The Red Man
by John W. Steele
Emmett poured another glass of ale, and stared out the kitchen window. Out beyond the farmland gone to rot, where the windmill stood like a frozen monument, its gears rusted solid. He took it all in with his eyes: the warped barn, its roof sagging and ready to collapse, the leaning post and beam fences, the worn and broken farm machines.
His gaze followed the rutted path to the top of the hill and rested on the ancient oak tree. Who knew how long it had stood there? He remembered the tree even when his mother held him to her breast and the warm sun touched his face with a promise betrayed. It would probably always be there, like some everlasting testament to the unholy sacrilege.
Emmett thought about the red man and raised the glass again. He hadn’t touched a drop in thirty years, but when his wife Margret got struck by lightning, it all came back, and he couldn’t shake it.
He tried to recall if there had ever been a time he’d known a moment’s peace. It seemed he’d been an old man all his life. Youth for him was milking cows, bailing hay, hauling timber. There’d never been any childhood or mystery in his world; there is no mystery in hard labor. The years were swallowed up by monotonous routine, just as they had been for his father and his fathers before him. But the family was gone now. Except for his elder sister Helen, they were all dead.
In less than a month, the county sheriff would knock at the door with a warrant for delinquent taxes. The peace officer would apologize, and then evict him from the land he’d lived on all his life, land that had been in his family for five generations. The almanac predicted a harsh winter, and already the trees were barren of leaves. Helen had offered to let him stay with her in her trailer in Tallahassee, but the land owned his soul and he knew he could never leave.
The smoke from the cigarette curled around his fingers now yellowed with tar. He stared at the pitted tank of gasoline that stood outside in the pole barn. He’d burn all to the ground; he’d sit in the flames until the fire scorched to ashes the trial of his life. There was no reason to let the bastards take everything, no reason to prolong the agony; no reason except one: the memory of the red man.
Emmett rubbed the stubble on his jaw and an old neuron fired inside his skull, as a vision that had troubled him all his life emerged. His grandpa Evelyn used to talk about it when he was in his cups. He’d speak of the incident in a hollow voice; a distant look on his face, as though it was something someone else had done.
With glassy eyes he’d stare out the same window, and wander back to the year nineteen hundred and three. Had it been that long? Certainly it could not have been over a hundred years since they hanged the redskin who stole the sack of corn from the government store in Crystal Springs. We beat him bad and dragged him up there, Granddad said. He’d tell about how the men took turns with the branding iron. With a tear in his eye he’d recall how the red man jerked when they dangled him by the neck, his toes just touching the ground. He blamed it all on the whiskey.
Over sixty years now and Emmett still dreamed about these things. The red man came when he was sleeping; his face gaunt, his eyes hollow. He’d stretch out his arm and offer his hand. Emmett would awaken disoriented and confused, his pillow cold with sweat, his body trembling.
It was the memory of the red man that kept him there; a memory that stalked him in the brief moments when all was well with the world. A vision buried with the years, but always present, like a hidden demon sent from Hades to torment him. He took a puff on the cigarette and a melody like the whisper of the wind in the trees sighed in his mind.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me... The hymn echoed as vivid as yesterday. He sat with his family in the little white church; the air was close and smelled like damp hay. He had to piss, but it would be another hour before he’d be granted amnesty. With his handkerchief, he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead and upper lip.
Reverend Wilcox stood at the pulpit, his cassock draped like a black woolen cocoon over his emaciated torso. With eyes on fire he raised his arms and proclaimed: “Sons and daughters of the Lamb, in your trials ye must remember the words of our Lord written in the book of Exodus chapter twenty-four, verses six and seven: I am a jealous God, who brings the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations...”
“Amen,” Evelyn cried, his voice husky, his face contrite.
Those were the words that pursued Emmett down through the years, always ready to confront him, always patient, always waiting.
There were times he’d wander to the top of the hill and sit on the stone his Granddad had hauled there. He’d try to convince himself that it never happened; that the red man was just a ghost story designed to scare young boys. But even in the heart of summer a cool breeze sighed on the ridge. Something empty lived in that place, something left unfinished.
An icy draft hushed through the silence. Emmett tilted back his head and laughed aloud. The fleeting shadows just outside his mind emerged and at last he understood. It all made sense now and he wondered why it had taken him so long to see it. The roads, the walls, the futility, everything that comprised the struggle of his life lead to this moment, as though preordained on some cosmic blueprint. He drank the last swallow of ale, and crushed out his cigarette.
The screen door creaked and he stumbled down the steps. Overhead a pewter sky hung like an ominous portal and the first downy flakes of snow drifted in the air.
Ice-crusted muck oozed from beneath his boots. He tossed a rope over the tree limb and stepped up on the stone. Emmett cinched the noose tight and gazed down in the hollow.
Neon orange flames glowed in the twilight, and smoke and ash poured into the sky. From deep inside the pillar of fire, the red man emerged. He tread the furrowed incline and stood before Emmett.
Like some kind of gross physical deformity his neck was bent and twisted. The red man gaped upon him, the sockets of his eyes black and empty. They shared a long sustained look. The red man raised his arm, and Emmett took his hand.
Copyright © 2012 by John W. Steele