JENEAN MCBREARTY - THE JU-JU-TATUM
The Ju-Ju Tatum
Stoney Jackson got expelled from Boyle County School for lying again, although neither Miss Feathering nor Principal McIntyre could prove he’d lied. The impossibility spared Stoney a whipping, but McIntyre told him to go home and not come back for a week.
“You’re not to say a word about this, Miss Feathering,” McIntyre told her, “If I could, I’d expel you too.”
“Why me, Sir? You don’t believe that blasphemy he told, do you?”
McIntyre knew she had connections in Frankfort, but he wasn’t willing to lose his soul to defend a teacher so recently arrived from a big northern city school. He trained his squint on her. She was a Suffragette, no doubt. “If what Stoney says is true, this could mean trouble and, Lord knows, we don’t need no more trouble in Boyle County.”
She didn’t stir from her seat across from McIntyre’s desk. “Ghost horses are the imaginings of children and fools. Believing Confederate soldiers rise from the grave when the New Moon is high, goes against the Bible. If it’s true, it’s witchcraft! You don’t believe a twelve-year-old boy capable of consorting with demons, do you?”
“Cain’t say I do, and cain’t say I don’t. I’ve lived in Boyle County all my life and know three men who died from a horse throw on the night of a New Moon. If Stoney saw a ghost horse last night, I ain’t takin’ no chances.” He looked over his shoulder, then lowered his head. “He and Freedom Washington could be friends. Passes by Deerson’s farm on his way home.”
“Anyone armed with reason has no cause for fear, and I’ll prove it. I’ll ride past Deerson’s farm straight to Caleb Jones’ grave the next New Moon, by myself, if I have to.”
Stoney overheard her declaration. He’d hidden between the schoolhouse and a mulberry bush beneath McIntyre’s office window, anxious to learn of Feathering’s fate. Yes, he lied about things like being sick when he didn’t do his homework, or when Sander’s Creek called him to fish instead of sitting in a classroom all day, but he’d never lie about seeing the harbinger of impending doom. “Someone’s in for bad luck,” he told Feathering when he showed up late and sleepy. She’d called him to the cloak room and demanded an explanation. He warned her she wouldn’t like his answer. “At least it weren’t saddled. That would mean the Grim Reaper was comin’. Maybe for you.”
“Stoney Jones, what exactly did you say to Miss Feathering that got her all upset?” Joanna Jackson had him sitting at the table, helping her peel apples. Three apple pies are what Rev. and Mrs. Peterson ordered, and three they’d get, even if meant using the last of the summer crop.
“Miss Feathering’s from Chicago. What does she know ‘bout lurking dangers? A New Moon is fixin’ to appear, and she needed warning. She laughed and said only ignorant people believed in country tales, but I know what I saw. I told her she better not raise the Rebel ire of Caleb Jones, is all.”
“You scared her. Scared her to her bones, and you did it on purpose,” his mother said. Couldn’t two things be true at the same time?
“She told me to take admit I lied, only I cain’t deny what I seen. Don’t want Caleb Jones and his mama comin’ after me.”
She put down her paring knife. “Look me square in the eye, and tell me the truth, Stoney.”
He ran upstairs to his room, removed two sheets of paper he stole from Feathering’s desk, and returned to the kitchen. “Here’s the truth,” he said and read what he’d transcribed:
Jonetta Jones had two fine sons,
one dressed in blue, the other in gray.
One fought for ol’ Abe Lincoln,
The other laid down his life that day
For Jeff Davis’ side.
He took two bullets to his chest,
Suffered two day afore givin’ up the ghost,
But still don’t know no rest.
The union boys buried William Jones,
while leavin’ Caleb in the sun,
vowing with a pitiful sigh,
“Shoot me again, and again, again,
‘til I’m buried, I won’t die.”
Ain’t his grave-site
under yonder dogwood’s boughs?
Sure, we covered up his bones,
but insult ain’t yet put right.
To this day, in the New Moon’s light,
he calls for a horse to ride,
and somewhere a man is thrown aground,
as his steed gallops to Caleb’s side.
I swear, Mama, I did see the ghost horse. Right in our backyard from my bedroom window. She’s the finest horse I’ve ever seen, and we got some mighty fine bloodlines in Kentucky.”
His mam’s face was pale. She whispered, “That’s a fact. But wherever did you get that poem?
“I found it in the school library,” Stoney lied.
“But you do say the ghost horse weren’t saddled?”
“Nope. Not last night.”
“There’s comfort in that.” She stood, and then sat down again, making sure he looked at her straight on. “You can’t tell anyone else about this, Stoney. You’ll scare everybody. We don’t want no night riders burning us out. And tonight, you keep your shade drawn, you hear?”
He nodded yes, and peeled the last two apples as his mother rolled out her dough. There was only one person who wouldn’t be afraid of the legend’s poem, and that was the man who’d told it to him: Mr. Washington.
Freedom Washington claimed to be eighty years old. He also claimed to have fought in the Battle of Perryville in October of ’62, and said he saw William and Caleb Jones fall. Stoney didn’t believe him at first, but the more Mr. Washington told him, the more he realized no one could make up stories like that.
Mr. Washington had been slave, and had come north after the war lookin’ for work. Mr. Deerson hired him as a stable boy, but he was so good with the horses he was soon promoted to a groom and then trainer. All the black folks looked up to him. By the time he was old, he’d saved enough money to buy and acre and build a house. “He can plant a broom straw and grow something to eat,” Stoney’s daddy said of him.
But Mr. Washington’s first love was horses. “In Lu’siana, I saw the Master ride his big roan every day, lookin’ all proud astride an animal that was ten times strong as he was. I said to myself, someday I’ll ride a horse that fine, and one day I did, all the way to freedom. Yes, Sir, I said, ’cause they can only hang me once.”
Stoney thought that was the wisest thing he’d ever heard, a sort of poor man’s bible teaching.
“When the war came, I joined the Union cause as a cook for Gen. Buell’s men. They raided all the farms. Took my horse along with all the others. I didn’t mind giving up my life for the union, but my horse?”
Stoney and Mr. Washington laughed about that, which was god because there were times Stoney cold not laugh.
“Thousands of blue and gray unformed bodies laid on the hills, and in the streets of Perryville,” the old man said. “Such bleeding and crying I ain’t seen since the slave markets. I’ll never forget it.”
“You ought to make sure no one forgets it,” Stoney said as they sat on Deerson’s haybales inside the barn.
“Cain’t read nor write myself, but you’re good at it. I’ll tell you what to write and you hide my words ‘til I’m gone. We’ll sit by the creek and catch us some fish, and I’ll cook ‘em up fine while you write.”
“Why don’t you want nobody to read your words, Mr. Washington? Yankees pay good money to hear how brave their soldiers were.”
“You just promise me, and I’ll tell you by and by. I promise.” And he made good on that promise the day Stoney came to ask him about the ghost horse. They were inside Deerson’s barn, sitting on the haybales as they often did when they wanted to talk privately. Mr. Washington spied a piece of wood about eight inches long near one of the stalls, examined it, unsheathed his knife. and began whittling away the bits that weren’t needed.
“Mr. Deerson’s granddaughter said you was evicted from school. You’ll be smarter if you stay.”
“I don’t hardly mind,” Stoney said. “Miss Feathering is God-fearin’ but don’t know much except book learnin.’ I come here when I want to know important things. Like the whole story of Caleb Jones.”
Mr. Washington chuckled at that. “Mr. Deerson’s granddaughter said you gave that lady a fright talkin’ about the ghost horse. Only one secret ‘round here. Guess it’s time you knew it too … although the truth is best kept secret sometimes. You know that after the battle of Perryville the Union soldiers packed up their dead and buried them proper, and left the Rebs to lie in the sun and rot. Wouldn’t let no one put ‘em under neither. When the wind shifted there was a horrible stink. What you don’t know is that I knew where Caleb’s body was ‘cause I saw him fall. I took one of the officer’s horses, and slung what was left of Caleb over his back. I be knowin’ the Jones for years and they was good to me. It wasn’t right for one of her boys to be buried and the other not. I dug his grave myself, and laid him under the dogwood tree ‘for I rode back to the Union camp.”
“Then Caleb Jones is buried in our orchard?”
“It’s true, Stoney. The Jones’ sold off their land and moved to Louisville after they lost their sons. There weren’t no one left to help them farm. Mr. Jones opened a seed store.”
They both went silent; the only sound was the chuch-chuch of Mr. Washington’s knife. Stoney leaned against a hay bale, and thought about his mother’s fearful eyes. The Klan kept people law-abiding alright, whether a law had been broken or not. Certainly, he and his Mama and Mr. Washington weren’t powerful enough to fend them off.
“War is a terrible plague, Stoney. Of all men’s foolery, it’s the worst. Your daddy didn’t come home. Your mama’s without her man. But, sometimes, it’s got to be. The Civil War weren’t no dilemma for Lu’siana folks. They knew which side they were fightin’ on. But Kentucky folks, they was as divided as the country. Guess why they put that sayin’ on the flag: united we stand, divided we fall. Got to remind people.”
“Did the Jones know you buried their son?”
“I didn’t tell ‘em. Don’t nobody know, ‘cept me and you.”
“But if you didn’t tell ‘em, why’d you do it?”
Mr. Washington took a drink from the old war canteen he always carried over his shoulder. “It weren’t about burying. It was about honor among fightin’ men. William and Caleb were sixteen and fourteen when they picked up their rifles, but a man either has courage or he don’t and there’s no blue or gray in the grave. There’s only the respect for having the guts to fight in the battle. I know what it’s like to be treated like you ain’t nothin’.”
Mr. Washington stopped his whittling and handed the little carved man to Stoney. “You get a cord —silk if you can but leather will do. You wear the Ju-Ju Tatum ‘round your neck and it’ll protect you.”
Stoney turned the figure over and saw Mr. Washington had carved the initials INRI in its back. “Protect me from what?”
“From whatever come your way on the night of the New Moon. You done been given a special gift, but with that come special danger too. Miss Feathering is determined to take it away from you, but don’t you let her.”
Stoney put the Ju-Ju Tatum in his pocket. “This be slave magic?”
“This be Freedom Washington’s magic. Soon time’ll take all those who were once owned in body but not in spirit. All our slaves be gone. Magic come from stories then.”
Deerson’s farm was a long two miles from the Jackson’s. Stoney knew he’d better leave if he was going to walk it before dusk. “I’d best be saying good-bye, Mr. Washington. I thank you for the truth. You did a brave thing burying Caleb Jones. I’m proud to know a man as brave as you.”
“You go on home, now. Keep off the road.”
It was good advice, but the problem was, he couldn’t outrun the sun that was sinking fast. The fields were dangerous at night. Stumble into a rabbit hole, get snake-bit, or meet a foaming-mouthed dog, and it might be days before you were found. Kentucky folks built small walls of stone that lined the roads, flat rocks that kept in moisture, held the mud and grass in place, and kept the roads passable as they could be without cementing.
He gave the Ju-Ju Tatum in his overalls pocket a squeeze, climbed over, and took off sprinting. Past Deerson’s tobacco fields, and paddocks. Past the turn-off for Sander’s creek. But then he heard hoof-beats and saw moon-lit smoke. Coming towards him was an army of white-robed men in white peaked hoods, carrying the torches that lit up the sky with terror.
Quick as a lightning bug, he jumped right and scrambled over the rock wall to hide himself. All the while, praying the Jackson farm wasn’t their destination. If Deerson’s granddaughter knew had what he’d told Miss Feathering, everyone in the county knew. All he could say was, “Mama. I’m sorry” through his tears.
There must have been at least thirty in the grisly parade. If any of them noticed the boy cowering behind dead cornstalks, it would have been just a glance because they were riding hard. Passed him in seconds with nary a whoop or a yell. Only the fire light and the ground-pounding horses announced their mission. To Stoney, they were an ever-present mystery. Among all the gentlemen who’d be in church Sunday morning would be the Klansmen who rode Saturday night, doling out their own brand of justice. Why did they have to hide if they were so sure they were doing right?
He took off running, away from the diming light trail as fast as he could. He saw the glowing windows of his house, and turned up the lane through the orchard. “Ma, it’s me!” he cried out, and she came out to the back porch, craning her neck as she searched for him.
“Stoney! Stoney, you get yourself in here. Hurry, now.”
Panting and crying, he bunded up the back stairs into her panicked arms. “You saw them?” he said.
“Yes, I saw them. Where you been? I left you a note. I took the pies over to the Reverend, and when I got back, you hadn’t eaten the little pie I made you.” She wrapped her arm around his shoulder and held him tight all the way to a kitchen chair, and he could feel her trembling.
“I thought they might have come here, Ma. But then I thought, no, I’d have seen the light from a house burning. I hid just the same.”
She sank into a chair, and buried her face in her hands. He’d never seen his mother cry before. It seemed like she couldn’t hold her worry inside no matter how hard she tried. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
She went to the bread box and pulled out a saucer that held a little apple pie. “Take this upstairs with you.” She got a glass, too, and filled it with milk and handed them to him. “Go to bed.
The second night of the New Moon, Stoney sat at his bedroom window well after midnight, watching the tree shadows dance in the wind, wondering if the ghost horse would appear. Around his neck was the Ju-Ju Tatum, secured not by silk, but by a braid of three strands of satin he’d shredded from one of his grandmother’s ancient pillowcases. The attic was full of treasures threatening to disappear, and he’d harvested many of them. He’d eaten his apple pie with a silver pickle fork he’d rescued. And on his dresser was a leather frame he’d salvaged from his granddaddy’s trunk for the photo of his Daddy in his doughboy uniform.
What a shame Freedom Washington had no children. None that he spoke of anyway. His mama said Mr. Washington probably did have some kin, somewhere, but slave families were often separated. Stoney like to think Mr. Washington regarded him as kin a hundred times removed, especially since he now wore Ju-Ju Tatum ‘round his neck. He lied to think he was related to the Joneses in a way too, now that it was just him and his Ma making their way alone.
“It’s their fruit trees what supports us now your daddy’s gone,” she told him. “I don’t mind a twit if Caleb is buried near them. There ain’t that much that separates the dead from the living, anyways. Just a thread as thin as a spider’s.” It might be true. Many families seemed to have kin buried near them, mostly children they couldn’t afford funerals for, so maybe Caleb Jones counted even if he didn’t know it.
He came suddenly alert when he saw the horse in the orchard. It seemed at first she was playing hide-n-seek the way she appeared in one place, disappeared, and reappeared somewhere’s else. She’d toss her head, making her mane fall in ripples along side her neck, and she’d prance a step or two. Why, she’s dancing, Stoney thought. And then he saw the boy, under the dogwood tree, holding out an apple with his right hand. His uniform was ragged. His hat set alop on top his head. Over his shoulder he wore a canteen like Mr. Washington’s, and a powder horn crossed his chest. It was a forbidden scene, one he’d never seen if he hadn’t disobeyed his mama, but he couldn’t force himself to pull the shade.
He wanted to cry out, “Mama, come see, and know I was telling you the truth,” but the hour was late and he felt a strange sense of greed. He wanted the vision to himself. He stripped the white case off his pillow and waved it from the window. It was the universal sign of surrender, he’d been told. Caleb had to know he meant no harm.
Finally, the boy looked up and Stoney saw his moonlit face. If he was a restless soul, he sure covered it well with a cheerful smile, and a gallant wave. The ghost horse came to him, and proved that even in death horses like apples. Caleb saddled her deftly, and put the bridle over her head. Did it mean no man had been thrown? Caleb lifted himself into the saddle, and once again turned to wave, this time good-bye as he cantered off through the orchard.
The legend ain’t a story, it’s real, Stoney thought as sleep overtook him. He knew the truth. It belonged to him and not Miss Feathering or Principal McIntyre or the Klansmen could take it from him.
Stoney woke to his mother calling him down to breakfast. The perfume of Johnny Cake and honey wafted upstairs, and he shed his blankets like snakeskin. It was a glorious autumn Sunday, and he was filled with a glorious sense of certainty.
“Don’t dawdle, Stoney, I’ve got things to do.”
“And wipe the smiles off your face today.”
She didn’t look at him. Whatever happened must have been awful. “Are you goin’ see Reverend Peterson?” It was better than asking who died.
“Freedom Washington passed last night. There’s a meeting before service.”
“Mr. Washington’s gone?” His hand moved to the Ju-Ju Tatum. “Was it the Klansmen?”
“No. Nobody knows what happened. Deerson came by early. Said he found him in one of the stalls. They’ve been waiting on a mare to foal, and Freedom was staying with her.”
“The question is, where’s he gonna be buried and who’s gonna pay for his box. Some folks don’t believe he should have a Christian burial at all. Not even the black folks.”
Stoney pushed his plate aside. “I’ll go with you.”
“This ain’t none of your business, Boy. You stay home and do your chores. Eat now.”
“Nope. I’m going with you. Mr. Washington was my friend. I got to tell folks the truth about him.”
His mama stopped washing her pans. “Are you gonna confess your sins and testify?”
“I don’t know about that…”
She came over to him. “Have you been moved by the Holy Spirit?”
“I don’t know if it was a holy spirit, but I was moved just the same.” His answer was important. It would decide Mr. Washington’s fate. “The Spirit done told me where Mr. Washington should be buried.”
She drew back, and searched his eyes. She found determination. “Then you hitch up the surrey and we’ll go together.”
All the important people would be there. Rev. and Mrs. Peterson. Principal McIntyre. The two town gossips. Mr. Deerson, because he was a deacon, and the colored folks who were convinced Mr. Washington was a Creole voo-doo priest. All the way there, Stoney thought about what he would say to the assembly. He even prayed for the right words for his eulogy, as they called it.
Each one of twenty-odd folks who came to Grace Baptist stood and spoke about how Freedom Washington never went to church, always made plain that he wasn’t a part of the congregation, and spent all his time carving graven mages for magic spells. The consensus was, he shouldn’t be buried in the church cemetery or in potter’s field. Finally, Rev. Peterson said, “Enough discussion about what we ain’t gonna do. Now let’s hear suggestions about what we can do. We cain’t leave him to the elements.”
Stoney raised his hand. “I’d like to speak, Reverend,” he said.
Before anyone could object, Mr. Deerson said, “Let him speak. He knew Freedom better than most of us.”
Stoney held a Bible in his right hand and his left held the Ju-Ju Tatum around his neck, as he walked down the aisle to the Reverend’s lectern. He hadn’t noticed more people had come into the church. Miss Feathering was sitting in the pew directly behind his mama. But it didn’t shake him a whit. Just seeing her reminded him of what Mr. Washington had told him ‘bout not letting her take his gift.
“The Holy Spirit visited me again last night. Not in the form of a white bird, but in the form of a white horse. He went to Caleb Jones’ resting place and called him up out of the grave because Caleb had a good deed to do. He had to go with God to get the soul of the man who rescued him from dishonor, and pay Mr. Washington back for it. So, Caleb he tacked up and off they rode together. You know why? Because the Holy Spirit didn’t want Mr. Washington to be afraid of dyin’. He wanted Mr. Washington to know he was going to be really free now.”
“That’s blasphemy!’ Miss Feathering said. “The Holy Spirit isn’t going to come in the form of a white horse.”
“I thought God can do pretty much anything, Reverend Peterson, Sir.” Stoney said.
“Your accusation is noted, Miss Feathering, but let’s hear the boy out,” the Reverend said. “You ain’t from around here. We’ve all heard stories about Caleb Jones. I’d like to hear the truth about him and Freedom Washington. Go on, Stoney.”
Stoney took the Ju-Ju Tatum from his neck and held it up so they could all see. “Those weren’t graven images he carved, they was his hobby. No worse than carving a bedstead or a clock. He made this for me yesterday.” He handed the Ju-Ju Tatum to Reverend Peterson, who looked at it closely as he continued.
“Mr. Washington whittled it the last time I saw him. Each little shaving is a minute spent talking with me. Tellin’ me I should stay in school. Laughin’ with me. I hear tell that Christians do good even when nobody’s lookin’ and don’t nobody know. I’d say burying the dead son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones when a general of the whole United States army says not to, just ‘cause it’s the right thing to do, counts as doin’ good.”
“All well and good, but that doesn’t mean he was a Christian, Reverend,” Mr. McIntyre said. “I think that’s what nagging at us.”
“Wait a minute,” Rev. Peterson said as handed the Ju-Ju Tatum back to Stoney. “Freedom was from Lu’siana. Lots of Catholics down there. We don’t hold with statues in church, but Catholics got a long history of religious art. I think Freedom might have been a Catholic, Stoney. You see those letters he carved on the back? INRI —Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
“It don’t matter to me what he was,” Stoney said. “If it’s alright with y’all, you can bury Mr. Washington under the dogwood tree where Caleb Jones is buried. If none of you wants to pray over him, I’ll do it ‘cause he was my friend, too…”
“I ain’t one much for building boxes, but I’ll donate the wood,” Mr. Deerson said. He turned to Stoney. “Do you think Freedom and Caleb will stay in their graves now that they’re both buried proper?”
“I think they will. The next time I see the ghost horse, I’ll get to ride it. Until them I have Mr. Washington’s stories and his poem to remember him.”
“You come by my place after school. I’ll be needing somebody to help me with my horses now that Freedom is gone. I got some mighty fine horses here. I won’t let just anyone tend ‘em.”
The problem of what to do when their living legend passed was settled there on the spot. With Deerson’s wood and the nimble hands of a black carpenter, Freedom Washington was laid to rest with the bones of Caleb Jones lying beside him. Miss Feathering didn’t come to the service. Neither did the two town biddies, but Rev. Peterson prayed over the Catholic and the Reb proper, and called them heroes.
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