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African-American

James McBride's Song Yet Sung

the code

On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.

She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lit boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards—every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.

Liz had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died. This brought her more grief than her condition at the time, which was not pleasant, in that she'd been lying for three weeks, badly wounded, imprisoned in an attic on Maryland's eastern shore.

She had taken a musket ball to the head at Ewells Creek, just west of New Market. It was five a.m. when she was hit, running full stride on a brisk March morning behind three other slave women who had made a desperate dash for freedom after two days of keeping a hairsbreadth from two determined slave catchers who had chased them, ragged and exhausted, in a zigzag pattern through the foggy swamps and marshland that ran from Bishops Head Island up through Dorchester County. They were nearly caught twice, the last by inches, the four saved by a white farmer's wife who warned them at the last minute that a party with horses, dogs, and rifles awaited them nearby. They had thanked the woman profusely and then, explicably, she demanded a dime. They could not produce one, and she screamed at them, the noise attracting the slave catchers, who charged the front of the house while the women leaped out the back windows and sprinted for Ewells Creek.

Liz never even heard the shot, just felt a rush of air around her face, then felt the cool waters of the creek surrounding her and working their way down her throat. She tried to rise, could not, and was hastily dragged to shallow water by the other women, who took one look at the blood gushing out near her temple and said, Good-bye, chile, you free now. They gently laid her head on the bank of the muddy creek and ran on, the sound of barking dogs and splashing feet echoing into the empty forest, the treetops of which she could just make out as the fog lifted its hand over the dripping swamp and the sun began its long journey over the Maryland sky.

Not two minutes later the first dog arrived.

He was a small white and brown mongrel who ran up howling, his tail stiff, and ran right past her, then glanced at her and skidded to a stop, as if he'd stumbled upon her by accident. If Liz weren't shot and panicked, she would have remembered to laugh, but as it was, sitting in water up to her waist, she felt her face folding into the blank expression of nothingness she had spent the better part of her nineteen years shaping; that timeworn, empty Negro expression she had perfected over the years whereby everything, especially laughter, was halted and checked, double-checked for leaks, triple-checked for quality control, all haughtiness, arrogance, independence, sexuality excised, stamped out, and vanquished so that no human emotion could emerge. A closed face is how you survive, her uncle Hewitt told her. The heart can heal, but a closed face is a shield, he'd said. But he'd died badly too. Besides, what was the point? She was caught.

The hound approached and she felt her lips curl into a smile, her face folding into submission and thought bitterly: This is how I'm gonna die—smiling and kowtowing to a dog.

The dog ruff-ruffed a couple of times, sniffed, and edged closer. She guessed he couldn't be a Cuban hunting dog, the type the slave hunters favored. A Cuban hunting dog, she knee, would have already ripped her face off.

—C'mon boy, she said. C'mere. You hungry? You ain't no hunting dog, is you?

She reached into her pocket and produced a piece of wet bread, her last. The dog edged forward. Sitting in water up to her hips, she propped herself up and gentle leaned towards him, her hand extended. She stroked him gently as he ate, then wrapped her fingers around his collar, ignoring the blinding pain in her face.

—You shy of water? she asked gently.

He sniffed for more bread as she calmly stroked him and tenderly pulled him into the water until he was up to his chest. She tasted warm fluid in her mouth, realized it was blood, and spat it out, edging him deeper in. A surge of dizziness came and passed. With great effort, she slowly slid backwards into deeper water, easing him in, the sound of the busy current filling her ears as it reached her neck.

The dog was eager to follow at first, wagging his tail. When the water reached his throat he began to pull back; however, it was too late. She had him now. Holding his collar, she desperately tried to yank his head into the water to drown him, but the dog resisted and she felt her strength suddenly vanish.

Over his shoulder, through the dim fog and low overhanging trees of the nearby bog, she could see the horses now, two of them, thundering through the swamp, the riders ducking through the low overhanging juniper and black gum trees, their coats flying outward, horses splashing forward. She heard a man shout.

The dog, hearing the shouting of his master, seemed to remember that he was a hunter of humans and attempted a clumsy, snarling lunge at her, teeth bared. With her last ounce of strength, she shoved his head into the water, drowning him, then pushed him away and let the current take him.

She clambered up the steep embankment on the other side and felt hooves slam into the muddy earth near her face. She looked over her shoulder and expected to see a white face twisted in fury. Instead she saw the calm, handsome face of a Negro boy no more than sixteen, a gorgeous, beautiful chocolate face of calm and resolve.

—Who are you? she asked, stunned.

The beautiful Negro boy smiled, showing a row of sparkling white teeth.

Read a Q&A with James McBride, author of Song Yet Sung here»

View the Reading Group Guide for Song Yet Sung here»

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