The Song Collector
I don’t know where they come from, Burrell Sykes and that woman he call Deka.
What kinda name that anyhow? Deka.
One day we sittin’ under the huge chinaberry tree up behind Maxwell’s place. Pluckin’ our flat tops and havin’ us a iced tea to keep our throats from gettin too parched in that damn Carolina heat. Maxwell and me. Always together since we was kids.
Maxwell says “That doctor? He don’t know shit. What you survived in your life? Hell, ain’t no congested heart gonna take you down.”
I run a hand ’round the bottom of my neck. Yeah, that sure was something for a boy to survive. “Let’s forget ’bout that.” I say.
So we take a sip and set back. Then we see this man and a woman come walkin’ up the dusty road. I recall thinkin’: where they come from? Ain’t nothin’ but swamp down that other end of the road.
They come abreast and stop. And of course these two be none other than Mr. Burrell Sykes and his island witch, Deka, which we was about to find out. And they both just standin’ there, glistenin’under that sun. Staring..
I knew she was obeah the minute I seen her. All that long, twistin’ hair falling around her face and shoulders. But it was those white eyes. Lifeless eyes. Like one of them Alaska dogs. But worse, see. And those eyes sittin’ in there amongst the blackest skin.
And she just looked at me, hungry-like, with her big purple tongue lollin’ out and glidin’ over her cracked lips every few seconds. Like she wondering what I taste like.
Burrell, he stood there in this dark suit with a thin black tie. Lookin’ like some half-ass undertaker.
Well, Maxwell breaks the ice and invites them two to sit a spell, on account it’s hot enough to be meltin’ the tar on the side of the road.
“What are the two of you doin’ walkin’ around in all this heat? Come on now and pull up a crate. Have some tea.”
After some introductions, Burrell Sykes, he says to me, “Mind if I strum a while on your guitar?”
I was so uncomfortable with that witch lookin’ at me, that at first I didn’t understand it was me he was talkin’ to.
Maxwell elbows me in the side and nods his head toward our visitors and I snap out of it and hand the man my guitar.
Well, I tell you, that man sent his fingers crawlin’ all up and down that fret board. Not the fastest I’d ever seen, but somehow, the feelingest, if that’s a word.
Listenin’ to Burrell Sykes, I got to thinkin’ that he’d forgot more ‘bout playing than I’ll ever know. His fingers reached right across eight or nine frets. It was unnatural.
But the music he played liked to break my heart right down the middle. This wasn’t no Piedmont blues, as they call it now. Burrell Sykes, he played a kinda music inside the music. I had the feelin’, no, I knew, what he was playin’ was old, old, music.
You didn’t hear it with just your ears.
Out the corner of my eye, Deka she twirlin’ and moanin’ to this music. Leapin’ around under that chinaberry like some demon on fire. She go over and pull Maxwell up off his chair and get him to dancin’.
Didn’t last long, though. She pass her hands over Max’s face and down he go, in a trance.
Burrell Sykes he continue playin’ and I know I should go over and see to Maxwell. But this music is inside me, burnin’ in my blood.
Now, here come Miss Deka for me.
She stand over me, all swayin’ and sexy. Swirlin’ them hips. Arms snakin’ round.
Then she open them white eyes and look right down deep into my soul.
I can tell she lookin’ for things. She lookin’ for songs she don’t know yet.
I can’t tell you how I know this but she inside me now. And she can’t keep no secrets from me.
Here’s somethin’ that come clear: she’s a song collector. And she been huntin’ the songs of man for a long time. Since those cave people was bangin’ gourds on rocks, I expect. Then all the first folks in Africa, living out their lives and makin’ beautiful music. I hear it all.
And I hear slave song. And babies taken from mothers. Beatings. Burnings. Lynchings. All of it.
How can this be happenin’?
Then I feel Deka’s long bony fingers pushin’ into my skull and down they go, searching my guts. They find a memory, buried deep. An old injustice. Those fingers come right back to that childhood rope burn ‘round my neck. Seventy years ago.
And she pulls that memory out of me and makes me look at it again. Walks over to Burrell Sykes, whispers something in his face, and before I know it, he singing my song.
And under that chinaberry tree, Deka, that travelin’ song collector, stand me up next to Burrell Sykes and we just sing it out.
We sing it right out loud.
This is excerpted from a novella I’m writing. I think it stands on its own as a flash piece, but a case could be made that there’s no reason to name Burrell Sykes and Deka for the purposes of this short piece. Their names have meaning in the longer story. Just a mea culpa…BB