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THURSDAY, MAY 19, 1921; 12 DAYS BEFORE
Everything was as it should be on the nineteenth day of May in the hopeful year of 1921. A slight tornado risk teased Greenwood Avenue with warm easterly winds and dirt in the eyes; still, the streets were buzzing. The only sounds filling the air on Angel Hill’s side of the district were fluttering birds and grinning children off in the quaint distance.
Angel’s father motioned for her to sit next to him on their front porch swing. When she reached, he grabbed both of her cheeks and stared so deep into her eyes that she saw her own reflection staring back through his own. Oklahoma heat drew beads of sweat from his pores, and he looked so tired to Angel; still, for his sake, she forced herself to smile.
“Mercy and truth,” he said as he balanced his lemonade between his frail knees. “No such thing as mercy without truth or truth without mercy. God granted them both to us all. And they work together like a bird on a breeze. What on earth does that mean to you, Angel, my love?”
“I do wonder,” Angel replied. “Mercy is to take pity, while truth is a reliable thing. One is a feeling, an emotion untouchable, and the other is concrete veracity. But then, you can’t forgive people without being honest, so maybe truth is in itself forgiveness. How then, Papa, could they work together to create anything?”
“Don’t you see?” he said with small tears making the corners of his weak eyes twinkle. “It’s the fight. Even the bird on the breeze is in perpetual battle with the winds. She makes it look easy. It is not easy. She makes it look enjoyable. It is not. Ah, look at her and tell me what you think she longs for.”
He pointed to the orange-faced swift riding thin air. Her closed beak directing the remainder of her tiny body to glide and pump, glide and pump, glide and pump, and, finally, to glide into the thick of a soapberry tree.
“She wants…,” Angel said. “Rest.”
“Just so,” he said softly. “Rest within unrest. It is impossible.”
When Angel looked back at her father, he was crying for the third time she’d seen in her sixteen years living. Angel honed in on his trembling chin, dimpled and pulled into the most heartrending frown. “Why do you cry, Papa?”
She lifted her thumb to catch his tears before they dropped.
After a few moments, he spoke. “My fight is nearly done, Angel, my love,” he said with a bouncing, quivering grin. “Yours is beginning, and for that, I am sorry. I wish for you mercy. I pray for you truth. I long for you the peace of sitting on a porch swing beside a man who loves you more than life itself. But I sense trouble on those winds. We’ve been dodging it for a time just like the swift in the soapberry. It’s coming, dear child. I’d swear it is.”
New shadows formed on his face, underneath his eyes, over his brow, and even in the crease of his hunched shoulders. He himself seemed to be becoming a shadow. Quick sketches of what he used to be a few short months ago. Angel knew him. And even in the quiet spaces, she saw flashes in his eyes. In those moments, she read what he was thinking—to be reduced to this.
Soft snores accompanied the rise and fall of his chest. He slept so easily now. One moment awake, and the next, dead to the world.
“I’ve got a gift for you. It’ll be finished tomorrow,” she whispered into his sleeping ear. “You’ll walk again, sweet Papa. All on your own, you will.”
Angel’s mother pushed through the screen door as she untied her half apron. “We need to get him to bed,” she said, trying so very hard to be strong. “You ready?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Angel replied before lifting her father’s limp arm around the nape of her neck.
“Time for bed,” her mother said in the height of the afternoon sun. She then lifted the opposite arm around her own tired shoulder. “Handsome man of mine. One, two, three…”
FRIDAY, MAY 20, 1921; 11 DAYS BEFORE
Most of Greenwood would be at Friday-evening Bible study at Mount Zion, so Isaiah Wilson’s side of the district was quiet. He sat legs crossed on the sill of his bedroom window, reading. Ever since his father had fallen in the big war, Isaiah had been reading and writing voraciously. This time, he’d chosen poetry to bring him a sense of calm. The methodical, steady rhythms and occasional rhymes occupied his otherwise-frustrated mind. Lately, he’d been trying his hand at writing it. He wasn’t that bad, either, if he said so himself. Then in the corner of his eye, he caught sight of them for the second time this week.
“White boys,” Isaiah said aloud in his dark bedroom. “Damn white boys.”
Isaiah had the perfect, bird’s-eye view as they gathered on the other side of the Frisco tracks. The pack was growing; last week there were twelve of them, and today, sixteen. They looked to be around his age, seventeen, and they were up to something, that much was for sure.
The Klan had been stirring around Tulsa lately. They’d been on an upswing since the war ended. And these boys either already were or were about to be wearing the white hats.
That’s when he saw Angel Hill, a girl who lived a few streets over, off in the distance, walking alone. Isaiah’s stomach turned because she couldn’t know the group of white boys was there.
With Greenwood quiet, Angel would be ambushed, no question. And even from the distance, Isaiah could tell the boys were itching for mischief. Still, he was frozen with a fear he’d never felt before. And also, a question—should he intervene?
Tall but waif thin and hardly a commanding presence, Angel made her way up the street, still oblivious. Grasping hold of a contraption that looked like leg braces or walk assists, and wearing a long church dress and deftly pointing her toes as she walked in the near night. She was the perfect target.
From his perch, Isaiah saw the moment the boys spotted her. The small group ducked behind a thicket and waited for her to step within striking distance, like snakes in high grass. Isaiah didn’t mean to, but he ducked, too, behind the tail of his bedroom curtain so they wouldn’t see him. He knew that his father would be disappointed by his cowardice, but something within him couldn’t get involved.
Besides, Isaiah didn’t even know Angel Hill. Well, he knew her as well as anyone from Greenwood knew anyone else from Greenwood. Actually, if he were being honest with himself, he did know her.
Isaiah had seen her dance once before in a talent show. He recalled being envious of her, because she was wholly herself, answering to absolutely no one.
Isaiah remembered her walking barefoot to the center of the stage. He remembered waiting for a pianist or violinist or someone to join her there, but no one did. There was only her, alone in haunting silence.
The audience laughed at her awkward, twitchy movements, and Isaiah knew that they didn’t understand. But in the silence, he understood. What confidence that took. What strength. To stand alone with no accompaniment and move her body as if freeing it from its chains. Isaiah saw her that day. As everyone made fun of her for being herself, Isaiah secretly saw her. He looked away, pretending that he didn’t, but dear God he saw her.
Now hidden in the curtain, Isaiah told himself that he surely didn’t know her well enough to go down there. He pulled the fabric around tighter until only his right eye would be showing from the outside. She’d be fine without his help. She would run.
“Run,” he whispered into the curtain. “Now.”
She’d run away, he thought. Of course she would. Anyone would.
But when the boys rose from behind the brush, Angel did not run. Instead, she stood tall, revealing her whole height to the unworthy troupe. She rose like she had on the stage of that talent show. Isaiah wished that he could snap a photograph or write a poem. The contrast between them was stark. Powerful in a way he’d never seen before. She nearly glowed; it was a wonder those white boys weren’t shielding their eyes.
They spoke to her. Some circling like dirty birds on a scent, a few sniggering, and the rest hanging back. Cowards. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, so he gently placed both hands on the sill and lifted the window.
The noise rang out much louder than Isaiah had expected, and every one of them looked—all sixteen white boys and Angel Hill, too. He curled himself deeper in the curtain and hoped they hadn’t seen him. Maybe they hadn’t, since they quickly turned their attention back to Angel.
“What you got there, gal?”
“Something worth something, I’d bet.”
“Sure looks it!”
“Well,” she replied slowly and deliberately, without an ounce of obvious fear on her words. “I’m not sure that’s any of your business.”
“Oh, you’ve got some nerve.”
They closed in on her statuesque frame, and something flipped inside of Isaiah. He couldn’t stand there, hiding in the curtain, while Angel Hill was ensnared by such filth. He parted his lips to yell out, but before he could holler at them, she dropped her contraption and ran into the night.
The thugs laughed and began inspecting the fallen equipment. Then, suddenly, the skinniest boy Isaiah had ever seen lifted the crutches and slammed them to the ground as hard as he could. The boy cursed the fact that even his most powerful whack left only a small scratch on them.
The other fifteen boys chuckled at him, and that’s when the skinny boy lost himself in a fit of rage. He began pounding the crutches onto the rim of the Frisco tracks with as much force as he could muster. After a few minutes, they were shattered.
“Yeah!” he yelled in the direction Angel Hill had run. “How do you like that?”
Isaiah watched them backing away from the Greenwood District, kicking up dust and rocks as they walked. Something sinister was in the air, Isaiah could feel it. Something was coming.
Copyright © 2021 by Randi Pink