Picnic

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is part of a journal assignment I wrote for an African American Literature course. It came to me after listening to Billy Holiday's "Strange Fruit". A family in the American South during Reconstruction attends a picnic.

Submitted: April 17, 2014

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Submitted: April 17, 2014

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"Panic" 

James was terrified. Today was the day. He had never been to an event like this before, but now he was old enough and it was such a treat for him, said his mother. She hummed to herself softly now as she tied his shoes up, an old song that was familiar for some reason. Perhaps she had sung it when he was a baby. It was comforting, and James relaxed a little. How could he be worried? His parents were smiling, his brother could be heard creaking the floor as he made his way down stairs, the house itself felt cheerful and excited. But James couldn't escape the creeping dread that settled in his stomach, as the family started moving towards the door. It was almost time.

"James," his mother asked in a mock-serious voice, "Do you think we should bring strawberry or peach jam for our biscuits today?"

"I dunno," James mumbled, distracted.

"Peach!" yelled Jared, James's older brother, newly arrived from upstairs.

"It's James's turn," scolded Mother. "Come now, James, sweetie, what do you think?"
James really didn't have an opinion, since he didn't like jam. But his brother was six years older, so he probably new best.

"I agree with Jared," said James finally. "Peach would be best."

Jared whooped and Mother grabbed the peach jar with a sigh. Their father waited with Jared at the door, tapping his boots impatiently.

"Are we gonna miss it, Pop?" asked Jared anxiously.  This wasn't his first time; James wondered if his fear would become enjoyment after this.

"Nah," said their father. "They gotta give folks time to get home and eat after church. We have plenty of time, but we won't much longer if these two don't stop dragging their feet over jam."

"Sorry, sir," said James. He quickly grabbed his lunch bag from his mother and went to the door. Hopefully, when he was twelve, like Jared, Father would like him more too.

"That's more like it," Father said approvingly. "Now come on you lot."

It was an overcast day, but the sun broke through in some areas and cast brilliant beams of light on the countryside.  Their destination was the old oak tree nearby, which was the common meeting place for their town.  Sunday school often took James and the other kids there to read the Bible, and whenever there was a fair it usually centered on that tree. As they approached the area, they realized that there was already a crowd.  Dozens of people surrounded the tree, kept at a distance by the sheriff and his officers. James was too short to see much, but through the gaps in a forest of legs he thought he could see the man there, kneeling by the tree. James shivered without warning, and he quickly checked to see if his brother or father saw. They were focused on what James could barely see. The roar of the crowd was steadily rising as more families came and stopped close by.

"That's a lot of people," said James.

"The girl had a lot of friends," said Mother. There was a catch in her voice, and when James looked up, he saw that she had tears in her eyes. He held her hand, and she squeezed his gratefully. James felt very important.

"Was she the only one?" Jared asked Father. "Ben from school said he killed like ten others."

"No, just her. One is too much, though," said Father tightly. Seeing his son's abashed face, he tried to lighten the mood. "But now we get to see the law in action, son." He smiled a genuine smile. "That nigger's gonna get what's coming to him." Jared smiled too, and James didn't think it was a good smile.

"Whatever this group does'll be too good for the son of a-" Jared stopped when he saw Mother's face. Father used the expression all the time, but probably not in front of his mother. Sorry ma."

James tried to think of a way he could avoid seeing and hearing what was to happen, without revealing his discomfort to his family. His shortness was kind of helping, but he had a feeling Father would lift him up if he thought his son was missing out.

"James! Hey James!" James turned and saw a girl from his Sunday school nearby, holding her own mother's hand.

"Hi Ruth," said James. "How are you?" His mother had taught him to be polite and always ask people how they were, even if he didn't really care.

"I'm wonderful! Are you as excited as I am?" she asked. Ruth clearly was keen on the event; her eyes were bright, her cheeks were flushed, and she practically hopped on the spot.

"Er, sorta, yeah," said James.

"Only sorta? What's the matter with you?"

"Well, I've never really been to one of these before." James half mumbled the last part. It seemed other kids started way earlier.

"Really? They're great," exclaimed Ruth. "The bad guy always loses and the good guy wins. It's so lovely." Ruth said a lot of things were lovely. She'd heard her mother use the word once and thought it just the light of ladylike vocabulary.

"I bet," said James, trying to sound more excited than he felt.

"Dad, James can't see," he heard Jared announce. "He's busy talking to a girl." James went red as his father laughed and did what James suspected he would do all along. He grabbed him under the armpits and easily lifted him up and onto his broad shoulders. James had no choice but to clench his knees and place his hands atop his father's untidy hair.

"There, son, can you see now?" he asked.

James could see plenty. He saw many families he recognized. They were most of them laughing, sharing food, and craning their necks to have a look at the spectacle commencing in front of them. Many fathers had young children on their shoulder like James's. Evidently the sheriff thought there were enough people gathered to start the proceedings, for he said something and one of the officers helped him haul up the murderer and begin securing a rope around his neck. The man terrified James. His skin was dark as night, and there were flashes of whiteness from his bulging eyes and bared teeth. Scarier still were the ruins of skin left from his beating. Long strips of flesh flapped in the breeze and dripped scarlet onto the grass. He screamed something but was struck by the sheriff, a blow that shut his left eye and gave his swollen face an even more fearful, misshapen look.

James had no doubt the man was guilty. His father said so, and besides, it was easy to imagine this vicious, howling creature before him losing control and killing someone if he was loose. James felt queasy just looking at him, but if he hid his face here, on top of his father's shoulders, everyone would see. He heard Jared whoop below him.

The rope was long and arched over one of the oak's high lower limbs. A team of several volunteers held the end on the other side of the circle, and they were smiling and waving to their friends and family as they gripped their sections. Then they quickly started to pull, and the crowd, which had been building in volume, appeared to hold its breath as the man was brought thrashing into the air.

James couldn't help it. He squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his father's hair, but he couldn't block out the gurgling sounds. This continued for what seemed like an hour, and then the crowd cheered.

"James, honey?" his mother's voice seemed tinny and distant. "Do you feel alright? Do you want a biscuit?" 


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