Read The Choiring Of The Trees Online

Authors: Donald Harington

The Choiring Of The Trees (7 page)

When Nail was asked by Judge Villines if he had anything to say before sentence was passed upon him, he said, “I jist want to ask one question: is there
ary
man, woman, or child in this here courtroom who honestly believes I raped that girl? If so, stand up and look me in the eye.”

For a full minute not one person stood, except Nail, who was already standing, towering over every man. Then, finally, the prosecutor and Sull Jerram nodded at each other and seemed to agree to rise up together, and those two stood. Then the foreman of the jury stood up. Three other jurymen rose, that’s all. After a few moments Judge Villines himself stood.

Maybe she was too dumb, but Dorinda herself never did think to stand up.

Judge Villines, still standing, along with those half-dozen others, said, “Nail Chism, it is the sentence of this yere court that you be committed to the custody of the Arkansas State Penitentiary in Little Rock and that there you be put to death according to law. May Gawd have mercy on yore soul.”

On the storeporch at Ingledew’s, in the days following, the men talked of the drought, and that ruckus in Europe, and not so much the guilt or innocence of Nail Chism as the exceptional speed of the trial (“Like them courthouse critters had made up their minds in advance,” one said) and the exceptional severity of the sentence. Nobody from Newton County had ever gone to the electric chair. It was an awesome fate, and not fully understood, since there was no electricity in Newton County—Jasper itself was still several years away from the first primitive attempts at electrification. The closest anybody could conceive of a lesson to explain it was getting lightningstruck, like old Haskins Duckworth, who couldn’t move one side of his face and was bald on that one side but was still alive, they thought. The only time anybody had been convicted of rape, not in my lifetime but back in the last century, they’d simply cut off his testicles and let him choose whether to sing soprano or stop going to church, and he chose the latter.

August is an awful month in the best of years, but that August the trees stopped singing, or they murmured dirges. Only the weeds and wildflowers throve: there was still yellow in the sneezeweed, coneflower, and goldenrod, the penstemons and great mulleins still held their heads high, and the wild bergamot and verbena must have found moisture in the air, but there was little green, just dusty shades of olive, drab shades of terreverte, faded shades of green ocher.

But the day they took Nail Chism off to Little Rock, it rained. Not a real toadstrangling pourdown but enough to settle the dust and sprinkle the dirt on the hogs’ backs. Not enough to save Nail’s sheep, who all died before he was scheduled to. In a bad drought, when people have a hard enough time feeding themselves, they tend to stop feeding their pets, and all the dogs of Stay More, hungry, began to run down the last of Nail’s lambs and to fight over the remains.

For the rest of the summer until school started I was confined to the house for disobedience (“grounded” in those days meant only what happened to you when you’d overdosed on Chism’s Dew). I didn’t see Dorinda again until school started, and we had a new teacher, Mr. Perry, who insisted we sit by grade, not by friendship, and I wouldn’t have sat with her by either.

Once at recess she tried to talk to me. “Latha, how come everbody acts like I done somethin wrong? How come it’s my
fault
I got raped?”

I just looked her in the eye for a while before I asked, “
Did
you get yourself raped?”

“Yes!” she yelled, and the other pupils stopped what they were playing to look at us. “Honest! I did! It hurt! It hurt me
real
bad!” She burst into tears. Whether or not she had faked her crying in the courtroom, she wasn’t pretending now.

“What’s the trouble here?” Mr. Perry said. He was new, and no one had ever told him.

“She hurts,” I said, and that’s all I said.

On

 

L
ady, that’s enough now,” Warden Burdell said, and he held out his hand toward her as if asking her for the next dance. She stared at his hand, a chubby, gnarled, knobby, and hairy paw with dirt beneath each of the fingernails. It required a moment for her to realize that he was holding out his hand to be given the sheet of paper on which she was making her drawing, but she was in no hurry to hand it over to him. She had enjoyed these minutes of reprieve that her art had procured. Not that she had any wish to delay the execution of a convicted rapist, especially not one who had brutally abused and raped a child, but that this man’s last request, to see her drawing, had been an acknowledgment of the existence of her art. Nobody commented on her art—well, scarcely anybody other than her sister and Mr. Fletcher, the managing editor, who gave her these assignments and felt, doubtless, duty-bound to make some remarks about her work: “Good likeness,” “Clever lines,” “Fancy,” “Shows feeling,” or “It’ll do.”

She wanted to give her drawing of Nail Chism a final glance before handing it over to Warden Harris Burdell. Something wasn’t right. The ears perhaps; they really did stick out that much, but the shaved head seemed to exaggerate the protuberance of the ears into almost a caricature, and she did not want to seem to be making any sort of mockery. Actually, Nail Chism had been an exceptionally good-looking man when first she’d seen him, sitting beside her at the execution of the Negro Skipper Thomas. Chism had had his full head of hair then, although its yellow was already prematurely frosting white in places, and he’d worn some red bruises on his cheeks and temples as if he’d been in a fight…or been beaten.

Too, his heavy eyebrows, a darker blond than his hair had been, grew thicker as they met each other above the bridge of his nose, and this seemed to give him a coarse look, and to accentuate the effect of the shaved head. She had been especially careful with the skull, not to strain the shading of its bumps and general shape, because it was a fine cranium, almost Grecian. But what difference did such subtle shading make? The printed picture, on page 5 or 6 of tomorrow’s
Gazette,
wouldn’t retain the subtleties of her chiaroscuro.

She tore the sheet from its pad and handed it over to Warden Burdell. He took it and stared at it with a frown, as if seeing a Cezanne for the first time. Then he grinned his penitentiary smirk and said, “Hey, Chism, I caint show you this. It’ll give you the swell-head.” But he turned the drawing around and held it up by the corners so that Nail Chism could see it, held it as if Mr. Chism’s eyesight might be poor. “How ’bout that?” the warden asked. “Don’t that make you look like Miss Monday has done went and fell in love with you?” The doomed man squinted his eyes as if indeed his eyesight were bad, and focused on the drawing, and the trace of a smile gave
sfumato
to the edges of his mouth. He said nothing, however. “Are you satisfied?” the warden asked, expecting an answer, and waited.

“I reckon I look pretty awful,” the convict said. “I aint seen a mirror in a month. But leastways I don’t have to worry about my hair shootin out ever which way, like it always done.” He grinned.

“What do you say to the lady?” the warden prompted.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Nail Chism said, looking her right in the eye again, the way he had throughout his sitting, or standing, rather. It had disconcerted her, and perhaps even slowed down the progress of the drawing, the fixedness of his stare, his eyes trying to tell her his whole life’s story in these last minutes of it. “I’m much obliged to ye,” he said.

She spoke, for the first time, not knowing exactly what to say: “You’re welcome.”

That should have been the end of the exchange, but Nail Chism continued it: “You gave me a few more minutes of life, ma’am. I hope you’ll remember that. I hope it’ll be some comfort to ye.”

What could she say? He seemed to be expecting some response from her. The warden too was looking at her, waiting for her remark on that. She couldn’t think of anything to say. “I’m just doing my job,” she said modestly.

“HAW! I’M JUST DOIN
MY
JOB!” said Irvin Bobo, the executioner, and, in his bad idea of a joke, gave the switch a couple of practice jolts, which darkened the one green-shaded overhead light and made everyone except Bobo jump.

“Cut the shit, Bobo!” Warden Burdell said. Then he apologized to Viridis: “Pardon me, ma’am. He’s drunk, as usual. I reckon I’d git drunk too, I had to throw that switch on a feller. But Bobo’s impatient, and I don’t blame him, we’re all standin around talkin like it’s a goddamn tea party. Come on, boys, let’s get him to sit.”

For a second there Viridis thought he was referring to Irvin Bobo, as the one to sit. But then the two guards flanking Nail Chism, Gabriel “Fat Gabe” McChristian and James “Short Leg” Fancher, took the prisoner’s arms and led him to the electric chair and backed him up to it, and sat him down in it. From the moment he had first come into the room, the prisoner had amazed Viridis Monday by his composure and poise, and now in his last moments he was not struggling at all. Mr. McChristian took a small key from a chain on his belt and inserted it into the handcuffs that bound the prisoner’s wrists, and he unlocked and removed the handcuffs.

Only then did the prisoner begin to struggle. He seemed to reach for his heart to still it, he seemed to be trying to thrust his hand inside his jacket, but Mr. Francher grabbed the hand and slammed it down on the armrest of the electric chair and began strapping it. Mr. McChristian quickly strapped the other hand. Then they strapped his ankles to the lower parts of the chair. Nail Chism went on twisting and struggling for just another moment before seeming to realize that he was trapped and could not get loose, and then he remained absolutely still, with his eyes closed, while they lowered the metal cap to the top of his head.

This was the third time Viridis had been through this ordeal, and she had asked herself which of the many long moments in the execution process was the worst. Someone else would doubtless have chosen the instant of the first jolt of electricity. Someone with imagination might have chosen the moment when the convict first catches sight of the waiting chair. But for Viridis, trying to empathize, it was the instant that the black hemisphere of the metal cap, cold as the room was terribly cold, touched the raw, bare scalp of the man. She noticed Nail Chism shiver.

“Our Father Which Art in Heaven,” the Reverend James S. McPhee began to intone. “Jimmie Mac,” as they called him, was not actually a minister of any particular church, or an ordained minister at all, but a railroad conductor who, with his wife Estelle, made a hobby of “bringing religion” to The Walls. Viridis had surreptitiously drawn his portrait more than once, not that she intended to publish it, but that McPhee was a character study in pious asceticism.

They never let Estelle McPhee join her husband to witness these executions, much as she agitated to be allowed to witness. She was a woman and women were not allowed. Oh, she hollered and screamed that they would allow Viridis to attend but wouldn’t let
her
, who was like a sister to these poor doomed sinners. They’d had some trouble explaining to Estelle that Viridis was a “newspaperwoman” and thus exempt from the restriction.

Actually, it had been Tom Fletcher, the managing editor, who’d arranged for Viridis to attend. Warden Burdell was in Mr. Fletcher’s debt for a few favors regarding privacy of information, and Tom had used the privilege to get Viridis under the ban, and consequently to get some exclusive pictures of the condemned men in their last moments. Photographs were strictly forbidden, there was no getting around that.

Viridis wasn’t actually a “newspaperwoman.” Her reportage was graphic, not verbal, although she was not above, on occasion, such as now, doing double duty as reporter and illustrator, careful to get the correct names of all the witnesses and to record such things as the exact time, and what the prisoner said, and so forth. For an important execution, for a murderer such as that heinous Clarence Smead, who had butchered his parents, the
Gazette
sent an actual reporter along with Viridis (and her drawing of Smead weeping like a baby in his last moments had made the front page), but for some reason known only to the men whose fraternity the new science of “journalism” consecrated, the crime of rape was considered a lesser offense, perhaps excusable, even if it had been perpetrated upon a thirteen-year-old hillbilly girl of subnormal intelligence by a tall, brutal moonshiner. “He’s all yours, Very,” Tom Fletcher had said to her, informing her that the
Gazette
would not send a regular reporter to the electrocution of Nail Chism.

The two guards, McChristian and Fancher, moved to the side of the room where the witnesses sat. Warden Burdell moved to the wall where Irvin Bobo stood beside the switch. The prisoner was alone in his chair in a small room that suddenly seemed much larger because of his isolation, as if the walls and ceiling had expanded to make him smaller and lonelier. Viridis snapped her charcoal pencil in two, between her clenched fingers, and abruptly realized it was the only sound in the silence, and was embarrassed, as if she had broken wind.

“Ready, Bobo?” the warden said, and raised one hand.

Bobo nodded.

“…for Thine is the Power and the Glory, Forever and Ever…” intoned Jimmie Mac, in hardly more than a whisper, but it was booming.

Viridis Monday had an uncanny sensation of hearing a kind of singing, a choir of voices, but they were not human voices. The sound seemed to be—and remembering it later, she couldn’t account for the strange thought—the sound seemed as if the trees themselves (but there were no trees!) were singing. Later she would remember two questions occurring to her at that moment: Can trees sing? and What trees?

She could not answer either question.

The swelling sound of the song, or cantata, was punctuated by tympana, a drumroll, and in the instant that the warden’s hand fell she realized that the drumroll was somebody knocking on a door and the warden was lowering his hand not to signal Bobo to pull the switch but to point at the door and say, “Somebody get that!”

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