A Killing in This Town
A Novelby Olympia Vernon
“Viscerally moving . . . A fugue of folk idiom, blues, biblical diction and surreal imagery makes for lots of atmosphere.” –Publishers Weekly
Award-winning author Olympia Vernon’s third novel, A Killing in This Town, is a taut, poetic masterpiece that exhumes a horrific epoch from the annals of the American South.
There is a menace in the woods of Bullock County, Mississippi, and not only for the black man destined to be lynched when a white boy comes of age. The white men who work at the plant are in danger, too, but they refuse to heed Earl Thomas’s urgent message that the factory is slowly killing them, turning a deaf ear to the black pastor. Thomas knows he should try to deliver the message again, but he hears the blood of his murdered friend calling to him from the ground, and fears that he will be the next black man to be dragged to his death. Adam Pickens, a white boy now on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, isn’t sure he wants to wear the garb being readied for him by the Klan seamstress, or participate in the town’s ugly ritual. It is only with the return of Gill Mender–a man haunted by past sins–that redemption seems possible. A transfixing and pivotal work of fiction, A Killing in This Town exposes the fragile hierarchy of a society poisoned by hatred, and shows the power of an individual to stand up to the demons of history and bring the cycle of violence to an end.
“Olympia Vernon’s new novel, a fever-dream evocation of a small Mississippi town, may put some readers in mind of the spooky vignettes of Sherwood Anderson’s Winsburg, Ohio and the lyric stories about Hancock County, Ga., in Jean Toomer’s Cane. . . . There are brutal echoes of Emmett Till in the central recurring image . . . kaleidoscopic . . . biblical . . . Vernon . . . intimate[s] how cyclical violence in a town finds a way of seeping poisonously into its blood and stunting its growth . . . [Vernon] vividly lays out a collection of blasted lives.” –Maud Casey, The New York Times Book Review
“Vernon’s spooky magic has never been deeper or stronger. . . . The beauty and fury of Vernon’s writing burn brightly in this age-old Southern story, made new and startling by her fierce intensity, her witchy ability to cast a spell. Readers . . . will know they’ve entered a writer’s original world and will find themselves haunted by its characters, its landscape and its siren song.” –Susan Larson, New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Vernon’s fiction . . . reads as if it landed on the page direct from the writer’s dreams, with all the emotional power and fractured logic of nightmares. . . . Her stories never lose their narrative thrust, or wander away from their characters. The gut-level integrity of her vision carries the reader . . . to an understanding of the spiritual tragedy at the heart of her work.” –Maria Browning, Nashville Scene
“Vernon’s amazing skill with language imbues this tale with a dreamy quality of otherness that contrasts with the graphic and bloody story being told. . . . At once emotionally wrenching and rewarding to read.” –Greg Langley, The Advocate (Baton Rouge)
“Unflinching . . . The author’s metaphorical language reflects the drama’s oppressive physicality. . . . This is a powerful, difficult work by a writer absolutely determined to see.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Viscerally moving . . . A fugue of folk idiom, blues, biblical diction and surreal imagery makes for lots of atmosphere.” –Publishers Weekly
“Vernon’s Eden put the reading world on notice that a bright and original voice had arrived. Logic only confirms that strong promise.” –Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) on Logic
“Daring [and] explosively supernatural . . . a startling reminder of how forceful Southern magic can be.” –Ann Powers, The New York Times Book Review on Eden
“A profoundly raw and gripping read.”–Jean Thompson, Baltimore Sun on Eden
Winner of the first Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence (2008)
Earl Thomas was a dead nigger.
And he well knew it.
There was a pulsating rod beneath the muscle in his face where Hoover Pickens had pinned him down at the Pauer Plant nearly thirteen years ago and bade him beg for mercy.
Earl Thomas had only come to deliver the letter: it had come on such a morning when the sun was hungry for attention and soaked his clothes all wet and took to his body–a suffocating moan emerged–the numbers smeared, written in a sudden rebelliousness that leaped from the hand that wrote it.
The night before, a tiny bird landed on the maple. Perhaps it had come from up north where the cold was so still and caught in the blade of its feather that only the atmosphere of a small town could bring it to stay.
Emma New heard no sound at all in the world. Thirty years they’d been married and still the sounds of earth and sky could not bring her to wake when it seemed she was already so safe in her sleeping.
Earl Thomas emerged from the warmth that had become a part of his body, the source of his thinking rising upward, away from the bone. He sat there a moment on the bed’s edge and reached through the darkness of the room, as if to balance his hand on the slate of air around him.
A cough erupted. He brought his hand up to his throat and pressed with his large fingers: the cough lay trapped in the distinctive measurement of his larynx.
With his fingertip, he killed it.
The cough was no longer alive but had gone down, back inside his lungs, where he knew it would rise again.
He did not want to wake Emma New.
He turned to where her face was, ungreedy for his hand or love. And now he noticed it: the moon had struck her face with a permanent, solitary stadium of peace and clung to her breathing, as if a match had been lit in the room.
His hand rose over her nostrils, and if ever heaven existed, it was now, when God had seen the possibility and manner of what breathing could predict.
Perhaps it was, indeed, the bird that woke him.
Or this, the moment he realized that love could live in this world and the one after it, if he took to it now, while it breathed in his full mind and body.
This noise, this room, absorbed him, shook him from his place. A cry, unlike the cough in his throat, could not be muzzled: his lips began to tremble.
The trembling was massive. Emma New began to stir: in her momentary waking, she lifted her wrist from her side–a prediction–and whispered quietly: Earl, what’s the matter?
He let go of the full cry, the trembling. Thus it came, the beginning words: I just now seen it, Emma New.
He paused. Just now.
She, too, could hear the bird on the maple, and her response told of the matter that she’d woken up to: Come to bed.
But he couldn’t come to bed, not now, when he had carried the letter in his pocket for such a long time, held a horrible secret within him that stuck to his ribs. He was good and wholesome in his mindful territory, he could try again and Hoover Pickens would take it and he’d tell Hoover Pickens how he’d tried to give it to him, even if, even if Hoover Pickens called him a nigger.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow. There were no tomorrows in the world of Earl Thomas. Not anymore. It was too late. The government had sent the letter: To the Men of the Pauer Plant, it read. Courtesy of the Pastor.
Of all the arrangements in the world, this was his, forged into completion: God, too, had sent it to him and only him to tell it, to spread the word to Hoover Pickens and the rest of the Klansmen at the Pauer Plant: Get out of there, he’d say. Run, before your lungs burst.
There were no other pastors in this town. He seemed at once frail and inconsistent, unattached to the thing he possessed, and yet he had sprung forth out of duty to God, to the public: whatever it was that rumbled so, it took him, drove him into the ground and earth with it.
He’d heard what they’d done to niggers, how they’d dragged the bodies out, turned them on the face. He heard it in his mind, the bones ground into powder, until a cloud–the dust of vertebrae–rose in the hot wind, the torrential predicament of a bloody thunderhead.
Hoover Pickens had pinned him down, called him a nigger: the image of what he looked like, they, the men, how they looked down on him, tossed him about on the ground, his face swelling in the dust. He had begged, called out: God, he whispered. God.
Earl Thomas had drawn a line.
No matter who had sent him to tell it, he somehow felt esteemed, privileged.
And yet he could not sleep. He was contradictory.
He turned toward Emma New: her stomach had begun to churn.
He was no longer safe there. Noise and regret in the same room at the same time, unfascinating and disobedient, could not live in his head and be free.
He lifted himself from the bed.
He thought of the widow: Sonny had lost her husband.
Dragged to death.
Sonny and Curtis Willow lived on the other side of the forest: the happening was so quick and sedative in his mind that he wanted to vomit. A boy had called Curtis from the house, Sonny behind him in a gown that smothered her weight. They took him, Hoover Pickens and the others, the white men on their horses, and hitched him up to a pulley, dragged him, until his face burned at the root, his lower mandible detached, until his torso snapped.
They said he lost an eye.
The sound of shock and wailing, the sound of hate and body–both together–were so heavy in Earl Thomas’s mind that they reached inward, where his gut was, and shook the transparency of the thing he had kept, a dangling stone.
He hoped that the letter could’ve ended the hatred of the Bullock, Mississippi, Klansmen: the alphabets of the letter were so beautifully aligned, the scent of the sweated and dried-out ink could’ve filled the Pauer Plant and the men–they could’ve gotten out of there, gone home to where a man should’ve been when danger was unsuitable for living.
If only they knew.
But the other words, the other alphabets, loud and dirty in his mind they were, at once, altogether bellowing out: Nigger. Nigger, you’re dead.
The boy, he thought of him now.
It was a ritual in the town of Bullock, Mississippi. On the eve of a boy’s manhood, thirteen, he must become a member. He must go out to a nigger’s house and call him out of it. He’s got to tell the others, abed his horse, to hitch the nigger up to the pulley, hands tied. Feet tied. And drag him, drag the nigger through the woods, until his torso is bloody and his head and body are bloody.
Until he loses an eye.
Hoover Pickens’s boy, Adam, was now coming of age.
He’d have to find him a nigger to drag.
Earl Thomas thought of this, before the bird had become so full of the world and its odor that it flew into the mouth of the moon, where it seemed the face of Emma New Thomas had gone back to sleep.
Hoover Pickens’s lungs hurt.
He stood out on the breakfast porch: his breathing had begun to slow down in the morning time, as it had at night, when the fascinating detail of a flying insect both woke and stirred him to whisper.
He simply could not sleep.
Something uncontrollable, bloody, was in his lungs. Whether it was the rummaging noise of a mosquito, blind to the truth within him, or the slow murmur of age that crept into his breathing eardrum, he could not find it lying down. And, upon occasion, emerged from his slumber with a humbling of the bones that denied him evolution.
He had grown into a tired, systematic dream of his own doing. He never woke from it: he had gone down to a wooded and full tree and looked upward to where the sun had received no apology from his living and hateful body; it moved farther away in the distance, as if it was embarrassment that provoked its mobility.
He whispered into the wooded tree, whispered and could not remember what brought it out of his lungs, and could not, for the coldness of his nature, hear it. Although it had come from him, was born and sprung forth from his heart, the eardrum was the organ that would not accept it.
A cold and dirty sweat awaited him. He shook in his clothes and waited for the whisper and the dream both to deliver their message to the hot summer wind, so that he could forget he’d ever lived it.
The whisper was not born of apology or any such thing. It was without face or eye: it was malicious and fell down upon him with an odor that rushed throughout his bloody lung and quit.
The missis had laid his plate on a small, rotted table on the breakfast porch, but he was not hungry this morning.
He walked away from the house and into the yard of dust around him. He looked down at his shoe where his foot was and wanted to move the ground from beneath him. God had made it so.
For he felt a man ought to be able to move his foot and shake the earth around him, especially when this part was his. He was a part of his own thinking this morning, but there was never a line in his head that offered regret.
There was none.
No lines of regret for Sonny or Curtis. When he thought of Sonny Willow, a laughter rose within him and he spat on the ground, as if to say: Here’s your Curtis.
He remembered the look of terrifying exhaustion in her cheek, and it was well with him that they had put it there: they had caused a frightening detail to rise in her face, saw her there in the gown that mocked her weight, how lonesome she was when he tied Curtis down to the pulley.
He laughed now: the sun, as it had in his dreams, found its mobility. He looked up at the oracle above him and shook his fist at it.
He had begun to sweat in his shoe.
D. D. Pickens appeared through the screen door and, in her wisdom, walked out onto the breakfast porch where she called him to live.
Hoover Pickens, you ain’t worth a soul hungry, she yelled.
He turned to face her. Her body had become pitiful: the face was brittle, a hint of mockingbird bone. The breasts beneath the gown that shattered any possibility of want. Her beauty had come early in the world, when he stood behind her at the window and put a seed in her belly.
In a minute, D.D., he whispered.
She turned, her face against the bed of the screen, and sighed.
She did not know it, but her face was a disease: it was so sick in Hoover Pickens’s mind that he plucked it from her standing place and threw it down there where the dust could make it even with the world.
She was dirty.
She did not at all exist.
A long year had made it that way: the pregnancy, late and full-blown, caused an agony in her foot that took its course up her calf and there fell, the pain of her vagina, life coming out.
Hoover Pickens was unremorseful. It was her complaining, the constant moaning of the fever. How he wanted her to hush. Her body was made for this: a woman, in his ripe and full eye, was made to burst.
She was to take it, the pain and fever and the agonizing foot, the pain of her vagina. The hurt. He hated her at that particular moment, for the yelling of the matter. It was his, the boy was his, and she was to push it out without complaint.
She was to take it like a man took it when he called a nigger from his house and dragged him. He saw her there, pushing and weaving herself into a falsetto, and it was the doctor who stopped him from pulling the boy out: Adam, his son, had come.
Hoover Pickens looked up from the dust of his foot.
Midnight, the mutt, disturbed his memory. He had lived as long as Adam. Adam had been born sick and weak at birth: D. D. Pickens reached for her hat, went into town near the Feed and Seed store, and cradled Midnight in her arms. It was customary: the dog had to breathe this child’s air, live with him until the sickness had passed into his own body. It was the vitamins of the tongue that saved, shifted the bad blood out of the boy, until it slept, without ease, in Midnight’s own body and came out in his feces.
Midnight had given Adam life: he had breathed it all in, the sickness and the heart of this child he had come to love with an immeasurable tribe of energy.
Midnight now lay on the breakfast porch.
Adam had not yet come down this morning, but soon he would emerge from the steps of this house and through the screen door to where his father, with his irregular and painful lungs, had now disappeared into the mouth of the adjacent barn.