((The Wallace Brothers) (summer of 1967))
Most men lead, and live their lives behind walls of misunderstandings, ones they have built for themselves to their hearts desires, perhaps it’s a man thing; whatever, most men die, alone in silence, behind those walls of pretence, wishing at the last moment of breath, they had never built such walls in the first place.
In a like manner, Frank and Wally never did do anything useful, beautiful; it was all impersonal, cold or unfriendly, all out of self-interest, for the most part. I suppose you could say—they never did understand life in general, they lived it of course, but in-between closed walls.
Whiskey Charles, Charlie Codden originally from Ozark, Alabama, who moved up to the cotton fields of North Carolina, near Fayetteville, to live with Abby Wallace, was a different kind of man, different than Frank and Wally anyway, not a whole lot of difference, but different. I suppose he was for the most part absorbed in doing some little task for the furtherance of his own comfort, whereas, Frank and Wally, lived inside their own self-centeredness, fully.
Cindy Codden, his sister, whom he left by herself in Ozark, and abruptly moved in with his cousin Abby, perhaps for security, money, and love— whose to say, or for all those reasons put together, or anyone will do separately, had no real intentions of bringing Cindy up to North Carolina, after Cindy and Whiskey Charlie had lived together for years upon years.
Cindy did not complain about the unfairness and equality of life, but yes, she did wonder about men in particular, and in particular, her brother Whiskey Charlie, who was drunk most of the time, and when he wasn’t he was sobering up, and when he was somewhere in-between he was in a fog. Perhaps that is how he got himself killed—she told herself, he just let whoever hung him, hang him without much fight.
It was the summer of 1967, Burgundy Washington (otherwise known as Katie Sexton, and now married, and known as Katie Chandler) was out in the open fields by where once the Wallace Plantation stood, it was burnt down, she was having some men build a fence around the old place, and was checking on the machines, those corn cutting machines in the field she owned, and the boys operating them, boys that had come down from Iowa, and Illinois, and Nebraska to cut for the summer, summer jobs, corn-growing jobs, they left their towns to work down south, to operate machines, and they did well, some of the boys had run away from home, others were dodging the draft, folks being drafted to go fight a lonesome war in some country no one had ever heard of before 1965, called Vietnam, a new invention of mankind, first it was a French war, now America’s new war against the evil of communism (it would be of course, an embarrassing invention in time).
It was Langdon Abernathy’s war—the Vietnam War, whom was a neighbor to the once Wallace Plantation, a striking and romantic adventure to be, he talked about it enough anyhow. He suggested he would go fight in it; to be a hero like his Grandfather, who fought in WWI, perhaps some fifty-years ago, and perhaps in another fifty, they would talk about him likewise, in the same manner.
The graveyard still remained near the hill, and now that old 1950-Chevy of Frank and Wally’s sat by it, and old Minnie Lue’s shanty remained close by, they were all close together now in an empty field, in one corner of the back property, where the pigpen was, use to be, on the Wallace Plantation, the one that Abby fell into and died, was murdered by the big pig, the Blue Ribbon hog, all of its 700-pounds, pure hog, who got his fill of Abby, ate her up like pork-straw.
Cindy Codden was getting nightmares, she saw death, I mean Death, death, Mr. Death, the man who rides the black horse, and comes to collect what is due him, or soon to be, which is a person’s residue, when they are about to give up their last breath he appears; brings them to wherever they are suppose to go. Evidently he still rides a horse according to Cindy Codden, even in the time of engines and machines, the man in black, rides a black horse, or at least in her nightmares he did, still does.
So, she drove up to Fayetteville, stopped at Mrs. Stanley’s Plantation House, was giving a welcome, and was told she could stay there for a few days while she sorted out her nightmares, that had brought her back to North Carolina from Ozark, Alabama, and perhaps to see her brother’s grave during this time, it was back there in the Wallace graveyard, back by where the pigpen was, beyond that. She knew the neighbors, the Stanley’s and the Abernathy’s that is, her brother of course knew them better, and as she re-familiarized herself with her surrounds, she noticed many bushels of corn were brought out of the corncribs and the great mountain of corn was built on the ground at the edge of a field way beyond where the Wallace Plantation House used to stand, and behind this mountain of corn was another cornfield, just coming into tassel, all owned by Katie Chandler. But she wasn’t here for that, she was here to investigate her nightmare.
On her second day, the morning of the second day at the Stanley Plantation House, she walked up towards the Wallace graveyard, saw the workers in the field throwing the corn over their shoulders, as they did in the old days where her father worked and where he had her work and Charlie worked, all working in the cornfields, throwing corn into a wagon, or truck whatever was available, now it was just trucks they hauled it in, and away onto the corncribs. Mr. Stanley had told her last night, Katie, alias Burgundy, had told her, to make a new friend of them, they could put their cattle into the fields this fall, eat the remains, the stalks left in the ground, the dry corn blades and trample them at the same time. And they thought—let bygones be bygones, that are what good Christians do, and so they made a friend out of a murderer, once a murderer.
Cindy was now standing in the old graveyard, where the graves dated back to the 1820s. She looked over again at the harvesting of corn, remembering again the good old days, when her and her brother worked in the fields to bring home money; they were never rich like the Wallace’s though. There was a sense, a feeling you might say, of a poetic atmosphere, a rhythm to harvesting, when the corn was ripe, and they all went into the fields with heavy corn knives, they were but six and seven years old, and cut the stalks of corn close to the ground, they used their right hand, swinging the corn knife, and carried the corn on the left arm. They did it for years on end, until they were fifteen at least. That was back when they were still using horses, some farms were using horses, and the men walked along smoking their pipes and talking, yes there was poetry in it all, not like today, all business and no horses, and weariness on everyone’s face, and no play or horsing around as they say.
It was not only the black man doing the labor, it was the poor white, the children, the nearby town’s boys and girls, and they were the shepherds of the cornfields you could say.
She cleared her throat, saw her brother’s grave, something looked odd, a pipe stuck out of the ground by his grave, over his grave, then she looked up the hill, there was the man on his horse, like in the dream, the nightmare, watching the folks in the cornfields, the apparatus of which the men were on, other machines in the fields, he watched them as they worked, as she stared, and then slowly he turned towards her. She found his stare, less and less appealing, and more difficult to look back at. The noon hour was close at hand, and she wanted to hurry back to the Plantation House to eat, so she told herself.
Cindy stood there thinking, and the man on the horse rode down to her, evidently no one but her could see him, on that huge horse, looking down on her.
“Listen,” he said, “at night, heavily loaded coal trains rumble by, just over the hill, you’ll see the brakeman heave some coal over the fence, large chunks of coal, he does all the time, he don’t realize it will be his death soon, he works a ten-hour shift each day, seven days a week, and heaves that stolen coal for his house, everyday, for an hour or so, it will kill him the stress and strain, he’s fifty-two years old. If you go over there this evening you’ll see him do just what I said; also you’ll see, Charlie, your brother he goes there every night, down along the railroad tracks, he doesn’t know why he does what he does, he’s dead—well, kind of dead, he is suppose to be dead. He is actually in his grave, in a coma. When Frank and Wally died, Frank played a game of chess with me, won the game, and therefore bought himself some time here on this ghostly earth, where he passes by Charlie’s grave each day, rumbling and grumbling. He put a pipe in the ground, it goes down into the wooden casket, the one Charlie is buried in, who remains in that deadly coma, he should be dead, but he keeps him alive, feeds him spiders and worms and all kinds of insects, and keeps him fixed you could say because when he dies, when old Charlie who is suppose to be dead, dies, I will take him, and Frank and Wally, and Abby, all of them, who he has killed, in one way or another, all those who died at the Wallace house, I will put them in chains, and bring them to their destiny, their fate. But a deal is a deal, Charlie has to die a normal death, and he hasn’t, and his spirit is wondering about, like a stray cat. Pull the pipe out and it will end this melodrama!”
Sometimes, and this was one of those times, a piece, a chunk of something is knocked out of ones mind, left blank, as if a train had passed and hit you, and you’re still standing looking at the train passing, it was one of those times, as if daylight was and was no more, as if a window was shut. She looked at the man on the horse, then looked up toward the hillside, saw Charlie walking aimlessly, he was a ghostly figure a perambulating skeleton, a heavily pale ghost, difficulty arose in her—she even questioned her sanity now, I mean, was this an hallucination, did she lose the boundary between reality and imagination—perhaps regard to her religious beliefs, and then she saw Frank—he appeared faltered, shoulders slumping, his body sagging, palms facing down towards hell, as if he wanted to push it away, he was a streak of moonlight, stirring about, he was afraid to come too close to her because, and only because, the man on the horse sat there, it all was a sweeping extravaganza, if he left, then what. A chill crept over her body, her lips became dry, she moistened them with her tongue, and pulled the pipe up with all her strength, and consciously at that moment, her brother’s spirit, like dust soaking into the ground, seeped back into its rightful place, and Frank, silent Frank muttered a few words before the chains of doom, bound him tightly—by the henchmen of hell.
Like a passing moonbeam, all those bodies that were left behind in a ghostly state, were now bound by heavy chains—likewise, now they knew the difference of being moral and dead, and immoral and alive—and she sensed, they would get the same autocratic, atmosphere they deserved.
That evening, Cindy went down to the railroad tracks, watched the man, the one Death, or Doom, or whatever his name was, talked about, watched him toss those large chunks of coal over the fence, his name was Henry Pike, she had learned this when she talked to Death while on his horse, and then she approached Henry, said,
“Sir…Mr. Pike, yes, you (he approached her, his face weary, dark from the coal, his hands black from the coal, sleepy-eyed).”
“How did you know my name?” he asked.
“Death, told me it, he has been watching you for a long time, and he said you will die soon, because of the coal, your heart will give out or perhaps he said lungs, whatever, you will die early, before your time—soon.” She hesitated, and added to her statement her own diagnosis, by saying: “Anthracosis, I would think, coal dust in the lungs, smoking, basically carbon, he didn’t say how or why, he just said to tell you, and by the looks of things, that makes sense.”
Henry held a big hunk of coal in his right hand, both he and she were divided by a fence, a pile of coal lay by her, the coal Henry Pike had thrown over the fence to collect later on and bring home, she saw in his eyes, an overpowering hunger to throw that piece of coal, perhaps Death had told her this to warn him, a gift for a gift, you might say, and she walked away, as he still clung to that piece of coal, he then stiffened his arm, and straight it went backwards, and Cindy closed her eyes, stopped, heard the piece of coal hit the ground, and then a thud, a gruff voice broke the silence, then she saw Death on top of the hill, with a large chain. As he rode by, he said,
“You see, I tried to push the mud away, where now he lay, but he just wouldn’t have it, he’s like a fish to a hook with a worm on it, he just couldn’t resist.” (It was as if Death himself was tired of collecting bodies, or could it be she thought: Death had a sympathetic site to him.)
† And Death looked at Cindy Codden in the eyes, eye to eye, almost shoulder to shoulder, said with a most serious voice:
“Do not stay in the Stanley house—the smell of blood is strong on you, you reek with death, go home, make haste for your name is in my book.”
And when Cindy Codden was about to leave, her car wouldn’t start, she found Amos to look at it, check it out, and it was evening, and all the stores were closed, and Amos couldn’t get the parts he needed until morning, and Cindy resting on the porch, remained waiting. She had full intentions of not remaining there.
And as she waited, now deep in her sleep, she fell even deeper into a deadly sleep, and she remembered what Death had told her, and she was ready to go—she told herself, just waiting for the car to be fixed, for Amos to wake her up and say, ‘okay Miss Codden, the car is fixed’, and then she was going to go, go as soon as Amos was finished with the car, but Amos had gone, and she remained in that deep sleep, as he could not fix the car until morning, and Mrs. Stanley had left her sleep, figuring she could go in the morning. But when you allow people to take charge of your life, that is what they do, and honest and fair, was Amos and Mrs. Stanley—that is to say, they had no bad intentions, but nonetheless she fell to sleep, on the porch, and there she stayed, and subject to the elements, and the fate of each person who allows the other to take charge of their lives. Had she given instructions to wake her, or had set an alarm clock next to her, things might have been different, I don’t think it possible, but who’s to say, perhaps so, but her brain didn’t think of it.
She said to herself, “What a strange dream,” it was of a wolf’s face, too much for the mind to fully acknowledge, but the jaw and the mouth and the hot breath and the teeth showed up in the strangest way, “What a strange dream,” she said, and then a soldier showed up, it was an old WWI veteran, Mr. Abernathy, she recognized his picture, Caroline Abernathy had showed her once his picture, he had died in 1947, and it was 1967, twenty-years had passed, and she (thought, what a memory I have) then said to him, “You also are in this strange dream of mine!” Not expecting a response.
“Death was embarrassed to tell you—so Death sent me, to tell you, you are dead, this is not a dream.”
And then she thought of Mr. Pike, said aloud to her dead-self, “No, I simply fell to sleep, I am going to a hotel, as Death warned me.”
“No, you are dead, a wolf pack came while you were sleeping on the porch, and killed you, ripped out your throat…they are at this moment eating you, you don’t feel a thing because you’ve been numbed by your own body chemistry (it all was in a flash of cold and violescent light, she was becoming formless, flying evanescent images, surrounded her, as did this curious guest)” said the old soldier, “just like that.”
She, Cindy, looked in a state of contemptuous unbelief: to die like this, how unnatural, she thought—trying to pull her formlessness back into some kind of outward appearance, before eternity and its phantoms cast her into utter annihilation. (The force emitted by the molar teeth of the wolves, cracked her bones, one after the other, she could hear them, even in her sustained vapor like energy, Death was again, weirdly sympathetic, so Death felt, but not sympathetic enough to appease her.)
She felt it was completely criminal, miscast, condemned before her time, condemned for a simple failure to detour her schedule to a different destination—a hotel was on her mind. She felt as if she was a delayed rocket, and the fuse was relit, and the old soldier said, “We are, are we not, such puny creatures.”
First—in order—came disdain then derision, then alarm, then anger, rage, anxiety and last fury, fury because Death was inflexible (or was he?). And then Cindy vanished, like the flash of an antelope crossing a midnight street when the car lights hit its tail—becoming no more than a flicker in the dark, in some abstract time zone, joining the whole civilizations that had elapsed, been long forgotten, traveling in some eternal orbit, conceivable where she ended up, I don’t know.
She thought she could wrestle with the Angel of Death—like Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God, if not physically, mentally, and by such, found out his weaknesses, but in this case, with Cindy, the Angel of Death, found out Cindy’s weakness without wrestling and did not show up, he had given in, in advance that is, and there really was no more to be said, and she brought on her own punishment, and Death was tired.