This week’s book excerpt comes from Melting the Blues, a first novel by Tracy Chiles McGhee, a prize-winning writer in the Glover Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C. Published this week by Gold Fern Press, the book takes place in 1950s Arkansas and follows Augustus Lee Rivers, a farmer obsessed with going to Chicago to play blues until a terrible betrayal. The book can be ordered from Upshur Street Books or purchased online.
ORDINARILY, THE REV did most of the visiting in Chinaberry, but since taking in the Rivers family, the Willis house had a steady stream of visitors. They came as good neighbors come in times of need and loss. Most came not because of Augustus but in spite of him. They came and brought food, some with a few coins or dollars they had faith would stack high when bricked together. They came to hold vigils and pray and sing and tell stories or tall tales. They came to sit, some until their plate was empty, some well past their welcome and the moon’s nudge. Some came to get in the good graces of Pearl, others to get in the good graces of the Rev and First lady, and others came who knew God was watching and their turn could be next. Still some just came to see up close what was going on to go back and report to others who didn’t come since they were not accustomed to coming any other time. Even Big Lenox and Rita Mae came, bringing a collection taken up down at the Tail Feather and yes, Blind Eye Joe contributed. Nobody wants to see somebody up and in become down and out. But Augustus still wasn’t talking. It was time to call on a professional. Finally, against the wishes of the Rev but with the blessings of First Lady and at the invitation of Pearl, Old Lady Miss Corinthia came escorted by a carved mahogany cane, draped in a deep purple shawl, with a drum strapped over her shoulder and a heavy bag of healing tools nestled on the hunch of her back. She came bearing her gift of sight into the soul and was led straight to Augustus’ room to see what she could see and do what she could do.
She told Pearl all she needed was to be with him for eight hours and no one was to disturb her. When she walked in, Augustus didn’t even notice her because his eyes were fixated on the wall. She knew him because she knew his mother’s mother. She also knew him because he was her spiritual child. She called his name. He didn’t look her way. She looked around the room. She listened to the room. She looked back at Augustus. She listened to Augustus’ heartbeat and breathing. She reached into her bag and took out a jar of oil. Slowly, she bathed the door and window in oil. She returned to her bag and pulled out a cloth and unfolded it, revealing sage which she placed in every corner of the room. She then asked that the Holy Spirit reside in the room and cover Augustus. Then she knelt on the floor beside the bed, closed her eyes, and played the drums as she sang a song that had been handed down to her in the language of her foremothers. This she did for several hours. She beckoned what had been lost from Augustus’ soul to restore his wholeness. The spirit filled the room. It would remain in the room until Augustus called it forth by name to return to his body. All he had to do was recognize it and call it by name and not only would he be healed but generations would be healed. While Old Lady Miss Corinthia chanted and gave thanks to the Great I Am, on the far left wall Augustus began to watch his life play out like a black and white film out of focus with the scenes all out of order and in slow motion. It was if he was putting together a puzzle with fuzzy impressions as the pieces. Which pieces were the four corners? Which formed the inside? Which pieces connected?
Author Tracy Chiles McGhee.
He saw baby Augustus swimming, tumbling, and frolicking all about in his mama’s ocean womb. In this safe and warm belly home, he could hear her humming and singing as she moved about her day. Her heartbeat soothed him when it wasn’t racing. When it raced, he kicked more but to him, it was play. He felt most joyful when he was wrapped in her rhythm. It was as if they were dancing a special dance together. When she moved fast, he heard her heavy breathing as wind. Every now and then, her rhythm was interrupted by jarring movements or the crashing of waves, which he rode gallantly. He felt his mama’s temperature and could sense when she was at the mercy of the sun or experiencing a cool evening breeze. But late at night, when she went to bed and all things else were quiet and still, he felt her body tense up. It squeezed against him and made his home feel smaller and darker. Her nerves became electric. He flinched and dodged their jolts. There was no more song. In this hour, she opened up her deepest wounds and sunk into her very worst fears. She didn’t feel the wonder or the gift of the miraculous life inside her. She saw darkness when she thought of his future, which she deemed to be a perilous one devoid of hope. Her faith was at its weakest; it was not the faith of her mother and her mother’s mother. Her hopeless thoughts kept her restless. Her restlessness made baby Augustus restless. He felt worry and sorrow far too soon. Her body cried so he cried. As she cried, she would pray softly.
He wasn’t able to recognize the words she spoke but they agitated him and burned his budding ears. He would kick against the hand that followed him as he twisted and turned, a plea for her to quiet into the breathing that was his first sense of security, not this frantic syncopation that made him want to use his still-forming lungs to scream. Their bodies would fight against one another until they both grew tired and drifted to sleep at the same hour, minute, and second. The rhythm would return the next day as she walked to the cotton field. As she picked cotton, he felt the calm of her escape from the unbearable reality she had no choice but to bear. She shared the hum and song and dance with baby Augustus while she kept pace with the others despite her extra belly load. One day soon, her water would break in the field and Augustus would be birthed there in a sea of stark white underneath a brilliant, sun-drenched sky as she shouted out in agonizing pain. But what had she prayed that entered into the budding ears of baby Augustus while he dwelled inside her womb? Years later, as a little boy sitting on her lap as she rocked him to sleep and recited the Lord’s Prayer, he would recognize the words as being one of her nightly prayers. He would never discover the words of the rest of her prayers because those words were never uttered out loud but perhaps he heard them all the same and carried them with him. Her desperate plea to God was to please grant him a weapon to fight with if he must be born to struggle. Out of this supplication, Augustus entered the world. Old Lady Miss Corinthia had followed Augustus’ eyes to the wall. She had seen what he had seen. The only difference is he could only see one puzzle piece at a time, while she saw the entire puzzle. In the eighth hour, she said a final prayer and left the room. She found Pearl in the living room sitting alone with her head hung low. She called her name and startled her. “Miss Corinthia, did he talk to you?”
“No child, not with his mouth but in spirit. It is not time for him to speak.” “When, Miss Corinthia? What’s wrong with him?” “There ain’t nothing wrong with him. He has already been restored.” “Well, why ain’t he talking?” “There is nothing wrong with silence. Leave him to himself in that room at night. It is not a marital bed at this time. It is a revealing bed in a seeing room. He needs to be silent and he needs to be still so he can see. He has to see it with his own eyes and call it by name.” “What, Miss Corinthia? What he gots to see?” “He has to see it and call it by name. Have faith, my child,” she repeated as she walked out the door. “He has got to see it and call it by name.
—Tracy Chiles McGhee
From Melting the Blues by Tracy Chiles McGhee (2016) Washington, D.C. Gold Fern Press. Published by arrangement with the author. Copyright © 2016 byTracy Chiles McGhee.