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!”
“College man,” he mumbled the moniker. No other way to make Willow listen. Only thing to do was scare college man, scare him hard, something he couldn’t pencil out.
With his crowbar and smoker, Jonah puffed a bit of smoke into the bottom of the first hive, momentarily quieting the guard bees at the entrance. He pried off the lid and lifted only a few of the frames, turning them over before spotting the queen, twice as fat and long as the bees around her. She was old now, old like himself. After three years, her fertility was waning, but he had one more favor to ask of her.
Bees began to rear up, spewing in a cloud around him. “It’s Bug,” he told them. And to the queen, “Yup, it’s me.” He took her up between thick fingers and closed her squirming in the palm of his hand. More bees flared in alarm. He wasn’t aware of the number of stings he was receiving, if any. He needed one more queen, and through the thick furry cloth of angry buzzing bodies, he pried up the lid on the next hive.
He was speaking to everyone who’d put him down over the years: the teacher who locked him in the steaming outhouse; the mob who tortured Willie Brown while Jonah hid in a cellar, watching through broken slats; those who wanted him dead, not because he’d killed, but because killing him would be as satisfying as using the toe of a boot and grinding out a cockroach.
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