Authors: Alan Duff
You his momma? the man asked.
No, I answered. I am the preacher's wife, of his community, Piney Woods. I'm
begging you to give a man his last piece of dignity — I beg you. He fought for this
country, was wounded, endured years of war hardship, endured racial hatred just like
this in the hope that, one day, black people would walk free — and you did
It was accusation of, I knew, a deed already owned. Caught the crowd for a few
seconds, they moved this way and that like the wind had picked up hard and shook
them a little, moved them a fraction physically, not at all in their fixed minds.
The gunman just pushed his weapon harder against my temple, his lips peeled
back in some kind of grin.
I told him: So you do it. Fire that bullet right into me.
He said, I will if you don't depart from here.
I am not leaving until this man is given his dignity, I told him, quite ready to
join your father in heaven.
Now this was daylight and cowards don't operate in that medium. They soon
melted away. The gunman spit his departure in my face. I flinched not. Let his liquid
run down my face.
Soon other Negroes emerged, like always, out of the shadows to quietly cut
down Jess's body, give him dignity in his last. Lord, my heart was broke in two, for
I loved that boy, your father.
I GUESS MEETING JESS CHANGED
my view of Henry: made me realise how
your birthplace, your culture, can make you.
Henry's changed too: lives by a higher code of conduct these days.
Since my mother left him we've talked, though we'll never be close; how,
after all those years of his silence?
He never mentions my mother, though I hear on the grapevine he
accepts she was quite unlike the usual Waiwera village person and they were
never suited. He's not the jealous type, not about Ralph's money at any rate.
And as he can't see the changes in my mother he'll not know what a happier
person she is. To my eyes she was always beautiful, but I swear living with
Ralph has made her even more so.
My sister Wiki intends to marry Chud one of these days. Chud is
different — like the boy I grew up knowing so well, but now a man.
Though I'm not sure he can overcome his parents, both still drunks, lately
in poor health. Seems to me it's similar to being black in America: the odds
are stacked against you. But who knows, if he tries hard enough, he might
Isobel and her husband have split up. She came and said goodbye, and
we made love one last time, though it was not the same. She moved to
Auckland. Her son has left the band, gone to Auckland too, formed his
own group. We were moving in different directions and anyway he is the
Whenever I am with Giselle, I say a little thanks to Isobel for her teachings
on how to really love a woman. I've taken Giselle over our steaming acres
many times, and always I find something new. A fissure that has widened,
our old circular bath finally succumbing to the collapsing terrain around
it, now a dry hole. Always we call in on Merita, who has mind enough
to pepper Giselle with questions about her country and compliment her
beauty. Compares her to my mother, puts them on equal footing. Says she
is so glad for my mother going and living with Ralph, look at the change in
her. I agree. My mother is a different person. My special mother.
Merita, still going strong in her eighties now, says my mother has finally
realised her potential. Confesses she'd sweetened life's bitter pill by telling
me my Maori ancestors were of high birth. Now you're strong enough
to accept being ordinary, which is not such a bad thing, eh, Yank? Merita
points out what I'd noticed already: that Barney, his voice regained, won't
shut up, and is all too fond of an audience. But it takes all sorts to make a
When I come across Henry back in Waiwera we'll have a chat, a beer
at his hotel sometimes.
I can hear Marion singing
Take my hand, precious Lord
, which she told me
in her letter she sang as my father's body was taken down from its wooden
telephone-pole cross. Who am I to say her Lord did not take up her plea?
If God didn't take heed then the folk assisting with my father's last journey
would remember the good woman's vocal tribute and her courage too.
Maybe one day I'll follow the dream and go to New York. Go to
Whitecave, find out where my father is buried. Call on the good folk of
Piney Woods, especially Marion.
He lives on in me. I'll have children, name the first boy after his
grandfather. A girl I'll name her Jessie.
I'll listen out for your lullaby from time to time, Pops. Three hundred
years in the making. So glad you came into my life too.
Your son, Mark.
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms.
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world
and me. . . .
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a
cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger
accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and a
scorched coil of greasy hemp.
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, and a pair of
trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, butt-ends
of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a drained gin-flask and a
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the lingering
smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the
eye sockets of a stony skull. . . .
And while I stood my mind was frozen with a cold pity for the life
that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by icy walls of
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the grass and
fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods poured forth the
hungry yelping of hounds; the darkness screamed with thirsty
voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth; cigars and cigarettes
glowed, the whore smeared the lipstick red upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamouring that my life be burned.
. . .
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my
throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my black wet
body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound me to the
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw
flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water,
boiling my limbs.
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow
surprise at the sun. . . .