Bobby Lee Carter and the Hand of God
Fifth Place Short Story Contest Winner
When Miss Lena came home from visiting her sister in Jackson and found out Bobby Lee Carter had hanged a man from her sycamore tree, she left the breakfast dishes unwashed in the sink for the first time in her life. She had just poured a second cup of coffee and was fixing to do the kitchen before she unpacked, when Birdie Thompson from across the square came over and told her about what Bobby Lee had done, and Birdie says Miss Lena's mouth went all hard, and she put down her cup in the saucer and walked out the back door. Birdie knew Miss Lena would be mad, but the way she up and left without saying boo, or even pardon me Birdie, just wasn't like her. Birdie sat there in the kitchen for a minute and then through the window she saw Miss Lena come around the side of the house from the garage carrying an ax. Miss Lena went straight to the sycamore tree in her front yard, in her morning housedress and her apron, and Birdie says she almost swallowed her bridgework when she saw Miss Lena set to work chopping that tree down.
The sycamore wasn't the oldest tree on the square, but it was the biggest one, and the shadiest. Everyone knew it, just like they knew the pump in front of the firehouse where kids and dogs and horses could get a drink on a hot day. Before long a couple folks heard the noise of Miss Lena's ax and came out to see what was up, and then it wasn't but a few minutes before the whole town, just about, had heard of it and came drifting over to see for themselves. After all, it's not every day you see a lady like Miss Lena chopping down a tree. Miss Lena wasn't what you would call a little old lady, although she was little, and she was kind of old, at least she wasn't young, being about 60 at the time I'd guess. But she was most definitely a lady. Nobody had ever seen her do anything the least bit unladylike or even anything more strenuous than weeding in her garden. Some people said that her being out there with the ax was the first time they had ever seen her outside her home without gloves on.
Miss Lena's house, that used to be her daddy's house, Colonel Briggs -- just The Colonel everyone called him -- was pretty much in the center of the block, on Johnston Street, and it was the biggest house on the square. The bank sat right across the square from Miss Lena's, on Ewell, and the courthouse was in the middle of Main. So pretty much everyone who had business downtown could see that something was going on at the sycamore tree, just like they could see something was going on when Bobby Lee hung the man.
It was a colored man Bobby Lee hung, Toby Green's nephew, who didn't live here, but over the next county. They said he'd been messing with the Collins girl, and maybe he had and maybe he hadn't, but he gave Bobby Lee some words about it when Bobby Lee asked him, or so Bobby Lee said. Of course, who hadn't messed with that Collins girl? as the Sheriff said. The Sheriff, when he got back, tried to explain it to Miss Lena. He said that it was a shame the boy spoke up the way he did and made Bobby Lee angry but still, he allowed, you couldn't hang a man for that. Miss Lena said Bobby Lee couldn't hang a man for anything, and neither could she, because she and Bobby Carter weren't the law, and didn't the Sheriff care about that? The Sheriff said he'd arrest Bobby Lee as quick as anything if he thought for one minute he could find a jury in that county that would convict him. Miss Lena said if the men in the county were too cowardly to bring Bobby Lee Carter to justice, well then God would do it, but He sure wouldn't appreciate having to do the Sheriff's work for him.
But all that was later. Meanwhile, the crowd got pretty big. After a while even the colored folks started coming around to see. They didn't talk to anyone, but they watched Miss Lena just as close as the white folks did. Closer, maybe; the white folks looked at Miss Lena like she'd gone crazy and they didn't know what she might do next; the colored people looked at her like they knew.
Before too long even Bobby Lee got wind of what Miss Lena was doing and came over to see for himself. He thought it'd be fun to rile Miss Lena a little, I guess; the Sheriff wasn't back in town yet and no one else ever stood up to him much when he'd been drinking. No one said anything to him this time, either. The colored men tightened up ranks a little when he showed up, and their women called the children close to them, but they stayed watching Miss Lena. Maybe they felt like they were protecting her from Bobby Lee. Or maybe her being there with that ax made Bobby Lee look a little less frightening to them. Maybe both, some.
"Lookit old Miss Lena!" Bobby Lee said. "I thought the boys were pullin' my leg but they sure were right! Choppin' down her daddy's sycamore tree!" He spit into the pile of chips around the tree. "I guess you heard I hung a black boy in this here tree last week, Miss Lena. Don't you think your daddy would be proud of me?"
Miss Lena didn't look at him. She kept chopping.
"Boys, I guess Miss Lena just hates black folks so much she can't stand to have a tree in her yard that's been touched by one of 'em. So she's gonna cut it down! Say, Miss Lena, why don't you take that old tree and build us a gallows so's we can hang them right, hey? What do you say? Must be a lot of wood in that old tree. Watcha gonna do with it? Build a nigger funeral parlor?"
Miss Lena still didn't say anything. Bobby Lee kept on. "Come on, Miss Lena," he said, "what you gonna build outta that tree when you get it cut down?"
Then Miss Lena let the ax rest on the ground for a minute while she looked straight up into Bobby Lee's eyes. Nobody said anything. Bobby Lee just stared at her with a big stupid grin on his face, like he was enjoying himself. Finally, Miss Lena looked up into the branches of the sycamore tree, waving green and shady in the breeze, and she said, "I am going to build your coffin, Bobby Lee." And then she hefted up that ax like it weighed just nothing at all and went back to chopping down her sycamore tree.
She did a good job too. She didn't haggle the notches and she lined it up just right to fall parallel to the street, so traffic could get through and none of the houses were bothered. That sycamore had a pretty good lean to it about twenty feet up so it wasn't any cakewalk to make it fall right. But Miss Lena did it. I don't know how she ever learned about felling trees but the old Colonel knew some about everything and maybe he taught her. Nobody gave her any advice, which shows you something unusual was going on, because there is nothing people like more than standing around giving advice while someone else works. People talked a little, quietly, amongst themselves, but nobody said anything to Miss Lena. Nobody offered to help. Bobby Lee drifted off somewhere and got drunker.
Someone did call out "There it goes!" when the tree finally fell, and then a sort of a sigh went up from everyone when it lay still on the ground. But Miss Lena didn't even take a breather then; she just started lopping the branches. By this time it was getting on for evening and someone built a bonfire out of the smaller branches so she could see to work. I don't know who did that, but once it was started everyone kept it going. Black folks and white folks kept putting branches on it all night long. She worked most of the night, and when she had the trunk lopped she put her ax away in the garage and went around to Scott MacPhearson's farm and borrowed his wheel horse, the Belgian, and drove him over to her house. She hitched Ali Baba up to that tree all by herself and hauled it over to the mill and had it sawed and planed that very morning, and when the lumber was delivered the next day, she sent word to Bobby Carter to tell him she was fixing to build his coffin now and did he want to be measured or should she just estimate?
He didn't come, so she had Jim, her maid Ida's husband who hired out some as a handyman, built it by eye. And then she put the coffin right out on her front porch. Jim told everyone he'd built it kind of roomy since Bobby Lee was on the stout side, but that it better get used quick because sycamore tends to warp something terrible. Jim was a good hand a carpentry, so he ought to know. For a while people would come around and look at the coffin on Miss Lena's porch. She put it in the corner between the swing and her rocking chair, and when people came to call they would sit on the porch with Bobby Lee's coffin between them and visit.
Probably everyone would have forgotten about the whole thing in time but for Bobby Lee Carter's dropping dead in a bar outside of town two weeks later. Some people said his heart got him and some said he'd been poisoned by a gambler from out of town, but no one around here ever said he'd been called home too soon. They buried him in Miss Lena's sycamore coffin, because his brother upstate who had all the money said he didn't give a damn what happened to Bobby Lee's body any more than he cared what happened to his immortal soul. The whole town went to the funeral, hoping, Birdie said, to get a whiff of real brimstone. Even the colored folks, who had just been to Toby Green's nephew's funeral two weeks before, where there wasn't one white person.
Why Bobby Lee went so quick and the boy he hanged had to suffer so, no one knew. The minister took his text for the service from Luke 23, about the two thieves who died on Calvary. I think his point was that they were both sinners and Jesus died for them and so He had died for Bobby Lee too, but the whole thing kind of fell flat. The preacher could tell, too; at the end he gave up trying to make sense of it and just said it was the hand of God working among us. Some people said if it had been God's hand the sycamore tree would have just fallen over on Bobby Lee all by itself. Maybe they had something there; Miss Lena's hands were the ones with the blisters. But like the minister said, He works in mysterious ways.
All Miss Lena ever would say was that God didn't need to make evil folks suffer before they died, seeing what they had to look forward to after. She used the rest of the wood from the sycamore for a hen coop in her backyard. It did warp pretty bad but the chickens didn't care. Miss Lena planted a fig tree out where the sycamore had been, and it's grown up real nice; it gives a lot of shade and it isn't tall enough to hang anyone from. Underneath it there is a bare patch of ground where the kids and dogs have worn all the grass away, lying there in the cool while the summer sun beats down around. After a while they get up and get a drink from the pump at the firehouse, and then they go back to playing tag.