They were some kind of Asians. Some stories told in the boots at Bob’s Diner and behind the Church of Christ Risen said they were Japanese, some Chinese, and some changed countries of origin mid-story. A few people got it right, though by accident, that in fact there was more than one kind of Asian there, all together. They were all assumed, incorrectly, to be from other countries. Later, when people of other ethnicities arrived, the truth would come out: most of them were from California, a few from Boston, Providence, New Orleans, and places no one had ever heard of. But all Americans, all here for generations.
That is what the locals had said they’d wanted, but finding out it was true only made them more resentful. People should be exotic as they look.
The presence of the black folks, in particular, was a bit unnerving. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there was history. And it wasn’t buried so deep.
It was suspicious. That’s what they agreed on. Everyone in Revelleberg had wanted the Granger estate to finally sell. It was a decrepit eyesore in a small town struggling to hold on to its dignity. But they had never imagined it would be sold to complete strangers, let alone ones who looked so different and had no people here.
It was a sign of change, and change had not gone well for decades. Change was factories closing, roads falling apart, and children moving away from families who had been here for generations, never coming back.
But the newcomers were craftsmen, everyone had to agree: they worked hard, fixing the place up nicely, and visible hard work was a clear sign of virtue. They called themselves artists, which didn’t help, but fixing up an old house is something everyone can understand. And when they finished fixing it up, they repaired one of the old barns and grain silos, too, turned them into workshops for big projects, sculptures, and machines. Their money was good, and needed. They got a lot of shipments from out of town, sure, but they shopped local too, and didn’t seem to look down on anybody, or get angry or political the way people who … well, you don’t want to out and say it, but, you know … often do. That kind of talk just makes everybody mad … puts salt in wounds … but the new people preferred to talk about finding the right tools for the right job, and where the weather was going this season, and the kinds of soil and what grew in it and what was being planted, and how the high school teams were doing this year. It was all right, for about eight months.
But after that they started decorating the ancient elm tree on the property. Hanging illuminated paper things … delicate Japanese lantern things … people weren’t sure what … from the branches. And that got uncomfortable. There’s a lot of history with that tree that people don’t talk about. Those lantern things called attention to it – because of the elevation you could see the tree gently illuminated in the night from all across town. And people wanted the newcomers to stop, without being sure how to tell them why, because this wasn’t a thing you talk about. No sense in it. No good comes from it.
But when Jack Thomas brought it up to one of the Asian ones who sat down next to him at the diner, asked “What are you doing there? With that big tree up there?”
The lady responded, easy as you please, “We’re giving homes to the souls of the people who were lynched on it.” And that was when the whole town realized: they knew.
Everybody knew. And that was very uncomfortable.
“What do you mean?” Jack Thomas asked. “You’re giving homes to their souls? That sounds like … witchcraft.”
She made a face. “Oh, you don’t think we can really do that, do you?” She winked at him. “We’re artists. You know that. We’re just making art about it.”
“Well,” said Shirley McClain, who was sitting on the other side of the counter, “that seems offensive, doesn’t it? Making up stories like that?”
“Lynching is very offensive,” the woman agreed. “So we absolutely want to be accurate. Where would I go to get accurate information about this? Is there a memorial? A public denunciation that explains the history? A curriculum you’ve developed for the schools? Tell me where you’ve put the accurate information.”
“We don’t talk about it because it’s offensive,” Shirley said.
“But you’re offended by witchcraft, and you denounce that all the time,” the woman said. For some reason they could never remember her name. “And you’re offended by abortion. And communism. And you talk about how wrong those are all the time. So we’re going to say the same thing about lynching. It’s offensive. And we condemn it. And so we’re making a home for every soul that was lost in that tree. And we’ll display it. They deserve a monument, don’t you think? Victims of crime?”
And they stared and they scowled as she finished her breakfast and went to the hardware store.
That conversation was repeated, all over town, for weeks. Every time they saw one of the artists. Except the black ones, who no one ever brought it up with. And they could never argue with the artists for very long, but they all agreed it wasn’t right. Sometimes the past can hurt us, and so should not be brought up. Live and let live. Why rub people’s faces in what went wrong?
“But you have a statue to a Civil War general,” one of the Hispanic artists pointed out.
The tree was beautiful: its branches filled with strange and elegant paper shapes containing gentle flickering lights. It seemed unearthly, revealing infinite detail, the path of the lights within it always changing. Revelleberg’s teenagers began lingering around it late at night. People from out of town drove in to see it. While they were there, they toured the artist’s studios.
The Granger estate was becoming a town center again. But the town was not comforted. It did not feel like the good old days.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Ellen Parson grumbled at The Pit Stop bar, “before the media catches wind of this, and then lynching will be the only thing anybody ever knows about us again. They’ll never stop talking about it.”
“When did you start talking about it?” asked an artist, some kind of brown one, sitting at the other end of the bar. And it surprised them, they hadn’t realized he was there. Some of the artists seemed to be ghosts themselves, appearing where they didn’t belong, when you weren’t looking.
“I think the whole time, the civil rights era, has been talked to death,” said Andrew Thompson.
“Yes,” the artist said. “But when did you talk about it? Other people have lent this crime their voices. But what did yours say? When did that discussion happen?”
Meetings were quietly hinted at, then held. The tree was beautiful, they had to admit. Magnificent, like something out of a dream. They wanted it to stay. They just wanted it to mean something else.
Perhaps, they decided, if they told their own story about the tree, and what it meant, that would solve the problem.
The Chamber of Commerce was small and mostly inactive, but it received donations to take the lead and it printed up broachers and flyers and advertisements, saying that the tree was a homage to the work of the last living member of the Granger family, Edward, who had been a patron of the arts and who, in his declining years, had made lanterns inspired by all the cultures of the world. The artists, they said, who had purchased his estate were honoring his vision with the tree, and wasn’t that lovely?
A sympathetic reporter for the weekly paper, whose own grandfather had been involved in many of the old activities around that tree, ran an article explaining this. And now the town had one version of the story, and the artists another.
So tourists would come, and visitors would come, and they would all stand in awe of the tree, and some would be told it housed the souls of those who had been lynched on it, and others were told that it was an homage to the last patriarch of the family whose land this had been.
For a while, no one knew which way this would go, or who the world would believe. But then Myrlie Ferguson had her nightmare. She woke up, at 3:22 in the morning, screaming that the souls her grandfather had lynched were whispering to her from the lanterns, showing her what had happened. She wasn’t right, anymore. She couldn’t stop talking about it. No matter how many people told her to be quiet, she couldn’t stop talking about it.
Then Gabe Strong had a dream. And it broke him and his silence, too.
Then Jessie Sanders.
Jack Thomas confronted three of the artists, two Asians and a brown one, when he saw them at the hardware store. “You did this,” he said.
They laughed at him and said “We’re artists. We wish we could work in dreams, but we only make art.”
At the diner, Shirley McClain said “I told you it sounded like witchcraft,” when she heard how the conversation had gone.
The Chamber of Commerce campaign faltered. It had needed something close to a unified front to work, but now with the dreams, too many people were breaking down, saying they had bad consciences, and they didn’t want to talk about it but they also didn’t want to lie. That lies were like hot coals tied to their tongues, and nobody should be put through that.
The rest of the town decided that the artists were witches. Or Satanists. Something. It was the only explanation that made sense. You can’t just give people bad dreams with art.
Giving people dreams wasn’t just words. That was a kind of assault. And so the time had come to fight.
Two nights later, the Granger hanging tree burned down, and nearly took the house with it. It would have, too, if both the artists living there and the volunteer fire department hadn’t reacted with great speed and efficiency – almost as though they had been expecting this conflagration. Even so, it had taken a lot of work to keep the fire contained. It made the papers. It made the TV news, there had been cameras everywhere. But while the controversy was mentioned in every report, it was now surely over. There was nothing left to argue about.
The next night, sometime between midnight and 3 in the morning, the tree returned. Exactly as it had been, shining like a beacon in the night.
The next morning, everyone gathered. Wondering if this was a trick. Wondering if this was a miracle. Wondering if this was the work of the devil, and if so, whose side they were on.
Someone has to be brave enough to touch it to realize what had happened: it wasn’t the original tree, but an exact replica, carved in stone. A monumental sculpture that the artists had been building for the last year in the converted grain silos on their estate, every detail recreated to the smallest degree, in anticipation of this day.
The story was regional news now, everyone carried it. And then national news. The events, the history, taken up by the biggest networks and newspapers and a hundred thousand bloggers. They all got it wrong, many residents thought. They never mentioned the witchcraft. They treated the men and women the dreams had broken as heroes. They didn’t understand that something truly uncanny had happened here. That this had not been a fair fight, but an ambush, brought about by forces which had marshaled from the outside.
The artists donated the grounds and the sculpture to the state historical society, and vanished.