Ghost stories aren’t necessarily meant to frighten — often, they’re ways to explain to ourselves the living’s unresolved matters of the heart: old ambitions, old loves, old hatreds. T’s Nov. 15 Travel issue is dedicated to such tales, and includes three short stories inspired by place and written exclusively for the magazine. Below is “The Seventh Crown Players” by Ayana Mathis. Read more in our letter from the editor.
Mrs. Alberta Macy and the Ladies Negro Veterans Remembrance Association held their annual lawn party on a balmy late spring evening despite the threat of rain. Selma’s finest gathered with finger sandwiches and taffeta on the sloping green expanse of her lawn — retired airmen, four Spelman graduates, six nurses and the principals of every school in Dallas County, one of whom had published several articles in The Journal of Negro Education. That year, to mark the half-century (1950!) and promote uplift, Mrs. Macy had expanded her guest list to include some of the more modestly heeled members of the tenant agricultural set, as she called them.
“It’s busting at the seams out there,” said Mrs. Macy’s helper, Ada, puffing through the patio doors with another tray of finger sandwiches. Mrs. Macy had given up counting guests once the partygoers filled the patio and spilled onto the lawn. It’s near perfect, she thought. The air was sweet with wisteria. The ladies’ taffeta rustled gently as they crossed from pergola to patio, greeting this or that new arrival. Mrs. Macy smiled at the loblollies and chinaberries curving around the perimeter of the Macys’ two acres. Order, beauty, civility — small weapons against the evils that threatened to ram at the gates. Mrs. Macy shook her head. Tonight was no occasion for such dark thoughts. Even the rain clouds had cleared to reveal a moon full as a cup of milk.
Mrs. Macy made her way down the lawn with a pitcher of tea for her husband and the others gathered in the barn at the farthest edge of the property. She had not prevailed in persuading them to postpone their meeting. “Just by one night, Eustace!” she’d said to her husband. In the barn, Eustace Macy and the rest had already pulled their shotguns from the loft and laid them across the bales of hay the group used as a table. They stood in an assembly line, with Eustace at the head, dissembling and cleaning the stockpile. Mrs. Macy entered to hear him saying they’d have to go to Demopolis to get the cache left behind in Luke Sill’s bunker.
“How’re his girls?” Mrs. Macy asked. Sweet little things with no parents now that Luke was gone. The oldest was only 14. Mrs. Macy would’ve taken them in herself if she could.
“Betty’s looking after them. Scared half to death and the three of them crowded up in the attic,” Duke Benny said.
The girls would be gone in a matter of days, smuggled to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago before the Hundred could get them. Nobody ever asked Duke where he or the other Pullman porters sent survivors.
Mrs. Macy handed the tea around as a song floated in from the party.
“Is that Sissy Graham?”
“Prettiest voice in the county.”
“Not according to Alberta.” Eustace winked at his wife. “She wants everybody to sound like Marian Anderson.”
Sissy’s liquid alto carried a melody they all knew, as comforting as the smell of bread baking. After the song came a chorus of rough laughter.
“What’s that?” Jordeen Morton paused in her labors.
Mr. Macy chuckled. “Sounds like they spiked the punch,” he said.
“Not that. I thought …” She shrugged and went back to loading the 12 gauge.
Jordeen was a field hand on the Minton place. Never wore anything besides pants and brogues; didn’t even put on a dress when her mama died. Not married either, and a little rakish in a Bessie Smith sort of fashion. Mrs. Macy preferred to ignore the more scandalous whispers. Surely there wasn’t any funny business about Jordeen — it was just that the poor girl had been raised by a passel of rough brothers and uncles.
“Smoke!” Jordeen shouted.
They were up and running, tucking .38s into holsters as they moved quick and quiet along the dark perimeter where the lawn met the woods. The smell was stronger in front of the house. Duke pointed down the road. “The Hundred,” he whispered. Half mile down, Velma Cortleen’s little cottage burned against the indigo sky.
Mrs. Macy ran back to the lawn, “The Hundred!” she cried. The partygoers went silent, the rush of blood rising and beating in their ears where Sissy’s pretty song had been an instant before. Mrs. Macy clapped her hands once, loudly. “Night riders, I said!” Then the sound of shattering glass as the first guest upset her lemonade in a panic. The rest followed, sprinting for the high grass that edged the property, then plunging into forest.
It was not a moment for tears at so silly a thing as a ruined party, but Alberta allowed herself an instant to take in the overturned garden chairs, the plates of half-eaten cake, a pressed powder compact open and wobbling on a table. They take all of our best moments, she thought. Then she squared her shoulders and ran for the house. She and Ada barred the front and back doors, then took their rifles from under the pantry floorboards. The two women kneeled at opposite ends of the bay windows, sights trained on the road. Mr. Macy, Jordeen and the others, three to a vehicle, peeled out of the driveway and rode hard toward the fire.
Moonlight silvered the upper canopy of the trees, but on the forest floor, darkness and hoot-growl night sounds closed around the fleeing partygoers like deep water over a drowning head. Low branches scraped their cheeks and snagged in the ladies’ hair. They followed one another through the underbrush listening for the knocking code on the tree trunks they had all learned as children: three short raps for stop, two for go, four fast for spread and run. Every few minutes, two long knocks sounded so the front line headed straight on for the road on the other side of the woods.
The net caught the first dozen at the waist. Finely razored mesh shredded the women’s dresses and sliced through the men’s ironed slacks. The ones behind tried to free them, but serpentine strands of net twisted around their hands and feet. The white men of Selma’s Hundred Best, as they called themselves, leaned against their car hoods while the people became more tangled, more terrified, their bodies tired and weak from struggling. The smell of blood rose and riled the hounds into frenzied barking. The Hundred — among them the judge, the sheriff, the deputy mayor, the heart doctor at the big hospital in Montgomery — pulled their trucks closer to the tree line and revved their engines. Twenty high beams flashed on in unison. Selma’s sons and daughters dripped blood onto the forest floor as the Hundred dropped bullets into the chambers of their guns. Cl-click, cl-click, cl-click.
About the Art
“There are several places in Alabama that you can consider spooky,” says the artist Tameca Cole, who lives in Birmingham, “so many ghost stories and folk tales.” Cole traveled around the state to find inspiration for the three untitled collages she made exclusively for T Magazine. Her work is also currently featured in MoMA PS1’s “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which explores the art made by people in prisons as well as work by nonincarcerated artists dealing with issues surrounding imprisonment. Cole found art at a young age, and then again much later, while working with the multimedia artist Fury Young and his “Die Jim Crow” project. Largely self-taught (some of her favorite artists include Salvador Dalí, Vincent van Gogh and Romare Bearden), she makes her collages using newspapers, magazines, books and other materials laid over charcoal on paper.
Of her process, Cole says she lets ideas come to her “in a dream-type state,” and once they do, “I automatically know that’s it.” She is respectful in how she assembles her collages. “I don’t want to infringe on anyone, so I cut out small, intricate pieces: I change the face, I change the dress, to make it my own work,” she says. Cole hopes one day to be a full-time artist. “The minute that the art is supporting me, that’s what I want to do,” she says.
Sissy Graham emerged alone from the woods. She had overshot the men and dogs by a quarter mile, glory be. Home was an hour’s walk, half that if she cut across Beau McConlin’s cotton fields, that devil. She stayed low and moved fast along the gully between woods and road. The fields were a scant half-mile down. Her mother would have got word that the Hundred were riding. She and the babies were probably already down in the bunker, worried sick. The two little ones scared and whimpering.
Sissy kept her eyes on the dark, silent fields ahead. Keep your nerve, her father would have said. She was so close! She swallowed the sick feeling rising in her throat, kicked off her party shoes and ran.
A flashlight flicked on behind her.
“Well, now. That you, Sissy? All on your own?”
The beam swept across the field.
“Yeah, surely is. And out so late. Course, I heard you all had a party tonight.”
Sissy wanted to face him, say, Do whatever you’re going to do, Beau McConlin, but she knew better. Every Negro man and woman in Dallas County knew better than to look one of the Hundred in the face at night — they’d stare back at you with their eye whites trembling in the sockets and their pupils shrunk to nothing.
Beau chuckled and pumped his shotgun. Sissy couldn’t bear that Beau McConlin’s thick-tongue drawl would be the last voice she ever heard, that hateful voice she’d heard so many times before: coming around to say he was sorry about her husband’s passing, and sorry about her father’s before that, and her brother, too. Coming around to say he was sure all them acres was just too much for a gal like her and he was willing to take them off her hands, fair and square. Coming around to say there was some nightshade grown into his field from the edge of hers and didn’t she, he was so very sorry to say, owe him a hundred dollars for the steer poisoned from grazing in that very spot. Never took his hat off, and came up on her porch though he wasn’t asked. Always looking all over her land like a man looks at a woman in a back alley when nobody else is around.
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.
The month before, Beau and the other riders took Luke Sill after a camp revival. They stretched the nets along the field’s perimeter and the people piled into them like carp. They have cells under the cells in the jail. Nobody who ever went down in them came up again. Everything they owned — house, land, mules — belonged to one of the Hundred the next week. John Spat riding his tractor all across Luke’s acres like there hadn’t ever been a Luke. Sissy was the last thing between Beau McConlin and 80 acres of deep red dirt her family had owned for a half century. She kept on walking for home.
“May as well turn around and take whatever I got for you. Ain’t that right, Sissy?” Beau said.
Sissy’s people were screaming down the road behind her. “Jim!” a woman’s voice cried. Then, “Mr. George. Please. You know me! You know me and Jim.” The Hundred didn’t bother with hoods.
Sissy kept on. The strength drained from her legs with each step. Her chest heaved like she was breathing through wet cotton.
“Siiiiii-sseeeee,” Beau called in a high singsong, his voice receded as though he had stopped his chase.
Further behind still. She cut into the cotton field, legs bags of wet sand. She couldn’t run, but she wouldn’t stop either. The babies probably hadn’t had any supper. She would stop in the house, get them some little something to put in their stomachs so they could sleep. A hunk of cornbread or —
Beau was after her, boot falls fast and loud on the road.
In a few seconds he was on her, as if he had flown and not run. He dug his fingers into her shoulder, but she kept going. It was the buck knife blade slicing into her upper arm that stopped her, the sudden sear of the stab. She could almost see her own fields from where she stood, holding her arm, blood oozing around her fingers. Don’t turn around.
He hit her between the shoulder blades with his rifle butt, and she went down face-first into a row of cotton buds.
“You always got to make things hard. Every nigger round here, always the hard way.”
Up, girl, Sissy thought. She heaved herself onto her hands and knees. She was going to stand on those lead legs. She was going to keep on for home till he shot her in the back.
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.
Her chest opened to the night air. What relief, what a sweetness came over her, like a hand on a cheek.
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.
A dozen paces down the road, the stranger paused. The golden egg at his shoulder whizzed down the road so fast it trailed orange streaks. The ball of light swooped upward and shattered into fireworks above the treetops. The light burst dimmed to embers, then smoke, and when it had cleared, there, in the center of the lonely road, was a carnival. An empty midway loud with lights, three tents on either side and a stage next to a sky blue truck in the center, along the side of which was printed in gold shimmer: The Seventh Crown.
From the tents, a troupe of Negro players emerged in blackface: Zip Coon with a gold-tipped cane, doing his shiggedy-shag pimp roll walk, and big ol’ Buck with a sausage stuffed down his pants front, Mammy in a head scarf and a pillow for bosoms and Ham and Sam in rags playing a mouth harp and banjo. The players partnered up for the cakewalk, like minstrels always did, or so Sissy had been told by old folks that had seen them years ago; only these minstrels hadn’t blacked up right. They had corked over their whole faces, so there wasn’t a fat slab of clown red lip among them, nor a too-white eye, nor a grin, nor a shuck. Only a solid black mask that glittered under the midway lights like the scales on a king snake.
With a dramatic showman spin, the stranger whirled to face Sissy and the Selma folk. He was blacked up like the other players, his mask shone with the same dull glow. Buck tossed him a top hat. The stranger shouted, loud as any carnival barker that ever was: “Step up! Step right up, boys!”
The light burst dimmed to embers, then smoke, and when it had cleared, there, in the center of the lonely road, was a carnival.
A wet grunting sounded just behind Sissy. She whirled around to find Beau McConlin on his feet, fully restored. The other white men, too, risen from their knees, mopping their sweaty faces with handkerchiefs. Sissy swung the noose at Beau like a whip. Jordeen cocked her pistol and the unarmed Negroes put their fists up to fight. No need. The Hundred passed like they didn’t see them, laughing and jockeying each other, heading for the stranger and the bright lights of the midway.
In the distance, a thousand feet shuffled. The breeze carried a whiff of stale bourbon, night cream, sweat and talcum. A crescendoing murmur as Selma’s white people surged down the road in curlers, in nightgowns, in boxer shorts, sipping glasses of tea, holding Bibles. The herd of them flowed around Sissy and the others like cattle heading for water. They chattered like birds, entranced with each other, and joined the Hundred in front of the blue truck at the center of the midway.
The stranger barked, “That’s right folks. Ain’t no gal like our gal! Full of sprightly pickaninny antics! Ladies and gentlemen …” Topsy hopped down from the truck cab and backflipped up onto the stage. A fine Topsy she was, braids sticking straight out of her head in all directions, each one with a neat purple bow at the end. And didn’t she kick-step and tap-tap across the stage in a blur of ashy knees and flashing white teeth! The white folks fell silent, rapt and grinning.
An organ started up and Topsy bellowed, “Ooohhh, Iiiiii wish I was in Dixiiiiieeeee. Hooray! Hooray!” The audience clapped so loud the nesting birds were scared from the trees. The white folks took bags of popcorn from the concessions man weaving through the crowd. They laughed and pointed and didn’t notice when the music turned hollow and tinny and Topsy’s voice echoed above the midway though she had stopped singing. She cartwheeled across the stage, the rainbow petticoats beneath her frock twirling like a pinwheel.
“In Dixieeeee land I’ll take my stand. ToliveanddieinDixie!”
The stranger removed his top hat with a flourish and bowed deeply to Sissy and the others. A golden glow came up around him, brightening outward like the rings of a planet. The band of light circled the stranger, then the players, the white people and the whole of the carnival. It widened over Beau McConlin’s acres, out and out in pulsing, radiant heat till the outer edges of the band of light hurtled back toward one another and collided in a sonic boom that knocked Sissy and the others to their knees.
The black road bucked like a wave in the sea. After a time, when all was still, they looked up to see a golden orb suspended above the road where the midway had been. The Seventh Crown was gone, and the Hundred and the white people with them, gone as though they never were. Sissy and the others sat at the edge of the woods while dawn pinked the sky. When the sun was fully risen, the golden marble faded and floated off like dandelion floss caught in the wind.