By Stephen Lewis
“A foolish son is a grief to his father….” (Proverbs 17:25.3)
The boy on the witness stand eyes Mr. Wilkie Burton, the prosecuting attorney, a short and round faced man with sideburns that reach his chin and a mustache that covers his upper lip before curling onto his cheek. Sweat drips from his bald head and moistens his facial hair. Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees Sam Logan, his father, staring at him from the defense table where he sits next to his lawyer. The boy’s glance continues until it lands on his mother in the front row of the spectators. She nods encouragement.
He turns back to Barton who forms his face into an encouraging expression, such as you would use with a recalcitrant child who holds the key to your strongbox in a hand, sticky with molasses, over a yawning crack in the floor.
“Now, George,” the prosecutor says, “I know this is difficult for you.” This last is said with a sidelong glance at Logan. “We have heard your father say that on the afternoon of June 15th, 18 and 95, you and he were clearing brush for a new road. Is that right?”
“Yes,” George says. He remembers how he lay on his bed the last few nights, listening for his father’s snores coming through the wall, but hearing only the rattle of the window frames in the breeze off the bay. He looks again past his father’s tense face to his mother, her expression set in the same vacant stare it has worn since the sheriff came to take his father away. All spring, he heard the birds singing in the morning, but at night his parents’ muffled and angry words. Then their bed creaked beneath their grunts and moans. He did not understand what this peek into the adult world offered him, and so as was his custom he did not try. Burton has his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his trousers, and George remembers how his father sometimes whips him with his belt. The prosecutor wears no belt, but George does not trust him. He sees the prosecutor’s jaw quiver, and then George adds, “That is what he said.”
“I see. You were to help your father, isn’t that so?”
“Of course. You are a dutiful son, are you not?”
“I am that,” George answers, although he is not exactly sure what “dutiful” means. He ponders, then seizes on the first syllable. “I do what he asks. Mostly.”
“Non-responsive,” Burton snaps with a glance at Judge Samuel Hightower..
“Son, can you be clearer in your answer?” Hightower’s tone is both weary and warm.
“No, sir,” George says with a smile.
“We will recess for an hour,” the judge declares, “so everyone can cool down, and the witness can search his memory for better answers.”
George stays on the witness stand as the courtroom empties. Finally, only the court officer remains with him.
“You can step down,” the officer says.
“I have no place to go,” George replies.
“Suit yourself,” the officer answers, and sprawls on a chair. “But I have orders that where you go, I go.”
“I always do,” George replies, “suit myself that is. Mostly, anyway.”
The officer leans back and shuts his eyes. His right hand, though, rests on the heavy butt of the revolver at his side.
George remembers the dew on the grass between his toes that morning, and how the orioles had been whistling in the trees. George boy, George boy, come here, they sang. The whistling would stop later in the afternoon, and his feet would be squeezed into boots too small. He reaches down, now, to massage his toes through his own shoes and he can still feel where the skin on his little toe had been rubbed raw.
His father left to clear the new road. He was to follow when he found the ax he had mislaid the day before. His mother watched from the rocker on the front porch while George stood staring at the grooves on the chopping stump, scratching his head in wonderment that the ax head was not buried in the wood, and that he could not reach out his hand and grasp the handle. After a while he let his mind drift to the rhythm of his mother’s rocker, which itself seemed to mimic the creak of the blades on the windmill over the well. And then there was the song of the birds calling to him, and his feet burrowed into the cool grass.
The rocking stopped, replaced by the clomp of the heavy men’s shoes his mother wore to work in the vegetable garden behind the house. The heels of her shoes resounded off the three steps leading down from the porch, and then softened in the dirt.
“Go on, now, your father’s waiting for you,” his mother called.
She had on the wide brimmed straw hat she wore to protect her face from the sun. The exposed skin of her neck and hands was darkened by a summer spent outdoors. She stared at his bare feet. In her hands, she held a pair of his father’s boots.
“You had best put these on, if you are going to cross Old Trail Road,” she said.
He took the boots from her, laced them together and threw them over his shoulders.
“I like to feel the grass between my toes,” he said.
“You will remember to put them on when you reach the road, though, won’t you?”
“Yes’m. I always do. Most of the time.”
“Did you find that ax?”
“Go on then.”
He walked onto the grass between the ruts carved in the soil by his father’s wagon on the track from their cherry orchard to Old Trail Road, which led to the town at the base of the peninsula. Lying in one of the ruts was the ax where he had dropped it yesterday. He picked it up as though he knew that this was where he would find it. Old Trail Road was dirt flattened smooth by the passage of innumerable wagons and heavy soled boots. He almost stepped into a steaming pile of manure left by a pair of horses pulling a load of lumber toward town, and then he felt the boots banging against his shoulder blades. Hearing his mother’s instruction in the chatter of the birds, he knelt on the edge of the road to squeeze his feet into boots a size or two too small, and then he strode onto the road. It followed the crest of a long, narrow hill rising above the meadows on either side. He gazed at the bright blue waters of the bay sparkling in the morning sun, and then he trotted over the road into the field on the other side. He left the field and entered the wood, his ears now listening for the sound of his father’s ax. He had not taken more than a few steps before his toes began to cramp hard inside the boots. He wondered for just a moment why his mother had been so insistent, but he was not in the habit of puzzling over things he did not understand, and so he walked on.
He was drawn to the song of the orioles. Its lilt lifted his spirit. Then the song stopped, and it was replaced by the loud cawing of a small flock of crows circling something in a small clearing up ahead. He hastened, and then he saw her lying still on the ground. The crows flew off a short distance, and there was silence.
Highsmith strides into the filled courtroom, jurors and spectators, on their feet expectant and perspiring in the late afternoon heat. From the distances comes the roll of thunder that promises relief.
George has been staring at the door awaiting the entrance of the judge. His muscles ache, and there is a dull, throb pressing down on his forehead. He hears the thunder and remembers only the silence above the dead girl after the cawing crows took flight. He looks towards his mother. Her eyes, which had been red rimmed before today, are now clear and cold. He sees her offer a barely perceptible nod, and he recalls what she said this morning, “Just tell them, “ she said, “and don’t be afraid.”
“I am not going to ask you the questions you could not answer before,” Burton says.. George focuses on the man’s teeth as he talks. They are stained yellow, and saliva pools in a space where a lower front tooth is missing. He recalls how red Sarah’s lips were and how white her teeth. He smiles at Burton.
“Let us try another approach.” Burton leans close enough for George to smell his breath. It is not sweet like he imagines hers would have been if she had been still breathing when he found her. “Tell us what you saw when you arrived at the murder scene.”
“The birds were not singing anymore,” he answers. He is there in the clearing between the trees, the ax over one shoulder. He grimaces as he feels again how the boots force his big toe to overlap its neighbor.
Burton steps back, his face a picture of exasperation.
“Yes, but what did you…” he pauses. “Let me be direct. Did you see your father there?”
“Did you see him that day between when he left to clear the road and when you found the body?”
George sighs. He is suddenly very tired, and he is finding it more and more difficult to concentrate. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his father staring hard at him.
“Yes,” he replies.
Burton’s jaw drops.
“Did you not tell the sheriff that you never got to the place where your father was clearing the road?”
George closes his eyes, and opens them to focus on the prosecuting attorney’s nose. He sees the hairs poking out of the nostrils.
“Well what, Mr. Burton?”
“Which is it. Did you help your father clear the road, or did you not?”
“No. I was on my way to help him,” he starts.
“Yes, and….” Burton prods.
“I saw her lying there.”
Burton’s sigh is audible throughout the courtroom.
“Before you could help your father, you saw the victim lying dead in that clearing,” the prosecuting attorney says.
“She was so peaceful beneath that tree, and the birds in it stopped singing.”
Burton waits and then turns to Highsmith.
“No further questions,” he says. “I think I have gotten what I can from the lad.” He glances toward Logan, pulls a sweat stained handkerchief from his pocket, and daubs at the perspiration on his forehead.
Defense attorney Frederick Lowe’s thin, blond hair is parted down the middle and lies flat on his head, setting off his prominent nose and ears that protrude a bit more than normal. He wears spectacles that leave an angry welt on the bridge of his nose.
Lowe steps ever so slowly toward George, his spectacles in one hand, the other rubbing the welt. He stops and replaces his spectacles.
“Did you see your father anywhere near where you found Sarah’s body?”
“No,” George replies.
“ I see. But you told Mr. Burton you saw him that day.”
“Later, I saw him later. Back home.”
Lowe strokes his chin, adjusts his spectacles, but then turns on his heel.
“You may step down,” Highsmith says to George. The boy is leaning over to rub his foot and seems not to hear for a moment or two, but then he rises and starts to walk towards his mother.
“You may be called again,” the judge says. “
George lets himself be led out of the courtroom. His step is firm.
“What was your plan on the morning of June 15th last?” Lowe asks Sam Logan.
“To clear a road to the harbor.”
“Were you going to work alone?”
“No. I had young Phil Watson with me.”
“My hired hand. Folks know him. His father’s from the South.”
“Was your son to help you as well?”
“No. He never arrived. I expect he had trouble finding his ax.”
“Was that unusual?”
“Not at all. He often is forgetful. But he is a good boy.”
Lowe pauses for just a moment.
“When he didn’t show up, what did you do?”
Logan turns his head slightly toward the jury and then back to Lowe.
“Why, I sent Watson to fetch him.”
“I do not know. He never came back.”
“Have you seen him since?”
“What do you suppose happened to him?”
Lowe looks over his shoulder as Burton rises to object, but Logan is too quick.
“I guess he found Sarah instead of George.”
Burton walks to the evidence table and picks up a pair of muddy boots. He shows them first to the jury, and then to Logan.
“Are these your boots?”
“Used to be. I haven’t worn them in years.”
“You did hear several witnesses, including the sheriff, testify that impressions left in the ground near the body match these boots, did you not?”
“I did. But if my boots made those impressions, my feet weren’t in them.”
“Were you and Sarah Henshaw lovers?” he asks.
“We were friends,” Logan replies.
“You knew she was carrying your child, did you not?”
“No. The last time I saw her she was upset and asked me for laudanum for her nerves. I told her I didn’t have any. She must have gotten some from somebody else.”
Burton attempts to show his shocked disbelief, but he is not a very good actor. When he pulls back his lips, his mustache hides the gesture and his pudgy face looks more amused than distressed.
“You say you sent young Watson to fetch your son?”
“Why didn’t you go yourself?”
“And you did not see Sarah Henshaw that day?”
“You did not drug her with laudanum and then squeeze the life out of…”
Lowe’s complaint is drowned by Highsmith’s gavel.
“I will rephrase,” Burton says when quiet is restored. “Is it your testimony that you did not know Sarah Henshaw was pregnant with your child, that you did not see her on the day she was killed, that you know nothing about the bottle of laudanum found next to her, and you believe that Philip Watson killed her in that field while he was on an errand to find your son, and that is why he has fled, and that your own son’s confusing testimony is his feeble attempt to protect you? You want us to believe that those boot prints in the field next to that young girl’s body were not made by you? Is that what you want this jury to believe?” Burton gestures grandly toward the jury box, and this time his face manages an approximation of incredulity.
“The truth,” Logan says softly, “I want them to see only the truth.”
“I think they have,” Burton concludes.
“Did I do right?” George asks his mother as they walk toward their house.
“Yes,” she replies.
“And he won’t beat me no more, or mock me, when he comes home?”
“He’s not coming home.”
“But poor Sarah…” he begins.
“Hush,” she replies. “She is better off in heaven than giving birth to your father’s bastard.” She points to George’s ax, now driven into the chopping stump. “There is work for you to do.”
George smiles and pulls the ax out. He places a log on the stump and brings the ax down hard. The log jumps apart. He stacks it neatly and picks up another.
Phillip Watson stands on the porch, a cardboard suitcase between his feet. He holds out his hand, and she places a small wad of bills in it. He stuffs the money into his pocket.
The ax rings out again, and Phillip picks up his suitcase. He walks fast and then begins to trot. He disappears over the hill. George puts down his ax and watches.
“Will he be alright?” he asks.
“Yes,” his mother replies.
She pauses and looks down at her hands.
“It is only unfortunate that Sarah did not drink enough of the sedative, that she had to die hard.”
George picks up his and ax looks at his mother, a question in his eyes.
“Yes,” she says, “you did the right thing.”
“And so did I,” she says under her breath, but she wonders when again she will be able to wash her hands without feeling the young woman’s warm flesh between her fingers.
After having published seven novels in traditional print form, Stephen Lewis dips his toe into the new digital world with the historical mystery A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first e-book. His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangolin Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Jewish Currents. Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, and “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review. Although born and raised in Brooklyn, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres.