Menda City, Virginia
Thomas stood in the doorway of his bedroom staring at the empty rocking chair. His father had made it not five years before, when it was suddenly needed. The dust was floating in the morning sunlight as it shone through the window, summer was coming on and it was already hot. The bed was made and the bedroom, like the entire house, was clean spotless. Beulah was immaculate in her duties inside the house, as thorough as Ruford was outside on their little piece of land. The dust suspended in the air didn't stand a chance once it settled to the floor.
Ruford and Beulah had raised a passel of kids during their life together. Late in life, when their children were mostly grown and some already had moved away, Thomas was born. Some called him an accident but not around Beulah. She was a strong woman, with solid Christian values and it wouldn't do to talk such nonsense about her boy. He was loved as much as any of his older siblings. Family was family to the Max's and they were close as any.
They lived almost in the center of Menda City, on a couple of acres that was given to an ancestor a generation or two before. They were defiantly alone in the white community and they felt it. But land was land and they had more property where they were than if they migrated to the river bottoms where all the other coloreds had settled. Besides, it was their land. They owned it. Ruford saw no need to move through the years but that all changed now. If you were to ask Ruford tomorrow, he'd tell you he wished they had up and walked away a long time ago, land or no. But it was too late now. It was oh so very late.
Thomas eased his weary body into the rocking chair. He was bone tired. It was hard burying a wife. It was the first time he had ever sat where Dorsie had spent the last few years of life, silently spending her time staring out the window, slowly starving herself to death. They were difficult, heartbreaking years.
Ruford made the rocking chair, after Doc Walters told Ruford that Dorsie needed to get out of bed. Her injuries had healed and she needed to be up and about. Besides, she had a child now. She needed to take care of the boy. But she wouldn't have anything to do with Doyle. No breastfeeding, no cuddling, no nurturing. Nothing. It was as if the boy didn't exist in her world. But then again, no one existed in her world, no one, not since the spring of '25. Beulah had to give the boy to her younger sister, whose daughter had a newborn boy of her own. At least Doyle had someone to nurse him. He spent most of his first year in the river bottoms, away from his mother. While he was gone, Dorsie just sat in the rocking chair, staring out the window at the neighbors, her face blank and emotionless. She never once asked about her son.
About two years ago, Thomas moved the chair so he could sweep the floor. Beulah had taken her to the outhouse, doing what needed to be done for her daughter-in-law. Thomas had put the chair back but it didn't face the window, as it should. It was pointing at the bed instead. When Beulah brought her back into the room, Dorsie collapsed to the floor and screamed like she had been cut deep. It was the only time since the rape that his wife ever made a sound. It took all three of them some time to figure out what she was upset about. She was too weak to point so she just sat on the floor and screamed and screamed with her hands in her lap. Ruford touched the chair, to move it out of his way because they were trying to get Dorsie onto the bed so she would calm down, she screamed all the louder. When he moved the chair again, he inadvertently twisted it towards the window. Dorsie's screaming stopped as quickly as it had started. The three of them just stood there, looking at each other with Dorsie waiting on the floor between them, not knowing what they had done wrong.
That was how their days went. Thomas would sit on the edge of the bed in the morning till his mother came in to take Dorsie to the latrine and bring her back. She would stay in the rocking chair all day. Then, when it was after dark and she couldn't see the sun shining out the window, Thomas would gently put her in bed. She didn't speak, not a single word in all those years. She dried up that way, sitting there. She died in the chair not a week before. She was buried now and Thomas was so very tired.
He never knew who raped and beat his wife so horribly just four months after they were married. Doc Walters had to do a Caesarian when Doyle was born. She was only eighteen years old. She was twenty-three when she was buried.
Thomas never knew who did it so he put it out of his mind. He had no other choice. He had a wife and a son to tend. He and his father doted on the boy over the years, putting the rape away from their minds, someplace far away where they didn't have to see or hear it or feel it. There were times when they were weeding the vegetables or digging a new pit for the outhouse with little Doyle underfoot that they would look at each other. But neither asked the other what they wanted to ask, what they wanted so desperately to know.
Doyle seemed brighter than usual to Thomas, as bright and inquisitive as any of the white kids that populated Menda. Ruford began reading to him when he was very young. The child quickly memorized the stories, mouthing the words with his eyes closed when he was being read to, laughing and giggling when Ruford was caught changing the words into nonsense. Beulah was convinced the boy would be a book lover. Beulah never learned to read.
When Doyle was four, on his birthday, his father and grandfather carefully attached a thick rope to the crossbeam high in the barn, making a swing the child could play on. They tied a knot at the end so he wouldn't slide off and even attached a long piece of twine, so Doyle could climb the ladder to the loft and pull the swing up to him. The boy was no coward. He was jumping off the loft by himself and scaring the hell out of his grandmother that very afternoon. Dorsie never knew about the swing. She never witnessed her son's courage.
Ruford and Beulah had left some time ago, hitching a ride to the river bottoms with their grandson to attend church. They had sensed their son needed some time alone. Sitting in the chair, Thomas looked out the window across the pasture at Loy Little's place. It seemed that Deputy Brower had come to visit, his '27 Model A was idling next to Mr. Little's barn. After a few minutes, Thomas could see the county officer stuffing something into his back pocket as he walked out of the barn with Mr. Little. The deputy got into his vehicle then jawed with Mr. Little for a few moments more. They were smiling and laughing like they were the best of friends. Then Deputy Brower put his car in gear and backed out of the driveway.
Mr. Little didn't own any livestock but the barn was well used nonetheless. Thomas knew what was going on. He assumed Deputy Brower approved, otherwise what was going on wouldn't be going on. Heavens, most days you could smell it clear to Granton whether the wind was blowing or not.
Mr. Little disappeared back inside the barn for only a minute then Thomas could see him pull his truck out. The bed of the truck was stacked high with inventory. Thomas heard the truck's horn blare. A moment or two later, Charley, his neighbor's only son, sauntered out of the house towards his father who sat impatiently in the truck. They talked for a minute or so; both of Mr. Little's hands were outside the truck's window, waving as though they were giving directions to General Lee when he came marching through. Finally Mr. Little drove off and Charley went into the barn, closing the doors behind him.
That was when it happened. That was when Thomas saw it all for the first time as if the sun had finally risen on his memory. He rose from the chair and walked over to the window, resting his huge hands on the wall, one on either side of the frame. He stood there, staring out the window for several minutes, reliving every precious second his wife was confined in the chair behind him. He turned and looked at the rocking chair, looking at the prison Dorsie had faded away and died in, trying to finally hear her.
He remembered all the times Dorsie would tense up and purse her lips, clenching her fists on the armrests of her chair. Her eyes would almost burst out of her head then just as quickly close almost shut as though she was focusing to make all the pain go away. Thomas thought it was because his mute wife needed something he didn't understand so he always went and got his mother. He never could figure it out. He realized that every time this happened, it was always on a clear, sunny day, just like today. And every time, Charley Little was outside.
He knew. He finally knew.
It didn't take long, not more than a couple of minutes for Thomas to cross the pasture, his dark black skin beginning to sweat in the heat. He was mad; cold, angry mad. Five years of hell. Five years lost in the silent celibacy of his bedroom. He wasn't thinking of anything else, but he should have been. A black man extracting vengeance on a white man did not go unpunished in a state still mired in antebellum attitudes. But it was too late for that.
At the other side of the pasture, Thomas slipped between the barbed wire fence that marked the property line and quietly loped to the barn doors, his feet barely touching the ground. He stopped outside the doors and put his ear against the dry, unpainted wood. He couldn't hear anything. He didn't know if Charley was still inside or if he had slipped out the back and slid into the gully to kill some time with a quart of fresh moonshine. As carefully as he could, he opened the door an inch or two, to see if he could see the rapist. He could see one inside wall of the barn, the side closest to his neighbor's house. Three or four animal stalls had been erected, each filled with a hodgepodge of history. Old horse tack, bridles, saddles and whips were strewn over old bales of straw that were slowly turning to dust. Old, gray colored wood planks were tossed on top as if an inebriated dervish had discarded them.
He stuck his head in far enough to get a view of the rest of the barn. The middle part right behind the doors was open space, but that was where Mr. Little parked his truck. What Thomas didn't expect, what surprised him, was the disorganized shamble of paraphernalia related to the family business piled against the south wall. Gunnysacks of sugar or corn meal were stacked as high as his head. Coiled copper tubing, metal buckets, bricks and firewood were heaped into the far corner. New and used one-gallon glass jars were everywhere. And it stank worse than a flooded outhouse on a hot August afternoon.
Thomas could sense movement in the back corner of the barn, so he slid inside as quietly as he could. He ducked as he inched his way along the wall of the first stall. He stopped when he reached the end of the wall and peered around it. A row of large barrels filled with fermenting mash ran in front of the stalls, at least a half a dozen. On the other side of the barrels sat a still, the size of which Thomas had never seen in all his days, not even in the river bottoms. Two large men could stand inside the boiler and not touch each other.
He couldn't see Charley but he could hear some grunting behind the still so he waited. He could hear Charley rustling and moving about, tapping on the cap arm or rapping the worm box for no reason. He pulled his head back when Charley came out from behind the still and he knew it was now or never. He crouched as low as he could, his big back arched tight as a spring, his massive hands primed for Charley's neck the instant he walked past.
The next thing he knew, he could hear Charley shuffling around in the stall just on the other side of the wall. He relaxed, thinking that when Charley came out and walked back to the still, he would attack from behind. He could hear Charley making a whole lot of noise, as if he were rearranging heavy furniture. Boards were banging against each other. A loud thump followed by a dust funnel rising in the air when a old saddle was tossed over the wall and into the far stall. Then it all went quiet, too quiet. He didn't know what to do or think. He couldn't tell were Charley was.
He held his breath; waiting for his moment when suddenly a loud crack divided the air and his back felt like it had caught fire. Another crack and more pain rained down on him. Thomas threw himself forward, twisting and turning to avoid the raking pain as Charley exited the stall, an old leather quirt dangling from his skinny hand. He stumbled backwards into the barrels of mash where he bounced back towards his assailant. Charley was on him faster than Thomas could run, the short whip relentlessly struck Thomas' arms and torso, back and forth, left and right, right and left. The flesh on his arms was stung as his skin took welt after welt. Soon his flesh tore open, his blood staining the quirt. It seemed endless.
Charley was breathing hard, panting between strikes but he didn't stop. Thomas spun to his left then, backing himself up against the north wall, between the still and the stalls where he could face his tormentor.
"You're just doing me a favor you dumb nigger. Stupid dumbass spook."
Thomas was silent, trying to catch his wind while he regained his senses.
"Now I can tell Pa it ain't me that's been stealing his moonshine, but that poor, stupid nigger of a neighbor." He flayed Thomas again, who just stood there, his feet frozen, trying to deflect the punishment with his bleeding forearms. Charley wasn't much taller than Thomas and he was definitely not as big. But he made one mistake. He believed that all colored men were cowards, weak ones at that, poltroons, the concept bred into them by their white masters a hundred years ago and for their own good.
"What you here for anyways nigger? Why you come snooping over here, huh?" Another thrash pressed Thomas tighter into the wall. "You thirsty? You need sumthin to drink?" With his prey cornered, Charley raised his arm, moving closer, ready to bring the quirt blistering downward again. "I'm talking to you, nigger. You hear me? When I speaks to you, you suppose to answer."
Before the short whip came around in its arc from behind Charley's back the next time, Thomas' huge fist flashed out, crashing hard into Charley's upper lip, splitting it clean to the teeth as if it were a buck knife cutting white cloth. Charley reeled backwards, his left hand jumping to his face to stem the blood. Before he had time to fall, Thomas put him to the ground with another shot. From then on, it was all Thomas.
Charley was on all fours, blood and spit dribbling from his mouth onto the dirt. He rolled onto his back and raised his left hand towards Thomas, as if he were saying that was enough. He tried to stand but all he did was bring his head into Thomas' range. A large brown brogan to the side of the skull sent Charley to the ground. Still on his back, Charley dug his heels in, pushing himself away from between Thomas feet as unnatural tears began to flow. He tried to rise once more; only to be driven down again as Thomas stepped forward. The assault continued, man over beast, Charley sliding away in the dirt as Thomas walked above him, punishing him between steps.
"Goddamn, boy, you is a strong one." Charley wiped his lips and laughed. "You know..." Charley was still laughing as he crawled, "... you's a dead man. You know that don't ya?"
Thomas paused, letting Charley raise a hand upward, but not letting him out from between his feet.
"You better kill me 'cause if you don't, you are as good as dead. Either Pa will shoot you down like a shitty dog or the county is gonna hang you. Either way, you's as good as dead." He snickered some more. "Hell, boy, I ain't even gonna stop you. Come on, beat the piss out of me, 'cause I'm gonna still watch you swing with your legs all twitching as you choke to death."
Charley rolled over and quit, gasping for air while his drool mixed with the dirt as he lay on the ground. Thomas used his boot on Charley's shoulder to roll him over, then he reached down and grabbed his shirt, pulling him up to pummel him once more. He hit him, over and over again, crushing his jaw and cheekbone. He could hear bone breaking. He would have continued until Charley was dead but the shirt ripped apart from the tension.
When Charley fell, he was silent. Thomas was still bent over him, holding part of the shirt in his left hand, his trembling right hand held high above, dripping with Charley's blood. He fought to catch his breath, his own spit falling from between his lips onto Charley's face, mixing with the tears and blood.
But he could not contain the remaining rage. He walked over to the still, kicking and screaming at it. He found a shovel and beat the boiler again and again, denting it and cracking the seams. When it wouldn't die, he ripped the cap arm from the thump keg and then began destroying the worm box. He got hold it and with a heavy heave overturned it, the cold water flooding towards the still, smothering fire that kept the mash simmering.
Exhausted, Thomas slipped to his hands and knees and vomited. He stayed there a minute or more, trembling as much as he had on his wedding night. Then he realized that Charley was right. He was a dead man. Deputy Brower would surely hunt him down and shoot him on sight. He was as dead as his wife. He should have just taken his boy and moved to the river bottoms rather than seeking revenge on his white neighbor. He should have just run away and let it be. But now, lying there on the dirt, he knew that unless he truly killed Charley and burned the barn down to hide his crime, his fate was sealed as surely as was Dorsie's.
He knew what he had to do. He got up and scoured the barn, gathering all the moonshine he could find. There wasn't much but what he could scavenge, he brought over and poured on Charley, until his victim had been thoroughly baptized. Then he took what little was left and soaked the walls between the stalls; splashing everywhere he could, especially on the dry straw and rotting, gray wood. He went to the boiler, bent and battered as it was. He found a dull axe in one of the stalls and began to wail on the copper boiler, splitting it. When half of it had drained across the ground, he went looking for matches, but there were none to be found and the fire under the boiler was out.
Scared, angry, lost and bewildered, he left the barn and went into the house; an unforgivable sin should Mr. Little suddenly return and discovered him in his house. Matches were next to the stove. Back in the barn not a minute later with his entire body shaking uncontrollably, he stood over his victim, holding a match in his hand, ready to strike.
It was no good. He couldn't do it. He was not a killer. He was a dead man. He cast the match away and left.
The walk back through his father's pasture took much longer than coming from his house a half hour before. He stopped midway, looking at his father's old barn. He wasn't a killer. He wasn't a murderer. He was a dead man and he might as well get the dying done.
He went into the barn and gathered the twine from his son's swing into his hand. He climbed the loft and pulled the rope to him. Not conscious now, not really, he stood there, it was as if his destiny had arrived and he was as calm as a heavenly morning.
He took the rope as high up as he could reach and twirled it as tight as he could around his neck several times. Then he simply stepped over the ledge.