Forward from the
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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.
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 und..er…stood.
© 2006 David Reed