Table of Contents

Chapter Eleven

The grandmother, Sophiala Wellwright, opens the door as though she has been expecting a visitor, holding out a gnarled chestnut of a hand when I extend the album. Cosmic with age, old as a star, with a complexion imported from the farthest deepest quarter of space, her hair is a constellation of pearl wrapped in a Milky Way of silver. Her mouth labors loosely in preparation for the words that tunnel their way through remote distances. Unlike her grandson, Sophiala has always been voluble when I’ve happened to run into her in the hallway or kitchen on days she comes to visit the Prodigy.

Everyone in this neighborhood, maybe the whole north side, knows her story.

The floor is covered with so many orange rinds that it resembles bubble wrap. The dusty, soft, worn citrus smell extends a handkerchief of expectation for the impending sneeze that the prickles of citrus coax from the nose.

Sophiala favors oranges because they remind her of her girlhood in Kentucky, the quartet of orange trees her great-grandfather had grown from California seeds he ordered from a Sears catalog, hoping to camouflage the impoverishment that was for the tiny Kentucky town as prevalent as the grassless plots of backyards with their smoldering barrel-cut barbeque pits, frayed rope clotheslines and ribbed washboards, carcasses of old trucks and cars, imprints in dust of oath-fueled dice flung on Saturday nights to supplement coalminers’ sooty paychecks, empty jugs that once contained the moonshine that was splashed on bumpers to lick away rust when it wasn’t making a meal of the stomach’s lining, naked babies with noses whitened by the chalk stick of mucous, lame dogs fleeing from sticks.

A room full of Kentucky.

There is sheet music laying across the overturned hulls of oranges like fallen sails, classical orchestral scores and transcriptions of improvised jazz mapped with the Prodigy’s study notes, exclamation points and questions marks and arrowed lines, his scrawled remonstrations with Prokovkiev, Rachmoninoff, William Grant Still, Miles Davis.

There is the ventriloquism dummy propped next to the Prodigy on the piano bench, custom made to represent a two-foot spitting image of the Prodigy himself, its hands eternally affixed to the keyboard of a proportionally small piano. The dummy, referred to as Larry, is outfitted in a rumpled mango-green silk bathrobe and on its feet are tiny matching house slippers. Attired in this way, the dummy suggests compromised elegance and appears either to be enduring a hangover or awaiting an early morning martini. Its right hand is abnormally large and straddles the keys to the right of middle C, the fingers spread wide, arched high, while the left hand, wizened and deformed, hovers over the keys of the bass. Both hands are positioned to tickle and tease the black keys in their archipelagic twos and threes, white keys flowing through them like becalmed channels. The canoe of a grin floats on Larry’s face and reveals a mouthful of teeth, the left front tooth painted gold as though an idol had crawled in to establish a rectilinear Babylon of the mouth.

Sophiala’s daughter, Rose Wellwright, is the Prodigy’s mother.

Sophiala’s long-dead husband, Henry, is the Prodigy’s grandfather.

The grandfather is also the Prodigy’s father.

Henry had been a common clay vase filled with quaint sunflowers of music, sitting on the window ledge in Sophila’s house of dreams. If she had not known with serene certainty that the music inside him would never grow into anything rare or exotic, she would have been disappointed. But Sophiala, one in a long line of daughters stretching back through time and filled with ancient matriarchal juju power, knew by the alignment of the planets, by all manner of enigmatic earthly and high celestial signs, that her husband Henry would never make more than sunflower and daffodil music, lovely and breaking out of the weeds in isolated surprises of beauty, but unremarkable, common, the kind seen blooming by the side of the road every day.

He found the rhythm laying dormant in spoons like sleeping sugar and tapped it awake against sour tin cans. He could draw back his vocal cords tight, launching melodies like arrows from the string for the entertainment of raucous neighbors who gathered in their ramshackle yard after work to gamble and drink in a congregation of sloth and idleness. He could mimic, as though birds nested in his mouth, the liquid piercing phrases of flying feathered creatures, whistling low and soft as the swish of sand or cutting the air with scalpels of sharpness. The percussion in his blood loosened his limbs in scarecrow dance, his feet jangling like spurs as they goaded the sagging planks of the front porch into an exuberant gallop. Anything small and ephemeral and half-broken and unlikely he transformed into an instrument that could portray miniatures of song.

But Henry was not the one. Sophiala came to know that he was only the one before the one before the one. He was both the short introduction in a book that would build itself chapter by monumental chapter and the bookmark placed between the introduction and the epic pages to follow that would carry the book to its magnificent conclusion.

Small and nervous and occupying space in Pekinese bursts of startled movement, with a dapper little mustache like a whispered rumor that lent a trace of dignity to an otherwise open and vacant face, his large head a billboard with a high forehead advertising roundness, Henry was a man whose eyes were hungry for scraps of praise and who allowed the people he tried to please to swing their crude clubs, breaking open his piñata of talents so that it spilled and scattered trinkets on the ground. When he saw his neighbors clamoring for the trinkets he had spilled, he was nothing but grateful.

For a long time, before Sophiala consulted the oracle of smoke, she was furious. “Why you wasting yourself on the likes of these ones?”

She swept her arm around the yard filled with the usual weekend revelers like a broom contemptuous of the trash it pushed in a heap. The cask of the moon poured its pale whiskey over Henry’s ribald friends, men who had followed him home from Shutter’s coalmine celebrating the end of a week of back-buckling labor deep in the gaseous intestines of tunnels. Arriving on Friday night, they would stretch the rubber band of hours taut until it snapped sometime Sunday evening. Their women would appear every five hours or so, cursing or pleading with them to come home, then disappear in a long-suffering exodus when shooed away or ignored or reciprocally cursed by their menfolk.

“I works hard to get to this day, woman,” Henry explained to Sophiala, not unpleasantly.

In a shoe lined with aluminum foil, Sophiala would burn St. John the Conqueror’s root, mugwort, henbane, wormwood.

The pungent prophetic smoke told her that it was Henry’s intractable nature to squander his beautiful voice and play the banjo for less than even the dimes and nickels he might have made had he been disciplined enough to play for drunken crowds in the local juke joints. His payment was the admiration of inebriated men and it was for him maddeningly sufficient. It was his tambourine of blood that jangled with the wealth of music – that was what she needed.

She gave birth to a daughter, Rose, and the daughter’s blood coursed with Henry’s scattered wealth. But the smoke had told Sophiala that Rose was not to be the one, either. She was only the bookmark’s bookmark.

Where her father was simply a harmless fool, a talented harlequin, Rose was willful and rebellious. Her refusals were all encompassing, uncompromising. She was like a widow with a husband whose death she repudiated absolutely, stubbornly refusing to accept it, even as she stood watching the coffin lowered into the earth. When Rose discovered that her mother wanted her to mine the music inside her, extract the ore of song, she must have vowed never to sing or play a solitary note.

“I should have forbade her ever to make music,” Sophila thought. “I should have cut me a handful of hickory switches and beat her legs to welts and forbade her. She surely would have throwed herself in it with she-demon ferociousness, then.”

Sophilia knew that it would be the next one.

On a Sunday spring afternoon that seemed virginal and newborn like the chapter of Genesis lifted in three dimensions from the Old Testament, the second time-capsule of her union with Henry ticking away in her womb, Sophiala was returning from the bible study class she taught at the First Baptist Church of Christ, classes where she burned through the pages of the bible with the match of juju insight that in an earlier time and place would have kindled her incendiary fate as a witch. She was walking down the dirt road that ran like a drowsy child through the center of town when she tripped over a stone and fell forward hard.

A robin in a paternal oak tree that plunged the road into leaf-shadowed sanctuary cocked its head inquisitively and turned a beady eye on the fallen woman, chattering, seeming to laugh.

The bird sailed down and landed next to her, jabbing its toothpick legs into a mud clump next to her face. Sophiala, struggling to rise to her feet, arrested herself and looked at the bird.

“What?” she demanded.

“You shook something loose inside you,” the bird said ominously.

“Nothing shook loose, you feathered beady-eyed abomination of Satin’s foul deception.”

She sat up and the bird hopped back.

The bird chided, “Now that ain’t no way for a juju woman of your caliber to be carrying on. You listen: you’ll dream tonight that a damn has bust, the water rushing all over the town. When you wake up you’ll see that what you carry in your womb is running in a river on the sheets.”

Sophiala drew in her breath sharply and expelled it in a knife blade at the bird’s eye. The air fluttered like the outer circles of a cellophane bulls-eye.

The bird caught the blade in its eye and cried out in pain. “Goddamn!”

“That’s right,” Sophiala confirmed. “How you like this high caliber juju woman now?”

“I ain’t the one that made it happen,” the bird protested in aggrieved apology.

Her throat strained on a ragged leather leash and at the end of it a snarling demand bared its teeth. “What’s your name?”

“I’m not telling you,” came the sly response.

Sophiala inhaled and the threat of bladed air belled her cheeks.

“All right! It’s Abaroth!”

“Well then, you, Abaroth. You done give me your true name of your own free will and I done spoke it, so look like for the time bein you mine now,” she said triumphantly.

Abaroth seemed, on the toothpick legs, to kick about in a tantrum of feathers, flapping wings, flashing eyes.

“Have I truly miscarriaged this baby?”

“Yes.” Something coerced and robotic now rattled in the bird’s throat.

“But I can have another.”

She held out her hand. Abaroth moved toward her in toothpicked reluctance and hopped into her palm. She stood and put the bird in the wide wilted pocket of her gingham dress. “You stay there like it your new nest, Abaroth. You hear? By the way, I still expects me a answer.”

Hesitantly the bird replied, “A statement ain’t a question.”

Sophiala thought for a moment. With careful formality she inquired, “Can I birth me another child that will carry Henry’s gift and see it to completion?”

“Your womb is shook loose from its sockets.”

Sophiala understood that the bird was not compelled to answer more than it was asked. She understood that she would have to ask the right questions.

That night she awoke in the bed she shared with Henry from the dream Abaroth had predicted, a mountain climber of sweat losing grip and sliding down her pain-roped face, blood bathing the valley of her thighs. Elbowing Henry awake, she ordered him to get clean sheets from the cardboard box stacked with fresh linen in the corner of the room.

“Clean sheets? At 3:00 in the morning?”

“You don’t have to fetch them sheets if you got a mind to go back to sleep in the blood of the baby that would have been yours if my womb wasn’t laying in a heap twixt my legs. Just turn on over and go back to sleep, then. You might want to put on galoshes first.”

“You hurting, Sophiala?” he asked gently. “You want me to fetch Doc Hudson up the way?”

“You go on and get Hudson if you think he can do something to bring this pulp baby back to life.”

There seemed to be some metonymic regulation to the tempo of their talk. It was slow and singsong in the immemorial Southerness of the room.

“We can have us another, if you want,” Henry offered.

“Henry, my womb done busted out.”

After Sophiala bathed and they changed the sheets, the next day came through the window like a burglar late for a robbery, sunlight stealing swiftly into the room. Henry insisted on staying home but she knew his presence would be eerily intuited by the slackers and malingerers in the neighborhood who worked the mines infrequently and would be eager to find in the couple’s misfortune an occasion for drunken and goldbricking commiseration. She packed his lunchbox with an apple and two cheese sandwiches and sent him off and went to the woodshed where she had made a bed for Abaroth the night before in a clay flowerpot lined with shredded newspaper.

“I’m a woman, like you,” Abaroth said when Sophiala shuffled into the shed, pulling up a cobwebbed wicker chair and sitting gingerly in it.

“What you mean, you a woman?”

“I mean that like you I was born to know all the misery of a woman’s life because God in his infinite wisdom made me female. I got a nest and eggs I should be sitting on right now. I got creation to attend to but I can’t because you named me.”

“Where your nest at?”

“In the oak tree I flew down from.”

Sophiala left and returned to the shed a few hours later. She had paid a little boy to climb the tree and retrieve Abaroth’s nest and now she lowered it into the flowerpot. “I got some questions to ask you and I know you ain’t got no free will but to answer, but to my way of thinking, maybe now you’ll see us womens got to stick together and you’ll answer them questions without trying to deceive me.”

Abaroth hopped atop the eggs and nestled down, her eyes beading appreciation. The bird was generous in response to Sophiala’s questions and freely volunteered the locations of certain roots, herbs and mushrooms growing in dank earthwormed secrecy on the other side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks where woods stood shaggy sentinel. Sophiala gathered these and used them, as Abaroth had suggested, to make a poultice that she placed on her lower abdomen to draw the shipwreck of pain in her womb to the surface, the poultice growing warm with the pain, ripe with the pain, plangent with the pain so that finally she was able to observe, laying on her back in the bed, the warm ripe plangent pain rise and widen and filter through the ceiling.

What had happened to make Sophiala think music was what she needed to give the world at any cost?

Were her reasons for wanting to shepherd song into the world tied to the blindfold that had once tubed her eyes in darkness, the warm wax that had been pushed in her ears, that long season of silence and confinement when her father lay dying in his bed, so opened up to and sensitized by the agony of his disease that he could not even tolerate the sound of footsteps on the floor or whispers in the air? Desperate to kill the killing sounds in the house, her mother had tied rags to five-year-old Sophiala’s feet, but she still had hands that knocked over glasses, tipped over lamps, slammed doors or toppled gaudy knickknacks.

The more her mother beseeched her to abide in silence, the less capable of so abiding the daughter became, until in desperation, unable to bear the wailings of the dying husband when Sophiala momentarily lost herself in the swift and satisfying oblivion of a sneeze, she blindfolded the girl to remove the temptations of sight, tied her arms and legs to subdue the demon of motion, plugged her ears to demonstrate the depth of the silence she had implored her daughter to seek, holding her in sensory captivity for hours at a time in her bedroom.

Why speak only of the terror and trauma of mummification? For the terror and trauma passed over her like a storm that vomits up torrential rain, then thins to timid needles, then finally melts away to the gray simplicity of mist.

Deprived, her mind made music.

At first a stalactite hanging from the ceiling of darkness behind her eyes dripped notes, one by one, into the echoing cavern of her muffled ears. Over the three month period that her father lay dying, that derelict body of tones came together, herded by some highly decorated general of organizing instinct into an army that represented no territory or principality or nation, though the army attacked the silence like Confederate soldiers defending the right to secede from the Union. The child had never been taught music and never been afforded what was considered by her parents to be the foolish luxury of owning a musical instrument, so the music had no explicable cause and came from nowhere and nothing, or came, perhaps, from the kindergarten of blood skipping through her veins.

She heard songs that were sleepy, innocent and sweet, songs that were the richly blanketed bed in which nursery rhymes might have been tucked had the words been written, songs that reflected the mind of a talented child but simultaneously hinted at the silence that was for her bordered by the region of death, the melodies tainted slightly and rising above the innocent arcs of phrases befitting a five-year-old, seeming instead to befit one afflicted with prodigal gifts.

When her father died he passed, as all fathers do who leave behind a five-year-old child, into a reassuring crystalline world of spirit, a world that abutted Sophila’s own. Permanently the blindfold came off and the wax like fleece from a sheep was shorn from her ears and the silence unwound in a wool of stars. For a time at night she heard her father in his new dwelling place, moving about uninhibitedly and in jubilation filling the silence he had sought when alive with shouting and exultant tidings. This filtered down to her, across to her, into her, and became song, too. Then it gradually faded and he died a second, more divisive, death.

In her young mind – for she had loved him without knowing who he really was – he was made to gracefully climb a soaring mountain and stand on its peak with outstretched arms, and then and there he ascended into apotheosis, into the eternal myth of the lost and irretrievable father. She never forgot the music but she no longer heard the music itself. Growing up was a serious concern circumscribed by work, the unending mission to keep food on the table, the avoidance of the passionate jeopardy of black men or the deadly jeopardy of white ones. There was no time, no opportunity and no money to make music.

Too young to know better, she vowed that one day she would give to a world where death and silence reigned unopposed, if not the very music she had heard, then something that began there and went further. Even music bearing the taint of death bequeathed to a world that was toxic with it was better than none of all.

With the pain drawn from her womb, Sophiala could think clearly again and set into motion the plan she devised with the wily but now generous Abaroth’s help.

“You sure, Sophiala?” Abaroth sat contentedly on the nest in the flowerpot. “You do this, ain’t no turning it back. You might get what you want but Abaroth don’t have to tell a juju woman like you that when you get what you want, it ain’t never got in the way you wanted it.”

“You done become something like a friend to me, Abaroth. It ain’t no call for you to be tied to me no more,” Sophiala reasoned. She was not a sentimental woman and this confession was the closest she would ever come to those sentiments attached to soursweet farewells. “So I’m gone unsay your name so you can go back to being a true bird. But watch yourself, Abaroth.” Now she put on a false armor of severity. “Don’t never go chirp-laughing at no juju woman again, because next time she might not be nice as me.”

Sophiala unsaid Abaroth’s name.

Abaroth blinked and her feathers flushed a sterile chemical white like a sodium death. A snowy executioner’s hood of forgetfulness slipped over the bird. She returned to what she had been in the tree: mainly bird but with something not-bird. Like some rare people, birds sometimes possessed within their breasts a deep pocket of what human beings called preternatural power.

Sophiala found the same neighbor boy and paid him to put the nest with the bird and eggs back in the oak tree. She was stern when she instructed him to touch nothing in the nest with his hands. A short time later the bird stood in the nest and cocked a look down at Sophiala. The beady eye seemed to glimmer for a moment with recognition, but Sophiala could not be certain of this. Then the bird began to sing.

Sophiala opens the door and invites me into the room. I see the Prodigy, the fruit of Abaroth’s generous devisings, in his green silk bathrobe sitting on the piano stool. He turns slowly away from the keyboard and smiles at me, his plated front tooth flicking a welcome in gold like a garrulous window saying hello to the sun. He takes some time to perch and situate the dummy, Larry, on his stunted left hand.

“Hey, Peace.” Larry’s mouth shutters the words out woodenly. The voice is squeaky and high, a parody of ventriloquism. “You want something to drink?”

A nice tall glass of orange juice.” I scan the floor. “If you think you can spare it.”

“You what they call a wise guy,” Sophiala observes. She hobbles across the room and from a plastic Von’s shopping bag selects the plumpest orange like citrus swollen with child and hands it to me. “Orange juice without the glass,” she says, winking.

Skirting sheet music, I walk through the maternity ward of orange peels to stand in the center of the room.

Then the bird began to sing.

Sophiala gathered the herbs and roots she needed and stirred them in a stew that jolted and jumped like boiled epilepsy in the kettle atop the flames in the dilapidated hearth. It bubbled and sparkled with a sprinkle of belladonna, the deadly plant that was a tenant of the earth but that in small doses lifted a body into flight. Finally she stirred in a handful of powdered morning glory seeds.

Aren’t morning glory seeds the unsynthesized form of the hallucinogen D-lysergic acid diethylamide? Is this still juju magic? Is this the highest form of juju magic? Or is the malleable taffy of consciousness itself the alpha and omega of juju magic?

When the bubbles finished their waltz atop the stew and slumped into the kettle’s depths like weary minuet dancers into chairs, Sophiala served it to Rose and Henry for supper. Rose was now eighteen and had already announced with rebellious satisfaction her intention to leave the town and settle somewhere in the north with a local youth named Syben who staggered in goldbricking drunken aimlessness up and down the road all day, parasitically begging moonshine from neighbors who gave it to him only because there was no other way to be rid of him.

While the three sat at the table Rose said in her perpetually stubborn voice, “Why is just me and Pa the onliest ones eating?

“Not hungry,” Sophiala demurred. “Watching the two of you eat is pleasure enough for me today.”

Rose commented, “This stew kinda bitter.”

“I forgot to dose it with a little molasses,” Sophiala said.

“You the only thing bitter at this table,” Henry said to his daughter. “Ain’t nothing wrong with the meal your Ma done slaved over so’s we’d have something hot in our bellies. Ain’t you never satisfied nor grateful?”

Rose clipped out her response with rusty scissors of spite. “I’m grateful.” She mumbled something else as she wolfed down the stew.

“What you saying?” Henry challenged.

“I said you gone miss me when you ain’t got me to talk down to no more.”

Henry said mildly and without heat like a broken hand-held hair dryer that would not be invented for years, “Sure. Just like I’ll miss that no account bug-eyed boy who too drunk to buy two train tickets the both of you need to go away with.”

Rose finished the stew and stood. “I’m going to the church dance with Sy.”

“That outta be a sight,” Henry said. “Yes sir. I ain’t never seed a man sprawled out with drink on the floor dance. Maybe he’ll invent some new moves swimmin around and such on his back, though.”

Sophiala drove down, the hammer to Henry’s nail. “You, Rose. You ain’t going nowheres just yet. You got to hep me clean this room up.”

“That meal was mighty fillin.” Henry smacked his lips, tom-toming his stomach in appreciation. “I’m fixin to lay down for a spell and drowse. But everytime I lays down to sleep I hear some dang song singin in my head.”

Rising from the table Sophila reprimanded, “I told you you shoulda learnt to write it down.”

“I caint even write my name, much less no damn songs speedin through my head. And anyway, what for? So’s to trap em with paper? They comes out when they supposed to and I let it go where it want.”

With his withered left hand the Prodigy pulls a pen from the pocket of the robe. He inserts the pen between his teeth and with his forearm slides a fallen piece of manuscript paper upright on the piano’s narrow hinged ledge above the keys. His right leg extends at an angle from the bench so that Larry, sitting on his knee, is able to face in my direction. As the Prodigy begins writing quickly, bulletting notes on or between ledger lines, he says in a barely audible whisper, “How goes the writer’s life?”

The Prodigy writes music that I can only imagine must be beautiful, but I cannot and maybe never will be certain, because he never plays it.

When Rose finished one chore Sophiala contrived another. Though rebellious, the girl knew she could not get away with simply coming and going as she pleased. She moved through the chores hastily, with surly exasperation, inaudibly mouthing her dissatisfaction. The greater part of her propensity for treachery and revolt as yet failed to emerge in the sequela of blatant insurrection that would for the rest of her life preempt the order imposed by others with chaos and was for the time being confined to a mutiny that brewed in the mind and spirit. It was as though she realized she would have the rest of her life to pit her contrary nature against reasonable requests and well-worded injunctions of logic.

“Can I go now, Ma?” Rose asked. She had just finished sweeping the floor.

“You got to hep me get them ashes and kindling out the kettle niche.”

Presently Rose began to move about the room in forgetful slow motion. “What I was just doing, Ma? Sweeping the floor or I already done that?”

“Stop acting a fool, girl. You ain’t swept up nothing yet.”

“Ma, can I lay down a bit and finish when I get up? I’m feeling kinda queer.”

Rose had forgotten about the dance.

“You go on and rest. Ain’t like this here mess won’t be here when you wakes up. I guess that stew was too heavy for you.” Then Sophiala planted the seed that would take root in and draw upon the most elemental, vital and sovereign stronghold of power in the human heart and soul: love – or in Rose’s case – the misconceived projections and delusions that mimic love. “You truly gone marry that boy, Rose? I hope he make a honorable woman out you and do the right thing by you. Go lay down. Think about what I just say.”

As she lay on the bed, Rose saw her future husband’s face resolve out of the vagabond shadows sheltering in the corners of her room. Yes, he would make an honorable woman of her, put a ring on her finger, work a job in a meatpacking plant in Chicago without ever missing a day. She lay in dreamy stupor, sweating, her legs sluggishly churning the ghosts in the sheets to a haunted froth.

Awestruck she observed his neck unscroll from the head, the shoulders from the neck, the torso from the shoulders, the legs unfurling gracefully and touching down on the floor. Yesterday he was lanky with stooped thin shoulders, his head rocking loosely while a bailiff of intoxication escorted him into his holding cell of torpor, his smile breaking loose on his face like a prison riot. But now he appeared upright, the whites of his eyes pure as eggshells, shoulders broad and strong. When he beckoned to her with a boyish look that signaled his desire, no longer lascivious with alcohol but unwavering and wide with love, she rose with difficulty from the bed and staggered after him.

She followed him to another bedroom, one she did not quite recognize, and from the doorway watched him stretch out on the bed. Her eyes struggled to peel back the masking tape of mist in the room.

She did not see her father, Henry, on the bed. Instead she saw Sy, his body lean and seductive as a stalk of sensuous sugarcane, ripe with sweetness.

Sophiala saw Rose stagger past down the hallway, pinballing the walls in a zigzag of support. She heard her daughter quietly closing the door to the bedroom where Henry had retreated for his nap.

Sophiala understood that every man was an equation and that her husband was one from which ambition had been subtracted at birth, replaced by integers of apathy, columns of zeros that added up to ambition’s opposite. The satisfaction and accomplishment that might have been his reward for unearthing the full treasure of his talents had been squandered in his compulsion to please men of dubious consequence in impromptu minstrel displays where easy laughter and hollow inanity were both means and end. That, and the fact that he was able-bodied and could work like a tireless mule in the mines was more than enough for him.

Even so, Sophiala knew that unlike those who reveled in his wasted musical antics, Henry’s heart was not darkened with the pollution of lust. She knew that as Rose approached the bed, seeing Syben’s face and body, Henry would certainly not see his own daughter, would not even see the women who often spilled cleavage into his eyes as though from a cup of flesh as they gripped his arm too tightly, throwing their heads back in overwrought laughter at his flawless imitation of the hoot owl or the cuckoo, their starstruck eyes inviting inconsequent assignations in the woods that would never tell. She preferred to think not that Henry in his simple-minded naiveté was impervious to the nuances of their flirtations, but that he had made the conscious decision to reject them. She believed she knew what Henry would see when Rose entered the bedroom and this belief made what was about to happen easier for Sophiala to bear.

In the bedroom that revolved slowly on a carousal of shadows, Henry saw a figure drifting toward him. It drifted with a quintessential stealth and rhythm he knew to be female. Then he could see.

Larry says to me, “Yeah, the writing life, how goes it. That’s easy for him to say. Takes the pressure … off … him.” As though the Prodigy were a punching bag, the dummy with each word jabs his head viciously toward his ventriloquist like a boxer telegraphing a phony blow, the Prodigy falling for it, flinching, then recovering in embarrassment.

“You, Larry,” Sophiala says sharply. “You ain’t gone start up with that mess tonight, you hear? I’ll snatch you up and put you yonder in that trunk if you fixin to start.”

Larry bristles, a porcupine of challenge and defiance. “So what? I’m tired of his hand stuck up my narrow wooden ass anyway. I’m in permanent constipation. Go ahead, you’d be doing me a big favor.”

Then Henry could see.

Although the figure came gliding forward toward the bed, feet shod with roller skates of whisper, the arms lifting the loose white cotton shift lank with body heat over the head, the shift snagging on bobby pins that in X’s climbed black hair hotcombed straight and lifted from neck’s nape so that he could hear the pins strike the floor like arms falling from the face of a clock, could see the hair spill its black terrain down the arched back – although the figure came forward it moved as though in a paradox of reversal. Or maybe it was Henry who was sliding backward on time’s oil slick, a reversal of years that gushed with rich mineral youth, 25, 19, 15, back to the age at which he had met Sophiala.

“Sophiala? Is that you?” Henry whispered.


They heard other words now, other voices.

Sophiala knelt by the hearth, chanting.

The robin in the tree a half mile down the road heard the chanting and remembered something, something not-bird.

Sophiala watches me drink the orange juice. “That gal of yours. She waiting for you. I don’t know what in her mind because it talk in sounds I ain’t never heard, mind talk that don’t make no kinda sense to me.”

I’ve told neither the Prodigy nor Sophiala about Sage being missing.

Other words now, other voices.

When Rose floated like helium into the bed, Henry laughed. The laughter was pliant as an infant who has just taken a first step and fallen. It was Sophiala he held and they were both 15 again, in the old Russell barn that was a child’s primary-red block in a playpen of uncultivated pastureland, up in the loft with pigeons roosting in the rotting rafters, Henry hearing again stalled in their throats the gurgling coos like a flooded motor of bubble, the hay exuding its equine smell in the tender warm greater reek of loft-fermented sunlight. When he finished gathering the hay to make a brittle bed, Sophiala gathered him as though he were the softness hidden in hay, and from where she hovered, she dropped her body that was brittle with youth and tense with unexplored desire over his adolescent amazement.

In front of the hearth where she knelt, Sophiala closed her eyes and wept for the sin she was setting in motion.

Rose pressed herself against Sy. From a geography book that sat on the single-shelf library in the one-room schoolhouse she had attended for years, an exotic picture she had seen of a city called Calcutta returned to claim her mind. There had been a man the color of burlap with turbaned head, engaged in an act that defied gravity. She climbed the dark levitating rope of Sy toward the transparent top where, if she could only keep her legs gripped and inch upward without slipping, it frayed into the thin air she might disappear into as though she were a fakir in an ancient India of yearning. She braided herself around the rope and felt the soft explosion of fray send its fibers deep into the hidden middle inside her that opened for an instant and then knotted in woven closure, the rope separating into strands and falling slack, and she tumbled down and immediately vanished into sleep.

Henry slept.

Sophiala stretched out in front of the cold hearth and slept.

The house closed its eyes and slept until the full moon, a rooster of anemia, crowed the house awake with weary white.

Sophiala went into the bedroom and gathered her daughter in her arms and carried her into her bedroom. Rose’s weight was a wheelbarrow rounded with rock and though Sophiala carried her roughly the girl did not awaken.

When Rose told Syben that she was pregnant with his child, the youth panicked and stumbled off one night in a bold connivance of flight induced by whiskey to Chicago. No one knew where he had gotten the money, since he rarely worked. Maybe he had stolen it.

Rose named the baby Sigh.

The baby’s left hand was withered and a sepia web of flesh connected the tiny fingers. The right hand was twice the size of a normal baby’s hand. Sophiala sliced the webbing with a paring knife so that fingers bounced free from its angry ball.

Rose packed the few things she owned and announced that she was leaving to search for Syben in Chicago. She did not take the baby and never returned and Sophiala knew she would never hear from her daughter again.

Henry was quiet and no longer scurried here and there with his signature Pekinese bursts. Sluggish as stew he thickly moved through the house and would stand on the porch after he returned from the mines, staring out across the road into fields on the Russel property that stretched fallow and forgetful as a prolapsed womb into the distance. He stood there, a fiddle waiting for the bite of the bow or the pressure of fingers. The neighbors saw that he had lost the cadences he once commanded and ceased gathering in the yard. The baby with Henry’s round head and Pekinese thrashings threw his strange hands into the air as though conjuring all the sadness Henry never knew he possessed. Just as the neighbors had ceased gathering in the yard, his heart ceased gathering its beats and one night as he dreamed that Rose embraced him with a fervor that should have been reserved for lover or husband, it heaved and clenched in his chest, grasping at the last of its rhythm.

After she mourned and buried her husband, Sophiala abandoned the house and with the baby followed the trail of her grief into the future, going as far as her 200-dollar savings would carry her, disembarking from the train only because her money finally ran out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a place so far from any she had known that the nation itself ran out, as though mirroring her terminated sense of familiarity and direction, the fabled north of the United States relinquishing its hold, dead-ending into Canada.

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