Michael felt warmth radiating from his wood paneled bedroom wall and sprang from his bed. The smell of bacon wafted into his room as he hurried into the jeans and sweat shirt he set out the night before, wrestled on his tennis shoes and trotted through the narrow hallway into the kitchen. Mamma stood before the stove, one hand holding the black iron skillet in place while the other scrambled a pair of eggs in a pool of bacon grease.
“What you doing up so early, boy?” she asked without looking. Michael sat at the dinette, folding his eager hands under his chin.
“You going to Grandma’s?” he asked.
Mamma scraped the scrambled eggs onto a plate. “I go out there every Saturday morning. You know that.”
Michael played with the napkin holder, rocking his head from side to side. “Can I go?”
Mamma was reaching for the grits but stopped, placing her small hands on her broad hips. “Now why in the world do you want to go with me?”
“Because I want to go hunting.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “You and that gun. I told your daddy not to buy you that thing unless he was ready to go hunting with you. His tired behind ain’t been out with you yet.”
She scooped a spoonful of grits on the plate to join the eggs and bacon. “You know you can’t go by yourself and your daddy ain’t waking up any time soon.”
Michael smothered his grits with pepper. “Uncle Willy will take me.”
“How you know he’s going hunting today? This close to harvest time he’s probably got chores.”
Michael piled his eggs on top of his grits with the pepper and crumbled the bacon in his hands. “I called him last night and he said he was going.”
Mama turned around and looked at him, her eyes wide. “You did what?” She shook her head. “Lord, lord, what I’m gonna do with you?”
She began to make her own plate then stopped. “What about that book report you supposed to be working on? You finished it yet?”
“No? Then how you expect to go with me if you got homework to do?”
“I’ll finish it as soon as I get home mama, I promise.”
Mama turned to look at Michael.
“What you writing about?”
Michael spread apple jelly on his toast.
“I’m supposed to write about my hero. I’m thinking about Frederick Douglass.”
Michael finished his plate before Mama sat down.
“I guess you can go,” she said. “But we ain’t leaving until I’m ready to leave, you hear me?”
“And I want to see that book report after church tomorrow.”
Michael jumped from the table and ran to Mama and daddy’s room to get the .22. He hoarded his lawn cutting money all summer to buy it as a birthday present to himself. It was a Springfield/Savage .22 semi-automatic long rifle, the perfect gun for squirrel and rabbit hunting, so the salesclerk at Sears said. Michael pushed the door open quietly and crept to the closet beside the bed. Daddy was stretched out on top of the covers in his boxer shorts and t-shirt, snoring through his thick moustache. The closet door creaked when Michael slid it aside and Daddy’s hand came up to scratch his sideburns. Michael froze until he stopped scratching then slid the door wide open. The gun was hidden behind Mama’s Sunday dresses. He took it out then went to Daddy’s loose change drawer where he kept the bullets. There was a brand new pack of one hundred shells that felt like money in his hands.
Michael strode into the kitchen, carrying the rifle the way Daddy taught him. Mama looked up from her cup of coffee and grinned despite herself.
“You look like your Uncle Bo when he was your age,” she said. She got up from the table and headed for the room. “Guess I better get ready. The day ain’t getting no longer.”
Michael washed his plate then went to the den. He laid his gun down on the floor and turned on the TV to watch cartoons. He’d almost forgotten about going with Mama when she came into the den.
“Cut that mess off and let’s go,” she said.
Michael scrambled to his feet, grabbing the gun and the bullets.
“Now remember what I said. We don’t leave ‘til I’m ready.”
“And if your Uncle Willy can’t take you hunting, you don’t go.”
“All right then, let’s go.”
Michael trailed Mama out the door into the carport and into the ’67 sky blue Malibu. It moments they were zooming through the neighborhood down the steep hills between the little water oaks the city planted to beautify the landscape. Mama worked her way through the side streets and short cuts with the seriousness of a NASCAR driver, reaching Macon Road, the two lane highway that ran right to Grandma’s farm. The sky was a crisp autumn blue, empty of the gray haze that sagged low during the summer. The morning sun spread its light across the pine infested hills. It felt like hunting season and Michael was excited. He watched the familiar landmarks flash by from his back seat window until he saw the solitary shack that signaled the farm wasn’t far way. Mama finally slowed down as the roadside mailboxes came into view. She steered off the pave highway and onto the dirt road. She was creeping as they approached the railroad crossing. Only the section crossing the road was visible, the rest blocked by a tangle of scrub pines and honeysuckle vines.
Mama turned left after crossing the tracks. She drove through a gauntlet of blackberry vines that made Michael mouth water as he remembered blackberry pie and ice cream. They turned right at the hog pens and the house appeared, flanked by the corn and peas fields. Mama drove down the road to the rear of the house, parking between the house and the shed. Michael jumped out of the car before Mama came to a complete stop, his impatient eyes searching for Uncle Willy. His euphoria was checked by a jerk of his arm that almost lifted him off his feet.
“Boy, don’t you ever jump out that car like that again!” Mama’s face was get-me-a-switch angry.
“Don’t go hitting that boy,” a much older female voice growled. Grandma stood at the screen door of the back patio. Michael blessed her for saving him from what was surely going to be a whupping or at least a pinch on the arm. She eased down the concrete stairs, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Did you see what he did?” Mama said.
“He ain’t hurt. You’ll know better the next time, wont’ you Michael?”
Michael followed Mama and Grandma up the stairs. Since he’d made Mama mad, he sat beside the women on an old folding chair and took his share of butterbeans from the bushel and began shelling. He kept his eyes low and peeled while they talked; waiting for the right moment to ask the question that was burning to get out of his throat.
Mama stopped talking as she grabbed another handful of beans. Michael cleared his throat and looked up at Grandma.
“Grandma, is Uncle Willy here?”
“Shoot boy, Willy went hunting right about sun up. He won’t be back until dark.”
Michael slumped over like he’d been hit by a brick. He looked at Mama with pleading eyes.
“I told you no hunting by yourself with that gun,” she reminded him.
“I’ll take him.” Grandpa shuffled in from the kitchen, his hands deep in his overalls pockets. He smiled at Michael, flashing his gold tooth, and Michael was filled with dread.
“You feel like hunting, daddy?” Mama asked. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” Michael whispered.
“I feel fine,” Grand replied, pulling his right hand out of his pocket. Michael watched the gnarled, scarred appendage rise to the old man’s bald head. It was hideous, like something from the freak show at the fair. When he was small he was always careful to avoid touching or being touched by that hand and its mirror twin. He thought when he was older he’d get over the fear, but it was still clinging to him as real as ever.
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” he said louder.
“Is it all right?” Mamma asked Grandma.
Grandma concentrated on the peas. “The doctor said he needed to get some exercise.”
“I don’t want to go no more!” Michael shouted.
“Boy, can’t you see grown folks talking?” Mamma nailed him still with her stare then returned to her conversation.
“Well, Papa, I guess it’s all right, but you keep a close eye on him. He can get wild sometimes.”
“What you mean you guess it’s all right?” Grandpa said. “I’ll take this boy anywhere I want to. Come on, boy. Let’s go hunting.”
Michael watched the back of Grandpa’s head and he bounced down the stairs. He looked at mamma in desperation.
“What you waiting on? Go on, now.”
Michael turned and followed Grandpa down the stairs. He could do this; he was twelve going on thirteen with two hairs on his chest and the start of a moustache on his upper lip. His confidence had almost returned until he caught a glimpse of those hands pull out a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. He jumped past Grandpa and trotted to the car to get his .22.
“What you gonna kill with that? Time?”
Michael ignored the comment, holding the gun towards the ground like his Daddy taught him and making sure the safety was on.
“Squirrels and rabbits, sir,” he said.
Grandpa laughed like a wet growl. “Can’t kill no squirrels with that thing. Ain’t gonna do nothing but make them mad. I should’ve brought my shotgun.”
Grandpa started walking and Michael followed, afraid to say where he wanted to hunt. They followed a trail branching off the dirt road which cut between the barn and the old mule stables.
“No, can’t kill nothing with that thing,” Grandpa continued. “Can’t kill it right, I mean. You shoot a squirrel with that and it’ll be running around mad, hurting and hiding. A shotgun will put it down just like that.”
Grandpa stopped walking and Michael almost ran into him.
“See this?” he asked, pointing at a dent between his right thumb and finger. “Shot a squirrel one time and thought he was dead. I guess I should of asked him before I went to picking him up. Damn thing took hold to me right here like a beaver trap. Took a half an hour to get it loose, and it was dead half that time.”
Michael looked at the spot and grimaced, imagining how painful that must have felt. Suddenly the scar and the hand were gone, sinking deep into Grandpa’s pocket.
They walked to the second hog pen where the trail ended, the air heavy with the stink of swamp mud and hog droppings. Before them was the turnip green field, the fall planting full and ready for harvest. Grandpa walked into the field and over to the barbed wire fence separating the field from the woods. Michael hadn’t planned on going into those trees. It was a tangle of pines, oaks and muscadine vines that seemed perpetually dark as it repulsed the sun’s attempts to penetrate its core. Blind obedience only went so far.
“Grandpa, are we going in there?”
“You want to shoot squirrels, don’t you?”
Michael reluctantly nodded his head.
“Well this is the best spot for them; at least it was a while back. Come over here and hold this wire down for me.”
Michael sat the gun down on the opposite side of the fence then grabbed the wire carefully, pushing down with his weight. Grandpa stepped over, his hand gripping Michael’s shoulder for support. Michael closed his eyes, keeping his head away from the hand.
“Got to be careful,” Grandpa said as he grunted his way over the fence. Once he and Michael were settled he showed his left hand.
“When I was about your Uncle Willy’s age I worked for a white man named Mr. Elias Burnside in his sawmill. It was hard work back then because a colored man did whatever the boss man said do, even if it wasn’t your job. Well, one day I was putting up a fence like this one on Mr. Burnside farm and before I knew it I was up to my ankles in fire ants. Boy, I got to jumping around and screaming and tore my hand up on that bob wire. Took me a long time to get this hand back straight.”
Michael climbed over the fence. The woods towered before them in black silence, its stillness a final warning to all intruders. Michael eyes went to Grandpa, waiting for him to lead the way. Instead Grandpa reached into his pocket, pulled out a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco and leaned against the fence post.
“We stay here and wait,” Grandpa said. “They’ll come to us.”
Michael never dreamed a more terrible fate. In front of him were the scariest woods on the farm and beside him was Grandpa. He sat with the rifle across his lap as he watched Grandpa massage his hands. They must hurt all the time, he thought. Maybe he was used to it; the pain was there but had become a part of Grandpa’s life like receding gray hair on his head.
“Why you rubbing your hands, Grandpa?” he asked.
“They get to itching sometimes,” he answered.
“You got arthritis?”
Grandpa tilted his head up and stared at Michael. “What? Shoot boy ain’t nothing wrong with me but old age. These hands are fine.”
He moved close to Michael and turned his right hand up, pointing at thick yellow circles on his palms below each finger.
“This comes from hard work, boy. I got these trophies swinging an axe longer than you been alive.”
He turned his hand over and placed his finger on a faint line near his pinky finger.
“This line here? I got this when your mamma was born. We didn’t have no hospital for colored folks back then, so the midwife comes over from Midland to help deliver her. Your grandma was going through an awful time, so I slipped in the room and told her to bite on my hand till she felt better. Lord Almighty that woman can bite!”
Grandpa chuckled. Michael stared at Grandpa’s hands, trying to make up a story about every indention, line, scar and curve. They began a game of show and tell, Michael asking and Grandpa telling as the sun passed over them between cotton clouds.
“Where did those come from?” Michael pointed to the twin scars ringing Grandpa’s wrists. The glow that had been building in the old man’s face fled; he straightened and walked away along the fence.
“Grandpa, wait!” Michael jumped to his feet and grabbed his rifle, running until he caught up. Grandpa hummed, his eyes focused somewhere up ahead. Michael grabbed his arm.
“Come on, Grandpa. Let’s go back to the house.”
Grandpa jerked his arm away. “You want to know how I got them scars, don’t you?”
Michael dropped his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Come on with me then,” Grandpa said. They walked in silence past the peas to the watermelons. Grandpa picked a small melon then walked over to a wide tree stumped and eased himself down. He pulled out his pocket knife and began slicing. Michael sat beside him and Grandpa handed him a glistening red wedge.
“Remember when I told you I worked at Mr. Burnside’s mill? Well, I was looking to buy me some land for a farm and old Burnside heard about it. One day he calls me into his office and offers me this land you’re sitting on for five hundred dollars. At first I thought he was playing with me, but old Burnside had a habit of doing things for people he liked, white or colored. So I jumped for the deal like a frog to water, giving him a hundred straight out and working out a deal for the other four.”
Michael listened as he munched on his melon slice. He imagined Grandpa as a young man, tall and strong like Uncle Willy, pulling logs and plowing fields while fussing at Mama for doing something she wasn’t supposed to do. The distance between them melted away; the old man with the crippled hands became a real person, father of Mama and Uncle Willy, husband and provider for Grandma.
“Well,” Grandpa continued, “I took to clearing that land every evening after work, sometimes with my brothers but most the time by myself. One evening I was alone chopping wood when I see a truck rolling up. By the time I figured out what’s going on it was too late to run. Three white men got out of that truck and the biggest one had a shotgun.”
“What the hell you doing on this land, boy?” he says.
“This here’s my land,” I says.
“You lying,” the little one says. “We sold this land to Tom Burnside, so unless you’re out here waiting on him, you best be getting on, nigger.”
“Now I was so mad I couldn’t think straight. ‘Mr. Burnside sold me this land,’ I yelled.” “I paid for it fair and square.”
“The big man turned red as fire.”
“That son-of-a-bitch!” he says. He turned to the short one and says, I told you not to sell it to that old fool! Everybody knows Tom is crazy.”
‘The short man got this evil grin on his face. ‘Ain’t no problem,’ he said. ‘This boy’s gonna our land back to us, ain’t you, boy?”
Grandpa bit into his melon, taking his time to chew. “Now if I hadn’t spent so much time clearing and chopping I would have gave it back. But my sweat was in the ground. It belonged to me.
“This is my land and I’m keeping it,’ I says.”
“The big man starts grinning like the devil’s son. ‘You’ll give it back sooner or later, ‘he said. I tried to run but they wrestled my down and knocked me out. When I woke up I was hanging by my wrists from a big old oak tree. The big man had a long piece of rope wrapped around his hands and as soon as he saw I was awake he started tearing into me. I wanted to holler so loud the angels would come down to get me, but when I opened my mouth Amazing Grace came out. I sang that song louder than I ever had in church and I meant it more, too. I tell you boy, the Lord must have heard Grandpa because by the time I stopped singing that song them white men was gone. They left me hanging there, swinging back and forth like a broke branch until about dark. That’s when my brother showed up looking for me and cut me down.”
Michael’s hands twisted the stock of his rifle, the veins showing in his forearms. “What did you do to those white men, Grandpa?”
Grandpa looked at Michael with a melancholy smile.
“Nothing. Couldn’t do a thing. See, back then the law kept a colored man from being strong on the outside, so you had to be strong in here.” He patted Michael’s chest with his hand and Michael didn’t mind.
“No, I didn’t do nothing to them, but I cut that damn oak tree down!” Grandpa looked as his wrists, turning his hands back and forth.
“That’s how I got these here scars, and that’s how this fine sitting stump came to be.”
Grandpa struggled to his feet. “Come on, boy. It’s about time we be getting back. Them squirrels looking at us and laughing.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” Michael said. He grasped Grandpa’s hand and pulled himself up. They stood for a moment, his young smooth hand in Grandpa’s leathery scarred grip, then they let go and headed for the house.
Mama was putting a bunch of collars into the car trunk when Michael and Grandpa walked up.
“So where are all the squirrels?” she asked.
“In the woods,” Grandpa replied. “That’s all right, though. We’ll get them next time, right Michael?”
“Yes, sir, we sure will.”
“Get in the car, baby,” Mama said.
Michael emptied the .22 and placed it in the trunk beside the collards. He sat on the passenger side as Mama hugged Grandpa’s neck.
“Bye, Daddy. I love you.”
Grandpa grunted and walked towards the house. Mama climbed in car with a smile.
“That man is something else,” she said.
Mama started the car and they drove away down the road. Michael turned to see Grandpa waving goodbye. He smiled and waved back until Grandpa disappeared in distance and dust.
“Mama, I ain’t writing about Frederick Douglass,” Michael said.
“Who you writing about?” she asked.
“I’m writing about Grandpa,” Michael replied.
Mama turned to look at Michael, her eyes glistening as she smiled at him.
“Lord have mercy,” she said. “Lord have mercy.”