SUE CHAMBLIN FREDERICK
THE MAN SHE CALLED DARLING
A Novel by Sue Chamblin Frederick
Book Three in The Madison County Series
DooRay hurried across the wide field that led to Ran Terry’s cypress pond as though it were the proverbial mansion on a hilltop, that same mansion where streets were paved with gold and where angels strummed their glorious harps. His bare feet skirted the Donnelly farm’s newly-planted corn, his narrow footprint depicting long toes that grabbed the dirt like miniature plows.
The sapling-thin black man headed due west, passing under the shade of century-old oaks, taking care not to snag the end of his cane pole in the limbs above. He could smell the sweet water of the pond as he slipped to the bottom of the hill, the pond’s fish not knowing a cane pole would come after them with absolute precision by a one-armed, but skilled, fisherman. He sang as he walked, his high tenor voice sweeping the morning air with the words of Sweet, Sweet Chariot, and landing in the gentle hills of Madison County.
DooRay had fished in the cool shade of the pond for years, favoring a decrepit cypress stump, flat on the top, which was just right for sitting. There were years he didn’t fish, years he had left his beloved Madison County and fought the Germans in World War II. The tall man, his skin cave black, sometimes pondered the tragedy of his missing arm, the memory of it laying shriveled up and ragged in the mud of an artillery field.
There were times he’d forget it was gone and, in a flash of color, imagine it back where it was supposed to be. He decided it was a trick of the mind, like a hallucination. It was when he slept that he envisioned his arm back where it was before the war and dreamed of playing softball or dressing up to cat around in town on Saturday nights looking for a pretty woman. Sadly, at the end of his dream, his arm would disappear and he was sure no woman wanted a one-armed man who used his toes like fingers.
Once in his dream, he balked and shouted to a crowd who watched his long toes work as good as fingers, able to twist and tuck and dig. He even raised his long, skinny leg and waved his toes to the crowd as he faded away in the dream.
“Git a move on, you old goat. Don’t you know those fish is waitin’ for us.” DooRay slapped the hind end of Murphy and clucked his tongue. “A body’d starve if they waited on you. ‘sides that, Miss Essie’s havin’ company tonight for dinner. She say we gone fry fish.” DooRay chuckled. “I’m thinkin’ Mr. Sam gone be eatin’ fish wid us.” The old goat had nothing to say nor did he bother to change his gait; he knew his master would wait on him no matter how slow he was.
In a half mile, the pair entered a stand of towering bald cypress, some over a hundred feet in height, and maneuvered around the woody projections of cypress knees that rose from the earth as if gasping for air. Only a few steps farther, DooRay felt the cool water cover his feet. He looked behind him and watched Murphy’s hooves sink into the dark water. He knew the goat liked the pond as much as he did.
Under a moss-covered tree, DooRay eased to a standstill and listened to voices filtering through the trees in short bursts, a cackling of laughter. Then, the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke wafted in the cool air, through the shade and then hung in thin puffs above the still water.
DooRay eased back a few feet, tugging on Murphy. “We gots to go,” he said quietly, a slight tremble in his words.
“Hey, nigger!” About thirty yards away, a man in denim overalls jumped from a log and moved in DooRay’s direction. “Get over here, boy!”
DooRay turned away. “Going home,” he said, over his shoulder, taking a quick step in the direction of the Donnelly barn. He heard water sloshing behind him and knew the man was running toward him. DooRay turned and watched as the man climbed on a flat cypress stump and pointed at him.
“Cain’t you hear good?” he called, twisting his flushed face into ribbons of hate. “I said get over here!”
DooRay studied the angry face. The man’s nose seemed squashed against his face, like a boxer’s nose. Ears that were truly cauliflower ears stuck out from his head, uncovered by the dingy hat he wore. His body held a bulky weight as he balanced on the stump and sent a bullet-like stare to DooRay. He growled as he lifted a whiskey bottle to his lips. He drank long, then capped the bottle. “I ain’t tellin’ you agin, nigger.”
Murphy nudged DooRay’s leg. There’s trouble here he seemed to be saying. Let’s go home. DooRay recognized the same fear he felt in September of 1944, in that ditch three miles north of Lucca, Italy, as his patrol began to advance toward the Germans. He had fought hard, his two arms holding his rifle, leading his all Negro patrol into enemy territory.
At the edge of the pond, the drunk man close, DooRay acknowledged this was no different than Italy. His one arm hung by his body, his fingers touching the top of Murphy’s head. The man hollered to another man who crept up behind him, and propped his foot on the cypress stump. “Would you lookie here, Spit. I wonder how this nigger would swim with only one arm. I say we throw him in the Withlachoochee and find out.”
Spit nodded. “Now, that’s a deal, Bama.” His laughter was drunk shrill, then sunk into the dark recesses of the pond.
DooRay heard his feet suck out of the mud when he quickly turned and begin to run, Murphy at his heels. It was then that the whiskey bottle soared through the air and slammed into his head, sending spurts of blood into the air. As he fell, he heard a gunshot and watched as Murphy stumbled and fell beside him. Just before his eyes closed, he heard his beloved one-eared goat release a weak cry. DooRay reached out and placed his hand on the old goat. “Gone be alright, my friend.”