Volume 2, Issue 2, May 31, 2007|
|Me and the Devil Blues|
by Stuart Neville
The soupy Mississippi heat had given way to the slightest of chills as Robert Johnson took the Hohner Marine Band harp from his pocket. Dim stars blinked at him as he brought the metal and wood to his mouth and drew air across the reeds. The little harmonica moaned and sighed to the darkness, a churning railroad rhythm pumping as he inhaled and exhaled, forming shapes with his lips, blocking with his tongue, making implosive consonants at the back of his throat to twist the notes as he pleased.
He was handy with a harp, but he wasn't good - not real good. That didn't bother him so much. He was about as good at blowing harp as he wanted to be. The coffin at his feet bothered him more. He held the last note until his lungs were full, then took the harp away from his mouth. He dropped it back into his pocket as he let the air out of his chest. A dog howled way over at Dockery Farms, answering the harp's call.
The moon cast enough light on the crossroads where Dockery Road met Hwy 8 so he could see pretty well. Or as well as his poor eyesight would let him. He looked down to the coffin, three feet long, with a narrow waist, wide bottom and long neck. He hunkered down and popped the clasps. The moonlight caught the gloss of the Kalamazoo's finish and Robert ran his long fingers over its face. He drew his forefinger across the strings, letting each one ring out, sonorous in the night air. It was a little out of tune, but he needn't remedy that. Not tonight. That would be someone else's job.
He placed his hand flat on the strings to still them. This was all he wanted. To be the master of these six wires, this wooden box. To make it sing, to make it pull the sounds from his head and throw them into the air. He'd been practicing for years, playing every place they'd let him, but it was so slow. He'd be an old man before he'd tame this thing. He wanted it now. He wanted to go right up to Son House, take this guitar, and use it to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face.
He shivered as a breeze picked up, carrying the sound of hooves on dirt and a low smell. He stood upright, peering down Hwy 8. He stared at the blackness. His half-sister had bought him eyeglasses years ago, but he never wore them. Shit, he'd walk into walls before he'd go around with those things hanging off his face.
If he squinted he could just see two green-glowing eyes approaching from the south. At least he thought so. It was dark, and with vision as poor as his, he couldn't be certain. A shape formed around the distant eyes. What was it? The moonlight seemed to miss that spot on the highway, as if averting its gaze in shame.
A goat. Yes, a goat, great horns twisting around its long face. Wanderlust must have taken it, and it had jumped a fence somewhere down the highway. It was exploring the roads around Clarksdale, and being a wanderer also, Robert knew its plight. As if aware it had been recognized by a fellow traveller, it stopped. It shivered, its horned head throwing off dust.
In one smooth movement, it raised itself onto its hind legs and stood upright.
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