“Mississippi,” Part II, a Short Story

SugarmillIImpala

Part II

He and Hubert had been deer-hunting down by the river, working upstream through the tall, leafless hardwoods. It had rained the day before so they made no noise in the freshly fallen wet leaves that covered the soft forest floor. They wouldn’t have talked even if they weren’t hunting, because Hubert never had anything to say except to pass orders or judgements and Caleb had learned to sort through most of his questions on his own. But when they crossed the fire road that ran down to the river Hubert stopped and cursed softly: “blame it.”

Fresh tire prints marked the wet sand and the smell of a wet-wood fire smoke lay on the air. “College kids been drinking down here again,” Hubert said. “I’m going to chain that road one day.”

They followed the road down to the river, but stopped at the turn-around where the road ended. There was a green Chevy Impala parked thirty yards away, facing the river, but even from that distance it was obvious something wasn’t right. Hubert clicked the safety off his shotgun and walked past the smoldering bon fire up to the car. He didn’t pay any attention to Caleb, so he clicked his own safety and followed.

Rust ate away at the wheel wells  and the bottoms of the car doors and the ground was littered with fresh beer bottles and cans, several empty charcoal lighter fluid bottles, and here and there shredded pieces of clothing. The odor of burned meat lay heavy on the clearing, a bad taste.

A black man was stretched across the hood of the car, his arms stretched and tied to the door handles, his feet to the front bumper. His face was twisted into something unrecognizable. The skin was black with dried blood and even blacker patches where the bruises lay. Hubert, still tall and skinny, before life had begun to shrink him down, poked the man with the muzzle of his shotgun to see if he was still alive. The man groaned a little, but he didn’t open his eyes or otherwise appear very alive at all.

“Should we call an ambulance?” Caleb asked. He finally had a picture of what Jesus looked like when the Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear.

“Sheriff most likely,” Hubert said. “Or a preacher. Prayer’s about the only thing can help him now.”

Caleb bowed his head and closed his eyes, waiting for his father to begin. What did you pray about when a man was this far gone? How could God let something like this happen, even to a black man? When he heard his father’s footsteps he opened his eyes to see Hubert heading back out to the truck. The man on the car groaned again, but Caleb didn’t wait to see what he would do. He hurried after his father without bothering to pray.

Hubert didn’t say anything except tell him to put his safety on. They walked back to the house in silence. Caleb tried to imagine a story to explain what he had seen, but nothing made sense. It was like reading the last page of a book and nothing else.

When the sheriff came he followed Hubert’s truck back to the top of the fire road. He and Hubert walked down the road for a long time, and when they came back, he talked to Hubert for a while, then came over to the truck where Caleb sat in the cab looking for something on the AM radio.

“Boy, when the ambulance comes, I want you to wait out here.” The sheriff spoke deliberately, like each word caused a pain in his mouth.

“He’s done seen it,” Hubert said. “No need for him not to understand just how wicked a man can treat his brother.”

The sheriff shook his head and walked off. “It’s your boy,” he said.

When the paramedics pulled the man off the car his skin was cooked onto the hot metal and it pulled away from his body in long strips, but by that time he was in a coma and Caleb didn’t think he could register pain anyway. No one ever found out who did it, and after a couple of days no one seemed to think about it any more. That was back when things like that happened often enough that it took something exceptional to stir the dust. Still, it was a dream that Caleb had often enough to wake with the taste of the muddy ashes and cooked flesh on his tongue. A coyote dream would be a relief after thirty odd years of the other.

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