By the Way of Morning Fire

man and donkeys in field

Stephen March

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 11 No. 1, "'We'll Never Quit:' Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens fight for clean water." Find more from that issue here.

In the winter, the large, black, wood-burning stove downstairs in the kitchen, a pot-bellied stove, and the fireplace in the front bedroom were the only sources of heat, the only places to go and take the stiff chill out of their toes. Before going to school in the mornings, they would take time to go into the yard and chop the short logs of dry wood into smaller, slender pieces to feed the dimming fire in the stove. Holding the logs with one hand while placing the axe in the top side, the children took turns banging the wood against the huge trunk which served as a table until the log split neatly down the middle. On those cold winter mornings the only sound was that of the wood banging against the makeshift table, and their grandfather working the phlegm out of his throat with long, hacking coughs. Once they were making their way through the woods to school, they could look back at their house and see the smoke spiralling upwards from the chimney by the kitchen stove.

Moses Lee was in charge of his younger brother and sister. When they reached the one-lane highway that snaked through the county, Moses Lee was the one to take their hands in his whether they could hear cars approaching the hidden curves or not. He was responsible for them. In the warm days of late spring when the shrubbery growth made it difficult to see the black snakes that habitually made their way through the pine forests, Moses Lee was the one who carried the long stick and steered the babies away from the serpents. Moses Lee answered questions, parceled out the syrup and honey biscuits, found shelter in unexpected rain, and suffered the wrath of his mother for failing to obey. Of all his duties, the questions were the most difficult, and his sister Elvira the most inquisitive.

“Moses Lee, why our Daddy got to be still using mules when everybody else’s papa got tractors? He gonna kill hisself.”

“Daddy just like workin hard, Vira. You know that.”

“That ain’t no excuse, Moses Lee. You just tryin to ignore me. I ain’t no fool.”

“You ain’t old enough to be nothin, Vira, fool or otherwise. You know what Mama told you about usin that word.”

“I’m just talkin bout myself. Ain’t no wrong or right in that.”

“I ought to tell Mama.”

“I sure hope we don get stuck wit you fore we get grown. You one contrary colored boy!”

“By the time y’all get grown, I’ll be grown and gone, thank the Lord.”

Although he never openly admitted it, Moses Lee too felt his father was an embarrassment, an accident which defied logical explanation. Summers, when everyone else had long departed the field and returned to the house for the afternoon break, they could look out into the long rows of tobacco and see Lincoln Thomas winding his way around the end of the row, turning the mule slowly and positioning the sled to make another trip down the row, catching the leaves his younger son, Jesse, threw in playfully. Moses Lee too wondered why he kept mules in a time when men looked forward confidently to traveling to other stars. Sometimes, he felt a deepening urge to leave his limited world and step forward in time to the real world that had long since marched on. He’d sit on the porch and pour water on his naked feet to wash away the stain of the clay, and mourn his security.

Summer afforded the luxury of wishing, but winter forced a painful pragmatism. If the wood was not prepared properly and in an ample supply before they left for school, it severely hampered their mother’s work of cooking and cleaning. If the hog slop wasn’t thickened and taken down to be thrown in the troughs, the chore became another in a long list of overly physical tasks for Lincoln, who was already addicted to exhaustion. If they didn’t go to school, they might be denied the chance to know, to understand, to perceive.

The forest was Moses Lee’s confidant. He took long, solitary walks to sort and straighten out the questions that grew to burrs inside him — sticking prickly, indecipherable prods against the routine of working, schooling and thanking God for the opportunities that had come to his life. Walking along, kicking the twigs and fallen pine needles, the wondering would bunch inside his stomach as he cursed the air whistling coldly about his ears. He kicked trees, sent small stones hurtling into the air with makeshift bats, and stoned squirrels shooting past; all the while pondering alternatives to becoming an adult in the same forest, trapped by the questions that brought him there now. The world of televisions and power steering, of foreign languages and vastly different people, of distinctly different and beautiful ways of living — all the possibilities were becoming rapidly more inviting and inaccessible, more troubling.

Then he would turn to see the spiralling smoke from his mother’s stove where she prepared the Sunday dinner. She hummed a tune and occasionally sang one, moved back and forth between the steaming pots on the stove and the dining room table where she placed the dishes and Bible. As she worked, Lincoln Thomas sat in the living room with his father filling rolling paper with Prince Albert tobacco. Moses Lee saw them in his aborted dreams in the forest, and turned homeward to the hot food.

At the end of a narrow path through the woods bordering the corn field, there was a small store with a single gas pump in the middle of a dirt lot. The store was owned by the Ingrams, a white family that also owned a feed store nearby and controlled most of the public offices in the county. Moses Lee and his father would occasionally walk to the store together. Lincoln Thomas made these walks opportunities to educate his son about the perils of becoming a man.

One day in the spring of the last year Moses Lee spent with his family, he and his father walked to the store to buy a new box of Prince Albert tobacco and two Coca-Colas. Old Man Ingram was sitting out front on the cement ledge facing the gasoline pump.

“Good evening, Lincoln.”

“How you, Mr. Ingram sir?”

“Weren’t for the gout and this crazy government, I’d be all right. Y’all go on in, Lonnie’ll take care of you.”

Lonnie Ingram was the dullest of the six boys of Old Man Ingram. The other five were well established in their own lines of work, either some profession or government office in the county. Moses Lee had heard that one of them had a statewide office. But Lonnie was hateful as a snake and extremely moody. He would often lash out against whoever happened along when he was low. Sometimes it was his father, but more often the victim was a poor soul who could ill afford to retaliate. After Lonnie had placed the Prince Albert on the counter, Lincoln Thomas asked him about the two Coca-Colas.

Leaning over the counter on his fists, Lonnie slowly reminded him, “Lincoln, you know damn well that’s a white man’s drink.”

Lincoln was taken aback. He had been concentrating on the lecture he was preparing to deliver to Moses Lee about the importance of the company a young man keeps, how there were many different kinds of women, and about the important power money wielded in most circles. He had been busy sorting all the thoughts that swirled inside him when Lonnie wiped the slate absolutely clean. It had been a good five years since Old Man Ingram had stopped insisting that blacks buy orange or grape — anything but a Coca-Cola. He looked immediately at the door and saw the shadow of the old monarch brushing a freckled hand past his face.

“What you lookin out there for, boy? I asked you a question, damn it!”

“You didn’t ask nothin, Lonnie. You just told me.”

That said, Lincoln turned to leave when he heard the old man say, “Now go on, Lincoln. You know how the boy is. Just go on over to the soda chest and get you and your boy two grape sodas. We’s all out of orange.”

Lincoln motioned Moses Lee to the chest. Inside there were three dozen orange sodas freshly packed in ice. Moses fished for two grape sodas and opened them with the bottle opener fastened on the corner of the chest just above the Coke logo written in white, cursive lettering. Without saying a word, Lincoln paid Lonnie and left.

On the way home there was nothing either of them could find to say. For Moses Lee every word was conjured, then caught in a feverish bubbling that started in the corner of his eyes and filtered down to his stomach where it curled and struck out at his heart with a long, poisonous tongue. Halfway down the dirt path, Lincoln picked up the pace and left Moses behind. He looked up to see his father’s overalls flapping against the dirt and raising small clouds of dust around his feet.

May was the time for Moses Lee to get used to the sun again, time to write letters to his cousin in Washington and ask him to bring a fresh batch of books, time to watch the ground for the first bursting of new crops in the fields and the multicolored flowers in his mother’s garden. It was time to forget that an ordered world could be woefully upset by such small things as Cokes and privilege.

That time past, another came, and in June, Moses Lee’s uncle, William Thomas, came to visit. As he knelt with his family around the dining room table to say their Sunday prayer, Moses Lee heard the occasional grinding bump of a rear chassis against the high, grassy sections of the path that led to their house. He was almost sure. Then he peeked through clasped hands to see a shiny automobile approaching the house.

Excitement overruled propriety.

“Daddy, here come Uncle William wit a new car.”

His father pinched him behind the ear to remind him that his grandfather was still saying grace. The eldest of the Thomases had not broken his stride a bit. He was thanking God for everything.

“For the strength Dear God against all kinds of trials. The crops planted safely in the field, the glory of a bright mornin, Lord for the patience we thank you. As we are about to partake of this meal Jesus . . .”

Lincoln held his son’s ear tightly, and Moses knew from experience that he dare not scream or cry out. When Uncle William walked into the house, he knew instinctively what was taking place and held his family at the doorway with bowed heads until Grandfather finished.

After they had finished dinner, Lincoln and his brother walked out to the yard to examine the new car, a 1968 Buick Electra. They walked around the car several times before popping the hood to examine the car’s heart — the engine.

Moses Lee sat on the back porch and talked with his cousin Bobby, a tall, lean muscular boy of 18 years, just two months older than Moses. He was wearing a pair of expensive-looking trousers and a cotton shirt with a large collar and blue cufflinks at the end of long, starched sleeves.

Moses Lee questioned him about the long-sleeved shirt. “Mighty hot for that shirt, ain’t it, Bobby?”

“No. Well, it’s cool up North. Don’t you know nothin, boy? The further north you go, the cooler it gets. Damn, boy, you just about 18 and nearly retarded.”

“No such thing, goddamn it. Why didn’t you answer my letter?”

“What letter?”

“I wrote you two or three weeks ago about some more books.”

“That mail got a long way to go too, you know. Washington is a long way off. You ought to read some more mature shit anyway.”

“Why you cuss so much, Bobby? Mama is right there in the house, and you out here tryin to be mannish. Our papas will cut us too short to shit wit them straps they carry. Even though we is 18.”

In the past Moses Lee had enjoyed Bobby’s visits, but now his cousin bored and angered him. As Bobby explained how he was making headway with a senator’s niece, Moses Lee stared meekly at the ground in front of him, making designs in the dirt with a small twig. It was one lie after another — a college scholarship, wealthy friends, liquor-drinking sprees and more. Moses Lee took a deep breath, swelling his chest till it seemed it would burst, and then walked away leaving Bobby to boast to the chickens and the huge, gray cats snoozing in the afternoon shade.

Bobby shouted after him, “You dummy, big country dummy!”

Moses Lee turned immediately and replied, “This country dummy’ll lay a whippin on your black ass you’ll never get over.”

“Well then, do it, dummy.”

“Bring your black city ass down here and get it.”

Moses Lee was standing near the wood pile, and as Bobby approached, he grabbed the big axe that stood lodged in the tree stump. With his cousin chasing him down toward the pine forest, Bobby screamed for his father.

“Help! Daddy! Moses Lee done lost his mind!”

When they reached the edge of the woods, Moses Lee took a wild swing at his cousin and missed. The axe hit a tree instead and stuck there so tightly that Moses Lee lost sight of his prey as he fought to remove it. Still struggling with the axe, Moses Lee felt a sudden, sharp, cutting sensation across his back. It was his father applying discipline. His Uncle William shot past him into the woods after Bobby with his belt swinging wildly beside him.

Moses Lee hollered to Bobby, “Motherfucker!” and his father slapped him alongside his cheek so hard his mouth began to bleed — an outburst of his father’s anger he had never known.

The remainder of the visit was torment for the two cousins. For two weeks Uncle William’s family remained at the farm, helping Lincoln in the fields during the day and riding down the dirt path in the Electra to seek out other kin in the evening. Moses disowned the whole crew, scornfully referring to them as the DC bunch. Almost daily, Vira would approach him as he sulked on the back porch or under the apple tree on the side of the house.

“Moses Lee, if you hadn’t been so hot on being a man, you wouldn’t a got your hind whooped so bad in front of everybody. You such a fool even though you my brother. Moses Lee, you listenin to me, fool?”

But Moses Lee had stopped talking. Now all he did was sit and consider the meaning of Coca-Colas, climate control and power windows, the lofty arrogance of white skin and distance — the space between here and the North, the space between what ran through his heart and the jumbled mush that came from his mouth when he had tried to speak of his feelings. He had hidden his true emotions about so many things for so long that he had difficulty understanding such awesome and fearful things as the hate and lust he felt when he wanted to kill his cousin — to good feelings that surged through him without legitimate provocation. Moses Lee wanted to be free of restraint, to leave.

In August Lincoln Thomas began preparations for the tobacco harvest. He assembled his makeshift sleds that were used to haul the large, waxy leaves back to the barn where they were hung to dry. From the family of a neighbor, he hired two teen-aged boys to help him with the work. It was the-first time he’d had to resort to outside labor. In the past Moses Lee had been able to do the work of three boys like them, but now he just sat around the edges of the house, chasing the shade and staring quietly out into space. Lincoln and his wife consulted a midwife who examined Moses Lee and declared him insane.

But she was wrong. A vibrant host of images flashed across the forefront of Moses Lee’s mind — images that he now gave all the attention he had denied them for years. Behind the blank stare was a soul that smiled vengefully and plotted its escape.

It came that same August. His family trusted him as they would have a small child. Once he was fed and clothed for the day, they left him to his own devices as they went about the work of maintaining the farm. He just walked away quietly in the heat of one routine workday, unseen. He didn’t bother to take anything but the 20 dollars he’d saved working for Old Man Ingram. After making his way to the highway which connected the county with the North Carolina state line, he turned southward, and hailed a pickup that approached him after he had gone nearly two miles. There was a small light-skinned black man sitting behind the wheel.

He asked Moses Lee slowly, “Where you goin, boy?”

Moses Lee hadn’t talked in two months and it was a strange sensation to form his mouth for something other than eating or blowing leaves across the water in the huge tubs his mother kept filled in the back of their house. But he answered, “South. I’m goin south.”

“You in the South, boy.” “I know, but I’m goin deeper — where it’s a little richer. Closer to the fire.”