The full moon hung heavy over the water, its orange belly fat with the harvest. Irene had looked forward to this all day, her nightly ritual, the one that had started by accident on that first May night as she had rowed across to the Evergreens. Back then her arms had been too weak to get her there and her shoulders had ached in their joints, so she had secured the oars in their locks and leaned back into the prow of the wooden dingy, letting the boat drift. She had charted the stars spinning overhead—Cygnus, Virago, the Ursas, Orion chasing them, bow drawn. She had tracked the moon as it swelled and ebbed across the months, pulling the earth’s waters this way and that. By July, she had learned to trace her own humors and flows by the moon’s stately course, its pregnant body leading her spinster frame. Or, she had looked up at the opaque lid of a summer rainstorm. She had let the boat rock in the thunderstorm that had descended upon her Tennessee Valley until her stomach drove her to shore.
Some nights, she tried to remember what the sky here had looked like a scant decade before when she had come for her grandmother’s memorial. That, of course, was before the dam was built and the fields flooded. Now, the town was wired and lit and popped into the twentieth century. Were the stars still as bright now that an ombre glow lit the eastern ridge?
On this October night, she needed to wipe clean the piddling concerns of the store and stock room. She hoped disappear again into the swirl of sky where heaven and nature met.
It was the smell that stopped her. The scent of burned flesh made her turn around, pause with one leg still on land. It lingered on the crisp air, acrid and sulfurous. Underneath it now, she could smell the smoke, heavy and musty like a bonfire smothered in wet leaves and left to age. Behind her, the moon sparked on the water. She nudged the boat back to shore.
She could probably have reached the bricked chimneys in the dark without scuffing her Oxfords. Over these last few months, she’d memorized the wooded path to the forge, to where Peter waited with a picnic spread on a thick blanket, his dog collar and jacket tossed over a branch. He always looked up when she entered the clearing and said, “You came!” as though surprised to see her.
Tonight, though, the familiar forest felt suddenly eerie. She retrieved her Eveready lantern, glad she had changed its battery. She trudged up the mud bank, following the small circle of light. A breeze skittered through her. She wrapped her cabled sweater tighter and wedged the light into the crook of her crossed arms. She stepped into the clearing around the forge.
In her favorite books, the heroines always gasped or fainted when they were surprised or terrified or thrown into a reality so incomprehensible and horrific. But Irene just froze, stared at the half-naked man above her.
His back was to her. He was suspended over the dying embers. His bare feet dangled where the fire once licked. Dark trousers hung off his narrow hips. Her sphere of light caught on his bare shoulders and back, now torn bloody as though he had been caught in a bear’s raking embrace. The thick rope ringed his neck, pushed his head painfully, inexorably to the left. A clean snap at the end, then.
The wind caught him, rotating him slowly. She saw the crotch of his trousers was saturated with blood. Then the tattooed snake curling around his left pec, tongue flickering toward his heart.
Irene fell to her knees. The light dropped. Rolled. She wanted to look for the ink stain along his left index finger. She wanted to see that mark of papers read and graded, letters written, pamphlets drafted. She wanted to confirm that it was him. But she couldn’t raise her head.
Eventually the noises of the forest found her. A shifting in the downed leaves. The creak of empty branches. She couldn’t be found there, kneeling and still. She couldn’t be known as a witness, not when she was horrified rather than jubilant at this vigilantism.
Her legs didn’t work. She fell forward and crawled, out of the clearing and off the path, into the covering darkness.
The one thing that she would never confess, not even to herself when she thought back over this night, was that she got back into her boat, planning to row for home. She first cast off into the splintered moonlight for the safety of the Evergreens and its cracked Corinthian columns, the safety of the island where her grandmother rotted beneath a carved obelisk just up the hillside.
Violet eased the screen door shut, careful not to let it slam behind her. A useless habit tonight. There was no one in her cottage. James wasn’t snoring in their bedroom, safe and tucked away from the world. He was out, again, as he had been for too many nights recently.
She knew her momma and sisters and girl cousins were whispering when she wasn’t in the room. Not that she thought he was actually running around on her. His hands still felt a hair too grasping, wanting, hungry when they touched her. But he wouldn’t stop his nightly work—not for her, not for the children—not even if she begged him. It was time to use that last weapon in her arsenal, even if it made her feel foolish and dirty. She was going to have to make him think she’d leave him and go back to Harlem. Because the men were talking, too, stopping their whispers when she walked in the room. Their words scared her more. She sent the kids to her mother’s, took a nip and pieced together tonight’s costume: robe, scarf, slippers.