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People & Culture
Short story: "Going To Meet the Man"
"Going to Meet the Man"
I became a man when I was thirteen.
Every Sunday morning for months before my Bar Mitzvah I argued with my father about Hebrew class. He insisted that I go through with the whole thing whether I liked it or not. Once, when I refused to leave my room, he dragged me downstairs by the ear and marched me into the car. Eventually he decided he would coach me himself. When it was all over I could do as I pleased.
During the service my best friend Thomas Rickword smirked at me from the congregation, wearing a beret in lieu of a kappel. My voice cracked as I intoned the meaningless sounds I'd learnt by heart.
The summer after my thirteenth birthday we rented a farmhouse in France and the Rickwords came to stay. Thomas Rickword and I shared an ancient stone loft with my little brother.
I could hear Thomas wheezing in the next bed, his breath more and more laboured.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"What do you think?"
"Well, mind you don't have an asthma attack."
He didn't reply.
I smiled to myself at his persistence even as I moved gently against the mattress. My little brother slept on, emitting a snuffly snore with each breath.
Before going to sleep I bent over the side of the bed and shone the little bedside light at the cobwebs underneath, searching for presences. I couldn't see anything but still wasn't convinced. The thought of a spider running across my cheek in the night made me shudder.
Sex was everywhere that summer. At the plan d'eau the French girls screamed as they were thrown off the jetty by youths who arrived in a buzz of Mobylettes. In the mornings, Celia Rickword, Thomas's mother, tripped about in her bra and pants on the terrace of the old farmhouse my family had rented, as if she'd simply forgotten to put her dress on. I could see through the white cotton. All day long, at lunch, throughout the afternoon, my dad made Celia laugh. As they sat on the low terrace chairs in the sultry blue evening, with the noise of cicadas thick in the air and the smell of lime and wild herbs all around, I watched their heads tip back as if they were drinking deeply from a loving cup. I saw how handsome he was, with his olive skin darkened by the sun, his black hair shining. He wore a short-sleeved shirt and his firm biceps pulled the fabric of the sleeves tight around them. Even my mother, so dowdy, as she always told us, even she seemed to enjoy the attention of Thomas's dad, Jack, a pigeon-toed Englishman with pasty knees. He and my mother were the gooseberries, thrown together.
At first I wondered if I mightn't be making it up, but just before bed my older sister Rebecca took me aside and asked me whether I thought something was going on. We plotted in the dark garden below the terrace from where the voices of the adults cascaded into the quiet; except that we had nothing to plot about, nothing we could do, only share our anxieties and speculate about wife-swapping and what we'd do if the two marriages did break up.
"Me and Thomas'd be step-brothers. I wouldn't mind, actually." I liked the idea of the grown-up Rickword girls with their long dark hair and banter as my older sisters. "I wonder where we'd live."
"I'd leave home," said Rebecca.
"Really?" I was suddenly bereft.
"What about me?" I thought.
"Has Thomas mentioned anything?" she said.
I cleared my throat. "I'll ask him tomorrow."
"Honestly, Thomas! We'll never get to Antibes at this rate." Jack, who was showing my mum how he made his special omelettes, kept coming out onto the terrace to nag Thomas in a high-pitched voice to lay the breakfast table. We were going on an expedition to the Picasso Museum. Thomas didn't move. He had his bare feet up on a chair and carried on reading. I was pretending to read but couldn't concentrate. As usual, it felt like an effort, and this morning I didn't even try, I was too edgy. Celia Rickword had still not emerged from the big blue tent under the shade of the myrtle trees. I heaved myself out of my chair and entered the kitchen, eyes dim after the intense sunlight.
Dad and Celia took me and Thomas in one car while Mum and Jack took the others. Rebecca and I shot each other warning glances as we parted. On the journey, my brother got something in his eye. The two cars pulled up onto a narrow pavement in St. Raphael. We stood about while Dad tried licking the speck out to no avail. Mum came into our car and held little Toby on her lap. She said nothing, while Celia read the roadsigns and gave Dad directions to the hospital. It was odd having Mum in the back and them in front.
At the hospital, Celia got out with Dad and Toby. With her fluent French she would do the talking. I stared after them as they disappeared inside up a broad staircase, felt my head swim. I glanced at my mum's face but could read nothing there. On the beach where we went to wait, African men walked up and down among the holidaymakers selling beads and bangles.
Toby was mopey after the hospital, one eye covered with gauze. From the Picasso Museum, full of paintings of fauns, half-man half-animal, we trekked to Vence to see the Matisse chapel, which was cool and light inside. No colour, the martyrdom rendered in black on white. We found Toby asleep on the bonnet of the car when we came out, his uppermost cheek sunburnt.
As we drove home the moon was a pale orange sliver behind cypresses. I tried to forget I was worried. The sky was like velvet. At a big crossroads Rebecca pointed out a monument to Communist resistance fighters massacred by the Nazis, and I had an image of a German soldier in a bulbous helmet gunning them down. I was tired, drifting off to the cicadas' chicker-chicker...
But the evening hadn't ended. Dad and Celia went down to the village for a drink. After they'd gone, everything was suddenly quiet and lifeless. We were abandoned, left in limbo, while my dad had gone away to a new world and forgotten us.
The little ones were put to bed. Thomas had an asthma attack and wheezed his way up to the loft, having run out of his inhaler spray. I watched Mum and Jack as they poured themselves drinks and sat out on the terrace by candlelight, talking softly. Perhaps it was all decided, then. This was the new order from now on, the two couples formally swapped. I wanted to bellow something to stop it happening, the way Toby's crying in St. Raphael had for a few moments forced my parents to attend.
"It's real, isn't it," I said to Rebecca out in the garden, where she had retreated to lie motionless in the frayed hammock. She seemed to have collapsed in on herself. In the moonlight, the hammock sagged like a string bag of vegetables.
She nodded and I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. The beginning of a terror took hold of me, and my breath came short. I shook my head in recognition and despair, then caved in and wept along with her as I sat on the itchy grass a few feet away.
"What did Thomas say?" she asked.
"He just laughed. He couldn't care less." I had asked him about it the previous night and his airy dismissal had heartened me then. "He thinks his parents have always been unhappy." No wonder Thomas went his own way, I thought, better than crying and not being heeded.
"But ours haven't. This is new for us."
"Shall we still not say anything?" I asked. "I mean, maybe we should now." After all, it was rock-bottom.
Rebecca sniffed, nodded. "I'll try it when Mum's alone."
"Goodnight." She patted me on the arm as I passed her.
It wasn't until the following afternoon, during the hottest part of the day, that my mother was finally on her own, with the little ones off for a swim with Dad and Celia, and Jack having taken Thomas into Draguignan to get Thomas some more asthma spray. Rebecca was devouring a book by James Baldwin called Going To Meet the Man. She hadn't spoken to Mum yet, seemed to have withdrawn into her reading.
"Hullo," said my mum, as I followed her round the side of the house to their bedroom. "Amazing weather, isn't it." She was folding newly washed clothes she'd just taken off the line in the garden.
"Mum, are Dad and Celia having an affair?" I got ready to monitor her reaction.
She shook her head. "Of course not, darling. What made you think that?" She held some clothes against her front and smiled at me with a little furrow in her forehead.
"They're flirting a lot and they went off to the bar last night. Now they've gone swimming. I thought "
"Don't be silly, nothing's going on, I assure you. Celia's rather vivacious, that's all, and Dad... " She shrugged.
"And what about you and Jack?"
"Not at all," she looked sorry for me. "Have you been worrying?"
I gulped down the sob in my chest. I wanted to believe her. I almost did; she seemed so natural.
"Jack and Celia are having a difficult time, I think."
"In what way?"
"I don't know, darling, they haven't discussed it; it's just an impression. Has Rebecca been worrying about it too?"
"Not really," I hestitated. "Well...a bit."
So we weren't completely wrong. Maybe we had jumped the gun, and nothing had actually happened yet, but something was afoot. Maybe she was concealing her own suffering.
Rain drove down, warm drops that spattered onto the stone terrace, setting the garden ticking. An all-pervading aroma rose from the ground, enveloping us. It was a bodily smell, like the smell of a man's sweat. We waved goodbye as the Rickwords' car ground up the stony driveway and turned left out of sight.
They had spent the morning packing, dismantling their blue tent in the rain. Thomas had been at his most rebellious. He and I, inside the tent to help take it down, had lain on the groundsheet, weeping with laughter as he'd thumped Jack's shins through the canvas time and time again with a tent pole. "Ouch! Thomas, stop that!" Jack exclaimed every time. In the grip of hysteria, I was astonished at Jack's feebleness, afraid of being implicated if a showdown came, and shocked by the force Thomas used. Now they had gone, and it was as if my family were stragglers at the end of a party.
Parts of the terrace under foliage remained dry in the downpour, and I sat on one of the low chairs reading the book Rebecca had passed on to me and recommended. At first I couldn't get into it; it felt too adult. On the point of giving up, I turned at random to the last page and came across a sex scene. I had to ease my instant erection to one side of my shorts. I leafed back to the beginning of the story and was glued to it straightaway, read with a queasy feeling in my stomach the description of a black man being beaten in the police cell. As I read on, the world around me dimmed. I could hardly breathe and a heavy weight constricted my chest. I saw what the little boy on his father's shoulders had seen, the hanging of a black man at a communal picnic, the burning of him alive and the cutting off of his genitals, the fire, the smoking body above it. I smelled the singed flesh as if I had been the boy perched on his father's shoulders, trusting him, and all at once finding himself alone, high above the crowd of
spectators, staring straight into the bulging eyes.
As soon as I finished the story I burst into tears; I couldn't stop. I kept seeing the man who'd held the victim's privates in his hand "as though he were weighing them"- that phrase struck me again and again - before cutting them off. And the blood "roaring" down.
I tried to turn away from it mentally, but it stayed before my eyes - the bloody gap where the genitals had been. My own balls began to hurt. It was inconceivable that such a thing had taken place in America where I'd once lived, even as the New York skyscrapers had been shining in bright sunlight under a blue sky and airliners were criss-crossing the Atlantic. I thought of the African men labouring up and down the beach in their espadrilles, oceans away from home. Then I thought of the monument to resistance heroes and how it had said "mutiles". I knew what that was, not clean bursts of gunfire. That had happened here, in this peaceful cicada-filled countryside.
I wept in my chair, rocking back and forth. Rebecca noticed and came and hugged me. The little ones saw and I tried to smile and say I was alright.
"It's the cutting off of the penis," I said, turning to Rebecca.
"Probably got to you as a pubescent male," she said.
"It has. It's too disgusting." Another wave hit me. "But to cut it off!" I cried. My gorge rose. I stared down at the ground. The rainwater was spreading across the terrace, forcing ants to the edges and up onto the low wall. The wet dust on my flip-flops was getting smeared.
I wanted to smash the lynch mob with my bare hands. My whole body clenched with hatred towards those brutish onlookers and their ringleaders who did exactly as they pleased. I couldn't fathom it, that such a crime had gone unavenged, no-one punished, as if it hadn't mattered. How could they live with it, black people, how could they bear their own righteous anger? Where on earth was justice? I howled in distress; I didn't recognise the sound I made.
My mum came to me, but her scattered words provided no comfort. She was too distracted to be of use. She looked pathetic, as though she had already been deserted by my father. I shooed her away, saying: "I'm fine now, really." Dad was busy loading the car, concentrating on what he was doing. He hadn't noticed the little commotion around me.
The others treated me gingerly for the rest of the day as if I were unwell. I was exhausted, but that night in the pitch darkness I kept thinking about spiders and couldn't sleep.
Everything was far worse than I'd imagined, and there was no-one to make it come right, no way back to the old world; only the need to be a sentry from now on, eyes speared permanently to the horizon, waiting for the moment to be brave. My father would leave us, I was convinced. We could do nothing to prevent it. Beyond that were far more ominous things still in shadow, too big to take in, like the bulk beyond a crescent moon.
Going to Meet the Man
by James Baldwin
"WHAT'S THE MATTER?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, trying to laugh, "I guess I'm tired."
"You've been working too hard," she said. "I keep telling you."
"Well, goddammit, woman," he said, "it's not my fault!" He tried again; he wretchedly failed again. Then he just lay there, silent, angry, and helpless. Excitement filled him like a tooth-ache, but it refused to enter his flesh. He stroked her breast.
This was his wife. He could not ask her to do just a little thing for him, just to help him out. Just for a little while, the way he could ask a nigger girl to do it. He lay there, and he sighed. The image of a black girl caused a distant excitement in him, like a far-away light; but, again, the excitement was more like pain; instead of forcing him to act, it made action impossible.
"Go to sleep," she said, gently, "you got a hard day tomorrow."
"Yeah," he said, and rolled over on his side, facing her, one hand still on one breast. "Goddamn the niggers. The black stinking coons. You'd think they'd learn. Wouldn't you think they'd learn? I mean, wouldn't you?"
"They going to be out there tomorrow," she said, and took his hand away, "get some sleep."
He lay there, one hand between his legs, staring at the frail sanctuary of his wife. A faint light came from the shutters; the moon was full. Two dogs, far away, were barking at each other, back and forth, insistently, as though they were agreeing to make an appointment. He heard a car coming north on the road and he half sat up, his hand reaching for his holster, which was on a chair near the bed, on top of his pants. The lights hit the shutters and seemed to travel across the room and then went out. The sound of the car slipped away, he heard it hit gravel, then heard it no more. Some liver-lipped students, probably, heading back to that college- but coming from where? His watch said it was two in the morning. They could be coming from anywhere, from out of state most likely, and they would be at the court-house tomorrow. The niggers were getting ready. Well, they would be ready, too.
He moaned. He wanted to let whatever was in him out; but it wouldn't come out. Goddamn! he said aloud, and turned again, on his side, away from Grace, staring at the shutters. He was a big, healthy man and he had never had any trouble sleeping. And he wasn't old enough yet to have any trouble getting it up- he was only forty-two. And he was a good man, a God-fearing man, he had tried to do his duty all his life, and he had been a deputy sheriff for several years.
Nothing had ever bothered him before, certainly not getting it up. Sometimes, sure, like any other man, he knew that he wanted a little more spice than Grace could give him and he would drive over yonder and pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing, but he couldn't do that now, no more. There was no telling what might happen once your ass was in the air. And they were low enough to kill a man then, too, everyone of them, or the girl herself might do it, right while she was making believe you made her feel so good. The niggers. What had the good Lord Almighty had in mind when he made the niggers? Well. They were pretty good at that, all right. Damn. Damn. Goddamn.
This wasn't helping him to sleep. He turned again, toward Grace again, and moved close to her warm body. He felt something he had never felt before. He felt that he would like to hold her, hold her, hold her, and be buried in her like a child and never have to get up in the morning again and go downtown to face those faces, good Christ, they were ugly! and never have to enter that jail house again and smell that smell and hear that singing; never again feel that filthy, kinky, greasy hair under his hand, never again watch those black breasts leap against the leaping cattle prod, never hear those moans again or watch that blood run down or the fat lips split or the sealed eyes struggle open.
They were animals, they were no better than animals, what could be done with people like that? Here they had been in a civilized country for years and they still lived like animals. Their houses were dark, with oil cloth or cardboard in the windows, the smell was enough to make you puke your guts out, and there they sat, a whole tribe, pumping out kids, it looked like, every damn five minutes, and laughing and talking and playing music like they didn't have a care in the world, and he reckoned they didn't, neither, and coming to the door, into the sunlight. Just standing there. Just looking foolish, not thinking of anything but just getting back to what they were doing, saying, Yes suh, Mr. Jesse. I surely will, Mr. Jesse. Fine weather, Mr. Jesse. Why, I thank you, Mr. Jesse. He had worked for a mail-order house for a while and it had been his job to collect the payments for the stuff they bought. They were too dumb to know that they were being cheated blind, but that was no skin off his ass- he was just supposed to do his job. They would be late- they didn't have the sense to put money aside; but it was easy to scare them, and he never really had any trouble.
Hell, they all liked him, the kids used to smile when he came to the door. He gave them candy, sometimes, or chewing gum, and rubbed their rough bullet heads- maybe the candy should have been poisoned. Those kids were grown now. He had had trouble with one of them today.
"There was this nigger today," he said; and stopped; his voice sounded peculiar. He touched Grace. "You awake?" he asked. She mumbled something, impatiently, she was probably telling him to go to sleep. It was all right. He knew that he was not alone.
"What a funny time," he said, "to be thinking about a thing like that- you listening?" She mumbled something again. He rolled over on his back. "This nigger's one of the ringleaders. We had trouble with him before. We must have had him out there at the work farm three or four times. Well, Big Jim C. and some of the boys really had to whip that nigger's ass today." He looked over at Grace; he could not tell whether she was listening or not; and he was afraid to ask again.
"They had this line you know, to register"- he laughed, but she did not- "and they wouldn't stay where Big Jim C. wanted them, no, they had to start blocking traffic all around the court house so couldn't nothing or nobody get through, and Big Jim C. told them to disperse and they wouldn't move, they just kept up that singing, and Big Jim C. figured that the others would move if this nigger would move, him being the ring-leader, but he wouldn't move and he wouldn't let the others move, so they had to beat him and a couple of the others and they threw them in the wagon- but I didn't see this nigger till I got to the jail. They were still singing and I was supposed to make them stop. Well, I couldn't make them stop for me but I knew he could make them stop. He was lying on the ground jerking and moaning, they had threw him in a cell by himself, and blood was coming out his ears from where Big Jim C. and his boys had whipped him. Wouldn't you think they'd learn? I put the prod to him and he jerked some more and he kind of screamed- but he didn't have much voice left.
"You make them stop that singing," I said to him, "you hear me? You make them stop that singing." He acted like he didn't hear me and I put it to him again, under his arms, and he just rolled around on the floor and blood started coming from his mouth. He'd pissed his pants already."
He paused. His mouth felt dry and his throat was as rough as sandpaper; as he talked, he began to hurt all over with that peculiar excitement which refused to be released. "You all are going to stop your singing, I said to him, and you are going to stop coming down to the court house and disrupting traffic and molesting the people and keeping us from our duties and keeping doctors from getting to sick white women and getting all them Northerners in this town to give our town a bad name!" As he said this, he kept prodding the boy, sweat pouring from beneath the helmet he had not yet taken off. The boy rolled around in his own dirt and water and blood and tried to scream again as the prod hit his testicles, but the scream did not come out, only a kind of rattle and a moan.
He stopped. He was not supposed to kill the nigger. The cell was filled with a terrible odor. The boy was still. "You hear me?" he called. "You had enough?" The singing went on. "You had enough?" His foot leapt out, he had not known it was going to, and caught the boy flush on the jaw. Jesus, he thought, this ain't no nigger, this is a goddamn bull, and he screamed again, "You had enough? You going to make them stop that singing now?"
But the boy was out. And now he was shaking worse than the boy had been shaking. He was glad no one could see him. At the same time, he felt very close to a very peculiar, particular joy; something deep in him and deep in his memory was stirred, but whatever was in his memory eluded him. He took off his helmet. He walked to the cell door.
"White man," said the boy, from the floor, behind him. He stopped. For some reason, he grabbed his privates.
"You remember Old Julia?"
The boy said, from the floor, with his mouth full of blood, and one eye, barely open, glaring like the eye of a cat in the dark, "My grandmother's name was Mrs. Julia Blossom. Mrs. Julia Blossom. You going to call our women by their right names yet- And those kids ain't going to stop singing. We going to keep on singing until every one of you miserable white mothers go stark raving out of your minds." Then he closed the one eye; he spat blood; his head fell back against the floor.
He looked down at the boy, whom he had been seeing, off and on, for more than a year, and suddenly remembered him: Old Julia had been one of his mail-order customers, a nice old woman. He had not seen her for years, he supposed that she must be dead.
He had walked into the yard, A boy had been sitting in a swing. He had smiled at the boy, and asked, "Old Julia home?"
The boy looked at him for a long time before he answered. "Don't no Old Julia live here."
"This is her house. I know her. She's lived here for years." The boy shook his head. "You might know a Old Julia someplace else, white man. But don't nobody by that name live here."
He watched the boy; the boy watched him. The boy certainly wasn't more than ten. White man. He didn't have time to be fooling around with some crazy kid. He yelled, "Hey! Old Julia!"
But only silence answered him. The expression on the boy's face did not change. The sun beat down on them both, still and silent; he had the feeling that he had been caught up in a nightmare, a nightmare dreamed by a child; perhaps one of the nightmares he himself had dreamed as a child. It had that feeling- everything familiar, without undergoing any other change, had been subtly and hideously displaced: the trees, the sun, the patches of grass in the yard, the leaning porch and the weary porch steps and the card-board in the windows and the black hole of the door which looked like the entrance to a cave, and the eyes of the pickaninny, all, all, were charged with malevolence. White man. He looked at the boy. "She's gone out?"
The boy said nothing.
"Well," he said, "tell her I passed by and I'll pass by next week." He started to go; he stopped. "You want some chewing gum?"
The boy got down from the swing and started for the house. He said, "I don't want nothing you got, white man." He walked into the house and closed the door behind him.
Now the boy looked as though he were dead. Jesse wanted to go over to him and pick him up and pistol whip him until the boy's head burst open like a melon. He began to tremble with what he believed was rage, sweat, both cold and hot, raced down his body, the singing filled him as though it were a weird, uncontrollable, monstrous howling rumbling up from the depths of his own belly, he felt an icy fear rise in him and raise him up, and he shouted, he howled, "You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while- your women! Here's what I got for all the black bitches in the world-!"
Then he was, abruptly, almost too weak to stand; to his bewilderment, his horror, beneath his own fingers, he felt himself violently stiffen- with no warning at all; he dropped his hands and he stared at the boy and he left the cell.
"All that singing they do," he said. "All that singing." He could not remember the first time he had heard it; he had been hearing it all his life. It was the sound with which he was most familiar- though it was also the sound of which he had been least conscious- and it had always contained an obscure comfort. They were singing to God. They were singing for mercy and they hoped to go to heaven, and he had even sometimes felt, when looking into the eyes of some of the old women, a few of the very old men, that they were singing for mercy for his soul, too. Of course he had never thought of their heaven or of what God was, or could be, for them; God was the same for everyone, he supposed, and heaven was where good people went- he supposed.
He had never thought much about what it meant to be a good person. He tried to be a good person and treat everybody right: it wasn't his fault if the niggers had taken it into their heads to fight against God and go against the rules laid down in the Bible for everyone to read. Any preacher would tell you that. He was only doing his duty: protecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves. And there were still lots of good niggers around- he had to remember that; they weren't all like that boy this afternoon; and the good niggers must be mighty sad to see what was happening to their people.
They would thank him when this was over. In that way they had, the best of them, not quite looking him in the eye, in a low voice, with a little smile: We surely thanks you, Mr. Jesse. From the bottom of our hearts, we thanks you. He smiled. They hadn't all gone crazy. This trouble would pass. He knew that the young people had changed some of the words to the songs. He had scarcely listened to the words before and he did not listen to them now; but he knew that the words were different; he could hear that much. He did not know if the faces were different he had never, before this trouble began, watched them as they sang, but he certainly did not like what he saw now. They hated him, and this hatred was blacker than their hearts, blacker than their skins, redder than their blood, and harder, by far, than his club. Each day, each night he felt worn out, aching, with their smell in his nostrils and filling his lungs, as though he were drowning- drowning in niggers; and it was all to be done again when he awoke. It would never end. It would never end. Perhaps this was what the singing had meant all along. They had not been singing black folks into heaven, they had been singing white folks into hell.
Everyone felt this black suspicion in many ways, but no one knew how to express it. Men much older than he, who had been responsible for law and order much longer than he, were now much quieter than they had been, and the tone of their jokes, in a way that he could not quite put his finger on, had changed. These men were his models, they had been friends to his father, and they had taught him what it meant to be a man. He looked to them for courage now.
It wasn't that he didn't know that what he was doing was right he knew that, nobody had to tell him that; it was only that he missed the ease of former years. But they didn't have much time to hang out with each other these days. They tended to stay close to their families every free minute because nobody knew what might happen next. Explosions rocked the night of their tranquil town. Each time each man wondered silently if perhaps this time the dynamite had not fallen into the wrong hands. They thought that they knew where all the guns were; but they could not possibly know every move that was made in that secret place where the darkies lived. From time to time it was suggested that they form a posse and search the home of every nigger, but they hadn't done it yet.
For one thing, this might have brought the bastards from the North down on their backs; for another, although the niggers were scattered throughout the town- down in the hollow near the railroad tracks, way west near the mills, up on the hill, the well-off ones, and some out near the college nothing seemed to happen in one part of town without the niggers immediately knowing it in the other. This meant that they could not take them by surprise.
They rarely mentioned it, but they knew that some of the niggers had guns. It stood to reason, as they said, since, after all, some of them had been in the Army. There were niggers in the Army right now and God knows they wouldn't have had any trouble stealing this half-assed government blind- the whole world was doing it, look at the European countries and all those countries in Africa. They made jokes about it- bitter jokes; and they cursed the government in Washington, which had betrayed them; but they had not yet formed a posse. Now, if their town had been laid out like some towns in the North, where all the niggers lived together in one locality, they could have gone down and set fire to the houses and brought about peace that way. If the niggers had all lived in one place, they could have kept the fire in one place. But the way this town was laid out, the fire could hardly be controlled. It would spread all over town- and the niggers would probably be helping it to spread. Still, from time to time, they spoke of doing it anyway; so that now there was a real fear among them that somebody might go crazy and light the match.
They rarely mentioned anything not directly related to the war that they were fighting, but this had failed to establish between them the unspoken communication of soldiers during a war. Each man, in the thrilling silence which sped outward from their exchanges, their laughter, and their anecdotes, seemed wrestling, in various degrees of darkness, with a secret which he could not articulate to himself, and which, however directly it related to the war, related yet more surely to his privacy and his past. They could no longer be sure, after all, that they had all done the same things. They had never dreamed that their privacy could contain any element of terror, could threaten, that is, to reveal itself, to the scrutiny of a judgment day, while remaining unreadable and inaccessible to themselves; nor had they dreamed that the past while certainly refusing to be forgotten, could yet so stubbornly refuse to be remembered. They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught, as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people- while here they were, out-numbered, fighting to save the civilized world.
They had thought that people would care- people didn't care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender. Thus they had lost probably forever, their old and easy connection with each other. They were forced to depend on each other more and, at the same time, to trust each other less. Who could tell when one of them might not betray them all, for money, or for the ease of confession? But no one dared imagine what there might be to confess. They were soldiers fighting a war, but their relationship to each other was that of accomplices in a crime. They all had to keep their mouths shut.
I stepped in the river at Jordan.
Out of the darkness of the room, out of nowhere, the line came flying, up at him, with the melody and the beat. He turned wordlessly toward his sleeping wife. I stepped in the river at Jordan. Where had he heard that song?
"Grace," he whispered. "You awake?"
She did not answer. If she was awake, she wanted him to sleep. Her breathing was slow and easy, her body slowly rose and fell.
I stepped in the river at Jordan.
The water came to my knees.
He began to sweat. He felt an overwhelming fear, which yet contained a curious and dreadful pleasure.
I stepped in the river at Jordan.
The water came to my waist.
It had been night, as it was now, he was in the car between his mother and his father, sleepy, his head in his mother's lap, sleepy, and yet full of excitement. The singing came from far away, across the dark fields. There were no lights anywhere. They had said good-bye to all the others and turned off on this dark dirt road. They were almost home.
I stepped in the river at Jordan,
The water came over my head,
I looked way over to the other side,
He was making up my dying bed!
"I guess they singing for him," his father said, seeming very weary and subdued now. "Even when they're sad, they sound like they just about to go and tear off a piece." He yawned and leaned across the boy and slapped his wife lightly on the shoulder, allowing his hand to rest there for a moment "Don't they?"
"Don't talk that way," she said.
"Well, that's what we going to do," he said, "you can make up your mind to that" He started whistling. "You see? When I begin to feel it, I gets kind of musical, too."
Oh, Lord! Come on and ease my troubling mind!
He had a black friend, his age, eight, who lived nearby. His name was Otis. They wrestled together in the dirt. Now the thought of Otis made him sick. He began to shiver. His mother put her arm around him.
"He's tired," she said.
"We'll be home soon," said his father. He began to whistle again.
"We didn't see Otis this morning," Jesse said. He did not know why he said this. His voice, in the darkness of the car, sounded small and accusing.
"You haven't seen Otis for a couple of mornings," his mother said.
That was true. But he was only concerned about this morning.
"No," said his father, "I reckon Otis's folks was afraid to let him show himself this morning."
"But Otis didn't do nothing!" Now his voice sounded questioning.
"Otis can't do nothing," said his father, "he's too little." The car lights picked up their wooden house, which now solemnly approached them, the lights falling around it like yellow dust. Their dog, chained to a tree, began to bark.
"We just want to make sure Otis don't do nothing," said his father, and stopped the car. He looked down at Jesse. "And you tell him what your Daddy said, you hear?"
"Yes sir," he said.
His father switched off the lights. The dog moaned and pranced, but they ignored him and went inside. He could not sleep. He lay awake, hearing the night sounds, the dog yawning and moaning outside, the sawing of the crickets, the cry of the owl, dogs barking far away, then no sounds at all, just the heavy, endless buzzing of the night. The darkness pressed on his eyelids like a scratchy blanket. He turned, he turned again. He wanted to call his mother, but he knew his father would not like this. He was terribly afraid. Then he heard his father's voice in the other room, low, with a joke in it; but this did not help him, it frightened him more, he knew what was going to happen. He put his head under the blanket, then pushed his head out again,for fear, staring at the dark window. He heard his mother's moan, his father's sigh; he gritted his teeth. Then their bed began to rock. His father's breathing seemed to fill the world.
That morning, before the sun had gathered all its strength, men and women, some flushed and some pale with excitement came with news. Jesse's father seemed to know what the news was before the first jalopy stopped in the yard, and he ran out, crying, "They got him, then? They got him?"
The first jalopy held eight people, three men and two women and three children. The children were sitting on the laps of the grown-ups. Jesse knew two of them, the two boys; they shyly and uncomfortably greeted each other. He did not know the girl.
"Yes, they got him," said one of the women, the older one who wore a wide hat and a fancy, faded blue dress. "They found him early this morning."
"How far had he got?" Jesse's father asked.
"He hadn't got no further than Harkness," one of the men said. "Look like he got lost up there in all them trees- or maybe he just got so scared he couldn¹t move." They all laughed.
"Yes, and you know it's near a graveyard, too," said the younger woman, and they laughed again.
Is that where they got him now?" asked Jesse's father.
By this time there were three cars piled behind the first one with everyone looking excited and shining, and Jesse noticed that they were carrying food. It was like a Fourth of July picnic.
"Yeah, that's where he is," said one of the men, "declare, Jesse, you going to keep us here all day long, answering your damn fool questions. Come on, we ain't got no time to waste."
"Don't bother putting up no food," cried a woman from one of the other cars, "we got enough. Just come on."
"Why, thank you," said Jesse's father, "we be right along, then."
"I better get a sweater for the boy," said his mother, "in case it turns cold."
Jesse watched his mother's thin legs cross the yard. He knew that she also wanted to comb her hair a little and maybe put on a better dress, the dress she wore to church. His father guessed this, too, for he yelled behind her, "Now don't you go trying to turn yourself into no movie star. You just come on." But he laughed as he said this, and winked at the men; his wife was younger and prettier than most of the other women. He clapped Jesse on the head and started pulling him toward the car. "You all go on," he said. "I'll be right behind you. Jesse, you go tie up that there dog while I get this car started."
The cars sputtered and coughed and shook; the caravan began to move; bright dust filled the air. As soon as he was tied up, the dog began to bark. Jesse's mother came out of the house, carrying a jacket for his father and a sweater for Jesse. She had put a ribbon in her hair and had an old shawl around her shoulders.
"Put these in the car, son," she said, and handed everything to him. She bent down and stroked the dog, looked to see if there was water in his bowl, then went back up the three porch steps and closed the door.
"Come on," said his father, "ain't nothing in there for nobody to steal" He was sitting in the car, which trembled and belched. The last car of the caravan had disappeared but the sound of singing floated behind them.
Jesse got into the car, sitting close to his father, loving the smell of the car, and the trembling, and the bright day, and the sense of going on a great and unexpected journey. His mother got in and closed the door and the car began to move. Not until then did he ask, "Where are we going? Are we going on a picnic?"
He had a feeling that he knew where they were going, but he was not sure.
"That's right," his father said, "we're going on a picnic. You won't ever forget this picnic!"
"Are we," he asked, after a moment, "going to see the bad nigger- the one that knocked down old Miss Standish?"
"Well, I reckon," said his mother, "that we might see him."
He started to ask, Will a lot of niggers be there? Will Otis be there?- but he did not ask his question, to which, in a strange and uncomfortable way, he already knew the answer. Their friends, in the other cars, stretched up the road as far as he could see; other cars had joined them; there were cars behind them. They were singing. The sun seemed, suddenly very hot, and he was, at once very happy and a little afraid. He did not quite understand what was happening, and he did not know what to ask- he had no one to ask. He had grown accustomed, for the solution of such mysteries, to go to Otis. He felt that Otis knew everything. But he could not ask Otis about this. Anyway, he had not seen Otis for two days; he had not seen a black face anywhere for more than two days; and he now realized, as they began chugging up the long hill which eventually led to Harkness, that there were no black faces on the road this morning, no black people anywhere.
From the houses in which they lived, all along the road, no smoke curled, no life stirred- maybe one or two chickens were to be seen, that was all. There was no one at the windows, no one in the yard, on one sitting on the porches, and the doors were closed.
He had come this road many a time and seen women washing in the yard (there were no clothes on the clotheslines) men working in the fields, children playing in the dust; black men passed them on the road other mornings, other days, on foot or in wagons, sometimes in cars, tipping their hats, smiling, joking, their teeth a solid white against their skin, their eyes as warm as the sun, the blackness of their skin like dull fire against the white of the blue or the grey of their torn clothes. They passed the nigger church- dead-white, desolate, locked up; and the graveyard, where no one knelt or walked, and he saw no flowers. He wanted to ask. Where are they? Where are they all? But he did not dare.
As the hill grew steeper, the sun grew colder. He looked at his mother and his father. They looked straight ahead, seeming to be listening to the singing which echoed and echoed in this graveyard silence. They were strangers to him now. They were looking at something he could not see. His father's lips had a strange, cruel curve, he wet his lips from time to time, and swallowed. He was terribly aware of his father's tongue, it was as though he had never seen it before. And his father's body suddenly seemed immense, bigger than a mountain. His eyes, which were grey-green, looked yellow in the sunlight; or at least there was a light in them which he had never seen before. His mother patted her hair and adjusted the ribbon, leaning forward to look into the car mirror. "You look all right," said his father, and laughed. "When that nigger looks at you, he's going to swear he throwed his life away for nothing. Wouldn't be surprised if he don't come back to haunt you." And he laughed again.
The singing now slowly began to cease; and he realized that they were nearing their destination. They had reached a straight, narrow, pebbly road, with trees on either side. The sunlight filtered down on them from a great height as though they were under-water; and the branches of the trees scraped against the cars with a tearing sound. To the right of them, and beneath them, invisible now, lay the town; and to the left, miles of trees which led to the high mountain range which his ancestors had crossed in order to settle in this valley.
Now, all was silent, except for the bumping of the tires against the rocky road, the sputtering of motors, and the sound of a crying child. And they seemed to move more slowly. They were beginning to climb again. He watched the cars ahead as they toiled patiently upward, disappearing into the sunlight of the clearing. Presently, he felt their vehicle also rise, heard his father's changed breathing, the sunlight hit his face, the trees moved away from them, and they were there. As their car crossed the clearing, he looked around. There seemed to be millions, there were certainly hundreds of people in the clearing, staring toward something he could not see. There was a fire. He could not see the flames, but he smelled the smoke. Then they were on the other side of the clearing, among the trees again. His father drove off the road and parked the car behind a great many other cars. He looked down at Jesse.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Yes sir," he said.
"Well, come on, then," his father said. He reached over and opened the door on his mother's side. His mother stepped out first. They followed her into the clearing. At first he was aware only of confusion, of his mother and father greeting and being greeted, himself being handled, hugged, and patted, and told how much he had grown. The wind blew the smoke from the fire across the clearing into his eyes and nose. He could not see over the backs of the people in front of him. The sounds of laughing and cursing and wrath- and something else- rolled in waves from the front of the mob to the back. Those in front expressed their delight at what they saw, and this delight rolled backward, wave upon wave, across the clearing, more acrid than the smoke. His father reached down suddenly and sat Jesse on his shoulders.
Now he saw the fire- of twigs and boxes, piled high; flames made pale orange and yellow and thin as a veil under the steadier light of the sun; grey-blue smoke rolled upward and poured over their heads. Beyond the shifting curtain of fire and smoke, he made out first only a length of gleaming chain, attached to a great limb of the tree; then he saw that this chain bound two black hands together at the wrist, dirty yellow palm facing dirty yellow palm. The smoke poured up; the hands dropped out of sight; a cry went up from the crowd. Then the hands slowly came into view again, pulled upward by the chain. This time he saw the kinky, sweating, bloody head- he had never before seen a head with so much hair on it, hair so black and so tangled that it seemed like another jungle.
The head was hanging. He saw the forehead, flat and high, with a kind of arrow of hair in the center, like he had, like his father had; they called it a widow's peak; and the mangled eyebrows, the wide nose, the closed eyes, and the glinting eyelashes and the hanging lips, all streaming with blood and sweat. His hands were straight above his head. All his weight pulled downward from his hands; and he was a big man, a bigger man than his father, and black as an African jungle cat, and naked.
Jesse pulled upward; his father's hands held him firmly by the ankles. He wanted to say something, he did not know what, but nothing he said could have been heard, for now the crowd roared again as a man stepped forward and put more wood on the fire. The flames leapt up. He thought he heard the hanging man scream, but he was not sure. Sweat was pouring from the hair in his armpits, poured down his sides, over his chest, into his navel and his groin. He was lowered again; he was raised again. Now Jesse knew that he heard him scream. The head went back, the mouth wide open, blood bubbling from the mouth; the veins of the neck jumped out; Jesse clung to his father's neck in terror as the cry rolled over the crowd. The cry of all the people rose to answer the dying man's cry. He wanted death to come quickly. They wanted to make death wait; and it was they who held death, now, on a leash which they lengthened little by little.
What did he do? Jesse wondered. What did the man do? What did he do? but he could not ask his father. He was seated on his father's shoulders, but his father was far away. There were two older men, friends of his father's, raising and lowering the chain; everyone, indiscriminately, seemed to be responsible for the fire. There was no hair left on the nigger's privates, and the eyes, now, were wide open, as white as the eyes of a clown or a doll. The smoke now carried a terrible odor across the clearing, the odor of something burning which was both sweet and rotten.
He turned his head a little and saw the field of faces. He watched his mother's face. Her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange. He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then.
One of his father's friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man. It was a long, bright knife and the sun seemed to catch it, to play with it, to caress it- it was brighter than the fire. And a wave of laughter swept the crowd. Jesse felt his father's hands on his ankles slip and tighten. The man with the knife walked toward the crowd, smiling slightly; as though this were a signal, silence fell; he heard his mother cough.
Then the man with the knife walked up to the hanging body. He turned and smiled again. Now there was a silence all over the field. The hanging head looked up. It seemed fully conscious now, as though the fire had burned out terror and pain. The man with the knife took the nigger's privates in his hand, one hand, still smiling, as though he were weighing them. In the cradle of the one white hand, the nigger's privates seemed as remote as meat being weighed in the scales; but seemed heavier, too, much heavier, and Jesse felt his scrotum tighten; and huge, huge, much bigger than his father's, flaccid, hairless, the largest thing he had ever seen till then, and the blackest. The white hand stretched them, cradled them, caressed them.
Then the dying man's eyes looked straight into Jesse's eyes- it could not have been as long as a second, but it seemed longer than a year. Then Jesse screamed, and the crowd screamed as the knife flashed, first up, then down, cutting the dreadful thing away, and the blood came roaring down. Then the crowd rushed forward, tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing. Jesse's head, of its own weight, fell downward toward his father's head. Someone stepped forward and drenched the body with kerosene. Where the man had been, a great sheet of flame appeared. Jesse's father lowered him to the ground.
"Well, I told you," said his father, "you wasn't never going to forget this picnic." His father's face was full of sweat, his eyes were very peaceful. At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.
"I reckon," he said. "I reckon."
Jesse's father took him by the hand and, with his mother a little behind them, talking and laughing with the other women, they walked through the crowd, across the clearing. The black body was on the ground, the chain which had held it was being rolled up by one of his father's friends. Whatever the fire had left undone, the hands and the knives and the stones of the people had accomplished. The head was caved in, one eye was torn out, one ear was hanging. But one had to look carefully to realize this, for it was, now, merely, a black charred object on the black, charred ground. He lay spread-eagled with what had been a wound between what had been his legs.
"They going to leave him here, then?" Jesse whispered.
"Yeah," said his father, "they'll come and get him by and by. I reckon we better get over there and get some of that food before it's all gone."
"I reckon," he muttered now to himself, "I reckon." Grace stirred and touched him on the thigh: the moonlight covered her like glory. Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him. He thought of the boy in the cell; he thought of the man in the fire; he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him and dragged his sleeping wife up on one elbow. She stared at him in a moonlight which had now grown cold as ice. He thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, "Come on, sugar, I'm going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you'd love a nigger."
He thought of the morning as he labored and she moaned, thought of morning as he labored harder than he ever had before, and before his labors had ended, he heard the first cock crow and the dogs begin to bark, and the sound of tires on the gravel road.
James Baldwin, 1924-1987