Read The Choiring Of The Trees Online

Authors: Donald Harington

The Choiring Of The Trees (6 page)

The so-called grand jurors were all wide awake and paying very close attention, and some of them were fidgeting in their chairs, and one of them, I swear, was letting some spittle dribble down his chin. Mr. Thurl Bean, the prosecutor, asked, “Was that
all
he done?” as if it hadn’t been enough.

“Oh, no!” Dorinda said. “That was dist the start. He had dist started. He says to me, says, ‘Now it’s my turn to do you,’ and he made me lie down and lifted up my dress and mashed his mouth right down between my legs and started in to lickin me up and down and all over, right here. He done that for a good long while till he was satisfied, and then he taken his thing and put it where his mouth had been and give a real hard push, but…” (Dorinda seemed trying very hard to cry, and not doing it convincingly) “…but I’d never been done like that afore, and he couldn’t git it in easy. He kept on and kept on, a-pushin and a-shovin that thing, and had my back up against this ellum saplin, and he took a deep breath and grunted hard and somethin broke, and there was blood, and he had that thing, this long, all the way up in me, as fur as he could git…”

When it came time for Jim Tom Duckworth to ask her questions, Jim Tom wanted to know only two things: One, he said, was she real hundred-percent sure about that sharp rock business? because it seemed to Jim Tom, “and you grand gentlemen of the jury has got to agree, that a big stout powerful feller like Nail Chism wouldn’t need no sharp rock to threaten her with, he could manage her with his bare hands, or leastways with that there bowie knife that he always carried on his belt, so jist what is this here rock business?” And Dorinda swore it was a sharp, heavy rock, this big. Well, secondly, was Dorinda absolutely certain that she “had never been done like that afore,” because, after all, here she was, what?
thirteen
years of age, “and as everbody knows that’s kind of old not to have no experience whatsoever in the loss-of-virginity business, at least not where I come from, which is Stay More, same place where she comes from, and her with six brothers…”

“Objection!” hollered Mr. Thurl Bean, and began to rant that it was a crime to say such things, and the defense attorney had better watch his mouth or he’d find himself in-dited for public indecency and obscenity, and Mr. Bean didn’t know about Stay More, but where
he
came from, Mt. Judea east of here where folks is God-fearing and moral and law-abiding, it wasn’t at all uncommon to find virgins who were fourteen or even fifteen.

Doc J.M. Plowright of Stay More was called to testify. He had been one of our two physicians as long as I could remember, since he’d assisted at my birth and looked at me when I’d had measles and diphtheria and impetigo. He had, he said, examined the young lady immediately after the alleged misfortune had occurred, that is to say, as soon as Simon Whitter had come and got him, less than an hour after the said violation had happened, and he found her in a condition of near-shock as a result of the imputed assault and discovered that “she still had, no doubt about it, some feller’s jism a-tricklin down her laig, and she had a sure-enough lump on her haid like from a rock bouncin offen it, and yes, it sure did look like her maidenhead had been took, she sure wasn’t no virgin no more, and the blood was still fresh all over the gash.”

“Gash?” said Mr. Thurl Bean, and became indignant. “You mean that monster there done went and inflicted a
cut
on the pore gal?”

“Naw,” Doc Plowright said, turning crimson. “I was jist referrin to her slit, I mean, her, you know, her natural openin.”

When I was summoned, I had to put my hand on the Bible and take an oath, and give my name and age and address, and please tell the court how long I’d known the victim. Then Mr. Thurl Bean asked me to tell what had happened that afternoon in my own words to the best of my ability and recollection, and I told everything I knew, except the precise location of our playhouse. When I finished, Mr. Thurl Bean said, “Now, gal, this yere man that you saw from the winder of yore dollhouse, is he a-settin anywheres in this room?”

I looked around. “He could be,” I said.

“Which’un is he?” asked Mr. Bean.

I pointed at Jim Tom Duckworth. “It could’ve been him.” I pointed at Nail Chism. “Or it could’ve been him.” Then I pointed at Judge Sull Jerram, who was sitting in the audience, and left my finger sticking in his direction. “But for all I know, it was jist as likely
him.

He asked me some more questions, trying to get me to say for sure that it was Nail, and making me tell over again that it had been Nail we’d seen in the woods not long before. But he couldn’t get me to swear that it was Nail who had been looking at our playhouse, and as I was leaving the stand to return to my seat, Sheriff Duster Snow said to me out of the side of his mouth, “You forgot what you was tole.” He looked fierce.

Finally Nail Chism was put on the stand. His wrists were fastened together with handcuffs, and nobody had bothered to comb his hair for him, so it stuck up and out in several sheeplicks. He seemed very sad, and I thought at first that maybe he had done it and was feeling guilty about it.

But he denied everything. That cowpath, he said, was the way he used every afternoon to get from his sheep pastures up on Ledbetter Mountain down into the village. Every afternoon this time of year, when the weather was nice, he’d go down to the Ingledew store and sit on the porch with the other fellers, whittling and spitting, just passing the time, you know, and watching the world go by, and swapping dogs and knives and tales, they’ve been doing that in Stay More ever since there was a storeporch to set on. He had gone straight from his sheep pasture down to Ingledew’s, and sure he had seen the two girls, Dorinda Whitter and Latha Bourne, on that cowpath, and to the best of his recollection he had said howdy to them and gone on. He sure had not doubled back and waited to rape Dorinda. That was a baldface lie, and he didn’t know why a sweet young girl like her would make up such a story, or, if she wasn’t making it up, why she’d try to put the blame on him. She didn’t have anything against
him,
now, did she?

“Not before,” said Mr. Thurl Bean, and then he said, “Mr. Chism, let me ast ye a question: do you lak women?”

“What-all kind of question is that?” Nail wanted to know.

“Answer it. Do ye or don’t ye?”

“Why, shore, same as the next feller,” Nail replied.

“Maybe more’n the next feller,” Mr. Bean put in. “You bein a bachelor-feller and unmarried and all. Would ye say that you’ve got a normal
desire
for the fair sex? Don’t ye git to feelin some
passion
ever wunst in a while?” Nail just stared at him, not knowing how to reply. “Or is it true,” Mr. Bean said, “that you have been known to obtain carnal gratification from one of yore sheep, now and again?”

“Objection!” said Jim Tom Duckworth, and he began to holler that the prosecuting attorney had better watch his mouth and not go imputing imputations against his client that were not substantiated by bonafide facts, and that maybe those folks over around Mt. Judea got their jollies from screwing ewes, but Stay More people had better sense, not to mention taste.

The judge, or magistrate (he wasn’t Judge Villines, our circuit judge, but just a
J.P
.), had to pound his gavel for order, and then he sustained Jim Tom’s objection and instructed the prosecutor to make an effort to stick to the facts.

Mr. Thurl Bean eventually gave up trying to prove that Nail Chism was a sex maniac, and asked Nail if it was not true that he had publicly accosted Judge Sewell Jerram yonder right here in the halls of this seat of justice and told said Judge Jerram to leave his said girlfriend Dorinda alone.

“I never called her my girlfriend,” Nail said.

“But you tole said Judge Jerram yonder to leave her alone.”

“Yeah, ’cause he’s married to my sister and hadn’t no business foolin around with Dorinda.”

“Or maybe ye was jist jealous,” Mr. Bean said, and without giving Nail a chance to deny it he turned and said, “Thar you are, grand gents of the jury, thar is yore motive: Nail Chism was sweet on that gal, he was green as a gourd with jealousy, and he let it be known, and then he went and done that vile abomination unto her.”

Jim Tom Duckworth called as witnesses the men who gathered every afternoon on Ingledew’s storeporch, one of whom, Fentrick Bullen, testified, “I could set my watch by the minute that ole Nail comes down to the store of an evenin, and he was right on time. He never had no dalliance.”

One by one the sitters of the storeporch, fifteen in number, testified that Nail Chism had arrived at the store at exactly his usual time. But the grand jury voted, ten to nine, with four abstentions (two drunk, two asleep), to indict Nail Chism for sodomy, perversion, assault, battery, and sexual violation of a female beneath the age of consent and against her will. Trial was set for August.

 

 

The next time I saw Dorinda was not at our playhouse (we never went there again, at least not together) but on the front porch of my house, one afternoon when she came over, bringing with her the 1914 Sears, Roebuck and Company Consumer’s Guide, which had been loaned to her by somebody in Jasper. She said she wanted my help in picking out a couple of dresses and a pair of shoes. It wasn’t play-like picking either, not the kind of wishing I did whenever I could see one of those catalogs. She had ten dollars actual cash money. I’d never
seen
that much real money in my entire life.

“Where did you git it, Rindy?” I inquired.

“They gave it to me,” she said.

“Uh-huh,” I said, and I waited a long time for her to elaborate. She began to leaf through the pages of the catalog, sighing and cooing at the pictures of dresses, and sometimes asking me to read for her what it said under the picture. After doing this for a while, I said, “They
who
?”

“Mr. Snow and them,” she said.

“The sheriff gave you ten dollars?” I asked. “What for?”

“To pay for my dresses and shoes, silly,” she said. “Don’t ye know, I’ve got to go to that there trial, come August? What does it say under this yere one?”

“‘Made of finest quality white lawn.’ How’s the knot on your head?”

She raised her hand and felt the top of her head. “It’s gone, I reckon. What’s ‘lawn’?”

“Sheer linen. Did you really git raped, Rindy?”

“Yep, I did. What does this one say?”

“‘A handsome white India lawn wrapper.’ You don’t want that one, it’d be too hot for August. Was it really Nail?”

“Then what about this one?”

“That’s taffeta silk and would make you look like a whore. Honest, did Nail really rape you?”

“Latha, ladybird lollypop, we swore we’d never ever tell a story to each other. Didn’t we? So don’t you git me to tell ye a story.”

In July most of Nail Chism’s sheep took sick and began to die. He was in that stone jail at Jasper, and although Waymon and Luther visited him and described to him the sheep’s symptoms, their diarrhea or scours, their choking and catarrh, their pining and staggers, Nail was helpless to do aught but instruct Waymon and Luther in comforts and solaces that didn’t even cure the sheep of whatever was ailing them, and it takes a shepherd to comfort and solace. But the best shepherd can’t produce rainfall, which is what we desperately needed. The sheep were thirsting to death, and so was the grass.

In August the men who sat on Willis Ingledew’s storeporch complained of the drought, and the heat, and they spent some time speculating about the upcoming trial, and they devoted only a small bit of discussion to what was happening far across the sea: some duke had been murdered in Austria, and the Russians and Germans were starting a fracas, and the English and French were getting into it too. The Jasper newspaper carried very little national news, let alone international news, and throughout that month of August, as the Germans invaded Belgium and the French invaded Lorraine, nobody in Stay More knew that the whole world was starting the Great War to End All Wars.

On a Monday in August the men on the Ingledew storeporch rode their horses or their mules, or drove their spring wagons if they had them, sometimes with families in them, to Jasper for the trial, to watch if not to participate. Jim Tom had explained to them it wouldn’t be any use for all of the storeporch crowd to keep saying the same thing over and over, that Nail was there at his usual time; three or four repetitions of that testimony were all that the court would tolerate.

 

 

I rode in with Jim Tom again, and this time my father and mother came along too, although it turned out they couldn’t get into the courthouse, it was so crowded. My father had been impressed that the county sheriff himself had paid us a visit the night before. Duster Snow had even had supper with us, unexpectedly, because he arrived at suppertime and Momma had to be polite. After my father and Duster had eaten (in those days the custom was always that the women and girls would wait until after the menfolk had finished before having their own supper), the sheriff said he wanted to talk to me while I ate; maybe he figured I couldn’t talk back to him with my mouth full.

Before I was separated from my parents at the courthouse, my father squeezed my arm very hard and said, “Gal, don’t you go and bring no embarrassment upon us. You do what the sheriff tole ye to do, hear me?”

I knew I would be punished for it (and I was, later), but I disobeyed my father and the sheriff: I refused to tell the court that Nail Chism was the man I had seen looking at our playhouse. Judge Villines himself started in to asking me questions, helping out the prosecutor, but I swore the man I saw looking at our playhouse was not Nail Chism.

Fat lot of good it did. Dorinda Whitter sat there in her purewhite Sears, Roebuck lawn dress and told her story again as if she had been rehearsing it every spare minute of July, with somebody helping her rehearse; as if she had been practicing how to cry, and she did a real good job of crying. There was a lot of crying in the audience when she cried. And a lot of gasping. And more than one of the jurors had spittle dribbling down his chin. There were just twelve men this time, and none of them were sleeping or drunk, at least not while testimony was given and the summations were made, all in one afternoon. Juries in those days were never sequestered overnight, and a rumor went around that Sull J. held a quiet little party that night at his house, two blocks from the courthouse, with plenty of Chism’s Dew, ironically, I thought, and that certain of the jurymen had been present and had imbibed freely and had made up their minds then and there before they returned the next morning and required only forty-five minutes of deliberation to find Nail Chism guilty.

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