True Justice for a False Man of God

"Caesara Pittman, or a Negress of God," a short story by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

pomegranate and knife

True Justice for a False Man of God

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Caesara Pittman, or a Negress of God 

“Do you, Miss Caesara Pittman, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty-six, aver to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Davidson, the attorney of the City of New Orleans, asks. It’s hot outside and hot in the courtroom. Too hot for so many people to be on those benches, close as piglets on a mama pig’s teats. 

I touch the Good Book, my fingers touching on the gold edges. That man, Buford—now I know his family name—sits at the table by his own lawyer, who wears those round glasses. Buford’s eyes wide with hate. He making all kind of faces at me. With those stitches down his cheek, looks like he’s Lucifer hisself. But this book never sent me wrong. I place my hand on my left breast. 

“Yessuh, I do,” I say. “I promise on my very heart.” 

“Where were you on the evening of Wednesday, July 25, 1866?” Davidson rests his hands behind his back, making his belly stick out some. He’s more than a couple of feet away. But I smell talc and pipe tobacco every time he pass by. 

“As you say, mister. It was Wednesday, and I was down on Good Children Street to buy baguettes. I make bread pudding for my husband and young ones on Saturdays.” 

“On Saturdays?” Davidson’s curled mustache shakes. 

“You got to let it stale up good before you use it.” 

“Of course.” Davidson laughs. Some of my folk in the gallery laugh good, too. 

“It was long about sunset…” I wasn’t far from home, had a basket on my arm. Had left the butcher where I cut offal for other free Creoles like myself. Had just passed the barn where they keep the streetcar mules when footsteps made themselves known to me. Some girls had been handled wrong lately. And some of them had been shamefully desecrated. 

“I didn’t come down here for no Devil work,” I said, hoping to be heard. A man came out the shadow. Under the gaslight, this white man wore the clothing of a man of God. A white collar around his neck. A cross hanging underneath that. 

“Just taking note of one of our Father’s children.” In the light, he rubbed his hands like he was cold. 

But he had big shoulders and big, rough grabbing hands. The kind of hands that plowed soil or worked a cargo ship. Not the kind of hands that prayed over the sick or baptized little ones. I held my hand out, palm up. “You ain’t no kind of priest.” 

He smiled, all the yellow teeth in his mouth shining at me. Looked like a mouth full of kernels. 

“I don’t take offense in the ignorance of your kind none,” he said. And I wondered if I was wrong about who he might be. But I thought on the book and words came to my mouth. 

And I saith: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” 

“What?” 

“I rebuke you!” I knew enough to know that a priest should have got a twinkle in his eye when you said the Scripture to him. But this heathen’s eyes stayed black. He might as well have been deaf. I dropped my basket and ran. I was fast but got tangled in my skirts. Fell on those cobblestones. Hurt my wrist. 

He fell on top me, clawing at my clothes. Pushed me on my back. He pulled at my chignon. That made me madder than what I already had reason to be mad about. He shouldn’t have done it. But, the exacerbated madness reminded me of the poultry knife I kept in my hair. I bought my manumission five years before the war. I was a free woman, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have to prove it from time to time. When slave traders needled me, I had my papers in one hand and my shiny little knife in the other. 

This man’s sick breath was on my face, and he was yanking my skirt. So, I jugged that knife in right under his left eye and drug it down to his lip. I smelled the metal that’s in blood. He yowled like a pitiful li’l dog. If I would have drug up instead of down, I could have popped his eyeball out like a—

Davidson raises his arm. “Thank you, Miss Pittman. That will do enough. We do not wish to give the jury night terrors.” 

I huffed. 

“What about my terrors?” I say, but he don’t hear. 

Davidson points at Buford. “Is this the man who accosted you?” Buford still making faces. He ugly as a pot of chitlings. His outside match his insides. I like that I did that to him. 

Outside the courtroom window, the paddleboat toots. I watch a colored man throw bread at a duck. Some changes done happened since the war between the states. I was a slave most of my life working the house on a plantation up near St. Francisville. I ain’t a slave no more, but I know these people in the juror box. Few of them would have wished any of us found freedom. Mr. Barker with the ruddy red cheeks sells candles and other fine things. The man with the mutton chops runs carriages. The dandy one on the end is from Virginia, almost a carpetbagger. Virginians used to sell my people to New Orleans for punishment. They hoped heat and terror work would kill us all. And then there’s all the marching men the white mob killed at the convention not long after my meeting with Buford. The whites trapped the good men inside that Mechanics’ Institute. When the men surrendered, dropping weapons, hands up, the white mob murdered them anyway, right in the streets. Paul Dostie was holding a white flag when they shot him. 

I expect no kind of justice here. I’m just another darky, hardly worth throwing away the life of one of their own, guilty or not. 

So, we really only here on account of how loud Buford screamed when I cut him. Like a babe with the colic. They saw my clothes, shredded like I’d been clawed by a lion. And they saw Buford, too big around the shoulders and too rough around the hands to be a priest. The police grabbed Buford on the spot. We made the papers. That’s why we here. Because of all the attention. 

“That man at that table over there?” I ask. 

“Yes, miss,” Davidson, the attorney of the City of New Orleans, says. “Have you seen him afore?” 

“The man over there who’s ugly as sin?” Some of my folk up the galley laugh again. But the men in the juror box are beet-faced. 

“Miss Pittman, I must insist—” 

I squint. “I never seen that man before in all my born life,” I say. “I swear it.” People all around the room gasp. 

The judge bangs his gavel. Buford’s lawyer with the round glasses stands. 

“Your honor, I move for an immediate dismissal of the present matter.” 

Later, it’s dark out. The bells of St. Louis Cathedral over Jackson Square ring out. This is how I know it’s round midnight when Buford shows his face at the exit of the district jail. A policeman shoves him out. Buford dusts off his coat and starts toward the cathedral. But he won’t make it. I doubt he was going to pray to the Lord anyhow. Don’t matter none. My basket is full of baguettes and oranges for my young ones. And I have a knife. A long one, too. I use it for gutting sow. When I pull it out, it shakes like it’s singing. Don’t matter if Buford was going to pray. I’m his Lord tonight. 

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