Excerpt from OURS


Justice Jackson, son of self-named King and Honor Jackson, the former who worked as a surrey driver in Delacroix and the latter who tended a small garden in Ours and occasionally did laundering for hardly anything at all, sat next to Luther-Philip in school every day after Mrs. Wife’s passing. Justice had heard what happened to Luther-Philip’s mother and felt it a shame that someone could lose a mother like that. “Cough-death be the worse death, I hear,” he said, and Luther-Philip nodded.

Weeks later, Justice saw Luther-Philip holding his shoulder as though it would fall off if he let it go. Justice shook his head. “Why you holding yourself?” he asked, and poked Luther-Philip in the arm.

Justice, the bigger boy, seemed even bigger in Luther-Philip’s smallness. This intensified the startling lack of force behind Justice’s poke. Never had Luther-Philip been touched that tenderly and he teared up because he knew no other way to react.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t—” Justice said, but Luther-Philip smiled and said that after school they should go to Creek’s Bridge. This began a ritual between the two boys that would last them well into their teenage years.

The first time they went, an awkwardness nested between them, punctuated by a fear of being themselves of which they hardly had an awareness. They spent most of their time together in school under the authority of a teacher. That watchful eye stunted their personalities despite a sense of love flowing through the discipline they received during their lessons. But a sense of love is not actual love, and being told not to speak when they wanted to speak, to sit when they wanted to stand, and to read when they wanted to sing did nothing for the possibilities within and between them, for how could they express themselves honestly when their honest selves were viewed as disruptive?

In the presence of budding flowers and chipmunks darting from bush to stone, spoken language no longer satisfied, words too small for the big world unfolding lushly before them in the soft cries of birds too high up to see and from the grass so green it made them hate the dirt roads of their town. Learning to speak for the first time, they closed their mouths. They took turns following each other in silence, observing from poorly covered hiding places the deer chew on plants and stare out and scatter when startled. They pointed at what they found beautiful and looked at one another for confirmation.

Justice found a branch on the ground covered in ants that he shook off before walking with the stick like he saw some of the elders do in town. He arched his back, soft as a cashew, and squinted identical to the oldest man in town, who did so not because he had difficulty seeing but because he saw everything as questionable behavior. Luther-Philip placed his hands in front of his belly and rocked heel to toe. He nodded fast and repeatedly, turning his head to survey the land around him and giving a tight smile like their teacher did when she greeted them every morning. Still looking for themselves, they could be whoever they wanted to be in the woods. Only laughter left their mouths and even that they kept as quiet as they could.

There had been a tornado and the boys wanted to see the damage left in its wake. In the distraction of the calamity it left behind—roofs peeled back, farm animals needing calming, flattened vegetables and upturned plants scattered all over the roads, an entire wagon rolled and tipped a half mile out needing to be turned right side up again and returned to its owner—the boys made their escape.

Needing desperately to play farther from town, they decided to hike north toward Delacroix. In the distance, a tree taller than all the others fanned its full-leaf expanse and blocked out everything behind it. They had wanted to journey farther, but what this walk lost in distance it made up for in inscrutability. The tree, a master of silhouettes, cast shadows that haunted and pierced the earth beneath it. The lower branches never had many leaves to begin with, the bottom half sharp with death, but the branches higher up were thick with green and activity.

Justice thought he heard a voice coming from the tree, but the sound had a pinprick to it, small enough that it had to have come from a specific spot in the boughs. He stood a good distance away from the tree and listened to the voice while watching Luther-Philip climb up and away from him. Seeing the lack of hesitation in Luther-Philip’s climb sparked envy in Justice and he didn’t know why. Climbing trees came easy to Justice. Nothing to it if you could get on that first branch. But fear stopped him from following, and the voice he feared in the tree had no effect on Luther-Philip, who touched the rough bark and pulled himself up without mentioning the whispers peeling from the trunk.

“Come on up,” Luther-Philip called, but Justice stayed speechless on the ground.

Finally, he asked, “You don’t hear that? Luthe, you don’t hear that?”

Luther-Philip kept climbing. The boy didn’t hear the whispers or his friend shouting up to him, and if there ever existed a loneliness so unique that it required another name, Justice had found it.

Justice looked up. Luther-Philip appeared to levitate in the tree. He had perfected his stillness such that he blended in with his surroundings and Justice lost him in the leaves. The tree and Luther-Philip became the only two things in the world and now they had become one, leaving Justice to watch on the outside, a spectator in his own friendship.

Walking around the tree, peering through the leaves to find Luther-Philip, Justice called up to him but heard no response and saw no movement. Justice crept to the tree and the tree-voice sighed. Bad enough that Luther-Philip left Justice alone with some ghost in the leaves but now Luther-Philip hid from his friend, tainting the beauty their silence once carried. This new silence carried betrayal, abandonment, and a haunting that with its unwanted privacy frightened Justice into rage.

“You can stay your coon ass up there if you like. You can stay up there and die.”

Still no response. And as quick as his rage had built, fear had taken over. He stepped closer to the tree and the tree-voice he heard fell away. As he began to climb up, he strained to hear it again, to make out the tree’s words smothered by the wind. Was it male or female? Somewhere in between or a wholly new kind of being? Did he hear smoke in the voice? A bit of honey? He started to miss the voice as a kind of accompaniment to his sudden loneliness, which told him that being afraid of the unknown felt a little better than fearing having no one to share the unknown with.

Justice climbed the other side of the tree, bark scratching against the bark-like skin on his play-rough knees. He made it to where Luther-Philip stood frozen in the branches and crossed over several more branches to get closer. Luther-Philip was staring at something caught in the corner of two limbs meeting at the trunk. Justice tried to find the source of his friend’s distraction. Eye-level between them sat a nest, wiry and black, with rocks spread out in the dark strands. Tears dripped down Luther-Philip’s face like rainwater from a shattered window. He breathed short, quick breaths and Justice didn’t understand.

“Why you crying?” Justice asked. He stood a bit farther from the nest than Luther-Philip. A foul smell caught his nose.

Luther-Philip didn’t answer, his attention unbroken.

Justice leaned in and finally understood what he had gotten wrong. The nest was made of hair with pieces of scalp still attached, and the tiny rocks were human teeth, some with just-dried blood still at the root. A few maggots squirmed throughout, making the teeth dance faintly in place. Just above the hair nest, impaled into the tree, were more teeth, the tornado having whipped them into the trunk. A breeze jostled the side of the nest and the stench rose up like fire.

“We need to get down,” Justice said. “You hear me? We need to get down.”

Luther-Philip cried to himself. Tears trailed down his open mouth. He had become absent in his own body.

Justice reached over to Luther-Philip as far as he could, desperately avoiding the nest made of hair and the teeth in it. He slipped and his elbow dipped into the nest, grazing over a tooth. Justice gasped and snatched himself back to his spot. He tried to reach again and, stretched to his fullest, touched Luther-Philip on the cheek with the tips of his fingers. “Luthe?” Justice said, and Luther-Philip blinked once and screamed.

From OURS by Phillip B. Williams, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Phillip B. Williams. It can be purchased here.

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