Authors: Julius Lester
In memory of the more than four thousand men and women, black and white, who were victims of lynchings, and those we will never know.
They talk among themselves about “the winter of sixty-two when the snow was so heavy it broke limbs on the Father oak tree in the church cemetery. We were worried he might not survive.”
“And what about the summer it hardly rained and we had to send our roots deep into the earth to find water?” they reminisce.
But some trees do not speak, not even to the birds that find delicious insects hidden beneath their bark, not even to the birds building nests on their branches thick with leaves. These are the old trees whose ponderous, arching branches create cool shade.
They do not speak because they are ashamed.
At least ones in the South are.
They were used for evil. Even though they could
not defend themselves, they are still ashamed.
Sometimes when the wind caresses their leaves, they whisper to the breezes, telling them what they have seen and heard, telling those invisible messengers how they were used as accomplices in evil.
The wind can listen for only so long to such painful memories. To rid itself of the horror threaded into the bark and rings of the trees, the wind goes high into the sky where it can expel the suffering of the trees without hurting anything or anyone.
But there are times when a tree can no longer withstand the pain inflicted on it, and the wind will take pity on that tree and topple it over in a mighty storm. All the other trees who witnessed the evil look down upon the fallen tree with envy. They pray for the day when a wind will end their suffering.
I pray for the day when God will end mine.
Davis, a small town in the deep South of the United States.
Fourteen-year-old Ansel Anderson stands by the screen door in the entrance of the store his grandfather started, the store where Ansel's father worked beside his father when he was a boy, the store where Ansel now works beside his father.
It is late afternoon. The heat is as heavy as a broken heart.
Nothing moves, not the leaves on the large oak tree at the end of the concrete island in the middle of the main street, not the three men sitting on a bench in the tree's shade, not even a bird.
On the other side of the street, the clothing,
shoe, and drug stores are as empty of customers as Anderson's.
Long before Ansel was born, when his grandfather ran Anderson's General Store, they carried clothes, shoes, and remedies in addition to the groceries, rifles, ammunition, and fishing equipment they carried now. Bert, Ansel's father, took over the store after his father dropped dead behind the counter from a heart attack because, Bert believed, the store had tried to be everything to everybody. That was a good way to give yourself a heart attack, not run a business. Bert was only eighteen when his father died, but he consolidated the inventory and increased profitability.
Ansel has worked in the store since he can remember. One day it will be his. He is not sure he will be as good at it as his father is.
Bert is a congenial and handsome man with curly, dark hair, blue eyes, and a smile that could steal honey from bees.
Many people, especially women, come to the store as much for his smile as to buy what they need. Bert knows people need a smile as much as they need to buy milk.
People almost always leave the store feeling better than when they came in, and all because Bert smiled at them.
Ansel is more like his motherâshort, dark straight hair, dark eyes. She looks younger than her thirty-two years, and he certainly looks younger than his fourteen.
His mother, Maureen, used to work in the store every day after she and Bert married six months before Ansel was born. But she only works Saturdays now. That's when Zeph Davis, or Cap'n Davis, as everyone, white and colored, calls him, brings his Negroes into town.
They don't have money. They work on shares. He takes care of all their needsâa shack to live in, clothes to wear, food to eat, cottonseed, and everything else they might need. In the fall when they pick the cotton and bring it to Cap'n Davis to be weighed, he deducts their expenses from what he would have paid them for the cotton, and their expenses include the cheese and crackers and sodas they buy at Anderson's every Saturday. Their expenses are always greater than what Cap'n Davis pays them for the cotton they grow, so each year they end up deeper in debt to him
than they were the year before. It is another form of slavery.
Ansel's mother is the one who writes in the big ledger book what the Negroes buy and how much it costs.
There is a dour seriousness about her and Ansel. Both mother and son are cloaked in melancholy, a sadness arising, perhaps, from the land in which the sorrowing trees spread their roots, a despair that their lives have as little meaning as the dust stirred up by a passing car.
It worries Bert that Ansel is so much like his mother. The boy can't seem to grasp a simple thing like how important it is to smile at customers. “People buy as much because they like you as because they need something.”
“What if I don't feel like smiling?” Ansel asked his father once.
Bert had gotten angry. “There ain't no place for feelings in business. Your job is to see to it that people who come in for one thing leave with two, three, or four. The only thing you should be feeling is how you can get somebody to believe he needs something, whether he does or not. People don't want to feel like
you're taking their money. Smile, and they'll feel like they're giving it to you.”
“But that's not honest,” Ansel had insisted.
Bert smiled. “It is if you're running a business!”
Ansel turns away from the door and goes over to his father, who is seated behind the counter.
“Papa? Do you need me and Willie for anything?”
Bert looks at his son. He remembers what it was like when he was fourteen and stood looking out the screen door on a day like today thinking he was going to die of boredom. He would not have minded closing the store and going home, but if he did, as sure as he was breathing, somebody would come to town wanting something.
“I reckon not. You and Willie going to do a little fishing?”
“Y'all can go on. But tomorrow's Wednesday. You and Willie have to take groceries and supplies out to Miz Esther's first thing.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks, Papa.” Ansel runs eagerly to the storage room at the back of the store where Willie is.
Bert frowns as he hears the two excited voices.
He had hired Willie for the summer because Esther Davis had asked him to. As far as Bert was concerned, a nigger boy like that ought to be out working in the field, but his mama was Esther's cook and housekeeper, and his father was crazy. There wasn't anybody he could work in the fields with.
Bert didn't need the boy, but he couldn't refuse to do something a Davis asked, even one as eccentric as Esther.
He had to admit that the boy worked hard keeping the storage room neat and organized, shelving goods, and packing groceries. Him doing what Ansel would normally be doing had given Bert the opportunity to start teaching his son the businessâhow to do the ordering, from whom and for what, how to keep track of inventory, and how to total up the receipts at the end of each day.
But if Bert had known Ansel and the nigger would take to each other like the brother neither one of them had, he would not have hired him. He kept looking for an excuse to fire him, but the boy never gave him one.
It was all right to have a nigger as a friend when
you were little, but at fourteen it was time for Ansel to understand what it meant to be white, and past time for Willie to understand what it meant to be a nigger. Next summer there wouldn't be any work at the store for Willie, no matter how much Esther begged him.
Bert walks from behind the counter and goes to stand in the doorway where Ansel had been. He stares idly at the statue of the Confederate soldier at the head of the concrete island, his rifle pointed at anyone coming into town. He doesn't have to see the base to remember the words carved there: “To our Confederate Army dead who struggled valiantly to preserve our way of life.”
They might have lost the war, but their way of life hadn't really changed, at least not in Davis. A nigger didn't speak until spoken to; he looked down at his feet when talking to a white personâman, woman, or child; he stepped off the sidewalk and walked in the street when he saw a white person coming toward him or heard one behind him; and he'd better not even look like he was
about being equal to a white man.
Maureen didn't like him referring to them as niggers. He didn't call them that to their faces,
unlike every other white person in town. But he didn't address them as “Mister” or “Miz,” either. He addressed them by name. He'd learned that from his father.
But also like his father, when Bert was around other whites, at church or wherever, he said “nigger.” Everybody would have looked at him suspiciously if he referred to them as “colored” or “Negro.” Hell, even Reverend Dennis called them “niggers,” and if the preacher did it, there wasn't nothing wrong with it.
Recently Maureen had been talking about how she wondered if Davis was a good place to raise a boy, if Ansel might get a better education in a school up north.
She had to know that he would never let Ansel leave Davis, but if he did, it wouldn't be to go up north where niggers thought they were as good as white people.
Deep down, Bert knows different, but that doesn't mean he could give up the good feeling it gave him to be a white man.
It was a feeling he had somehow failed to pass
on to his son. The boy was too close to his mother. That was the problem.
Bert knew he had to do something before the boy grew up to be unfit to live in a place like Davis, unfit to be a member of the white race.
At the back of the store is an area of gravel where delivery trucks come. Beyond this is a large field overgrown with weeds, wildflowers, and Queen Anne's lace. A hobbled mule grazes idly.
Ansel and Willie make their way along the path through the field, Willie carrying a fishing pole in each hand, Ansel carrying a can of worms. The path continues through a small stand of tulip poplar trees and emerges in a clearing at the bank of a wide creek of clear water.
“Look at that one!” Ansel exclaims, pointing to a huge catfish on the bottom, swishing its tail languidly. The two boys sit down on the bank, bait their hooks, and throw the lines into the water.
For a while neither says a word. There is something special about the silence this afternoon. It isn't the first time the two have gone fishing together here. But this afternoon it is as if they are outside time, free of the definitions that constrict their lives inside time. On this afternoon they are merely two boys doing what boys have always done when it is summer and there's a creek nearby and fish lolling on the bottom.
Ansel is the one who finally breaks the silence, but not because the silence is too much to bear. It is the intimate quality of the silence that encourages him to speak.
“I saw your papa Friday evening.”
Big Willie. That's the only name Ansel knows for him, but he doesn't use it. He knows it is all right for him to call colored people by their first names. Indeed, it is expected of him. But Willie can't call Ansel's father “Bert”; Ansel doesn't think he should call Willie's father “Big Willie.”
Ansel also doesn't think Willie should address him as “Mister Ansel,” especially when they are by themselves.
But no matter how many times Ansel has asked Willie to call him “Ansel,” all Willie says is “Can't.”
Ansel is ashamed to admit that a part of him likes it when Willie calls him “Mister Ansel.” It makes him feel important.
“Me and my papa had just closed up the store,” Ansel continues quietly, “and were walking to our car, which was parked next to the church. We saw your papa coming out the back door of the church. Does he like working there?”
Little Willie's mother and father think Bert Anderson is the best white man in the world, because Big Willie was shell-shocked when he came back from the war over in Germany and wasn't fit to do much of anything.
Esther Davis knew the church needed a new roof, and she asked Bert to speak with Reverend Dennis and tell him that she would pay for the roof if he hired Big Willie to do little jobs around the churchâclean up, set out chairs in the social hall for meetings, and be the general handyman. And she would pay Willie's salary, but he was to think it came from the church.
“He likes it real good,” Little Willie responds. “He say when he's in the church, he don't see things.”
“What kind of things?” Ansel wants to know. He knew Big Willie wasn't quite right in the head because
he wandered around talking to himself, sometimes very loudly.
“Almost every night my papa wakes up yelling about mountains made of bodies, and about skeletons walking around, except he say the skeletons were live people.”
“He does?” Ansel asks, trying to imagine a mountain made of bodies and can't.
Little Willie nods. “Once I said to my mama that Papa didn't make sense when he say things like that. I told her that mountains are made of rocks, not bodies, and skeletons couldn't walk around like people.”
“What did your mama say?”
“She say, âJust because something don't make no sense, it don't mean it didn't happen.'”
Ansel is on the verge of saying something, something important, when he hears a boy and a girl laughing, coming toward them.
With a pain that will remain in his heart for the rest of his long life, Ansel recognizes the girl's laughter immediately. It is a laugh that rings with the joy of bells in church at Christmastime, a laugh he thought only he was supposed to hear.
He also recognizes the high-pitched and tight
laugh of the boy that sounds like he is in a lacerating pain.
That laugh thrusts Willie and Ansel brutally back into time.
Without a word or a glance at Ansel, Willie jerks his line from the water and starts wrapping it around the pole.
Ansel does not know what to do. He does not want to turn around and look at them, at her. But he can't help himself. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe it is not her.
He turns just as the two emerge from the trees, just in time to see Zeph Davis III put his arm around her shoulders like she is a big teddy bear he won playing a game at the carnival.
When Mary Susan sees Ansel looking up at her, her face flushes red. She tries to move away from Zeph's arm, but he, eyebrows raised in recognition at Ansel, pulls her to him tightly, his fingers digging into her shoulder.
Zeph saunters down to the creek bank, down to where Little Willie and Ansel sit.
The sun is behind Mary. The way the light glistens off her blond hair, it looks to Ansel like she has a halo
around her head like the angels in the stained-glass windows of her father's church.
Mary Susan is looking down at the ground.
Ansel continues staring at her. She is tall, taller than he is, as tall as Zeph. With her blond hair and blue eyes, she is the most beautiful girl in town, if not the entire county, and if someone said she was the most beautiful girl in the state, and even the South, Ansel would not have argued.
She radiates the purity of innocence, a look she practices before the mirror in her room. She isn't sure how she does it, or even why, but she has learned to make her eyes wide, as if she lives in a perpetual childhood where there are no skinned knees or tears, or fathers putting their hands where they do not belong.
This summer, almost overnight it seems, her body, through no effort on her part, has unfolded, like bee-kissed flowers, into its woman-shape, and before she can learn how to live with the monthly streaming of blood and the weight of breasts, she is the target of male lustâadolescent, adult, and aged. Even at church, when she walks down the aisle to the altar to take communion, she feels male eyes moving up and
down her body like spiders across a web. She does not understand how her father can preach against lust and make her feel as if she has no clothes on. She knows those eyes want something of her, from her, and she is flattered and repulsed at the same time. If only she had someone to talk to who could help her figure out what to do, help her figure out how to be.
No one in Davis is aware enough to articulate that almost no male could resist the compelling blending of her new, thrusting breasts with the innocence in her blue eyes, an innocence which belies knowledge of anything as carnal as nipples hardening with flushed excitement, a purity unsullied by the pungent odors that accompany the blush of womanhood that causes male eyes to flame with a desire that can never be satisfied. She was child and woman, an especially vulnerable time in the life of one as beautiful as she.
At this moment, she feels Ansel's eyes looking at her from a depth of pain she did not know could exist, and she is sorry she allowed her summertime boredom to lead her to agree to taking a walk with Zeph.
When she asked her father if it was all right for her to go with Zeph, she had thought, had hoped he
would say no. She saw the “no” in his eyes and how quickly it was replaced by fear, but not a fear for her. It was the fear of what might happen if he said no to a Davis. The church depended on the generosity of the Davises.
Mary Susan was surprised by the contempt she felt for her father at that moment when she needed him to protect her from herself. Instead, he was asking her to protect him.
Then she walked out of the trees and saw Ansel. When her family had moved to town last summer, he had been the only boy whose look gave her to herself, whose look did not make her feel like eyes were unbuttoning her blouse and pulling down her skirt.
“Well, well, well,” Zeph says, looking down at Ansel and Willie. “If it ain't the nigger lover with his tar baby.”
Zeph Davis is sixteen, the great-grandson of the Zephaniah Davis who gave his name to the town, the son of Cap'n Davis, who owns the largest plantation in that part of the state, as well as every building in the center of town, including Anderson's General Store.
Willie has finished wrapping his line around the
pole and securing the hook. He gets up and walks away without looking at anyone.
Ansel does not want him to go, does not want to be left alone with Zeph, does not want to be left alone with Zeph and Mary. But he, too, pulls his line from the water.
“Where you goin', Tar Baby?” Zeph calls after Willie.
Willie knows he cannot walk away when a white person speaks to him. He stops and turns. He is careful not to look Zeph in the eyes, careful not to look at Mary Susan at all, and focuses his gaze on a spot in front of Zeph's boots.
“I don't want no trouble, Mister Zeph, suh. Don't want no trouble.”
Zeph laughs. “You a good nigger, boy. You can go on.”
“Thank you, suh,” and Willie turns and runs into the stand of trees.
Zeph laughs his high-pitched, strangled laugh, then makes an exaggerated motion of sniffing the air. “Smells better already. I know niggers wash with soap, but can't nothing get rid of that nigger smell, can it, Mary?”
Ansel has finished fixing his line and hook to his pole. He stands up and looks at Mary Susan.
“Where you going, nigger lover?” Zeph asks.
Ansel is glad when Mary Susan says, “Don't call him that.”
“But that's what he is! What's wrong with calling him by his right name? And why do you care? I know you and him are sweet on each other, but nobody but another nigger lover would be sweet on a nigger lover. And I know you're not one of them. Are you?” There is a menacing tone to his voice.
Ansel's eyes plead with Mary Susan to say something, but she won't look at him.
Zeph pulls her closer and gives her a hard, clumsy kiss on the lips.
Tears come into Ansel's eyes, and afraid Zeph and Mary Susan will see, he runs into the trees.
Zeph's shrieking laugh follows him.
Willie is sitting on the ground, his back against the store, his thin arms crossed tightly against his chest, his fishing pole leaning against the doorjamb.
Ansel takes the poles and the can of worms he remembered to bring and puts them just inside the back door. Then he sits down next to Willie.
They are silent, but this silence is that of an anger that knows its name but dares not speak. But Willie must speak, or the anger will claim him, body, soul, and mind.
“Zeph Davis” is all Willie says.
“You know him?”
“Know that noise he calls laughing.”
“Where you know him from?”
“He come out to the quarters all the time. He have a pistol jammed in his belt. One time he shoot Cousin Dan's coon dog that was sleeping in the yard just because he could.”
“Why did he do that?”
Willie looks at Ansel, eyes contemptuous with knowledge. “Why you think? If he see a nigger girl he wants, he just takes her. He'll take her into the
cabin where she live at, and make her mama and papa watch while he has his way with her. When he come out, he be laughing, but my mama say it sound to her like he be crying.”
Ansel looks toward the creek, wondering if Zeph is having his way with Mary Susan.
As Ansel walks away, Mary Susan wants to call out to him to wait, that she is sorry, that she does not know why she is standing there letting Zeph Davis put his arm around her as if she is his property.
Perhaps she would have said something, have done something if Zeph had not jerked her head around and started pressing his lips against hers. She is so surprised that for a moment she does not know what is happening.
When she does, she tries to pull away from him, but he puts one hand behind her head and pushes her lips even harder against his.
This is not how she imagined her first kiss, and certainly she had never dreamed it would be from Zeph Davis. Her first kiss was supposed to have come from Ansel, and it would have been soft and gentle and kind.
Suddenly, she feels Zeph's tongue poking at her closed mouth and does not know what he is trying to do until his tongue is inside her mouth, and she can taste his dayâthe sausage he had for breakfast, the cigarettes he smoked, the mouthwash he gargled
to cover the smell, the dust that billowed up from the road and into the truck he drove around his father's plantation. She does not want the knowledge of him in her mouth, and she bites his tongue as hard as she can.
“Bitch! You goddam bitch!” Zeph yells, involuntarily releasing his grip on her.
He tries to slap her, but some instinct causes Mary Susan to move away from his avenging hand.
“You try to hit me one more time, and I'll kick you so hard in a certain place you won't be able to get out of bed for a month.”
Fear comes into Zeph's eyes.
“Just because I'm the preacher's daughter, it don't mean that I don't know things.”
“You goddam bitch!” Zeph snarls again, but his voice is tinged with wariness.
The two stare at each other for a moment, he waiting for her to leave first so he can feel like he won, she waiting for him to leave first because she is afraid to turn her back on him.
Finally, he flings another “goddam bitch” at her and walks away.
Mary Susan waits until she is sure he is gone,
then tears of anger and fear, of disgust and confusion fill her eyes and trickle slowly down her face. She sits down at the edge of the creek, sits down where she thinks Ansel was sitting.
She does not understand what she'd been thinking by going with Zeph. She doesn't even like him.
But she was flattered that an older boy, the son of the richest man in town, would be interested in her.