“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t do it. Don’t.”
But even as the words floated out into the air, Jude began raising the pistol slowly, so slowly, like his connectors were broken, and the message from his brain to the end of his arm was being sent and received through molasses. He was so calm, so collected, and his hand never shook, never quivered. It seemed as steady as the hot sun hanging in a clear sky on a summer’s day.
Jude’s eyes were cold.
Funny, I’d never thought of Jude as anybody but a boy. Now, as I looked at him, it seemed as if some other soul inhabited him. The body was my brother’s. The clothes on his back were his, even his dusty, bare feet looked the same, but his face wore a masklike expression I did not recognize.
That was what I saw in those clear eyes. That was what was reflected on Jude’s face. A half smile formed on his lips. But it was not a happy smile. There was nothing happy about it.
A little crinkle at the corners of his mouth broke the grim line that slashed across my brother’s face. Nasty, somehow. Sinister. Mean.
His eyelids lay heavy, lazy and half opened, like an alligator’s, and the black centers of his eyeballs looked too big to be real. His stare was frigid. Stone cold. Like all the life had been sucked out by the steely weapon of death he cupped in his hand.
“Don’t, Jude. Please. Don’t,” I said.
But he was someone I no longer knew, and in a place where I could not go.
Jude had not heard a word I’d said.
He had slipped away somewhere, some place muddy and dank and dark, like a cave or a grave, somewhere too deep and far away to hear my pleas for mercy. Some place cold and hopeless, where dead things lived. Some place where nightmares haunted the dark recesses of his emotionless soul.
I could not reach him there.
Jude was a stranger, and I was scared out of my wits. I watched my brother’s finger squeeze the slim reed of the trigger. The fire ball exploded from the end of the muzzle and spewed out in a red-hot burst, like the butt-end of a cheap whore’s orgasm. The sound was deafening.
Maybe it was so loud because Jude had fired next to my head. Maybe it was because I was just a dumb little girl who had not thought to cover her ears. I don’t know.
Anyway, I could have sworn I was deaf for three days after Jude fired that shot. Not that anyone gave a damn whether I actually was or not. After all, I am just a no-good, colored girl.
The shot found its mark with deadly accuracy, and the tiny animal quivered once or twice, and then lay still. Limp-as-a-dishrag, dead-as-a-door-nail, still-as-a-church-mouse still.
Poor thing. It never had a chance. Never.
And that was just too bad as far as Jude was concerned. I read that much in my brother’s face. I thought my heart would fall right out of my chest and plop down beside the tiny creature. How could Jude have done such a wicked thing?
It lay in a patch of red clay, thick blood clots darkening the edges of the hole in its head. So lifeless and unmoving. But if I hadn’t known better, I could have sworn it was asleep, just peacefully resting in the patchy clumps of grass.
Only, you don’t sleep with your eye open and unblinking. Cloudy and murky. Unseeing.
The other part of its head, the part that bled darkness into the dirt, was missing, but the uninjured half of its face stared up at me, blaming me for finding that stupid gun in the first place. That was the part that made me feel so guilty. It looked pretty much okay, and its normal appearance made me want to cry.
“We ain’t gonna eat it, Jude,” I said, hating the whine and the whimper of weakness in my voice. “Time ya skin’t it, ain’t ’nough meat on ‘em liddle bones ta fool wit’. Wudn’ be two bites! So’s whut ya doin’ wastin’ tha lead on a baby like ‘at fa’?
I mean, it’s jes a babe, Jude. Dang it all. A baby bunny. ‘Ey don’t hurt nobody. Ain’t like a snake ‘er a mad dog. Ain’t like it ought ta die ‘cause it’s evil ‘er ‘cause it bites a body. Baby like dat don’t hurt nuthin’ a’tall, Jude!”
Jude slapped my cheek with the malevolent force of a rogue stallion’s kick. My face burned like fire, and I was certain he’d left a mark. Jude was slim, but strong for his size. I was always surprised at the level of violence in those beautiful hands.
My face took on the slack jawed look of a rubber clown toy. I waited for the stars to fade from in front of my eyes. Tears welled and threatened to spill down my cheeks, but I blinked them away. It wasn’t the burn on my face that brought them. I could stand pain as much as the next fellow. It was the thought of that tiny life Jude had just snuffed out that made me want to cry buckets.
I looked away, trying to dismiss what my brother had just done, but I could just see that mama rabbit waiting for her little one to come back home, nose twitching in the air, sniffing, trying to find her baby’s scent from amongst all the rest of the woody smells, and it broke my heart afresh that this mama didn’t have no child any more.
That baby’s mama would never see her little one alive again.
Jesus, Jude. How can ya be so mean? I thought, not daring to utter my true feelings.
I wouldn’t give Jude the pleasure of heckling me. Jude had a friend with him, today. A new gal. He always showed off in front of any new girl. He’d only have something smart to say to me. Besides, he’d only hit me again.
Jude still had the pistol in his hand. As if to emphasize that point and make me believe he was reading my mind, Jude waved the business end of the gun my way. I wondered if there were more bullets in the chamber.
At that moment, I was so sick about the senseless death of the bunny that I didn’t much care. I thought I heard the click of the trigger, but nothing happened. Perhaps, I had just imagined it; I was so upset.
The gun was Jude’s now, as much as if I had said to my brother, “Hyar, teke it. Hit’s yourn.”
I had said no such words, but of course, that did not matter.
He had possession of it. It was his. He held it in his hand as if it was an extension of his fingers. I had relinquished any claim on it the second my brother spotted me with it. Jude did not believe in the law of finders keepers. My brother lived within a circle of rules all his own. What was Jude’s was Jude’s, and what was mine was Jude’s too, so I had absolutely no say in the matter.
The gun was an extraordinary find, though.
A real treasure.
Occasionally, Fate would smile on my brother or me, and we might spy a discarded soda bottle in the weeds by the dusty road. We’d cash it in at Old Tatom’s Store for two pieces of penny candy or a handful of soda crackers and a slab of cheddar.
Once, Jude found a whole nickel outside the old man’s store. It was just lying there in the red hard pan by the old board steps that led to the store’s front porch.
I’ll never know how he spotted it. The thing was all green and grimy, and as dirty as the dirt. Jude said his eye caught the circle shape. He knew that nothing in nature was a totally straight line or a completely round circle, and when he bent over and picked it up, even he could not believe his good fortune.
A whole nickel!
Jude was rich.
Neither of us had ever had our hands on so much hard cash money at one time.
I looked around to see if any of the old men, who lingered around the store playing checkers and cards and chewing tobacco, had seen Jude. One old man lazily spit an arch of dark, brown liquid over the rail of the front porch, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to us.
If any one of them had figured out what Jude had just found, they would have been quick to claim it as their own. But two dirt-poor kids weren’t worth focusing on when Skinny Woodbine was beating the socks off Berry Brinkers in checkers. The hoots and hollers coming from the porch would have made anyone who did not know them think Gabriel himself had just tooted his great horn and signaled the rapture.
“Hit’s been lyin’ thyar a spell, ain’t it?” I asked Jude, hoping he’d spend at least a little of it on me.
“Yes sah,” Jude whispered. “’N ain’t gonna do nobody a dern bit of good to say dey jes lost hit. Hit’s been layin’ in dat dirt jes waitin’ fer me to come ‘long ‘n snatch hit up. Gonna fetch you home, you liddle beauty.”
“Fetch hit home?” I asked disappointedly. “Ain’t ya gonna spend hit?”
“Naw, stupid. Sure as I teke dis nick’ul inta dat sto’, Old Tatom wud declare it wuz his. Dat ole goat sure ta say I stole it from his cash box, sho’ as de world. He say ain’t no nigger ebah had so mech as two cents ta rub ta’gatha. Yep. He ‘ud swear I stole it. So, I gonna teke dis babe home. Gonna keep dis fer a real rainy day. Till den, dis nick’ul gonna be mah gud luck piece. My lucky nick’ul!”
The gun had just been lying there waiting for us, too.
We found it in a ditch by the dirt road heading out of town. I say ‘we found it,’ but I was the one who saw the sun glint on the barrel and went to investigate. I was ahead of Jude, walking about fifteen steps in front of my brother and this high-yellow girl he’d picked up last night. They’d met at the juke joint where Jude played sometimes, when he needed money.
The two had been joined at the hip ever since.
I didn’t mind.
Jude most always had that kind of company. And new girls, ones who didn’t know him and were fooled by his charm, often put my brother in a good mood.
Sometimes though, the latest paramour would have the opposite effect on him.
I never figured out the whys, wherefores, or the whatevers that made him so, but with some new girls – Jude transformed into a monster. I studied on this a lot, but I was forever at a loss. Perhaps, it was just the chemistry of their personalities that made Jude seem nicer or that brought out the devil in him, for with some gals, it was like Jude had to prove himself, like he had to show them that he was indeed the ruler of his shabby kingdom.
Of course, I was his younger sister, meant to be tortured and cruelly used for the king’s pleasure. And whenever the king handed down a particularly mean decree, that girl he was with today, seemed to smile and delight in my pain.
Some girls weren’t like her.
Some didn’t like to see Jude mistreat me. With these girls, my brother acted like I was not there. He just ignored me.
I liked those times best, for I could bask in my big brother’s shadow without fear of penalty. I was like a pesky little fly that was brushed away, time after time, and not the unlucky one that was swatted flat because of its persistence, with those types of girls.
But this new one liked to see me hurt, so I gave her and Jude great distance. I made sure I was out of arm’s reach, that is, until I spotted the shiny thing in the grass by the road.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the gun.