Here’s an excerpt from a book I’m working on (one of 4) narrated by my main character, Hank Waters.
I was raised by my grandma Cole, who used to whip me with an old-fashioned switch made of fresh hickory. It couldn’t be just any old stick, ‘cause grandma insisted on hickory, the greener the better. When I acted the fool, grandma used to tell me to go get a switch, which seemed a particular bad punishment, making a boy fetch the object of his own destruction. I tried to fool her, of course, and I’d get a soft wood, or run fetch the biggest stick I could find in hopes she’d see my efforts as sincere atonement for my sins. It weren’t easy to fool grandma, however, and she’d pretty much just break that old wood over her knee and run out to fetch her a whipping stick herself. She’d find one long and thin, no more’n a pinky’s whiskers wide, and then she’d peel off all the bark, then the outer layers until all she had was a thin green rod. She would test the stick like one of them civil engineers, working it like it was a bridge that people would drive over every day. She’d stand there a-laying on it with all her might whipping the air’s backside raw.
Whish! is the sound it would make. Whish! It was a-singing in that certain key, singing the song the air knew meant I was in for it. She’d whip and listen, peel off a few more layers, and then whip the air again, listening to see if it was in the proper pitch for a hide tanning. When she got it good and right, she’d turn and gesture for me to come over with just the crook of her finger. I hated that finger a might, I’m a tell you. Sometimes, when I was acting the fool or doing something she told me not to or not doing something she told me to do, Grandma would just pick up the stick and Whish! Whish! Whish! the air and I’d straighten right up. Yes, ma’am, just like that. Sometimes I’d even whisper Ol’ Hickory behind her back, but I think the name made her smile so I didn’t never get no hide tannings for doing that.
I used to wonder why the stick had to be just so with the bark peeled and those outer layers thinned to just the right key. Grandma finally told me the story behind it on her death bed—the story of Old Buck, who used to be a slave on her grandpappy’s plantation. Buck was a hard worker but a stubborn old brute who wouldn’t do as he was told half the time. He weren’t lazy as much as hardheaded. Buck would get so many whuppings that his whole back looked like one mass of keloids, like he was some kind of brown-leather lizard. You couldn’t hardly see skin under all them scars. Grandma’s grandpappy died whipping Buck but he didn’t change one lick. He’d run away—or least he’d call it running away, which was funny since he walked with a limp and couldn’t hardly walk straight with his back bent down the way it was. Still, the run would go down, and Buck would take off running at about the speed a turtle would run after the ice cream man. His arms would be moving up and down as fast as lightning, but his old legs would just be shuffling along at the speed of death. They’d catch him before the moon got up, and give him a token whupping, but it never did no good. Buck never gave in.
One time, around when Buck had to be in his early seventies, Grandma’s daddy hisself came to the farm and said, “I need you to clean out those stalls, Buck. Clean it out good and hitch that old nag to the wagon yonder ‘round the back. I’m selling her and that broke-down carriage to Mr. Jackson down the road, and hr can take her to the damned glue factory for all I care. We gon’ use these freed-up stalls to cure tobacco, since that damned horse ain’t worth the space it takes up in the world.”
Buck looked and nodded like he would get right on it. Thing is, though, when my great-grandpappy and the overseer came back that old horse hadn’t moved. She was still there, curved back and all, a-chomping on hay like she was the Queen’s horse awaiting on her majesty to drive her down the middle of London. Great Grandpappy weren’t happy, not even a note’s worth.
“Boy, didn’t I tell you to get that old nag out and clean this horse’s stall like you was going to eat off the floor?”
Buck looked up and shifted a piece of hay from the right side of his mouth to the left and said something crazy like, “I done axed the horse, but she said she wasn’t finished using it. So, I figured we’d all have to wait a spell till she was ready.”
Of course they didn’t take to kindly to his smart mouth, so right then and there, great-grandpappy picked up a whip and Whish! Whish! Whish! began a-whipping Buck until his knees buckled. He was already bent low enough in those days that he looked his shoes in the eye when he went for a walk, but this time, he was bent really low. Grandma was there, standing next to her daddy, she about six years old, tears just a-streaming from her eyes. She told me that every time the whip would sing, Whish! she would clench her eyes and jump a little. See, she and Old Buck was friends, and he would spent most his free time playing with her and being her horsie for when she wanted a pony ride. It worked out pretty good, since he was so bent that it was easier for him to walk on all fours than upright anyway.
One last crack sent Old Buck down for the last time. He collapsed to his knees, blood dripping from his nose but barely a drop from his scored-up back, and he commenced to breathing as ragged as an old, tore-up dress. To his part, Grandma’s daddy collapsed too, a-clutching his chest just like his daddy done years before, both men dropping dead while trying to break Old Buck. They carried Great-grandpappy Cole off the plantation that day, right from where he lay. Grandma stood there crying her eyes out, though she never would tell me whether it was her pappy she cried for or that old slave, because Buck’s legs finally gave out for good, and he fell face first into the horse shit of that filthy old stall. They carried him out after Great-grandpappy Cole was took care of, with Buck breathing a dead man’s jagged breath with a face full of horse shit. Grandma never moved, and eventually, her tears just sort of ran out when two more slaves came to pick up Old Buck. He died right there in their arms, but not before turning his head toward my grandma, and with his last mortal breath, giving her a wink and just a bit of a smile. It weren’t much of a smile, just enough to stop Grandma Cole from crying. The two slaves pulled Buck out of there, and according to Grandma, he died a-singing—as soft and low as the wind, “Whish! Whish! Whish!” making that sound the whip made with his last breath as if to say, “Ya’ll done whipped me good, but you never beat me once in my whole life.”
I still don’t reckon I know for certain why Grandma Cole wanted her switch to make that certain sound, the sound of Old Buck’s whips, the sound of the freedom song he sung as he was dragged, dying from that filthy horse stall on a southeast Mississippi plantation, but I reckon maybe it was because she wanted me to have little of what Old Buck had in him, that little stubbornness that says, “Y’all may whip me, but y’all will never beat me.”
And I reckon I got me some of that, too.