Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2009

Incarnation in the Delta

by Richard Foss

 

“I think the gods are embarrassed that they created me,” mused Buddha’s twin brother Larry as he walked past the sign that read Welcome to Coahoma County, Mississippi. “That would explain why people keep forgetting me. I was only mentioned in one of the sutras, and a hundred years later the scribes decided it was a typographical error and made me into a mythical bird.”

“I’ve never’ f’gotten you wuz aroun’, but I’m gettin’ the mythical part,” replied Robert Johnson as he shifted the strap on his guitar case to a more comfortable position. “I hadn’t met ya, I’d be incline ta doubt ya existed. You’re the weirdest guy I ever met, but I like ya’ stories an the way you play that thing.”

Buddha’s twin brother Larry shrugged. “It’s my gift. I remember before we were born, and we stood before the gods. They told us that we were chosen, and we could each have two wishes. My brother Sid…”

“Sid?”

“Siddhartha, really, but I called him Sid for short. Anyway, my brother decided he wanted to become an enlightened being, and to pass on that knowledge to others. I decided that I wanted to remember my incarnations, and I couldn’t think of anything else. On a whim, I said that I wanted to be able to play the banjo really well. Well, not really the banjo, an instrument called the rebab, but it’s close enough. Y’know that tuning I use when we’re playing “From Four Till Late”? It’s rebab tuning. I fall back on that because I have a couple of lifetimes practice at it, and it’s easy to improvise.”

“Hearin’ ya play, I kinda believe it. Never heard nobody use that tunin’ before, and y’do get some mileage outta it.”

“Worked pretty well on the Japanese shamisen too. I found that out in my last incarnation as a human, when I was a tavern owner in a place called Hakodate. I was jamming with a biwa player on the night I died in 1792. A Russian sailor came into my tavern without taking off his boots, tracked mud in on my good bamboo mats. Almost new, those mats, and I didn’t want him to ruin them. I dropped my instrument and ran at him yelling to go back outside or take off the boots.”

“You musta been mad. You’re gen’rally real careful with your ax.”

“I was upset, all right. Anyway, he pulled something out of his belt and pointed it at me, shouting something in his barbarian tongue. I had never seen a pistol before, hadn’t even heard about them. A minute later, I was talking with the gods again. They made me into a turtle, which was quite a step up from the last time I’d died as a human. Boring, though. Paddle around in the pond eating sea grass, up onto the sand once in a while to lay eggs or munch some tasty weeds, then back in the pond. Only excitement came from avoiding hungry storks, not that I could get out of their way very fast. I think I lived to be three years old – at least, I remember the pond getting icy and then clearing up three times.

“What happened to you?”

“I remember being picked up, put on my back in a basket, and bouncing around. The last thing I remember was a pot of boiling water, from above, and the sensation of falling. I think I was soup.”

Johnson chuckled. “Never thought about turtle soup from the turtle’s point of view. Could make a song outta that, top the hit parade for 1933.”

“You could make a song out of anything. I’ll bet that it’s the gift you chose from the gods. You’ve probably been a cricket and a lot of birds, and maybe a whale or a howler monkey. I can tell when someone has the gift. You just can’t remember your past lives, like I can.”

A bus sputtered past them down the dirt road, and they covered their noses with handkerchiefs until the dust settled. “Gonna ride someday instead of walk, I will,” announced Johnson. “White folks don’t let me on the bus, I’ll get a car an’ drive past ‘em. Well, that’s another day, and we got a while to walk before we get to Clarksdale. Tell me ‘bout bein’ a hound dog again.”

“Most enjoyable life I can remember. What a body that was! I remember dashing through the forest chasing squirrels, the joy of just running as fast as I could through sunny fields. The excitement of digging out a gopher, the challenge of fighting a big fat raccoon over a dead deer. Nights spent howling at the moon with the guys. If I’d had hands so I could have played an instrument, life would have been complete.”

“How’d that one end?”

“You always seem to want to know that about my lives. That one wasn’t my best finish. I was lamed in a fight with a couple of coyotes, and a couple days later a cougar got me. The darn thing toyed with me first. I never did like cats, even when I was one.”

“Never heard about that life.”

“Not much to say about it. I was less than a year old when some nasty little boys put me in a bag with some rocks and threw it in a river. Kids were cruel back in the fourteenth century.”

A rock whizzed by their heads, and they heard a high-pitched shout of “Don’t want your kind ‘roun here!”

They turned and heard the sound of small feet scampering away through the brush. “Still cruel now,” observed Johnson.

“Some of ‘em. Not all. Remember that girl in Morgan City that shared her lunch with us? Best greens and yams I can remember.”

“I rather fancied the chicken. Noticed you didn’t eat much of it, though.”

“When you’ve been meat, you lose your taste for it. Not that I’ve actually been a chicken, though I was eaten by one once. I was a worm at the time. I was actually thankful, because I was tired of that incarnation.”

“Right,” said Johnson sarcastically. “And you’ve never been a collard or a yam, so’s you’ll eat them any ol’ time. I get it.” His voice changed to a more dreamy tone. “I do remember that lunch, and I remember that girl even better. I might just pay a visit back to that town sometime and call on her. Sweet, sweet little thing, with nice big brown eyes. She seemed more interested in you, though.”

“Well, this body is closer to her age. You’re what, twenty, and she’s only about thirteen. My current body is sixteen.”

“So I got a few years on them. Hasn’t kept some mighty nice gals from decidin’ to take me off to bed while their mamas was out of the house.”

“They have lessons to learn. I remember the last time I was a girl…”

“I don’t want to hear this one today, if’n you don’t mind. Besides, right over yonder is the barbershop where we’re s’posed to play today, and I don’t want you talkin’ about this stuff as we get there. Just play your banjo and let’s make us some money.”

“Today I’m going to play a solo I learned in Athens in 329 BC, when I was a girl.”

“If it fits into Steady Rollin’ Man, knock yourself out.”

After twilight fell and the last tune was played, Johnson went into the barbershop to drink whiskey with the men while Buddha’s twin brother Larry sat outside next to the instruments and petted a one-eyed dog. He crooned to it softly in Aramaic, since he had found that most dogs seemed to like it when he sang in that language.

“That dog don’t generally take to people,” said a soft female voice. “You must be a kind sort of man.”

Buddha’s twin brother Larry looked up at a slight, dark skinned girl wearing a ragged but clean gingham dress and a colorful cotton headband. No, not a girl – she was about his own age, but so petite that she looked much younger. The light from the lantern over the barbershop made a halo behind her as she stood there watching him.

“I like dogs, and they like me,” he answered simply. “Dogs like to ramble, so I tell them about places I’ve been and sing songs I’ve heard in my travels, and they like to hear them all.”

“I ain’t never been more than half a day’s walk from this spot,” she said wistfully. “Never left Mississippi, not even to cross over into Alabama. Read about them foreign places in school, and sometimes out of school when I can get my hands on a book. I reckon I’d like to see California someday.”

“Good place to be. Waves crashing on the shore, wide white beaches, and the best tasting fish I’ve ever had.” He didn’t remember much else about California because he’d been a seagull while he was there, but the response seemed to satisfy her.

“Oh, I would like to see that, I would. You mind if I sit with you?”

“I don’t mind if he doesn’t,” he said, gesturing at the dog.

“He don’t mind me. He protects me, and he trusts you, so I do too.”

“That’s handy, as long as he’s right,” he said, gesturing to her to sit down. “I already like your friend here, so I’m sure I’ll like you.” The dog thumped its tail in agreement.

“My name’s Sarah. What’s yours?” she asked as she smoothed her dress over crossed legs.

“Lalitchandra,” he answered absent mindedly as he scratched between the dog’s ears. “But everybody calls me Larry,” he added quickly.

“Lalit…what?” she asked.

“Lalitchandra. It means Beautiful Moon. Which it looks like we’re going to have tonight,” he said, pointing at the orb rising over the pine trees. A flock of bats rose and swirled in the sky, and the two humans and the dog watched silently as they fluttered into the east and disappeared.

“What’s your dog’s name?” he asked suddenly.

“Racer, on account of he used to like to run when he was a puppy. He’s not really my dog, though. He’s not really anybody’s but his own, these days. Why’d your mother name you that?”

“I guess because she liked it. I never got to ask her, because she died a week after my brother Sid and I were born.”

“Can you ask your dad?”

“He’s dead too, quite a while ago.” He was going to mention that it was 2500 years, but caught himself in time and decided not to.

“So you’re an orphan,” she said sympathetically.

“Everybody becomes one sooner or later, in the course of things. Bodies wear out, children go on.”

“You make me feel lucky my mama’s still around.”

“Enjoy her company while you can, and learn what you can from her. I never could.”

She patted his hand sympathetically, and he thrilled at the physical contact. “You’re a kind sort of woman,” he said quietly.

“So what’s an orphan with a strange name doin’ in Clarksdale?”

“I was playing music a while ago with my friend Robert, and now I’m talking with a very pretty woman. I’m enjoying it, too.”

She blushed and lowered her head. “Go on, now, you say that to everybody.”

“Actually, I don’t, but Robert does. He’s in that barbershop drinking right now, and if things go as they usually do, he’ll leave soon with some woman, and I’ll find a place to sleep and store our instruments.”

On cue, the barbershop door opened, but it wasn’t Robert that stepped out. A tall, white haired man wearing a severe black suit walked out majestically, tripped on the steps, and went to his knees in the street.

“Reverend Trappey!” exclaimed Sarah as they both rose to help. They reached the man as he got to his feet, and Sarah steadied his arm. “Sarah Ann Smith!” he said loudly, exhaling whiskey fumes in her general direction. “What are you doin’ with this boy?”

“We was talkin’ about life and death, reverend,” she explained.

“A deep subject indeed,” he intoned. “Boy, do you know Jesus?”

Larry had in fact actually seen Jesus, though since he was a mosquito at the time and compound eyes don’t show much detail, he couldn’t describe much. “Yes, reverend,” he answered truthfully.

“And have you been saved by the blood of Jesus?”

It was delicious, he thought, but he answered, “Truly, reverend.”

“Very well,” he said, and swayed slightly. “Boy, see this girl home safe, and be a gentleman about it. I believe I shall proceed home myself.” He walked carefully down the center of the dirt road toward the better neighborhood of the black section of town.

“I do declare,” she breathed as he turned a corner. “That was a surprise.”

“What, that he’s drunk? Everybody nearly always is after they sit around with Robert after we play music.”

“No, that he tole you to walk me home. He don’ normally hold with girls and boys together after dark.” She took his arm and snuggled close, and he shivered with delight. The dog trotted over and leaned against his leg, and he felt affection from both sides.

This time when the door opened, it was Robert that came out, on the unsteady arm of a plump but pretty woman wearing a calico dress and a dazzling red scarf. The dog stiffened and growled, attracting Robert’s attention.

“Hey there, hound,” he said, squinting into the darkness. He recognized Larry and relaxed. “Two hounds, I see, one of ‘em currently human. And a pretty lady, ‘less my eyes deceive me.”

“You’re seeing fine,” answered Larry. “Half hour after dawn tomorrow, here.”

Johnson nodded his assent as the woman in calico gave an impatient tug on his arm, and they walked away clutching each other.

“Hound?” asked Sarah after the couple turned a corner.

“Nickname,” Buddha’s twin brother Larry answered.

She was silent for a moment, then changed the subject. “I do believe that was Mrs. Richards on his arm, and I do believe Mr. Richards is in Pascagoula visiting his sick aunt.”

“I think Mrs. Richards isn’t thinking about Mr. Richards just at this moment.”

“And what is Larry the hound planning on doing now?” she asked, looking at him expressionlessly.

“Larry generally finds a barn or haystack to sleep in and keeps the instruments safe, and meets Mr. Johnson the next morning to walk to a new town and play music.”

“I think we can do better than a barn or haystack.”

“We?”

“Racer says you’re a good man, and so do my instincts. Racer’s generally right. My mama sleeps sound, and there’s a back room on the house that gets eastern light so’s you won’t miss your appointment a half hour after dawn.”

He kissed her hand – a habit he had learned in the court of Charles the Bald in 844 – and she blushed. Then he picked up the guitar case and the banjo, she the rucksacks, and they walked away with the dog trailing behind them.

The next morning Johnson was waiting impatiently at the closed barbershop when Buddha’s twin brother Larry showed up.

“Damned if it ain’t an hour after dawn, not a half,” he complained.

“Hard to get two instrument cases and a rucksack out a window quietly when someone that’s supposed to be sleeping in is right in the next room.”

Johnson’s face split in a wide grin. “It is, ain’t it. Well, let’s see what this town can do to feed two hungry musicians some breakfast.”

They found a diner that offered griddlecakes, sausage, and coffee with chickory for five cents, and in the way of Southern breakfasts, it was all the two could eat without bursting. “This is the life, old hound,” said Johnson as they strolled into a more affluent section of town that boasted actual sidewalks and stores with neon lights. He paused to gaze at a watch in a jewelry shop. “Maybe soon I’ll buy one of those, hound, so’s I won’t be late for appointments.”

“Not likely to be much help. You’ll still keep me waiting in the morning, like usual.”

“Unless it’s like this morning, when I’m the waiter and you’s the waitee,” he chuckled.

“Not likely that will happen often. Sara was special.”

“They’re all special, an’ so is the one you meet the next night an’ the night after that.”

“And the lifetime after that, and the one after that.”

“You got a lot of memories, don’t you.”

“Yes, I do. Thousands of nights, millions of them, under the moon and stars with someone who is just lonely and lovestruck. These days, it takes someone special to awaken my interest.”

“Sometimes I wish I was like you, and other times I thank God I’m not.”

A deep voice from a few yards away interrupted their banter. “Hey, you! Whatta you doin’ here?”

They turned to see a white policeman facing them, right hand by the flap on his holster. “Looking at a watch I’d like to buy, sir,” said Johnson carefully.

The policeman snorted. “What’s a nigger music man need a watch for?”

“I don’t get paid to play ‘less I show up on time, sir. Hard to do that if’n you don’t know when it is.”

The policeman glowered at them for a moment, then took his hand off the holster. “Store opens in about twenty minutes, boy. Don’t let the sun set with neither of you in this county, hear? There’s citizens would teach you a lesson.”

“Yessir,” they chorused, and the policeman turned and strode away.

“Not as bad as some of them,” said Johnson philosophically. “Didn’t take our money.”

“Probably didn’t know we had any.”

“Nah, they knew there was a show yesterday, just wasn’t worth their while to break it up. Just wanted to show us who’s boss, not like we couldn’t remember.”

“There was a caste system where I was born that is even worse than this,” mused Buddha’s twin brother Larry. “People from the upper caste couldn’t even drink from the same well as people from the lower caste.”

“And when water was short, who got t’ drink? Don’t answer, you don’t need to.” Johnson kicked a stone hard, and it bounced along the cobbled street.

“People are people. It’s why I liked being a dog.”

“I get your point, hound.” They walked together in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Where are we playin’ tonight?” asked Buddha’s twin brother Larry after a while.

“Wherever we end up. We got enough money to catch a bus to Mobile, and folks there do love the Delta blues. Make more in two hours on a corner of Detonti Square than we could in a couple days here. Spend it two or three times as fast too, but have a lot of fun.”

“I think I might have more fun here, actually.”

Johnson laughed. “That girl, what’s her name?”

“Sarah.”

“Just from the way you say it, I know you want to see her again. Well, I’m done with this town.” He dug in his pocket for a moment. “Here now, here’s six dollars and fifty cents. Enough for you to treat your Sarah to some flowers, dinner, and a bottle of good whiskey, and have enough left over for a bus ticket to Mobile two days from now. We been doin’ good, your banjo and my guitar, and I expect we’ll do even better down there. Hound, be on my trail.” He stopped for a minute thoughtfully. “There’s a song in that line right there, if’n I can tease it out. You’re good luck, hound.”

“Two days, and I’ll see you,” agreed Buddha’s twin brother Larry, his spirits already soaring at the idea of seeing Sarah again. They shook hands, and Larry strolled off while Johnson turned back to the store, which was just opening. “I’m gonna get me a watch just so’s I can tell how late you are,” he called as he went inside.

Buddha’s twin brother Larry smiled and walked toward Sarah’s house. She lived with her mother on a little farm at the edge of the woods, and on some impulse, he walked through the trees to an open clearing and took his banjo out of its case. Sitting on a fallen tree, he tuned for a moment and then started playing a lively piece that was popular in Aksum in the third century AD. He transitioned to an ancient Greek tune, then a blues that Johnson had taught him only the previous day. He finished with a simple song he had written for his brother 24 centuries past, a plaintive piece he had hoped would lure Siddhartha from under the tree where he had been meditating so intensely that he almost starved.

Sarah’s voice startled him. “That last bit was beautiful.”

“I wrote it for my brother, when he needed comfort,” he said without looking up. “I was trying to take his mind off his worries. The music wasn’t enough, but maybe it helped. He was the thinker of the two of us; I just make a little music.”

He raised his eyes to see Sarah wearing an old smock with muddy stains at the knees. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and there were streaks of tears on her cheek. He patted the fallen tree next to him, and she sat down.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

“My daddy used to play. Not as good as you, not those strange chords you like, but he played real sweet. I’d missed it so, and it all come back when I heared you from where I was workin’.”

He played a few notes of “When My Baby Smiles At Me,” which had been a popular hit of the previous decade, then opened his arms to her. She leaned into him and cried softly for a while, then dried her tears and looked up at him.

“You’re different,” was all she said.

“From most folks,” he agreed.

“Sometimes you’re like an old man or a stranger or an angel.”

“I’ve been some things, I’ve done some things.”

“Mister Larry, I want you to stay here with me in this town, and I want to live with you and learn from you. Or else I want to go on the road with you, and I’ll sing while you play, and I’ll live with you and learn from you. You take your pick, and you cain’t say I didn’t give you a choice.”

“It’s a long way to California, but if we aren’t too particular about when we get there, I think we’ll make it. I need to stop by Mobile in two days because I promised Mister Johnson I’d be there, but after that we can go.”

“Suits me. We start walkin’ now, we be on time.”

“I have money enough for two days of high living and one bus ticket, or two bus tickets and maybe a good lunch.”

“I pick the two bus tickets, and high livin’ can come later. Gives me a day to finish bringin’ in the crop of onions for Mama, and I can get a few things together to wear.”

“You won’t need more than you can carry,” he warned.

“I don’t got more than I can carry.”

“Need help bringing in those onions?”

“We probably got an ol’ pair of pants and a shirt you can wear. Let’s git started.”

The day went by pleasantly even though digging a whole field of onions was hard work. As she worked Sarah sang in a sweet, pure voice that seemed much too big to come from her small frame, and Larry the Buddha’s twin brother invented harmonies to go with the choruses. Sarah’s mother was suspicious at the sudden appearance of a stranger the same age as her daughter, but she stopped glaring at him when she saw him working hard, and she actually smiled when she heard him singing a high tenor counterpoint on the old spirituals.

“You been right well brought up,” she allowed when the two of them finished work at dusk. Sarah’s mother even went so far as to invite him to dinner, a simple meal of vegetables that he ate hungrily and praised excessively, and she told him he could sleep in the small barn. Knowing that the woman would be watchful, he did exactly that; there would be time enough to explore Sarah’s charms when they were on the road together. As he fell asleep, he summoned up a prayer to the gods he had worshipped as a child. “Let us be together for a long time,” he implored in a dialect of Sanskrit that had long vanished from the earth. There was no answer, but he was used to that. The act of praying was as important as the answer, he mused drowsily as he fell asleep.

The next day went much the same, and he fixed a few things around the house that required more strength or height than could be mustered by two short women. They ate together again, and at his urging, Sarah’s mother sang some old tunes while he played simple accompaniment on the banjo and Sarah hummed or harmonized. Mother and daughter would miss each other, he reasoned, and their last night together should be full of song.

It was still dark when he woke to feel Sarah tapping his shoulder. “Time to go,” she whispered. “Bus comes through at five AM if’n it’s on schedule, and it’s a walk to get there.”

He reached for his rucksack and banjo, found them in the corner, and stealthily left the barn. The two of them slipped through the woods like ghosts toward a path that led to the main road. Here he could see her by the light of the waning moon, a small figure with a baggy jacket over a gingham dress, a scarf wrapped around her hair.

She hesitated for the merest moment at the edge of the woods, looked back, then took his hand and walked firmly forward down the road. They were at the middle of a bridge over a branch of the Sunflower River when they heard an unexpected sound – a car coming quickly toward them. He glanced at her, unsure, but she shrugged and said, “Plenty of room for them and us.” They moved to the side of the bridge and went single file, with him in front, and waited for the car to come around the curve. The headlights struck him full in the face, and he flinched and put his hand over his eyes. The car stopped suddenly, and he heard a door open, then a familiar, hostile voice.

“Well, what do we have here? I b’leeve I recognize a boy I told to get out of this town two days ago. And who’s this with him? Why, a little wench he’s been havin’ his fun with. I do believe these wayward types need to be a lesson to others ‘round here.”

Hands grasped the two of them roughly, and he heard the merest squeak as Sarah scuffled futilely at men larger and stronger than she. The white sheets the men in the car were wearing showed up in the moonlight, as did the coil of rope they pulled from the back of the police car. There was a splash as his banjo and rucksack hit the river, another as her suitcase joined it. Then they were gagged and carried into the woods. He reached a free hand to her, and fingers brushed against grasping fingers before they were wrenched away. How cruel to have found her at the end this life, he thought despairingly, such a brief contact with one who would have been so delightful to know. Around her, perhaps he might have made his greatest music, loved his greatest love, and perhaps both of them could have ascended a little higher on the wheel of existence. Anguished, he summoned up his concentration and asked the gods something he had never asked before.

“Please, all you gods, don’t let me lose her,” he prayed. The gods granted him a vision of the two of them together, barking at a cat, and again as cattle eating tasty grass in a sunny meadow, and he heard a distant echo of their voices, in different bodies now but harmonizing while a tune from ancient Egypt played on electric strings.

__________

Richard Foss is a food critic and journalist who also teaches culinary history and Elizabethan theater classes at UCLA Extension. His short fiction has appeared in Analog Magazine and several anthologies, including The Enchanter Completed and Alternate Generals (with S.M. Stirling). A list of his published stories, along with links to essays and reviews, is at richardfoss.com.
 





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