by Frank Jamison
Y’all don’t know the whole story, and I can’t tell it all here. It’s too long. But Elbert Wiggins was killed in Hatchie Landing a long time ago. Two men, Malcolm Oakes and Bennie Hoskins, had something to do with it. My June’s husband, Nathan, died in a house fire, so they say, but we wonder. And my grandson, Mani, was taken away to prison for killing Bennie Hoskins. Some people say it was Malcolm Oakes that did it and somebody killed Oakes, but I don’t know who that was either or who killed Elbert or what caused that house fire, but I never for a minute believed that Mani killed Bennie Hoskins and now they’ve proved it and he’s come home, but not in time for me.
My name’s Bibi. I’m dead now, and Buster Holt just finished preaching my funeral. I’ve had a long life and a good one that turned out all right, I guess. We had some bad times, we did, and I dreamed my dreams now and then about that old lion I named Trouble, and now I know who he is. I’ll tell you later, but the Brothers are coming to get me now. They gonna bury me in the Hallowed Ground just like I asked. June and Mani, that’s my daughter and grandson, spent a long time this morning saying their good-byes to me. They each touched my face and told me they loved me, and June promised that they’d keep on loving each other too. June asked one of the Brothers to take my rocking chair from the porch and put it up front at the church right beside my casket, and they did. More of the Brothers and Sisters lined up along the walk when the hearse came and they carried me outside. There were people all along the street as we rode away to the church.
Buster spoke eloquently of me. He told of my life and my heritage, which is the heritage of us all no matter where we came from. He said, “This woman represents us all. She showed us what the real promise is. It isn’t a promise to possess the land. It’s a promise that those who love can overcome anything. Her life was the proof that this is true.” The Sisters were in tears and the Brothers said, “Amen.” Buster then asked some questions.
“Bibi’s life was a picture frame, and the picture inside this frame is fuzzy and vague. We can’t see it good, and it makes us wonder at the burden she bore,” he said. “Her trouble was our trouble, and she showed us how to live through troubled times. She bore up when Elbert Wiggins disappeared. She bore up under her Nathan’s death. She bore up when her Mani was taken away. She bore up and she didn’t hate.”
Then he asked, “What really killed Elbert Wiggins? What really killed Nathan Hanks? What really killed Bennie Hoskins?
“Notice I asked what not who. No one really knows the answer to the who, though we have some notions. It may be that some folks knew at one time, but they’re all dead now. The rest, the living, only have suspicions. It certainly isn’t satisfying to anyone, but that’s simply the way it is. But what killed them is the thing I’m talking about, and the answer to that is hate, pure and simple. Someone hated enough to kill Elbert Wiggins, and that started the whole progression. Or did that hate exist already; was it there from the beginning, maybe the beginning of time? Who knows the answer to that either? It spilled over into Paradise and killed Nathan Hanks, and it flowed on down to the other side of the river, down beside that Supper Club where it killed Bennie Hoskins. Mani Hanks went to prison for that killing, but he didn’t do it, and everybody knows that now. It may have killed others that we don’t even know about. But our Bibi bore up under all that hate swirling around her, and she showed us how it’s done.
“So what do you say about something like this? How do you explain it? I can tell you that a trouble like this doesn’t happen just one time. Once it happens, it lives on. Like a disease, it infects other folks and no one knows when or how, and no one knows when it began or when it will end. But a trouble like this is complicated. There is some room in it for just about anything.
“Bibi would say this is the question you’ve got to answer for your own self: Is there room for forgiveness? There are some who believe so, and there are some who say that retribution is the only response. But isn’t retribution just like the crime itself? Can you really tell the difference? To turn on your enemy you have to become like your enemy. You may save your life, but you will lose your soul. Your only salvation is to forgive even if it may cost you your life. Our Bibi lived that.
“Something breaks inside you if you decide to turn on another person. Something breaks in all of us, and, without forgiveness, the break will never heal. Without forgiveness, we all remain broken. Anyone who preaches forgiveness has to know that forgiveness is not a one-sided affair. There is the side of the damaged, the injured, and the wronged that must be willing to say ‘I forgive.’ Then there is the other side, the side that inflicts the damage, the wrong that must say ‘I am sorry. I repent.’ Without both of these, Brothers and Sisters, without the ‘I forgive’and the ‘I am sorry,’ there is no forgiveness. Brothers and Sisters, do you hear what I’m saying to you? You can forgive when you are hurt. You can say ‘I’m sorry’ when you are the cause of the hurt. But forgiveness doesn’t happen until both those things come together. Hear what I say, and if you hear, say ‘amen.’”
The Brothers said, “Amen” and the Sisters said, “Amen.”
Then the church was silent and still. No one sniffled or wiped a tear. Faces everywhere were lifted up. Buster moved over behind my rocking chair and set it to rocking slowly back and forth.
“So what makes the loss of our Bibi so hard to bear? Is it because we’ve lost the beacon that led us through the hate that rose up and murdered Elbert Wiggins? Is it because hate is so senseless, or is it because it infects so many others? Hate broke something inside Bennie Hoskins and Malcolm Oakes and all the others who were with them the night Elbert Wiggins died. Once it broke, their only salvation was forgiveness and maybe none of them knew how to ask for that. They couldn’t heal the broken thing inside themselves, and it finally killed them both. But who on the other side ever offered forgiveness? No one went to them to say it. So who is the guiltier then?
“As Bibi used to say, ‘All the dead are on the other side, some good and some bad. We all will go there one day. Until we do, until that old lion, Death, padfoots across and taps us out, we have a choice. We can live or we can die. We can do right or do wrong. We can hate or not. Our souls can be whole or they can break in two.’
“Some say Malcolm Oakes told people about Elbert Wiggins and Bennie Hoskins, but they turned their backs on him. They say Bennie Hoskins never got the image of Elbert Wiggins out of his mind, and Malcolm never got the image of Bennie Hoskins out of his mind. It finally broke both of them. They died out there in the night somewhere near Paradise. They never knew to ask for forgiveness, and they never knew how to say ‘I’m sorry.’”
Buster gestured toward my slowly moving chair and continued. “If Bibi was sitting alive among us right now, she would tell us about another one of those lions walking back and forth. She would tell us it had a name on its forehead, too, just like Death and Trouble and just like Sorrow. But when this lion comes across, the others slink away because they can’t stand up to this one lion whose name is emblazoned on its forehead just like theirs. And she would tell us this one lion’s name. Brothers and Sisters, she would whisper its name.” Buster’s voice dropped low. “She would whisper, ‘Forgiveness.’
“Brothers and Sisters, nobody knows for sure how old our Bibi really was. But, folks, Melissa Shawl Durber, June’s momma and Mani’s bibi, the little girl called ‘Dream Freedom’ by her own bibi, walked with us for over a hundred years. She lived through hard times and she lived with happiness. She knew happiness isn’t always found. She knew sometimes you have to make it.
“She made her own happiness and she passed it around. She was a good woman. She knew what it meant to say ‘I forgive.’ She knew what it meant to say ‘I am sorry.’ She said, ‘I am going to live.’ She said, ‘I am going to do what is right.’ She never broke in two. And, folks, Melissa Shawl Durber, our Bibi, walked to freedom. She walked into the Promised Land, where she waits for you and me.”
And that’s what Buster Holt preached about me. I guess some of it’s true. One thing is true for sure. I never broke, not once, no matter what came at me. No, sir. And now I can tell you about that lion I called Trouble.
Whenever Trouble came stalking around, I’d go sit out on my porch of a morning and rock in my chair and let the cool air fall on my face and watch him pad around over there on the other side. I’d talk to Jesus, too, while I was watching. It helped me to do that. It did. I didn’t like that old lion, but I never let him get at me, and I’d have kept him from my family if I could.
Sometimes, though, Trouble does get you, and it doesn’t matter what you do. You can pray, you can talk to Jesus, you can try and run away, but when that old lion comes stalking, he don’t scare away too easy. Jesus can’t even do it.
But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter whether you do it for yourself or with the help of Jesus and God. What matters is you live through it. If you can do that, then you are going to be something someday. Believe me when I tell you that.
I do hope my Mani can come out of his trouble believing what I told him, because it’s true that he came from a high place, and he can be bound for another high place. I don’t know what it is, but he is bound for his own Promised Land. Everybody is. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? I’d go with him and help him get there if I could, if it would do any good, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to decide to go there yourself just like Mani’s daddy did and like his momma June did when she kept on after Nathan died.
There are some good people in the world. There are some bad people, too, and there are some bad people that turn out good before it’s all over. That’s always the way. Anybody can be good and anybody can be bad. But it’s not easy to be bad and turn out good, if you know what I mean. It’s just like going into the Promised Land with nothing but your own two feet to get you there. That’s what.
And there’s this too. Everybody comes from some high place. It’s no secret. You just have to look around to understand that everybody is bound for their own Promised Land.
I told you I knew two of those lions that were walking around on the other side and just looking across at something, but I didn’t know the rest of them. It took me a long time to understand that none of us is so good we can say those lions aren’t us. No, sir. I saw those lions in that dream a long time ago, and now, well now, I’m crossed over and I can tell you that your name is on one of those lions too.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story