Given played football with single-minded purpose his senior year, the fall before he died. Recruiters from local community and state colleges came every weekend to see his games. He was tall and well-muscled, and his feet didn’t touch the ground once he got the pigskin in his hand. Even though he was serious about football, he was still social when he wasn’t at practice or on the field. Once he told Pop his teammates, White and Black, were like brothers to him. That it was like the team went to war every Friday night, came together and become something more, something greater than themselves. Pop looked down at his shoes and spat a brown stream in the dirt. Given said he was going up to the Kill to party with his White teammates, and Pop cautioned him against it: They look at you and see difference, son. Don’t matter what you see. It’s about what they do, Pop had said, and then spit the whole mess of chew out. Given had rolled his eyes, leaned into the hood of the ’77 Nova they were fixing up for him to drive, and said: All right, Pop. Looked up at me and winked. I was just grateful Pop hadn’t sent me inside, glad I could hand them tools and fetch them water and watch them work because I didn’t want to go in the house just in case Mama decided to give me one of her plant lessons. Herbs and medicine, she’d told me when I turned seven, I can teach you. I was hoping somebody, Big Henry or one of the twins, would walk down the street, emerge whole out of the green, so we’d have somebody else to talk to.
Given ignored Pop. Late that winter, in February, he decided to go hunting with the White boys up in the Kill. He saved up his money and bought a fancy hunting bow and arrow. He had bet Michael’s cousin that he could kill a buck with a bow before the boy could take one down with a rifle. Michael’s cousin was a short boy with a wandering eye who wore cowboy boots and beer T-shirts like it was a uniform; he was the kind of boy who dated and hung out with high schoolers even though he was in his early thirties. Given practiced with Pop. Shot for hours in the backyard when he should have been doing homework. Started walking straight as Pop since he spent so long drawed up tight, every line on him taut as the bow, until he could sink an arrow into the middle of a canvas tied between two pine trees fifty yards away. He won that bet one cold overcast winter sunrise, in part because he was so good, in part because everybody else, all the boys he played football with, tussled in the locker room with, sweated almost to breaking on the stadium field with, woke up drinking beer like orange juice that morning because they figured Given would lose.
I didn’t know Michael yet; I’d seen him around school a few times, his blond hair thick and curly, always looking like it was on the verge of matting because it wasn’t ever brushed. He had ashy elbows and hands and legs. Michael didn’t go hunting that morning, because he didn’t want to get up that early, but he heard about it once his uncle came to Big Joseph in the middle of the day, the cousin sobering up, a look on his face like he smelled something bad, something like a rat dead on poison driven inside the walls by the winter cold, and the uncle saying: He shot the nigger. This fucking hothead shot the nigger for beating him. And then, because Big Joseph had been sheriff for years: What we going to do? Michael’s mama told them to call the police. Big Joseph ignored her and all of them went back up into the woods, an hour in, and found Given lying long and still in the pine needles, his blood a black puddle beneath him. Beer cans all around him from the boys throwing them and running once the cousin with the bad eye aimed and fired, once the shot rang out. How they scattered like roaches in the light. The uncle had slapped his son across the face, once and twice. You fucking idiot, he’d said. This ain’t the old days. And then his cousin had put his arms up and mumbled: He was supposed to lose, Pa. A hundred yards off, the buck lay on his side, one arrow in his neck, another in his stomach, all of him cold and hard as my brother. Their blood congealing.
Hunting accident, Big Joseph told them once they got back to the house and sat around the table, phone in hand, before the cousin’s daddy, short as his son but with synced eyes, called the police. Hunting accident, the uncle said, speaking on the phone with the light of the cold noon sun slicing through the curtains. Hunting accident, the lazy-eyed cousin said in court, his good eye fixed on Big Joseph, who sat behind the boy’s lawyer, his face still and hard as a dinner plate. But his bad eye roving to Pop and me and Mama, all in a row behind the DA, a DA who agreed to a plea deal that sentenced the cousin to three years in Parchman and two years’ probation. I wonder if Mama heard some humming from the cousin’s bad eye, some feelings of remorse in its wandering, but she looked through him, tears leaking down her face the whole time.
A year after Given died, Mama planted a tree for him. One every anniversary, she said, pain cracking her voice. If I live long enough, going to be a forest here, she said, a whispering forest. Talking about the wind and pollen and beetle rot. She stopped and put the tree in the earth and started beating the soil around the roots. I heard her through her fists. The woman that taught Marie-Therese – she could see. Old Woman looked damn near White. Tante Vangie. She could see the dead. Marie-Therese ain’t never had that talent. Me neither. She dug her red fists into the dirt. I dream about it. Dream I can see Given again, walking through the door in his boots. But then I wake up. And I don’t. She started to cry then. And I know it’s there. Right on the other side of that veil. She knelt like that until her tears stopped running and she sat up and wiped her face and smeared blood and dirt all over it.
This is an extract from Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, forthcoming from Bloomsbury.
Feature image © Andrew Higgins