When the Law Come
“Well, I’ll tell the story if you don’t mine settin a spell. I know I don’t mine gittin a chance to stretch these ole bones. Jest as long as you don’t innerupt me, o’ say some nonsense. C’mon, I’ll tell you bout that ole gen’ral stow. Wut? You heard that one already? Well, son, you gone hear it agin. I remember that stow. Those that been there allus miss it, and those that ain’t been there miss it, though they ain’t never seen o’ heard bout it…”
The Law Comes to Mister Cousins’ General Store
The law came to Mister Cousins’ gen’ral stow like a whisper through the wheat. Most folk slept quietly in they beds as it snuck cross the cornfields and stole up to that li’l shack that sat halfway between Birmin’ham and the land o’ shadows. Only two folks wuz up: Not-Penelope, who never slept, but wuz even then cookin in her pantry, fingertips stained violet from the beets she wuz cuttin. And Remus wuz awake. By now Remus wuz ancient, but jest as hardy as he ever wuz.
“Jim?” Like the sharpest axe, his voice cut the still spring night. “Jim?” Runnin out his cabin, Remus called fo’ his friend, but couldn’t see him nowhar. The crescent moon hung overhead, a bone-white sliver peekin out through the dark. Grabbin his wheat sickle, Remus stood on that road and faced down the law. Like the Reaper hisself, he slashed at wut cain’t be cut, stabbed at wut caint die. He battled it with his big, rough hands that had wrestled lion-men and Louisiana mudsharks, and far fiercer things. Remus gave all he had, but the law came, and the law won.
When it left, couldn’t nobody remember whether the gen’ral stow had stood at all. Folk drove by in they cars, and stopped. There they sat fo’ minutes, sometimes hours, rackin they brains tryin’a remember why this patch o’ overgrowed grass seemed so familiar. Fin’ly, they allus gave up and continued on they way.
It came to be, sometime in the year nineteen twenty-three, when Jim wuz wukkin the gen’ral stow one morn. Jim wuz a good sort, a skinny-bone fella with gray sidewhiskers and his apron allus dusted in flour. He carried on him the stow’s smell o’ wheat and garlik, so’s that evuhwhar he went he left a li’l scent o’ stow. Niggers round them parts said Jim had wukked there a hunnerd years. You would guess he’d never been young at all.
In fact, he hadn’t been. Many years ago, he burst forth full-growed, right in the middle o’ the gen’ral stow, in a great sploshun o’ fire. It wuz a feat he’d grown tired o’ talkin bout and, to evuhbody’s disappointment, the ole clerk never came close to doin it agin.
He wuz stackin bags o’ fertilizer when in come Miss Molly, all mad and fussed-like, draggin her son Jeremiah by the horns. Now, that boy wuz half-boy, half-bull: he had two giant horns curvin on top his head and hooves instead o’ hands. They said his mama wuz right awful to a tree witch one day, so she put a hex on her that made her baby come out with horns and hooves. His face wuz red from cryin so hard.
“Mawnin, Miss Molly,” sez Jim. “Wut’choo need t’day?”
“I don’t know wut to git,” she said, slappin the boy’s behind. “This boy done embarrassed me at revival.”
“Now wut did he do?” Jim ast, smilin at the li’l fella.
“When it came time to give praise,” sez Molly, sez she, “this li’l heathen pulled down his pants. Then he starts gruntin like a pig. Then, in front o’ the whole congregation, he takes a piss. Then he starts creepin round. But that ain’t the end of it! He starts screamin and throwin things at evuhbody, jumps up and lands right in the mud. He embarrassed me in front o’ Reverend Hawkins and the whole town! Lawd! Why wuz I cussed with such a wicked son?”
“Well,” said Jim, “that is a right strange way to worship. Why don’t you ‘splain y’self, young man?”
The li’l half-bull boy sniffed, tuckin his cow-tail tween his legs. “That’s how you give praise, I swar! I wuz jest doin wut Mister Young over by the creek tole me to do.”
“Wut Mister Young tole you to do, huh?” Jim knew all about that sinner.
“I wuz fishin,” said Jeremiah, “and I sees him walk up to that yallah lady’s house, and he knocks on the doh’ and takes his pants off. Then he goes inside and he starts gruntin. Then he comes out and pees on a tree. I knows I shouldna been so curious, mama, but I followed him back to his cabin. He’s creepin round, and Missus Young opens the doh’ and starts throwin things at him, and she’s screamin and hollerin. Then Mister Young runs away and falls down right in front o’ me in the mud. Then he tells me that evuhthin I jess saw wuz how he and his friends give the glory, and I shouldn’t tell nobody.”
Jim laughed. “Boy, I don’t think wut you saw wuz worshippin.”
“But that’s how you worship!” the boy insisted. “Cuz Missus Young got the spirit at revival. When I ‘splained m’self to the reverend, I went to go talk to him by the Youngs, and when she heard me she started screamin and throwin things at Mister Young all over again. So it must be the right way!”
Aunt Rose’s Sewing Circle
It came to be the middle o’ the nineteen-fifties, and Aunt Rose, now goin on a hunnerd years ole, took a walk round the fields like she did now and then. A plane flew overhead, trailin exhaust so thick it looked like a white bridge cross the sky, and Aunt Rose could only shake her head at all these things she could never unnerstand. Why would you wanna fly when you got two good feet?
“Ain’t you Jason’s mama?” ast a rickety voice. She saw the Fates sittin on they porch; two ole wimmen, with skin like clay left to harden in the sun. One of ‘em spun threads on her loom, the other measured ‘em.
“Y’all got sum’n to say bout Jason, you better come out and say it,” sez Aunt Rose, givin ‘em a look harder’n day-ole biscuits. She well knew Jason warn’t perfik, but she grew tired o’ folk gittin in his business.
“Now calm down, Sister Rose,” said the one doin the measurin, name o’ Lacky. “We’s jess bein frenly.”
“Ain’t there s’posed to be three o’ y’all?” ast Aunt Rose. She tried not to look at the strings, figgerin she had no right knowin how long someone’s life wuz.
“Our sister Atta retired,” said Clotho, the spinnin one. “Moved in with her son. Lacky been weavin the quilt and cuttin the threads, but it’s a lotta wuk to do all that.”
Aunt Rose took a look at they quilt o’ evuhchangin patterns: a millyun tiny fibers wove into a quilt so big it took up the whole porch. Sometimes the threads wuz the color o’ milk, and sometimes they wuz so bright you couldn’t look at ‘em. She saw the pitcher on the quilt shift from a cabin in winter to cowboys shootin at Injuns to white folks drinkin wine at a fancy party. Every few seconds a new image appeared, jest as dazzlin as the last. Lovely as it wuz, she couldn’t deny it looked a li’l shabby with all them loose threads.
“Let me help,” sez Aunt Rose, takin a seat in the empty rockin chair, pickin up the sewin needles. If you gone make a quilt outta folks’ lives, she figgered, you better do it right.
So Aunt Rose, in her ole age, became one o’ the Fates, jess like she somehow knew she would. Her grandchilluns and great-grandchilluns loved to sit round her as she wove that quilt from folks’ life-threads. Fo’ every thread they sewed in, she removed another. You could hear a sigh whenever she pulled it out and cut it with her rusty scissors.
The Devil and the Twins
There wuz two twins by the name o’ Freeman. One of ‘em wuz cop’ry, like he jess stepped off a penny, and the other wuz shiny-black. Other’n that, they talked the same, dressed the same. They mighta been the same person and din’t even know it.
One day the copper one came home cryin. “I done it this time!” he cries to his brother. “I lost my soul to the Devil in a card game.” And he fell on the flow, screamin.
Well, the black one warn’t gone see his brother in no pain. Straight on he went to that gen’ral stow, whar Beelzebub sat playin cards with Mr. Cousins and Ole Man Winter.
“Wut’choo up to, you?” ast the Devil. “You wanna play some cards?”
“You bastard!” sez Freeman. “You took my brother’s soul!” And he balled his fists, ready to punch Beelzebub.
Lucifer looked him up and down, impressed. “Oh, so you came to fight, huh?”
“If I has to. You took his soul, and now he cain’t git to Heaven.”
“Nigger,” sez the Devil, “wut makes you think he woulda gone to Heaven anyway? Evuhbody jest assumes they’ll get there, like it’s a done deal. I like yo’ gumption, son, but fightin me ain’t a good idea.”
“Cain’t you at least shorten the time he’ll spend in Hell? If you do, I’ll wuk fo’ you. I’ll bring half o’ my crops every harvest, after I’s done with my landlord’s half.”
“You’d do that?” sez Lucifer. “Son, even if I wanted to do wut you s’jest, I cain’t. There ain’t no such thing as time in Hell, so I sho’ cain’t add o’ take away from it.”
“Fine!” sez Freeman. “I’ll play you! If I win, I gits the soul. If you win, you gits mine’s, too. Double o’ nuthin’!”
Ole Scratch thought a moment at this show o’ brotherly fekshun. Now, he allus wuz a gamblin man. If they played, he had no doubt he’d win. No man born o’ woman could beat him at cards. But Brother Freeman wuz earnest, and the Devil wuz swayed.
“I’ma make you a deal,” sez the Devil. “I’ll give you the soul. Thing is, you cain’t give it back to yo’ brother. It’s yours. Yo’ ‘sponsibilty. Yo’ brother has to go through life thinkin he damned. And if it gits lost o’ stolen, that’s yo’ fault. You hold onto that soul, and when you o’ he dies it’ll go back to him.”
With that, Beelzebub grabbed a mason jar from the stow and put the soul inside. The soul still sits there in Mister Freeman’s cupboard, by the jars o’ honey and jam. He still ain’t tole his brother he has it, though he got it labeled SOUL so no one tries to spread it on toast by mistake.
© Elwin Cotman, 2011. All Rights Reserved.