ELIHU closed the door quickly, so shutting out pursuing phantoms of darkness and rain. His face relaxed. He raised the lantern and looked about the room as though either what he saw here were unreal or the reality which had surrounded him outdoors were a contrasting illusion. In here it was warm and dry and quiet and safe. A patch of live coals still glowed among the ashes in the fireplace. On the smaller of two beds his children, Adam and Woolly-May and Hector, lay breathing the soft breath of sleep.
He dropped his shovel against the wall, placed the lantern on a table, and took off his dripping hat and jacket. He put dry wood on the coals. Eddies of smoke began to spiral into the chimney. When a flame appeared at the base of the eddies, he drew up a chair, and extended his bare black feet. Mud squeezed pastily between his toes as they stretched and nodded into the increasing warmth.
He dipped absently into a pan of home-grown peanuts which stood on one side of the hearth. The nuts were not thoroughly roasted, but he munched them without being fully conscious of their flavor. He was listening to the rain on the roof and the quiet breathing of his children and the dark whisper of his fears. Sometimes he would pause in his chewing, the better to listen. And his eyes would enlarge with visions of something confused yet vivid.
After one such pause he shook his head. He threw the remaining peanut hulls away impatiently and took an old guitar down from its place on the mantel. He began to practise several difficult chords, the long fingers of his left hand racing up and down the frets, his right fingers capering over the strings as they picked through one series, then another.
Presently he abandoned formless practice. His hands began to mould a melody in a minor key. It was his own creation — speaking music, born in some lost evening of quiet. For it, like all the music that was strictly his own, he had no name or words. When he wanted to sing he turned to the music of other men — to the songs he had learned when working for Mr. Pinkney, from whose fields the spontaneous chorus of working Negroes sometimes rose like the fragrance of ripe pawpaws.
He had learned those songs in the years before he and Lucy went away from the Pinkney Place and took up this little cabin in the bottoms. Others he had learned at the shanty church, in camp meetings, and at those summernight herdings of his kind where the blending of voices wrapped all comers in a vital unity.
Now he merely hummed as he played. His music was a leaping of spirit to active expression. But in that action his body too must share. His body took up the rhythm of his notes and his humming. Every muscle subtly wove and throbbed in harmony with each shading of accent. His feet, close together, beat the time upon the floor, the bare soles slapping sharply, then softly. He played the same thing repeatedly, always with some variation.
Adam awoke and stared at his father and at the lantern and at the fire. Adam was the oldest child. He was five. As he watched and listened his eyes became bright. His muscles began to throb to the hypnotic voice of Elihu’s guitar. He hummed with his father softly, blending his child voice into pure accord with that man voice across the room. Becoming more bold, he sat up and sang in his childish alto, ‘Lawdy-Lawd, Lawdy-Lawd, oooouh Lawd . . .’ Those were the only words he used. He sang them over and over, varying them to suit the rhythm. He had learned them from a spiritual the big folks sang, and later adapted them, in his simple way, to this music which his father played so often since the rains became severe.
When Adam stumbled at one of the new variations, Elihu stopped and looked around. He was about to speak, but the sudden fall of silence and the oddity of his child’s expression restrained him. They stared at each other across the flickering dimness of the room — he and kinky-headed Adam. Each seemed to be seeking from the other’s eyes the clue to a mystery which had been no mystery until startled away by the hushing of Elihu’s music.
In the silence Elihu again became aware of rain on the roof. Rain, rain, rain ... a million little devils spitting on the roof and never going dry. Endless streams of water descended in four straight rows around the cabin and spattered on more water down below.
Water now lay on the fields more than ankle-deep. The ground had already been soaked by heavy winter rains when this one began three days ago. But the others had not been like this. And so Elihu listened. He shook his head.
He turned again to Adam.
‘You go to sleep, honey chile. Doan’ be messin up Papa’s music.’
He struck chords in the same key again. But the spirit of the thing was gone. It would not come back at once. For, clearly now, there was the rain speaking outside; speaking, too, through an insistent whispering within him. This music was not suited to the rain. With all his variations there was still a recurring clamor from the tiny inner voices.
He leaned the guitar against one leg of the table. Absently, for diversion, he picked up a worn mail-order catalogue. Mr. Pinkney had let him have it. Elihu could not read, but he liked to look at the pictures. So did Lucy and the children. Whenever he was sure Lucy would not see him, he turned to the section on women’s clothing. Lucy would not be back for a while. She had gone to see what Molly and Sam Jackson had heard about the river levees up the bottom lands. So now he turned to the forbidden section.
There was a model in women’s underwear which reminded him of that brown gal down near the cotton gin. Only the brown gal was a living thing. She was more hotly alive than a young jinny mule.
Last fall he had sold two and a half bales of cotton at the gin. Intoxicated by his temporary wealth and several drafts from a quart of corn, he had visited the brown gal. He played for her on his guitar. His music caught her as it did himself. She hummed with him first. Then she began to dance. And he saw his chords turn hot with life in her quivering, pulsing nudity. . . .
He put the catalogue back and picked up his guitar. The music he had played in that room near the cotton gin had come to him six years ago when he married Lucy. She had been like the brown gal then. But she had changed so much since, it was hard to remember her that way. Three children were here and another was coming by and by. Now the floor squeaked when she walked across it. So, while he played, it was the brown gal who stepped out of memory to dance for him in the firelight. His feet slapped the tune while his hands moulded harmony into the beat of dancing nakedness. He became so absorbed that he did not hear Lucy approach the cabin. He did not hear her until the door opened.
Lucy came across the room leaving muddy figures of bare feet on the floor behind her. She extended her hands toward the fire. Her clothing was soaked and her hunching shoulders trembled within it. She looked at Elihu suspiciously. She knew those measures well — knew too their implications.
‘Man,’ she said, ‘how come you playin’ thataway now?’
Elihu said nothing. He studied his toes.
‘How come you din’t fetch that lantuhn an’ ca’y me home?’
‘What fuh I should come fuh you? Ise tiuhd.’
‘Tiuhd! You got no call to be tiuhd. You ain’t done scassly nothin’ scusin’ only to pick on that bawx uh yo’s and mope along ’twixt heah and that rivuh. I neah by it got los’ out theah. Cain’t hahdly see wheah youse going with all that watuh evuhwhuhs.’
She stripped off the ragged sweater she was wearing and put on an old coat. The coat and sweater were two of the Pinkney cast-offs. She brought up a stool and sat down.
Elihu said, ‘What Sam and Molly say?’
‘Sez that levee holdin’ out cleuh on up the bottoms. But hit’s washin’ mighty bad.’
‘Hit’s washin’ some out yonnuh too. That rivuh jus’ keep a-sneakin’ highuh.’
Lucy leaned toward her husband with eyes wide. She said, ‘Reckon hit’ll bus’, ’Lihu?’ She said it in a low voice, as though speaking clearly would make the thing happen.
And his thinking, too, startled away from the question. ‘Naw,’ he answered quickly, ‘hit’s too stout.’
The stillness came again, and with it the spitting of devils.
Presently Lucy added, ‘Sam done built a raf’ to-day. Sez they got to have hit to move to high lan’ on ef that levee bus’. Sez hit’s mos’ twenty miles to high lan’ an’ ef hit staht to bus’ an’ we ain’t got no raf’ we cain’t do nothin’ scusin’ only to climb up on the roof an’ pray the Lawd He send us he’p fo’ we git kilt. Sez we git wash away sho’ ’nough ef we moves off in ouah ol’ wagon aftuh that rivuh staht to growlin’ through the levee.’
Elihu considered her words. His eyes told of their many visions.
‘Reckon so,’ he said. ‘A mule cain’t tote no wagon through them roads the way they is. I build us a raf’ in the mo’nin’.’
‘But sposin’ hit bus’ fo’ mo’nin’? Then mo’nin’ be too late! How come you ain’t tho’t bout no raf’ to-day like Sam ? ’
Elihu frowned into the fire. ‘Reckon I was studyin ’bout somethin’ else.’
‘Sho’ — studyin’ ’bout some rapscallion foolishuns! You ain’t got a lick uh sense agin you staht moonin’ ovuh that bawx. Nevuh got yo’ min’ on what yo’ doin’ — hit’s always a-ramblin’ off with that chahm of Satan.’
‘Go ’long, woman. Sam din’t think on no raf’ by hisself. Reckon that white-man county agent been roun’ an’ tol’ him, an’ them he could git to on these-heah roads.’ With forced conviction he added, ‘Won’t do no good to build one noway. That levee ain’t agoin’ to bus’.’
‘Co’se hit ain’t! The good Lawd ain’t aimin’ to let hit bus’ an’ ca’y off evuhthin’ we’s got in this wul’.’ She paused. The multimillion devils signaled their presence unceasingly. ‘But if hit do bus’ we got to have us a raf’. Onless hit be too late.’
Elihu watched the play of light. And he listened to that which contrasted with its soothing glow. In the silence that message from the rain began to whisper more loudly within him. The rain — day after day more rain! And the muddy, sliding water rising higher and higher beyond the levee. Deep water, dark water, higher and higher. . . .
Tiny fragments of music, shapeless and sad, spoke back within him to that whispered inner message about the rain and the river. Here, in these fragments, was the first quiver of new music — music all his own.
He took up his guitar and picked out one bit, then another. They came slowly and were repeated time and time again. They made him forget the rain, so hard he worked with them. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. Black fingers bobbed gropingly up and down the frets; black fingers skipped back and forth across the strings.
Although Lucy fidgeted with disapproval of this return to her enemy, she was really fascinated with certain bars. In those bars lived hints of what was meaningful to them in the sound of little devils spitting on the roof—and of deep water sliding darkly. But Elihu failed to complete the thing. The parts he sweated over would not blend together. His inspiration was on a snag which would not free him for all his struggle. He could not weave out of feeling that which he did not yet feel completely.
Lucy’s interest waned. She scooped up a fistful of peanuts. The crackling of shells startled Elihu harshly.
‘Hush that noise, woman!’ he said.
‘Whut fuh I got to hush?’
She cracked another shell and tossed the meats into her mouth.
‘Hush, I sade!’
Elihu’s eyes glittered. He was only like this when his witch music had him, and had him fast. On such occasions Lucy usually obeyed him, showing her resentment only in quiet little ways. Not always — but usually. She released the peanuts into her lap. She sat there limply with the pink brown of her palms turned upward.
Elihu struck the guitar again. He tried fitfully to bring the music back. But its voice had now receded. And between its vivid flight and his fingers stood the barbed fence of his irritation.
He put the guitar aside impatiently and scowled at the fire.
The sound of the rain filled the room once more. Its soft rush was constant and vocal. Gradually it drove him away from his anger, and Lucy from her passive resentment. When her husband’s face had become large-eyed with imagination, she eased one hand into her pocket, pulled out a twist of tobacco leaves, and passed it to him. He took it absently, bit into it, and passed it back. Lucy tore off a portion for herself. Occasionally they spat into the fire. They watched the juice strike the logs and slowly sizzle as it dried away. In this munching, spitting communion she felt more at ease.
But for Elihu it brought a closer encroachmcnt of the rain upon the quiet security of their home. He chewed sometimes and sometimes he merely listened. At last he arose. His hat and jacket were still wet, but he put them on. He took the lantern and shovel and went out.
The water on his fields seemed no deeper now. It covered his ankles, but it had come just about that high before. Somehow he had expected to find it nearly knee-deep and yet it was not. Nor was the rain as heavy. An elfin surge of gayety gave zest to his stride. As he walked the half mile to the levee, he sang snatches of a light cotton-field strain, his barytone rolling over the water and reverberating richly on the wetness of the air.
His feet sank greasily into the bank of the levee as he climbed it. Not only was it wet from the outside; it seemed also to ooze from within. But this levee was thick and high. So the tail end of his jubilation remained until he reached the top and his lantern showed him the river.
Dark river, muddy river, sliding like oil. . . .
The water had risen a good ten inches in the last hour. And it was eating away the soggy body of this protecting wall. Elihu walked along the levee’s broad crest, testing it with his shovel. The earth was soft on top, but seemed fairly solid underneath. He tested it clear up to Sam Jackson’s line and back. While slushing along up there in the rain-spangled sphere of lantern light, full awareness of certain things seeped anew into the well of his inner voices.
Down on one side lay his fields covered with shallow water. On the other side was high water, black and wide and silent. On all of it more water from the sky hopped and splashed and frisked. But for the levee, the water on the river side would sweep over the bottoms. It would come up above the pilings on which the cabin stood, come as high as the windows, maybe the top of the windows. And eventually the cabin might give way before the flood, might tumble from its stilts and disintegrate into a mass of floating driftwood.
Elihu descended to his fields, intending to go home by a different route. He had walked only a few yards when he came upon a spot where the surface of shallow water was not level. It was surging upward from the earth, boiling swiftly before it spread out over the flatness surrounding it. Elihu watched it in wonder. With the toes of his right foot he tested the ground. Where the water welled upward there was no ground.
He looped the handle of the lantern over one arm and began to shovel mud at the surging spring. But the water threw the mud away and came on as before. He shoveled faster. He worked feverishly. He shoveled till his muscles ached. And still it rose and raced outward. It seemed to gush more and more swiftly instead of less so. He stopped and watched it, panting.
Water — muddy water — river water spreading across his farm.
Again he tested the hole, this time with his hand. It was growing slowly — he could feel the earth crumbling away in tiny grains — growing toward the levee. He felt weak and lit tle as he watched it. And the dike now seemed feeble too — a thing of dirt that water could melt away.
Jeee-zus!‘ he whispered.
He turned toward the cabin, his bare feet splashing listlessly, numbly, his body slack and heavy. As he drew nearer the house he became aware of its windows glowing through the high slant of the rain. Off there behind him the river, before him the windows — the windows and the river, far apart, yet near each other. And creeping nearer. . . .
With the roads the way they were, Old John, the mule, could not haul them the twenty miles to safety in as many hours — even if the wagon did not mire down entirely. They would be trapped in the flood if they tried to move, trapped and swept away and buried under silt from the North. No one would ever know where.
He entered the house with weariness dragging at his heels. Already Lucy was in bed. She turned lumpily beneath the covers and studied his expression.
‘What you see, ’Lihu?’ she said.
‘Watuh sudsin’ up outen the groun’.’
Lucy failed to comprehend the full meaning of this. She merely looked puzzled for a moment, then sighed and turned back into the pillow. And Elihu made no effort to explain.
He looked vaguely about at the intimate things which filled the room. This was the epitome of all he had produced in six years of married life. He felt the back of a chair near him. He had made it of green brush from the swamps — brush that would bend easily. And the beds, he made those too. For the springs he had used young saplings split down the middle and nailed width-wise. Soon all this might be gone. With them the mule would go, and Ludillut, the brood sow, and all the guineas and dominicker hens. The stored fruit of six years of labor gone. Six years of work to be done over. Long months of hunger and weather and lostness. He stared at the quiet heads of his children, then looked away into the shadows.
‘You bettuh come to bed, ’Lihu,’ said Lucy. ‘Hit’s gittin’ late.’
‘I cain’t be doin’ no sleepin’. I got to keep a shahp eye on that watuh.’
Lucy sighed, ‘Reckon so.’ Elihu sat down near the fire and waited. He listened for water rushing through broken levees. He heard only the multiple tapping of rain and the sleep-breath of his children and, before long, the snoring of Lucy. As he listened, as moments slipped smoothly backward into the blurred magnitude of the past, those new fragments of music, of minor music, began to hum far down within him. One after another they came back. Suddenly he felt sure of one of the links between them. The measures were beating in the fresh wakefulness of his blood. The way they should end was still unknown to him, but that would come.
He turned for his guitar. It was not where he had left it. Nor was it on the mantel. He strode across the room to the bed where Lucy lay. She had hidden it again. She was always hiding it when she wanted him to do something else. Sometimes in ploughing season or planting season or when the crops were ripe she would hide it during the day and let him have it only after darkness made work in the fields impossible. She took pains that he should never know where she hid it. On certain occasions, if the sense of it was clear, this checking of his purposes could be borne with fair humor. Not now. He shook her furiously.
She awoke with a start. Her eyes were half blind with the dilation of sleep and leaping terror.
‘Hit done bus’?’
‘No! Wheuh’s mah bawx?’
Lucy lay down in disgust.
‘Yo’ bawx! What fuh you want that bawx? Me an’ them chillun got to sleep whilst we kin.’
‘Gimme that bawx, woman!’
‘I ain’t agohna do hit! You ain’t wuth nothin’ as longizun you kin git yo han’s on’t. You’d let that rivuh sneak right up an’ drown us ef you was playin’.’
‘Gimme that bawx, I sade!’
“I ain’t, you triflin’ rapscallion! Hit done ’nough bad. Git away fum me! ’
The children were awakened by the shouting.
Hector began to cry in alarm, and Woolly-May joined him, and so did Adam. Elihu was infuriated by all the noise.
‘Hush!’ he yelled. He glared at them.
The children swallowed their cries. A startling silence followed. Through it the sound of devils could be heard again. Many times during the winter, and for the last three days on end, they had been tapping on the house — wanting in — millions of them. And now it was nearly midnight. Another day was coming by and by. Still they were tapping.
All at once Elihu felt extremely tired.
‘You chillun go to sleep,’ he said, and went back to his chair.
Lucy and the children were restless for a while. But one by one they drifted away to the nowhere-lands of slumber. Quite suddenly and inadvertently Elihu followed them as he sat there before the fire.
He awoke slowly, for a moment not quite able to separate a sense of unusual fact from fading recollections of unusual dreams. It was morning — neither dark nor light. Water lay about the soles of his feet. Water was bubbling in at the base of the door. It gurgled around the timbers under the house. It sputtered in a thin layer beneath the fire.
He sprang from his chair.
And then, at his call, Lucy wras out on the floor, her toes curling back from the shallow race of water, her arms fumbling into her dress.
‘Lawd have mussy!’ she moaned.
And the children were awake, too. All three sat up in bed watching their parents with frightened absence of understanding.
Lucy talked incoherently. She declared, in vague jargon, that it was Elihu’s sinfulness which had brought this calamity down upon them.
‘Keep tellin’ you . . . keep tellin’ you the Lawd aimin’ to slam down on us ’count uh you . . . keep tellin’ you He git tiuhd uh yo’ triflin’ cyuhlussness . . . git tiuhd uh you messin’ with that bawx ’stid uh beahin’ yo’ cross uh wuk ’thout shuhkin’ . . . keep tellin’ you that bawx got Satan in hit. . . .’
If Elihu heard, he did not heed her. Nor was he now irritated by this recital of his routine shortcomings. He flung the door open and considered the change in his world.
Out there only water could be seen. It was thickly brown in hue. The muddy bubbles on its surface moved blandly, telling, in their smooth way, of the deep, rising relentlessness beneath them. And through the dusk of dawn came the muffled roll of tumbling rapids.
He hesitated, for the moment lost somewhere between thought and panic. Then, with uncommon presence of mind, he hurried to the kitchen and packed eggs, cold boiled pork, corn meal, and hoecake in those kettles which still possessed handles.
Meanwhile Lucy dressed the children and confided to them, between hurried intakes of breath, the source of their troubles. Once she was forced to stop long enough to rush out to the steps with a spell of morning sickness.
Before it was quite over, Elihu was gripping her hard by the arm, asking where she had hidden his guitar during the night.
She shouted huskily, ‘Git yo’ han’s offa me! I ain’t evuh goin’ to give you hit no’ mo’. Hit’s done ’nough bad. Hit’s got Satan in hit. Hit done us bad and now hit’s got to git wash’ away. Leggo!’
She tried to shake free, but Elihu’s fingers dug sharply into the fat of her arm.
‘Wheuh you hide it?’
‘I ain’t aimin’ to tell! An’ if you evuh does fin’ hit Ise goin’ to bus’ hit up.’
Elihu’s voice was quiet and hard like the grip of his hand. ‘You bus’ mah bawx and I bus’ yo’ head wide open. You doan’ tell me wheuh ’t is and I th’ows you in that watuh an’ you git wash’ away. I th’ow you in now!’
She looked into his face and was startled by what she saw.
‘Up yonnuh in the cawnuh,’ she said weakly. ‘ On them raftuhs — in ’twixt them bale wrappin’s.’
Elihu released her. He climbed to a small loft made by a few loose boards placed across the rafters. Sure enough, hidden in the miscellany stored there he found his guitar.
‘Good ol’ bawx!’ he said.
He tuned it quickly and struck a few gay familiar chords. But Lucy was sobbing now and so were the children. And slowly, imperceptibly the water was rising in the room. So he laid his guitar aside and took nails and a hammer and began rigging a ladder up the front of the house to the roof. And he made a rope of bale wrappings. With this he helped Lucy and the children up the ladder to the roof. He carried there, too, his guitar, the food supplies, blankets for shelter from the weather, and the catalogue.
Although the sky was still heavily overcast, the rain had ceased. Elihu and Lucy and the three children sat on the comb of their house, waiting, waiting. Lucy and the children were huddled together somewhat apart from Elihu and wrapped in blankets against the morning’s rawness. All were quiet now. With lips protruding in awe they gazed about at the wide sweep of the new facing on their farm.
Flowing water — muddy water — miles of water. . . .
In the heightened daylight lingering segments of the levee were visible off to the west. Gigantic currents were whetting them away — what was left of them. To the east, patches of budding woodland clung to the hidden earth from which they grew. North and south lay only the sliding plane of the flood. Brush and logs moved along its surface here and there. Once two dead chickens drifted by soggily; and once what had been a horse.
The water had nearly reached the window sills when Sam and Molly Jackson and all their children appeared on their raft off toward the west. On the raft, too, were all the household goods they could haul away.
Elihu stood up on the comb of the house and shouted to them and Lucy waved and cried for help. Sam made a show of poling his raft toward the cabin till the current carried it by with the bubbles and drift.
‘Cain’t load you on noways,’ Sam called. ‘ ’T won’t hol’ no’ mo’. Most likely them Rade Crose boats be ’long this evenin’ uh tuhmah.’
The raft turned slowly around and around as it floated toward lands of strangeness. Gradually, steadily it faded with distance. Elihu sat down in despair. And Lucy moaned again to their Lord.
The water slowly climbed to the middle of the windows and promised more. All the fowls had been washed away long since, and the brood sow, too. Now there was a splashing, a deep worrying of water where the stable marked Old John’s relaxing struggle against drowning. Inside the house, furniture could be heard bumping gently against the walls as it floated around the room.
‘Evuhthin’s ruint,’ Lucy sobbed. ‘Evuhthin’ we got’s plumb ruint.’
The day stole by like the widened river. As twilight approached, the family became more restless and shifted about more often to ease the discomfort of sitting on the angular roof. They watched the graying horizon with more nervous acuity. But no rescue boat appeared.
With the coming of darkness a light breeze arose and brought more rain to the bottom lands. Just a shower, falling gently, spattering gently all around
— on the roof, on the water, on the blankets. It fell by starts and stops for a time. Then, in the wake of a brisk gust of wind, it came down in earnest.
Already the house was shivering subtly in that bland swirl of eddies about it. And now more rain. . . .
Lucy reopened her prayer. It mounted in fervor with the saying. It became a chant, an ardent chant in haunting, gasping singsong.
‘ Good Lawd — praise Lawd — LawdyLawd — look down . . .
‘Look down on us yo’ chillun . . .
‘Yo’ sinful trespassin’ chillun . . .
‘Look down, good Lawd, look down
— look down. . .
It went on and on in simple words, chanted lyrically.
Though Elihu was profoundly moved, he did not join her. Beneath his gloom there was a coiling stir, a groping for something, agroping through darkness, through rain, through isolation. But it was a groping this prayer could not truly aid.
Eventually Lucy, too, became silent like the rest, her despair complete and numbly voiceless.
The rain passed away in time. A mist that brought darkness closer took its place. Elihu drew his guitar from beneath the protection of his blanket. Disregarding Lucy’s protest, he picked through one after another of the bars which had been born from it the night before. And he strove long to bring those loose fragments together — to tie them up in a soothing, revealing bundle of magic. He listened to the tentative song from his guitar, listened to the whisper of his groping — listened and struggled with fingers and fancy to bring them together. . . .
Suddenly he slapped his thigh.
‘Oh, dohg!’ he muttered excitedly.
In this wide and quiet scene something had been slowly welling in his depths with more lucid flow. Now it reached the surface.
He rubbed his hands briskly on the underside of his overalls and began to play.
With quick maturation the fragments multiplied and blended. The music was a throbbing portrayal of despondency which had fed on a myriad tapping; a resigned fascination with the swirl of silent, rising waters; a feeling about the outward rush of those waters and the bubbled spread of their might. Through it all, however, and sparkling in the end, gleamed a trusting upward glance of hope.
He played it a second time, smoothing away the magic’s roughness. With his humming he enriched this magic, and with the rhythmical accompaniment of his whole physique he gave it living body. He played it over and over — over and over.
At first his family listened as to something strange. But its spell was vital and crept within them.
Adam crawled around behind his mother and perched beside Elihu. Listening in rapture, he learned the music, hummed with his father and writhed in body. Woolly-May, too, piped in at times, and little Hector gazed at the shadows about him from the soft cradle of his mot her’s arms.
In spite of her fears and distrust, Lucy joined tentatively in a few of the measures. Then she edged closer to Elihu and abandoned herself wholly, in voice and movement, to this vividly releasing power.
The five of them made a vibrant black mass on the crest of that larger black mass which quivered faintly in the flat widths of impersonal force on every side. Yet they were now more than a mass. Incoherence had been driven from their realms of feeling. In their new unity they were lifted, for the time, into dimensions beyond their place in the flood, beyond the harsher pressures of its meaning to them. Black fingers danced fervidly over the guitar. Black bodies undulated in unison to its accents. Red mouths arched aloft their versions of its spell.
In the midst of one of many repetitions Adam snatched his father’s jacket.
‘Papa! Look yonnuh!’
Elihu’s fingers paused. Small and faint, in the mist the light of a lantern could be seen coming toward them across the water. It was in a long skiff rowed by two men.
‘Hey!’ shouted one of the oarsmen.
Elihu said nothing—merely gazed at the advancing light as t hough lost in this sudden descent to brittle fact.
‘Who that?’ called Lucy.
‘ Praise Lawd! I knowed mah prayuhs beansuhed! I knowed hit . . . I . . .’
As the boat came alongside the house, one oarsman said, ‘Why did n’t you keep a light up there? If it had n’t been for all that singin’ a while ago we’d of gone right by. What the hell you doin’ — havin’ a revival meetin?’
Elihu stirred. ‘No suh, Cap’n,’ he said. ‘Jus’ makin’ a little music.’