Hang My Head and Cry
By Elena Santangelo
WHO'LL BE A WITNESS?
"I have been forty years a slave and
forty years free and would be here forty years more to have equal rights for all."
2, 1871 - Churchill, East of Stoke, Virginia
Fire. That's how I describe it to Preacher Moses. Wasn't all yellow like a
regular blaze, not at first. The belly of these flames be glowing eerie blue,
and they dance atop the church floor without consuming, like that bush in the
Bible what Preacher tell us 'bout. I heared a fierce wind, too, but didn't
feel more than the summer breeze where I stood, and I smelled the breath of
the devil hisself, sweet and tempting as the candy sticks Mama sometimes bring
me from Fletcher's Drug Store.
By the time I wake up everybody and we all come
running back up the hill, the night was lit up brighter than noon and the
church be already half gone. No hearth fire ever burned that fast or fierce.
This morning Preacher stand listening to me and
surveying the smoldering mound that only yesterday served as our church,
supper hall, schoolhouse, and general gathering place. In the first light of
day, the charred wood be shiny as the satiny coat on Colonel Gilbert's black
"You've never seen a whole building burn, Mance,"
Preacher say. "They all go up that quickly. This church was built of old
boards, already dried out. Good tinder."
"But I seen the horseman," I told him.
"The one from Pockalisp."
"The Apocalypse," he corrected. "And
what you saw, not seen, was one of those same white men who always ride out
here to cause trouble."
Preacher Moses ain't often wrong, so I questioned my
own eyes first. True, I seen only one horseman, not four like in the Bible.
Also true, both horse and rider be covered with plain white sheets, like the
five men what rode out here the night 'fore the last election and gave old
Uncle Henry such a whipping as he ain't walked right since. We all knew four
of those men be the three Harris brothers and Jack Soyers, on account we
recognized their voices, though the sheriff say he can't accuse them since
none of us actually seen their faces.
But last night's rider never spoke and, fact was,
nobody but me seen him close up this time, so Preacher Moses was just
assuming. I shut my eyes, picturing the horseman again as he tossed his torch
through the church doorway, and I felt sure something be different about that
"Go home, Mance," the preacher say to me.
"Get some sleep."
My eyes felt heavy from being up all night, and
scratchy from all the smoke--like a pair of rusty horseshoes was weighing down
my lids--but I didn't want to miss anything important. "You calling a
meeting tonight, like you did last time?"
Preacher Moses faced me then, and I can tell he
weren't pleased. "How do you know about that?"
"I seen you and some of the menfolk late that
night, walking out toward where them Rebel graves sit looking over the river.
Heard you tell everybody they had to go vote, and not let white trash scare
The preacher's jaw got stiff as the statue of George
Washington in front of the courthouse down in Stoke. "The laws are on our
side, Mance. The Fifteenth Amendment. The two Force Acts. The Ku Klux Klan Act
only last April. President Grant'll send the army down here if it keeps up.
Voting's the only way we're going to stay free, the only way we can put
colored men in the legislature to vote for more laws to help us. You know
"Yessuh, I do." I also knew that laws
didn't seem to mean much where us dark folk were concerned. True, them first
horsemen didn't make good their threats after our men voted, but that was only
'cause the very next night, their ringleader Jack Soyers met his Maker. They
say he was throwed by his horse down on the Orange Turnpike, where it passes
by what's left of the battle trenches. Uncle Henry say Yankee ghosts spooked
Preacher Moses hunkered down to look me in the eye,
then reached up and touched his warm, moist fingers to the skin above my left
eyebrow, where I got a birthmark the size and shape of a robin's egg.
"The Lord placed His thumbprint on you, Emancipation Jackson, so I know I
can trust you. I need you to stay with your mama tonight, to protect her, in
case those riders come back. Will you do that, Mance?"
I promised I would. Them Yankee ghosts might not be
so obliging this time.