Petal, Mississippi, 1956
Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely. The two-week bake of August sun beginning to mask its humiliation, blending the old man's emission to a color like that of rusted girder. On a day not spent dealing with death, Even would have stopped one more time to wonder over the bigger insult: that Canaan's middle-aged forehead got split by glass and bled out, or that the bottle bearing skin and blood soared over a rail and dropped into the water that he loved. Death or no, Even's suspicion was the same as two weeks back: both. Both were equally bad.
Patting for a shirtfront pocket that wasn't there, he fixed a mark on the sun and gauged the time later than normal by half an hour; summed the earth's indifferent swing as more proof of inconsequential man. On an ordinary day he would have stood still in the spot -- left foot in Hattiesburg, right foot in Petal -- and considered the river Leaf. The way the trees leaned in low as if made curious by their reflection. The way those leaning trees formed a diminishing edge that followed the water like the furrow of a snake. On a day less strained he would have made a box of his hands and peered through like a blindered horse, feeling less overwhelmed by the viewing of segments. He had never known such colors. Never dreamed brown was such a rainbow. He'd always thought of brown as brown, the color of burnt toast or worn-out shoes. But after months on end he'd learned to parcel out the values into new shades fast approaching the limit of his imagination -- Ten-Minute Tea. Steeped-Too-Long Tea. Barely Tea. Wet Bark. Sun-Baked Bark. Old-as-Sin Bark. Old Soggy Leaves. Just-Dropped Leaves. Fresh Wet Leaves. And these were just the browns. He was yet to go on to green, which he was just now beginning to see.
Sniffing the air, he drew in smells of hot grease and pork. Meat grilling somewhere inside Petal's boundaries. Still on the bridge, he searched the water, hopeful for a rainbow in spite of the approach of suppertime, spying out travel-blackened logs lying like sleepers inside a purple shade, but no rainbow. Too late for that. The sun so low, brown was just plain brown again. He glanced over once, saw a vague tea-colored ripple -- catfish probably -- and shrugged. Willie Brackett's blood was to his undershirt, red soaking in and turning stiff in the breeze, brushing against his arm like a crusty leaf. He walked on. Glanced up once to a maroon sun. Glanced back down again.
When Even passed under the caution light at Central and Main, he saw Canaan sitting on the warm deck of the loading dock of the Feed and Seed. Leaning against the wall, his shades on his bony nose, Canaan had put aside the bandage he'd worn for two weeks. On approach, Even saw the scar was healing up to that of question mark tilted to its side and he wondered over it. Canaan didn't stop reading. Just said from behind newsprint as Even approached, "I do say, Even Grade, somebody dead? Or Hercules Powder givin' overtime to their most talkative nigger? Which is it?"
Canaan looked up. Sometimes when he was startled he took on a resemblance to that of dried-up mummy and that's how he looked then. His mouth frozen open inside a face so lined, tears or sweat or blood would never have a choice in direction. "Thy God, who?"
"Two somebodies -- Willie Brackett and James Evans. You got something cold?"
Canaan handed him a green bottle and a slice of hard cheese. Sitting down to the edge of the loading dock beside a man old enough to be his father, Even bit into the cheddar and drank deep from his Coca-Cola. Canaan folded up his newspaper, crossed his arms over his chest, waiting. Realizing nothing would be coming out quick, he pushed his glasses up on his nose and said, "I've known Willie's mama since she got that boy -- she ain't gonna make it through this one. Not this time. Lord, what a mess."
Reprinted from Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes. Copyright © 1999 Melinda Haynes. Published by Hyperion. No part of this excerpt can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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