The River Folk are among the most stubborn individuals I’ve encountered during my limited travels through the American south. Though more than willing to exchange pleasantries, most are unwilling to speak above a whisper in my presence, let alone sing or perform. But they are fascinating, vibrant, eternally youthful, and more than content to live far outside the realm of civilization. I suspect there are secrets hiding beneath the idyllic exterior of this village.
I fear that my time here will be wasted and that their songs, the effects of which are now lauded throughout Hot Springs and the surrounding villages, will never grace my ears and, worse still, that this unique cultural landscape may, in fact, be forgotten.
My generous donors have provided me with enough funds to stay afloat in this venture for a minimum of five years. By the date of my impending departure, I hope that I will have more to show from these individuals than sketches of closed doors.
—Journal of Oliver Pound, Hot Springs, North Carolina, May 1916
* * *
Two Weeks After the Flood
Our passionate composer, Ms. Eustacia Greene, was having one of her fits on the soapbox, flailing her arms in the air like the Coopers’ boy who didn’t know better and gesticulating wildly to anyone who dared look up into her fiery eyes and tawny fingers waving at our weary faces. “Ain’t nonna you gonna talk to him,” she repeated again. She pointed to an oddly dressed man in the back of the makeshift hall. The fat of her underarm jiggled and the old box bowed and rattled beneath her heavy frame. “You can’t! It’ll be the end of us. Sharing our songs with this . . . this man.” She sighed. “It’ll flood this whole damn town again.”
Stunned villagers seated on hay bales, gathered for the impromptu debate in the whitewashed Clemson barn, gasped, embarrassed by Stacia’s outlandish display in front of the outsider who had recently arrived with his pens and papers. Others swooned and shifted awkwardly atop the makeshift straw benches. An offended, superstitious few attendees even fanned away the air Stacia had fouled with talk of floods and damnation, cautiously subverting the demons she undoubtedly unleashed in her trivialization of the greatest tragedy that had heretofore befallen our little town.
But the comments did nothing to phase the implacable stranger, Mr. Oliver Pound, the Paperman, as some called him. Not even the sticky August heat flustered him or curled the edges of his heavy tweed jacket, knee-highs, and soft demeanor. It was possible he didn’t hear her, but the taut lines around his mouth showed signs of slight disapproval.
Drusie the Conductor rose and sauntered to the soapbox with her baton and cane in tow. Throughout the pit, backs straightened on instinct when she tapped her black wand on her wrist, and all were quiet. “Now that’s enough, Stacia,” she said, ushering the quivering woman back to her seat, surprising us with her brevity. “You can see, Misser Pound, some of us here aren’t quite ready for that which you have so kindly offered.”
“And Drusie, with all respect that is due, of course,” said Eule Clarke the Baritone after clearing his throat, “I’m none too sure all of us have had an opportunity to hear this kind man’s offer.” He nodded to the Paperman, who smiled in response.
“Well, as I’ve told some of you already, the offer is quite simple, really,” Pound said, rising and brushing the hay from his pant seat. He was stifling a sneeze as he addressed the crowd with conviction in his voice. I had yet to hear him speak, and it struck me then how much his words didn’t sound like ours. They were a song unto themselves, strange, musical lilts, pure and flowing like a babbling brook. “But if you’ll indulge me. Before explaining my offer, I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to all of you who have kindly allowed me into your homes to share in your company and good graces.”
The Paperman grinned all cheeky at Ms. Willadeen the Soprano and the recently widowed Old Feraby the Clogger. Young Feraby’s porcelain face went flush with rage as Pound exchanged untoward glances with her mother, scandalized. “Now, I’d like for you to understand that I will not, I stress, I will not be recording anything of yours that you do not wish to be shared. I’ve come to your village as a surveyor, a historian, a documentarian. And, yes, I’ve heard the names some of you call me. And I assure you, the rumors are unfounded. I am not a thief, and I have no interest in profiting on your musical endeavors.”
Eule harrumphed from the depths of his cavernous diaphragm, and the beams of the barn shook with his breath. In the dank corner where I had taken to hiding to watch the spectacle unfold, dirt fell from a rafter and landed on my head, inciting me to sneeze.
“I don’t know how I can convince you otherwise,” Pound said. “I’ve come all this way, hiking through those treacherous valleys. And then, then I swam across the Broad River just to meet you and hear your songs. All for you. Certainly, you must have them. Songs you can perform. The people of Hot Springs were all too willing to share their histories. I don’t see why you wouldn’t.” Pound searched the room for support and found none. “It’s for posterity, you see. For your children’s children. A village unique as this one must be known to the world.”
Pound reached for his satchel and grabbed a stack of leaflets. “I’ll pay well. I’ve the money to do so.”
“It ain’t magic, you do know that, don’t you, Mr. Pound?” Eule said, speaking on behalf of the rest of us.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Pound replied.
“Hot Springs, that town. It’s been there for what, eighty years now? How long you reckon we’ve been here, Mr. Pound?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“Longer than that,” Eule said. “You think they have our history?”
“I suppose not. No.”
“So what makes you think it’s a good idea to compare us like you done?”
“I’m. . . .”
“And what do you think keeps those springs, oh I don’t know, hot, Mr. Pound?”
“I’m not a geologist, Mr. Clarke.”
“Not just geology that does it, Mr. Pound,” Eule said, looking up from the piece of straw he had been knotting. “They just songs to you folk. Little ditties for play by the porchlight with your shine and all. If we open our songbook to the likes of you, the whole damn world’ll know it soon enough. All types of folk’ll sing them. Sure. But they won’t understand them. Won’t care to. And what about us? What you leaving behind? Just an angry river and a people without a voice to fight with. You don’t understand us, Mr. Pound. Never will.”
Miles away, a dog barked. Eule picked at his fingers.
“That’s enough, Eule,” Drusie said, bucking convention by not using his surname in public. A single mosquito buzzed between the rafters. “Mr. Pound, we’re clearly unprepared for your offer. And we think it is best that you return to Hot Springs. At least until we’ve had time to consider.”
Pound collected his scant belongings from the dirt floor. “I’ll return in two weeks. Should you need me, I will be at the Mountain Park Hotel.” He left, and the building erupted with argument.
Young Feraby rushed toward me, no doubt hoping to speak ill of the stranger whose eyes had looked too fondly at her mother, but I dodged her advance and took shelter in the crowd. I was small for seventeen, but my size allowed me to sneak through the sea of shoulders that stood between me and my true escape, lost again in the quiet anonymity that accompanied my lonely youth.
Stacia howled, “Positions. Positions for the nightsong,” but no one heard until Drusie stepped to the podium and tapped her baton, in one gesture silencing the cacophony that had overcome the chorus.
With her worn leather composition book in hand, Stacia took her position in front of the band and faced Drusie. Calmly, she said, “Tonight, we sing the Song of the Bewildered Black Bear. Let’s put those menacing giants to ease.”
As the backs of my kin straightened and steel strings tautened on ivory pegs, I escaped unnoticed and ran to watch the curious Paperman leave our village grounds. Behind me, I could hear Stacia begin her solo.
Daylight was leaving our mountain to shed its good graces elsewhere beyond the trees. Crickets chirped, and lightning bugs made fleeting constellations in the dusk sky. The lush greens of the trees and scattered summer foliage produced a sweet smell that perfumed the air with freshness, and the old homes surrounding the clearing with their rusty tin roofs were quiet in anticipation of the ritual performance of the evening melody. Beneath the potent and soothing odors of the late summer leaves, a rotting smell, remnant of the flood, lingered in the wood that sheltered us, repressed like bad memories brought to surface by scratching too hard in the wrong place.
A cool northerly wind brushed my face.
“I see you hiding there.” Pound turned to face the log pile I thought had concealed me.
“Sorry, sir,” I said.
“No matter. You know, your people are certainly stubborn with their music.”
“Not all of us, no.”
He hoisted his bag onto his back. “Nevertheless, this doesn’t seem like a matter you can resolve. Where are your parents, young man?”
“Pa’s on the coast makin’ weapons to fight the Huns. Ma’s not around no more.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“She died. Starved.”
“Now your father takes care of you.” He brushed dirt from his jacket and exhaled. “Everyone is bracing for this damnable war. It’s all too disturbing for my taste, the violence. I prefer music. My piano teacher used to tell me that fingers like mine were never meant for anything less than ivory.” Those fingers wiped sweat from his tanned brow. “Do forgive my manners. What’s your name?”
“Messy,” I said.
“And when will your father return?”
“Got a letter that said he may be home as soon as this weekend.”
“Well, Messy, when your father returns, please tell him of my project. In the meantime, maybe you should consider speaking up in there, stepping out from behind the logs, as it were. A boy like you must have a lot of thoughts worth hearing.”
I scratched my head.
“The land here really is remarkable,” Pound said. “Maybe you can tell me one thing, though. What did Mr. Clarke mean when he spoke about keeping the Hot Springs hot?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Pound,” I said.
* * *
I had baritone tutoring the evening after the Paperman left town. We had just finished singing the lumber song. It was the last song Jinetty taught me. The story goes that she wrote it while she was carving a piece of birch as a birthday gift for Stacia. On handing it to her sister, Jinetty started singing, and the wood sprang right back to life, budding greens in Stacia’s trembling hands.
Jinetty was like that. She always found joy in her music and could command a melody to force audiences to understand her. The incident at Hot Springs wasn’t her first transgression, but no one knew that but me. For years before she died, Jinetty had been skipping town and singing our songs throughout the county to those who needed their healing powers.
“She was a traitor. You know that, aye, Messy?” Eule said during our lesson that evening.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Now, you don’t sound none too certain. I hear your voice breaking.” Eule was the kindest of the elders, but his temper was as notorious as the volume of his voice. “She was your teacher,” he continued and stilled the rattling glass with an abrupt decrescendo. “So I know this can’t be easy on you to admit, but you have to acknowledge why what she did was wrong. Nobody, none of us, can share our song with outsiders, River Song especially. You understand?”
“She was dying in the Springs, Mr. Eule. She was scared, alone and dying, and she didn’t know no better. Even that man at the hotel said she had her shoes on.” Ms. Jinetty never hummed with shoes on. She said it broke the link.
“I know the story,” he said. “But even if she was sick. Even if she helped that man who came to the Springs for healing, she still shared the River Song.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. So what? She shared a song with someone willing? So what he’s an outsider? Why is that so bad? She deserved better than that ghost burial the bass section gave her, anyhow. No one cried. No one sang.”
“But you,” he said into his drink. “Now, I know you think no one sees you. But you dead wrong.” He set down his hot beverage and dug at a hangnail. “Jinetty was special to all of us. But custom is custom,” he said. “We can’t change that. No one needs to know you made those flowers bloom around her headstone. And I ain’t in a hurry to tell. No real harm done.
“Look. There’s power in our songs. Salvation. Each time we sing ’em they lose strength. Weaker yet until a new composer, a channel, come along and hears a new song from the river, the trees, the animals, what have you. The forces around us, the river especially, they’re jealous lovers. They want a bond. They need to feel connections just like we do. So they link up with the lucky few composers who share their message with us.
“Yes. You, too. Even your momma’s blood couldn’t take the river out you,” he said.
“But what if we’re wrong?” I said.
“We ain’t. I asked that same thing once. Then I shared the sun song with someone I shouldn’t have.” He lifted up the side of his shirt. Leathery scar tissue covered his stomach. “I paid for it. So, see, it’s our pact with them, the woods, the river, the skies, the whole lot of it, it’s our pact that keeps things constant. And if’n we break that pact, the river will roar, the woods will burn, and the skies will crumble.”
He jabbed a bony finger at my forehead. “Think about all the songs we have, Gale Winds Go, Quiet Mosquito, Bewildered Bear, Lumbering Tree, Rain Make Right, River Song, Stay Sun, all of them. Think what would happen if all those songs leave our village. Flood was a warning shot. We wronged the river by sharing her song, and she wanted her revenge.
“We getting old, and times is hard. Have to do whatever it takes to preserve our community. That means no sharing. With anyone.”
“There’s gotta be room for outsiders, Mr. Eule. Can’t be that we shrivel up and die like nothin’. Others agree.”
“But others try to make a martyr out of old Jin. You know what a martyr is?”
“It’s someone who exposes us because she want attention. Now, look here,” he continued, “you a special boy. I know it. With your mam passing and your pap not being ’round on account of his working as hard as he does. . . . Well, hell, maybe you didn’t get the fairest shake at things, but your ear is on. And I know Jin, she looked out for you, but the rest of us’ll do the same. Now you go on.”
I got up to leave, but Eule gripped my shoulder like a vise. “One more thing. The tune you sang at her grave. Well, she’da been proud for what you done. Ain’t easy making flowers bloom by yourself. You did it without breaking a sweat.”
Council convened in private the next morning. At the midday gathering, Stacia announced that Mr. Pound would leave our village without hearing our songs. The matter had been settled, beyond my influence.
* * *
One evening toward week’s end, Pap returned from the coast a tightly wound mass of greased industrial muscle with lint-lined pockets, cashed government checks, and a termination letter in tow. His arms tore through his old shirt sleeves, tanned and cut like jerky. And the overalls that cost him three month’s savings were black with oil from machines he said were taller than buildings.
Our small log home wasn’t more than a cracked foundation, two busted doors, and a roof that leaked when the rain got too heavy, which hadn’t happened lately, not since the flood. So the city Pap spoke of was a fantasy by comparison. Our place had three beds for Pap, Mam, and me. After Mam died, it was just me and Pap. He let me push my bed and hers together to form one big bed. I slept like a king there.
Pap and I sat on our small porch sipping water from glass jars Jinetty gave me. “Heard there was some hullabill at the Clemsons’ last,” Pap said. “You taken to going to these town meetings in your ma and my stead, right? So what you thinka that?” Pap spat his tobacco into a flask he kept in his front overall pocket. His breath smelled of sweet grapes.
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t say as I do either. Glad I ain’t callin’ the shots for the rest of you.”
Our stomachs rumbled. Pap got up and walked to the small room where we kept our canned foods. “I been travelin’ all over the Carolinas of late,” he said. “People gone crazy ’bout the war. Scared that the man in charge gonna send good folks away to Europe. Can you imagine? Europe.” He sighed. He returned to me with an open jar of turnips. With ease in his giant hands, he twisted the lid open with a rewarding pop.
“Lot different now than when your ma and I came up. Lot different.” He took a seat beside me again and surveyed the village. “But not much changed here. People here. They don’t change. That’s a good thing, Mess. Real good.”
“Pap, I want to go see the coast with you,” I said.
“Trust me. You don’t. And I’ll keep you away from there long as I can. It ain’t good for you. Not good for anyone,” he said before he smiled at me. “This is home. Good people. Good music. It’s our job to protect it. We need to stick together. Too many places falling apart nowadays.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but he nudged me with his shoulder. “It’s our job. And it’s my job to protect you. So here’s the deal,” he said. “You worry ’bout the Springs. I’ll worry ’bout you.” His smile calmed the anxious stirring in my stomach. “Know somethin’? I walked through too many towns like ours on the way back. Too many. Most are fallin’ apart. Just like ours. People don’t want no pottery or no patterned quilts like the ones we try to sell in town. Heck, don’t even want instruments no more. Gots them radios for entertainment. Recording discs. Moving pictures. Hmph. . . . Different world out there, Mess. Too different.”
I wriggled impatiently beside him.
“Guess your old man is boring you, huh? Remember, you let me worry about you. Well.” He looked down the road. “Looks like they are getting ready for the nightsong down there.” He pointed to the barn. “Go on. I want to hear you sing. Mr. Eule tells me you learning well. May be as good as your old man someday.” He chuckled.
I left him and meandered to the spot where the rest of the choir had gathered for the evening congregation. Stacia had taken her seat as we prepared to sing the nightsong. I took my place in the back between taller boys who sang lower and louder than me. The tune was older than anyone present, older even than the painted rock. Words had changed over time as the revelations adapted to our changing tongue, but the ancient melodies persisted, strong as the deepest roots.
A haze washed over the expressionless performers.
Jinetty told me not to think during the nightsong, that it’s best just to tune it all out and focus on our breathing, like meditation or something. Our instruments kept perfect tempo as banjos flailed and countless strings picked alternating rhythms through the simple verses and chorus lines.
We filled the song break with clogging, clapping, and laughter. Vocal harmonies permeated the tune and gave it a natural completeness like all of the elements were working to create something beautiful.
I took my time getting home. When I arrived, a candle was burning in the window. Pap’s hunched silhouette was a falling boulder, hanging tenuously above the tiny wood plank pushed up under the glass. The door creaked when I opened it, and Pap’s eyes darted up at me.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“Sounded good tonight,” he said.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Pap.”
“We just hurting for money is all. But don’t you worry.” A crumpled stack of pay stubs lined the table in front of him. “We got enough food for a week or so. I can cash what’s left in my account. Maybe that’ll buy us another. We’ll manage.”
“Yeah, we’ll manage.”
“Don’t you worry about it. You rehearse. You get better. You work on keeping the elders in order. Like I said, I worry about you. I protect you. And I’ll do whatever it takes to keep food on your table. I promise you.”
“I’ll go with you. I’ll work.”
“No, you won’t. You’re still my boy. You follow?”
“I’m not sure. . . .”
“Let me be sure for you.”
* * *
A week later, I awoke hungry to the piercing sounds of a loon on water. Falsetto laughter filled my ears and made images in my half-sleep of the singer’s lush, spotted plumage and ebony-carved head. The loon song drove me to the river, where the elders, Eule, Drusie, and Stacia, had gathered at the foot of the water.
“You heard it, too?” Eule said from a distance. They were all fully clothed, and I was suddenly embarrassed by my pajama bottoms and bare feet.
“Yah, woke me up.” The elders exchanged knowing looks like I had missed their punch line.
“Poor bird been crying for an hour now. Something ticked it off,” Eule said to no one in particular.
“What do you hear now, son?” Stacia said.
“And listen real close. Harder than you’ve listened before,” Drusie added.
Quietly, I stood at their sides as the warmth of the rushing river submerged my feet. Brush and driftwood floated past me, stopped on gnarly roots that hung over the water, impatient to return to the current that drove downstream. A faint whistling skimmed across the surface as the brush tried to escape its tangles, and the flow became rhythmic.
Another loon joined the morning caller that drew us there. Together, the birds made melodic harmonies that colored the symphony unfolding in front of me.
Water passed through my splayed fingers, and the tension in my stomach melted with its touch. The sensation was electric, and my hairs stood on end and ached. Then the song came from me, though I had never heard it before. Words like flotsam trailed by and tickled my tongue, and I became them.
And in a breath, it was over.
Eule tells me that my body collapsed right after I stopped singing. I don’t remember any of it. But he swears he dove in to rescue me.
The lot of them were surrounding me when I came to.
“Looks like we have a channel on our hands,” Stacia said. “You’re a composer, Mess.”
“Looks like,” Eule replied.
“And we have a new River Song. It’s something.” Drusie smiled.
“So what now?” I asked, looking up at the three elders, overwhelmed. My tiny heart raced faster than Maylilly could flat-pick a tune. My stomach growled a low B.
“Now, you listen,” Stacia said.
“Then you listen more.”
“Then you write what you hear.”
“Yes, boy. It’s that simple,” she said. “It’ll take time. But nature likes to let things run her course. We just observers, you understand that, don’t you?” I nodded. “Right you do. In a few years’ time, we’ll get the choir singing your songs. And soon after, when I’m cold and in the ground, you’ll be the new composer. Time for you to step out of the dark. How’s that sound?”
I stood speechless.
“Good,” she said.
* * *
A foggy heat had settled over our village and muddled the angry voices that spoke to me from the thin clouds and dying trees. It hadn’t rained for six weeks, and our crops were dying. Still, strong gusts of wind blew through town intermittently to provide temporary solace from the dry heat.
I had taken to attending daily meetings with the elders. Their company was more enjoyable than I had expected. They carried on with their business in spite of my frequent questioning. I watched as they acted with staggering efficiency, picking the next generation of performers, tending to instrument repairs, and ensuring that the few knickknacks our little hovel produced would be adequate enough to barter for next week’s meat supply.
Two weeks into my training, I sat in my first emergency meeting to address our dwindling supplies. “Something ain’t right,” Drusie said through a bite of hot turnips.
“How long since the last rain?” Eule asked.
Stacia scratched at her neck. “At least eight weeks. Right before that Paperman arrived. Around Jinetty. . . .”
“It’s killing my flowers. Went for a walk yesterday and saw that all the azaleas are drying up, wilting in the heat,” Eule added.
“Don’t get me started,” Stacia said. “Not seen a summer this hot since, heck, I don’t know when. Mosquitoes are having a ball with it. I’m starting to worry about the children getting sick.”
“Something’s definitely wrong.”
“Just too hot,” Eule said.
“Sure is,” Stacia said, gnawing at her lip now. “I can’t say I like it, but it may be time for a change. My time may be short yet. Singing Rain Make Right ain’t working like it used to. You up for that, Mess?”
“For what?” I asked.
“It might be your time to lead,” Stacia said.
“No, no. I ain’t ready, Ms. Stacia. You can’t go. We still need you.” My voice croaked.
“Aw, Mess. You can see it. My songs aren’t working any more. High time for a new composer.”
“No. Give it time. Weather’ll turn. Fall is coming. We can wait a bit, can’t we?” I pleaded. “In the meanwhile, we can keep on with my lessons. Make sure that I’m the right one for the job if’n it comes to that.”
“You’re a stubborn one, boy. But, we give you a week,” Drusie said.
The smell of grilled meat filled my nose when I burst over the threshold to our open home. Pap had set two places at the kitchen table. On rusty steel platters were two slabs of thick red steak, each the size of my fist.
“Got you something,” he said.
“Pap, we can’t afford—”
“What did I tell you? You let me worry about you. I know what we can and can’t afford. Now sit and tell me why you’re in such a hurry.”
Pride filled my Pa’s face and warmed his stubbled cheeks as he looked at me. “They want you to be the lead channel, the composer? Who would’ve thought? And they always saying you wouldn’t amount to nothing.” He laughed and slapped my back.
When we had finished eating, he poured us two glasses of lemon drink, foggy like river water. We sat on the porch bathed in the orange light of dusk.
A mosquito buzzed past Pap’s head. He swatted at it, but it was relentless in its meandering pursuit. Another joined it. And then another. Before we could react, a swarm of mosquitos encircled Pap like a halo. The cacophonous buzzing was so loud that it attracted a group of watchers from the farm, who ran to our porch to suss out the commotion.
“Now, what in the hell?” Pap said, swatting at the mosquitos. The carrion swarm sang notes deep and corrupt, made sour with rage. Acting on instinct, I began humming “Quiet Mosquito” to calm their feuding hearts. The song broke through my nervous lips, a force of nature drawn from my mouth like water from cracks in broken dams. The swarm halted, and for a moment they hovered around my cowering father, contemplating. Then they flew away.
Above the crowd that stood motionless with jaws agape, sheets of gray and black draped the sun like curtains falling, and a barrage of timpani echoed on the horizon to mark the breaking of the drought. Their repetitive tritones crescendoed in warning. A storm was coming.
“He broke our trust.” Eule’s voice was a solitary horn piercing through the resting throng below our steps. “He sold the songs. There’s no other explanation. You all know it. He sold our songs to Pound and now nature is coming for all of us to atone for what he done.”
Pap’s eyes had swollen shut from the attack, and his scaled tongue fell from his mouth like a limp snake.
“He didn’t do nothing like that, Mr. Eule,” I said, raising my voice to match his timbre. “He loves this town. He told me to protect it. To protect all you.”
“What proof you got, Mess? Seems to me these here happenings speak for themselves. So prove it, boy. Prove your pappy didn’t sell our songs. Then he can stay.”
I ran to town to the one person who would know the truth.
* * *
Oliver Pound had rented two rooms in the Mountain Park Hotel, the multilevel structure that a rich man bought some years ago to capitalize off the healing powers of the springs.
It was a delicate building, whitewashed with rust-red spires and matching canopies. The grass around it was freshly shorn and smelled of summer after the rain. The hotel was almost empty. Of the two dozen windows facing the lawn, only five were lit.
Rumors of the palatial structure’s demise had been spreading throughout our town and neighboring villages. Not many people were wanting a vacation with war on the horizon. Latest news was that the federal government was fixing to buy the place and turn it into some sort of camp. Pound was among the last willing inhabitants of the hotel.
I ran the four miles from my home to the hotel and stopped once to catch my breath. When I found his stable at the hotel, the charcoal sky smoked above me, pierced by yellow threads, random brushstrokes of light on a chiaroscuro sky. The stable reeked of old manure and wet grass. Sitting in the center of the hay-covered floor, a box of large, black metallic discs glistened with the lightning strikes. I shrugged away nagging doubts that this box could be proof of his transgression as I picked up a disc and felt its weight in my hand. It was smooth but for small grooves like cart tracks that circled the whole of it in perfect rows, never touching.
“Really something, isn’t it?”
I jumped and saw the Paperman standing behind me, dressed in night garments.
“Messy, yes?” he asked.
“Mr. Pound . . . I. . . .”
“It’s only natural you would be curious. I’m sure your father told you about our project.”
I prayed for shelter in the ill-lit room. “Your project?”
“Yes, the songs. He was coming here to record them. Your father has a beautiful voice. Would you like to hear one?” he said. “It is remarkable.” He walked to the corner of the room, where a green cloth covered a large box that had been placed atop two stools. He removed the sheet and revealed an alien contraption.
There was a wheel, like one we use to spin clay, and a gilded hand crank sticking out beside it. Attached to both of these objects through a series of strange wires was an elevated, steely flower blossom.
Pound could see me admiring the contraption. It provided a momentary distraction from the pain I felt at my father’s betrayal. “It’s called a phonograph.” He approached me and delicately pried the heavy disc from my hands. “It takes what’s on these recording discs and projects them through the speaker as sound. Look.”
He placed the disc atop the spinner and began to crank the small handle beside it. The disc caught the light of his lantern and flashed in my eye.
“Wait, Mr. Pound,” I said suddenly.
“Something the matter?”
“There’s no time.”
“But you wait. Let me ask you. Your father told me you know the River Song. Like the one that kind woman sang the gentleman in town before she passed.”
“You know about Ms. Jinetty?”
“The man she saved, Frederick McHenry, he told me about what she did. She saved him. A true miracle worker.”
Heavy drops of rain began falling, a rhythmic tapping on the tin roof, each drop a reminder.
I couldn’t focus on the Paperman. “I can’t believe he hid it from me. He betrayed our people.”
“I refuse to believe things are so clear cut, Messy. He didn’t want you to starve, you see. And I was in the market for songs. And, the more he shared, the more I wanted. My damnable thirst for understanding, if you will.” He put his free hand across his chest. “I’ll do whatever in my power to help make this right if you’ll only show me more. If you’ll show me the River Song, perhaps? It’s the one thing he wouldn’t share.”
“Okay. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
With unflinching commitment, he followed me outside, where heavy drops pierced through our clothing.
Pound ran to keep pace with me, and together we traversed the woods with only brief appearances of moonlight through the tumultuous skies to guide us.
By the time we arrived back at town, our gentle summer storm had erupted into a tempest, thrashing dry branches about their host trees like whip cracks. Pound was brimming with excitement.
The swollen ground, unaccustomed to the rain and saturated with the nascent torrents, gave way as our footsteps left deep prints in the soaked brush.
Town was empty.
“Where is everyone?” Pound said.
“I lied to you about the River Song, Mr. Pound.”
“I lied. My pap is in danger. Real danger. And it’s because he sold our songs to you.” My voice was weak, and it quivered when I looked up into his startled eyes. Panicked, I looked around for signs of where they took him. “I came to you for help. I came ’cause I thought you would redeem him. I was wrong. But I get it now.”
I could see him searching for meaning in my face. “You need to be here. You need to witness before our people that you’re not going to harm us. That’s why you’re here. I’m the channel now. Me. Not them. They have to trust me. And you need to show them you can be trusted.”
“Messy!” Young Feraby yelled to me. “They’ve taken your father to the river.”
“The river? Why?” I said.
“They want him to atone to for selling his songs to Mr. Pound. When you left, he told us he done it. They gonna throw him in and let the river sort it out.” Her tiny chest heaved.
“But he can’t swim in his state,” I said. “We’ve got to go to the river.”
“Show who?” Pound said.
“You’ll see. Just keep up, Mr. Pound.”
* * *
We heard them before we saw them—Pap’s muffled protests cracking through the parting in his swollen lips, and Eule yelling orders to the bass section to keep Pap in the river. Pound and I ran to the grove. My feet ached and my wet clothes dragged behind me.
“What are they going to do to him?” Pound said through the commotion.
“They mean to give him to the river to atone.”
“Why on earth—?” He returned his focus to running and caught his breath. “Why would they do that?” Pound followed me as I hid behind an evergreen bush blooming pink with mountain laurels.
“It’s their way of seeking forgiveness.”
Pound blushed. “He told me he had permission.”
“He said he needed the money. . . . To help feed you.”
“And that much is true.”
“And now they are going to kill him?”
“They’re not murderers. They just don’t understand nature’s wish. But I think I do. I just need to show them.”
Through the thick blanket of rain, I could hardly make out the men of the bass section from our vantage. They supported Pap’s slumped frame in the water. Behind them were Stacia, Drusie, and Eule. While Eule commanded, Drusie held tight to her walking stick, and Stacia paced the banks and bit at her nails.
Between thunderclaps, Stacia called order, and all eyes went to her as she waded into the river and stood beside Pap. “We can’t survive another flood. First Jinny and now you.” She wagged a long finger at Pap. “We’ve had enough betrayal for a lifetime. What you have to say for yourself?”
Pap’s motionless body roused to life. His wet hair clung to his face and beard. “I did what I had to. I did what I could to protect my boy.”
Pound turned too late to talk to me. I was already halfway to Pap.
“What are you doing, Mess?” Eule said.
“You have to stop this. Stop it now!”
“Mess?” Pap said. “Mess, I’m sorry.”
“I know.” I couldn’t look at him like this. So I focused on Eule. “Mr. Eule, Ms. Stacia, Ms. Drusie, you have to understand that what he did and what Ms. Jinetty did weren’t wrong. Couldn’ta been.”
“How we feel don’t matter none,” Eule said, water dripping from his pallid face.
“Mr. Eule, please. Let me sing to the river. Let me sing its song. I’ll make the river understand.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Drusie said. “Not in the presence of that interloper there.” She pointed her walking stick in Pound’s direction. Sheepish, the Paperman walked out from behind the evergreen.
“I’ll go,” he said.
“No. Mr. Pound, you stay,” I said.
Familiar gusts of wind rushed through the river valley and made branches snap from their trees and tear across the water. But the bass section held fast on Pap and shielded their faces with their free hands.
“Mr. Pound,” I said. “Why did you really come to the springs?”
“I came to learn about your history. To preserve your songs.”
“Did you come to sell them?”
“Well, I suppose that’s what my benefactor wanted. But I never—”
“Mr. Pound, tell them what you told me in the barn.”
“I just want to understand the power of your songs. That’s all I wanted. And when Messy’s father offered to share your world with me, I couldn’t refuse,” he said. “It’s all I’ve wanted since I’ve come here. I want to learn.”
“You see?” I said to Eule.
“How can sharing our songs with someone who truly wants to understand them be so bad?”
“Fine, Mess,” Eule said, the last of the color draining from his cheeks. “Fine. Damn it. But, don’t you see? What I think don’t matter none. Look at the water. Look at the skies. Someone has to pay for what your father did when he showed this man our songs.”
Lightning struck, and a branch the size of a boat dropped to the ground behind us.
“Then let him go. Let the river decide.”
“Mess—” Pap said.
“It’s okay, Pap. Let me worry about you.”
The bass section released Pap, and Pap flailed in the clutches of the cold water beneath him.
I listened, tuning out the storm and commotion around me like Jinetty taught me. Rippling water swelled around my feet, expanding and collapsing on the banks, and thunder cracked above us.
“That man is drowning,” Pound said. “You must do something.” He tried to run for Pap, but the basses stood in front of him with their folded arms, denying him passage. I listened real close to all the sounds around me, the sighing of the trees, the rushing of the water, and the fearful cries of the birds in flight above me. Again, I closed my mind to outside thoughts. The notes came before I realized I was singing them, and from them sprang a song unlike any I’d ever heard.
As I sang, the river swirled around me and Pap. He had stopped his resistance and given himself to the tides that fought to carry him away.
Like dozens of hands buttressing, gusts of wind shot through the valley and turned to a powerful gale force, pushing against Pap and holding him upright against the current, defiant. Then, from the heavy breath of the wind stream, Jinetty’s wispy voice made itself known to the furor below and beckoned to our lost ancestors to join us.
Everyone watched with their quiet mouths as Pap’s body tore from the river’s clutches and floated in the air above.
Because of Jinetty’s plea, a chorus of thousand voices joined me. The wind, rain, dirt, and trees each lent their voices in the conflict with the rapids. The angry river began to glow, iridescent like a jar of fireflies, resisting our pleas. Blue spheres rushed to the surface and engulfed us with their heat, but I remained still despite my searing flesh.
“Where are the voices coming from?” the Paperman yelled.
The water bit my body like beestings and I began to lose the song. Pap’s body sank lower, closer to the heaving river that reached to claim him.
But the tide shifted again; Jinetty’s melody coaxed the river and forced it to complement her notes in duet, demanding it to understand. In turn, the rushing torrents went placid and brush skittered across the river’s glassy surface. Then Jinetty’s solo, serene, weathered, and ancient, proud and forceful, burst forth from the skies around us.
For that moment, there was no other sound in the world but her.
Black tears rolled down Stacia’s craggy face, lost in the folds of her weathered skin. “She’s here. . . .”
When I could no longer sing, she would always take my burden. Hearing her then, and seeing Pap’s unconscious body float to safety on the banks, I burst into tears. My mouth was hot, and singing pained me to no end. But, with gravel in my throat, I joined her for a final song. As we sang, the voices of my ancestors joined us for the final movement.
And then they vanished completely.
Pap gasped for air on the bank, and Pound rushed to his side to aid him.
“Jinetty. . . .” Stacia said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “She’s found a new home in the river.”
* * *
The Paperman returned one week after that night in the grove. He promised he would get rid of the records somehow. And then he asked if he could stay with us and learn our ways. I didn’t see why he shouldn’t. At that point, Eule and the elders didn’t, either. We put it to a vote and it was unanimous. Eule even volunteered to teach him a thing or two.
The evening after the vote, the air was cool and the mosquitoes had all but vanished back into the woods that walled our village. Nature had found her harmony again.
The Clemson barn looked different under the pale moon. The storm had ruined the paint and revealed the sheenless wood beneath the lacquered beams.
Everyone had taken their places in the barn with eager eyes, watching as Stacia ushered me forward. I took my place in front of the choir. Pound stared at me, anxious for his first nightsong. Pap watched me as Drusie tapped her baton, and I sang my solo in the new River Song.
The flood never came.
It did rain again, though, and the wind and the river flowed faster, strong currents rushing forward, instruments of perfect harmony.
Reshad Staitieh is from Kansas City. He resides in Washington, DC, where he daydreams of barbecue, shorter commutes, and more time to write. Reshad is a practicing attorney, dungeon master, and musician. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens and is forthcoming in FLAPPERHOUSE.