Barefoot and Midnight8 min read
Three men emerged from darkness and walked to the edge of the wood, the scent of roses rising all around them. The moon hung like a broken jaw above the Memphis night. The schoolyard lay ahead, its wood fence disjointed and leaning. The fetid scent of wet grass, of mold and moss, floated on the evening wind from the bayou.
“You ready?” asked the first man, his face pockmarked, lips leering, eyes sullen.
“Light’em up,” replied the second. The third nodded his head and produced the gasoline.
They knew the children slept inside. No one had to tell them. The Freedmen’s School in Gayoso’s Flats was one of several humble buildings where the former slaves gathered to grasp what hope lay ahead for their futures. Most had no home but the damp, mosquito-infested fields surrounding the bayou. The school housed thirteen orphaned children, those who didn’t even have a mother’s lap to lay their little heads on.
When the fires calmed and the bright red embers turned to ash, when the city grieved and grieved until it couldn’t grieve anymore, Dusa Dayan rose from the back pew of Beale Street First African Baptist Church and let the sounds of Doctor Watts’ hymns usher her out the red door.
I heard the cry. I, I, I heard them cry.
The fire had burned the schoolhouse to the ground. All that remained were the crimson rose bushes. The roses, the first seeds the children had planted together. She could still see the faces of her students, not much younger than herself, their beautiful smiles, the lustrous brown skin, the determination in their eyes. She tried to make those memories replace the burnt, black splinters of bone that haunted her nights, the faces unrecognizable, lips pulled back in horror. And the cries that made her wake from sleep, her face covered in tears.
I heard the cry. I, I, I …
Hidden in darkness, donated evening meals still covered in her basket, Dusa had heard every scream.
And now, like a visit from a long-forgotten friend, the story her grandmother told her many years ago became Dusa’s only thought.
There, under the roots of the Lynching Tree, were the remains of countless members of Dusa’s kinfolk and others. Unfortunate souls singled out and taken away in the cover of night. Under the bloodstained boughs, innocents had dangled and danced, lifeless beneath the broad, twisting limbs. It was a dance no soul wished ever to witness, a struggle of spirit and flesh, of ropes and blades and fire, a litany to pain that you could never unsee.
In the darkness the mound looked too small, too well-shaped to be natural. Only visible to eyes who had seen hell and lived. Beneath the grass was the specter behind the stories, no one knew the origins of the legend, the haint whose soul was said to hover above Voodoo Fields.
Dusa placed her satchel on the dirt. She drew the hatchet from the twine at her waist and gripped a hardwood handle laced with ancient carvings. The tree loomed over the mound, casting shadows. The few surrounding weeds were scraggly, thick with drops of dew. The land around the tree was fallow, as if the blood-soaked earth refused to nourish natural life. Dusa circled the mound, hatchet in hand, then she hacked off a branch from the Lynching Tree. The wet blades of grass felt slick against her bare soles. The wind whipped and pricked at her naked flesh. Exposed to the biting night and all its appetites, she knew the few drops of blood would not be all of the sacrifice. When she took the branch from the tree where no leaves or blossoms grew, the ground grumbled and growled beneath her feet. Dusa held her breath.
Barefoot and covered only in the darkness that was midnight, she shivered. On bent knees, she dug her fingers into the grass, grasping at the moist earth, clutched cherry bark and broken twigs, her back arched in pain. She lifted a flask, sprinkled bathwater from a child who was not baptized. Behind her the creek murmured and whispered, a cool invitation to abandon her mission. She could toss all the gathered items in the creek’s dark waters, leave the terrors behind her. She could forget the tree and the cursed land that surrounded it, walk back through the red doors of the church, and beg for forgiveness.
Dusa rose on one knee, flask in hand, praying that she had the strength to turn her back on the Lynching Tree, but a fire burned in her soul. The faith she once had was replaced with an unholy rage, an anger so hot, it incinerated all forgiveness. She willed her body to move. But the scent of roses, overpowering in the night, strengthened her resolve, holding her there.
The fires were started by those who hated the very idea that any of them were now free. White Memphis defined itself by the darkness it kept outside of Freedom’s light, by the darkness that festered within. The Freedmen’s School was the only home Dusa had ever known. Frozen in winter, smoldering in summer, she and her thirteen students had suffered and struggled together as one. The bite of skeetas, the occasional serpent intruder were all well worth it. She had watched them, ages eight to fourteen, come through the old pine doors, eyes glistening with want for knowledge. The confidence on their faces emerged like spring blossoms as they slowly moved from signing their names with an X to the new names they had chosen for themselves in freedom.
But Voodoo Fields was where the ancient spirit lay, waiting. When no earthly justice would bring stolen Black lives peace. Dusa dug up the earth, the raw scent filling the air. She sprinkled the soil with her tears and pulled the ragged mud doll from its dreamless slumber. Wrapped in tree roots, its garment was tattered. Whatever color or pattern it once held faded long ago. A dark, rust-colored stain covered the space where its heart once was. It had no head. Only a red ribbon where it should be. It had no limbs. No mouth or plump cheeks and belly to kiss and pinch.
Dusa held a rose petal for every child she lost in the fire. She pressed them into the freshly made mud she used to cover the old doll. The mud spread like a second skin, the old layers, hard and cracking. As she held the doll, she thought she heard it cry out, the sound like a newborn baby hungry for its mother’s milk. She nearly dropped it, but fear made her hold fast, the scream stuck in her throat.
The Lynching Tree branch smelled of smoke, fear, and blood. Pain radiated through her palms as she worked to fashion two arms, two legs, and a fist full of dark, earthwormed-soil for a head. She sculpted the head as roundly as she could in the darkness, resisted the urge to abandon the writhing ball of rotten soil. As she worked the doll felt heavier in her hand, like the child she once bore and buried before its first spring.
She sang the song before she realized she knew the song. In a language neither she nor her mother’s tongue had ever sung before. Words that came from no leatherbound hymnal. Words that were dark, mournful, dangerous. It was the same song her grandmother sang before the spirit doll had slain the men who hung her husband, the same song she sang, they say, when the black doll came for her, too.
Hear I. Hear I cry. Rend them, spin them, hear them crying.
Dusa placed her palm flesh over the hatchet’s blade and sang until her voice grew hoarse from crying. Her elbows were steady but arms wobbly. Her knees had grown numb, but the sharp scent of sweat, burned flesh, and urine made her squeeze the blood more rapidly into the doll’s primitive mouth. No eyes were carved into the mud. The spirit doll needed only blood and the ashes of the dead to see.
Eyes stinging, Dusa held the doll to her bosom. She rocked and stroked it as she had once rocked her own child. Lulled by her mother’s voice, the infant girl had gone to sleep one cold wintry night, but the child never opened her eyes again. Dusa was thinking of the baby’s warm, fat fingers when she felt the mud doll’s head shift in her hand. More corpse than baby, the doll once cold and still, began to writhe and twist in her arms. The fat, sightless grubs and earthworms burying through its mud-bottom flesh. A rotten smell, like spoiled vegetables and dead leaves, filled the air. Strange roots burst from the doll’s center. Dusa dropped it and scrambled to her feet.
Hear I! Hear I cry!
The bayou moved around her. The Lynching Tree leaned left, now right. Its greatest branches twisted, as if reaching for the spirit Dusa had released from its sleep. A howling wind moved across the black waters, spreading the sound of wailing and the scent of long dead things. A great sound, timber fall and cracked limbs, roots twisting over the sour earth joined the endless drone of cicadas resting on the bark of the Lynching Tree.
Rend them! Spin them!
Dusa did not recognize her voice but she knew the cracked notes that joined hers was the root child now fully grown. Sightless, the creature rose on driftwood legs, the rags left in a pile in the cursed soil, the mound exposed, an open wound. Its bulbous head blocked the moonlight. Dusa could not tear her eyes away from its pitiful face. Earthworms writhed across its muddy skin in shifting waves, like water. The stench of terror, of lives cut short from rage, greed, jealousy, and madness invaded all of her senses. Her voice now a whisper, but still she sang.
Hear them crying!
The mud doll towered over her, facing her as if awaiting instructions. Cry! Its voice growing stronger as the wind whipped bark from the Lynching Tree’s limbs. Cry! Hear I!
Dusa raised her arm, the deep gash stung. She handed the hatchet to the spirit doll. The blood from her palms emblazing the carved symbols in the handle, bright red suns and comet tails in a script that appeared in frightful dreams.
Red blossoms burst from the spirit doll’s chest, sprouted along its limbs and legs. Thorny vines twisted around its throat. Its rib cage was made of roots and twigs, splinters of charred bone, remnants of the Lynching Tree. It held the hatchet high and swung.
News of the vicious killings spread faster than the fires that had lit the city’s nights. For three whole days, white men’s intestines hung from the Lynching Tree, the limbs heavy with the weight of strange fruit. To Dusa, the spilled guts looked like a string of bloody rubies and pearls. How beautiful they were, glistening in the sunlight. She wished she could wrap them around her throat like a necklace and dance. For three days she walked the streets of Memphis with the mud from the Lynching Tree dried on her feet, blood caked in the palm of her hand, a red ribbon tied around her throat. On the fourth day Dusa walked barefoot through the ashes of the fallen school.
The wound had not healed.
She plucked a rose from a bush and drifted down to the bayou in the same gown she’d worn since that first night beneath the Lynching Tree. The crimson ribbon unraveled around her throat, the jagged gash spilling fresh blood. Dusa’s head wobbled on her neck like a strange, stringless puppet. The creek was placid, a black mirror, shimmering, calm. The dark water she touched was the last of what had passed and the first of what was to come. She washed mud from her fingernails, sprinkled the water over her eyes, a baptism, and waited for the doll to come for her, barefoot and midnight.
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