Stories

The nurse had pushed the curtains aside so that she could have a look out at the night sky from her bed. Through the wide-open window, she could hear the cicadas singing. It had been a good day. Days like this are rare in her age. All the children and grandchildren had come for her birthday. She was satisfied, almost happy. She closed her eyes and listened into the night. Her body seemed to slowly dissolve; walking had become almost impossible for her, but her hearing was still amazingly good.

Suddenly there was a different melody that could be heard besides the singing of the cicadas. It took a little while for her centenarian brain to recognize the song: “Strange Fruit”.  The song takes away all the good and ease of the day. It draws her in and puts her back. She was no longer here in her bed, old and frail. She was young again. Very young even. It’s strange how one could remember every detail that was half a century, if not more, back and on the other hand, forget things that happened ten minutes ago.

It was a humid day in August. The air was thick and heavy. Even time seemed to stand still under the weight of the heat. Everyone longed for thunderstorms that would cool them off. Something had to break through the boredom and the heat, but what hit them was worse than any hurricane. And finally, something happened: three men are said to have murdered a white man and raped his wife. The dead white man’s bloody shirt was hanging from the flagpole in front of the police station. It was the same station where three blacks were arrested and for the whole city to see — like waving the red flag in front of a bull. The three were young–one was only 16. They had been seen down by the river, where the man was later found, and the whimpering girl. All three pleaded their innocence. But what they said nobody believed them.

On this sultry day, the air was heavy on the body. A day when everyone was just waiting for something to happen. And when finally something happened, the news spread like wildfire. They came from everywhere. The mob stormed the sheriff’s office with axes and sledgehammers. They believed the blood-red shirt over their heads gave them the right to do so.

A guy named Tommy was the first they took out. They beat him until no bone was whole in his body and all life had drained from him. Then they dragged the dead body down to the maple tree like a dead horse. When they pulled the nose around his neck and pulled him up high in the tree everybody knew he was already dead. The second, his name was Abe, was still alive when they pulled him up by the maple tree.

When she came by, she saw the bodies hanging there at the village square. She thought nothing of it. Somebody must have run up to Lawrence, the photographer, and must have told him about it. Because Lawrence showed up with his camera. He had always had a business instinct and, after all, blacks weren’t going to get a couple pegged every day. Harvey Fisher and some other neighbors brought blankets for an evening picnic. The pregnant Polly Peters brought her children with her. Others posed in front of the dead and had themselves photographed. It was like a fair.

Her friend Greta asked Lawrence to take a picture of her. She refused to be in it. Not because she felt sorry for the dead, but because she didn’t want to be photographed with the shabby old dress on. The photographer was doing the business of his life that evening: he stood in the laboratory for weeks and sold prints for 50 cents. Everyone wanted a postcard as a souvenir.

More and more people came. Cars circled honking around the square with windows rolled down and drivers laughing, joking. The place around the tree was crowded with men, women, children. And then they began to shout from more than ten thousand throats: “Get Cameron! Get Cameron!” She was one of them. She screamed as loudly as she could until her throat felt hoarse.  

The mob brought in 16-year-old James Cameron. She knew James. He was a skinny little guy who looked much younger–almost like a child. She was close enough to see the fear and the panic on his face. They dragged him down to the maple tree. He already had the noose around his neck.

And then she saw the man. He looked like all the others. He was wearing a plaid summer shirt. He stood on the roof of his car. It looked strange the way he was standing on the roof of his car, waving his arms in the air. She couldn’t understand what he was doing. She saw the hat. A yellow straw hat.  And then she heard his voice. It was a firm dark voice. “He’s innocent!” he yelled. “Look at him. He is innocent!” She wasn’t the only one who had seen the stranger. Suddenly it was as if someone had flipped the switch. The fair was over. The sheriff led Cameron back to the cell. She can’t remember when and how she got home.

Years later, it was her first year in college and she was on a date. Her first date in New York to be exact. She loved the city, it was so different from the little town in the south where she grew up. She was with this guy. His name was Joseph or Jonah. She is not sure. Six years later and 6,000 miles away, he got killed on a beach in France. The thing she knows for sure was she was wearing the light yellow dress that her mother had sewn for her. Every time she felt like a princess in it.

The two went to a jazz cellar. The place was called “Café Society”. It was in the Village, close to West Fourth Street. The venue was downstairs in the basement. It was very different from the pubs where she was from, it was so … sophisticated. No drunk farm workers who fought on the weekends when they had one beer too many. And it wasn’t just white people. It had that city vibe. The air of anonymity in which everyone could be as they wanted.

On the stage stood this thin woman with a white gardenia in her hair. The singer’s name was Billie Holiday. She had never heard of her until that day. The last song began and only a single spotlight was still on. The musicians play an intro. The woman sings about the trees of the south. Strange fruits hang there. Let blood be on leaves and roots. And then it comes: “Black Body swinging in the Southern Breeze.”

It almost took her breath away. She could taste the sultry, hot air of the south. And she saw the bodies. Dead people dangled in front of her mind. In the wind of the southern states. She was unable to move. It was like the American presence came onto the stage through the open door. Picnic under the gallows. People laugh and joke. Children run around playing catch and the bodies of the dead hang in the trees. Lifeless bodies sway gently in the wind. And this time, too, she had no idea how she got home.

Seventy years are passed by—a whole life. She is lying in her bed and she still can’t get Billie Holiday’s voice out of her head: “The puffy eyes, the trembling mouth, the smell of magnolias, sweet and fresh, and the sudden smell of burning meat …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” She had known since that evening that she was to blame. She was there, yelled along with the others, but hadn’t said: “Stop!”. She knew it was a debt that she could never work of no matter how it became. The guilt was there, a black stain on her soul. A tumor that was nourished by ignorance and looking the other way. The guilt would be there until her last breath and she could only hope that there was no afterlife, because then she would have to pay, like all the others who said nothing that day.

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