In roughly three days, the hallucinations would begin. From there, it would take anywhere from a week to a month before his skin would begin to soften. Eventually, it would not be able to hold itself together, and in places, it would split apart like gills on a fish. This, of course, would be extremely painful. The worst of it would be his back. Here, the gashes would be by far the largest. There would be two running from his shoulder blades down the length of his torso. Or, at least, that was the longest he’d ever seen them grow. If he survived long enough, he would reach a point where his muscles no longer followed his brain’s commands. There was no telling what would happen next, how long it would be before the last life in him was drained.
He sat on a mattress so old it felt like a stack of paper towels. The sun behind him provided the only dim light in the room. His shadow sat before him as still as if it were a part of the grey orchid wallpaper. It stared at him, waiting for an explanation, a justification of his decision. He didn’t quite have one, not yet. He scratched his neck and lay back, deciding he’d rather face the broken ceiling than his impatient silhouette. Cracks ran like rivers on a yellow sea. He sailed them with his eyes, back and forth to every corner, until the lids dropped and brought one of his final serene slumbers.
In his mind, his eyes opened, and he was in the past. He sat in the stall that had been his hiding place every day from noon to three o’clock in a bathroom on the third floor of the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation. He checked his watch. Forty-six minutes. Not yet time to reappear. He sat back, gave a low sigh, and looked up at the lights.
Half of them were out, as always. He used to wish his hiding place wasn’t so dim. He checked his watch. Fifty-three minutes. The pipes that crossed over themselves along the wall emitted an ambient hum of water that had always played tricks on his mind in this darkness.
His watch began to vibrate. 60 minutes. He blew his last solitary breath of the day and quietly snuck out of the stall. The weary, old thirty-seven-year-old man in the hazy mirror walked towards him and began to wash his hands, staring at him through pink eyes that the skin of his face seemed to be attempting to run from. Grey hairs turned their middle fingers toward him from between his neck and chin.
“60 minutes called,” Carol said to her computer as he entered the white air of his office, “they want to do a piece on you.”
“I don’t like cameras.”
“How are the patients?”
“The skin on Two and Three has become strong enough to take the stitching. One seems to have given up trying to convince us that he’s giving birth to piranhas. They’re definitely turning around. Once again, you’ve done the impossible.”
“Wonderful.” He rubbed his eyes and gathered a pair of latex gloves and a clipboard. He made his way down the familiar series of halls until he came to a thick metal door with one small window; under it was a faded sign that once showed a picture of two blue gloves and a surgical mask on a plane of bright warning yellow. He typed 561008 into the keypad on the door and listened to the tumblers greet him with their usual pattern. A high tone indicated that it was unlocked. He stepped in and typed the code backwards; it resealed and sounded a lower note. Inside, he met the same scene he’d been facing for twelve years. It was a room about the size of a high school classroom. The walls were beige and the lights were bruise blue. There were no windows. On the far right wall was a set of metal shelves on which sat various bottles and tools. The only decorations were three tormented souls strapped onto beds. It was their sixth month here.
“Good Afternoon,” he said to his suffering patients. “Katy tells me that we’re feeling better.” Each of them was shirtless and laid face down, their heads propped by toilet-seat shaped cushions as though they were awaiting massages. Two and Three had had their beds moved close to each other to the left. One’s bed was positioned so that his head was in the far right corner. That was the way he preferred it.
Two was humming. Not a tune but one monotone note at inconsistent intervals, like the buzzing of a fly.
“I’m ready to go,” said Three with the voice of a lost child.
Cambridge walked over to Two’s bed. “Harold,” he hailed. The humming stopped.
“Hello Lord,” Harold said casually.
“You have not met the Lord yet, my friend,” replied Cambridge, his voice conditioned for repetition, “I am Doctor Cambridge. You are at a hospital in New Jersey.”
“Not the Lord. Not the Lord,” said Harold. That was new. Cambridge checked a box on his list and scribbled a note.
“Mind if I have a look?”
Slowly, Cambridge wheeled the bed into open space. He bent over two large stitched gashes in the man’s back. They smiled up at him with mud red lips and wicked green teeth. With his index finger, he softly tugged at a stitch in the middle of the left gash. It held.
“Very nice, Harold. I’m very impressed.” Harold hummed in response. “Your turn, Mariah.” Three squeaked at the mention of her name.
“I’m done. I’m ready to go,” she said, almost in tears.
“I know, but your body isn’t. Not quite yet.”
“I want to leave. I’m ready to leave now.”
“Can I take a quick look first?”
No response. She had a gruesome backside similar to Harold’s with the exception that her left gash was roughly half the length. He tugged a stitch. “You two are going to close up in no time. Are you excited?” Harold hummed. Mariah cried.
“Now, Michael.” One was quiet in his corner. No sound but slow breaths emulated from his lips. He sounded ancient. “How are you, Michael?”
“Sorry.” It was almost a whisper.
“For what? You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No fish. Never fish. Sorry.”
“Yes, I heard you had finally gotten past that. That’s very good Michael. How do you feel? How’s your back?”
“No back. No skin.”
“It’s there. I can see it.” Michael’s gashes were as long at the others, but this time there were no smiles. On him, green-rimmed tears revealed marshlands of dead tissue and exposed muscle. Cambridge took a small pin from his coat pocket and gently poked the skin on the edge of the right gash. It was like dough. He sighed through his nose. “Late bloomer, you’re on the way.”
He put the pin back in his pocket and walked toward the door. “All right,” he said like a teacher speaking to his class, “This is my last visit for the day. I’ll be back in the morning, and we’re going to check your muscles, Harold and Mariah, if you’re up to it. Then, how about we all see how our eyes are doing?” He paused and waited for responses and got none. “The therapists are going to be here in an hour or so. Have a nice evening, everyone. He turned and typed 56 into the key pad.
“Doctor?” Michael’s voice quavered slightly, as it always did before the “piranhas” began to chew their way out of his stomach. Cambridge slunk his shoulders, cursing himself for believing it would be an easy visit. He pressed cancel on the keypad.
“Yes, Michael?” he said calmly. Michael did not answer, but his shoulders began to quiver and his toes and fingers curled until the knuckles went from pale to white. “Michael?” The muscles in the doctor’s neck tensed as he awaited screams of horrendous, nonexistent pain.
A tremendous breath forced its way out of Michael’s lips, and his scarred tongue darted out of his mouth like a striking snake. It remained stiff. He pulled his lips back to reveal each of his yellow-brown teeth that dug into the top and bottom of his vulnerable tongue, preparing to sever the pink meat. Cambridge snatched a mouth guard off one of the shelves and placed his other hand on the back of Michael’s neck. Before he could jam the guard in, the convulsing body stilled. The knuckles uncurled.
“Thank you,” said Michael, the shaking in his voice gone. “Normal again. Soon.”
Cambridge closed his eyes and released the breath he’d been holding. “Yes, Michael. Soon.”
When his lids slid up, present time had returned. He was no longer on the bed but leaning on the wall across the room. His knees ached. The ancient wood floors groaned as he searched the house for a comfortable seat. The best he could find was a loveseat in the living room, which was once red and was now grey-brown. He took a seat in the dust. Against the wall, an old radio stood as the sentinel of the room. He watched it for a few hours, and then he began to hear it. Voices. They seemed to be talking but not saying any words. This frustrated him, and in his mind, he demanded the radio to be clearer. It complied. It shrunk down into a square shape and the entire front morphed into a smooth glass screen. An image appeared on it of him eight years ago.
“I recognize its danger completely,” his confident younger self said to an interviewer through a jet black goatee. “It may appear to be a small nuisance at first, some itchiness and dimmed vision. It’s easy to shrug off. But it’s not a cold; it doesn’t go away. Our bodies don’t know how to get rid of it. At its worst, it rivals any other disease in the world. The hallucinations can be incredibly vivid. Both the physical and psychological pain is tremendous”
“But it’s never taken a life?” said the other man.
“No, not one in the five years since its emergence. I think many people have listened to the warnings and gotten the vaccines. Others were cured early; it’s very easy to reverse at that point. Even far advanced, there are substances we can administer, very carefully, that stunt the process. I will always make sure it is removed from every victim. Always.”
“It is a contagious disease?”
“More so in serious cases. Face protection is extremely important in the vicinity of advanced patients. Once the skin opens, a mask must be worn or contracting the virus is almost unavoidable.”
“Doctor Cambridge, you are regarded as a medical hero. They say you’ve brought the dead back to life. You’ve returned full humanity to near corpses…”
The interviewer faded away, and the young doctor in the screen became a shadow looking straight back at Cambridge. “Full humanity,” it whispered.
He was transported back to the metal door. He was looking through the window at the three strapped in their beds, almost halfway though their eighth month here. He scratched his forearm where the skin had become red and raw. They were all three stitched now. The gashes on Harold and Mariah were each half the sizes they once were. Their minds had pulled together, too. They had conversations now, all three of them, with each other. Occasionally, they were coherent.
He envisioned the day they’d each walk among the living again: Harold always humming unless he was having his moments with “the Lord,” Mariah constantly breaking down about troubles that once she would have simply giggled away. Michael would never go toward another body of water his entire life. He used to fish every weekend with his sons.
They would never truly escape this disease. No one ever had. Cambridge had made sure of that. For twelve years, he’d personally seen to it that every victim went on to live miserable lives after they “recovered”. Perhaps these three he would truly save. These three he would release. They would be the first he ever lost, the first he ever cured. He fingered the knife in his pocket.
Once their liberty was given, it would be his turn to leave this world behind. He had spent too long watching the pain, the torture. He did not deserve such an easy death as he would gift to these three, however. He would go through what they had, what so many had before his eyes. But there would be one key difference; no one would bring him back. He remembered an abandoned house out in the country. He would go there, where no one would find him. For twelve years, this disease was his life. Now, it had decided to be his death. “Very well,” he breathed. He removed the knife from his pocket and typed 561008 into the keypad.
His eyes opened. He was back in the house, but this time the living room was much more familiar. On the television screen rolled the credits of Outlaw Josey Wales. He knew exactly where he was. Dad had let him choose this movie. His step-mother didn’t like him watching movies like this, but Dad said he was mature for a nine-year-old.
He sat up and turned to give Dad a goodnight sigh. The man was asleep. “Dad,” he half-whispered, sure that Dad must just be resting his old eyes. They remained closed. “Dad,” a little louder, but not enough to make him stir. He had never seen him so still. “Dad.” Angst began to grip him, and it manifested as irritation in his voice. Dad always got up and turned the lights on after the movie.
He should just leave him, just make a mad dash through the wraithlike darkness of the stairway, and let Dad sleep here tonight. But that didn’t satisfy him. The unease had already slithered its way up under his shirt. He could’ve sworn Dad’s chest wasn’t moving at all. It was no longer safe to utter a word. He gripped the dirty cushions of the couch and began to feel like crying. He stared at Dad’s chest, straining his eyes until they felt they would burst.
Still. Dad was made of stone. He could see absolutely no movement, not a single flick of a toe or scratch of an elbow. Even his lips did not twitch. Most deeply disturbing of all, that bosom of a dead man. He funneled all the energy in his ears towards Dad’s nose, but he heard nothing.
The credits stopped along with the music. The muteness of the house took its place right on top of him. He hoped to God he would hear the footsteps of his step-mother above him to prove that the Devil hadn’t seized his home. The light of the screen remained the last bastion of safety. But he did not dare move. He would wait, nearly as still as Dad, until morning brought the light back.
“Hello Lord,” said a voice like crunching bones. He jumped up and spun his head toward the screen. It showed a solid bright red. “Hello Lord.” His body quivered. He tried to speak back but he had no mouth. “I’m ready to go now,” said the screen. “Sorry, thank you.” He tried to close his eyes, but it only made the screen larger, closer. “Thank you. Normal again. Thank you. Fully human. Sorry. Human.” He raised his hands to cover his ears and in doing so, tore the skin from his back. Pain like fire ripped through his body. He tried to scream. The red from the screen leapt out and enveloped him so that he burned as fiercely outside as inside.
He fell to his back and writhed as his skin opened everywhere. He wrenched his eyes back to Dad’s recliner, searching for salvation, but his father was no longer there. Instead, there sat the shadow of that damned thirty-seven-year-old man. A smile spread across its face, with mud red lips and wicked green teeth. It stooped from its chair and began to tear his body apart. For what felt like years, the fire and the shadow worked to rip him from existence.
His eyes opened. The room was vibrant. He could see every dust particle in the air; he could smell them, hear them, feel them. He looked at his hands. His skin was white as marble and felt half as hard. Through his fingers, he saw on the floor at his feet what looked like a large mound of grey putty. He looked around the room, curled his fingers and toes, closed his eyes and opened them. Nothing changed. The old radio sat in its place, unaltered. He was in the old house. Through the window, a white sky sprinkled the earth with soft flakes.
This was no façade. His brow wrinkled in confusion. He stooped down and prodded the mush at his feet. It stuck to his fingers. Little grey hairs protruded from it. His eyes widened as they probed the once-skin, discovering intertwined within a thirty-seven-year-old man’s clothing.
He walked, no, glided to the bathroom doorway. In the dirty mirror was a god. His eyes glistened like gold, and his hair fell like satin. His body was smooth and hard, every muscle bulging and pulsing with energy and gleaming a brilliant white. Behind him, two great masses like silver sails extended from his back. Wings. He felt it was time to wake up, but knew he was not hallucinating.
“I will always make sure it is removed from every victim. Always,” said the back of his mind. He stared at the paragon in the mirror, slowly scanned his every feature. Twelve years.
He began to sob. He threw his head into his hands and stumbled backward. Twelve fucking years.
It was not a disease.
He roared and kicked the love seat, snapping wood and sending it careening in pieces. Chest heaving, he looked back down at his skin pile with disgust. A sleeve of his coat showed like a snake emerging from a mound of dirt. He tugged the coat out, found the pocket, and ripped it off. Out fell his knife blade, covered in brown crust. He picked it up, brought it to his neck, and played the savior one last time.
Loving Father and Husband.
June 5th, 1959 – February 17th, 1996
David sat, crouched, opposite the grave of his father. His purple orchid lay on top of the well-aged grass. He was wearing a black suit with a blue ironed collared shirt and a white silk tie, a fat cigar between his lips. He took a deep, long drag out of the cigar, checking to see if anyone saw the smoke, since now there was a no smoking sign on the cemetery gate. He waited. As a kid, he could never wait like this, but now time was a disease that stood on his feet. He took another drag, exhaling toward the ground and watching the smoke hit the grass. The cigar was almost out, but he didn’t replace it.
David heard footsteps and looked up. His little brother, Arthur, approached slowly, sporting a ruffled collared shirt, a new tattoo on the pulse of his neck, and a bad haircut. Arthur placed another purple orchid on the grave and sat next to his brother. David passed Arthur the cigar, and Arthur took a drag.
Neither of them said anything for a few seconds; they each waited for a word to slip out of the other.
“You’re late,” David finally said.
“Yeah, sorry, the buses are so shitty.”
“No, I meant you’re five years late.”
Arthur made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a cough, “You know where I was.”
“Well, something like robbing a liquor store doesn’t stay quiet.”
“You wanna know how it was?” Arthur looked up, thoughtfully, before taking a last drag. “There was so much time in the air that you couldn’t breathe.”
A few seconds passed between them, sharing the wind and the silence. Arthur extracted a metal container and took a swig while David’s nostrils perked at the scent of alcohol.
“Why do we still do this anyways?” Arthur asked.
“I don’t know,” David answered, although he did know. It had to do with tradition. It was a way to keep track of time that lay outside of hours and minutes.
There was a pause before Arthur laughed at the sky. “I still remember when you ran away. Our pops was so drunk, he couldn’t tell you were dodging his punches. And then bam!” Arthur smacked his hands together. “You threw him right on his ass. His face was so red, it was like some cartoon! And then you packed your shit and ran so fast I barely saw it.”
“You should’ve come with me.”
“Nah. Who knows what would’ve happened if I wasn’t there. It wasn’t so bad, anyways.”
David took out another cigar from his suit pocket. While searching for a lighter, his hand jolted, as if hit by some invisible force. It threw the cigar past Arthur onto a nearby grave.
David closed his eyes as tight as he could, trying to compel his mind into forgetting what just happened. It was embarrassing; that was the worst part. He could never get past the embarrassment.
Arthur stood up, grabbed the cigar, and handed it to David. “They started, huh?”
Without a word, David took the cigar and reached for his lighter.
“How bad is it?”
David didn’t answer, so Arthur changed the subject.
“So what’s new with you? Five years, there’s gotta be some changes, right? What you’ve been up to?”
David looked at the slow passing clouds, his unlit cigar still resting between his fingertips. “I got married.”
“No shit! Who’s the lucky lady?”
“Her name’s Eva.”
“Wow, look at you! Any kids?”
“I’m not having kids.”
“Come on, don’t be like that. Technology’s goin’ by so fast, they’ll have a cure tomorrow.”
“I won’t risk it.”
David stared down at his father’s tombstone. He’d given Wilfred Burrows a purple orchid for eighteen years, and the only thing he received in kind was Huntington’s. In his thirties, his body started rejecting its owner. He was slowly losing control, bit by bit. Soon there would be nothing left. He put the cigar in his mouth and flipped the top of the lighter. His thumb was shaking; the flint wheel was a goal he couldn’t reach. He started to bite down on the cigar, digging his canines and nearly decapitating it. Arthur put his tattooed hand over David’s, trying to steady it, but David shook it off.
“I got this.”
It was so hard. It was just so goddamn hard. After a few tries, the flame appeared like a spoiled child. David breathed a quick sigh and lit his cigar.
“How’d you get here? You still drive?” Arthur asked.
“I took a taxi.”
“Your wife, whatsherface Eva, she help with the suit?”
“Nobody helps me. I will put on my last suit when the time comes.”
David took a drag and gazed at the sky. A week after Wilfred Burrows died and David showed up on their mother’s doorstep with a duffel bag and a McDonald’s polo, he told his brother, “I looked it up. There’s a 50% chance that a patient’s kid gets the disease. That means with the two of us, there’s a 100% chance that one of us has it. Doctors can find out which one.”
So they convinced their mom to drive to the hospital so they could play with unsound statistics and a naïve game of genetic Russian Roulette until the metaphorical revolver blasted Huntington’s right into David’s skull.
When he heard the news, when he heard the doctor’s words, time seemed to stop, trying to readjust itself into a position that didn’t fit. Then it grew heavy, piling itself onto David’s shoulders like wet mud until he couldn’t stand. Time coated itself around him, to the fingertips, and then cracked; the cracks spread through his torso down to his legs, and he was imprisoned. He felt that he would cake and crumble on that flimsy chair, mocked by the fluorescent lights and sterile walls. Barely managing to crack a smile, he said, “I guess I’ll have to do everything a little bit faster.”
David pushed himself off the grass and tried to stand. His right leg didn’t place correctly. He started to fall toward the graves, but Arthur grabbed his arm and kept him upright. After a couple uncertain steps, David collected himself, dusted off his suit, and the two of them walked toward the cemetery gate.
“We’re cursed, you know?” Arthur said, taking another swig from his metal container. He gestured at the tombstone behind them, “He cursed us. Dad showed me how to drink, and he showed you how to die.”
I was born in Waco, Texas. I am from Waco. I come from Waco. I am of Waco. Waco is where people raised me. I am a part of Waco’s history and its legacy. I’m a Waco girl. That’s the truth and I ask you to believe it for me. I left Waco so that my children would be of somewhere else. But they’ll have their troubles, too. Waco is my hometown. I don’t know how else to say it.
I lived in Waco in 1916, among other years. In 1916, a man was tried for murder. It was in May. I was nine years old and he was nineteen. My closest friend then was Sarah. Together we would walk to her house after school every day in the fair weather. She was so beautiful to me. We were good to each other, too young to not have been, maybe.
I remember the morning. I remember the sedate giddiness, the sweet malaise. I remember the still tweet of the towhees outside and the sunlight falling through the window on its way to meet Sarah’s golden hair. These were my most cherished minutes of the day. They disturbed no lurking notions, bred no hollow thoughts.
“Ms. Monroe” was what we called our schoolteacher, but by the end of that summer she was Mrs. Bell. She wouldn’t spoil my reverie. I pursued another design back in just the same moment as she told the class that we were leaving for the courthouse to watch the Negro farmer who killed the wife of his boss. That was our introduction.
The virtue of Waco is painted in its sky. We all marched beneath it, never knowing it, sometimes hating it. There was no more tremendous a breadth of cerulean prospect. My belly quivered to think of it. In May there was one cloud dabbed upon its face. He was a diligent soldier who plotted himself before the sun and followed carefully its path. I couldn’t see his face, only his dim backside. The imaginations lingering beside me soared to him. In the time of the shortest prayer, innumerable tales of his heroism were spun to consummate fullness by deft fingers and then lost, blown away like epic cobwebs in dust devils. Beside us, the flowers in every garden seemed to sway and dance to the silent rhythm of our swinging hands, as we walked twoby-two. And the trees…
The courthouse in Waco was enclosed in the largest and most proper lawn in the town. Not one blade of grass was taller or greener than another. Over them stood a cottonwood that had grown old with its neighbor. Its branches bowed and leaves leaned like a hand cupped to an ear. What judgments it must have known, whispered out of that fat brick building and stored forever away in its furtive wooden belly. I hope that it was sad; I pray that it’s now gone.
Some of the students broke away to play on it as we neared. Ms. Monroe told us to stay in line. An assembly was amassed at the bottom of the stairs that led down from the courthouse doors. They moaned and yelled and pointed; none abstained. They were incomprehensible, more and more so as we approached. It was like many different languages being spoken at once, indistinguishable, impossible to trail a word from beginning to end without being struck by another. I felt my head aching. One moment the throng appeared as separate beings, each tiny but great in number, a huddling orgy of crickets in a cage, buzzing and leaping and drooling, their bleats stumbling around and colliding in the air to compose a hideous, knotted mass of sounds. The next moment they seemed a single entity, speaking in tongues with one voice and convulsing helplessly.
Ms. Monroe told us to wait. She disappeared into the mob. We stared up at the people in front of us, at the loose red skin on the backs of their necks and how it shook to their cries. Ms. Monroe emerged to explain that the farmhand had pled guilty. I asked if it was over. I looked at the cottonwood tree and imagined us spending the afternoon under its arms. “No, dear. It’s starting.” The congregation was too dense to see through. I asked Sarah to let me stand on her shoulders.
He entered my view as the final piece of clothing was ripped from his body. I had never seen a naked man before. He was easy to find, being much darker than anyone around him. I wondered if they all looked that way. I wondered why his skin seemed to glisten, until I realized that blood was flowing down all over his body, as knives, hammers, fingernails groped out, clawing him, beating him, tearing into him. The crowd had become at its center one fluid power, their hissing and spitting and hatred all alike. They clambered over one another in their fury, each wanting more than the other to strike the weeping man on his knees in the middle. His screams were as bestial as those of his attackers. There was no dignity in him then. He was without his crown of thorns and he did not deserve to have it. For an instant he fought, but found himself already impotent. Now he sobbed, as he was ripped apart like carrion. The horde pushed him onto his back. Weapons were raised and swung freshly down. Each minute left a hundred gashes signed into his ragged flesh. He howled as they cut off his fingers and then his toes, slicing through the man’s meat and bone with the tools that hung voicelessly in their sheds in the night. They held their prizes high aloft and bellowed their cheers. They kicked him, broke his ribs, crushed his nose beneath their heels. A man no older than the captive stepped forward and castrated him. They pulled some of the teeth right out of his head and passed them around. I watched his gaze become distant, his grimace fade, but he stayed living. His own body would not have mercy on him.
At length, two deputies materialized. They wrapped a chain around the prisoner’s neck and began to drag him across the yard. As the mob cleared a path to let them through, my spire was toppled over. People were all around us now. The whole city had arrived to substantiate the frenzy. I lay, fragile, on the grass – that meticulously trimmed grass – staring up into the sky. The unallied cloud had vanished, like a brave mouse swatted away when the cat lost interest, and the sun had revealed itself, happy to participate. People trod on my hair and my ankles. I felt I had been split in half, down the middle. Sarah appeared above me. “Come on! My turn!” I threw up and began to cry. The heaves came en masse to besiege me. With each one I felt worse tenfold, as if a stake were being driven into the earth through my chest. My tears were suggestions of his, replications imbued with a borrowed idea, a secondary grasp of suffering. Suddenly I was being lifted into the air. I gasped to where my lungs nearly burst. For a brief moment I inhabited his body and I was lifted up by that rusted chain, never to touch the ground again. I trembled violently, clutching at my own neck. I wanted to feel the grass once more before everything disappeared. But I was not there. I was in the arms of my father. He carried me silently, and I sobbed into his chest. “Take me home,” I said, “take me away.” He said nothing, but held me tenderly and followed the crowd.
When I opened my eyes I saw the prisoner hanged from the toughest branch of that cottonwood tree. I prayed for him to be dead, but his chest continued to rise and fall with shallow breaths that mocked existence. Beads of oil dripped listlessly off of his misshapen frame. The host had collected beneath him. I thought I could hear their hearts beating in unison. Below the prisoner they had piled logs, which they now doused as well. The flames licked at his grotesque, toeless feet. He was lowered toward their embrace, inch by lurching inch. The chain rattled and scratched the tree branch. Reaching up, he tried to climb it, but was unable to grasp with his fingerless hands. People jeered, hollered words that made me nauseous for decades after. One man had brought a camera; a few months later I saw the photographs sold as postcards.
Down in the fire to his knees, his skin was already beginning to fall apart. The prisoner abruptly stopped. The noise of the chain ceased. Then, oh God, it reversed. He rose, and I witnessed him in such indescribable grace that I truly believed he was no longer a body but a soul before our eyes, ascending to the highest place. But it was only an illusion. They lifted him out of the fire to plunge him back down anew. Together they held forward their hands, cupped as if to catch a drop of rain with nails lean and knuckles washed white, and inside they cradled hope. They held it out to him. They held it to this man’s swollen black eye and allowed him to peek in. They held it to his shattered black ear and allowed him to hear it chirrup softly. They held it to his mangled black nose and allowed him to dream of it. Then they pulled their hands apart, and like the magician’s trick there was nothing inside, only two red palms. It was how they finished him. The ability to scream had gone, so he just hung limp, suspended in the fury, and the end came soon.
I was alone then. He was gone and I was alone with these things on every side of me, and I could sense them crawling and the inside of my head turned crimson and black and the sun surged and seethed with my anger and burned itself out and the sky went dark. I felt my back breaking in the arms that held me. I felt my hair blistering at the roots. Everything was blood and fire. I looked across to the other side of the crowd. Standing in the innermost circle I saw my friend Sarah. But she was not my friend Sarah; her face was wickedness, sin, it was injustice and hate. I looked around and saw the same face everywhere. None of these were the people I knew. How could anyone love this Ms. Monroe, or she anyone else? My own father appeared a stranger. And this Sarah, she would never walk by my side or smile at me. She could never make me feel happy like she used to do. She wasn’t Sarah. She was evil.
It would be wrong to say that things returned to their previous state, but it would be a lie to say they didn’t. I thought about the man constantly, about his eyes and the sounds he made, though over time these became less clear to me. On my nineteenth birthday I lay in bed until the clock ticked out of reach, trying to feel like anything other than a child. I was as old as he had been and older than he would ever be. He was not a man any more than I was a woman. He was a child. That was when I left Waco.
I saw that face on one more occasion. I saw it in the last place I ever wanted to and it was so much worse to see it there. It was in my children on the sixth of August, 1945. We sat on the floor in our living room, the three of us, and listened to the radio. All I heard was “bomb.” All they heard was “victory.” They asked if it meant their father would be coming home soon.
Sometimes I don’t know where victory begins. If we declare victory when the enemy surrenders, then the people of Waco were victorious when the boy admitted to the crime. Victory has no beginning and no ending. Victory has no meaning. The world is a whole white city against one black teenaged nobody, slowly turning ever grayer. Where was the husband of the woman who was killed in Waco? Was he grieving in his bedroom at home, a pillow pressed to his cheek? Was he teaching his children how to understand, to someday forgive? Or was he in the multitude? Maybe he claimed a finger. Maybe he struck the fire. I can’t say. I only know the man was guilty. He had raped and murdered. To think that he had not would lend some comfort. For, to have seen innocence, however immediately and brutally it was squashed, is to have faith that it will exist again. But he was not innocent. The man was fucking guilty. He perpetrated an awful crime and an awful crime was perpetrated against him. The farmer’s wife did not deserve her fate and her killer did not deserve his.
Now and then, I wonder how many times it has happened in human history and been forgotten. I left Waco to escape it. I married a man who I thought was good and believed that my children would be free from it. But where is my husband now? What does he do there? The dust of one star is penciled into each of our minds and bodies. One string spans the lengths of time and space. What separates us from the Waco horror?
My children stand up and walk over to me. They ask again if their father is coming home. I hold them close to me and say yes. I am so afraid of them.
Editor’s Note: This story is based on a historical event. The guilt of Jesse Washington has been called into question by scholars in recent years. For a primary account of the event, please reference a July 1916 supplement to vol. 12 no. 3 of The Crisis, which can be accessed through the Modernist Journals Project at: library.brown.edu/pdfs/1292363091648500.pdf