The music filled his heart as if he were hearing the words for the first time. Yet he knew better. Years ago, this song had been sewn into the fabric of his soul.
The crowd, arms interlocked, still singing, slowed as they approached the bridge where a phalanx of sloe-eyed uniforms awaited, weapons at ready. The hot, sticky Alabama air was filled with fear and courage, the kind that leads men toward rare moments of glory and fuses nations into new forces of the common good.
Soon the crowd shuffled to a stop. The atmosphere still, he could hear the mournful cry of a blue tick hound off in the distance. Then he recalled a time years ago when his uncle had beckoned him into an unsure exodus from forced servitude toward a life he’d never have imagined, one that had led him toward this crossroads today. It was only yesterday, he thought, or so it seemed.
Under the watchful eye of a guard, his eyes danced with ghosts of exhaustion, and his muscles, burning with pain, begging for mercy. Yet he knew to ask for any relief would be futile. An offer would be made only when the uniform decided a break was in order. Amos continued to fill sacks with sand and drag them toward the levee that separated the great river from the land, land owned by the man, land he knew he’d work until his efforts failed him and ultimate rest would capture his soul.
Amos glanced out over the rising waters and he knew. Even from his days as a youth, he was aware that no man could stop the mighty river. If the Mississippi took a notion to flood, it would drown any man in its path. He was confident the levees could not hold much longer. This would become the year of the great flood, but no one here was yet aware of what was to unfold.
Down the line, he could see a fourteen-year-old toiling away at a man’s job. His nephew’s eyes blinked with sweat, his face filled with agony, but Amos could not help him. His only wish was that the boy would come to understand that this ungodly servitude they had to endure would soon pass.
Later on a cot in a tent filled with others like him, Amos listened to the midnight freight meandering along the tracks nearby on its way north to better times and jobs. And from time to time he’d peek out only to discover the National Guard sentries, rifles at their side, alert as ever.
He’d dreamed of escape and he knew he could not take his nephew with him. Nathan, along with boys his own age, was sequestered in another tent somewhere in the camp, but Amos could not risk his own exposure trying to find his nephew in the middle of the night.
His move had to come before the flood consumed the land, and this he’d already determined would be soon. His chance came one night in a blinding rainstorm when the guards, fools that they were, had taken shelter. Amos crept out in the downpour and made his way to the other side of the tracks and waited. Soon loping beside an open boxcar, he jumped aboard and lay on the floor listening to the click-clack of the tracks under the train and the rhythm of the rain that beat down on the roof of the car with determination.
Two nights and a morning later and close to starvation, he rolled off the train in the rail-yards of the city near the pens where cattle waited to breath their last. Close by he found a mission for the poor where he was fed and directed to one of the great slaughterhouses that were hiring. And for twelve hours a day, he stood with a hammer over a shoot where he continued to mete out death to unsuspecting cows, one every twenty seconds until he became numb to the ordeal, the noise, and the odor.
He found a room in a boarding house on the south side and heard he could find help and hope at an AME church in the neighborhood. On Sundays he’d go for the word, the hymns and the spirit, and the big pot luck outings on the grounds of the church. And here he found a woman who agreed to write a letter home for him. In the note he told the folks there’d be work and a future for his nephew in the city, but only if the boy could find his way north to Chicago on his own.
And Nathan did. Now almost fifteen, he caught the same slow freight. With a sack of fried chicken and cornbread in his grip, he arrived in the vast rail-yards of the city, lost and afraid. He’d been given the address of the church where he went and waited on a step until a passerby stepped up to inquire about the boy’s intent. Within an hour he was reunited with his uncle Amos and settled in for the new life to come.
After a week on the job in the slaughterhouse, Nathan’s back muscles rebelled, and he began to pray for safe passage back home. Uncle Amos told the boy he’d get accustomed to the stink and the racket, but Nathan was not sure he ever would.
Summer passed quickly and the chill of winter buffeted by winds off Lake Michigan hovered around the boy’s lithe body. In church each Sunday he petitioned the deity, if he was listening, to guide him out of this icy hell though he knew he’d likely as not ever see his momma’s kitchen again.
But his uncle surprised him the following spring with a plan for a visit home. A friend of Amos was a porter on a fancy Pullman that ran to New Orleans on a regular basis. A promise was made that for a fee the train steward could hide the boy in the baggage car until he could disembark in Memphis. There a mule-driven wagon would carry him the rest of the way home.
The date and time had been set and Nathan readied himself with stories for the little ones and promises of a quick return though he knew this was a lie. His uncle knew it too.
Early Saturday morning the sun peeked over the eastern horizon and nothing seemed to stir other than a milk truck, its tires squealing around corners, a stray dog nosing a garbage can, and a farm truck laden with produce wheeling down an empty street toward negotiations with wholesalers on the south side of town. The night shift at the abattoir had just ended.
Nathan, his energy spent but his spirits undaunted, trudged up the avenue in the direction of the train station. He was going home for momma’s biscuits and pies, and to tell stories of the big city to the family. He could see weather-worn houses with foundations of crumbling brick and a kaleidoscope of worn-out washing machines and refrigerators marooned on porches and vacant lots, and bicycles chained to trees like runaway slaves.
The boy walked with a skip and dreamed of home and peered at wildflowers along the cracked curbing beside the street. And watched shadows dance about before being chased into hiding by the morning light. No magnetism of any kind could possibly thwart his determined trek toward the train and home.
“Hi there, Sport,” twittered a delicate soprano voice. His legs slowed and his head turned toward a petite young female perched on a nearby porch. Clad in a translucent scarlet dress with narrow strips, she smiled and blinked her long eyelashes at him.
“Hi,” rattled out of his throat like a warning from a startled gander. At a dead stop now, he allowed his hands to vanish inside his trousers pockets.
“Where ya goin’ in such a hurry,” she said through rose petal lips that matched the hue of her dress. His eyes widened as he assessed a piece of the dress hugging the top of her café au lait thighs. He then attempted a confounding array of verbal confusion that concluded with words, “train station”.
Her voice resembled the soft melody of a siren luring him to join her on the porch for a cold soda but only if he could spare a moment, she’d cooed. If there had been an ingenuousness in his adolescent mien, it’d quickly evaporated in the morning heat. A warm glow grew behind a wide smile as his lanky body scuttled across a grassless yard. And with one leap he was on the porch beside this goddess of the morning. Perky nipples under a silky sheen appeared to peek back at him. His eyes rose to a small turned-up nose perched on a light-complexioned face below a shiny black wig. Any sense of moral right or structured plan he might have had moments earlier faded in this mystic vision.
She took his arm, never allowing her eyes to stray from his. Escorting him through a screen door, she turned, her small hand reaching toward his cheek. A thick, sweet aroma of perfume enveloped his undivided consciousness as her fingers danced across his face. Hot blood rushed to idle regions, electrifying a sleeping protuberance in his loins.
Standing on tiptoes, she allowed her wet lips to reach his mouth and excite his quivering flesh with reckless enthusiasm. His knees shaking, legs wobbling, he succumbed to her gentle push onto a musty sofa. He attempted to size her up further as she wheeled on the ball of her barefoot and sashayed back toward the kitchen – about his age, he supposed.
A refrigerator door slammed. Through the dim light, he could see her strutting toward him, her rambunctious breasts in rhythm with her body, a gift of nature approaching his widening eyes. Handing him a frosty green bottle, she responded to his query saying she wasn’t thirsty and moved to an adjacent door jamb. He attempted to place the bottle to his lips without her noticing his shaking hand, but a thumping heart foiled his attempt to keep the cool countenance he wished to display.
“How much money you got?” she asked while examining her fingernails. Her small, naked foot rubbed the calf of her leg while her eyes and hands orchestrated a symphony of movements any professional would know to employ. Too excited to gauge the import of the question, he told her he had six dollars for train fare. As she continued to smile, fingers drumming across her flat stomach, she pondered this paltry fee as an add-on to a thriving enterprise. But this is 6 AM, she thought…what the hell.
Without a sound, she tiptoed across the room, took the bottle from his hand, and placed it on a side table. Creating no more noise than a plucked tailfeather floating toward earth, she dropped to her knees in front of him. Her deft fingers released what she must have considered an unfairly incarcerated fellow from his trousers, now tumid but hidden from Nathan’s eyes by the back of her wig. Before his mind could fully grasp the urgency of her motions, his sphincter tightened, his legs convulsed, and a frisson rippled from his loins down to his toes and up through his chest to his tightening throat and skidded to a halt at his earlobes.
His member, now debilitated, resembled a limp puppy. He rose from the chair, returned this symbol of lost dignity to his pants, and faced the fairy princess who proffered her hand, palm up. Alert to his expression at her nonverbal cue, she said, “Gimme the money!”
Bewildered by this verbal assault, he attempted to exit through the door she now blocked. He tried to explain his need for cash for the train ride, but this was met with a saturnine stare.
“Sid!” she screamed toward the back of the house. A door was flung open in the dim reaches of the hall where a dark specter emerged, his head bent forward, his arms swinging like large sausages suspended from hooks in a corner meat market.
This shadow lumbered down the hall toward the front parlor, his bare feet swishing across the floor. A bulbous flat nose flared nostrils, and bloodshot eyes ensconced in high solid cheekbones become better defined as he approached. A thin mustache twitched above a vile-lipped sneer that revealed a gold incisor before the boy’s bulging eyes. The man clamped his paw around the boy’s neck and unleashed a spate of curses while throttling him. Sensing the untenable position, he found himself in, Nathan shoved his free hand into his pocket and thrust it high in the air with worn dollar bills while his other hand struggled to break the grip on his windpipe. The man’s beady eyes rose to the treasure. He snatched it like a striking viper and released the youth.
Recoiling from the growling menace, Nathan whipped around toward the door. His other assailant now stepped away from the exit. Darting to the freedom of the street and the morning light, he could feel his heart still pounding from a second, unexpected jolt of adrenalin. The cool spring air, as well as the long strides of his legs, stabilized his blood pressure and demeanor. He was again heading up toward the train yard when the import of his new problem became clear and assaulted his throbbing head. His jaw dropped as he made a quick right turn and trudged puffy-faced back toward the boarding house. Shimmering heat snaked up from the asphalt and wilted all unsuspecting life including this forlorn, outwitted young sinner. If there were one feckless urchin on the face of the planet, he knew it to be a boy by the name of Nathan Job Minor.
He cried all the way back home and sat down on the front step. He put his elbows on his knees, his hands over his face and wondered, ‘what on earth am I gonna do now’. He knew his uncle would be asleep upstairs as he’d worked all night as well.
Soon his eyes began to roll back and forth, and he threw up all over his shirt. Nathan ducked into the house hoping to avoid any early risers who might inquire about his current state of being. He crept up the stairs toward their quarters, but when he opened the door, it creaked, and his uncle heard it.
Uncle Amos came out of his room buttoning his pants and said, “What are you doing here? What’s wrong?”
The boy glanced up at his uncle and just bawled. His uncle said nothing at first. He just stood there sloe-eyed; his arms folded across his chest. And for a long time he just stared at Nathan, but the boy could no longer look him in the eye. His head went down.
“You don’t have the six dollars.” It was not a question.
“No, sir,” said a sibilant voice that revealed massive damage to a budding self-image.
“What are we going to do about it?” said the uncle.
“Don’t know, sir.” The boy stared at his worn shoes as an inner voice pleaded for a whipping just to pass through perdition and get it over with. A piercing silence followed. And the noise of a cheap bedside clock somewhere in the room kept time with the boy’s anxious wait.
At that moment an army of demons attempting to induce a more destructive sense of moral order in the youth would have failed. He had considered, but dismissed, the potential for deceit as a ploy. The man was too smart. And all that Nathan had accomplished since he arrived in the city was under the aegis of this benevolent man. His compassion had been boundless from the first day the boy had arrived. With this thought in mind, Nathan’s spirits sank further.
His uncle detected an acrid scent and demanded the boy make an immediate trip to the bathroom sink and then retrieve a clean shirt before returning to face him. From his uncle’s demeanor, Nathan sensed that no simple explanation would suffice, yet he’d no idea what to expect next. Once again, he stood before this living tower of truth.
“Step over here a little closer to me.”
“Yes, sir.” Nathan shuffled in short steps toward his uncle. The boy’s shoulders slumped like wilted greens as his dispirited eyes focused hard on the floor.
“That’s what I thought,” his uncle said, like a detective unraveling the last clue to a perplexing mystery. “Follow me, Nathan.”
“Yes, sir,” he obeyed with a nod but was dumbfounded by his uncle’s declaration. Nathan had no idea what had been uncovered but knew better than to ask.
Uncle Amos marched toward the front of the room and grabbed a shirt off a chair, never breaking stride, the unnerved boy on his uncle’s heels. The man walked down the street as if he were a D. I. leading a troop on a forced march double time. Nathan’s eyes focused at an oblique angle on two human piston rods wheeling along ahead of him. Over a hill, they advanced at a pace between a lope and a trot. The boy’s feelings now began a free-fall drop toward a bottomless pit of mortification. Only the Almighty could save him now, but the boy wasn’t asking for fear the heavens might part and lightning strike him dead right there on the spot.
His uncle made a quick right turn off the sidewalk and onto a brick walkway. Nathan’s eyes rose to white block letters over two large double doors: THE FIRST BETHEL A. M. E. CHURCH. As if an anvil had fallen from the heavens onto his shoulders, he began to understand his newly acquired status; he’d become a feckless, droopy-eyed felon. His forehead and neck sprouted fresh perspiration. He could imagine his heart thumping a final death march…a cortege for none other than Nathan Job Minor.
Up three steps, through the doors, down a flight of stairs to the right, through a dimly-lit hallway, they marched. The uncle paused in front of a closed-door marked “PASTOR” and gave a soft rap. A tenor voice from within beckoned entry. The man opened the door and cocked his head to one side while looking down at the lad as if to say, ‘You enter first since this is your execution’. Nathan gazed at the central power figure in his young life. His brain began shutting down his windpipe while accelerating his blood pressure and releasing his tear ducts. The boy almost fainted.
“Brother Amos,” the reverend said, “to what do I owe the honor of this unexpected pleasure?” His mellow tone could have melted an iceberg. The pastor tilted his head, eyes twinkling and waited. The only sound to be heard was a soft chuffing in Nathan’s throat. His mind raced through a laundry list of apologies he’d used as a boy when his mother had come after him with a switch, but he could think of nothing that seemed appropriate for this solemn occasion. As a child, he’d heard wonderful Bible stories recounting great tribulations that ended with heaven-sent intercessions from the Almighty. And he thought if God wants to perform a great miracle, right about now might be a good time.
“My nephew…,” the uncle said, clearing his throat and peering at the youth. The boy gazed up at an icy stare and realized he’d prefer a horse-whipping to the ordeal unfolding before his eyes.
“Yes?” came with a soft upward inflection.
“My nephew…,” began the uncle again, looking at the youth, then at the pastor, “he needs to speak with you in private.”
The boy’s legs began to wobble as the figment of a hammer replaced the anvil and began pounding on his head. His uncle, realizing the unstable condition of the boy’s wavering body, led him to a chair in front of a large desk displaying the nameplate, THE REVEREND CHRISTOPHER A. JONES. The Reverend Jones strolled around his desk with a pleasant look on his face, his eyes reflecting genuine concern. He placed both of his hands on the boy’s shoulders and said, “My son…” His nostrils twitched, his forehead wrinkled, and his smile faded. The genuine warmth that had radiated from this holy man diminished like the last rays from a striking sunset plunging into dismal darkness. His cotton-white eyebrows dropped, and a new emotion filled the pastor’s face, his flaccid jowls shaking like an angry bulldog. Nathan could feel a boulder swelling in his throat.
Years later, Uncle Amos confessed that the tip-off was the stench of the cheapest perfume known to mankind. Perspiration from this hapless waif tended to enhance the aroma of this noxious gas.
“Thank you, Brother Amos. I’ll handle it from here on.” The boy heard a new voice of authority. The door closed, his uncle vanished, and an ancient rooster clock on the wall ticked away the final minutes before the boy’s demise. So this is what hell is like, he thought. He knew he deserved it, but how’d they know? He hadn’t confessed. Were they wizards? He wondered.
The boy had been caught in a web of desire, then bathed in atonement by the sweat of his brow. Nathan spent the rest of the weekend, except when he slept, in that church. He swept it. He mopped it. He dusted every pew, every window sill, the church piano, the altar, and he would have cleaned every other room in the place, but he ran out of time Sunday night when he had to go back to work. It didn’t matter though. He knew he’d be back in the church the following Saturday for another dose. But the worse punishment was yet to come. And it was this second phase that sealed his fate and changed him forever.
When he and Uncle Amos arrived for services the following Sunday morning, his uncle led the way halfway down the aisle, stopped and moved just inside the pew. Nathan bumped into his uncle and looked up at him in confusion. He tried to move around his uncle, but the way was blocked.
“You’re sitting on the front row today, Nathan,” his uncle said.
Nathan thought a new, unrehearsed crop of tears might change his uncle’s mind, but no, he held firm, his long arm pointing toward the front for all eyes to see. Nathan crouched on down toward the front, bending as low as he could in hopes no one would much notice him.
When the piano began the refrain of the first hymn, every pew was filled except the first one. That was reserved for this boy, the leper, the outcast alone on the front row. The sermon that morning was entitled “The Wages of Sin” and it wasn’t long before the boy knew who the pastor was talking about and why so many folks attempted to hug the back pews. It didn’t matter though. No matter where the pastor looked, when he got to a strong point, his eyes seemed to land right back on Nathan. Never did a soul know a message to last so long or a pew to feel so hard.
When the sermon ended, the choir broke into song. A hapless young boy looked up at the sacred windows of the church and realized this was a new song, music he’d never heard. Within the words, he could see silhouettes of armed sentries lined along the levee watching bent backs and broken hearts below.
His face now wet, he realized something within him was changing, something that would make him into a man, a man he knew would forever be wed to that song.
His stalwart body erect under a boiling sun, he could hear nearby prayers whispered as a clamor erupted within the philistine ranks of enforcement across the Selma bridge. Then he heard a soprano, soft and sweet, joined by a bass, then a host of voices in harmony. Again, they began to move forward into a destiny that would forge a nation and mankind toward new vistas and horizons.
Fred Miller is a California writer who specializes in penning short stories with eclectic themes. His first was selected by Constance Hunting, the New England poet laureate in 2003. More than fifty of his stories have appeared in publications around the world in the past ten years. Many of his stories may be seen on his blog: Pookah1943. Fred lives in Southern California with his wife and two Cocker Spaniels.