, and Shirley agreed to follow Mavis. They may not believe in the viability of the mission, but they truly believe in their love for one another.
So how do I look? Mavis asks after a while.
Good enough to dance with the Boss Man, Grace says with a forced grin.
I’d rather do the Harlem Swing with Old George, Mavis chuckles.
Grace and Mavis stare at each other in silence a while. They are reliving that night in Selma. Grace sheds a solitary tear that she wipes off of her cheek.
Looks like tonight you’ll be storming into the apartment, Grace remarks.
And you’ll be my backup, Mavis says.
Do you have a weapon? Grace inquires.
Just my love for you all, Mavis answers. And for Linda and Abby…
Grace looks down. For all her love of revolutionary poetry years ago, she is a realist in the end; and so she does not see that ‘love conquers all’ when in the course of a real battle. Love did not stop the racist mob from turning over the Freedom Bus. Love did not stop the Boss Man from ripping Abby right out of her hands. Freedom from tyranny is earned at the end of a bayonet, she thinks.
Shirley senses the tension. She holds the candle between them, like it is somehow able to burn away the cold fear that is gnawing at both of their souls.
‘Mother Mavis’ will be okay, Shirley says. I’m not losing my third mother.
Shirley is referring to Linda Love and Mavis Love. Because she has had to endure loss so viscerally, she can sense before most others when there is a real hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. When the world is dark as far as the eye can see any pinprick of light will stand out in a wandering child’s mind.
Mavis grabs a hold of Shirley’s free hand. Mavis manages a faint smile.
That’s right, Mavis remarks. And Abby’s not losing her mother, either.
* * *
Abigail rows the boat to shore. By the time they get there, the raindrops have ceased, though there continues to be a swarm of howling winds flowing in every direction and turning the lake into a cauldron of clashing waves. It takes every bit of effort for Abigail to steady the rowboat long enough for Mavis then to say her goodbyes and to disembark.
Mavis stands upright on the rocky shore. She has improved considerably, since being pulled out of the water. Clearly, both injury and recovery happen a lot faster in the afterlife; and though none of the ladies understand really how this can be, they sense that it has something to do with how time works on this side of the River Styx. For Mavis, what is more interesting is how that rainstorm ends so abruptly. This tells her that, as she has supposed, the rain all along had been driven down to the earth to make her cross the lake faster. Now that she is here the rain is unnecessary. Only the clashing winds remain to scream racist obscenities into her ears. Most of the time the winds howl ‘spook,’ though with an elongated vowel. Other times, the winds sound like the heavy breathing in a threatening, obscene phone call: ‘Nigger, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger…’ Yes, Mavis knows that this is just the Boss Man playing with her head. Yes, she tries to shrug it off. Nonetheless, she feels revulsion that she simply cannot mask, so that she looks both hurt and angered when looking up towards her destination.
I’d wish you ‘God speed,’ if only, Grace calls out to her…
If only you believed, Mavis finishes her sentence. Don’t bother. He ain’t here with me. It’s just me and Boss Man now.
Ida, Linda, and Abby know you’re here, Shirley says.
Mavis turns abruptly and looks into Shirley’s eyes. How on earth does the little girl know about Linda and Abby? For that matter, how does she know now the name of the ‘old time’ black woman? Even Mavis did not know her name, or anything about her, when she first saw her in that vision.
Of course, Mavis thinks further, the vines wrap around the fence boards so that after a while what had started on one side of that fence is just as much on the other side. Maybe, with Shirley’s generation, there are no longer ‘White Spencers’ and ‘Black Spencers,’ but just ‘Spencers.’ Hard to wrap my own mind around that, but even what is slow to change changes if given eternity to do so.
Mavis does not say anything, but there is a dawning realization in her old and timeless eyes. If Ida, Linda, and Abby know she is here, then even the most horrible of physical deaths is not a final death. Only the ‘second death’ is final, like what happened to Bertrand back in the master bedroom, and what is about to happen to Boss Man if he does not get another extension from whoever lords it over him. If the devil exacts ‘second death’ in every one of his pacts, then it is all too clear that there is no deal whatsoever worth entering into with him. It may seem like a small price to pay, when the devil and the man have signed on the dotted line, but when the price is near the man then learns it is everything.
Mavis turns back toward the hill of rocks she has to climb. She views the Boss Man standing at the top. He is standing like a straight arrow with his hands on his hips and his legs apart to create a perfect V. His baton sways on his belt in the winds, but otherwise he does not move at all.
Hurry up, nigger, the Boss Man says in his usual calm manner.
Except that it is really not calm at all. Mavis can sense the urgency in his voice, no matter that he tries to mask it with his normal reserve. Also, she can sense how much power he had had to exert just to say that much. In fact, he is a sick beast frightened that he may have passed the point of no return already; and, sure enough, he follows upon his calm words with a groan he cannot mask.
Mavis climbs the rocks. She keeps her eyes fastened on his sparkling blue eyes. She senses that this unnerves him, though as of yet he remains his normal straight arrow self up there. No matter, he will be totally undone soon enough.
Come on, nigger, the Boss Man calls down to her in a voice that is not all that calm anymore. Time for justice. Time to balance the scales. Time to close the big gate to the old plantation, so you niggers don’t get anymore wild ideas.
Does Mavis see him bend his knees ever so slightly? Does she see how his arms twitch, so that he needs to exert incredible self-control just to keep them on his hips in that vaguely effeminate way of his? Does she see how his ink blue eyes flash in and out, like a light bulb about to burn out?
The winds howl their racial obscenities into her ears, but now she all but ignores them. Thunder bursts overhead. It is a deafening ‘boo’ sound. Then, as the thunder recedes, it is ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ So we have the heavens now crying out ‘boo nigger,’ just like what the Klan says when chasing a colored boy under the gaze of the moon. Mavis is startled by that one, but then she realizes that it too is just another sign that the Boss Man is twitching desperately on the end of his own rope. She still feels revulsion, but she also feels victory at hand.
Goddamn it, nigger, move your coon ass, the Boss Man screams hoarsely.
Gone is any pretense of cool reserve. Now, he is obviously desperate. His eyes alternate from ink blue to blood red several seconds, like a lunatic pulling down and lifting up a mask repeatedly, and then finally give up on the ink blue.
The red eyes are menacing for a moment, but then they too start to dim into a squeamish and effeminate pink. The Boss Man cannot hide his shame. His lips tense into a pained snarl. His heads shakes a bit, and he breaks into sweat, like perhaps he is coming down with a flu, or feeling the first stings of hell fire.
Then, his right arm breaks away from his hip. It twitches erratically, like it has a crazed mind of its own.
Still, for all that, the Boss Man stands his ground. His knees buckle a tad, but his feet remain as if plastered into the earth.
Mavis climbs to the top of the hill. She is kneeling at his black boots and looking into his eyes. There is no expression upon her face, except perhaps for a vague serenity. She has seen all this before; and she will survive yet again, so long as she allows that love living in her soul to take hold in her body and mind.
The Boss Man grimaces. He reaches down with his left hand, and grabs a hold of her neck. He yanks her up and pulls her towards the noose. She staggers to keep up with his long and hurried stride.
Mavis stares at the noose to which she is being pulled. It is a frayed rope creaking sadly in the witchy wind. How many colored folks have hung from that same necktie? How many have had to wear the damn thing as their burial dress?
The Boss Man pulls her up the steps to the gallows. The wood beams feel spongy on Mavis’s feet. There seems to be more mold than actual lumber in the platform, and she fears that it may collapse before they reach the damp noose.
Nonetheless, the fates have willed this; and so they get there before the platform crashes to the earth. Using his one good arm, the Boss Man wraps the noose about her neck, and positions her feet over the trap door. He appears to be exhausted by the effort. She seems as vaguely serene as before.
Almost too late for your own grand exit, nigger, the Boss Man growls.
I’m not the one who is running out of time, Mavis says with some strain, since the rope is so tight already against her larynx.
The Boss Man just looks at her. He wants to say something in return, but then grimaces from his own dreadful pain. He feels like he is vanishing into the black fire. His organs must be burning. His bones must be snapping like twigs in a bonfire. If that damned nigger is not swinging soon, then he will be gone. His ‘second death’ is not something he wants to acknowledge, but right now he has no way of avoiding its hot and dry touch over every part of his condemned soul.
Therefore, without responding, the Boss Man staggers down the steps to pull the lever below the platform that releases the trap door. He is a hunched, wheezing ghoul by the time he reaches the bottom step; his face ghostly white; his left arm also twitching uncontrollably. His knees buckle, and he falls to the ground. He has to crawl towards the lever with his knees, since he cannot push himself back up with his hands.
His baton catches on something beneath the platform. He looks down to see what is happening, but it is too dark. He tries to think of a flash of lightning so that one will appear in the heavens and then illuminate his little place under the platform. Nevertheless, even when he finally manages to think of lightning, the dimming, pinkish light in his eyes shuts off entirely. He is now as blind as a bat, and so the lightning strike accomplishes nothing for him.
The Boss Man crouches his head down and pushes on his knees. He has to use every last bit of strength, but it is just enough to push beyond the obstacle. His baton rips off of his belt and remains stuck wherever it is. He experiences a moment of regret, because that baton had been his one and only companion on the long highway. The moment passes quickly, though, as he is far too gone for any regret in his mind to blossom into sorrow in his heart.
He pushes blindly forward on his knees, until his face strikes the lever. It hurts him much more than anticipated, likely due to the fact that his face even now is melting off of his skull and thus in no condition to take a punch; and so, uncharacteristically, he screams out in pain like a weak girl. He feels the tears streaming down what remains of his cheeks, but cannot do anything to wipe off those blemishes. He moans, but the sound reminds him of a housewife who has been beaten by her old man; and so he feels immediate shame and self-hatred.
Still, he pushes on with his plan. He opens his mouth, and moves his face every which way, until finally he manages to wrap his lips around the lever. He bites down on the lever. He imagines giving a man fellatio, but then shakes the thought out of his crazed mind. Notwithstanding his revulsion, he thinks he may have felt the beginnings of an erection in his pants, before getting that thought out of his head. Once more he sheds tears of shame down his mutilated cheeks.
He clenches his teeth onto the lever and pulls back. He resembles a dog trying to pull a bone away from his master’s hand. He even grunts like a dog at one point, because this effort right now is so damned exhausting and shameful.
While this is happening beneath the platform, Mavis reminds herself that Shirley had known all about Ida, Linda, and Abby. Furthermore, Shirley said the women know what she is doing here. If they know, then the noose did not truly defeat them; and if it did not defeat them, then it is not going to defeat her at this moment. Oh, she may experience the blackness at the end of all life, but it is not going to be eternal.
Can you be so sure? A snakelike voice hisses in a dark corner of her mind.
Mavis tries to push that voice aside, but it is awfully seductive just then.
Are you sure you did not mention Linda and Abby while within earshot of Shirley? The snake asks, while slithering closer to her conscious mind. Also, how can you be so sure that the ‘old time’ woman is named Ida? No real name came to you, when you had your vision; and you are a direct descendent. Why do you think a girl further removed by race and by years would know what you did not?
Mavis tries to tell herself that Shirley had known; but even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, especially when the flesh is about to be dropped and neck stretched. She feels doubt squirming out from her mind as the cold sweats streaming down her face. She feels faithlessness in how her knees buckle.
The wind is laughing at her. It is taunting her to get down from the rope.
There is a lightning streak overhead. It illuminates what looks like a dog licking its lips in anticipation of her dead flesh. Of course, the ‘dog’ is probably a rock on the shore; but how can she be sure? How can she be sure of anything?
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Now, she knows what Jesus felt when He said those same words. The abandonment is complete. God is now gone forever. To say that she feels lonely and forsaken is an understatement. It is more accurate to say that she feels a cold and clammy despair, like dead skin wrapping about her twitching flesh. This is what the last man on earth will feel when he knows that the sun has exploded and that in nine minutes the very last sunray will reach the earth. This is what he will feel when he knows all too well that in nine minutes the earth will be as cold and as lifeless as the very edge of the universe. Annihilation at least turns everything black, including presumably the consciousness of the person annihilated; but this is more like being trapped in absolute coldness, and yet knowing forevermore that one is lost in that trap.
Mavis pees down her leg. She writhes spastically inside her tight necktie. She feels all that dead skin wrapped about her chapped lips. It is pressing into her mouth, down her throat, into her bowels; death pushing through her veins; death suffocating the electrical charges out from her nerves. She still feels her feet on the platform, so the trap door has not opened yet; but death is taking a hold of her flesh anyway. It is sapping now the last bit of life out from her soul.
She wants to say one more thing. She needs to say it. Every beating that she ever received, every injustice that she ever endured, every failure that she ever experienced, has culminated in this one moment. She hears George telling her to shut up and to scrub the kitchen floor. She hears the Boss Man telling her that she is a good for nothing nigger already erased from God’s mind before she had been born. She hears the winds howling ‘spook’ and ‘nigger’ like mad dogs. Forget redemption. Forget salvation. God is gone, and such niceties are beyond her now. She just wants to make sense of the hardship; take it down a peg and put it into its proper perspective; and to do that she must say what is presently at the tip of her dried tongue. If somehow she musters the power to state what she is now thinking, then that hardship will have been taken down from its tall, imposing pedestal. She will have mastered it, because it did not stop her in the end from speaking what is on her mind.
And so with every last bit of her strength, she pushes the words forward, so that they break forcibly through the dead skin she imagines over her mouth. This is an exhausting and herculean effort; but not once does she consider just giving up the struggle. What she wants to say will be said. She does not give to herself any other option, but victory over whatever hardship she has to endure.
Her will prevails. She mutters the words, in spite of the noose scratching into her larynx with every breathe that she takes.
I love them all, Mavis proclaims. I forgive them all, and I forgive myself…
The trap door slides open. She falls into the abyss. She hears a deafening pop inside her ears. Her neck breaks. There is the dim sound of a rope creaking in the wind, and then there is the absolute silence of a dark and hopeless death outside of the mind of God.
* * *
Or so the death seems dark and hopeless for an indeterminate time; but, totally unexpectedly, the darkness recedes. The darkness seems to maintain in itself a malevolent mind, a sick and twisted commitment to rebellion that then characterizes everything that it is and does. It is irrational to think of a color in fact doing anything. Nevertheless, as the darkness recedes, the overall sense is that it is retreating from having been defeated on a battlefield, that it is aware of its own defeat, and that it is a sore loser.
No sooner does Mavis entertain this observation of the receding darkness that she realizes that, indeed, she must remain alive in some manner. After all, the dead do not observe anything. They just stare blankly and unknowingly into eternity. Mavis is not alive in the same way that she had been alive just before that trap door opened, but there is nothing blank or unknowing about her right now. Indeed, if anything, then she feels a far greater sense of life inside of her bosom now than when she had been ‘living’ on the other side of the River Styx.
Mavis opens her eyes. She must have clenched them tightly, just as that trap door opened, as her eyes do not appear to be opening so much as breaking through scales. She senses vaguely that she is not going to be seeing, but rather experiencing with every facet of her new life whatever comes into view. There is no real separation anymore of the several senses, so that from now on she is going to smell colors, or taste spoken words, or hear hot sensations on her skin.
Wow! Mavis whispers, just as everything about this new sight floods into her new mind, like Niagara Falls flowing into and being contained by a thimble.
She is standing on the ground besides the gallows. She can see that that rope had been dropped, because the noose is hidden beneath the platform; but there is no sign of her own corpse hanging from the end.
The wind blows its racist obscenities into her ears, but all those ‘spooks’ and ‘niggers’ seem laughably passé. She recognizes all the evil, to be sure; but more so, she recognizes the fundamental insubstantiality of evil. She had never heard of Saint Augustine and so had been unfamiliar with his definition of ‘evil’ as not a reality in itself, but rather as the absence of a reality (namely, he had said, it is the absence of a good). Now, she understands this intuitively.
Yes, evil has disastrous consequences on the other side. A Jew being led into the gas chamber is not going to be any less dead afterward because he had told himself that the evil therein in just the absence of a good. Closer to home, all those times George had punched her in the eye, the wound had been real. If she had read Saint Augustine back then, and had told herself that George’s evil is simply the absence of something good in him, then that may have helped her understand a bit more about him; but it would not have lessened the sting from those punches. But she is no longer on the other side. She is here, awakened to a new life, freed from the scales, burst through the serpentine death skins that had so smothered her before; and where she is now, evil has no more hold over her. Neither does shame, nor self-doubt, nor any of the other personal frailties.
Thunder rumbles overhead, but it too seems inconsequential, like a brief reminder of a past that is rapidly receding over the horizon. It may be rumbling a racial obscenity, as it had previously, but if so she does not bother to heed it.
Mavis hears something slithering out from beneath the gallows. Her first impression is that it is a snake, but then she sees that it is actually what is left of the Boss Man. His arms and his right leg have snapped off of his torso. He has to push himself forward with his left knee and his chin digging through the wet, slimy earth. His black uniform hangs loosely from his body, because there is not much flesh remaining. Instead, bones poke through tears in his uniform, like his garment in fact is his last layer of skin. His left boot catches on something, and so as he slithers forward it just slides off his skeletal left foot, and blows away.
The Boss Man’s face is melting. It resembles warm butter that had been splattered upon a wall and is now sliding down to the floor. His face appears to be burning from the inside; and, indeed, as his skull breaks through what is left of his tortured face, Mavis sees that it is red hot and smoky. His skull is a cheap pan that has been sitting on the stove far too long. To the extent that his skull is capable of showing any emotion at all, he seems to be grimacing in pain from a flame that is bleeding through his bone shell and dancing in his eye sockets.
Notwithstanding his physical condition, the Boss Man has a mind capable of determined action. He is slithering toward that foliage off to the side. Since Mavis saw that vision of what had transpired between the Boss Man and Ida, she knows what he has hidden behind that foliage.
Mavis is about to step forward, when she sees Ida, Linda, and Abby come out from the shadows. Mavis is overwhelmed with joy to see them, but she very well knows that now is not the time to remove her focus from the task at hand. She therefore does not greet them, but rather stands back and watches, as the three women descend upon the snake.
Ida, Linda, and Abby hold the Boss Man down. He writhes with all of the madness of a trapped snake; and at one point, he manages to lift his mutilated face and to glare at Mavis with his flaming eye sockets. Nevertheless, he simply does not have the strength to break free from the three women.
Mavis steps behind the foliage. She sees the cigar box among a few little keepsakes. Thunder crackles angrily overhead, as she bends before the box and slowly opens it. As anticipated, there is a Boss Man figurine wiggling in between two cigars. It looks much more like a toy with several loose springs than a small man, though when she picks it up she can feel its clammy skin wiggling on hers.
Mavis steps out from behind the foliage. She views Ida, Linda, and Abby, restraining the pissed Boss Man, and beholding her with the same surprised joy that no doubt she also has on her face. She glances over the campfire, and sees Abigail, Grace, and Shirley, standing hand in hand, and beholding her with rapt attention. Neither the White nor the Black Spencers speak, but their eyes make it clear that in their minds anyway everything hinges upon what she does next. She is humbled by this climactic moment, but she does not hesitate as a result.
Mavis walks over to the campfire. She holds the figurine over the flames.
No! The Boss Man screams with a voice that sounds like a guttural moan.
Mavis stares at the figurine in her hand. Her eyes slide into a trance, and a devilish grin appears on her face. She wants so much to drop the figurine into the flames. A small voice from deep inside her tells her that she truly deserves to toss his puny flesh into this hot campfire and to consign his dark soul to Hell.
An eye for an eye, Mavis mutters…
Just makes the world blind, Grace finishes Mavis’ sentence.
Mavis breaks out from her spell. She steps away from the campfire.
I shall not judge you, Mavis says to the figurine. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. So be it.
She drops the figurine into the dirt beside her feet. She steps backward, and closes her eyes, as if she is lost in deep prayer. She senses a fierce electric charge in the wind, followed by the loudest shot of thunder she has ever heard.
Then, the earth trembles. It seems to be coming out from her heels, but she does not sense that she has anything to do with it, except to the extent she is a medium of divine grace at that moment.
Still, for all the tumult about her, she keeps her eyes shut, and stands at her spot. ‘We shall not be moved,’ she thinks; and indeed God Himself appears to agree, since for all the judgment now playing itself out in the heavens above and in the earth below at no time does she feel like she must move from there.
The White and the Black Spencers follow her lead. They shut their eyes, and stand still; three White Spencers on one side of that campfire; three Black Spencers on the other side; and Mavis remaining apart from them in her prayer.
The Black Spencers no longer hold down the Boss Man, but it really does not matter at this time. He is in no condition to slither away. He just stares out through his flaming eye sockets at a judgment he actually had thought he could avoid forever. He is observing his ‘justice’ about to fall back upon his own head in a manner that cannot be outrun or sidestepped. There is nothing he can do, but to tremble so anxiously that his bones splinter off and fly into the chuckling winds. Soon, there is nothing left of him, but a red hot skull rolling side to side.
The winds flow into the campfire. The flames spread out enough to burn the wiggling figurine and the rolling skull. There is a deafening moan inside the laughing fire. Then everything in the heavens and in the earth is silent and still.
* * *
When Mavis opens her eyes, she is neither surprised nor dismayed to see that Ida, Linda, and Abby are gone. She had felt them flowing into her heart as the wind and the fire carried God’s judgment from this little spot beside Crater Lake to eternity. At first, she had thought that they were seeking refuge there; but then, as she felt the ease in how they settled into her soul, much like tired feet slipping back into an old pair of shoes, she knew that they had not been at all motivated by fear. They are at peace in her heart, as she is in theirs; and so from this little spot beside Crater Lake to eternity, they shall live as a family in one flesh, one soul, and one spirit. The Black Spencers finally have come home.
What is more surprising is how she had been transformed. The campfire is little more than a spark compared to what it had been just seconds ago, but it gives off enough light for Mavis to see that she is totally naked.
She is also considerably taller and stronger. She looks and feels as if she is some sort of ebony superwoman. For a moment, she feels out of place in this flesh; but then, she considers the soul. Ida’s fearlessness, Linda’s commitment, Abby’s innocence, all these have joined with her faithfulness to permit a much better creation to arise from the ashes of the old.
So they all joined with you, too, Grace says, while walking over to Mavis.
Grace too is naked. She is the mirror image of Mavis, except for her red hair and her white skin. Her cheeks glow radiantly from the new life inside her; and for the first time since her nineteenth year, she is really happy and at rest.
Mavis considers her good friend. She can sense Abigail’s fearlessness and Shirley’s innocence, and she already knows of Grace’s commitment. Grace had been so committed to her and her daughter that she had avenged her daughter that night in Selma. Linda had been so committed that she had given her life to give her daughter a chance to escape. Both women had been sinners. Both had embraced the duty handed onto them with selfish and noble intentions. Still, in the end, they had kept their commitments, and that had been blessing enough.
Mavis and Grace walk hand in hand down the steep slope of rocks toward the rowboat. They encounter no difficulty whatsoever on account of their great strength and agility. It is as if the whole world is opening before them, so there is no hardship that will not just fall aside. How can it be otherwise, when they approach everything with so much gladness in their hearts? Indeed, it turns out that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light, when love then lightens the steps.
It takes only seconds to reach the rowboat; but already, the first hints of sunrise may be felt in the fresh air. Apparently, seconds for them are hours for everything else. One of many truths with which they will need to become more accustomed, but they will have all the time in eternity to do so.
They climb into the rowboat, and push away from the shore. In seconds, the shores on both sides of the lake are gone. The lake itself seems much more like an endless, tranquil sea. The blue sky above is the mirror of this grand sea.
So where do we go now? Grace asks, while a breeze ruffles her long hair.
Wherever God and the ocean currents take us, I suppose, Grace answers.
Grace looks out over the sea in silence. She is lost in thought for a while.
I’m still not sure that I believe in Him, Grace remarks.
That’s okay, Mavis says with a grin. I’ll try to believe enough for the two of us, and in return you can go ahead and pick up the burden where I am weak.
Grace considers this a moment, and then relaxes. In life, Grace had been so logical, or so she had assumed. She feels comforted that Mavis is so sensible.
The two women recline, and stare up at the warm sun. There is no sound in the distance. There is no word to be spoken. There is just peace at last. This may be a small blessing, indeed, but for the Spencer women it will do just fine.
* * *
Apollo returns to Grace’s lakeside chateau about forty-five minutes after leaving Mavis on the living room chair. It had taken him that long to drive back to Big Bill and Charlotte’s cabin, to place a telephone call to the hospital down in Beverly, and to return. Big Bill and Charlotte return to the chateau with him.
As feared, Mavis is dead by the time they get there. She is sitting back in her chair. Her eyes are closed, and her lips are set in a serene smile. She could be having a pleasant dream, except that she is still, and her hands are cold.
Apollo tears up. He had just met the kind, old lady; but he feels already a real kinship with her. In a strange way, it is like she and Grace are sisters.
Because of the horrible smell upstairs, the three of them remain outside the front door, until finally the paramedics arrive. They watch in silence as the professionals remove the two corpses. Apollo scratches the back of Shansi’s ear the whole time, and Bill and Charlotte hold hands.
It turns out that Grace’s only son had committed suicide. His daughter is missing. The court appoints a trustee to oversee the chateau, until little Shirley Temple either returns from wherever she is or is declared legally dead.
Until then, the trustee hires Apollo to clean and to maintain the chateau every now and then. Sure, he can use the money. His grocery delivery business generates little cash. For the most part, though, he does the work because it is his way of staying close to Grace and Mavis. He almost feels them whenever he walks through the house or along the deck doing his various chores.
One sunny afternoon, he is taking a break from fixing the deck, when he spots what appears to be a rowboat with two, beautiful, naked women relaxing in leisure. An owl hoots in the distance, and the image turns out to be no more than a wistful sigh on his part. Still, the lake had been so pristine just then.