Chapter 1

Gus stood beside the living room window, waiting for the annual spring rains. They should have come by now, he noted, glancing at the battered Motley Funeral Home calendar hanging from a nail on the wall. It was May 17, 1940, and Gus’s wilted crops made him wonder if, somehow, he had angered Mother Nature. Usually the rains came between March and April, freeing him to hunt or fish the latter part of spring while cabbage, collard, and tomato sprouts strengthened in the moistened earth. That year, the stubborn rains prolonged the daily sojourn Gus and the boys took to the river and back — locals called it the Jordan — carrying five-gallon buckets of water for both their own and the sprouts’ survival.

Gus loved the rains. As a child, he lay in bed listening to the thunderous polyrhythms they drummed into the rusted tin rooftop. Something about the melody soothed his somber soul and allowed him to cry without fear of his father’s reprisal. After all, he was a boy, Chester Peace Sr. loved to remind him — as though his genitalia didn’t — and tears didn’t speak well for one who would, one day, become a man. The indelible imprint of Chester Sr.’s inordinately large hand on Gus’s tender face whenever he wept never bothered the boy who, in his heart, wanted nothing more desperately than to emulate his father. But as he grew, he never learned to control his tears. He learned instead to hide whenever he felt their approach.

The rains awakened something in him. Maybe it was their steady flow that eroded his makeshift stoicism and caused water to gush from his eyes as if from a geyser. Whatever the connection, Gus always wept along with the rains. He’d convinced himself that the sky, like him, was cursed with a heavy heart that required annual purging. So every spring since his tenth birthday, when the scent of moisture filled his nose he escaped to the Jordan River and stood amid the rain, wailing away pain like a woman in labor. Whether it lasted for hours or even a day, no one expected his return to normalcy until the showers subsided.

Gus was grateful others didn’t ask why he cried, because he couldn’t have explained it. Had he known words like “injustice” or “inequity” he might’ve been able to translate his feelings into words, but with a third-grade vocabulary, such articulation was out of the question. All he knew was that he cried when things weren’t right. He wept as a child when other children mocked his holey shoes, and then he wept when God refused to grant him the courage and the will to fight. He wept for mother birds that couldn’t find worms for their young. He wept for cows left freezing in the snow. He wept for Miss Mazie — the woman whose husband slashed her with a butcher’s mallet for talking back — and wept even harder when he overheard that they put the man away. Most of all he wept because he thought people in the world didn’t care.

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