Behind the scenes in a racially divided southern town.
|WARNING: This story contains scenes and dialogue of racial hatred and violence. If you are offended by such things, I urge you to read a different selection from my portfolio.
Every person has their own demons, or at least that’s what some wise man once said. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it sure applies to this town. Not demons in the biblical sense; these are more like secrets and memories, like the gay uncle that no one talks about at family reunions. Skeletons in the closet, so to speak. The specifics aren’t the same, but the general idea is.
The demons of our small town, Christian, Mississippi, lie in the people who run the town, the city fathers, as well as the residents. From a distance, they would probably appear to be just another ‘good ol’ boy’ network, like any southern community has. Their true form is kept very hush-hush to people ‘outside the know’, though whether from fear, embarrassment, or loyalty I don’t know. You see, those old men are the definition of racial hatred and cruelty. They have been that way their whole lives, raised that way by their fathers, and their fathers before them. I was ignorant of it for many years, as I suppose a lot of people in this town are. I only happened on to the truth by accident, and I wish to God that I never had.
It all started for me on the day after Thanksgiving a few years ago. I was home from the Army for good, and decided to go out deer hunting by myself to reacquaint myself with my old stomping grounds. I had been gone for eight years, and I was excited to get back out in the woods I grew up around. My dad had taken me hunting when I was a boy, but he was crippled up with arthritis now, and could barely walk to the bathroom.
I started out that morning at dawn. The air was crisp and cool, though not cold enough for frost. I walked through the woods behind my grandpa’s farm with my rifle slung over my shoulder, more excited about being out there again than actually bagging a deer. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered, and an occasional rabbit bounded out from my path. I didn’t pay much attention to where I was going; I just walked and soaked up the goodness of being home.
Perhaps an hour later I glimpsed a deer off in the distance. I carefully un-slung my rifle and brought it up to get a better look through the scope. It was a buck, and a pretty good sized one from what I could see. He had a nice rack too, so I decided to get closer and see if I could get a shot at him. I carefully moved through the trees, walking very slowly so as not to startle him. He was grazing; seemingly unaware of my presence. I finally got within shooting range, and propped my rifle up against a tree limb to steady my shot. I focused the scope on him and looked him over one last time. As my eyes moved across his antlers, I noticed a movement in the background behind him. I adjusted the focus on my scope to get a better view, and what I saw made me forget about the deer.
The movement that had caught my eye was something slowly swinging from a tree. I peered closer and realized that it was a man, and the man was hanging from the tree by his neck. I swung the rifle around left to right, looking for anyone who might still be in the area. I saw three other people hanging nearby, but no one that seemed to be alive. They were too far away for me to see much, so I stepped away from the tree with my heart pounding and began to move closer. I had totally forgotten about the deer, and when he suddenly took off it scared me out of my wits. I managed to avoid dropping my rifle or shooting myself in the foot, though I’m not sure how. I collected myself after a moment, and continued on.
There was no one around when I got to the bodies, so no one saw me vomit, and no one saw me cry. The combination of the sight and the smell was more than I was prepared for, and I lost it. The four men were all black, all naked, and all of them had obviously been tortured both before and after they were hung. Stomachs had been sliced open, faces were bloodied and battered, and each had the ominous inscription carved into their chest: “Nigger Die”.
It looked like they had been there for several days. Birds had eaten their eyes, and their tongues were swollen out of their mouths. I wiped the vomit from my lips and glanced around. I was in a small clearing, but I wasn’t sure exactly where I was or who owned the land. I looked for a familiar landmark, and finally noticed a buzzing sound. It was coming from inside the tree line behind the bodies. I made my way around the edge, giving the dead men a wide berth, and peered into the bushes. There, under what had to be thousands of flies, was a mound of decomposing bodies over four feet tall, and at least fifteen feet across. The ones on top looked fairly fresh, but the lower levels looked older and older. At the bottom were bones, bleached white from age and weather. There must have been fifty bodies there, maybe more.
I glanced back at the trees where the others still hung and noticed countless ropes tied on the branches. It seemed that whoever was doing this just cut the ropes to get the old bodies down and make room for new victims. This must have been going on for years and years, I realized. It all seemed completely unreal.
The sound of an approaching vehicle startled me out of my daze. I ran into the trees, but not too far. I had to see what was going to happen. I found a thick overhanging bush and crawled underneath it, and jacked a shell into the chamber of my rifle, just to be on the safe side. A minute later, a pickup pulled to a stop at the edge of the clearing on a road I hadn’t even noticed. Three men got out and walked over to the hanging bodies. I had to stifle a gasp as I recognized them.
The driver was Tom Jenkins, the local mayor. With him were Jerry Wells and Earl Wilson. Both were on the town council, and Jerry was my cousin. I watched in shock as they began cutting down the bodies and carrying them over to the stack. I could hear them plain as day in the stillness of the morning.
“It’s getting about time to burn the stack again,” said Tom. He grunted as they tossed the first body on top of the pile. “I got a gas can in the truck.”
“Shit, as far as I’m concerned, we ought to burn the whole damn niggertown,” said Jerry. “Just as long as the fire don’t jump the creek and get the rest of us.”
“Yeah, and sure as we done that, we’d have every coon in a hundred miles in an uprisin’, that’s just what we need,” Tom retorted sarcastically. “You got to do it right, so as to keep ‘em under control.” There was a thump as the second body hit the ground. “It’s just like stealing tax money,” he continued. “If you just take a little bit at a time, nobody turns a hair. Now if you take the whole damn bunch of it, everybody would go berserk on you.” The second body hit the stack, and something squirted out and hit Earl’s shirt.
“Aw shit, now look what this goddam pile of nigger shit went and done to me,” he exclaimed. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped himself clean.
“Oh, you’ll live,” said Tom. “Now let's get this done and get gone.” They put the last two bodies on the stack, and Jerry retrieved the gas can. When it was emptied onto the stack, Earl lit a book of matches and tossed it on top. I felt the blast of heat back where I was hidden under the bush. The smell was even worse than it had been before, and the three men retreated to the truck where they sat and watched the pile of bodies burn.
After about an hour they left, but I was unable to move. I lay frozen in shock and horror, unable to believe what I had witnessed. I had known these men all my life, and even grown up with Jerry, though he was a few years older than me. I was stunned and confused, and had no idea of what to do. Eventually I made my way back to my grandpa’s house and got in my car. I sat there for a while, and finally drove back to my parents' house where I was staying.
My dad was sitting in his usual spot on the porch swing, eating a turkey sandwich. I took a seat next to him and sat silently for a while. When he finished eating, he wiped the mayonnaise from his mouth and took a drink of his iced tea.
“Well, I don’t reckon you got a deer, huh? Did you see any?” He sat his glass down on the floor.
“Yeah, I saw a nice buck, but I didn’t get a shot at him.” I paused, debating whether to tell him what I’d seen. “Dad, can I tell you something? I need some honest advice.”
“Sure son,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”
“I... I found something this morning,” I began. “I found some black guys hanging from a tree, and a whole pile of bodies behind it.” Dad jumped, and kicked over his glass of tea.
“Just where the hell did you go hunting, boy?” he demanded roughly.
“Out behind grandpa’s old place, back in the woods,” I said. He turned and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Did you see anybody out there? More important, did anybody see you?” he asked. I looked at him in wonder, surprised by his reaction.
“What... do you mean you know about this?” I asked incredulously. His grip tightened, and his eyes bored into mine.
“Did you see anyone!” he repeated louder.
“Yes,” I answered. “Yes I did, but I want to know how the hell you know about this.” I returned his stare; my gaze hardening. “What’s happening in this town?”
His hands relaxed from my shoulders, and he slumped back against the swing.
“I guess I knew we’d have this talk sooner or later,” he muttered. “But I was hoping we wouldn’t have to.” He picked up his glass from the floor and kicked at the scattered ice cubes. “There’s folks in this town that don’t believe we ought to accept the black folks. Always has been. They ain’t the KKK, but they might as well be. Most folks know about the going’ on’s, but nobody says nothing about it, whether they agree with it or not. A few have tried to stop it at one time or another, but they end up disappearing just like them poor blacks. That’s why I asked you if anybody saw you there, son. If they did, and you start raising a stink, they’ll string you up too.”
My mind was numb. Everybody knew, and yet it still went on.
“I saw Jerry out there, with the mayor and Earl Wilson. I stayed hid under a bush, though. They burned that pile of bodies. Did you know Jerry was in on it?” I asked.
“Yep, and so’s his daddy, your uncle Robert. Your grandpa was even a part of it when he was still alive.” He let out a sigh. “I don’t cotton to it, myself. But I don’t say a word, and neither will you. Not unless you want this house to get burned down, and all of us killed. Family’s tight, but not that tight, son. Me and Robert’s been brothers for fifty-some years, but he wouldn’t be able to stop them from getting us, even if he tried. And he couldn’t try anyhow, or they’d turn on him too. It’s just something you’re gonna have to learn to live with.” He ruffled my hair, and stood up stiffly. “Let’s go see if your ma has got anymore tea.”
He walked inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. I stayed on the swing, trying to sort through it all in my mind. I just couldn’t understand how everyone could turn a blind eye on such a huge injustice. It was worse than wrong, and it bothered me for weeks. I finally decided to do something about it, but I had to find a way to do it quietly, to protect my folks.
I went out to the garage a few weeks later and dug through my duffle bags. I had “borrowed” a few things from the Army, one of which was a silencer that would fit my rifle. When I took it, I just thought it would be a cool thing to have. Now I had a real purpose for it. I spent that week planning strategies and contingencies, and learning the schedules of certain people. Despite the fact that I had never been in combat, I had eight years of intense Ranger training in the Army. I thought it was kind of ironic that I hadn’t been able to put any of the skills I learned to use against a foreign enemy, but rather I was using them against my own countrymen. Who would have known that they were just as evil, if not more so, than the terrorists we trained to fight? When I was certain that I had everything covered, I put my plan into motion.
On the Monday before Christmas, I jogged across town at four o’clock in the morning. The streets were deserted as I climbed to the flat roof of the abandoned theater, and a light fog hung around the street lamps. I took up a position at the north-east corner and sat behind the low retaining wall. Across the street and a block down was Mildred’s Country Café. All the councilmen and the mayor met there on Monday mornings for a breakfast meeting. I wanted to be sure I was in position before anyone was up and about, to avoid being seen. I aimed my rifle at the front door and focused the scope, so that when they arrived, I would be ready. When everything was prepared, I sat back to wait.
When they arrived, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. They were all riding together in a Chevy Suburban. I sighted in on the driver through his open window, and the second he shut off the engine, I shot him. I immediately shifted to the man seated behind him and shot him next. The silencer was working superbly, and the only sound on the street was the surprised exclamations of the men inside the vehicle. The front passenger door swung open, and I quickly put a round in the back of the figure exiting. He went down on the sidewalk in a heap. The other two men remained in the vehicle, and after shooting each of them, I quickly put one more bullet in each body, just to be sure. Then I quickly gathered the shell casings and fled the roof. It was early enough that most of the town was still sleeping, and I arrived back at my parent’s house unnoticed. I stowed my gear and slipped back into bed, and pretended to be sleeping when my mother woke me for breakfast half an hour later.
The town was in an uproar for a while, especially after I made two other strikes that week. I never got caught, and I doubt that I got all the bad guys, but I quit while I was ahead. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail. I buried the silencer and the rifle separately in the woods, both well wrapped and oiled in case I ever needed them again. I also went to the funerals, where I noticed lots of dry eyes, and very few wet ones.
I still go by that clearing once in a while to check, but there have been no more secret hangings or disappearances in town. I’m not a hero by any stretch, but I like to think that I fought the demons that have haunted this town so long, and won. I just hope that God understands.