Home......Poetry......Short Stories......Art......Reviews......Articles......Contributors

 

Albert Remembered Singing Apocalypse
Raina J. León

 

.....It was his hands that told his story. Thick and calloused from hard labor in cotton fields before the calling of the Lord. He had earned those hands picking white tufts from their prickly stalks during Virginian summers, far from the cool succor of the mountains. His sweat would salt the earth while he labored beside men, women, and children. Even their shirts strained as they reached and then withdrew to drop that precious stock into bags.
.....These were colored people working as they had for generations, and he was just an interloper from the North. Their backs were unscarred by whip marks, but the pay, it seemed was nearly the same. Fourteen cents a pound on some fields. More or less on others. The sweat expended didn’t count towards the pay. Some owners would give a shack, too, with a meager store nearby. Everything could be bought on credit, but most knew that sort of devilry always swung in the owner’s direction. Slavery was dead and gone, spoke the crop overseers, but the pickers knew different. They knew that come sundown the shacks were the only place to go, the roads always patrolled by some good, old boy with his dog and shotgun. So, at nights, the men would light their fires, bring out their home-brewed hard liquor, and drink until the women seemed soft and the eyes of the children closed.
.....Albert Johnston had just come down for the summer from Pennsylvania with a crisis of faith on his back. A minister’s son, he had been pushed into testifying and sermonizing, learning the ways of the Lord, but at his first sermon, he froze.
.....“The devil tied your tongue. You see if you can get him off,” his father said, so Albert joined up with the first picking crew coming down to Virginia. He figured he might burn the Devil out, and by hard work, come to find a little piece of heaven.
.....“So, Bird, you telling me you ain’t never drank this here moonshine? Bring out the howl in you, sure enough,” said Billy. He’d come over from Richmond with his twin brother, Ray, to make a little money to get married, though he was way too popular with all the loose women in the camp and all the innocent ones, too, for anyone to take him seriously on that note.
.....Seems his mother had one name picked out for a boy and then got two, so she split the name up.
.....“Ye-ye-yes, sir. Thi-this here would ma-make the de-de-de-devil dance,” said Ray. He was slightly shorter than Billy, but height and speech impediment were the significant only ways the two differed. They had no need for a mirror; just looking into each other’s face was enough. They each wore worn overalls with clasps they shined with their blue work shirts. They bore kerchiefs hanging from their pockets. Even during work, the constant movement to pluck the white buds, they never lost those kerchiefs, each stitched with the other’s initials. They would never say why; their mama had given them that way, and that was enough for them.
.....“My brother is right. This here will help you get rid of your starch, too. That pretty Miss Ella been taking a shine to you, but no girl likes a man who can’t get loose, and a city girl at that. I hear she hail from Pittsburgh. That says she needs a man with some fire, show her a good time,” Billy said, drinking from a flask.
.....“So why, brother, has she not taken a shine to you?” Albert said, reading his Bible as he sat on the opposite sitting log, the brothers nearly tipping theirs.
.....“He go-got jokes, Billy,” said Ray, chugging from his own store.
.....“Bird, that’s a fine cigar-woman. You got to take time with her, take things slow. Puff that tobacco but not inhale. That type of woman will seize you over. I got no patience for that kind. I like my cigarettes slim and quick. One or two puffs, and I’m on to the next roll,” he said, slyly.
.....“Connoisseur of women?” Albert looked up from his chapter and verse quizzically.
.....Billy slapped his thigh just as Ray did sitting next to him, Billy with his right hand and Ray with his left. “If that means I knows them, then yes, sir, I do.”
.....“Billy, have you read the Bible? Read from the Song of Solomon in particular?”
.....“I been to hear a preacher or two, but I don’t recall no Song.”
.....Albert heard a fluttering in the woods.
.....“The Song of Solomon was written by King Solomon many years ago. It is also called the Song of Songs, the best written by Solomon. He wrote of a man and a woman, their courtship, marriage, and the consummation of that marriage. Now, only a true connoisseur would know that.” Albert winked at Billy, showing that just because he held a Bible that didn’t mean he hadn’t sampled in less than religious activities.
.....“Cons-cons-consu-what?”
.....“Consummation, Ray. He means the night-time loving, right, Bird?”
.....“Right. Well, it was really a metaphor for the love between God and Israel, his chosen people,” Albert continued.
.....“Bird, I don’t want to hear about God. It’s nowhere near Sunday, and I got no money to give. Tell me about the consternation.” Ray nodded in agreement, his mouth moving, as if he was saying the same words.
.....“Consummation.”
.....“Right. You telling me there’s a night-loving part of the Bible that I ain’t heard about. I knew those preachers were shifty. I would’ve been in church every day! Preach on, Birdman. Preach on!”
.....A singular screech in the woods invaded the camp. All stopped and lifted their heads a moment. When no other sound came, they continued their night rituals. It was late, and those who weren’t in bed were soon to be there.
.....“I said, preach on, Bird!”
.....Albert’s hands were sure as he turned the pages. He knew where to flip, the exact lines to read to his sheep.
.....“Well, you said you were a connoisseur of women. Song of Songs, Chapter 7, verses 1 to 9:
.....“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like .....jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
.....Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat .....set about with lilies.
.....Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
.....Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of ..........Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
.....Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held .....in the galleries.
.....How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
.....This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
.....I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy ..........breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;
.....And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, ..........causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

“If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is,” said Albert.
.....Billy wiped his lips. “Yes, sir. You say that’s in the Bible? Some of it I sure didn’t understand, but that breasts and mouth part I understood even if the words were new.”
.....Ray began to hobble to the shack he shared with Billy and Albert. “Whe-whe-where’s the good book Mama gave you? I mi-might have to r-r-read it to-t-tonight.” Billy followed, both giggling as they stumbled.
.....Albert sat by the fire and shook his head. Above him, the stars seemed to sing their own songs, vibrating a hum that he strained to hear. One star seemed to move and then another. A shower of stars. He believed in the signs of God, believed that perhaps even those who would defile the word might be led to its purity. His heartbeat quickened, while the fire crackled less and less. He finally realized the need for more wood.
.....Another screech, quickly followed by another.
.....“I know the rest, Albert. I know the rest,” said a voice from the darkness. She approached. Ella Mae walked sheepishly towards the fire, gathering a few spare logs to set down. She smelled like river flowers. It was obvious she’d spruced up a bit. She approached the fire in a white shirt and dark green skirt, not the men’s overalls she had worn earlier in the fields. Then, she was grubby, the rim around her wide-brimmed hat speckled with heat bumps he could see when she stood up and wiped away her face’s oil and sweat with the back of a kerchief. She would bend down again to become another broken body among stalks of taunting cotton. That morning she had only been a worker, but in that moment, he could see why Billy and Ray had said he should turn his eye in her direction.
.....“Miss Ella,” he nodded and moved to the end of the sitting log so that she would have space.
.....She knelt down in front of the fire, placed the logs on the flame so that they formed a temple of wood, and then she blew. The heat took and emanated out from the flames, cutting like sharpened knives through the body. Though the night was way too hot for a fire, the light was a comfort. The darkness could envelope swiftly and take the senses away. The people feared what might lurk there, waiting.
.....“I was listening and heard you reading. My daddy was a preacher. He read my momma the Song of Songs every anniversary until he died. My momma even wrote it out all nice and put it in his hand at the funeral.
.....“I am my beloved's, and his desire is toward me.
.....Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.
.....Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender ..........grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
.....The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and .....old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.”

.....The screeching in the night began again. One voice and then another. A cacophony commenced, building with the addition of each sound.
.....“What is it, Albert? I never heard such a thing,” said Ella Mae. Frightened, she looked all around. The camp had emptied. All the others there were home grown pickers. They must have known there was nothing to fear or feared the sound so much that they scattered. Neither Ella Mae or Albert knew which one was true.
.....The other fires were already nothing but smoke and ember. What seemed like a huge dragonfly landed on her shoulder. It seemed to wrestle the wind with its large wings, screeching as it clung to her. She screamed and flailed her hands unsure of what to do. She kicked at the fire, scattering the logs. Albert quickly jumped up and came around her, his mouth at her ear.
.....“Nothing but a bug. No need to set us all on fire.”
.....She calmed. Her hands held onto of his forearms that still encircled her.
.....“Can I tend the fire now?” The logs she had just placed had dislodged enough so as not to burn.
.....She nodded yes, but her hands remained where they were.
.....“Bird, you could be a reverend. Every preacher needs a wife,” she said, surprised at her own straightforwardness, and kissed him quick.
.....He returned the kiss, but it was deeper. Her lips tasted of salted honey. He hungered, and within his belly, a fire ignited. He sat beside her eagerly, his arms still around, lifting her head with his. Overhead the meteor shower had begun in earnest, but they did not register the light. His fingers caressed and then pressed at her back, which arched and gave to him. Her breasts peaked against his chest. Each layer of clothing burned to be released. The Song of Songs ran through his mind as it must have through hers, but both tongues were too busy to sing. The mouths met and knew the meaning. God and Israel disappeared, and all that existed was a man and a woman. Rivaling the cosmic wonders, the earth’s insects buzzed and screeched in flight.
.....The world is ending, he thought coming up for air, but she placed his hand on her chest, the other on a button.
.....“You could be the devil,” he whispered, rising to temptation. He ripped the button, eager to reveal the vineyard, to press from it its juice and suck it down.
.....The locusts blindly flew and fell all around while they weighted themselves down into the earth. Her musty smell joined his musk. Her pants he stifled with his hand, and when he exploded, frozen a moment within her, from beneath him it seemed to Ella Mae the whole sky was set ablaze.
.....They spent the rest of the harvest season swatting away locusts and began to regard the unnatural screams as the music for their love. When the season was over, Albert and Ella Mae married. A cicada had lodged within her belly, and no singing would get it out. They went back to Uniontown, where Albert was from. He became Reverend Johnston, and she became Mrs. Reverend Johnston. As the years passed, even they forgot that they had other names. She stayed cool in the mountains, and he traveled each summer to the cotton fields to preach, never mentioning Solomon’s Song. His sermons told of the devil and his tricks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The content on ospreyjournal.co.uk is copyright 2007 by osprey journal and individual contributors, and may not be reprinted or retransmitted in whole or in part without express written consent.