It wasn’t the first night he’d spent in the loft of the old barn.
A broken deck of scud was left over from four days of mid-April rain. The low-hanging clouds took slow turns with bright stars and a rising moon, competing to determine how much of the night’s influence would be dispelled. The closest man-made light was more than a mile to the west—a single dim bulb dangling from a cord outside the Parkers’ old toolshed.
The barn where he slept was on the east side of the Parkers’ plantation; it and a small shotgun house were on semipermanent loan to the Central Delta Hunting Club for their deer-hunting headquarters. Each spring the club members would keep the deer fed by planting several acres of corn along the strip between the cotton field and the edge of Eagle Nest Brake. Every fall the same men would come out and plant the strip in winter wheat.
In the evenings, just after dusk, wedgewood-grey shadows would materialize at the edge of the wooded brake. They’d graze along the boundary of the field then, as full night descended, the shadows that could turn themselves into deer would move farther from the protection of the trees. On those nights when there was enough moonlight, he’d fix himself a comfortable place where he could see the fields through the loft opening, and he’d spend the night in the sweet-smelling hay, enjoying the peace offered by his surroundings. On darker nights, if there was a breeze moving through the woods to mask his sounds, he’d leave the warmth of the hay and slip into the trees of the brake. He’d stay downwind of the animals, creeping along like a wraith, sometimes crawling close enough to hear them munching the grain. More often than not, they’d sense his presence before he could get close and transform themselves back into silent shadows.
On moonlit nights like this one, when the temperature was mild and the wind was gentle, he’d make himself comfortable in the barn’s loft and watch the shadows become deer while he thanked the good Lord for the years he’d had with his Pip—his own God-given, graceful doe. On this night, well before midnight, when the substance of his prayers became shadowlike, sleep came to him there in the soft, warm hay.
Beyond the woods and across the lake, the light over the door of the toolshed moved back and forth in a shallow arc—a patient pendulum, measuring the waning seconds of the night’s peace.
The crunching noise of tires on gravel came to the loft, waking him in time to see the opening of the drama.
As soon as he heard the sounds he rolled over and crawled away from the loft opening. He pulled off his hat and pressed his face to a place where a narrow strip had been broken off the barn’s siding, getting positioned in time to watch the car pass in front of the empty shotgun house and move the last few yards toward the barn. Below him, at the base of the ladder where the stalls were, the dog murmured that he was awake. The man whispered for him to stay quiet.
While he slept, eddies of fog had felt their way through the woods and pooled at the edges of the field. As the car approached, the quiet mist dissolved the deer and pulled them into its stationary swirl, turning them back into soft pieces of the darkness.
Most of the local white men didn’t care one way or another if Mose wanted to sleep in the unused barn, but this was late Friday night—he checked the position of the nearly full moon—after midnight. It wouldn’t do to be caught in here by some shined-up young white boy who might think it would be fun to try to scare a grey-headed old colored man.
The car came to rest in front of the barn’s only door, its lights pointing at the edge of the muddy field where the road ended.
Mose stayed still. He couldn’t see into the car, but he could feel its driver staring at the bleak field. Scattered skeletons of last year’s cotton stalks stared back.
After a long moment, the car backed and turned, starting back the way it came.
A half mile to the west, in the direction of Mose’s cabin, the brush and trees of the brake wove a wicker-basket filter for four sets of headlights playing follow the leader on the road through the brake.
Below him the car’s brake lights came on, and the car stopped. The driver of the car saw the approaching lights.
Over in the woods, the second set of headlights pulled up alongside the first; the flickering lights showed two pickups moving side by side. They rolled another fifty yards and stopped midway through the woods. The following lights moved up behind them and went out. The damp air carried the sound of slamming truck doors.
The only path to the world of reasonable men was blocked.
On the west side of the lake, inside the Young Parkers’ house, Susan Parker’s eyes opened. She looked at her alarm clock; it was past midnight and she was wide awake. Susan normally slept the night through; on those rare occasions when she didn’t, she spent her time praying. As she closed her eyes to pray, one of her hands explored her husband’s side of the bed—it was empty. She sat up and saw him standing by the bedroom’s bay window. Blue-tinted moonlight spilled onto the floor around his feet.
“I’m right here.”
“What’re you looking at?”
“I was prayin’.”
Bobby Lee Parker stared at the moonlit night. “Well . . . I don’t know if I’m sure.”
Waking up to pray wasn’t unusual for Bobby Lee, having him not know what he was praying for was something new.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Mmm. I woke up a few minutes ago an’ prayed for a while in the bed. I finally got up an’ moved over here.”
“And you don’t know what you’re praying about?” There was plenty to pray about. Their son was out at that air base in Nevada. Missy was newly married and living in Texas. In the spring, ten sections of wet cotton land needed all the prayer they could muster.
“That doesn’t sound right, does it?” He tried to organize his thoughts. “I started off with the usual stuff . . . the kids, you, me, the farm . . . but I keep comin’ back to Mose . . .” his voice trailed off.
“Mose?” she prompted.
“Mmm, just Mose.” A cloud moved in front of the moon, darkening the room. “Is that strange?”
Susan swung her legs over the side of the bed and felt for her slippers with her toes. “It would be if I hadn’t just waked up feeling like I ought to be praying for him myself. I’ll make us some coffee.”
Bobby hadn’t moved. “Should I go check on him?”
She abandoned the slipper hunt. “On Mose?”
She thought about his question for a moment. Pip Washington, Mose’s late wife, had been instrumental in Susan Parker’s becoming a Christian and had guided her growth in understanding how to live the Christian life. Pip had been dead for more than two years now, but Susan could parrot what Pip would say. “I guess you better decide that for yourself.”
“I’ll be seein’ him first thing in the mornin’. You reckon he’ll be all right till then?”
Pip would also say, “That’s in God’s hands, baby. C’mon.”
The moon reasserted itself, and Bobby Lee turned his back on the window. “You can stay in bed if you want to.” She could hear his smile. “I can pray for Mose while you get yo’ beauty sleep.”
“Not hardly,” his smile had spread to her face and voice. Susan Parker did not have what it took to miss an opportunity to pray for Moses Lincoln Washington, and Bobby Lee was smiling because he knew it.
To most folks, Mose was a quiet old black man who owned forty acres and a little cabin on the east side of Cat Lake. To those same people he was the man who’d spent five years in Parchman for what happened to Blue Biggers.
To Susan and the rest of the Parkers, Mose Washington was first, foremost, and forever the father of Mose Junior Washington. As an eleven-year-old boy, Junior almost single-handedly built a bridge between the two families. During the past fifteen or so years—because of what one young boy did—the Washingtons and Parkers had all but breached any assumed color barrier. The special friendship between the two families at the lake—one black, one white—was something that most people in the Delta’s segregated society watched with wonder.
Bobby Lee left his slippers and followed his wife to the kitchen, his long bare feet slapping against the brick floor.
Outside the house and beyond the lake, the clouds were overpowering the moon again, winning the war for darkness. It would be five hours before the Parkers knew why they had been awakened to pray for their friend.
Mose had been living back out at the lake for more than a year, and, other than Mr. Bobby Lee, he didn’t get many visitors. He and Mr. Bobby Lee met on one side of the lake or the other several days a week to drink coffee and visit.
Years earlier there had been a large community of folks living out at the lake—back during the Second World War.
In those days, Mose’s family, his job at the gin, and his little bit of land had done what was needed to fill his life. Then, on a bright summer day in June of ’45, Mose Junior had sacrificed his life to save his best friend. In the fall of that same year the two Parker families—Bobby Lee’s and Old Mr. Parker’s—out of appreciation to God and the Washington family, had “tithed” a full section of land to Mose and his family for as long as any of the Washingtons lived. Mose was probably the richest black farmer in Mississippi, but money was a poor substitute for a family. Pip had been gone for two years, his boy for fifteen, and his daughter was busy with her own life. Mose was content to rent the tithed land back to the Parkers and spend quiet days with his God and his dog and his white friend.
Of the Parkers, only the three oldest lived out at the lake now; everybody else had just seemed to leave all at once. Bobby Lee’s wife, Young Mrs. Parker, stayed busy doing things busy women do. Old Mr. Parker had died while Mose was in prison. Old Mrs. Parker was getting up in years, but she still puttered around in her yard and baked things. Missy, the only Parker girl, had been married and gone for more than a year now. Bobby, the Parkers’ boy, had joined the Air Force nine years back. Bobby Lee said the boy made a name for himself when he shot down some Communist airplanes over there in Korea.
Bobby Lee Parker and Mose had run the Parker gin together for years, but when Bobby Lee hired Scooter Hall’s son to run the gin office, Mose surrendered the oversight of the mechanical side to Roosevelt Edwards. Bobby Lee still owned three sections of good cotton land running along either side of the brake and another seven on the west side of the lake, but he didn’t do much farming. He hired two men as managers and left the farming and ginning to other folks. When he and Susan weren’t traveling around the country, he spent the biggest part of his time with Mose.
The men were two fifty-something-year-old close friends with nothing demanding their attention but the beauty of sunsets and sunrises. They spent a good part of their time on the porch of one house or the other, or out under the trees—talking, or reading their Bibles, or praying. As many days as not, they’d take some sandwiches and a thermos full of coffee and ride around in a truck and look at the crops and talk. Mostly, Bobby Lee would do the talking; Mose would enjoy his coffee and nod and add an occasional affirming murmur. They’d talk about the things old men talk about—the crops, the weather, their children, politics. And they’d talk about God and Heaven and the demons that had visited them on Cat Lake.
Some of the whites and coloreds of Moores Point made mean-spirited comments about the friendship between the wealthy white man and the great-grandson of a slave. Mostly, though, the events of the past drew reasonable folks to total acceptance of whatever suited Mose and Bobby Lee—they were the fathers of Mose Junior Washington and Missy Parker, the two special children who had stood in the maelstrom of The War At Cat Lake.
And maybe once a month—on a nice Sunday afternoon—Pearl would come.
His daughter didn’t come to the cabin as often as she had at first; she was practice-teaching at that school down in Jackson now. When she did come, she and Mose would sit on the front porch of the cabin for an hour or so and visit—except in the winter. She came even less in the winter; the little cabin by the lake didn’t suit her anymore. There never had been any paint on the old place, inside or out; the cypress boards, shaped at a long-ago sawmill and nailed in place by slaves, still turned wind and water but had long since weathered to a medium grey. In winter, the fireplace could keep the house warm, but Pearl said the smoke smell got on her clothes.
The child always parked in the sun, never in the shade of the cabin’s big pecan trees—Pearl remembered the exact spot where the blood had been. There were still nights, right when sleep came, she’d hear her daddy talking, then the drawn-out musical chord of the screen door’s spring as her momma stepped onto the porch. The sound of her momma’s calm voice came next . . . then Pearl’s almost-sleep would be shattered by the roar of the shotgun and the scream of the man. The white men came that same day and took her daddy to Parchman Prison. They’d kept him there five years.
Pearl was barely fourteen when Pip bought a fine little white house in town, just up the street from the church. Mose was in prison and Pip couldn’t farm their land by herself, so she rented it back to the Parkers and started teaching at the colored school.
The women in town had accepted Pip because they didn’t have to worry about their men bothering around with her. Pip was a fine-looking woman, but none of the colored men in Jones Addition messed with her. They spoke, and they tipped their hats, but that was all—the black folks knew who had pulled that shotgun’s trigger when Blue Biggers showed up at the cabin on Cat Lake.
Nowadays, when Pearl came to the cabin, she and Mose would sit on the wooden porch in the same old cane-bottom rockers, surrounded by a varying population of sleepy cats. The mockingbirds out in the pecan trees would fuss at the squirrels and each other and at the cats, the redbirds would mind their own business, and Pearl would fidget and fret. It didn’t sound like fretting, because most of the time she used her classroom voice-of-reason tone. “Daddy, this is no place for you to stay.”
Mose would rock and respond gently to Pearl’s complaints. Pearl never rocked.
Mose didn’t waste his time trying to make her understand. The big pecan trees in the yard shaded him in the summer. The soft breeze from the lake, cooled from traveling across the waters and up through the shade of the trees, would curl its way through the screen door of the house and go right on out the back, taking the heat with it. In the winter, the trees held off the wind, and the fireplace kept him warm.
Pearl might give the tall trees a cursory glance. Folks around the lake claimed that demons had been involved in the shooting of Blue Biggers. There was a second shooting back in the spring of ’58. Folks at the lake said demons tried to use a white college boy to kill Missy, and Mose stepped in to stop them. When the shooting was over, two more men were dead.
Pearl never particularly cared for Missy Parker; she didn’t like being where there had been so much killing, and she thought people who believed in demons were superstitious.
“Daddy, you’ve got no business roaming around out here all by yourself. You need to come home with me. You need to be around people. What if something happened to you out in those woods?”
“Pip’s been dead for more’n two years now, child, an’ walkin’ these woods with this here dog is ’bout all I’m good for.” For him, his next four words said it all: “An’ it’s quiet here.”
“But I could help take care of you if something happened.”
His voice had a deep gentleness to it. He’d sweep his arm in the direction of the lake. “Honey, this here is home. An’ what could happen to me?” Then he’d point at the dog. “Didn’t I just tell you I got this here dog; he’s smart as most town folk.” The hound would open one eye, acknowledge the moment of small praise by banging the wood floor a couple of times with his tail, and go back to his nap. Pearl and the mockingbirds would fret.
The conversation would go on like it did every time Pearl came. She’d worry out loud; he’d smile sometimes, frown others, rock, and rub the dog’s long ears. The cats would stretch and stroll across the dirt in front of the house just to antagonize the mockingbirds. Pearl would squirm around in her rocker and talk about her work at the school and maybe the cotton crop and the folks she knew in town, but the subject always came back to her worries about him.
“I’ve still got the house in town, Daddy,” she’d say. He had signed it over to her when he moved back out to Cat Lake. “You could move in there.”
“For what? So them women in that church can bother theyselves in my business? Humph . . . I don’t reckon.” He never got mad, but she could tell by his tone and the further descent of the corners of his mouth when the subject was closed for the month. Like clockwork, after they had visited for about an hour, he’d almost frown and say, “I don’t need to be in no town, Baby. I ain’t got no job to do, an’ I don’t want none. I got the good Lord an’ His Book . . . I got this here dog, an’ a gun, an’ plenty to eat . . . I reckon that’ll do me ’til He comes an’ gits me.”
Right before leaving, she’d always say that if he got a telephone she could call and check on him more often. He always told her he’d give it some thought, but that’s about as far as it ever got. Then she’d tell him to call her if he needed anything. He’d say he would, but he wasn’t going to spend his money to talk on a telephone.
Pearl always parked out in the sun, but she never managed to make it to her car without glancing at the spot where the man had died. It had happened when she was still in grade school; the memory was as fresh as last week.
The barn and cabin had been the headquarters for the Central Delta Hunting Club for thirty years. The “fixed up” shotgun house had become a camp house the club members used during deer season. They would play poker and shoot dice and drink and tell lies every night, and the ones who weren’t too hungover would go out and hunt deer in the mornings. The gravel-and-dirt road that led to the club was a curved tunnel through a stretch of thick brush and tall hardwoods the locals called Eagle Nest Brake. The north-south line of woods separated the fields around the hunting club from a full section of cotton land behind Mose’s house.
Mose hadn’t told Pearl about sleeping in the barn at the hunting club. Nor had he told her about crawling up close to the deer on the cool nights . . . about the soft, nervous sounds the bucks made . . . the restless snorts because the deer knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. He didn’t waste his breath trying to tell her what real contentment was; she was too young; she wouldn’t understand. He’d smile to himself every time she left to drive back to Jackson. Bless her heart, Lord, the child is smart . . . Pip done good by her . . . but she don’t know a dadgum thing about nothin’.
Mose looked down from the hayloft in time to see the car’s interior light come on and the passenger door open. A small form wearing a white shirt clambered out and ran around to the driver’s side of the car. An arm came out of the driver’s window and handed something to the figure that stood there. The moon took its turn just in time to show a young colored boy, moving hurriedly, shrugging into a dark shirt or jacket of some sort. The boy was talking to the person in the car—leaning forward, speaking earnestly. Mose couldn’t make out the words.
The voice that came out of the car was a woman’s. A hand pointed toward the south end of the brake and then west toward the county road.
The boy clutched the hand in both of his. Sounds of an intense plea came to the loft.
Another hand came from the car. Whatever it held was dark with white marks. The boy took the offered object and stuck it beneath his shirt. One of the hands from the car rested on the boy’s shoulder while the woman in the car spoke warm assurance. When she paused, the boy shook his head and spoke words of increasing desperation.
The soft voice coming from the car took a firm tone; it reminded Mose of Pip. He couldn’t make out the words, but he could hear the urgency.
Mose could see the boy’s thin shoulders sag under the weight of the woman’s words. The child leaned forward into the car for a moment then stepped away. Holding one hand at his waist, he started across the field, moving west toward the woods and lake. He looked back at the car more than once.
A shrill barking sound, like a crazy person laughing, wrenched Mose’s attention away from the boy to the place where the trucks were waiting for the car. The black man mumbled something to himself while he crawled across the floor of the loft and started down the ladder to where the dog was.
While the man groped his way down the ladder the boy was running crouched over through the muddy field, moving in the direction of the brake. The small form was halfway to the woods when the car began to move down the road to the waiting trucks.
Excerpted from Wedgewood Grey © Copyright 2012 by John Aubrey Anderson. Reprinted with permission by FaithWords. All rights reserved.
- hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Warner Faith
- ISBN-10: 0446579505
- ISBN-13: 9780446579506