On a Summer Night in Selma, an Eerie Carnival Comes to Town

The rope fell heavily over her head and tightened around her neck, crushing her windpipe. Beau McConlin turned and pulled her behind him from the field and down the street to the white men who were yelling and firing shots into the night. They had tied up the slowest of Sissy’s lover and pulled her into the back of their pickups.

The asphalt scratched her knees and palms as she crawled into the street with her eyes after Beau. She thought: This time my babies and my mother are sitting in the drawing room crying while Mr. Macy or Duke Benny or Pastor Spinner stood on the other side of the screen door with hat in hand. How many times had one of them stood on a doorstep with their mouths full of the worst they could say? There wasn’t a single person in Dallas County who didn’t receive or give this news. She wasn’t going to have a proper funeral. There would be no body to bury. Sissy choked on a sob. Her throat was so swollen that she could not swallow. She tore the rope. She wanted him to shoot her and be done with it. No cells under the cells for her, none of what Beau and his men did to women they took down there.

She closed her eyes and prepared to be kicked in the ribs or rifled. Nothing. The rope was slack. She looked up. A golden light pulsed in front of them by the trucks, a cloud of gilded smoke. A negro in old-fashioned brogues and Serge Britches stepped out of the light. The Hundred froze like the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest they used to hang around the cemetery. Now they were just as immobile as he was. Their mouths hung open in wide o’s, here a row of brown chaw drool poured down a sagging cheek, waxy and white in the headlights. Beau had fallen on its side, eyes open, like dead beef. Only he was breathing heavily and in rags.

Sissy got up. Every part of her hurt. A dozen of their people hobbled down the road out of the woods. Nobody spoke, even the crickets were silent. The gilded cloud from which the stranger stepped shrank to a golden egg and shone like a sun on the side of his face. It followed him as he walked from truck bed to truck bed and untied people. Sissy raised her good arm in a wave like she knew the guy. For the rest of her life she would never be able to explain how he was like her own lost brother and father and how her mother who waited at home and her grandparents who had died long before Sissy’s birth – all generations from the lost, back and back. With every step she took towards him, her arm hurt a little less. Her chest opened to the night air. What a relief, what sweetness came over her, like a hand on one cheek. The others felt it too and kicked the net off like it was an annoying string.

Mr. Macy and Jordeen roared with Duke and the others behind them. They stopped screeching, ready to shoot or to be shot. The stranger jumped from the last bed and waved to the white men who had fallen to their knees and hung from their midst like cotton sacks. Duke Benny, he always had a word to say, especially when he shouldn’t, he called: “Who are you?” But the stranger had already turned and was walking down the street towards Sissy.

“Ma’am,” he said. “You should take that thing off,” indicated the noose.

He was slow and old-fashioned, with a deep, reed voice like Uncle Jonah, who had died in Sissy’s childhood, who they said was 110 years old and had lived through the worst and best of everything. The stranger took a small black tub out of his pocket and set it a few yards in front of him on the street. “That’ll make everyone nice. All you need is a swab, ”he said. He walked past her so closely that she must have seen his face, but she could never remember it, not even the moment he passed.

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