The Hanging of Mary
By Claudia Summers
Abeba, The African Giantess, stood on the crest of the hill watching The Great Petey Smith Circus carnies, performers, and mob of spectators swarm the square next to the town’s railroad tracks. Rain had pelted her tent in the dark hours, the thunderous hymn waking her up, but she knew then it wasn’t going to be no cleaning rain. While having her morning coffee, that fancy pants Samuel, ringmaster, had come by her tent, wanting to know where Red was. “I want you wearing the leopard outfit and don’t forget that new spear I got you,” he told her. She had slowly sipped her coffee, then looked up at him. Her hand shielded her eyes against the orange dawn light. “I ain’t taking part in no hanging,” she had said.
Hours later, the high-noon sun burning bright like a photographer’s flash powder, had erased all shadows. Black smoke spewed from Empire Coal’s chimneys, staining the blue sky. Mud furrowed the streets and dragged the hems of the townsfolk’s Sunday best. The scent of honeysuckle drifted by and filled Abeba’s lungs with sweetness, before it crashed into her empty belly and a gut-memory. Sorrowful thoughts had dried her tongue this morn—she couldn’t choke nothin’ down. And now, she ‘membering that day Red had crept into her tent and brung her yella honeysuckle. He gone before she got back, but that sourness of corn whiskey and an unwashed body had still hung in the air right along with the honeysuckle. In his own way, he’d been beggin’ forgiveness for laughing the night before when the white boys tried to beat her down. Red didn’t have words in his mouth. So, his head jus keep gettin’ messier and messier and he never could make sense outta it. Abeba heard Samuel calling the circus folks to begin the parade. N’body was jumpin’ to. Most of ‘em fearin’ what was coming. Sun hellish hot. Startin’ to dry everything up. Maybe a thousand folks down there—all waitin’ for a free show. Where Red be?
Samuel, stiff-erect on his white horse, wiped the sweat out of his eyes, and shouted, “Let’s get this show on the road.” An old roustabout prodded Mary and she began lumbering towards the train derrick, the other four elephants following, tail to trunk. Ahead, an iron chain-hanging noose lay coiled like a serpent next to the train tracks. Mary’s trunk circled and trumpeted; her cry spread across the valley sounding like the song of a chain gang. Clowns danced and somersaulted in rainbow blurs startling against the brown landscape. Along the periphery a towheaded child in a tattered pinafore ran beside them, mirroring their tumbles, shrieking. The Fat Lady battled the mud, holding her bright pink, floral dress hem knee-high. Dandelions breezed next to a lone black-suited preacher stomping his sermon on a red soapbox. Laughter pealed from the family picnics scattered on the grass here and there. Samuel’s wife Sophia, the trapeze artist, rode in a freshly gilded carriage, carny-painted yesterday for this special occasion, her sequined cape sparkling in the sunlight. The parade headed for the crowds up ahead in the heart of the town. The roustabout spurred Mary on with a stick.
Samuel led the circus parade through the mob, buzzing like a hornet’s nest, and then rode his horse up the courthouse steps. The sunlight sparked his golden epaulettes. As he surveyed the chaos, he unconsciously tightened his grip on the reins. The rubes needed to be finessed and brought under control.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages … today is a most glorious day of retribution. We have gathered to avenge the murder of Clarence, an innocent man. Vengeance, ordained by God and the laws of men, will let his poor soul rest in peace. Today," his voice rose to a shout, "we hang the murderous elephant known as Mary!”
Circus stars, freaks, and carnies battled to reach safety at the edges of the crowd. A grizzled old man stumbled and was almost swallowed by the surging mob. Samuel snapped his bullwhip and shouted, “Get up, you fool!” It was the drifter who’d replaced that dead kid, Clarence. Bible-thumping fool who’d tried to establish his dominion over a 50-ton elephant. Usually gentle—everybody loved Mary—but provoked by a bullhook jab, she threw him, and then crushed his skull. Bone and brains had flowed in a river of blood.
Besides the traumatized crowd’s immediate clamor for the death of the elephant, boneheaded officious mayors of the surrounding towns had threatened to shut the circus down unless “justice was served.” Baby Petey had surrendered fast as a desperate mark to the wiliness of a conman. At first, Samuel had been outright embarrassed at Baby Petey’s spinelessness, but he was beginning to understand: it was pure showman genius to hang an elephant. Samuel cracked his bullwhip at the old man and shouted, “Move.”
Judge and jury. Looking over the crowd, he laughed. Really, they just wanted a show. Well, he was going to deliver a spectacle of biblical proportion. He wished it were a double hanging. Red and his precious Mary, strung up side by side. Damn that Red. It was his fault that Samuel had to hang the circus’s most valuable asset. Drunken piece of shit had disappeared that night. At least the hanging of an elephant would go down in the history books. Samuel Jobs Herkenhiem would be famous. His eyes roamed the crowd. Samuel noticed an old woman leaning on a cane a ways away, her eyes locked on Mary. Grim expectation lined a sunbaked face that harbored no illusions of men and their ways. A pretty, freckled girl smiled shyly at him, her eyes opened wide in wonder. Samuel winked and tipped his top hat towards the red curls.
“It is time to weigh the scales of justice!” he shouted.
Abeba watched Sophia laugh when The Fat Lady fell in the mud. Girl’s heart gone cold. Before she’d married Samuel, she’d been sweet on Red. Both of ‘em from the same tabaccy sharecropping Kentucky backwoods. Red had told Abeba his mama used to feed the hungry little girl sugar biscuits. Sophia not so sweet anymore. She’d moved up in the world. Abeba remembered when Red first brought her around and begged Daddy Petey to take her on. She had helped Red clean out the animal cages. After she got some food in her belly, circus glitter dazzled her. Didn’t want to muck with the elephants no more. Sophia began making a cape of black raven feathers. She wanted to fly the trapeze. She wanted to glitter in the circus ring, flashing beauty. All that be fine, but her heart started turnin’. First, Red just brung her dead ravens to feather her cape. He would leave them outside of her tent with bouquets of yellow, pink, and blue wildflowers. Sophia got impatient. Then, Red, crazed with lovesick, hunted woods, towns, and along the train tracks where they traveled and brung her all kinds of black bird feathers: crows, magpies, grackles, redstarts, and mynas. He mothered Mary good before the hunt for dead black birds and whiskey took him.
When the dead-bird cape fell halfway down her back, Samuel asked her into his trailer. Sophia triumphantly burned that cape after she married Samuel. Smell of the burning feathers still haunted Abeba—sometimes, she COULD feel it running in her blood. Sophia thought she'd make ashes of the past. Thought the wind could scatter memories. Didn’t know that those black birds and sugar biscuits lived in her bones. Foolish Red. Still laid every dead black bird he found outside her door. Although, truth, lately, Red be spending more time drinking than looking for dead birds.
Abeba remembered being in this same Tennessee town a few years back. Like everywhere else, especially down south, once the railroad tracks got laid down the town poor folks multiplied like maggots on a dead dog. The whites, that is. Black ones still on the edges. Coal mining company owned Boiling Springs now. Black clouds thick on everything, the earth wounded. She looked down at the crowd. They came from all around. Picnics here and there. Children hiding and seeking. Suited up white men. Hard-boned field hands. Miners black-faced with coal dust. Women dressed up in their Sunday best. Bile tainted her throat.
Where was Red? wondered Abeba.
Red sucked the last wetness from the whiskey bottle. Still, his throat was dry. He couldn’t get drunk. He’d been trying for two days. Ever since Mary had killed that fool by accident and Samuel and Baby Petey passed judgment. Everything was blurry and spinny. Everything was too big. Too real. He laughed bitterly. A hanging for an elephant—like the animal was some poor, beat-down nigger. Baby Petey would just sell more tickets tonight and all the next nights and days going on down the road, for being the famous circus that hanged an elephant. His face flushed hot. Abeba had found him throwing up outside of the animal cages this morning and he had run. Her eyes had cut into his face. All his guilt started seeping out, drowning him. Outside he heard the crowd chant, “KILL THE ELEPHANT, KILL THE ELEPHANT.” He smashed against his hands against his ears. He needed silence. Couldn’t get none. Guilt-blood pumped crazy in his head. So loud. Boom. Boom. Whiskey quieting nothing. Sophia had said, “Don’t bring me no more dead birds, you freak.” He had gotten drunk, passed out at the edge of town. When he didn’t show up, Samuel let that new kid handle Mary through the town parade. The day the kid had come on the circus, Red had seen the meanness flowing out his corn-blue eyes. Had seen him throwing rocks at the lion in its cage, just to rile the animal up.
Abeba watched a drunk Red trying to climb the hill. Red and her use to have an outsider understanding, but after Sophia had married Samuel, he’d gotten tiny in the heart. Sometimes mean. His sorrow weighed her down. He was a good man underneath all that booze.
Red fell face-flat in the mud. Whiskey fumes poured from his skin. He felt crazy all-over. The wind wrapped him in shame. Sun made everything too real. Mary lifted him in a curled trunk. Sugar on biscuits shined in the sun. Black birds pecked his eyes. Nothing was real. Abeba was sitting on the hilltop. She slowly rose till at 7’4” she was straight and solid as the old oak outside his mama’s sharecropper shack.
“Come on, Red. Come ‘ere. We got to stand together,” Abeba said.
"We have gathered for justice. Retribution for the felonious assault of a murderous elephant against an innocent, civilized man,” Samuel shouted at the spellbound crowd.
Abeba closed her eyes and remembered the night that, hidden in the carny tent, she had heard a lynching. The next morning, the burned, black body hung obscenely in a gracious red-dawn light. Abeba looked back down into the town, its people and the iron railroad tracks that had promised progress. Bowing her head, she said a silent prayer to a God she didn’t understand.
Shackled next to the railroad tracks, Mary paced two feet to the left, then to the right, straining against the iron ring tethered to her back leg.
Red’s stomach crawled like worms were eating it up. The memory of Mary’s gentleness burned through his muscles and seared his bones. His legs staggered and he felt the earth crack open. Abeba reached over. The long nail of her right hand dug deep into his flesh as she held him up.
“Stand tall,” Abeba said. “Ever hear an elephant dyin’? I did once. Awful mournful sound.”
Red’s bowels stirred locomotion crazy. He tightened his ass. Dug his feet into the drying muddy earth. Shouts and laughter echoed below and Red felt it settle on his skin like sweat at day’s end. Abeba tightened her grip on him. Clouds cleared the sun. The yellow honeysuckle on the hillside brightened.
“Humph… ‘Course, won’t hear no dyin’ today," Abeba said. "That iron-noose… Just see it. They say the railroads tracks a sign of the pr’gress this country makin’… ”
“This ain’t no believer's heaven.”
Her dark eyes were cool pools of water. He drank from them. Her friendship had never forsaken him—even when his grief had made him cruel. He had gone crazy when Sophia married Samuel. He remembered laughing at Abeba after a couple of white boys pushed her into the mud. Her skin was as black as a moonless night and all you could see of her was the whites of her eyes. She had risen from the ground and her eyes burned and floated in the mosquito darkness as she'd walked backwards to her tent. She hadn't been afraid to turn her back. She'd just been observing. How he'd hated that she hadn’t looked full of hate. The next morning, he had hated even more the smell of whiskey on his skin. Whiskey and shame.
Down below, Samuel’s shit-fancy voice whipped across the square, feeding the mob’s frenzied demands for the elephant's death. Straining against the noose, Mary trumpeted hoarsely. A raw-boned farmer stared at Mary, slack-jawed in wonder. The wind kicked up. Sophia’s cape fluttered, shiny with tiny false rubies in the sun. Children’s laughter pealed above the crowd as others chanted, “HANG THE ELEPHANT. HANG THE ELEPHANT.”
“Preacher’s down there eating fried chicken by the courthouse…like it’s a damn picnic,” Red said bitterly.
“Most hangin’s have a picnic or two.” Abeba shielded her eyes against the high-noon glare. “That boy who died. Clarence his name? Damn shame ‘bout him.”
“He had mean eyes.”
“The hangin’ of Mary ain’t your fault.”
“I was drunk.”
Red remembered the wet muzzle of Mary’s trunk on his face, the heat of her sweetness. He screwed his eyes shut. Turned to run, but the force of Abeba’s voice stopped him.
“No, Red. Open your eyes. Elephants mourn for their own. You got to stay and testify.”
The sun was merciless. Two men coal-fired the derrick’s engine. Black smoke bellowed into the clear blue sky. Mary was kneeling. A handler climbed up her back and looped the chain around her neck. Her trunk swayed, sniffing the air, then bent back to gently touch the handler. Seconds stretched as he pressed her trunk tenderly to his cheek. Then, angrily, he wrenched the chain tight and padlocked it. The engine of the derrick screeched and shifted into gear. Startled, Mary’s trunk tracked through the air like a slow pendulum. Wild cheers erupted from the mob. The boom lowered, the handler attached the noose to the hook, and then quickly slid down Mary's backside. He walked away, never looking back.
The chain ratcheted and groaned as it lifted Mary. She tried to stand, but her legs only lifted a few inches. The machinery groaned under her weight. The crane strained to lift her higher, but her back leg hadn’t been released from the shackle. Her broad, grey underbelly stretched and appeared as if it would cleave, when the iron chain around her neck broke and Mary fell to the ground. The sound of her fall cracked the air and shuddered the ground. Screaming, Mary rolled side to side, trying but failing to rise.
“Go, Red. Go!” Abeba said.
Red started running down the hill.
By the time Red pushed through the crowd and reached Mary, Samuel was already standing in front of her with a gun in his hands. She turned her head to Red. Her eye brimmed with tears. She stared him dead-on, her cries sounding like a beat-down dog, sharp and mournful. Deep in the distance, a train’s whistle ran away, heading north. The seconds felt sharp, yet endless. He could feel their history racing and looping through his blood. Her trunk reached towards him. One back leg was crooked at a strange angle. Red rested against Mary. Her heat calmed him. His hands gently caressed her face. His breath slowed. She smelled like honey. Their breath united. Her cries dropped, soft and low.
“Give me the gun,” Red said. Love pooled in her eyes. It washed over him. Her trunk curled, caressed him. He placed the muzzle at the crease of her ear and fired into her brain.
When he looked up, he could see nothing but the white rays of the sun, almost blinding him, and Sophia standing rigid in the carriage, that fancy cape wrapped around her like a cocoon. The sequins looked to dance like sunlight on calm water. A kaleidoscope of colors reflected across her face. Red. Blue. Purple. Her face was strangely blank, her eyes fixed on Mary. She pulled the cape tighter against her body. Her body rocked like gentle waves on a lake, like the lost girl she’d once been, like the girl who’d had nothing, who had feasted on his mama’s sugar biscuits to fill a hungry belly. Suddenly, she flung the cape open, the sun sparking all the glitter and gold lining her trapeze outfit, waved big, and brightly called out, “Hey, Red!” as if she was proud to know the man that had killed the elephant. He turned away and searched for Abeba up on the hill. She was still standing where he’d left her—all 7’4” standing as tall and beautiful as the old oak on his mama’s land.
Claudia Summers lives in New York City. Her work has appeared or will be forthcoming in Omen, Naked But Safe, and Showboat: Punk/Sex/Bodies. She will enter the City College MFA Creative Writing Program in Fall 2016.