Drifting too far from the Shore
by Niles Reddick
in memory of Mary Turner, a 1918 Georgia lynching victim
Inspired by “Drifting too far from the Shore” by Charles Ernest Moody of the Georgia Yellow Hammers, 1924.
Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting too far from the shore
Drifting too far from the shore
You’re drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting too far from the shore
Today the tempest rose high
And the clouds overshadow the sky
Sure death is hovering nigh
You’re drifting too far from the shore
Why meet a terrible fate
Mercies abundantly wait
Turn back before it’s too late
You’re drifting too far from the shore
For Muddy, scenes she relived and imagined in her head were more of a reality than anything on the TV or around her now, but the third doorbell chime in the faux wood box next to the front door brought her back. There had been a couple of times when she almost drifted too far, like the time she drew a bath and laid there soaking and slipped under. That’s when she heard Claude’s voice whisper, “Muddy.” She came to and pushed upward through the suds, coughing and trying to catch her breath. She threw on the terry cloth General Dollar bathrobe one of the grandkids had given her at Christmas. The other time was when she sat in the porch swing, fell asleep, and was awakened by a policeman at 1:00 a.m. having made his rounds with the search light, scanning yards for petty criminals. With a pass of the light, he’d seen something crumpled in the swing, the temperature in the mid forties that November night. He moved around the azaleas to the clapboard house, thinking one of the homeless might have come out of Valdosta and made his way to Morven. He’d startled Muddy on the porch with the light in her face, calling, “Ms. Rewis? You okay?”
The voice she heard was Claude’s, not the policeman’s. “Come on, Muddy.”
She had come to a bit and said, “Who’s there? Where’s Claude? I thought he’d come for me.” When the officer explained who he was, she didn’t say anything to mask her confusion. She did thank him, told him she must have fallen asleep, couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten cold, got up, and went in. She never told him she thought it was her time, that the light was not his flashlight, but the light in the tunnel. She knew if she had, it would be all over town.
She had reasons for not wanting the story to get out. She didn’t care what people thought, but she didn’t want anyone in her business, especially her children who would likely come put her in the nursing home or try to get her to move to one of their houses. They were all married with children and were so absorbed in their own lives that they didn’t have time for her. That was fine by her. She didn’t want to be involved in their lives much and it didn’t mean that she loved them less or that they loved her less; it simply meant she couldn’t keep up with it all now, didn’t understand their world and ways because it seemed so busy and complicated. She just wanted to move on and see those precious faces that went with the whispers.
As she had aged and family members passed, and particularly since Claude had gone, Muddy had come to believe they were there, just off shore, helping to guide friends and family through nudges and intuitions. She’d come up with this notion after watching an episode of Touched by an Angel and recalled instances from her own life: the time she’d gone back to the school to get a book she left behind in third grade and the janitor had cornered her, told her she was pretty, and told her he had something to show her. A gust of wind had come in the opened windows, slamming a closet door, startling him, and drawing his attention away from her, and she’d run out the door. The janitor was arrested later that year for having sex with a cow, being drunk, and lost his job. Of course Muddy didn’t know that until she was grown and a classmate had told her at a reunion. She remembered her bicycle chain breaking just as she was about to cross highway 41 when the light turned green. She was by the curb and turned to see the family in the Nash station wagon talking and laughing. One of the children was drinking an orange Nehi and another was drinking a Yoo-hoo. When the light turned green, she pushed down on the right bike pedal, and the chain broke. An eighteen-wheeler hauling chickens ran the red light and broad-sided the Nash. The family lived, but they were hurt and had to go to the hospital in Hahira. Muddy, on the other hand, would have been obliterated. The most recent one was when Claude died three years ago. She was in the house and felt him, smelled his Bruit cologne, and heard a faint whisper in her ear: “Charlotte.” She broke down in the kitchen, dropping tears in cake mix, and trying to pull herself together before she called for help and walked to the little barn out back, where he was slumped over the Murray mower from the massive heart attack. Like most of her family and friends in town, Charlotte had been called Muddy since a child when she made mud pies and allegedly had eaten them. Even Claude called her Muddy unless something was terribly wrong.
Her boney fingers, now partly crooked from arthritis with brown spotty skin stretched over, reached in the side pouch and pressed the button that raised the lift chair and she pulled the walker close to her. Most of the time, she could get to the door before too many rings, and if there were people she knew, they knew to wait. If the person was a salesman, then he would move on, probably determining the house wasn’t even lived in given the blinds were pulled and the shrubbery that Muddy and Claude would have kept cut back to porch floor level when Claude was alive hadn’t been cut in years, now pushing on to the edge of the tin roof. Muddy’s Social Security check barely gave her enough to buy a few groceries, pay the light bill to Georgia Power, and the town of Morven’s annual tax bill. It seemed everything kept going up, except the Social Security.
Muddy made it to the door, unlocked the dead bolt, and opened the wooden door. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey Mama,” Lily said. She stood in a sundress, matching sandals on her feet, matching bag strapped over her shoulder. She pulled the screen door as Muddy made a semi-circle with the walker, heading back to the den to her lift chair, clumping across the heart pine. “Mama, I was about to get worried.”
“Don’t worry. I ain’t dead yet, but hopefully it won’t be long.”
“Now, Mama, there ain’t a thing wrong with you and you know it. You need to get out more, do more, and you’ll feel better about life.”
“Honey, I been getting out and doing all my life. I’m tired.” Muddy eased back in the lift chair. “You want some tea?”
“Not right now. I’ll get some in a minute. What about you? Can I get you something?”
“No, I’m fine. Just dozed off in the chair. Wasn’t expecting you to come or I would have picked up the place.”
“Mama, it looks clean compared to mine,” Lily said. “But now, if it’s getting to be too much on you, I can get someone to come and clean for you. There’s a maid service out of Thomasville that will come over here, and I’ll even pay for it. I know how you hate spending your money.”
“What money, Lily? Ya’ll think I got some money, but I don’t. I guess when you get to dividing up all this junk around here, you’ll see just how much money I don’t have.”
“Now, Mama, there ain’t no use in getting worked up.”
“I ain’t worked up.”
“Well, you seem worked up.”
“I think I know when I’m worked up and not, and I’d think you’d know it, too.”
“Okay, then. I was just coming over here to go to the peach shed and get a bushel to put up and thought you might want to ride with me, maybe get you one of them peach ice cream cones.”
“Lily, I can’t eat ice cream. You know what it does to my bowels.”
“Well, how about riding down there with me anyway. Just get out of the house for a while.”
“I’ve been going to the peach shed for eighty years. I don’ think much has changed since last time. You go on. I ‘preciate it.”
“You want me to get you some peaches?”
“No, the preacher’s wife always comes by and brings some when she visits.”
“Alright, mama. You been feeling okay?”
“I guess I have. How ‘bout you? How you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m doing alright. Just busy to the point I sometimes don’t think I’m able to keep up.”
“Why’re you so busy?”
“You know the boys are in baseball at the high school and seems like we’re either at practice or a game just about every night. Then with church added in on top of my job at the china shop, it’s about too much.”
“How’s Sid and the boys doing? Boys winning any games?”
“Sid’s fine. He’s in the woods a lot marking timber or with a crew thinning pines. The boys are fine. Since Todd turned sixteen and we got him that car, he’s gone a lot. Half the time we don’t know what he’s doing, but we trust him. He has a friend, though, and that worries me.”
Muddy knew Lily well enough to know that if she said the word “worry,” then she was troubled about something. Of her and Claude’s four children, Lily was the most transparent. “What do you mean, Lily?”
“Well, he’s gotten a little close to this girl, and well, she’s black. Shaneka’s her name. I don’t think they’re dating or nothing, but she goes with him a lot. I don’t know what I’d think if he was dating her. We just didn’t do that, but today, kids are doing that more and more. She is a sweet girl and has even come to the house to eat some. Her family was from over here somewhere. Their last name’s Harris.”
“It’s a different world today, Lily. I don’t know if it’s better or worse.”
“Me neither. Did you know the family, mama?”
“There was a woman who cooked in the lunchroom named Harris. Fredonia Harris, I think it was.”
“That’s got to be her great aunt. She said she had a great aunt who’d been a cook. She also said something about her great grandmother having been killed, and they are supposed to put up a memorial at the Withlacoochee River Bridge. You remember anything about that?”
“Lily, no, it can’t be.”
“Can’t be what?”
“Oh, Lily, I don’t think I can tell you about it.” Muddy teared and grabbed a Kleenex out of the floral box next to the lift chair and dabbed her eyes. “Lord have mercy, I never wanted to think about that again.”
“Mama, goodness gracious, what in the world?”
“Back in the 20’s, something awful happened. A young black woman named Cassie Harris who was pregnant was lynched. I was just a child, but I never forgot it.”
“Did you see it, Mama?”
“Lord, no, but everyone heard about it. It was in the papers and caused riots over in Valdosta. I’ve often wondered if I might have known some of the people involved, but they are long dead by now. It shouldn’t have happened.”
“Lord have mercy, Mama. I never heard about that before.”
“Who would want to hear about it? I think as times changed through the years, you’ve seen that sort of evil behavior wane, but crimes have been around since the beginning. I think crime always will be because the good Lord gave us free will.”
“Maybe so. Well, we should go and support Shaneka and her family at the marker ceremony.”
“Yes,” Muddy said. She began to drift and remember the story, shaking her head. “It’s a terrible story, Lily.”
“Tell it,” Lily said.
“A plantation owner named Seth Arman had trouble getting people to work for him because he was harsh toward his workers, whether black or white. He began to rely on petty criminals for labor by bailing them out of jail and having them work their debt off at his plantation. One young black man, Fred Harris, had been accused of gambling and put in jail. Once he was at the plantation, still proclaiming innocence, he and Arman got into an argument. Arman shot him. Word spread through town, and Cassie was beside herself. She was enraged, running from home to home banging on doors and demanding justice, claiming she would swear out warrants against the white men, and she was about 32 weeks pregnant. No one could comfort her and late that afternoon near dusk, several trucks made their way through town, snatched her from the front yard of her family’s home, and took her to the river. Reports were they hung her on a tree limb, dowsed her with gas, burnt her clothes off, slit her belly open, the baby falling to the ground where it was repeatedly stomped, and then both were burned. Eventually, someone buried the remains by the river.“ Muddy dabbed her eyes. “You know, Lily, I just don’t believe I’d ever heard of such. Later it came out that Fred Harris was going to make a preacher and had been talking to them men about gambling. It was a shame.”
“Mama, it’s almost unreal that something like that could have ever happened.”
“I know it. People can be evil.” And Muddy wondered about the men who did this to Cassie Harris — if they lived full lives, if they went to church and repented, if their own families knew what they’d done, and she wondered if God forgives such crimes; the insane Jeffrey Dahmers, Ted Bundys, and Charles Mansons of the world. Muddy knew she couldn’t and though her Sunday school class would be shocked, she would tell them some of these criminals should be hunted down and killed themselves just like they had done to their innocent victims. She knew two wrongs don’t make a right, but letting someone go to jail and sit there, watching tv, going to college through the mail or on the computer, playing games, and getting three good meals a day seemed a major waste of taxpayer dollars, especially when they couldn’t raise Social Security for good people who’d worked hard. It disgusted Muddy. “I’ll go with ya’ll,” Muddy said. “It’s the least I could do.”
“I guess I better be getting on. I think they are going to have this marker ceremony right after lunch tomorrow. They’re doing it on Sunday because that’s when she died,” Lily said.
“Alright, well, I’ll be ready to go when ya’ll get here,” Muddy started the lift chair up.
“No, mama, you just stay there. I’ll see myself out.”
When Lily went out, the whole story of the brutal killing of Cassie Harris circled in her mind like a flock of birds that keep shifting direction in flight. She wondered who whispered to Cassie while she was hanging on that tree limb dying. She imagined Cassie’s grandmother whispering “Hold on, baby, I’m coming. It won’t hurt but a minute.” She wondered about the man who doused her with gas, the man who struck the match, the man with the knife who split her belly, the ones who stomped that innocent baby to death. How could they have done something like this to another human being? Did their parents and grandparents raise them that way? Surely, she believed, their grandmothers whispered to them: “Don’t you do that. Put that match down. Throw that knife in the river. Don’t stomp that child of God.” She reckoned that if their people had whispered, they had long dismissed such as nonsense, freely choosing to live life as they saw fit and certainly not playing by anyone’s, even God’s, rules. Muddy wondered about her own children and grandchildren. She knew she’d be one to help them, guide them.
When Muddy awoke in the lift chair, it was dark outside. She remembered she’d never gone and locked the door after Lily left. She raised the chair, grabbed her walker, locked the door and got to the kitchen where she prepared a tomato sandwich and a glass of tea. She went back to the chair, watched the Grand Ole Opry, a show she loved, especially when Emmylou Harris made an appearance. After the Grand Ole Opry, Muddy watched a rerun of Hee-Haw followed by CNN Headline News for a bit until they recycled stories. Muddy was tired, and she wasn’t feeling well. That kerplunk feeling in her chest bothered her a little bit, but she didn’t feel any pain when it happened and thought she would mention it the next time she went for her check-up.
The next morning, Muddy piddled around the house, read the newspaper, her Bible, and her daily devotional. She wanted to go to church, but knew she needed her energy for the ceremony and was determined to go. Muddy was eating leftover squash casserole and ham for lunch when she heard Lily yell, “Mama.”
“In here,” Muddy said.
“You ready?” Lily asked.
“Well, don’t you look nice? I like that dress and shoes. Where’d you get them?”
“Over there in Thomasville. You helped me pick them out last year. Don’t you remember? You got an outfit, too.”
“Lord, I don’t even remember.”
“Where’s Sid and the boys?”
“Sid couldn’t come, so he and Tim stayed home. I guess Todd’s coming with his friend Shaneka.”
Muddy wondered about how she might feel if Todd was dating a black girl. She guessed it didn’t really matter, but in her day, it wouldn’t have been considered acceptable. Muddy did think any sort of interracial relationship would have to be tough and relationships were tough enough without anything extra added on it.
Lily drove to the site by the Withlacoochee river and several cars had lined up next to the highway. The Department of Transportation hadn’t sent the mowing crew alongside Highway 122, so the weeds were almost knee deep in some places. Some of the black seeds from the Bahia grass and sandspurs were getting on Muddy’s hose and dress, since the walker knocked them loose as she crept along. There were a few folding chairs someone had put out from the Quitman funeral home, and one of the black men offered Muddy a seat. She took it, and Lily stood behind, waiting to see if another elderly woman or man might need a seat. Muddy was tired, and she’d had two more kerplunks, but didn’t mention anything to Lily about it. When Todd and Shaneka arrived, Todd introduced Shaneka to his grandmother. Todd and Shaneka stood off with some younger people they knew from school.
A minister from the African Methodist Episcopal church from Quitman offered a prayer, followed by a retelling of the story by the granddaughter of Cassie, Shaneka’s mother. It was moving, and Muddy imagined the event–Cassie hanging from the tree not ten feet from where Muddy sat, the baby falling out of the mother’s belly and being stomped, the whispers from the grandmothers of the men doing it. Muddy began to feel the heat from the burning body, and she fanned her face while sweat beads ran down her back. She heard the screams and cries of torture and the curses, and a face began to form in her mind and she believed it was the devil. She felt another kerplunk and slid right out of the chair and hit the ground.
The service came to a halt and people huddled around Muddy, fanned her, and a nurse from Thomasville took her pulse and told the huddle that she was alive, probably just passed out from the heat. Muddy came around, got up, and made it back to the car, and Lily drove her home. Lily wanted to take her to the hospital, but Muddy refused: “I just need to rest.”
“Service was nice,” Lily said.
“Long time coming, but better than nothing at all.”
Niles Reddick is the author of “Road Kill Art and Other Oddities,” which was a finalist for an Eppie Award. His novel “Lead Me Home” was a finalist in the 2011 Foreword Fiction awards and Georgia Author of the Year awards. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, The Paumanok Review and Southern Reader, in addition to being anthologized in Southern Voices from Every Direction and Unusual Circumstances. He is a regular reviewer for Southern Literary Review and a regular blogger for “A Good Blog is Hard to Find.” His website is nilesreddick.com, and he makes his home in Tifton, Georgia.