And that’s why I need to speak of it.  What happens when the music’s over.  I need to tell you about Bethany Labeau’s first love, and the music she found as an expression of it.

 

“Do you hear it?”

“Hear what?”

“Them birds…  The birds sure are singin’ today…”

You couldn’t tell her age.  She hid it well.  Bethany wondered if it was because she smoked, or some other secret.  Sissy Walker was her name.  She lived down the road, the dirt road that led down from her father’s mailbox, in a house just off her father’s land, near one of the river inlets—along the Sabine River—her porch looking out over it, hidden in the shade of trees, among the pines.  This before the river was dammed to the south and the reservoir formed—the Toledo Bend Reservoir—to counteract the damaging effects of river flooding.

If Bethany had to guess, she was in her early forties.  A daughter grown and married.  The father gone long ago—run off.  And that’s why Bethany visited with her.  To hear her records.  Her husband a guitar player, a singer of the Blues, and Sissy had a lot of records.  She never said if any of them were of her husband, and Bethany didn’t ask.  She just liked sitting on the porch, listening to the phonograph Sissy set in the kitchen window.  She liked sitting there, smoking with Sissy, listening to the guitar playing, the voices of black men moaning, singing about heartbreak and loss.

“Ain’t like the birds, is it?  Birds don’t sound so sad.  Makes you want to know their secret, don’t it?”

“My granny just complains they wake her up.”

“Oh sure, sure…  They do sing in the mornin’.  Loud and uninterrupted. ‘Spose they’re just happy here.  Happy ‘bout their homes in these trees…”

Sissy sits in a rocking chair.  She stops the motion of it for a moment.  The soft creaking noise of her rocking.  And she looks up through the trees, the tall pines, and closes her eyes, letting the sunlight that comes through the shade of the high and hovering branches warm her eyelids.  The hand holding her meerschaum pipe relaxes on the arm of the rocker.  Some of the ash falls on the old, knotted gray wood of the porch.  The pipe is rich in color from age and use, amber tones in it now from its base up.  There’s an aroma from it on the porch, mixed with the smell of pine needles.

“Well I like hearin’ them birds.  Them whippoorwills just as the break of day… Legend has it they can sense a soul departing, and can capture it as it flees… I sometimes think I hear my old man in them.  Ol’ Wishbone.  Wishbone Walker—my man.  I sometimes think I hear him moanin’ with ‘em.  Like he never gone away…”

Sissy smiles with her eyes still closed.  The waning sunlight still on her eyelids.  Then she looks down at her pipe.  She grabs a matchbox from a table set beside her and relights it.  Puffing slow and deep.  Then she reaches out with it.  Resting it on Bethany’s shoulder—she sitting by the porch steps, close to her bare feet.

“What happened with him?  Why’d he go away?”

“Oh, girl—who knows?  I’m not sure what he loved more—making whiskey, love, or song…  Maybe I was jealous of it…  He was my first love, my first lover—you know…  Maybe you ain’t old enough yet.  Old enough to understand.  How old are you—thirteen?  You got plenty time to learn of it—love and hate.  You don’t need an ol’ reefer woman telling ya ‘bout it.”

“I reckon I’m old enough.  I started bleedin’ last summer.  Momma says I’m a woman now.  I can make babies…”

“Make babies!  Lord, child.  Don’t be thinkin’ ‘bout that yet!”

“Well I’m old enough to come here and be with you.  I listen to your music and understand it…”

“Sure… sure… you can listen.  But you ain’t ready to sing it yet!  Lord! Lord!”

“Well tell me about him.  Tell me ‘bout your husband.  Did he sing like what’s on those records?”

“Yeah…  he sang…  I’m surprised you ain’t heard the rumors.  What folks say ‘bout him.  ‘Bout maybe what I did to him.”

“What’d you do?”

“Well some say he’s in the outhouse yonder.  In back of my little garden–he, he!  Some say I hit him over the head with a skillet and kilt’ ‘em…  Some say he ran off to New Orleans with another woman…  that I was a scorned woman…”

“So what really happened?”

Sissy smiles again.  Looking down on Bethany with lidded eyes.  Bethany sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs, drawn close to her chest, the beginning bud of breasts there, just barely noticeable in the contours of her gingham dress.

“Woman’s got many secrets, child.  And you know—you’ve seen that door to your mind open.  Sittin’ here with me.  Listenin’ and smokin’.  You can’t say you ain’t intuited it yet—a woman’s secrets…  Some say we’s weaker—the weaker sex.  And sure, a man can destroy you.  He’s got stronger hands that can choke you—choke the life out of you.  He can destroy you with his hands, or more civilized—with money…  But a woman, a woman can destroy your soul…”

Bethany rests her chin on her knees.  She’s not looking at Sissy looking at her.  She’s watching the water in the distance.  The sunlight on the water.  The dark pools near the shore.

“God didn’t create no better than us.  You be proud of that.  Proud of your womanhood.  Your strength.  Ain’t nobody can love better than us, and ain’t nobody better at hate…  Because a woman can lie.  We’s born to lie.  Lie to a man.  Good lies to make him better.  And bad lies to make him worse.  Not even a born salesman can lie better than a woman…  Hell hath no fury—ain’t you ever heard of that?  Thing is—what they don’t tell ya—we make it.  We make a man’s heaven, or his hell…  That’s our inheritance… That’s what we sell…  But don’t listen to me.  I’m ugly with it now.  I’m ugly with the price.  The price a woman got’s to pay for that power—that power to destroy a man.  What we lose.  The beauty we lose.  We lose the song them birds are singin’…”

“But you still listen.  You listen to them.  You listen to those records…”

“Sure…  I listen…  but I don’t hear it—I don’t hear the words.  The words in them.  That’s the cost…  I don’t hear God.  I don’t hear God no more…”

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