By Jim Penny
A version of this story was published in The Blotter a few years back.
“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21)
A faceless boy of ten years walked the dusty road in the dark, no moon, only stars over his head, the black speckled sky streaked by the occasional meteor rendered to dust and vapor by the heat of its passing, reflected in the characteristic sheen of sweat on the black face. He walked at night in the relentless summer heat of 1931 and
He was months and miles from home and her, driven away by the guilt of his hunger.
A yellow light down the road drew his attention, and he stepped into the shadows. The light flickered but did not move, and the boy stepped slowly forward, mindful of the danger such light could harbor. Closer, moving soundless, a manner of walking he knew but didn’t know, a manner arising from a past unknown, untellable, and held in raw suspicion by the world through which he passed. Closer to the light, the boy drew.
Shielded by brambles, blackberry, and poke, he saw a commissary illuminated by kerosene lamps, just a few, each one old and rusted. He stood, taking long slow breaths, worried that his beating heart might bring unwanted and surely deadly attention. An owl swooped unseen, unheard, and exploded on a field mouse in the spot of grass that somehow found its life in the otherwise barren soil surrounding the building, soil strewn with rusting bottle caps, its dust bound by discarded motor oil. The hound of indeterminate origin lying by the front door barked twice in transient resolution, and then lowered its head after turning to see the man looking through the half open screen door.
The boy crouched lower on his haunches, making a smaller target for the always-suspicious eyes, and the dog lifted his head to sniff the night air, turning toward the unexpected tendrils of sweat laden vapors threading back to the bramble. The boy’s ragged cap and shirt were damp with the perspiration produced not only by the countless miles of silent walking through the heat of summer nights but also by the fear he had grown to accept as a natural state of his being and earthly existence.
The lights flickered and expired one by one, as the man lowered the greasy charred wicks of the lanterns, save the one that illuminated his steps out of the store and toward the mare that he would ride to his home, the suspicious hound trotting by his side. The rhythmic steps of the plodding mare faded down the familiar road, leaving in short time the night sounds to fill the boy’s ears.
Breakfast had long passed the woman aged beyond her twenty-five years as she labored in the kitchen, her sanctum, her domain of counters, linoleum, chairs, and table, to prepare the meal her husband would need before returning to his field with the supplies he was purchasing in town that morning. The mixture of white flour, lard, and buttermilk, soon to become the biscuits that graced the table with every meal she prepared, streaked her arms from wrist to elbow. Ham, cured late last fall in salt from another generation, sizzled in the iron skillet atop her kerosene stove.
She was pressing the large balls of dough onto the baking tray blackened years ago from the daily use of the cook before her, each biscuit retaining the indelible impression of her first three fingers, when her husband entered the kitchen, inhaling deeply the accustomed and welcomed invitation of the noon meal. He placed a small paper bag of peppermint candy, salt, black pepper, and vanilla flavoring on the counter.
They sat together at the table, eating ham biscuits with grape jelly and hoop cheese, savoring the cool sweet tea made of the soft water drawn in a bucket from the hand dug well just steps from the back door, the well by which she would leave this world some 35 years later. He told her the story of his trip to town, including a mention of a boy who had robbed a store just last night, only to be tracked down by dogs following the scent from the cap he had left with the wrappers of the candy he had eaten by the counter of the store. The sheriff’s posse had found the boy hiding up a tulip poplar tree back in the woods some four miles from the store, and the people in town were calling for justice and an example.
Six feet of southern womanhood in bonnet, billowing faded farm dress hand stitched from chicken feed sacks, and old black lace-up shoes purchased in the Hudson-Belk across the street, strode intent of single purpose across the sparse lawn of the county courthouse. She walked with undeniable purpose towards the group of twenty hooded men standing before the sheriff at the door of the white frame building, its paint peeling from the aging pine clapboard veneer. Their shotguns, both group and sheriff, were held at the ready, the shade of the blackjack oak reaching toward them, the soft coolness of the tree’s respiration fading, if not averring, long before it reached the shifting perimeter of the gathered men. The impatient dogs tugged at their leashes. Gnats swarmed from dog to man, a thin black cloud intent on sucking sweat and tears.
The sheriff was fully cognizant of his limits this day.
She spoke, greeting them with assurance but also with the irrefutable and undeniable voice of maternal command, and the group turned toward her. The sheriff turned as well. Why they turned, they did not know, but they knew to do so, and had known to do so since the cradle. To a one, they knew her, and she knew them, calling them each by their given name: Ezekiel, Ezra, Ulysses, Ben, Zachariah, John, Howard,
One man and erstwhile leader, stepped toward her with the false confidence of assumed authority, Ezekiel, his double barrel shotgun resting in the crook of his tanned arm, incongruous with the white robe that not so many days before was a castoff bed sheet, and he told her there was no business here for a woman today. The men could handle this concern.
She stepped forward, toward Zeke and the assemblage of men, pulling herself upright and far beyond her physical measure, her shadow joining that of the ageless tree spreading behind her, its limbs reaching in embrace, the sun and its searing heat growing by the minute, as though in another moment it would never shine again.
“The men can handle this concern? The problem is I see no men here today. I see only cowards and fools hiding behind sheets, masking their faces lest they be seen for who and what they are, but I know you all. I know your boots. I know your families. We have all prayed together at church. You have all broken bread at my table.
“You are each a disgrace to the name your father gave you. Have you forgotten already what I know your mothers taught you? These dogs carry more honor and dignity than you do this day. Look at the gnats that blow your fetid flesh, here years before your Eternal Reward for what you seek to do this day.
“What man descended of Adam and worthy of the designation responds to a hungry boy with shotguns, dogs, and rope? Now listen to me, all of you, and listen to me well, as I will only say this once, and may God Almighty strike me mute if I do not mean every word, and may He rain lightning on your heads if you lift a hand contrary in purpose to my intent this day.”
With that, the out-stretched fingers of a single dark cloud, swollen with summer rain to come, occluded the sun, chilling the unseen sweat-drenched laborers of the surrounding fields while gathering thanks from the farmers who savored the brief respite from the heat and welcomed the promise of rain. A breeze from the west rustled the leaves of the oak that stood to her flank. The robes of the men shifted in the unexpected coolness as goose bumps rose across their covered flesh.
They shivered in the Fear of That before them.
She held her New Testament high in her left hand as she gestured with her right, a manner they had each seen countless times before on the Sunday mornings she led the congregation in prayer. Thunder rumbled in the not so distant west.
“That boy is now my son, he will live in my home, he will sup at my table, and he will grow into manhood as none of you has yet to do. You will not harm him this day or any day to follow, but you will step aside, and you will do so now.”
She took her first step of many.
"And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.” (Exodus 14:28)
Buck did indeed grow into manhood, just as Grandmother had said he would. He worked on my grandfather’s farm for years, as all the children did. In time, he left for