The Shadow Of A Tree

I’ll never forget the charcoal-like smell of burnt skin that night upon the rolling hills of the Mississippi Delta. The amber evening sun hung suspended atop a distant hill on the horizon. The sun was casting a reddish glow that illuminated the faces of some of the people in the crowd. It was a fairly large gathering. I recognized a lot of the townsfolk who had gathered here. There were some people who dressed up in white costumes with matching white pointy hats. I didn’t know who they were. They looked scary to me because all you could see were eyeholes in their white masks; they almost looked like they were wearing Halloween witches hats except they were all white. Daddy told me they were going to take care of a bad colored boy that night for good measure. I remember this day well because it was two days after my tenth birthday.

As the people gathered around it was a festive atmosphere. Mr. Lester had a barbeque pit and he was roasting a pig with a big red apple tucked in its mouth. Papa told me you put an apple in the pigs’ mouth to let out all the bad gasses. My papa was so smart. It sure looked good. Mrs. Clora had a huge kettle of some of her delicious homemade-made fresh squeezed lemonade from the lemons I picked from her backyard tree earlier that day. The men were drinking whiskey. Daddy called the drink, “corn.” From all the excitement and buzzing going around I knew something big was about to happen. There were the sounds of banjos playing, old time fiddle music, and people laughing really loud. I knew this was not a usual gathering. I sat perched on the stump of an old Cypress tree where I had a good view of everything. The dominant mood of excitement was almost tangible. It was like a carnival.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the men in their white coats dragging a colored boy wearing tattered britches up to the old barn. Papa told me they take niggers up to this barn to play with the animals inside the barn, but he warned me I was never to set foot inside the old barn. I always wished that I could go inside the barn and play with the animals too, but I always listened to my Papa. He knew everything.

They leaned his struggling body up to the base of the old walnut tree near the barn, which overlooked the Tallahatchie River. I used to take refuge from the piping hot sun under that old tree during the summer months; but this scene was totally different. The boy who looked to be about a couple of years older than me was kicking his feet, but they had his hands tied so he couldn’t move them. I looked up at the old tree and saw a braided twine rope hanging from one of the long branches. As I looked down the road a piece and watched a pair of vultures who seemed to circularly dance their “ballet of death”, as mama called it, above some unfortunate person. I didn’t see any dead person around so I wondered why vultures had come. One of the men in the white costumes grabbed the boy and tied that twine around his neck. The boy became frantic while the men gathered dry wood and piled it around his feet at the base of the tree. I overheard Junie Boy say, “That nigger boy doesn’t know Southern ways. We don’t tolerate that mess down here. He’s gonna learn his lesson sure enough.” It was only when the mob set fire to the wood that I realized that something terrible was going to happen. The boy let out a bone-chilling yell as they put his head in the braided knot and pulled him up on the tree limb. The fire started to grow even more.

At this point the carnival-like-atmosphere seemed more intense and I started to feel a little scared. All the cheers from the mob and the men in the white costume became deafening. Caught up in all the excitement, I began to cheer and to laugh almost hysterically, gasping for air in between giggles. The flames from the fire quickly engulfed the boys’ feet. The boys’ feet were twitching. Daddy told me the devil was coming out of him. I guess he had been a bad boy because his shoe soles were smoking and his feet were now twitching rapidly. The mob chanted, “Die nigger.” The cord broke and the boy fell and tried to roll out of the fire. The men in the white costumes roped him back up and pushed him back into the fire. I overheard Hub Boland scream, “He’s still alive”, as the boy raised his newly untied hands to shield himself. The boy screamed, “Please no!” After that, the crowd roared hysterically and people started dancing around at the big party. The grown folks stayed there for hours eating and drinking corn whiskey. I stayed at the base of the old Cypress tree for hours. I stayed too, to the very end of the party.

The boy’s body remained there for several days. Every day I came home from school, I checked to see if it was still there. One day I noticed that the body was gone. I asked Papa that night at dinner what happened to the boy’s body. He told me he didn’t know and “don’t ask no more about that boy”. When I asked mama three days later she told me his mangled body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and she also told me in a stern voice, “Never mention that night again.” She did tell me the boys name was Emmett. I’m sure that boy’s mama was sad and I often wondered what she did to soothe her hurt. I didn’t want to be naughty and get a scolding so I never, ever, spoke about the big party that summer night up by the old walnut tree again. To this day, every time I see an old walnut tree, I never rest in its shadows.

Jayson Pugh, Age 16, Grade 11, The Fieldston School High School, Silver Key

Leave a Reply