A scent of dogwood drifts on dawn air. I waken with tears in my eyes.
When I was a little girl we walked from Tennessee into Northern Alabama. It was April of 1933. My uncle had a farm near Athens. We planned to stay with him until times got better.
We walked on back roads and paths through the woods. My father and mother carried our belongings on their backs. My job was to keep track of Dan my little brother. He was four and jumpy as a cricket.
Toward the end of our third walking day, my parents lowered their gunnysacks and slumped down on fragrant grass to rest. Like most little boys, Dan wouldn’t stop moving until he couldn’t. He hopped off into the trees as soon as my parents put down their sacks. I trotted after him. My father called after me, “Don’t go too far, Mary Lou. Call if you need me.”
I waved to him as I passed from sunlight into cool shade. After a few steps, I slowed and called, “Dan?” but he didn’t answer me. I walked some way into the trees. There was a rustle behind me. I turned and Dan’s grin popped out at me. “Boo!” he shouted. A huge black man, shoulders round like a bear’s, leaned out from a tree behind Dan. “Boo, yourself!”
We screamed and clutched each other.
The big man laughed like a booming drum. “Easy, children, easy. I’m Henry Jefferson and I mean you no harm.”
Dan and I looked at him. He was far darker than my mother and father. He seemed tall as a barn door and at least that wide. His arms were thick as young trees.
He grinned at us and dangled a dead hen by her legs. “I got a chicken? Your momma got a pot?”
Henry Falstaff Jefferson sat beside our campfire and plucked his chicken. He threw the feathers into the flames. They made an awful stink. My mother wrinkled her nose, but she didn’t say anything. She was happy that chicken came along for us.
After supper, we sat happy and full beside the fire. Chicken-hominy stew and cornbread ease many troubles. Cool, springtime dusk grew around us. Henry Jefferson warmed his hands over the fire, opened his eyes wide and grinned. “‘Bout dark enough to tell a story, you think?”
Dan and I nodded.
Henry leaned closer to the flames. “Do you children believe in ghosts?”
Of course we did.
Men on horses woke us in the morning. The men wore white shirts, brown pants and long boots. Their hats had wide brims and their faces were in shadow. One man shouted, “Smell that campfire smoke? There’s thieving niggers in these woods. Caleb, take your boys around to the other side. We’ll drive ’em in your direction.”
Well, we ran. The big horses blew and snorted behind us. We dodged between trees and around boulders. I remember thinking it might be best to hide under a trunk when some roots grabbed my foot and jerked me down. Red Alabama earth smacked the breath out of me. I lost Dan’s hand.
When I could breathe again, a horse taller than a mountain was standing over me. Its rider reached down and gripped my arm. He hauled me out of those woods like a sack of potatoes and dumped me on the grass beside my mother.
I looked up and saw Henry hanging from a tree limb. His feet were still twitching, but I knew they wouldn’t much longer. I told my mother we ought to tell the men that my father didn’t steal their chicken. She put her hand over my mouth and whispered, “Hush.”
The men hung my father alongside Henry. They dangled together like ripe peaches, two of those strange fruit Billie Holiday sang about.
Dogwood blossoms are white, not like snow, but warm like a biscuit. We found Dan near an April dogwood tree. Its blossoms fell on him, covered him with their creamy silk. A horse had stepped on his chest. He was still alive, but he was broken. I spent the longest hour I lived on this earth listening to Dan try to breathe. He died before noon. We buried him there beneath that dogwood.
I dreamed of dogwood blossoms again last night.
Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher who lives in King City, California. He is a lifelong climber and mountaineer, and three of his short stories about climbing were published in the Sierra Club’s Ascent. Other stories and poems have appeared in High magazine, Loose Scree, and The Climbing Art. Walton is also the author of several children’s books, most recently, Chaos Gate.
A shorter version of this story won first place in New Millennium’s 2011 flash fiction contest.