Coyotes Howl in Fallbrook

The Torch Is Passed

Excerpt from a novel manuscript in process

By Mike Croghan


Then she paces, throwing her arms out as if to shake her hands free of death. It’s a gesture so hopeless, so filled with utter despair. It sends prickles of revelations rushing across my skin: this is me, this is what I do, this is how death hits me too — in the hands.

All I could do at the news [of a good friend’s death] was throw my arms down, shake my hands, again and again, uselessly, unconsciously trying to fling reality from my fingertips.

– Sarah Erdman, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha

1839

I was only three, yet I could see it, sense it, feel it coming through to me as I hugged her leg and tried to hide my face. I’d glimpse at the spectacle, then look up at her. She never returned my look. But I watched her, searched her face, her gaze as I sought meaning, an explanation. Hiding, peeking at the scene, looking back to her, I grew dizzy, sick to my stomach.

In my mother’s face was silent rage. To be sure, it was a rage brought on by the spectacle, but also a rage against being forced to attend.

Then, from where he stood in the wagon, Papa Hassan’s gaze reached out to her, his head forced to one side by the tightened noose. Calm washed over her, just like when he would say, “Guess what Allah and de ancestors goin’ do with you!”

Papa Hassan’s gaze seized and directed her, “Take pride. The dignity you seek isn’t found in that man’s cruel hungers, but in what has been given you by the ancestors. Healers heal; they don’t quit. Feed the dog of hope.”

And I saw her rage had faded. To her dying day it was never forgotten. But warmth, humanity, faith — these things layered over the rage, shunning it to the background.

Then came something that left me incredulous. A grin of satisfaction began to etch into her soft, round face. I think it surprised even her.

In the more than sixty years that have passed since that event, I’ve come to recognize a most unique quality about my mother. No matter her expression, it was invariably a temporary, almost transparent veneer on a permanent canvas of sharp self-awareness and autonomy. But to my horror, that strength disappeared as the satisfied grin on her lips contracted to a tightness of deep sorrow in her eyes, and though I cannot tell how, I could feel all that was going on within her: the contradiction, the welling of fury in her gut. Her heart beat fast! No, it beat slowly as her chin sank in defeat and despair.

Then, in a voice I’d never heard from her before or since, “NEVER!” arose from her depths. Her hands pressed my face against her leg and I could feel it; the final change, her last stand, and I learned at that moment a lesson that has stayed with me all these years. She was determined; never again would she relinquish control to them.

Later she told me, and I remember every word: It wasn’t their bestiality that brought us to witness this event. “No!” she declared. “We there because the ancestors and spirits wished us there. They wanted us to see first hand how dey able to pass power to us — the living.”

Where did she get this strength, this power, at such a time? For years I have wondered. Perhaps over the years I have come to know. She looked at the rigid-backed dignity and defiance of her father and as his gaze met hers her confusion and contradictions vanished. Fury and grief found no room alongside her love for him, alongside that inherited pride; love and pride for his refusal to give them the information they wanted about others in the rebellion; love and pride for denying them the satisfaction of begging, retching, struggling.

His steady gaze at her, his loving smile and countenance of resignation were clear markers: He was ready and at peace. Papa’s eternal image and final lesson stayed with mother forever. The dog of hope had won.

Her defiance took the form of a whispered prayer with her back turned to the scene. I didn’t understand. The words were in the language he had taught her, but I knew what she prayed because she told me often in the lessons she gave me. It was a promise to him to pass his teachings, his history, the history of his family to her children. The rest of her prayer, in English, I remember word for word.

“Papa Hassan, I know you better where you are. Like you always say, don’t none of us really belong here. But you least of all, Papa. Now you’ve seen the Promised Land, Papa. You in de Promised Land. You home, Papa. Home. You on your mountaintop now. And finally your spirit truly be free.”

My dizziness ebbed. That look on her face, that natural countenance and ease that always gave me confidence and reassurance were returning.

In the years since, I have wondered how I was able to understand so much of what she — we! — was going through. Surely part of the understanding came from the wondering, the repeated act of questioning as I went through boyhood and young manhood revisiting each event, rethinking the meanings affixing ever and ever more their indelibility.

I think, too, the mood of the people was as palpable as the messages I’d received while watching mother. You can imagine how the mood penetrated, unforgettably, even the naïveté of a three-year-old. My grandpa and mother were sharing a connection, a plane more cosmic than that provided by thehorror-mongers. Mother took me there. Once there, no matter your age, you never forget. You cannot ever fully return, since either a part of you is always there or a part of there is always with you. Once on that higher plane it’s with you always.

I began to grasp the deeper understanding later, after she decided to let her tears flow, to let the sobs break her breathing. Mother didn’t hide this from me. She held me, nearly smothered me, clinging to me as though I were her only tether to life itself. At least to life as she had known it.

I was not yet four years old, but when your heart is breaking your mind opens up, grasps meaning beyond your years. A piece of your childhood innocence is lost, replaced by recognition of sinister forces you must prepare for.

And so they came. They tightened the noose and the wagon lurched forward from beneath Papa’s feet.

I began my preparation at that instant. This was corroborated, underscored years later when I came to know that Mother and I were sent to that scene for lessons. Being forced to witness the hanging of my grandfather was supposed to teach us — teach me — something. It did. But I’m certain the lessons I learned that day were not the ones Father intended.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Mike Croghan turned to writing after thirty-plus years as an educator. Having taught middle school, high school and university undergraduate and graduate students, his background as reader of others’ writings is broad, rich, sometimes painful, always learning. For over six years, he has been working on a novel, a hybrid of family history and historical novel. The first volume of his novel traces the history of seven generations of an African American family, fictional and nonfictional, comprising his wife’s ancestors.

Photo from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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  1. Millie Gordon says:

    Love this, Mike. The brutality of the photograph hurts, but the honesty of the words reduces some of that brutality, lack of humanity, cruelty.

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