“The coroner didn’t have a particularly difficult time determining the cause of death for Mattie Brown. It was pretty obvious she’d been lynched since she was hanging there in the tree with the rope still tight around her neck. The man had a harder time explaining the thirteen piles of ashes, loose limbs and all the white hoods and robes that surrounded Mattie’s body, still swaying there and twisting in the morning breeze.”
Zach just sat there by the window staring at me. I couldn’t tell if he was interested, faking it or somewhere in between, so I went to the fridge for more ice and topped off our glasses. “Well, you’re still here so you must be interested,” I said. “Besides, I hate to drink alone this early in the morning.” Something outside the kitchen window caught his eye and he turned away, decided it was nothing and turned back to me, giving a barely perceivable shrug.
“Anyway, this all happened back when I was a kid in school. We weren’t what you’d call good friends or anything, but me and Mattie was the same age and we had a few classes together over the years. I wasn’t there at the end and I never saw the crime scene, but the townspeople talked about it for years to come, though they never really talked about it, if you know what I mean.”
Zach has been my housemate for the last six or seven years and wasn’t much of a drinker, at least not like me. He wasn’t much of a talker either, not until you got him drunk anyway, which wasn’t very often. He nosed around the ice in his drink, took a sip, shuddered a cringe and sat back. I tossed back a finger’s width of bourbon and continued.
“This was back when they just started integrating the schools and all. Most of us younger kids couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but a lot of the adults were terrible upset about the whole thing and they found ways to play out their hatred by teaching their kids to hate the black kids, too. Momma said that just wasn’t right because Negro people were just people too, and they had the same wants and needs as white folks. She said if she ever heard of me treating the Negro kids, that’s what they called ‘em back then, Negroes and a lot worse, too. Anyway, she said if I ever treated ‘em any different than I treated white folks they’d be hell to pay and she meant it. Still, it was hard to have much to do with ‘em as some of the white kids was really hard on you if you gave the black kids any respect back then.”
Zach poked at the ice cubes, but I could tell he was listening. He just never learned to show much of an interest in things, even when he was interested, so I carried on.
“Mattie sat beside me in first grade. She was quiet as a mouse most of the time, but I could tell she was really smart, even though she’d only answer questions when she was called on by the teacher. Then, one week she didn’t show up at school, so on Friday I stayed after class for a minute and asked our teacher, Miss Johnson, if she knew where Mattie had been all week.”
“Why William, it’s good of you to be concerned,” she said, “Mattie and her brother got struck down by lightning last weekend during that storm. It was a terrible thing. I thought everyone knew. They were playing under that big live oak tree that sits in their front yard when it happened. Split that old tree right down the--”
“Is she, you know--“
“No, no child, she’s fine. She’ll be back sometime next week. She got it worse than her brother, but she’ll be as good as new. You’ll see.”
I finished off my bourbon and noticed Zach had hardly touched his, so I pulled it over to my side of the table and went to the Frigidaire to see if there was any beer hidden away anywhere. I found two in the crisper and another in the door behind a box of BisQuik and poured one into a glass for Zach. He happily lapped it up and nodded his approval which I took as a motion to continue.
“Mattie wasn’t the same after getting struck by the lightning. It wasn’t anything you could put your finger on, but she was different for sure. Later that summer there was a terrible storm and the Billing’s house up the valley got swept away in a flash flood. Everybody got out except for the ten-year-old Billings’ boy who got washed away downstream. Forty men dragged the river for nearly a week, but couldn’t find him. Mattie kept telling her Momma she knew where the boy was. Her Momma just put her off, but Mattie wouldn’t let it go as she had a quiet, stubborn streak, just like her daddy.
‘Just how are you supposed to know where the boy is when forty men can’t find him, Honey?’ her Momma finally asked.
‘He come and sees me, Momma. He’s trapped under a log down by the old pump-house. He says he wants to go home, Momma.’
“Well, I can tell you ol’ Zachary, things wasn’t the same after that. Two Negro fellas found the boy right down under that log, just like Mattie said they would, even though the area’d been checked two or three times. They gave the boy a right fine funeral with the whole town attending. Even some black folks showed up to give their respects and didn’t even get hassled by the whites, which was a rare thing in them days. Mattie and her folks were there too, but they kept their distance due to the fact that Mattie’s daddy, Lamar, was up to his neck in the civil rights movement and plenty of white folks were none too happy about it.”
I paused for effect and looked over at Zach who was licking beer foam from his upper lip.
“Go on,” he said.
“I thought I was talking to myself for a minute there. You sure you want to hear this?”
“You have my attention. Continue.”
Like I said, Zachary has always been a little short on words. Less so when he was sober. Alcohol had a way of loosening him up.
“I guess Mattie was about fifteen or so when she went to meet her maker, but the locals eyed her with considerable suspicion after the boy’s funeral. There was other things that happened after that that only added to her mystique. She seemed to have some connection to the supernatural or somethin’, and I’m not sure if I believe in such things, but rumor had it that she could see spirits and talked to the dead on a regular basis. She would tell her Momma when someone just died before anyone even knew it happened. Like the time Ol’ Lady Wilkins tried to beat the train in that crappy ol’ pickup truck of hers or the time Junior Hill cut his leg with an axe and bled out before he could make it back to the house for help. Her Momma said she could see them things and describe ‘em as if she was there. That sort of talk upset a lot of these folks here in the Bible Belt. Some of ‘em started saying Mattie was studying to be some kind of conjure woman who was delving in the dark arts and summoning familiar spirits and other such nonsense, but I never saw any evidence of anything like that. She seemed as normal as could be and never spoke of that stuff at school, at least not as far as I knew.”
Zach had his head laid on the table with his arm under it and just stared at me unblinking like.
“Am I boring you, Zach?”
“You could show a little interest, if you’re interested.”
“You want another beer?”
“If you’re buying.”
I topped off my rock glass and poured the beer in a bowl so Zach wouldn’t have to exert too much effort drinking it and pushed it up to his face. I was feeling considerably stewed and wished I was writing this stuff down.
“Now, where was I?”
“… as far as you knew.”
“Yeah, right. Anyways, there was other people about town claiming that little Mattie could move objects with her mind and shit like that. Something they called hyper something…or tele—“
“Telekinesis,” Zach offered.
“Yeah, that’s it. Now, how did it come to be that you would know a word like that?”
“I know about things like words.”
“I suppose you do. We should talk more. Anyway, I don’t know if I believe in such things, but it would sure go a long way to explaining what happened that night. Back in those days there were a lot of Klansmen around these parts. Way more than there is today. There’s still a few around, but nothing like as many as back then. Well, the local boys were none too happy with Mattie’s daddy, Lamar, and his organizing civil rights marches and petitioning and all. He’d been warned and none too subtle, either. They even burned his car one night right in front of the police station when they had him in there on some trumped up charge of disturbing the peace or whatever. Nobody ever got charged in the car burning ‘cause it was well known that half the police and sheriff department men was all Klan members.
“I asked Mattie about it one day and she said her Momma begged her Daddy to back off because she was scared something dire might happen. There was plenty of violence happening all over the South back then, so she had good reason to fret, but her Daddy said it was too important and he just kept going like a bull in the rut. I guess the good ol’ boys decided it was time to up the ante, so they all donned their hoods and robes and drove on out to the Brown’s old farmhouse on Sherman road…you still with me, Zach?”
“Don’t you find this stuff the least bit interesting?”
Zach gave out a big yawn, “I’m riveted. Go on.”
“Fine. People say they only went out there to scare Lamar, but I ain’t so sure and nobody knows who fired the first shot, because everyone that was out there ended up dead one way or another, but I think I have a good idea of what happened after considerable pondering about it all these years.
“The Klan used to plant a big cross in the yard of those who they considered uppity and lit ‘em on fire as a way of sayin’, ‘Back off, or else.’ We’ll I’m guessin’ Lamar met the boys on his front porch, shotgun in hand, because he didn’t know how to back down from nothin’. I don’t think he would’ve fired first ‘cause he was largely outnumbered and all them boys carried pistols on ‘em back then. Anyway, who shot who first don’t much matter, but they found Lamar next to his shotgun on what was left of the front porch, with him all riddled with bullet holes and three of the Klan had melted buckshot in the ashes of what was left of their burnt carcasses, so there was definitely a shootout.
“They found Mattie’s brother by where the window of the front room used to be with two bullet holes in his head and her Momma was found in the back of the house, burnt to a cinder. Some of the boys may have had their way with her before they torched the place. There was no confirmation of such things, but rape was another way they used to terrorize the blacks back then to keep them in their place. Anyway, her Momma never made it out of the house, though it seems that Mattie did at one point or another, as there was some evidence that they dragged her back to the tree in the front yard.”
Zach interrupted, “White men are inherently evil.”
“I suppose there’s enough evil to go around.”
“You wanna wrap this up? It’s two in the afternoon and you’re cutting well into my nap time.”
“Fine. You sure are a grouchy drunk.”
Zach let out another yawn, “And you are a pathetically drunken drunk.”
I topped off with the last of the Kentucky bourbon, “You’ll get no argument from me on that subject.”
I decided to finish the story in spite of Zachary’s hoity demeanor, “What happened next is the weirdest part, the part that goes unexplained. Like I said earlier, when the coroner got there, he was at as much a loss for words as the rest of the crowd that gathered ‘round. There was Mattie, still swinging from that old oak and the house was still smoldering with a couple of the sheriff’s boys poking through the ashes with some sticks, but it was the condition of the Klansmen that couldn’t ever be explained by anyone before or since. There was thirteen of them all told, and every last one of them was charred beyond recognition except for their teeth which became about the only way of identifying some of ‘em. But, the weird part was that they all burned right there in their robes and hoods and their robes and hoods barely had a charred mark on ‘em. Sure, there was a hand or an arm or a foot still in a boot that wasn’t burned, sticking out of a robe here or there, but for the most part there was just these piles of ashes and robes all haphazardly circled around the tree with young Mattie still hangin’ there.
“As best as anyone can figure, Mattie Brown did indeed have some supernatural influence or something and when they strung her up, she called on her powers to exact revenge on those who killed her. As one last thing to make the story even stranger than strange, that old tree had a new split in it too, as if it’d been freshly struck by lightning, even though there hadn’t been a storm in over a week and Mattie herself, had no evidence of being burned. Some folks tried to explain it as this thing called spontaneous combustion that caused it all, which I guess is a similar unexplainable thing, but nobody’s ever seen so many burnt like that in the same place before. And even though I’m not sure I believe in such things, I think Mattie might have conjured up the lightning that struck that old tree and zapped those Klansmen to dust. So, what do you think about that, Zach?”
“I think you drink too much.”
Then he said something I’ve been speculating about ever since. He said, “What would you think if I told you I was the familiar spirit of Mattie Brown, a reincarnate of sorts?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Zach. Mattie was always nicer to me than you ever been,” I said.
“Well, what if I told you the first name of the Billings’ boy they found under that sunken log, was Jeremy,” and with that Zach jumped down from the kitchen table and headed off to where ever it is he sleeps, but not before taking a moment to puke-up beer and some half-chewed cat food on my favorite rug.
Things got fuzzy after that and I remember waking up on the couch at about three in the morning. Zachary was sleeping on my chest with his butt about two inches from my face. He can be an ass like that. I had a headache something terrible and swatted Zach off my chest for being the jerk that he was being. I swore off drinking for a long while after that and Zachary never spoke to me about Mattie Brown or much of anything else for what seemed like eons. And to top it all off, I still haven’t figured out how Zach knew Jeremy Billings’ first name. I considered that there could be some supernatural rationality for it, but I’m not sure I believe in such things.