The haziness of a late-summer evening is especially pungent in the South. Mississippi is no exception. The price of mugginess and heat is well worth it, in my opinion, for the reward of the sun’s rays coming through the heat waves in orange and pink arcs as it begins its descent on its way to haunt another continent and lay the stage for the stories they may tell.
I’ve been here for a long time, though there are some family lines that trace even further back. I can always tell who belongs to what family, no matter how the generational gap widens. I have provided shade for them all. I have partaken in their joys and sorrows, for eventually they all find their way to me. I stand alone in a field decimated by the sun’s ravages and the cloud’s strikes. I am a nature-made meeting place.
“No wait! Please! I didn’t do it.”
My leaves quiver. I love visitors. These I hear before I see, but I can’t make out, right away, what they are saying.
“I’m innocent, I tell you. You’ve got the wrong man.”
The moon is directly above us now, and the sky the color of pitch.
Even at a distance, I can hear the unmistakable pain and fear and desperation in that voice. Just like love, those sentiments cannot be hidden for long.
“You ain’t a man. You ain’t nothin’ but a dirty criminal.”
The group comes over the hill and into sight. I recognize them immediately. There’s five of them, four from the same family-one of the ones that have taken up space in this part of Mississippi longer than I have. Jed, Greg, Matthew, and Horace, all Davis’, and all upstanding citizens of this small town. Lawmaker, law enforcer, business man, and doctor, in that order. Their granddaddy is the one who built this town, as they love to point out anytime someone dares question their authority.
The fifth man they hold between them. Jed and Matthew hold his arms, one each, with Greg in the lead and Horace behind. These are big boys. One man, no matter how high-spirited and desperate could break from such a circle.
It is John-Martin, and I smile despite my curiosity and concern about these happenin’s. How well I know and like John-Martin. He is a frequent visitor of mine, as were his parents before him before old age and arthritis prevented them from taking their daily treks to partake in my humble ministrations. Hard work and improper nutrition made them grow old before their time. Always smilin’, those two. John-Martin as well, even as a baby. He would just sit there and grin, even before he could walk or talk. His momma always said if he stayed so happy as an adult, no man, white or otherwise, would be able to touch him. There was enough love between those three to make up for a world of hate, if the world worked that way.
I watched that little baby smile through his childhood. He and his cousins would come tearing through my field just ahootin’ and ahollerin’, as little boys with their undeveloped testosterone pushing through as relentless energy are bound to do. They were all dressed the same, for their clothes were made from the same bolt of cloth, and they all had the same buzzed haircut, but their personalities were as different as green beans and apple pie. I could always tell which one was John-Martin. That smile was a dead giveaway.
Even through those angsty teenage years when boys are apt to moodiness and despair, here would come John-Martin up the little grassy knoll whistlin’ for all he was worth, but having to stop sometimes to make room on his lips to beam benevolently at the gentle nature around him.
I’d have to say, though, my favorite memory of John-Martin, and the one where he smiled brighter than any black man in the heart of Mississippi right at the start of the 1900s had any reason to smile, was his weddin’ day. His bride’s name was Violet, and they shared their first tender, blushin’ kiss standing right next to my broad trunk, hidden by the density of my foliage in the spring.
Such excitin’ days those were. I was the primary meetin’ place for their secret courtship-secret because Violet was so shy and John-Martin had no money worth speakin’ of.
“I’m gonna do it, Violet.” I remember him sayin’ one night after their feelin’s for one another had been properly expressed. “I’m gonna save up as much money as I can-I don’t need much to live on, bein’ a single man-until I have enough for a house and enough to convince your daddy that I’m good and responsible, and then I’m gonna marry you right here beneath this tree and you’re gonna wear your momma’s weddin’ dress and purple flowers in your hair.”
His voice trailed off, but his eyes were bright and his teeth glowed in the beams cast down from the moon. His voice was so tender that even I, nothin’ but an oak tree incapable of any sort of real relationship, began to believe in love.
Violet only giggled, but the way she gazed at John-Martin surely could not be rivaled by any princess in the stories.
“it’s gotta be gettin’ close to midnight now.” She had finally whispered after several minutes of John-Martin stealin’ kisses, though it can hardly be considered stealin’ when they’re given so freely, can it? “Daddy will be real mad if he catches me sneakin’ out in the middle of the night. Then he’ll never let me marry you.”
John-Martin kissed her again. “Then we’ll elope.”
I’ve been host to many weddin’s. When the sun hits just right in the evenin’, no matter what time of the year, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place in all of Mississippi than under my far-reachin’ branches. I’ve grown to be quite spectacular over the years.
But never have I seen a day so lovely as the day John-Martin got to marry his Violet. I though the boy’s cheeks were sure to explode for how hard he was workin’ them, first grinnin’ bigger than anythin’ I’ve ever seen and then fightin’ to hold back tears, and back and forth it went.
Neither family had much in the way of money or property, so everythin’ was either handed down or handmade. It all had that much-handled and well-loved look that cannot be taken out of an item once it’s there, or put into one if it doesn’t belong.
The elders were reverently helped to their seats and conversation flowed as easily as the iced tea being served in large plastic pitchers.
John-Martin stood in front of family and friends and confessed his love for his Violet with a choked-up voice and sweat streakin’ down his face. There were stains under his arms as much from nerves as from the heat.
As soon as the minister pronounced them man and wife, he picked his Violet up in his muscular arms and spun her around, both laughin’ loudly. Their joy was infectious and a night of celebratin’ and dancin’ followed that went far into the night until John-Martin quietly put his hand on Violet’s arm and led her away to be alone with him in the tiny home he had finally managed to build.
I am surprised to see John-Martin here in the company of the Davis boys. He tends to keep to himself as much as possible, particularly from the white men that run the town. The Davis boys are bad news, and I wonder what John-Martin is doin’ tanglin’ with the likes of them, especially in the middle of the night. Especially with his Violet waitin’ for him at home. They’ve been married for nearly a month now. It is far too early in their marriage to spend the night separated from each other.
It is not hard to see, even from where I’m standin’, that John-Martin is in distress.
“Please, let me go. I have a wife waitin’ for me at home.” His tone has changed from screamin’ to bargainin’. “We’ll leave town, if that’s what you want. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll pack up and be gone within the week. My wife has family in Georgia. We’ll go stay with them and you’ll never see us or hear from us again as long as we live.”
“Shut up.” Jed spits on the ground, and I feel sorry for the blade of grass that’s just been drowned in his mucus.
“Please, please, I’ll do anythin’ you like. I never hurt anyone, not even an animal. I’m a quiet, simple family man. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
“I said shut up.” Jed backhands John-Martin hard across the cheek. The slap reverberates against my trunk in the stillness of the night.
They’re right in front of me now, so close I can see the yellow of the brother’s eyes and smell the reek of whisky leaking out through their pores. I can also see that John-Martin has a busted lip and a swollen eye. The sight of his blood angers me so much that my leaves tremble, even though the air is devoid of wind.
“Please.” John is whisperin’, now, on his knees.
I feel somethin’ slide onto one of my branches, wrap around, and pull tight. It’s coarse and rough, scrapin’ bark off as it’s tied.
John is weepin’ now, bitterly and quietly. “Please, if you can find even one shred of kindness in your hearts for a poor black man, just tell my Violet I love her.”
Greg follows his brother’s lead and spits thickly on the ground. He’s smaller than the others, and I can tell he’s not holdin’ his liquor well. He’s swayin’ unsteadily on his feet and his eyes are red-rimmed. When he talks, his words come out thick and slurred. “You’ll be lucky we don’t run her out of town as an accomplice.”
“If she is an accomplice to anythin’, it is to my innocence. I ain’t steal nothin’, and I aint done nobody no harm.”
I’m glad to hear that. Even on this most horrible of nights, Violet is at the forefront of his mind.
I wish I could shake that rope off me. It feels awful against my branches. I hope, pray, that it has been put there for a different reason than the one I suspect.
A gentle breeze has blown up, and as it rustles my leaves, it pushes the rope back and forth enough for me to catch a glimpse of the noose.
No, not John-Martin.
I am worried now. I don’t know exactly what has got everyone’s panties all in knots, but I do know those Davis boys. They’re instigators, troublemakers that have rose to positions of esteem and authority through none of their own doing.
And I know John-Martin. He’s sensitive. Always has been. He’s kind and generous. If he said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.
They push him roughly against my thick trunk. My bark scratches his cheek and his arm. I wish I could wipe the blood off and wrap my branches around him to hide him within myself until this night passes.
His hands are tied behind his back, but he struggles anyways. It does him no good. Four well-fed men against one poor does not leave much question as to the outcome.
While he struggles against Greg and Jed, Matthew slips the noose over his neck.
“I don’t know, maybe we’ve gone too far.” Horace stands at a distance rubbin’ his neck. He’s the town’s only doctor and has always been the misfit of the Davis family. “Maybe he is innocent. Besides, it was just one pig. I…I’ll replace it for ya, Jed. Then we can put this whole nasty business behind us.”
“What are you talkin’ about, Horace?” Jed yells. “You do that and they’ll all think they can get away with anythin’ and ol’ doctor Horace will cover for them. No sir, strong punishment is what’s needed for this kind, here. They’re like strong-willed dogs. You hafta be strict with them or they’ll walk all over ya.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Horace chews his lip. “It just seems kinda harsh, ya know, and we really didn’t see him in the act.”
“If ya don’t like it, ya can leave. We don’t need ya.” Greg chimes in.
“I’m just not comfortable bringin’ harm to another person like this. I’m a doctor. My business is to heal people.”
“He ain’t a person, not really.” Matthew says. “Didn’t ya hear Jed? They’re like dogs. In fact, I’d feed this fella to the wolves before I would a dog I liked.”
Matthew, the strongest of them all, walks over and pulls the rope tight, squeezin’ it against John-Martin’s neck and hoistin’ him off his feet. Horace closes his eyes to block out the sight, but doesn’t make a move one way or the other
John-Martin’s swingin’ and kickin’ and moanin’ and I catch the words, so quiet and hoarse I’m sure I’m the only one who hears them. “I can’t breathe.”
I have no tears to shed, but everything within me recoils at such violence, and I cannot understand this level of hatred. I watched John-Martin grow up. I watched his parents and his grandparents grow up, and let me tell you what, there ain’t no question in my mind that they’re people, and good ones at that. If I’d have to say, there’s more humanity in John-Martin’s pinky toe than in all the Davis family put together.
If you think watchin’ a man bein’ hung is bad, try bein’ the tree he hangs from. Every kick, every twitch, every spasm, every chokin’ plea for breath I feel vibratin’ through me.
And I feel when it stops. I know the exact moment his last breath is forced out of him and his heart stops. He hangs limply, his weight swingin’ back and forth. His last smile, as if in those last moments he saw himself ushered into Heaven by the very same angels he always talked about, frozen on his face.