I had all the qualifications: the prerogatives of the firstborn, the stature of a man of authority, a Goliath, an aquiline nose, an Octavian head, a heart flaming with anger, Saul’s good looks and regal gait. I had splendor and grace. I prayed loudly, devoutly. I came from good roots and was born in the right place. Who could be holier from Bethlehem?
How could my kid brother be anointed, the one with rosacea, looks like carpenter’s shavings, the smell of sheep dung on his hands, who roamed the fields looking for a lost lamb. He wasn’t even invited to the sacrificial banquet.
That old stickler Samuel knew I should be king. I coveted the horn that was strapped over his shoulders leaning toward me. Why wasn’t that good enough for God? My name alone should have given me the edge in the kingdom.
At the end of time everything trembles and topples— the sun dresses in sackcloth, plagues run amok, vaccines sour; threadbare bones like oakum unravel and children frieze into sandstone; patriots fall like falling stars, and the tower of winds decays in stillness; a flood of faces bloats the river and suicides surface like bubbling sores. Then holy men and women scatter sainted salts to ward off fiends trying to steal family voices pleading for sanctuary; none left but a remnant of martyrs to scribble with blood and sickles in bitter books about the end of time until the kingdom of eternity reigns salving the wounds of memory.
The first resplendent and holy, flourishing over waters, trees with fulsome fruit, witherless leaves, psaltery furrowing the land, a covenant of light and mist; no want; creation swelling, begetting in the shadow of white-clifted wings.
In the second, sin sprouted rocks and spurs; acorns detonate like grenades; mandrakes scream bloodroots and tribulation; serpents untangle from dead boughs, sunlight shriveled up everywhere.
The third the garden within tending memories of rockroses, fallen pomegranates and sallow sunsets; olive trees weeping in the wilderness blood-seared thorns and stargazer lilies pressed into a crown; God calling us back to paradise.
What if that brave Emmett had somehow managed to escape, my boy who had done all that talking, a word or maybe two before those thirsty fists demanding to be quenched in his blood slammed my door down looking for him.
Say he heard their pickup truck. Say he jumped out the window of my clapboard house and ran through row after row of burly-cheeked cotton until even the lily-white moon could not follow him.
Say he made it to that line of loblolly pines and hid in the colored cemetery; no whites allowed their children or their womenfolk to go there where the haints of lynched men lurk, hate messages singed into their chests.
Say he made for the river seeking safety in the bulrushes, the final resting place of so many slaves who ran for freedom, hoping his battered breath might last long enough under the cesspooling water, stringy-fingered weeds and copperheads grabbing for his ankles.
Say the Tallahatchie had not turned vengeful, angry that some black boy would pollute the waters where white men feed their families and their lusts.
Say, too, from the river he searched for a ditch to lie in, coffining him from the burlap-hooded vigilantes swooping over the countryside.
Say a thunderstorm struck that night, as they screamed to God to let them catch the boy before the lightning or the buzzards did. Say, too, they scattered black and white posters all over Mississippi vowing to bury him.
Then say, just say, how he almost found the train tracks which might have led him out of the Delta, out of Egypt, I called my son.