On a Summer Night in Selma, an Eerie Carnival Comes to Town

The rope dropped heavy over her head and tightened around her throat, crushing her windpipe. Beau McConlin turned and dragged her behind him, out of the field and back down the road toward the white men whooping and firing off rounds into the night. They had hogtied the slowest of Sissy’s beloveds and hauled them into the back of their pickups.

The asphalt scraped her knees and palms as she crawled after Beau, eyes on the road. She thought, This time it’ll be my babies and my mama sitting in the parlor crying while Mr. Macy or Duke Benny or Pastor Spinner stood on the other side of the screen door, hat in hand. How many times had one of them stood on a doorsill with their mouths full of the worst thing they could say? There wasn’t a single person in Dallas County who had not gotten that news or given it. She wouldn’t have a proper funeral. There’d be no body to bury. Sissy choked on a sob. Her throat was so swollen she couldn’t swallow. She yanked at the rope. She wanted him to shoot her and be done with it. No cells under the cells for her, none of whatever Beau and his men did to women they took down there.

She closed her eyes and braced for the kick in the ribs, or the rifle shot. Nothing. The rope had gone slack. She raised her gaze. Up ahead by the trucks, a golden light pulsed, a cloud of gilded smoke. A Negro man in old-fashioned brogues and serge britches walked out of the light. The Hundred froze like that statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest they were always hanging around in the cemetery. Now they were every bit as immobile as he was. Their mouths hung open in wide O’s, here a line of brown chaw drool streaming down a slack cheek, waxy and white in the headlights. Beau had fallen over on his side with his eyes open like a dead beef. Only he was breathing hard and raggedy.

Sissy got to her feet. Every part of her hurt. Down the road, a dozen of her people limped out from the edge of the wood. Nobody spoke, even the crickets were stilled. The gilded cloud from which the stranger stepped shrunk to a golden egg and shined on the side of his face like a sun. It followed him as he moved from truck bed to truck bed, untying people. Sissy raised her good arm in a wave like she knew the fellow. For the rest of her life, she’d never be able to explain how he was like her own lost brother and father, and like her mother waiting back at home and her grandparents who had died long before Sissy was born — all the generations of the lost, back and back. Every step she took toward him, her arm ached a little less. Her chest opened to the night air. What relief, what a sweetness came over her, like a hand on a cheek. The others felt it, too, and kicked off the netting like it was a bit of annoying string.

Mr. Macy and Jordeen roared up with Duke and the others behind. They screeched to a stop, ready to shoot or be shot. The stranger hopped off the last truck bed and waved toward the white men fallen to their knees, sagging at their middles like sacks of cotton. Duke Benny, he always had a word to say, especially when he shouldn’t, called out, “Who are you?” But the stranger had already turned and was walking down the road toward Sissy.

“Ma’am,” he said. “You ought to take that thing off,” pointing at the noose.

He was slow-spoken and old-timey, with a deep, reedy voice like Uncle Jonah, who had died in Sissy’s childhood, who they said was 110 and had lived through the worst and best of everything. The stranger took a small black tub from his pocket and sat it on the road a few feet in front of her. “This’ll fix everybody up nice. You only need a dab,” he said. He passed her so closely she must’ve seen his face, but she never could recall it, not even in the instant after he walked by.