Whistle: A Novelby Janice Daugharty
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Just out of prison after serving time on a drug charge, Roper Rackard comes across a woman's body while mowing the tall grass at the far end of his new boss's property, and although he is innocent of her death, Roper panics. Terrified that he will be charged with murdering a white woman and sent back to jail, he decides to hide the body where it won't be found. As days and then weeks pass, and the search for the missing woman continues, Roper begins to doubt himself. Did he do the right thing? Why didn't he call for help? Will anybody believe he is innocent and, most important, how can he possibly come forward now?
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But when he mounts the tractor and gears it into first, looking again toward the end of the pond road, he is high enough to see over the weeds and still the roll of navy is there. Not exactly a roll shape, and if he isn't careful he might conjure the rest of it into the image of a white woman's overlapped arms and legs. Driving parallel to the navy and white--what? rags blown from the old homesite on the south end of the property?--yet a good hundred feet away, he heads the tractor east in the direction of the white farmhouse fronting Highway 129, listening to the hard chirr of the rotary mower, the mind-numbing clata-clat-clat of the tractor. Seeing before him the green Volvo in the backyard where he'd talked to the boss's wife before going home for lunch. Wearing what? One of those shorts outfits she wears when she goes out walking every day. What color? He can lie to himself and say red or gray. He can lie to himself and say he never spoke to that white woman in the first place, that he hasn't seen what could be her body sideslung in the sand at the other end of the road.
But he has.
In the pecanorchard, field side of the rail-fenced yard, he turns the tractor, mowing west into the fuzzy brown weeds and grasshopper flurries, eyes on the navy roll that he tries to fool himself into believing has moved. Maybe she is resting. Maybe she is trying to lure Roper into coming to check on her; maybe Math Taylor has told his wife to test Roper. But knowing Taylor, whom Roper has worked either with or for, off and on, since the early part of his fifty-four years when he became workable, Roper knows that isn't right. That Math Taylor would do his own testing if he wanted to test somebody. Two weeks Roper's been working for Taylor, this time, and two weeks he's been trying not to look at the white woman, who could land his ass back in jail. Not that she's been anything but kind to him, too kind.
Getting closer to the navy and white hump, Roper decides to really look this time. Almost level with it, though still maybe ninety feet to his left, he can see her gray-blond hair cooped over her left arm. Right arm covering her face as if she is playing peekaboo with a baby. But the right toe of her white running shoe is flexed inward in a way that this lady would never flex her foot, maybe even if she was dead. Dead, she has to be dead. Did she have a heart attack, did somebody murder her, did a rattlesnake bite her? Maybe a stray shot from a deer hunter's rifle.
All the way up to the row of pine saplings circling the pond, so close Roper can see the shrunken black water, and again he turns the tractor, juddering it over the furrows of dirt and wintering weeds, toward the house again, past the woman again, now some seventy-five feet away. Watching behind him the body and letting the tractor cruise randomly through ragweeds and dog fennels, goatspur and blackberry thickets. When he has to look ahead again, when he has to steer the tractor into the neat etched line of sagy cured weeds on his right, away from the pale green stubble on his left, that clean patch every day for two weeks the tractor has been gnawing away at, his hands are shaking so badly he has to grind them into the steering wheel. To make them stick.
Next run, and the drizzle changes to rain. A slow slanting rain across the same impossible but peaceful two hundred acres he's been whittling away at for two weeks--he's never worked so steady for so long before. The field peaceful now except for the navy roll that hasn't moved. Same down-flexed right shoe and right arm over the face. Hell, even Sweet, the quarters' whore, crazy as she is, wouldn't lie down to rest in the rain! In the middle of a weed field?
When it rains, generally, Roper can go home and sleep or wander the quarters, a mile south of Taylor's place. He should go now, a good excuse. Passing the parked pickup on his left and the roll of navy on his right, he is tempted to stop, to get into the truck, to go home, but instead makes a quick right. Straight across the humpy field, stopping the tractor a few weed-choked furrows away from the body or whatever.
Rain streams down his hot face--so hot this last day of October! He calls out, "Hey, hey! Hey, Miss Lora! Hey!" The word "hey" feels stuck in his throat, and doesn't sound proper anyway when addressing the white woman. Does it matter? "Hey, get up," he yells through the muffler of rain. "You awright?"
Rain spots spread on her navy shorts and shirt, the toe of her right shoe still points down. No blood that he can see. He is so close he can make out the heel stitching of her white sock showing above the back of her shoe, the untied shoelace--a bad sign--and realizes he is walking toward her, whistling, rather than standing in one spot as he'd thought. Rain beating straight down on his cap now, straight down on the woman's gray-blond hair. So strange in the sandy dirt.
Still whistling, he wheels and starts toward the idling blue tractor; not blue, like navy, but what a woman might call bright blue, what his mama, loving color, might call royal blue. The old tractor bluer than normal with the rain rinsing the cottony fuzz of weeds from the bent left fender. Not Roper's fault, the bent fender. Nobody can blame him for the bent fender. Nobody has tried to. Will they blame him for the white woman's death or whatever? Probably. He stops whistling, starts to moan.
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Meet the Author
Janice Daugharty is Artist-in-Residence at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, in Tifton, Georgia. She is the author of one story collection and five novels: Dark of the Moon, Necessary Lies, Pawpaw Patch, Earl in the Yellow Shirt, and Whistle.
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