Most of the evening I had walked alongside the road, but the swamp had been steadily intruding those last few miles. It had finally pushed me up the embankment and onto the road itself.
I don’t remember why the road scared me. There were no streetlights and the old dirt byway, strewn with its bits of rock and oyster shell, ran straight. I would have been able to see any car coming for miles.
The logic gave me little comfort. That dark unlit path from nowhere, leading to nowhere, filled me with terror. It brought back childhood memories of being lost and looking for my momma. Bad dreams that in hindsight seemed prophetic. I had to fight the urge to run reckless, arms akimbo and jacket flapping in the wind. Perhaps I’d have fallen into an abyss to be forgotten. But the luxury of oblivion was denied me. So I paced my panic, followed by fear and still I could not remember exactly what had brought me out that night.
Looking back on it now, it’s easy to see how the Devil can get away with what he does. He’s got no oversight. What I mean to say is, there’s no group or entity that can step in and audit his procedures for corruption. There I was, wandering a dark country road in the middle of the night and there was no one there to be my advocate. Not one person drove by and offered me a ride. No one stepped out of the swamp to shake his or her finger at me and advise against the direction I was taking. I was completely alone, until the crossroad.
It was a sudden thing. My ears popped, just like in an airplane. As the cicadas came rushing back in they brought a new sound with them. It was sultry and sweet and held the promise of endless nights of satisfaction. My eyes followed the harmonica’s soft growl to a single, dead tree that stood at one corner of the otherwise barren intersection. A tall, dark figure leaned against it, making love to the instrument in his mouth.
I stood mesmerized. As I listened I remembered why I had been on that deserted road, so late at night. It was to find this man, to find this place. I had come to make a deal with the Devil.
The music stopped and our eyes met. The dark man stepped out onto the road, pocketing his harmonica and held out his hand. I hesitated and then extended mine. He captured it, bringing it to his lips. Warm, red silk brushed my skin sending shivers through my body toward more sensitive places. His voice was a rich chocolate that complemented the sounds around him instead of competing with them.
“Ms. Watts, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
I knew right then I was out of my depth. My twenty first century world of networking, laptops and smart phones held no power over this creature. The whole of my life experiences could not have begun to prepare me for the elemental simplicity of the force that stood in front of me. It was, of course, far to late to turn back. He smiled as if guessing my thoughts and I screwed up my courage to speak.
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir. And you are?”
He smiled again, the sun rising briefly in his countenance. My heart stuttered with excitement. Flushed, I was finding it hard to breathe. The warm night had turned sultry and wet. His ebony skin glowed in the dark light as he removed his wide brimmed hat in a mock show of modesty.
“You may call me Legba.”
There it was. Years of research and discipline, of fasting and seeking, of trips across the globe, from the Himalayas to the jungles of Peru and I had finally found it. On this little country road in the middle of nowhere Mississippi, a very ironic thirty miles from where I was born, we came face to face. After all of the drug taking, the shamans, the vision questing, I had finally found the entity that I was seeking.
You see he comes up cross culturally, almost from the time we are able to keep records. Human society after human society has recorded their encounters with this entity for generations. In that way I guess, I’m no different. This is my record, but I need it to be more than just another urban myth. I need you to understand in your bones how this is not just a fable about the dangers of getting what you think you want at the expense of who you are. This is an accounting, as accurate as I can make it, of a social parasite. Like a fat tick, it has been attached to humanity’s underbelly, almost since the beginning.
“Legba,” I repeated, trying the name on. “You know my name, so you must know why I’m here.”
His pursed, reproachful lips did nothing to dim the primal aura emanating from his body. With mock concern he tsk-tsk’d me, shaking his head.
“Now Nora, May I call you Nora?” He did not wait for my consent. “You should know better than that. That’s not how this works.”
There was an expectant hush around me. As if all the night creatures were holding their breath, waiting for what I would say next.
“Can you make me a famous blues singer?” I blurted out.
Now think about this. After all the years of searching for this entity, and the countless hours spent replaying in my head how this meeting would go, my words were a total shock to me. I could have asked for anything, from peace on earth to the cure for cancer. I learned an important lesson right then, standing at those crossroads. When you open your mouth on your heart’s desire, the thinking mind takes a back seat.
I used to sing in high school, you see. Attending Our Lady of Perpetual Help gave a young black girl few choices for her elective time. It was either clapping erasers with Sister Arceneaux or the choir. Anyone with a measure of talent wound up in the choir. I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t particularly good either. What I remember most from those days is the precious few times I was able to become lost in the song.
When things were just ‘so’ and we were perfectly on pitch, we seemed to be able to make something greater than each of us individually. It was like a vibration, or a wave and it took me someplace limitless and timeless. The colors around me were so bright, and the faces of everyone glowed in heavenly beauty. Those were my favorite times.
Unbeknownst to me, they settled into the back of my heart, waiting like a subtle assassin to drive the knife into my high ideals and lofty morals. And that is how a little girl’s secret desire sentenced humanity to still more generations of poverty, hunger and disease. I couldn’t help but think of how many times this drama had played out in front of Legba. How often had he watched humans make the same, selfish choice?
“A famous blues singer.”
Legba’s statement held no condemnation or surprise. If anything he seemed amused at my request. Or maybe he was amused that I wasn’t aware enough to have expected it to come out of my mouth.
“Now that’s one I haven’t heard in awhile. But I s’pose people never really lose their hunger for the Blues. There’s just something about that sound…all that ‘lonely, unfulfilled need’. It just keeps y’all coming back for more.”
With a self-satisfied smile, Legba put his hat back on, crossed his arms and regarded me. Those eyes, for the rest of my short life, haunted me. They were the eyes of lovers, of so-called friends and even family. That night I got two gifts from Legba. I got the gift of the songbird and I got to see those eyes. To see where he lived in my fellow humans. See who took Legba’s deal.
I used to think I’d been tricked. My fairy gold had turned to leaves at dawn. My talent had brought nothing but trauma and heartache to all around me. That he had cursed me just like the old stories. But I know now, what he gave me was a gift and not a curse. He showed me the darkness at the very heart of each of us, the black flaws of hatred and jealousy that are mirrors for love and selflessness. I understand now that one can’t exist without the other.
“Well sign right here, Ms. Watts and you shall have your heart’s desire.”
Legba pulled the old yellowed paper from his jacket. I remember the paper. It was heavy and had a sort of oily slick feel to it. The words blurred in the starlight and seemed to evade the grip of my gaze. I felt heady, almost intoxicated with the feeling of possibility, of power.
This is where I fell deep, into his thrall and into my own darkness. The rest of this story is not unfamiliar. I sang, like a beautiful sad bird. I made money. I loved and I lost. Everywhere I went those eyes followed me. Sometimes they knew me for what I was, a fellow dealmaker. Most of them had no idea of what they’d done, or how much they’d truly given up. When I tried to tell them, they’d just get angry, or worse.
This last gig, I saw a young woman in the crowd, a pretty little thing, with a bright gaze and an unruly mop of pale blonde hair. She was about to sign. Any day now and she would have his eyes. After my last song I sent for her from the dressing room. Her name was Crystal and she was going to be a singer too. I was her favorite female vocalist and right up until the moment she plunged that hunting knife into my belly, she wanted to be just like me.
I tried to warn her, of the darkness that was waiting just beyond the light. I tried to tell her about the deals we make, lying awake next to our lovers in the dead of night. How there’s something listening, and it usually answers. I saw her fear turn to anger, then rage. It happened so fast, I couldn’t stop it, but that’s okay.
I’m all right with dying, even though I never really became famous, so long as I can get this down for y’all to read and understand. I know, writing this on the floor in my own blood is a bit morbid, but my legs don’t seem to want to work right anymore. Just remember what I’ve said, warn others and look for the eyes.
An excerpt from the Times Picayune:
Last Wednesday, blues singer Nora Watts was stabbed to death in her dressing room at the Rock ‘n Jay Music Club. Since the crime scene photos were leaked to the public, her bootlegged concerts have gone viral, already breaking many download records.
The grisly photos of Ms. Watts show her attempting to paint a satanic symbol on the floor in her own blood. Fans are now trying to decode her lyrics and are attributing hidden messages to many of her traditional pieces. Not very well known in life, in death Ms. Watts has become an Internet sensation.