Burt Bridges is tallying up his first customer of the morning when the sheriff and two other men walk into his store, shotguns at their sides. The men line against the back wall, in front of wooden shelves of thick glass jars of fig preserves.
Burt’s throat tightens but he draws his attention back to his customer, Richard Handy, who counts out his change while alternately glancing at the men behind him. A few dimes and nickels slip from the sweat of his hands and drop to the concrete floor. He nearly falls down to pick them up.
“Calm down, Handy,” Burt says, his voice low, steady. “They don’t want you.”
“Burt, what’d you do?” Handy says, barely moving his lips, his whisper laced with helplessness.
Burt licks his thumb and peels open a thin, brown paper bag. He places two cans of condensed milk and a bucket of coffee into the bag and hands it to the older man, who has been coming to his store every two or three days for the last year.
“What I did, Handy,” Burt says, his voice heavy with an indistinguishable mix of emotions, “is stood up for myself.”
He grabs Handy’s forearm and squeezes.
“I’m going to be fine,” he says. “Please. Don’t alarm Mary. I’ll be home after this is settled.” He releases Handy and watches him skitter from his store.
Handy had once owned a small business — a lumber shop. Yet without raising a finger or a word of protest, he had let it go with just a little pressure from town officials. Within days, construction workers tore down his building, the cracked wooden planks penetrating the moist dirt. Mayor Winfrey and his crew had told Handy they needed his land to build a centrally located hospital, but the truth, or so the black people in town said amongst themselves, was that Winfrey couldn’t stand to see people stopping by the few colored stores to spend their cash. Burt swore he would never give up the little bit of independence his business granted him. He spat on the ground when Handy told him he had settled with Winfrey.
“You buckled under that wisp of a man? How much did he give you, Handy?” Burt had demanded. “What could he give you that you can’t make your damn self?”
Handy had hung his head. “Ah, Burt, they was going to find a way to get it anyway.”
Not quite a year later, two men came to Burt with a proposal to buy his land. The message: Mayor Winfrey needed the area to lay down a train track. One of the messengers was tall and lanky and seemed bored with the train station talk. He couldn’t decide how to hold his arms; he crossed them, let them dangle at his sides, and crossed them again. The second man was short with a pudgy, pinkish face.
“I don’t want and I don’t need Winfrey’s money,” Burt told the men.
“Burt, you’re making a mistake,” the short man warned him. “Holmesville is on its way to becoming a major business hub for surrounding counties, maybe even other states. You’ll lose this store, sure, but this here train station proposal is for the betterment of the whole community. You can open a store somewhere else.”
“I want my store right where it is, so you tell the mayor to better his town without killing me.” Burt picked up a cloth and started polishing his counter, his starched white shirt moving against his black skin. His gaze fell on the large basket of teacakes his wife Mary baked for the store every morning. Folks said they could find just about anything in Burt’s store, but they especially seemed to wake up with the desire for Mary’s sweet, powdery biscuits lingering in their throats.
“I won’t let my place go for a handful of the Mayor’s measly money, I won’t,” Burt said, anger heightening in his voice.
“No, I say. Now, if you would kindly leave, I’ve got a store to run.”
“You sure are one persnickety nigger,” the short man blurted out, his face settled into a hard shell.
He swiveled to leave, knocking over a stack of light bulbs. Burt swept from behind his counter and ran over to the sparkling strips of glass. As he squatted to pick up the larger pieces with his bare hands, the men hopped onto the wagon waiting outside. Burt heard the swish of the whip and jumped as it cracked against the horse’s hide. Weeks had passed without a word from Mayor Winfrey’s office, and the knots in Burt’s stomach had softened. But last night, Winfrey delivered his second attempt. After Burt had locked his store and started walking home, a figure emerged from the shadows, lunging for him. Burt could still feel the skin of the man’s neck. He’d grabbed it on instinct. The neck had been like a wet and warm piece of taffy in his hands. It had moved and folded over his fingers. If he had held on a little longer, if he had pressed the flat surface of his thumb closer to the pipe in the man’s neck, life would have disappeared in his hands. But he had let go, and the man had run away.
Burt should have run, too, as swiftly as he could — in the opposite direction. Through the forest, across the creek, and to whatever lay beyond. But he had stayed. And Mary, who always told him freedom was nothing but a word for black folks — a word — had called him crazy and young and foolish.
“You know why we’re here, boy,” the sheriff inches closer to Burt. “Seems you tried to kill someone last night. Don’t you know better than to put your hands on a white man, boy?”
Burt feels the swell of his bladder, a bloating pressing against his belt. He refuses to say anything; there is nothing to say. Whatever would pour from his mouth, he fears, would come out a plea.
Spare my life, his mouth might say. Or, Please let me use the john. He could imagine the men’s laughter over the thunderous sound of his release as they stood with their guns, watching him.
The sheriff beckons the men over to Burt. One man presses the barrel of his gun to Burt’s back, between his shoulder blades. The other man lays his gun on the counter, grabs Burt’s hands and ties them together with a short rope. They lead him toward the front of the store, where his periphery catches the bucket of green bell peppers and the Come Again sign nailed on the wall to the right of the door.
The men push Burt out into the morning, and he almost collapses. They jerk him upright. At first, Burt cannot bear to look at the morning, at its awful brightness and beauty. The light in the store is always dusky. Slowly, his eyes adjust to the full sunlight — the way it clings to the leaves, captures the mist and holds it in the air, shining through it. Burt thinks of Mary’s morning walks, how she must be so familiar with this light, how she was always trying to get him to join her, how he always promised, Next time.
The men walk through a patch of woods. Burt wonders why they are being so discreet, since most lynchings take place in the middle of these southern towns, where courage builds under the wild eyes of mobs.
The sheriff’s hand slackens a bit on Burt’s arm, and Burt thinks of breaking from the weak grip. Even with his hands tied behind his back, he could knock the sheriff over with his shoulder, a shocking kick to the back of the sheriff’s leg. He imagines himself running a few yards in front of the men, he imagines the bullets riddling his back, the blood dying his shirt and the back of his head. The men stop in front of a tree, an oak tree Burt has known all his life.
“Now they won’t have to carry you too far to bury you,” one of the men sneers. “Shut up, Frank, and just get on with it,” the sheriff barks.
A squirrel stops and stares at the men before zipping away, its narrow body moving up and down, humps merging into each other like waves.
Mary, Burt thinks. He thinks of the baby growing inside her and hopes that it is a girl. A girl might not find herself hanging from a tree one day. But Mary had predicted it would be a boy and had named him Houston.
“Top of the hill,” she had said. “Higher than his daddy’s dreams.”
By late morning Mary has fed the chickens and groomed Maul and Betty, her two mules. As she washes the laundry, one hand holding a garment filled with water and lye, the other a washboard, the baby kicks incessantly. Mary beats and drags each piece of clothing over the washboard’s ridges, ignoring the pains. But as soon as she hangs the last pair of pants on the clothesline, she rushes inside the house and eases down on a chair.
She reaches for a jar sitting on the stand next to her and opens it before setting it down again. She dips the tips of her fingers into the jar, which is filled with a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and sage. With oiled fingers, she begins sectioning her hair into small patches. She rubs her scalp lightly, fractioning one of the patches of deceptively fine hair in half, and then twists the two strands together until they became one, hanging like a braid. Grasping the tail of the twist between her thumb and forefinger, she winds it around and around the rest of the hair and tucks it at the root, creating a perfect knot. The finished product is like a fetus, its feet curled warmly against its head, the beginning and end of its body joined seemingly forever. Mary wonders if that isn’t the way it should be: if those months of safe incubation in one’s own bodily fluids, tucked deeply into the self, is not the safest part of human existence, filled with a love that has no name, makes no claims. Filled with the unconscious and natural wisdom that somehow gets stripped away when the body meets the air, when the soul enters the world that man works rapidly to destroy.
A small, bittersweet smile interrupts her dull countenance. Burt often criticizes her for what he calls “a mighty funny way of looking at life.” “Look out the window,” he would have told her. Outside her window she sees a sparrow perched on the thin limb of a plum tree. “The world is not all bad, Mary. The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.”
Mary looks at her belly and smiles, warmly this time. “Crazy daddy,” she says. The baby is due in December, less than three months away.
“Strange man, that daddy of yours,” she says, running the back of a hand over her stomach. She hushes and cocks her head, waiting for a respondent kick. A barely audible rap is coming from the other side of her door. She wipes her hands on the sides of her dress and crosses the room. The heavy door groans under her pull.
“Mary.” Handy stands on the bottom step, sweat moistening his nose even in the cool October air. “Hiya Handy. Step on inside.”
Mary waves him in and he follows. She leaves the door cracked and turns back to him. “Can I get you anything?” she asks, but then sees the sweat, the fear in Handy’s eyes. Her question shoots out — sharply.
“What ails you?”
Handy takes off his cap and holds it to his chest.
“I…I was at the store this morning. Some white men after Burt. I didn’t know what they wanted with him, but they let me go. I…”
“Where’d they take him? Where is he?”
“Well, see, that’s what I’m trying to say to you, Mary.” Handy wrings his cap. “I wanted to snoop around and see what it was they was up to…I did want to… but you never know, and I’ve got children to feed. I was too ashamed to come by earlier, and I was just praying, you know, that they was just there to give him a good talking to about his land and that they’d leave him be. But you and I know Burt, Mary. He might’ve flown off the handle.”
“Handy…” — Mary’s own patience unravels — “just tell me the truth. Have you heard anything?”
“Now, Mary, listen — I, myself, have not seen him, but my children — they wandered off a little while ago, like children do, you know, and they…they say there’s a body hanging out in front of Piedmont graveyard.”
“The children saw the body from a distance and ran off,” Handy says. “I didn’t have my head on when I rushed over here. I shouldn’t have…”
A ring of yellow light fills Mary’s vision, wavering and expanding. “I’ve got to see,” she murmurs, then shouts: “I have to see!”
“Mary, you really shouldn’t.” Handy reaches out to grab her, but the look in her eyes stops him cold. Mary runs down the steps, breezing past the hens scratching dirt between them as though they are playing a game. At the foot of a small hill, she turns right, her body picking up speed. Mother Shelby, an elderly neighbor, hollers a startled cry at the back of the bright blue dress: “What you tryna do, child — lose that baby?”
The black people’s graveyard is just shy of a mile from Mary and Burt’s house. Within minutes, Mary’s heart is a beating knot in her chest, a thickening mass rising to choke her. Slowing, but not completely breaking her run, she raises her left hand and presses it hard against her right breast, where it feels like a large bone is snapping inside of her, on the verge of puncturing clear through her skin.
Mary slows to a walk when she spots the old white oak.
It stands, its squat and massive trunk holding muscular limbs offering tobacco-colored leaves, on the rim of the graveyard.
Burt’s body faces the graveyard; the heavy knot of the noose presses against the back of his neck.
Mary lets out a cry too deep for the length of her body, too old for the baby in her womb. The sound is dark and cold, and ends as abruptly as it came, running back into the earth. Tears cling to Mary’s eyelashes, stuck, not falling. The strange, yellow, fractioned light inside them flickers to nothing.
Burt’s body hangs low, so low that Mary can touch his feet, his ankles, his calves. She walks around him, imagines the rope burning at his neck, unspoken words breaking down into letters in his throat, too high to go back down, forever trapped in the tissue and mucous there. She feels the tree branch shuddering as his weight is yanked against it, his neck snapping back, then forward, his chin falling against his chest. It was his chin that had seemed so hard, so unyielding and prideful, but Mary knew: here was the very point of his tenderness, and his weakness. Whenever she would take his chin into her mouth, the hardness and braveness would diminish in a quiver.
She circles him, again and again, fallen acorns and twigs cracking under her feet.
Everything is intact: his shirt and pants, his belt buckle, his shoes even. The skin on his bald head, shiny and creaseless. His eyebrows, black and coarse and untamable. She had moistened her thumb this morning and smoothed them down, but they had curled back up, as always. “Wild stubborn hair for a wild, stubborn man,” she had playfully scolded him, lowering her eyes to his. And he had whispered back, “You would know.”
Mary backs away, creating a gulf between herself and the oak, between Burt’s body and hers. A sharp ache knocks her in the stomach, and the baby begins flipping in her womb like an acrobat, like a madman. And the bird on the branch over there near Burt — it won’t stop chirp, chirp, chirping. And the sunlight, it keeps shining, casting a shaft that seems to set Mary’s hair on fire; yes, she is sure of it; she smells the smoke, feels it, sees the great drops of sweat falling from her forehead, her scalp, her temples. She has to pee, her bowels threaten to let loose, and she has to throw up, all at once. She folds over, but the morning’s breakfast comes only as high as the bottom of her throat, because she can’t, she won’t, let any of it go. Hanging over, she catches sight of her neighbors running up behind her, and she takes it, all of it — the fetus, the piss, the puke, the poop — and compacts it, packs it all down into one tight constipated ball, and stands.
Handy grabs Mary’s arm, slick as a wet seal. “We’ve got to cut him down, Mary.”
For a moment, she is tempted to lean her head into Handy’s shoulder, but she turns away. She will not watch Burt coming down.
She will not watch.
Cassandra Lane has worked as a newspaper reporter, high school teacher, and college advisor. She currently serves as the senior writer for a nonprofit organization that makes quality preschool possible for thousands of children each year in Los Angeles County. Cassandra’s essays and articles have appeared in a variety of newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is a Voices of Our Nation (VONA) fellow and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She lives with her family in downtown Los Angeles.
She writes: Burt and Mary were my great-grandparents. Houston, the unborn baby in this story, was my mother’s father, my grandfather. While I don’t know most of the facts around Burt’s lynching (Grandma Mary never wanted to talk about it), the writing of “White Oak” is an attempt to acknowledge what happened to him, to Mary and, really, to all of us.
I remember Grandma Mary well. After my mother divorced my father in the late 1970s, we moved in with my grandparents. Grandma Mary was living with them because her declining health had forced her to leave her farm.
Mary’s eyelids were like the insides of black olives, velvety and moist. Her mouth was usually full of snuff and judgmental grunts. But I remember what was sweet about her: her teacakes, the faintly sweet, soft biscuits she made from scratch, the aroma of butter, brown sugar, and vanilla rising from the oven. When the teacakes were done, she would sift them with a few dusts of flour. “Eat, eat,” she would say, and we would grab the cakes while they were still hot, biting down into the powdery golden flesh.
Grandma Mary lived to be about 95 years old.