Papa Jah’s Banjo
by Audrey Williams
The rain fell in buckets, as if the sky had burst open and all the water was pouring out, fast and hard, pounding, angry, though sometimes it fell more slowly, with a tapping sound, as if some enormous being were watering the ground, the shacks, and the people; but always it was continuous, never letting up. The green fields of the countryside stretched for miles, and the African violets, lilacs, daisies, buttercups, bluebells, irises, periwinkles, and soapworts drank greedily, their petals and leaves and grassy mounds dewy and plump, roots stretched deep into the earth, grounding them in the rich black soil.
It had been pouring for three days and Li’l Moses was tired of becoming one with the rain, playing in it, getting soaked to the bone; then going indoors to dry off with a rag that was kept wedged in the wall in a vain attempt to keep the rain water out. The same rag was sometimes stuffed in the floor cracks to keep the water bugs and other creepy crawly things that came up from the earth from gaining entry into the shack and scurrying across you at night when you slept. They were the same creatures that attached themselves to you when you ran, slipping and sliding, through the rain-drenched fields. Somehow they never attached themselves to Li’l Moses.
The rain fell without letup, yet the thick, hot stickiness of Tupelo, Mississippi never broke. Still, most of the people welcomed the downpour, as long as it didn’t go on for many more days, for they knew it meant healthy crops, which also meant the plantation owners would be more relaxed and easy-going.
Li’l Moses jumped and splashed in the rain puddles. He was dripping from his woolen hair right down to his dark mud-brown feet, and he headed back into the shack to dry off with the rag once more. He’d always liked the lived-in warm feeling he got there, and the dewy smell that filled his nose from the rain added to it. But mostly the feeling was because of Papa Jah’s presence. He was Li’l Moses’s great-granddaddy.
Stopping short, Li’l Moses saw Papa Jah changing his shirt. His real name was Elijah, but everyone called him Papa Jah. This was the second time the young boy had seen the old man shirtless, and he forced himself to stand still and not shirk away like he’d done before.
There were marks all over Papa Jah’s back, like the furrows in the fields before the rain. He’d seen the field workers many a day working the cotton fields, plowing, hoeing, digging, planting, or harvesting without shirts. Some of them had marks too. He rarely saw Papa Jah’s back because he didn’t work the fields, probably because he was too old.
“Touch ’em,” Papa Jah had said that first time when Li’l Moses had seen his exposed back.
Li’l Moses didn’t want to. He thought the dark, unevenly marked back looked scary. The ruts and ridges that covered it almost looked like they were alive, in a weird sort of way. He couldn’t exactly explain it, but he knew that there was something different about Papa Jah and the welts on his back.
Papa Jah had turned and looked at Li’l Moses again. The boy moved closer to the old man and raised his hand, running his flattened palm across the deep grooves. He felt strange and almost immediately, without warning or announcement, at the same time he saw a shadowy figure slumped forward and tied to a whipping post.
At once he could tell that it was a younger Papa Jah. The angry red-faced overseer had a wicked look in his eyes. The moist whip he held dripped red. Before Li’l Moses could understand what was happening he felt the whip slice, ripping open his own back. The sudden, piercing pain sizzled through the boy’s small body. He screamed in agony, falling to his knees and letting go of Papa Jah’s back. Immediately he was back in the tiny shack, shaken over what he’d just experienced.
“You’s okay,” Papa Jah had simply said before he stepped out through the opened door and into the rain.
Li’l Moses had stood motionless, still feeling the pain and not quite sure what had just happened. Cautiously he touched his face and felt the tears running down his cheeks. Papa Jah never mentioned that first time and Lil’l Moses often wondered if it actually had happened the way he remembered.
Papa Jah turned now and saw Li’l Moses staring. The boy lowered his eyes and looked at Papa Jah’s spittoon, and then at the makeshift breakfast table across the room, fastened to the wall, with the bright yellow and white cloths draped over it. On top of the table was the white pitcher that always held Papa’s Jah’s spirit water, and next to that stood his banjo. Li’l Moses’s eyes rested on it.
“Papa Jah, why you always playin’ that banjo?” He didn’t ask about Papa Jah’s back.
“Banjo playin’ soothes many a soul,” Papa Jah answered.
“Dis here banjo saved your great-gran-pappy’s life,” Papa Jah continued. “Way back when I was a young un’, Mastuh lent me out to another mastuh but he wasn’ so nice. He would beat your great-grand-pappy. For many years, dat mastuh beat me. Dat was a lon’ time ago. I kept on thinkin’ I’s not gone make it wit’ Mastuh beatin’ me. I kept on sayin’ dis.
“One day when the sky opened up, and the rain come down, a day jus’ like today, your great-gran saw dis here banjo. No one knows where it comes fum. I’s jus’ picked it up and played it. It’s like the music come fum the sky, and Mastuh liked it. ‘Boy, who taught you to play that banjo?’ he says.
“’Done been hearin’ it all my life, jus’ know how,’ I tells him. No sense tellin’ what he cain’t never unnerstan’, how it come fum the sky. Aft’r that day, Mastuh never beat me no mo’.”
“Why your back look like that?” Li’l Moses finally asked.
Papa Jah didn’t answer. He just turned his back to Li’l Moses. The scars looked blacker.
“Touch it,” Papa Jah said.
Li’l Moses recalled the pain that had suddenly gripped him the first time he touched Papa Jah’s back and he hesitated, wondering if what he’d experienced before would hurt him now. Gathering strength, Li’l Moses once again ran his flattened palm across the back and then fingered the grooves of the scars, feeling the uneven texture in the skin.
Under his fingers, the scars seemed to change and then became a stream of running water. The water ran down Jah’s back much like the unrelenting water that was falling outside. Li’l Moses snatched his hand away in surprise. The feeling fascinated him and he again placed his hand back on Papa Jah’s back. The running water poured from his back onto Li’l Moses, running fast and encircling him like a waterfall.
He closed his eyes and immediately saw Papa Jah as a young man sitting on an old wooden crate and plucking the banjo strings. The room where he sat was wide and big with high ceilings and grand furniture everywhere. No longer was he in the tiny shack with the wooden floorboards.
The sitting area had a high back couch with embroidered stitching, dark red woolen fabric with touches of gold leaves framing it. The couch was nestled in the angled bay window with long, heavy-textured golden curtains. There were several entrances to the room and each had an archway with intricate patterns etched into the wood.
Next to one of the entrances was a small table with the most delicate lace pattern Li’l Moses had ever seen. The dark wood in the room looked even darker against the curtains. He glanced quickly around the room and was startled to see himself in the gold-leaf glass mirror. He was dirty and wet and felt out of place in the beautiful room.
Then he saw the white masters gathered by the huge redwood upright piano and he gasped. But they were paying him no attention at all and nodding their approval of the banjo player. Papa Jah looked up at Li’l Moses, and never missing a beat with the banjo, he winked at him.
Immediately opening his eyes, Li’l Moses was back in the shack touching Papa Jah’s back. He didn’t understand but accepted everything readily.
“They’s magic,” Li’l Moses said removing his hand and then standing motionless with eyes bucked and mouth opened.
“Dey’s my real banjo strings,” Papa Jah said, pulling his shirt back on.
“How they do that?” Li’l Moses asked.
“You feels it, way deep, in your bones.”
Papa Jah looked at Li’l Moses. Then he grabbed the sturdy, hard-backed wooden chair, sat on it and picked up his banjo. “I ’spect you feelin’ it too,” Papa Jah said. He nodded once. Then he said, “Climb on your pappy’s knee. It’s time you knows your songs.”
For a moment the boy held back, uncertain about what to do. He could still feel the welts on his fingertips and he remembered the terrible pain that had flooded him. Then he thought about his songs. Would they be too much for him?
But then he felt something else. He could feel it stirring inside him, something deep and personal, his alone, like a roaring, pulsating river of sound and feeling, pain, love, everything it was possible to feel and know, a torrent that he carried within him and that carried him.
Papa Jah smiled at him. “Now you startin’ to unnerstan. It’s the music that’s you.”
Copyright © 2012 by Audrey Williams