Flash fiction story originally published in Every Day Fiction.
It was the first time Naobi saw anyone die.
Brittle autumn leaves were swaying slightly, hanging on to branches in futile defiance of the season. The tree itself stood by the dusty road at the front of the house, alone in the yard, much as the house was the only one for miles along the road.
The setting sun had turned the leaves from orange to a golden brown. The high branches were always the coolest place in the yard and Naobi could often be found among them, face turned towards the sky, enjoying a slight respite from the southern heat. Only one branch held still in the wind that afternoon; the one with the body hanging from it.
Naobi looked at the body of the Man from inside the house, still not daring to step out in case the white men where still there, or waiting further down the road as her mother said. They had come just after lunch, on dirty horses kicking up dust. Momma had grabbed Naobi’s hand and hidden in the house; only the Man had gone to speak to them. Naobi had watched from a high window, half hidden behind dirty curtains.
They called him ‘nigger’ and then asked after women. He told them he lived alone, and then said something that she hadn’t heard. Naobi’s momma had been scared from the moment she saw the cloud of dust down the road, and Naobi had caught the fright, a contagious quickening of the pulse. She had never seen that look in her mother’s eyes, and her curiosity was the only thing stronger than the infected fear.
She had yet to see a white man for herself.
Her mother had often told her of the times at the plantation, always calm and with a surprising amount of cold distance. Naobi didn’t understand the wickedness of the white man, or his greed, but it was the tales of his sporadic kindness that stayed with her. She was confused by this duality; brutal beatings and denigration offset by acts of kindness and displays of empathy.
The Man had taken them in, given them food and shelter, and in turn Naobi had to sleep by herself most nights, no longer allowed to have her mother to hold. He told her to call him Moses “like in the Bible” but she never did.
She had been disappointed, looking down at the scene in the yard that afternoon, that the white men had shown no kindness to the Man. They had shouted at him and beat him, then dragged him to the tree and hanged him. They hardly looked at the house, as if anyone being there was at that point immaterial to them. The dust they kicked up while leaving seemed to stay in the air far longer than it should, as if afraid to settle back down and reveal the scene.
Naobi made a gesture of impatience, and her mother sensed it, gripping her hand.
“No baby, we have to stay inside. They might still be there, waiting.”
“They’re gone momma. We can’t just leave him there.”
“You don’t know, baby. You don’t know.”
“Momma, I gotta go and see. And I gotta cut him down.”
Her mother tightened the grip.
“You can’t go out there baby. The white men will take you.”
“Momma,” Naobi said, and tugged to free her hand. “Momma!”
“They are there, waiting.” Her momma’s eyes had a distant look.
Naobi tugged herself free and ran downstairs and out of the house, ignoring her momma’s cries, floorboards creaking in opposition of this adolescent foolishness.
It was as her feet touched the twilight grass outside the front door that Naobi realized this was the first time she had defied her mother, outside of childish fumblings for independence.
As she approached the hang-ed Man, she felt a fear, a flittering thing at the edge of her being. Perhaps the white men really were waiting and would now jump out from hiding, do terrible things to her and then hang her from a low branch until she kicked no longer.
She turned, took the fear with her and ran to the shed, where she knew there was a saw blade. She left her fear in the shed, walked back to the tree and looked at the Man. His mouth was open and his toes pointed down. He smelled awful already, and Naobi then saw why this was.
She had to climb the tree to reach the rope. It would never occur to her again to climb the tree, that part of her childhood was now over. Her hands trembled as she climbed, and her heart beat in her ears.
The body made a dull thump as it fell from the branch.
She dragged the Man’s body towards the house by herself, her mother looking on from a high window, most of her attention on the road and the white men she was sure were on the way back.
She dug the Man a grave, and read from the Book over it afterwards.
“Goodbye, Moses,” she said.
Naobi cried as she went to sleep that night, the first tears of her adult life.