The War of Canticles

In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.

Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.

******************

Singers Hall was completely destroyed.

Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.

Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.

That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.

She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.

She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…

That was good, because it caused her not to focus.

There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.

So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.

********************

Footsteps crunched over stone.

A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.

She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.

Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.

There would only be one chance.

*********************

A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.

Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.

He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.

She looked some more.

He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.

Seeing nothing, he turned to go.

If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?

“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.

He turned, surprised, but wary.

She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.

“You survived,” he finally said.

“So did you. Did you see anything?”

“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”

“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”

“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”

“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”

“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”

He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.

She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.

“I’m Devon.”

“Lorelei.”

“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”

She smiled, pointed to his back.

“Harp?”

“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”

The rain fell harder.

“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“We already have shelter.”

He looked at her.

“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”

“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”

“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”

Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.

He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.

She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.

Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.

2:

The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.

In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.

They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.

As they searched, she thought back to her first day.

*****************

Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.

  “You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.

   “There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.

   “You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.

   “And it is I who will form you, from now on.”

*****************

The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.

   Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.

  Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.

   “To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”

   She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.

  Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.

   The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.

***************

“And now, I’m all that’s left…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”

3:

“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”

“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”

Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.

“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”

“You may.”

“What do you want with the Singer?”

Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.

“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Lord Karis.”

Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.

“I…I can’t read, Lord…”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.

His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.

The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.

And the cover said,

The Canticles of War

 “Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.

Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.

Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.

“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”

He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.

This might be actually prove to be useful, later.

He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.

Quite useful, indeed.

Miriam’s Camp (a Darlene story)

Author’s Note: This story features Darlene, the young widow of “Of War and Breakfast”, as an old woman who has lived out her life, dispensing wisdom accumulated from her own experiences and dealings with many people. Her origins start in another story titled, ‘A Journey Home.’ The idea to put several tales from her lecture to her nephew, who comes to visit one summer after many years, of those experiences she shares with him, came when someone suggested I take the experiences from her soliloquy and make them into separate stories. Miriam’s Camp is the third in the series. I hope you enjoy reading it. It is a tale of faith, so if you are not a believer, and wish to comment, please be respectful; I approve all comments prior to them being posted here.
Thank you, and thanks again for taking the time to read my story.  

Alfred

She was never really able to answer why she got off the bus when she did, in front of the old house that lay on the bus route, a road of dust that seemed little traveled except for the people on it going somewhere else.

Every part of her ached from the old bus’s constant jarring, its suspension in dire need of repairs that would likely never happen; the only one it didn’t seem to bother was the driver, who was humming some tuneless song, if there was such a thing, over and over.
If there isn’t, he just invented it Miriam thought.
But she knew her focus was on the wrong stuff; his lack of tonality was not the issue, but a distraction from the truth of why she was coming back.
Get out of here, Miriam, they told her. See the world.
You’re young; you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to do whatever you want.
You’re a beautiful girl, Miriam. Good looks will take you places.
You could be a model.
You could be in movies.
It sounded glamorous, exciting and exotic.
It was actually wrong, crude, cold, and ultimately bloody; the ways of men and beasts, she discovered, were not dissimilar.
And now she was coming home.
******************

She needed time to think.
“I’ll get off here.”
The driver stopped humming.
“You’re a long way from where you belong, miss. That ticket’s only good for one ride.”
“There’s one I haven’t heard,” she muttered.
“Say, miss?”
“I’ll get out here.”
“You sure?”
“ Yes, I’m sure. Thank you.”
“Suit yourself.”
*******************
She stood there in a cloud of wheat colored dust that spun in little dervishes around her like a pulsing aura as the bus pulled off.
Stepping back out of it, she stood there as it settled on and around her, not quite sure what to do next.
“Best get out that sun girl, ‘fore you burn.”
The voice came from across the road; Miriam shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and peered over.
An old woman sat in a rocking chair on her porch, a cup of coffee in her hand, and a thick book on her knees.
Miriam had never known anyone lived there. Of course not, idiot, this isn’t your side of town.
There were two rocking chairs on the porch. The other one was empty.
The old woman spoke again. “Girl, can you hear me?”
The woman was black; Miriam had never heard a black woman speak to her that way before. It was always, “Yes, Miss Whitcomb,” or “No, Miss Whitcomb,” or “As you please, Miss Whitcomb.”
“Child, come out that sun ‘fore you burn.”
Still somewhat dazed, Miriam found herself crossing the road.
The old woman didn’t stand up. Her brother would’ve called it an anomaly: it was his favorite word. Her father would’ve called it an affront, and dealt with it, but as Miriam got a closer look, probably not with this woman. There was a force to her, and undercurrent of vitality that didn’t seem to encourage or align with the nonsense of modern customs.
“Have a seat, girl. You look done in.”
Miriam looked at the seat, at the woman, at the book in the woman’s lap, and back at the woman’s face. It was old and lined, dark as oak.
“I’ve been sitting for a long time,” Miriam said. “I’ll just lean against this railing, that is, if it’s sound.”
The old woman looked at her then; she had kind and patient eyes that looked not at you, but through.

“My father David, God rest his soul, built this porch with his own two hands. Wasn’t nuthin’ out here before but that dusty road. If it ain’t sound, ain’t ‘cuz he didn’t build it right. Time, termites, and carpenter bees mighta done their share, but you’re welcome to stand, if you choose.”
The railing held.
The old woman went back to her reading, her chair creaking, her finger on the page, tracking the text within.
Miriam watched a hawk circle over a distant field, but the silence pressed.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?”
The old woman didn’t look up, kept tracking the words with her finger.
“You here ‘cause I told you to get out of that heat.”
“No, I didn’t mean that, I mean, here.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me.”
“But you haven’t even asked me my name.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know…”
The girl smiled at that. “It’s Miriam.”
Darlene looked up.
“Well, Miriam, welcome to my home. I’m Darlene. Miss Darlene to you.”
Miriam tossed her hair from her eyes, and said, “And why is that?”
“It’s called, ‘respecting your elders.’ Ain’t you ever heard of it?”
“I guess so.”
“Mm-hmm,” Darlene said. “You can go in the bathroom and freshen up. There’s some clean washcloths in there, and some soap, and lotion, if you’re of a mind. Pour yourself a glass of water too.” She went back to her book.
Miriam did, and came back out in a few minutes, a dampened washcloth in her hand, wrapped around a glass of water.
“Feel better?”
“Yes, thank you, Miss Darlene.”
“You’re welcome.”
Miriam drank her water awhile, her eyes far away.
Darlene finished reading her chapter, and set the book aside.
The words fell in the silence like a stone tossed in the middle of a still lake:
“Comin’ home, ain’t you?”
Miriam went to take a sip of water, and couldn’t raise the glass.
“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat.
She tried to raise the glass again, and couldn’t; her breath hitched, and she tried again.
“You went to the city.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes…” To her dismay, Miriam felt her face redden, and the tears came so fast and hard they stung. Her reflexes moved her hands to cover her eyes, and the glass fell from her hand as she began to break down.
The glass broke into shiny shards on the sunlit porch, the water spreading, filling the cracks and crevices as Miriam went on her knees.
“I’m sorry!” she cried, “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry!” Darlene knew she didn’t mean the glass.

Miriam bent over, her face in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers, her yellow hair limp and damp from the heat, hiding her face, draped over her shoulders; she could feel tiny splinters poking through her summer dress, and welcomed the pain.
Darlene rose from her chair, and made her slow way over to the young girl.
She raised Miriam off her knees, and held her.
“I know, child. I know.”
She swayed with Miriam in her arms as the girl cried.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, her voice husky with sorrow.
“I know.”

“I didn’t know!
“How could you know, being so young?”
“Oh, it hurts, Miss Darlene, it hurts so much!” Her body was trembling.
“Yes, baby, it’s gon hurt a lot, and maybe for a long time, but you gon be all right after awhile, Miriam. Time heals. God heals.”
Darlene held her until her sobs became sniffles. Miriam stepped out of the embrace, embarrassed somehow, before this woman, at what she was about to say.
She looked at the water drying on the porch floor.
“I don’t believe in God,” she said.
Darlene kept her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and gave a small smile.
“You don’t, huh? Then I guess you ain’t never heard of your namesake?”
“My…namesake?” She looked up.
“Miriam, the sister of Moses. You ain’t never heard?”
“No. We…we don’t go to church. My father…” she didn’t finish, and averted her eyes again.
“Well, sit down. I’ll be back.”
Miriam sat, wiping her eyes with the washcloth, which was also drying from the heat, but still wet enough for the task. She pulled her hair back off her neck, and tried to compose herself. Something was going on here, something strange and uncomfortable, but not frightening.
In the distance, three more hawks had joined the first. Miriam watched their silent, deadly circles.
And I was the mouse in the meadow.
She thought back to that moment she stepped off the bus, looking around in unadulterated wonder at the crowds, the buildings, the noise assaulting her ears, her senses flooded, and a smooth voice in her ear like a lifeline to someone drowning.
May I help you with your luggage, miss?
She looked away from the hawks.
Darlene came back, handed Miriam a new glass of water along with a fresh wet cloth, cold to the touch, and Miriam wiped her face and neck with it.
“Hang it on the railing with the other one. It’ll dry quick.”
“Okay.”
Darlene waited until Miriam had resettled herself.
“You ready to hear about Miriam?”
“My ‘namesake,’” she tried the word again, and gave a little smile. “I like that word.”
“Yes, she was. Bet your parents didn’t even know.”
“That would be a safe bet, Miss Darlene. I’m ready.”

*******************
Darlene told her of Miriam: how she had watched over Moses as he floated down the Nile and made sure he was safe, and how she led the women out of Egypt in a victory dance, singing songs of praise to God, and how she rebelled against Moses, and God struck her with a skin disease, and they had to put her outside the camp for seven days.
“And you know there ain’t no worse hell for a pretty woman than a skin disease,” Darlene said, laughing.
To her own surprise, Miriam started laughing too.
When the laughter subsided, Darlene continued.
“But you see, Miriam got jealous because God talked to Moses in a way he didn’t speak to her. She got jealous of what Moses had, and forgot that the only reason Moses had that close relationship was because he had a job God wanted him to do.
“See, Miriam had to wait in the same bondage with the rest of her people until her brother came back, and she was older than him. It wasn’t her job to lead the people out, but she did lead the women, ‘cause Moses couldn’t understand how that bondage was for them. Womenfolk’s pain is always different from men; it goes through us in places they don’t have, and I don’t mean what you might think. It goes deeper, and stays longer, and hurts more; you know that now, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Ain’t no shame in knowin, child, and you found out young. Some women don’t find out til it’s way too late, and they lives is gone. Now this Miriam, she ain’t had no call to rise up against her brother, but y’see, people forget.
“She didn’t know Moses had to keep climbin’ mountains to speak to God, to keep on his knees to stop God from wipin’ the people out, cuz they was always complainin’. He had to work, to judge the people, to deal with their jealousy and pettiness.
“She was there, and she saw it all, but she didn’t know. All she saw was that God was talkin her brother in ways he didn’t talk to her, and it didn’t matter they was free, and on they way to a wonderful place.
“See, folks gets to lookin at what other folks have, and don’t know what they had to go through to get it, but they want it all the same.”
As Darlene spoke, a tear had pooled in the corner of Miriam’s lips, and she licked it off, tasting its bitterness. There had been harsh words and hard feelings at her departure. It all came down to one thing, the last thing she said before leaving: “I deserve better!”
Darlene let her words sink in as she looked at Miriam, who’d begun rocking the chair.
“You made the right choice to come back. Now, truth be told, girl, I don’t know why you got off that bus here, like you asked me earlier, but God knows. Now, you need to get on home, and let your heart and body heal from that beatin’ they done took.” “

“My family doesn’t know I’m here, Miss Darlene. I was afraid to tell them…”
“Honey, they know, and don’t you think they don’t. They didn’t know how long it would be. Soon’s they see you, they’ll know why you came back.”
“They may not be all that happy about it.”
“Well, my dealings with that side of town have not been good, but there’s only one way to find out, and it ain’t by staying here on this porch, now is it?”
“No,” Miriam said, looking at the broken glass.
“Well, I ‘spect they’ll be happier to see you than you think. Come here, girl.”
Miriam went to her, and knelt in front of her, and Darlene took Miriam’s face in her hands, lifting up her sea blue eyes to stare into the depths of her own rich brown ones; Miriam could see they were patient, kind, and full of life, lore, deep sadness and high joy, as her smooth pale cheeks were cupped in dark, calloused hands, like a warrior angel with a new-made chalice.
“You outside the camp now, Miriam, and you’re feeling diseased and wrong, but the only way you gon’ heal is by going back inside, among your own, and let them take care of you. Ain’t got no choice in the matter, no say-so. You spoke out against, and you went through your suffering days, and it’s time to get back. Whatever you do, from here on out, is gonna matter more not just to you, but to other folk, to your family, your husband, when you get one, your kids, when you have some. Your life is gonna be different now.
“You understand that?”
Miriam sighed, and shook her head, and rested it in Darlene’s lap awhile, as the old woman chuckled at the girl’s honesty, and stroked her hair, humming something low and sweet, and Miriam smiled. This was music.
After awhile, Darlene smiled and lifted her up as she got to her feet.
A cloud of dust was visible in the distance as the tires from the approaching bus rumbled over the road. The high sun lit it, fine and floating, a wind blown corona swirling in slow motion through the hot, still air.
“You wait here,” Darlene said, and went inside. She came back out with an old, yellow skinned tambourine, its shakers pitted with rust, its wood worn smooth and bright where hands gripped and slapped. There was a rotted piece of duct tape that was supposed to be a handle, and a smaller piece over a hole where her mother’s fingernail had pierced it.
She held it out to Miriam.
“This belonged to my mother,” said Darlene. “You take it.”
“Oh, Miss Darlene, I couldn’t!”
“Didn’t ask if you could, said I wanted you to take it. I want you to remind yourself of which Miriam you’re supposed to be. See, it’s just like you: it’s been beaten and shaken down to its core, but it’s still here. It got scars and hand marks, scrapes and patches, but it’s still here.”
She held the tambourine out again.
“So are you. You been through it, and now you need to lead others out.
“See, you think you comin’ home in defeat and shame, but you came out of that cesspool in victory, and now you know what to say to those young girls come after you gettin’ on that bus.”
Miriam opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She closed it, her face flushing.
She tried again, but all that came out was, “I don’t know how to play it.”
Darlene laughed.
“Child, neither did Mama! Didn’t stop her none. The deacons had to take this from her she threw the choir off so bad; she’d start out all right, but after ‘while seemed like she just played to the rhythm in her heart, and it wasn’t what was going on up there at all. Happened every Sunday too, sure as sunrise, til she got too old to hold it anymore.
“Then, they just laid it there beside her, and she’d rest her hand on it.”
She wrapped Miriam’s fingers around the worn taped handle.
“Just before she passed on, she told me to keep it, ‘cuz she was gon get a new one when she got home. She don’ need it no more. I don’ either.”
Miriam smiled, and took the gift.
“Thank you.”
The bus pulled to a stop, the nimbus of dust bursting around it like a beggar’s halo.
“You’ll learn to play it in time, and when you’re ready to lead out, you’ll understand. Your time of bondage is over.”
Miriam looked at the worn and battered tambourine, then back at Darlene.
“Over,” she repeated, half in wonder, half in affirmation.
“God bless you, Miriam.”
She kissed Darlene’s wrinkled cheek. “He already has.”
As she crossed the dusty road, she tapped the ancient tambourine lightly against her knee, its rusty jingle breaking the afternoon stillness.
When the bus was gone, Darlene looked at the washcloths hanging like ephods on the old railing, and down at the broken glass, glinting in the sunlight, like the precious stones waiting to be placed on them.
It was a shrine to their time together, and Darlene smiled.
“You gon’ be just fine.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

( May 16, 2014)

In the Simple Things

It’s in the simple things:

intimate, small gestures that say you care

a palpable connection felt when eyes meet

knowing the thoughts, finishing the sentences

a connection of hands, the intertwine of fingers

the ebb and flow of bodies

giving and receiving

a binding of hearts and souls

a freeing of spirits

and we understand

the ancient lore of oneness

singing in rounds of alternate harmonies

walking together

down the pleasant path

to

Home.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

A Thread of Human-ness

We all have

Uniqueness

in

Common

And

Conform

in

our striving to

be

Individual

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 28th, 2014

A Thread of Human-ness

All rights reserved

Ariana by the Sea

Ariana felt the hot sand sliding between her toes, heard the distant crash of the water smashing on promontory rocks. Not for her the water’s edge. The vastness of the ocean was a strange and fearful thing, and creatures lurked beneath it; she’d heard the sailors’ tales when she worked the tavern houses and inns, and did not wish to find herself bewitched beneath the waves.

And yet, her eyes kept straying there. So beautiful and savage was the sea. Swirling and surging now with a contained rage, blue and green and gray by turns, and powerful, flecked with the gold of a high morning sun, the wind like a child’s fingers on her cheeks and in her hair.

The wind hugged her like a lover; her dress clung to her, and a brief and rueful smile touched her lips, for she felt the curves of her body beneath, her childhood faded like a receding wave, once and done, never to be again, which carried a fear of its own.

Do you want to sail, Ariana?

Her heart beat faster with the thought.

Is there someone across the sea who’s named you for his own?

Her body tingled as an image formed in her mind, faceless, strong, with the hands of a sculptor, the hands of a man who could wring emotions from clay and metal and stone.

But what will he do with your heart, Ariana? What will he do with your heart? Will it still be loving when he’s done? Tender, or will he harden it in the kiln of his own soul?

She couldn’t answer, but did she dare find out?

A prod into the sole of her foot made her wince, and she hopped in the sand. It startled more than hurt.

An empty shell, curved and pink and white, gleamed from its sandy sepulcher.

She lifted its wavy, opalescent edge; it was warm to the touch, though there was no life in it.

She’d heard the stupid stories of how the ocean’s crash could be heard; she knew it was something else, but the notion was appealing, and no one was watching.

Plucking it out, emptying the sand, she walked with it awhile, admiring the useless beauty of it; its owner, no longer needing its protection, either abandoned it or was pulled out by a crafty predator.

Looking up, she saw a lone gull pass overhead; it called to her in solitary greeting, and seeing the shell was empty and the girl alive, he flew on.

Sitting on a dune where the sand grasses tickled her legs, she looked out at the mating blue of sky and water on the horizon, and put the shell to her ear.

And listened to the sea song, her heart beating in harmony, and from her thoughts it brought the face of her shadowy lover, and made the vision clear.

And he would sculpt her heart, and she would sing his hands, and when their work was done….

It would be as timeless as warm sand, enduring as stone and metal, beautiful as a seashell, curled and delicate, with thunder in its midst, tempestuous as a wind tossed wave, and fear of the edge and hiding in shadows would be no more.

You would venture beyond the edge, where you are afraid, Ariana?

The shell slipped from her fingers, its silenced song soaked into her soul.

Yes… yes

She would go.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 22nd 2014

Underground Encore

Just to provide some background for this story:  I started out as a guitar player at the age of 11. I had a classical acoustic guitar and I was going to be the next Earl Klugh. Between the ages of 14 -17 I sat in with these old jazz heads in Washington Square Park.

I stayed mostly silent but they let me join them on some of the easier stuff, until one day I heard the words from the de facto leader of the group. “You did a nice job on that.” It was, at the time, like a five-star rave review in the New York Times, but way led on to way, and in time, the group thinned out, and eventually they didn’t come back. And after awhile, as I sat in with new players and did new songs, way continued leading on to way, and I stopped going there as well.

I’ve often thought about those men, old men even then, no doubt passed on by now, and I’ve been thankful they were gracious to a young man with a love for the music who didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to play it, but who took what he had, and eventually heard the words, “You did a nice job on that.”

As jazz continues to hold a precarious place on the American music scene, I wanted to write something to show my appreciation not just to those men I sat in with, but to others like them who keep the flame in the hot tunnels, smoky clubs, concert halls, and  libraries and museums around the country and around the world. Now, without further ado….

The sun was sinking into the river against the city skyline. Leon sat in a patch of it as it came through the window, his shirt and tie barred, like Cyrano’s body, with the shadow of crossbeams that separated the window panes.

The doctor came out, and Leon stood up.
The doctor’s face said everything.
“I’m sorry, Leon. The tests are conclusive. I don’t know what to say that would make it easier.”
“Ain’t nothing left to say.”
“Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”
“Got someone, but I’ll take care of it.”
“All right then. And Leon…” The doctor offered his hand.
Leon took the doctor’s hand in both of his.
“You done what you could, doc. thank you.”

******************
He walked out into the evening, the street alive with people and lights, cars and movement, the last of the sun ray’s deepening the shadows to a dusky blue.
The subway rumbled beneath him, and he headed toward the nearest station, then stopped.
Be underground soon enough. No need to rush.

He chuckled at his own weak joke, and took the long walk home.

*****************
His daughter was all he had left for family, and he wrote her now:

“Everything you need to know is in that old cookie tin you gave me for Christmas all that time ago. Everything’s in there, along with a note for my last wishes. I got some time yet, but I don’t, so you don’t have to come tomorrow, but don’t come too late. I don’t want to go in no potter’s field, though He’ll find me if I do.
“Just try not to let it happen, that’s all.”

*********************
His battered saxophone case was under the rickety bed, with the tarnished, well worn saxophone inside. He pulled it out, and sat on the edge of the bed, and looked at it, going back in his mind to the smoky nights, spent playing til the sun came up, so dapper he glittered in the spotlight, and later the feel of a full, warm woman on his lap, in his arms, in his bed, til time passed and the people moved on, and the clubs closed, and his career stalled, and stopped where it had started, and never moved again.

********************
Bars replaced clubs, drink replaced music, and even the most stubborn woman he’d ever met who tried to stay with him no matter what, threw in the towel before her own youth was wasted with a man who couldn’t move on, whose identity was too closely tied to what he did, and not who he was.

********************
Back into the evening streets, his case bumping along his spindly left leg, his suit fitting badly, but clean, and his face washed, he paid his fare, went down to the subway platform, but he didn’t open his case for change this time.

***********************
In his mind’s eye he saw her, regal in her red dress, her red lips matching, all of her full and shiny in the dim light. Her mahogany eyes gazed into his as she leaned forward to light his cigarette, and as he took her hand in both of his, she leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
“Play me something.”

She was leaving it up to him what to play, and he knew so many songs, but as he looked back into her eyes, and saw her smile at him, the song came like a lightning strike.
He played her something. And something else, and something else, til the band caught the pattern and the gist as they caught them staring, and they smiled and shook their heads, and simply followed.
“Leon at it again,” said the piano man. “On three, fellas…”
Three months later, they all came to the wedding.

*************************
Leon played the set through, but it was melancholy with a twist of bitter, haunting and bluesy and sad, with a splash of hope, and a sprinkle of joy.
A young cop began to walk toward him, but something made him stop, and he paused for a moment to listen, and a crowd began to gather. This was not the average subway joe who practiced for coins. Those who knew music knew this was the real thing, and those who didn’t felt it.

“All the Things You Are” echoed throughout the station and into the tunnels, a plaintive, restive, devotion leaking out with the realization of how utterly unattainable all of her had been, in the end.

*********************

The song ended, and the crowd clapped loudly until the rumbling train drowned it out, and they turned away to get on with their lives.
The cop came up to him.
“I know you. I know that song. My father had one of your records, and he played it all the time.”
“Did he, now?” said Leon, wiping the mouthpiece. He grinned, turned to look at the cop, a twinkle in his eye. “Only one?”
“No sir,” the cop laughed, “he had others, but that’s the one he played the most.”
“Played,” Leon said. “Is your father still alive?”
“No sir, he passed away five years ago.”
Leon straightened, gave the cop full attention.
“I’m sorry, young man.”
The cop said nothing for a moment, then “It was an honor to hear you play live, sir. I only wish my dad would’ve been here.”
“My pleasure,” Leon began to walk away.
And then he turned to the cop, and seemed to think a moment, and walked back, and held out his saxophone case.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m giving this to you.”
“Why? I can’t take it. Don’t you need it?”

Leon sighed. “No, I don’t. See, I’m about to meet your daddy, and we’re gonna be talking jazz for a long, long time.”
It took a moment, and then the cop’s eyes widened.
“Won’t be long now. Left everything else to my daughter, but she ain’t gonna want this old battered up horn. Won’t mean nothing to her except her daddy wasn’t home a lot, and she won’t even think to sell it, and probably just throw it away.”
The cop looked downcast.
“You gonna take this?”
“I can’t, sir.”
Leon leaned in, like he was telling a secret. “Tell you what, turn it in to lost property, then file a claim for it on my daughter’s behalf, and take it later.”
“Mr. Leon, are you sure?” The cop took the case like a sacred offering.
Leon straightened again. “I am. It’s the least I can do for a young man who grew up with my music, and who saw my last concert.”
The cop seemed to flinch.
“I…I’m sorry, sir. I truly am.”
Leon put his hand out, and the cop took it, and Leon put his other hand over it.
“It’s all right, son, you done what you could. Thank you.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
May 2, 2014
All rights reserved