catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


Earth tones

She walked down the road, brown feet flecked with the darker earth that squelched between her toes. Her cotton dress swished against her sturdy legs, echoing the slight swaying of the wheat fields flanking her. As she progressed, she hummed a little ditty to herself and smiled.

Two men stood near a hay wagon, the horses resting in the shade of a barn. The taller, thin and reedy and wearing plain, heavy clothes even in this heat, talked to his companion and the horse in turn. The other listened, his stocky build resting gratefully in the shade of the haystack.

Bobbing her head respectfully as she approached, she asked, "Be you the men talkin' of the choir?"

"Sure do," the seated one said, bending the rim of his straw hat with a finger in a gesture of mocking respect. "Gonna listen, little missy?"

"Gonna do more'n listen," she replied proudly. "Gonna sing. That is," and her cheeks darkened, "iffen you'll let me, suh."

"Why, I don't see the harm in it, George," the tall one said as his friend nearly choked on the straw he chewed. "Them ladies been sayin' they needed more voices. And what with the War bein' finally over and all . . . it don't seem like a bad place to start."

"But Jeff?!"

Jeff shushed him. "It ain't gonna do no harm, I said."

"You wanna hear me sing?" she asked eagerly. "I can sing real well, suh. But I cain't sing them high tones like all the missus's. I sing earth tones."

George's straw twitched. "Well . . . been a long day," he said. "An' the hay needs deliverin' an' all . . ."

"Please, suh It ain't gonna be takin' long."

The tall one grinned. "Aw, we got a minute."

"Jeff . . ."

"I'll deal with the ladies," Jeff promised, pushing his thumbs in his pockets and leaning against the wagon. "Go on, child."

She stood straight, planting her feet in the dirt, and sang. The tones flowed from the core of the earth through the core of her soul, deep bass notes, as deep as men could sing. She stood with her hands in the pockets of her dress, eyes closed and swaying with the tune. Higher, light tones danced like spring blooming up after the winter rains left, fading to the middling tones of wheat rising to the sun, to the low song of the scythe at harvest, low like the joy in a blacksmith's hammer chinking against the metal, low like the dark safety of a den. The men listened, even George lost in the music.

"Hey, what's this?" someone called as the last few notes died away. The clop of horse's hooves thudded in time to the music, masking the rider's approach, as did the angle of the road as it approached the barn.

George jumped to his feet as Jeff greeted the lady on horseback. "It's a singer, missus. She wants to join the choir you an' the ladies are puttin' together."

"We do need a few more altos," she acknowledged with a stiff nod. "And if that's who I heard singing, I'd be willing to audition her. Where is she?"

Jeff nodded to the black girl, who had stepped into view after hearing the conversation. The lady immediately recoiled.

"You aren't serious, Jeff! It's a nigger!"

Jeff shrugged. "Got a good voice, I thought."

"Well, I'm not having one of them in my choir," she snapped. "Go home, nigger. I won't have dirty niggers in my choir."

"I sing good," the girl protested. "You said so, missus."

"Don't be ridiculous. Those kinds of notes have no place in a choir."

"Them's as good as any other notes," she said reproachfully, "an' you jest said you'd want me for your choir."

"You misheard me," the lady said. "I told you—-go home."

Little lines of dismay crinkled down from the corners of her eyes. "Ma'am, I jest want to sing. I ain't hurting nobody."

At that the lady took up her riding whip, and would have used it had not Jeff stepped between them and began talking to the woman in low, earnest tones. She glared at him and snapped something back; Jeff turned and regretfully motioned her away.

She smoothed her face, not wanting to let the proud, cold lady see how much her words had wounded. "Yess'm." And she turned back to the road, her chin jutting out like Gibraltar against the waves. As she walked, she started to sing, the grass swaying a little closer to hear.

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