All Tobias could do was thank HaShem over and over again that he had made it to the train station on time and that they were now on the train; the former because of what his wife would have said to him and the latter because now that they were on the train she wouldn’t be able to level criticisms of any kind at him in such close quarters.
He loved Hannah, she was a lovely woman, but the nagging sometimes, it was a bit much. And it didn’t seem to be waning in frequency or potency as the years went by.
Tobias had been her lifelong project. Part of her vows, at least in her head, had been to mold Tobias into the best American man he could be. When Tobias first met her, he had thought that he was American enough. He had cut his payos and traded in his black suit and large-brimmed hat for more modern updates. In his mind Tobias was almost a Rockefeller. Hannah didn’t see it that way.
At first he was quite happy to do what it took to be American. He was fleeing the Old World for the relatively safe confines of America. So a little haircut, a different suit, no problem. It was a new beginning. Soon he was peddling goods in the South and things were good. The Baltimore Bargain House was run by a fellow Litvak Jew who would pay a peddler’s train fare back to Baltimore from the South so he could refill his coffers on the cheap. He kept traveling back and forth until Tobias realized he could restock in New Orleans which kept him out of Baltimore and away from Fells Point. Of course New Orleans had its own fair amount of distraction, but the trip from there to the rest of the South was more convenient.
He couldn’t settle in New Orleans. It might have a Jewish community, but the city changed people as it had changed Hannah’s antecedents who had snuck into New Orleans during the Code Noir. Coming to America meant undergoing assimilation, but he didn’t have to become like the city dwelling Jew of America. Like him they had decided to assimilate, but the iniquity of the cities didn’t seem to bother them as much. Certainly there were others as perturbed as he, but he never managed to find them. Maybe they were all in their own personal Turners.
America shouldn’t have been so different. It was only more of the Diaspora that Jews had always known, but it felt different. It felt safe, it felt like acceptance was possible, like anything was possible, like a Jew working in a factory might one day own a company or a Jew who could barely speak English might one day become poet laureate. It felt like in this country, the level of comfort might just do to them what Spain and Babylon and Italy and the Cossacks had failed to do. It might rid them of their Jewishness altogether. It was like the Jews in Europe who identified with being German over Jewish. The same thing was happening in America.
Tobias wanted to be American. And Jewish. He just didn’t like the way they were doing it. It was a visceral, gut reaction. Somehow the Jews of North America felt disingenuous. He wasn’t Orthodox, but he wanted to honor a few traditions. He wore a tallitt as he peddled. He wore his teffillin to perform his morning prayers. He tried to keep kosher! He had kept kosher in Baltimore but in the South, on his peddling trips, it proved to be much more difficult. He gave it his best effort. His actions served to make him feel better but in the end they were all for naught because when he met Hannah she made sure to curb this religious behavior. In the end he became like the city Jews he had tried to distance himself from, though he still saw key differences. For one thing he was more honest or at the very least less hypocritical. He hoped.
He looked over at Hannah who was sitting in the window seat staring at the pencil thin trees whirring by her. Occasionally she could see a bayou in the center of a council of timber or she would see a few children playing not far from the tracks.
Tobias looked at her soft, American features. If it wasn’t for the slight bump in her nose, she would look like the model of an American face. Tobias could never look American. He had the jagged, handsome features of a European. It was his cheekbones or maybe his jaw line or certainly his nose. They were noticeable. They didn’t blend into his face; they defined it; they confronted the viewer before one had a chance to see anything else. Hannah’s face wasn’t confrontational. Her cheekbones weren’t defined but her face was slim and always retained color. Into her forties now she still looked every bit the Southern Belle she had always striven to be.
Hannah turned from the window and saw Tobias’s intense face staring at her.
-My heavens, Tobias, what are you looking at?
Even now she marveled at his face. She had fallen for him, she a Southern Lady, fell for an immigrant! In her youth anyone besides a Southern Gentleman would have been rebuffed, but her love for Tobias had been instantaneous like something from one of the romance novels she read in adolescence. She had fallen in love with and then married a handsome face and steely eyes without considering the differences in culture and the hardships it would create.
-Looking? I wasn’t looking at nothing. I was thinking.
-Well, dear, you were thinking at my face. Now just what exactly were you thinking about?
-I would like to go to Dryades Street when we get to New Orleans.
Tobias always wanted to go to Dryades Street, the Jewish center of New Orleans, and Hannah always objected. Her family hadn’t lived next to those Jews in decades. And besides, Tobias himself didn’t even enjoy it. The last time they went, several years ago, he had gotten into an argument with a group of young scholars who were smoking outside of a tobacconist shop. Toby and Hannah had to drag him away as he yelled at them about keeping the Sabbath.
-I’m afraid we simply won’t have time for that if we want to be on time to light the candles.
-That’s tomorrow, Hannah. We light the candles tomorrow at sundown.
-Oh dear. My mistake. Well anyway, it won’t hurt to be early.
Hannah smiled smugly. That’s how most of their conversations went. Hannah felt she had the gist of the mishnag down which was just enough to argue with Tobias. He couldn’t be too critical of her though. She had made sacrifices too, moving out to the hinterlands and away from her beloved New Orleans. She had done it for love. No matter what they disagreed about they had stayed together.
The train suddenly bucked, losing speed rapidly. Tobias and Hannah pitched forward in their seats. Murmurs rose up throughout the railcar. Someone a few seats up opened their window and stuck their head out cautiously.
-There’s people on the track! There making the train stop.
-It’s a robbery! Someone shouted.
-I reckon not. A third, gray-haired man said. He also had his head out the window.
-There’s got to be darn near two hundred of ‘em. A different passenger answered.
Tobias’s heart raced as the train’s deceleration continued. He looked at Hannah who was frightened and he pulled her close. After two minutes that lasted an eternity, the train ground to a halt. Tobias could barely hear the screech of steel wheels on steel rail over the din of confusion inside the railcar. A second later the railcar was overrun with new “passengers.” At first glance they looked to be mostly farmers and sharecroppers. Some of them wore coveralls and various field hats, but others were in their finest suit or shirtsleeves or sundress. And there were folks from the merchant class too. It seemed like a whole small town had gathered in the car.
The train started up again amidst the confusion. The original passengers plied the newcomers with questions; answers were shouted back to them; nothing was clear to Tobias who was still clutching Hannah to his side. Finally a man worked his way to the middle of the compartment and shouted everyone down into a manageable silence.
He wore a seersucker suit and a string tie. It was hot in the railcar, but the man was exceptionally sweaty. His dress shirt was nearly transparent under his suit jacket. He had the gait of law enforcement or military men, a commanding walk that silenced a room as much as his voice. He took out a handkerchief to wipe sweat out of his bushy goatee. When he spoke, he used a black walking cane to emphasize his points.
-How you folks doin’ today? My name, well, ain’t no real sense in me telling you my name ‘cause you wouldn’t know it. Folks in the state of Louisiana, and throughout the South, may know me as The Wasp.
Again murmurs shot up around the carriage from people who knew him by moniker and those who did not. Tobias and Hannah didn’t know who he was, but they overheard the people behind them explaining that The Wasp was a bounty hunter specializing in finding Negroes.
-I wanna say a piece so you folks don’t go to thinkin’ we done co-man-deered your railroad. These fine folks is from the community of Strick Row what you jus’ unwittingly past thru not but ten minutes ago. ‘Bout a week or so back one of theirs went missing. It was Tom Hinkle’s youngest. Raise your hand if’n you’re in here Tom.
He wasn’t, so The Wasp cleared his throat and continued.
-They set to lookin’ for Mary Lou, that’s Tom Hinkle’s youngest, in the swamps and in the woods and finally they made the groo-some discovery of her corpse disposed of in the most vile manner possible. I won’t go inta detail as there are ladies present.
The Wasp looked around, his face twitching with anger while trying to express sympathy for the ladies in the compartment. Before continuing, he wiped his goatee and his brow with his monogrammed hankie.
-Well, they sent word to the sheriff and the sheriff sent word to The Wasp. Brody Pearson tol’ Big Roger that he had seen that no ‘count nigger Stedmund runnin’ towards the woods like there was a watermelon patch at the end of them trees. Folks of Strick Row knew that if you trying to catch a nigger the best man to call is The Wasp. I set out lookin’ for him that very night but I ain’t had a bit of luck and with the rains and all the dogs couldn’ track a coon in a log much less a fugitive in the woods. Jus’ when I thought that all hope was lost, an agent of mine recovered the suspect in Natchez and sent word to me to come on the next train and get my—our trophy.
A few whoops went up. Tobias saw a man next to him remove a flask from his own seersucker suit. As he looked around, he suspected that more than a few of these fellows had dipped into some moonshine before getting on the train. It had dulled their senses and quickened their sweat and anger. The men on the railcar looked hard and mean now, their faces streaked with invisible war paint, sneers masking their usually homely faces. Tobias had seen such transformations before.
-Well like say, Natchez got the nigger, and they even was gray-shush enough to hold the lynching for this here small community like Strick Row what couldn’t possibly accommodate as many folks as want to see this Black son brought to justice. As God is my witness, we’re going to send a message to the Black sons that they caint jus’ come and do as they please to White mans’ family. We’re gonna see to it that the niggers of Natchez and the niggers from Strick Row and any other darkies in the rest of Dixie know just what the law is!
The railcar erupted into applause and whoops. Men removed their hats and waved them in the air. Subdued Southern ladies hooted. Red-necked farmers slapped The Wasp on the back. The entire railcar celebrated as if a war had been won and not as it actually was; that they had condemned a man, in theory presumed innocent until proven guilty, to death.
Hannah was shaking in Tobias’s arms. The sudden excitement had upset her. Tobias was terrified but he resolved to not let Hannah see it. His mind was racing backwards to memories he had purposefully suppressed, ones that he had quite literally run away from to a place that he had assumed was more civil, that had been more civil for as long as he had known it. He had read about lynchings, sure, but he had never seen one, never been around a mob like this since…since before, since the Old World with its old things, old barbaric ways he had left behind. Or so he thought.
And yet he couldn’t help thinking, shamefully, at least this time it’s not the Jews. He looked around at the people in the railcar who wouldn’t break a law seven days a week quite happy to share a flask of illegal liquor with their neighbors on their way to lynch a man. How easily could they switch over to the Jews? When Leo Frank was lynched ten years back, what Jews were still in Georgia, had fled to the North as if returning to Zion. Now the schwartzes were leaving in droves, but not fast enough. They were still getting lynched, but HaShem forgive him, Tobias was happy it wasn’t the Jews. Hadn’t the Jews suffered enough? He went through the outrages in his mind, too numerous to count, and yet…here it was in front of him. An evil directed at schwartzes and not Jews, but still evil, no?
They didn’t talk for the rest of the train ride, but Hannah seemed to settle down. She squeezed his hand to reassure him that she was okay. It was Tobias whose mind continued to race.
He didn’t protest when he was dragged off the train, not forcefully, but with the kinetic energy of the crowd. They were all one mass moving towards the courthouse in Natchez. There was no question of moving with them. To desert would have been an expression of derision, an indictment of the justice of the holy sons of Jefferson Davis, a suggestion of doubt in the sovereignty of Johnny Reb. It would be suicide.
As the crowd marched down the thoroughfare from the train station to the courthouse they grew in size. They were not a band of unwelcome strangers foisting their agenda onto an unsuspecting town. They were the militia, the reinforcements, the peacekeepers brought in to fight against the tyranny of the Northern democracy whose lax laws let Negroes run free after outraging a white woman. The good people of Natchez saw in the mob their brothers-in-arms. Tobias saw barbers, soda jerks, farmers, schoolteachers and god-fearing people of every stripe fall into line. Duty had taken over, that look of utter devotion and determinism was duty, the single-minded purpose that drove them forward.
The prisoner had been moved to the courthouse the night previous after The Sheriff had guessed correctly that a mob would try to break into the jail. They had been told that the prisoner had been moved to a different county and they were ordered to go home. In the wee hours of the morning, however, someone saw The Sheriff sneak into the courthouse with food. That had tipped them off.
Now, outside of the small, two-story courthouse the mob was confronted by The Sheriff who stood with a deputy on either side of him. The Sheriff was around fifty years of age and country strong, solid with an abundance of neither fat nor muscle. He had been in the military. He believed in duty, honor and the law. The sight of him standing tall against the backdrop of the shiny, white courthouse sent a reverberation through the crowd. His pistol was already drawn. The two young deputies, flanking him, standing between the Doric pillars of the courthouse, carried shotguns. The deputies didn’t look happy to be there holding guns on people they went to church with, especially since many of those people were also carrying guns at the moment. The Sheriff spoke first.
-Now lookie here. I know y’all come out to see a suspect, not a convicted man but a suspect, meet his maker but I’m here to tell you that ain’t gonna happen.
The mob muttered to itself. Those mutterings grew to shouts that they began leveling at The Sheriff. With little hesitation he fired his pistol into the air. The crowd snapped to attention like soldiers awaiting a general’s orders.
-There’s but one governin’ body of these United States. They were elected by you people to run this land. And in turn I was elected, in accordance with laws set up by those elected men, to keep order. In other words, I’m here because of y’all and that governin’ body. It is my duty to protect the prisoner and see that he gets his day in court.
Before the crowd could break into protestations The Wasp stepped forward, quieting the mob with one hand. He smiled, flashing a perfect row of teeth that Tobias noticed and believed were fake. The Wasp unbuttoned his suit jacket, removed his hankie and wiped his goatee.
-Sheriff, we understan’ you got a job to do. And I knows they done made it hard for you to do it. I know they done told you that you gotta protect all of God’s prisoners. Even the niggers. I caint say I agree with the sen-tee-ment but I respec’ a mans convict-shuns. I want you to look out in this crowd here Sheriff and tell me if you see’n any mans with convict-shuns. Look into their eyes and see if you spot the man who don’t want to charge into that jail and make sure that nigger can’t hurt another one of Dixie’s children.
The Wasp gave The Sheriff a chance to scan the crowd. A crowd full of decent folk turned murderous by moonshine, corn liquor, rain, heat and most of all ignorance. In their ignorance they feared the schwartzes and believed they had to keep them in line.
Tobias prayed The Sheriff wouldn’t look at him. He was perhaps the only man in the crowd without murder in his face and he didn’t want to be singled out for his sympathy in a mob hell-bent on stamping out the enemy with whom he empathized. When The Sheriff’s eyes did glance in his general direction, Tobias could have sworn that there was a hint of recognition but mercifully the moment passed quickly.
-You won’t find the man Sheriff. We’re all of us mans of convict-shuns. Yourself included. There’s no reason for any White man’s blood to be spilled today. But if it comes down to testing convict-shuns, we aint likely to falter on our side and I don’t reckon you is either. But be smart Sheriff. We got numbers and your deputies don’ look like they’s interested in a fight.
The Sheriff glanced at the men on either side of him. They were sweating something fierce. Their shotguns were aimed but their fingers weren’t on the trigger. They were shaking too much. They didn’t trust themselves to hold steady their trigger fingers. The Sheriff pointed his gun at The Wasp.
-The first man steps across that line will be shot. Boys, I expect you to cover me.
Right as he finished speaking he went down in a heap. One of the deputies had hit him in the back of the head with the butt of his shotgun. He pulled out the cuffs and slapped them on the dazed Sheriff.
-What the hell’s gotten into you, Walter?
-Don’t be ridiculous, Sheriff. These folks is ready to kill and I ain’t dying to protect no nigger. I got a family. The nigger’s probably guilty anyways.
The Sheriff shook his head. Walter tossed a ring of keys to The Wasp.
-Don’t everybody go into the courthouse at once. Ain’t no sense in it. One of y’all come over here and handcuff me and Jesse. Gotta make it look like you overwhelmed us.
A farmer stepped forward and handcuffed the deputies sitting them down next to the Sheriff. A moment later The Wasp came out of the courthouse holding a Negro roughly by the arm. The crowd became incensed at the sight of him. Somebody threw a rock that almost hit The Wasp. It clipped the Negro’s shoulder.
-Where’s Brody at?
Brody worked his way through the crowd. He was a big man in coveralls and a straw hat.
-Is this boy Stedmund?
Brody looked at him closely, more closely than needed to recognize a body. He removed his hat and fanned himself. Then he turned to the crowd.
-That’s the nigger.
The crowd once again grew into paroxysms of delighted ferocity.
-I ain’t never been called Stedmund. On the bible my name is not Stedmund. I’m—
The Negro, whoever he was, didn’t finish his sentence. Brody stepped forward and hit him five or six times in the face until the blood had started though from what orifice no one could tell. The Sheriff was trying to shout out the Negro’s real name but it was no use. The Wasp helped him up from where he had fallen and then pointed him toward a field in the colored section of town about a mile down the road that the Natchezians had set up with picnic tables.
They let the Negro lead the way, walking down the semi-paved road, already wobbly from the blows to the head. The crowd was only a few feet behind him, cursing at him, urging him on, throwing rocks and sticks and glass bottles at his back as he walked. In the middle of the crowd Tobias and Hannah moved along in a stupor, marveling at the vitriol that poured from these people, their neighbors more or less.
The field was stuck in between two houses. In the middle of the field was a massive willow tree. The townsfolk had set up benches on the grass so ladies could have a rest in the long shade cast by the willow tree which was the biggest of its kind in three counties. On one side of the field were concessions. You could buy lemonade, an ice cone, crackerjack or a hot dog.
The Negro was dragged to the willow tree with the help of two of the mob. He had lost considerable blood after a gash was opened on the back of his head where a rock had connected. The two mob members wrenched his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back, up to about his shoulder level. They lowered his arms over the vertical strip of wood that was stuck into the ground to act as an upright pyre. They lashed his legs to it and stood back looking at their handy work. The Negro was bleeding profusely, and he had started cursing the God that made such evil men.
-You Goddam’ devils, I tells you my name nevah was no Stedmund. My name is—
But no one heard it over the roar that came from the crowd. The two mob members that had tied him to the pyre had to move quickly to dodge the assortment of sticks and stones hurled toward the Negro.
The crowd settled. Ladies grabbed seats on the benches and others went to grab refreshments before the show commenced. Hannah sat on a bench with Tobias standing next to her. Now that they were here the mood seemed to have changed. It almost felt like Dixie again, like a big picnic with all of one’s cousins and aunties. Hannah was again calm, sensing that the uncertainty of the moment was gone. Violence, as far as she could tell, wasn’t going to be committed against her. And besides, look at this field, these people, those refreshments; why if this Negro was innocent would they have gone to such trouble? Not to mention his protestations, and carrying on, this idea that he had another name; it was all so convenient. Wouldn’t anybody say those exact same things?
By degrees Hannah relaxed. The shade from the willow tree cooled her senses. She fanned herself and in no time was looking every part the Southern Belle, even offering smiles to the little girls who were running around playing in the afternoon sun. She turned to Tobias.
-Well, at least we’re safe now.
Tobias reluctantly nodded, but he wasn’t thinking of his safety. He was looking at that poor schwartz and wondering if he could help him and knowing, somewhere in his head, that he couldn’t and, more to the point, he wouldn’t even if he could. The schwartz was in bad shape now; rocks had chipped some teeth and busted a lip and he had taken several hits to his midsection so that he slumped down, head drooping, and in front of him his blood spilled out like a thick, scarlet syrup onto the moist, yellow grass. He was breathing, evidenced by the slow rolling of his back, up and down, up and down, but it was a mystery to Tobias what made him fight to stay alive. And then Tobias was ashamed to realize he wished the man dead for his convenience.
The Wasp stood up on a bench near the Negro and called for Tom Hinkle to come forward. As father of the victim, Hinkle was given first shot at the Negro. He was a sun-baked farmer of medium height with a face full of whiskers he had not shaved out of mourning or neglect, one could not be certain. He wore a straw hat and a jacket, both of which he removed and handed to his son. He rolled up his shirtsleeves. A man in the crowd, a veteran, dressed in full uniform, medals and all, handed Hinkle a M1911 pistol. The Wasp commanded that the Negro hold out his hand. He refused, so they put a bullet through his knee. Tobias flinched as the Negro’s head rocketed back onto the pyre so forcefully it looked like it might snap, but it was strong southern puckwood, from God’s country, the finest in the land. The Negro commenced to hooting and hollering, which the children imitated.
My God, there are children here, Tobias thought. He hadn’t even noticed them.
They demanded the Negro put his arm out and he refused again. The same punishment was given to his other knee. The same gyrations commenced, the same children did the same minstrel impersonations.
They didn’t have to ask again. Hinkle returned the gun to the veteran and pulled out a field knife. He came up to the Negro, grabbed his hand and cut off his middle finger. Somehow the screams for mercy surpassed the preceding ones, though they were barely audible above the laughter from the crowd. Hinkle stared at him passively and then yelled for his son to bring his jacket. The boy came forward and Hinkle removed his handkerchief, wiped his brow and then put the severed finger in the cloth and put the whole bundle in the jacket.
Hinkle passed the field knife to his boy who repeated the ritual. He had two more sons; each one took a thumb. When they were finished, The Wasp stepped forward with his own ornate knife. It was a Bowie knife that he himself had modified by adding serrations. Around the handle, below the finger guard he had tied a piece of leather with a few brightly colored beads on it. He called for quiet. The crowd, in high spirits, managed to silence themselves though the buzz of energy was palpable.
-For the niggers that’s here I want y’all to take note. When the Black sons disrespect the White man and his family, he will be punished. His deeds will not go unnoticed.
Tobias turned to face where The Wasp had looked as he spoke. On the other side of the road was the Negro community of Natchez. They were standing and watching silently. Their children were there too. They were hugging at legs and necks of adults, but their eyes were watching The Wasp. They weren’t coerced into being there. The Wasp was trying to educate them and indeed they were learning. Some were learning survival and others were learning anger and hate. Divided they might have been, but they were there, a mass of Black in support of their brother who was to be sacrificed for sins they were purported to have committed.
The Wasp stepped to the Negro and cut his pants off at the waist, popping the button off with the blade of his knife. He animatedly pantomimed fanning away the Negro’s stench, which drew laughs from the crowd. The Negro was fairly well gone at this point, barely conscious if at all. Jasper drew the Negro’s sex into his hand and gelded him in one swift blow like a man would do a horse. Tobias clamped a hand over his mouth to keep him from calling out.
It must be over, Tobias thought, but a moment later he saw that it wasn’t. They gathered what dry kindling they could find, for rains had been severe in Natchez as well, and they stacked them by the Negro’s feet and they managed to light it after half a dozen matches and plenty of paper. The fire burned slow and only tickled the bottom of the Negro’s feet which was enough to barely rouse him. When it was about knee length, his head shot up and seeing the flames before him and the rolling, darkened sky above him, he thought himself in hell. He screamed out to the devil standing in front of him, calling him Beelzebub and trying to rebuke him. Then he looked skyward to the heavens confessing all the evils he had done. He had stolen crops from farms, he had cheated at cards to win money, he had seen his sister’s nakedness and not looked away. He screamed his confessions up into the clouds and begged for clemency. His skin and muscle and fat on his legs melted off in globs as the flame climbed up his torso. Chunks of flesh, fat and ash fell to the blood-stained earth.
Two men carrying a bucket of water threw it at the fire, extinguishing it and granting the Negro a momentary reprieve, though he had ceased to feel anything, his life in total amounted to nothing more than sixty or so breaths he had left in him. The damnedest thing was he clung to those sixty breaths, the pain having rendered his mammalian brain useless; he had been reduced to thinking like the primal beast they had accused him of being.
As quickly as the flames were out, two other men came and one slipped the noose over his neck and the other threw the rope over the tallest branch of the willow, some fifteen feet, and four or five men grabbed the end of the rope, giving a communal effort, and they dragged the still breathing Negro way up into the air above the heads of the crowd and his shadow laid over the heads of the now standing ladies and he had just enough life in him left to kick about and give the anxious crowd their final satisfaction before breathing his last breath and going the way of all flesh.