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Forward from the Author
Before you read this story there are a few things I would like to say.  First of all this fictional story was inspired by Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” and draws on the ideas therein. Also I would like to say that the strong and graphic violence in the story’s content along with the use of inappropriate language are not meant to be insulting or offensive in any way. I simply included it because of its value in further humanizing the characters and presenting the story in a more realistic and convincing way. I apologize ahead of time for any offense this may cause.


 David Reed

    The clouded night sky stood ominously over a lone figure picking his way through the dark forest below. He walked slowly, considering each step as he avoided the fallen logs, and pushed the lower hanging limbs aside. Ahead of him an orange glow silhouetted the trees, beckoning him forward. He paused for a moment, listening to the voices that came to him over the still night air. Women could be heard talking excitedly against the deeper undertones of the men as they laughed and shouted to one another. He exhaled deeply, letting a cold puff of air escape from his lips before he continued. He moved slower now, as if contemplating what he was doing, but as he came to the last tree, a large pine that covered his view, he stepped quickly around it with quiet resolve. He came out on a small grassy knoll overlooking a large clearing in the woods below. A crowd of men stood in a circle around a small sapling in the center of the clearing. Behind them a small bubbling pot hung over a fire. A few men stood around this warming their hands and smoking cigarettes. A small gathering of women were mixed in with the crowd, talking in little pockets with neighbors and friends. Children sat on their father’s shoulders to get a better view of whatever was happening in the center.

    He stood on the hill, shivering slightly in the cold late-autumn air, as he began to wonder if he really should have come at all. Before he could decide however, a low raspy voice called out over the rest, “There ye’ are Jack, don’t cha want a piece o’ yer own nigger.”

    Everyone turned looking up at the shadowy figure standing alone on the hill. This shift in the crowd, gave Jack a better view of the area they had been watching with such unfaltering attention. A young black man knelt by the tree; a burlap sac was tied around his head, keeping him from seeing what was happening, while thick-yellowed rope held his hands behind his back. He sat on the backs of his legs, his head darting left and right, listening to each new sound. He seemed to be shaking slightly, his whole body rigid and tensed for action. A sinking feeling rose in Jack’s stomach, he had no choice now, he was staying.

    “Well, you weren’t about to start without me were ya?” he asked, forcing a smile to cross his face. The crowd burst into laughter, further aggravating their victim. He walked quickly now as he descended the hill and walked the short distance to the mass of people. As he went he nodded silently at the local barber and smiled at his neighbor from across the street. Passing between these two the crowd parted, letting him get to the front row, then closed up behind him again, sealing him in.


     “Mr. …Mr. Parker is that you?” the trembling voice came from the black man kneeling a few feet in front of him.

    Jack hesitated, “Yes?”

    “Mr. Parker I didn’t do nuthin’ suh,” he said from beneath the sack, “You know me, suh, I wouldna’ done a thing like that.”

    The crowd laughed again, waiting for Jack’s response. “I’m sorry Sam, I know what I saw, you killed old man Rodger jus’ like you’d a killed a chicken for ‘im any other given day.”

    “But, suh, I wasn’ even near that ‘ouse, I was asleep at…”

    A hard blow to the back of his head kept him quiet, “Aw, shut up nigga, Jack knows what ‘e saw. You’re jus’ as guilty as you are black.” Said the same man who had called to Jack a few moments earlier. The crowd proceeded to burst into another roar of laughter. Someone from the back spoke up, “Come on sheriff let’s get this done, we ain’t got all night.” Excited shouts of approval filled the air.

    Sam’s head dropped between his shoulders and his body shook as he began to weep. The sheriff spat out his cigar, and stretched his dirty suspenders out before him, “All right, Ladies and Gente’men we’re gonna have ourselves a lynchin.” The sheriff bent down amidst the cheering crowd and pulled the sack from Sam’s head. His face was streaked with tears as his frightened eyes searched the crowd for just one friend, someone who could save him from this nightmare. When instead he saw the drunken faces of the men and the eager children looking on, he rose in fear and tried to force his way through the wall of bodies.

    “Get down there nigga,” said the sheriff knocking him to the dirt. A few men closed in taking turns battering him, as they shared a bottle of gin. They kicked him mercilessly, striking his face until blood flowed openly from his lips and nose. “Take off ‘is clothes,” said the sheriff, “no black boy deserves clothes in this town.” Laughter filled the air as the men threw the now empty gin bottle at him and removed his trousers and shirt.

    “Please suh, please, I…” said Sam, as the men held him down.

    “What, did the boy say? ‘Es cold?” asked the sheriff. Sam sobbed quietly, tears running down his face, “No suh,” he cried, “Please I jus’…”

    “Well, don’chu worry, boy. We got just the thing to warm you up.” Said the sheriff, nodding to the men by the fire. Jack looked on in anxious curiosity as they inserted two poles into the rings on the pot and carried it by him.

    “Maybe now you’ll think twice about killing a white man, nigga.” Cried a boy from his father’s shoulders.

    The men dragged Sam to the sapling and bound his wrists and ankles to it. His chest heaved and his eyes grew wide with fear as they lifted the bubbling pot high over his head. He screamed in agony as the tar fell from the lip in globs, sticking to him where it fell. They tilted it farther, letting it flow in a steady stream.



     “That better boy?” asked the sheriff, smiling cruelly. Jack felt his stomach churn slightly, but dismissed it because he could find no reason for it. He walked over to a bag of feathers leaning against a fallen log and stooped down. His hand sunk into the soft down and pulled out a handful. Striding up to Sam he tossed the feathers overhead letting them drift down over his body. They settled into the steaming tar and sank painfully into his raw flesh. Sam strained against the ropes crying out in agony as others came forward throwing feathers into the air. Young children danced with each other, pointing overhead and shouting that winter had come while Sam clenched his teeth holding in the pain as tar, feathers, and skin dropped to the earth.

    “Let’s cool the boy, down.” Said the sheriff, picking up a tank of gasoline. Everyone laughed including Jack, but the smile faded as he met Sam’s eyes. They were filled with pain and sorrow, not contempt. Sam closed his eyes, but just before he did Jack thought he noticed a hint of pity in them. Sam’s chest heaved as the gasoline poured over his body, relieving his agony for the moment.

    A young man laughed, rubbing his whiskers, “Don’t get too comfe’table boy, you gonna’ burn, you gonna burn for what you did, until you beg for death to take you.” He chuckled flicking a cigarette towards him. It landed at Sam’s feet in the small puddle of gasoline collecting there, it ignited, and the flames rushed up Sam’s body. This time, he stood silent; his eyes closed, his jaw set, as he was engulfed by the fire.

    “What’s wrong nigga, can’t ye talk? Why don’t ya scream? Jus’ let it out.” Said a short fat man, his face reddened from the prolonged use of alcohol. Sam stood silently against the tree, offering up his last defiance against his killers, before he fell limp, hanging against the ropes.

    “Well that wadn’t much fun,” said the drunk, “ ‘e didn’t even ‘ollar.”

    The crowd began to disperse, leaving their trash and any pity they may have felt for their victim behind.

    “Rememba’ everybody, this is what happens to a disobedient nigga, and anyone who takes to pitying em, in this town” yelled the sheriff to their backs.

    Jack remained after everyone had left; he stared at the body of the man he had accused. These men hadn’t killed him, it was him, he had killed Sam and he had gotten away with old man Rodger’s murder too. He smiled to himself, warmed by the fire. The ropes creaked and finally broke, letting gravity carry the body to the ground where it struck in a puff of smoke. He turned away and walked back into the forest, following the path of the townsfolk before him.


    A week later Jack found himself journeying into the forest again. He had noticed his stockpile of wood for the winter was low; the temperature had been dropping steadily the last few days so he knew it was high time he did something about it. So he ventured out into the woods that afternoon. The wind lashed at his face as he walked down the path between the now barren trees. He found some dead logs lying against a stone and proceeded to chop them into smaller, lighter pieces. After a half-hours heavy work he stepped back, stretching his back, and wiping the sweat from his forehead on the back of his sleeve. He was surprised to see he was standing on the edge of the clearing. He hadn’t realized it was so close.

    He looked out over the quiet expanse, everything was how they had left it; cigarettes and bottles lay right where they had that night. He grimaced as he saw the bloodied clothes lying exactly where they had been thrown after being torn from Sam’s body. He walked forward and picked up the garbage and scraps of Sam’s shirt. He took a few more steps and reached down to pick up a scrap of paper. When he stood up again he stood face to face with a charred yellow skull. It sat a few yards away on a pile of ash and bones lying in front of the burnt stump of the sapling. He stumbled backward in surprise, and landed on his back. It was so strange how it had landed, staring straight off into space, not face down like he would have thought. He sat up and looked back into the empty eye sockets of the thing he had killed. Yes that’s all it was, he told himself, a thing, nothing more. But how strange that it stared at him like that. The wind sighed through the trees, startling him, but not even a faint breeze brushed his skin. It grew slightly louder now, into a faint murmuring as if there were many people talking just over the hill. It was all around him, rising and falling in volume. The pile of ashes blew towards him, but there was no wind to carry them. He quickly got to his feet backing away from their advance, but the ashes blew against him, sticking to his flesh. He panicked, frantically brushing them away, but they clung tightly to his bare skin. Calming himself he stopped and studied them as they went from dull gray to a light tan and finally into a deep brown color. He held up his hand and watched in horror as the ash spread, dissolving into skin as it slid down his arm, and slowly covered his entire body. He screamed trying to peel it off, but was forced to stop as he felt the pain of his fingernails tearing into the skin as if it were his own. He looked down at his clothes, they were different now; they were Sam’s clothes. The voices suddenly grew incredibly loud, filling the air as if he were in a crowd. Bodies flickered in the air all around him, the sheriff, the barber, his neighbor, the whole town materialized around him now, laughing, talking excitedly to one another.

    “Sheriff, what’s all this about?” he asked, “Why are ya’all here.”

    “What’s that nigga? You got something to say now?” answered the sheriff.

    Jack stood puzzled, “Nigger, who you calling a…” but he was knocked to the ground, his face held down against the dirt as his hands were bound so tight that they soon went numb. They pulled him up roughly by his head and slid a strong smelling sack over his head.

    “Wait.” He begged. He was struck in the face, and fell back reeling. Lying on the ground, he waited for someone to stop this madness.

    “There ye’ are Jack, don’t cha want a piece o’ yer own nigger.” shouted the sheriff. Jack lay on the ground, terrified.


    “What?” he asked, his voice muffled by the sack. Someone kicked him in the stomach knocking the breath out of him. As he struggled for air he heard a far away voice say, “Well, you weren’t about to start without me were ya?” There was a pause in the voices and a scuffling of feat, and then Jack was yanked from the ground. Someone removed the sack and he saw that night had fallen and everyone was there. His eyes searched the crowd, boys sat on their fathers shoulders, women talked in little pockets amongst the crowd, men passed bottles of gin around, it was all so familiar, but then he saw something that made him catch his breath; he saw himself standing in the crowd, grinning back at him. Shouts rose for the lynching to get started and he was thrown again to the ground. Some of the stronger men in town came forward, and struck his face. Each blow knocked him farther and farther from consciousness, warm liquid flowed down his face and he spat blood. He yelled for them to stop, that they didn’t know who he was, but received replies of, “Sho’ we do, you’re a nigga.” and more savage kicks. Something struck him hard on the head and darkness encircled his vision, quickly overtaking his thoughts.

    When he woke up next he was bound to the tree, which was now whole again, and wearing little more than his underwear. He opened his eyes and was faced with a pot of boiling tar. “We got just the thing to warm you up.” said a ruff voice. He looked up as the tar fell in burning globs onto his bare flesh. He quickly dropped his head and tightly shut his eyes, screaming in pain as the tar fell faster and thicker. His body was covered in the searing pain. The crowd of people taunted, calling out, “ Fry Nigga,” and, “How’s that blackie?”

    Sweat poured over his face as the tar dripped from his body, taking his skin with it. Struggling to look through his watering eyes he saw the spots where the tar had fallen, underneath the brown skin was his raw flesh, this was his, not the revolting brown skin that had overtaken his body. This was the flesh of a good, Christian white man, why couldn’t his friends recognize him. Suddenly cold white covered his vision, and before he could figure out what it was deep stinging pains wracked his body, thousands of knives pierced his melted flesh. He wept in agony, straining against the ropes that cut into his wrists as he tried in vain to pluck the feathers from his body. Everything was a blur of incredible pain now. An eternity had passed when a cold liquid poured over his body, it cooled his stinging, burning flesh and his thought returned. But so did his sense of smell, a strong familiar odor found its way into his nostrils, filling his mind. He racked his brain trying to remember what it was, and then it hit him. It was gasoline. He saw the red embers of a cigarette and watched as it fell to the ground. He wondered how could these people watch this, how could they stand to see a fellow towns member burned alive. The match lit the pool of gas at his feet and the flames spread out around the edge of the puddle, racing with incredible speed up his legs and over his entire body. Orange and yellow filled his vision and the smell of his own skin burning filled his every breath. He struggled to think, just to find a thought in all the pain. He screamed, straining to see through his watering eyes. That’s when he saw himself, the Jack that the townspeople acknowledged as Jack. He was watching him. His face was covered in the flickering shadows of the fire; he was smiling at him, laughing at his agony. He looked up into this Jack’s eyes, his eyes, and saw the reflection of himself. Deep in the pit of his eyes he saw himself, and he was black. That’s when it hit him, through the blinding pain that hammered it home, he now saw it; he was just as black as Sam was… inside. He hadn’t killed a nigger, a black man; he had killed a man, a human being. He understood now, with his dying thought… he…stood.

© 2006 David Reed