For all the emotional clamor in Tory’s room, energy roiled even harder and faster across the yard where an old, black man was removing his clothes. Jonah’s heart raced as he stuck his hand into a rusted coffee can and drew out a glob of grease and bee’s wax mixed with a concoction of his own. His senses were keen, and the world around him lucid: his kettle, the old chairs, his damp walls, even his hands as he smeared his mixture over himself. He knew what he had to do. If it meant he died, he was willing. If he did return, things would be different. He’d tear the tarps from his windows, and he’d ask Mable to marry him.
He smeared his poultice thickest over his face and around his eyes. Willow wasn’t listening to him, but she’d listen to college man. If college man went, Willow and her baby would go, too. They’d be safe. He’d known since the afternoon she sat in his kitchen with the sting on her neck that something needed to be done. Leaning in close, he’d smelled death on her. Unmistakable. The same smell her mother carried—an odor asleep in him for twenty years.
He finished coating his skin, set the rusty can in the sink, and for a long minute stared at it. He didn’t know exactly what Willow and Prairie would be safe from, maybe the house and all the land around it was cursed. The dead were buried everywhere. He also didn’t know if what he was about to do made sense, maybe it didn’t make a single lick of sense, and still he needed to do it. He’d spent his whole life in the body of a whale. No more.
Everything had been clear when he woke that morning, his mind full of images: spook college man by taking him where he ain’t ever been. College man had no business writing his stories about Luessy; college man needed to take Willow and the baby and keep them away.
Jonah opened his door and stepped into the yard. Men like Clay, college men, they were the ones who stirred up others, got themselves elected, made the laws, slammed down the gavels, drank the hardest liquor, and took what they wanted.
He shook his head, trying to clear his thinking. Some mornings the world seemed to ruffle backwards like pages blowing in a book, and it was 1919 again, and the mob was alive, breaking into the courthouse, lynching Willie Brown, dragging him through the streets, burning his body. And Willie’s crime? The same as every Negro’s in the city: his color. Or it was 1932 in Jonah’s mind, and the mob was screaming, “Lynch the bug!”
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