When he was ten, Brown saw a dead man hanging from a tree. He knew that a man hanging from a tree, limp-necked, close-eyed, and barefoot, was like a bird flying backwards. But there was something more here to see and say. This was wrong. Wrong and ugly. It was so wrong that the word pounded into his head, then lit a fire to his stomach that made him gag. The ugliness was like nothing he had ever seen and worse than all his ten-year-old nightmares combined, much uglier than when he had come home early one day, found his parents sprawled on the floor, pushing their half-clothed bodies into each other with a ferociousness that made him run, hide and be afraid. Even after his father had explained, All that was, son, was a little bit of loving, he still looked at them both differently after that, wondering what else they did when he wasn’t looking. He stared up at that body, so cold within itself that it could not sweat even in this heat that pressed down like a haint trying to announce itself in the night. Then he looked from the body up to his father, holding his son around the shoulders tightly, like the tree where the body was hanging might reach down with one of its immense branches, and swoop, before you knew it, take his boy and give the one hanging a companion. If Brown had been more schooled in the heinous matters of life and possessed a scholar’s vocabulary, he would have mouthed, “Who owns speech for this?” He learned there are some things you cannot talk about unless you have experienced them, so it’s no wonder that of all the voices, the man hanging from the tree like an overgrown, tattered ornament would be the one to speak, and this is what he said: “Watch out.” For what, Brown asked, only half believing he had heard anything at all. “For yourself, boy. Watch out for yourself.”
The hanging man was named Rose, for short. His full name was Roosevelt Theodore Hopkins, and he was nineteen years old. He was a likable fellow with a friendly smile, tall and lanky, with long, muscular forearms and a soft, easy gait. In his spare time, he liked to take long walks by himself, as if nature called to him from its overgrown wilderness. He’d gather his lengthy bones and hear the command to walk, and there he’d go. He didn’t know that one night a group of White boys were looking to feel like men, which meant they had to go kill a tall, Black manchild who, some other where, could’ve been a prince, with his effortless beauty, studying ways and open-hearted generosity. It’s funny, here, how time met like that. A Black manchild with whatever future a segregated land might have for him felt like all the world was his anyhow because, well, at least in his part of town, he could go for a walk anytime he felt good and ready to. And with that confident knowledge, he got up from the chair in his room, the one his uncle had made when he realized the boy had outgrown the one he’d had, and walked to the kitchen. “Where you going?” his mother asked. “Dinner be ready soon.” “Just for a walk, Momma,” he had replied. “I’ll be back in time. ’Specially ’cause you cooking peas with ham hock swimming in it.” As she stirred the contents of the pot, the woman smiled and lifted her right cheek to receive her son’s kiss.
Just when Rose was kissing his momma, the boy that would hang the noose around his neck was kissing his. Her dinner was on the stove, too, and she was making a pie from peaches she had picked from her own backyard and had sniffed and surveyed to test their sweetness. This was her son’s favorite pie, and today was his birthday. He had walked in the kitchen from his room, and she’d asked, “Where you going? I done made your favorite pie, Aaron.” “Aw, Momma,” he said. “I ain’t going out long. Be back before you know it.”
What they were going to do would be quick enough. It’d go real fast if they didn’t let the one that hated niggers the most beat him to death before they took out the noose. Just make it quick an’ easy, Aaron thought to himself, like a young man might think of his first time, with scared, greedy lust. No need for it to go on too long, thinking of his mother’s pie and how good it would taste with cool milk chasing it on his tongue.
Rose walked in silence, like he always did, thinking about time. Time gone, time coming, and the time he was in. There would be many nights and though they might smell like this one, be as hot as this one, and even bear the same number of stars, this night would never be repeated, which made him happy. He knew in that moment, how much he must matter, how much his feet kicking up dust on the unpaved road meant he was part of something that nobody could define or take away. Rose thought to himself, “I oughta write a book about all the stuff I learn from my walking.”
And before he could finish that thought, there was Aaron, with Jug, Miller, Sal, Frank, and Toby, the one who hated niggers more than any other White boy who was proud to hate niggers, fast on Rose’s beautiful frame, who lighted on him quicker than flies to feces. They had searched out this chase and how delighted they were when they found Rose walking alone. This is so perfect, Aaron thought to himself, with neither remorse nor shame, but the simple pleasure of knowing he was walking in his father’s footsteps, doing exactly what his father had done on his twenty-first birthday, which was to take a life, but not just any life, the life of a real, breathing nigger who walked like a man, but who anybody with good sense knew wasn’t no more than a twig to be broken and snapped.
So that’s what they did, and Aaron was back home in two and a half hours time, eating his momma’s pie, feeling so proud of himself that he knew he would go over to Carol Anne’s house and finally convince her to make herself wide open to him so he could feel like two times the man. As he ate, he was careful to mind his manners and tell his mother that the pie was the best she’d ever made. He was in such a good mood that he added an elaborate story of praise. “No better pie cook in this parish. No better pie cook in this country. No better pie cook in this world. ” How could his mother resist the spread of smile that smeared her face with the same look of pride as when she first held him? How could she not look into his face, and think, His daddy would be so proud.
At Rose’s house, anxiety stewed like the peas his mother had slowly tended, as they absorbed the salty smokiness of the pork. “He should’ve been back by now,” she murmured.. Like any good husband who doesn’t want his wife fretting, his father had gone to search for him, even though he’d told his wife that the boy was probably just out at the creek, talking to nothing like always. When the man found Rose, his mouth trembled in fright, and a cold terror swallowed him whole as he let out a scream that hurt him to his core. He wanted to use his pocketknife to cut out his throat and to cut his son down. But he could do neither. He just sat beneath the tree that was now a wicked resting place for his boy and cried like a baby who had lost his mother.
It felt like going through hell to convince the sheriff to leave the boy hanging up there. But somehow, some way, that’s what his father did. He wanted everyone to see what had been done to his son, so Rose hung there for exactly nineteen hours, to match the number of years he’d lived, long enough for folks to see his neck crooked in a way that looked like he was pondering something for which he would never find the answer.