CAITLYN HUNTER

Trigger Warning

This story was inspired by a news story a few years ago where a young Black man was murdered on a camping trip with some white friends in Pennsylvania. It was a story that made me think about how feelings of fear and unsafety operate in rural spaces…especially as it pertains to race. It’s something I’ve felt while camping. It’s something I’ve felt on hikes where I’m alone with my dog. It’s also something I felt growing up in a forest in an incredibly racist and conservative area. I’ve never seen my father exhibit fear. As someone who was one of the first Black students at his school, who eventually became a Black Panther, graduated college, and traveled the world, it’s been a constant curiosity to me why he made the conscious decision to raise his daughter in his hometown. I think my father swallowed the fears and traumas he experienced (and continues to) for the betterment of his family. This story, while a tribute to him, is also a tribute to Peter Spencer and other Black men who don’t always survive in the woods.

My daddy is nobody’s Negro. He always kept a rifle by his bedside as a reminder to anyone who questioned that. My momma, the anti-gun enthusiast, said it scared her, but he ignored her pleas to keep it away from her view. Women worry, Men protect. That was the dogma he lived by. Rules of the Wild West and some shit on reruns of Tombstone and History Channel episodes on the O.K. Corral.

I only saw Daddy use that gun twice.

The first time happened when I was eleven.

In a brown cottage tucked behind a cascading wall of honeysuckle and oak trees, we lived on the edge of ten acres, a refuge for seasonal songbirds, abandoned pets, and a family of skunks. On warm nights, a red fox and a barn owl took turns serenading us from our back porch. Every spring, pregnant deer made beds of grass behind the trees to prepare for impending fawns. My favorite moments were walking home down the mile-long dirt road from the bus stop, seeing what creatures I might spot. One day, I heard a loud popping of fireworks through the trees.

Daddy was shooting empty canisters of cleaning products lined out on a stump. He slid my backpack strap from my shoulder and exchanged it for his rifle. “Look into the scope and aim,” he told me, pointing to the Windex bottle. As I lifted my arm, the hard metal felt heavy in my hands. He adjusted the butt of the gun into the crook of my shoulder. “Deep breath,” he told me. “Keep both eyes open.” I squeezed the trigger and the gun kicked into my shoulder socket pushing me backwards. As the plastic Windex bottle fell, my body trembled. The power of the gun shook me. I understood why Momma was afraid. “I’m proud of you,” Daddy said, patting me on the shoulder. “That’s my Baby girl,” he said as he went to retrieve and replace the bottle.

“Again.”

 

The second time he used that gun happened a few years later when a white man joined us for dinner.

The white man had one of those old family names from the county. He sat at the head of our dining room table grabbing a chicken leg, spooning mashed potatoes onto his plate. “You got yourself a fine home here, Chuck,” he said to Daddy. No one called Daddy Chuck. Not even Momma. The white man winked at Momma and continued to stuff his face. I didn’t see Daddy’s balled up fists under the table. I didn’t see Momma shuffle uncomfortably in her seat. To a teenager, this man was a guest in our home. This man was just white. When he finished his meal and stood up to leave, Daddy never shook his hand. Daddy smiled, gestured towards the door,  and waved the man’s car goodbye just the same. Real polite, just like he taught me. When the man’s car drove down the winding dirt road, Daddy walked away from the window. He poured a glass of wine, and tivoed John Wayne.

At 3 a.m., lights shone into my bedroom from the road. Perhaps someone is lost, I thought, sliding from my bed to get a closer look. I opened the bedroom door to find Daddy naked in the hallway behind the front door. He must’ve heard the approaching car too. Standing with his rifle cocked in hand, he silently gestured his finger to his lip and motioned for me to hold the doorknob. He whispered, “If I don’t come back, wake up your mother, and hide.”  He held three fingers up and counted. 3…2…1. I opened the door, and he pushed me behind it. 

The crackling of the gun in the air echoed. The explosion of bullets morphed into reverberations of lightning as they danced through the leaves of the trees. The car lights retreated back from where they came, and Daddy came back inside. His sweaty skin glistened in the shadows. His skin, a beautiful deep onyx blue.

The next morning Daddy made us pancakes. He flipped a stack onto a plate and held it out to me.

“That was Klan that had been at our house last night.” He handed me the syrup and some butter. “Don’t tell your mother. Better eat up and get ready for school.” He kissed my forehead then sat at the table, staring out the window.

He smiled. “Looks like the bluebirds are back.”

Caitlyn Hunter was the inaugural Emerging Black Artist in Residence at Chatham University (2021-2022). She is a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University where she researches African American literature and Black Food studies. She is currently writing both a collection of short stories and a culinary memoir around her maternal ancestry. Her first book Power in the Tongue (Tolsun Books) debuted in 2022. Her work appears in Midnight & Indigo, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere.

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