Excerpt from My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
My Soul to Keep
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Eos (April 8, 1998)
Even now, alone, Dawit knew he was being watched.
One of the Searchers had found him, perhaps months before. He'd noticed a cigarette butt half buried outside the back door a week ago, his first physical clue; but other clues had been present for some time, especially his awareness, his certainty, of eyes following him. Maybe Khaldun had sent more than one.
Their methods were undoubtedly sophisticated. They may have equipped themselves with wires planted throughout his house, ears listening on his telephone line, discerning eyes intercepting his mail. He could put nothing past them. All the better, he thought. It should be clear to them that he had not betrayed the Covenant with Khaldun. He had never betrayed it. Why was mere separation always considered such a dire threat? All he wanted was peace.
Maybe they would leave him be this time.
Accidentally, scouring the house for signs of intruders -- he did this daily now -- Dawit unearthed the scratched, frayed clarinet case he'd hidden away in the cabinet below the bookshelf, among his papers. It had been ten years since he'd last seen the case. He opened the rusting latches and saw the fme stained-wood instrument, each section nestled in its proper indentation against the fading magenta felt, and the memories deluged him in a crystalline rush that made him take a step backward.
His memory was so sharp that he imagined he could smell mingled cigarette and cigar smoke and illegal whiskey soaking through wooden floorboards.
ihearitspiderihearit sohotman takemehome
Dawit touched the dusty Grenadilla wood of his B-flat Laube clarinet, and his heart raced. His armpits felt pricked with perspiration. His fingers trembled as he lifted the mouthpiece from its bed and examined the cracked, dry reed. More quickly, he began to fit the instrument together.
It was Khaldun who had taught Dawit the joy of creating sounds in the House of Music, while Dawit spent those first bewildered years wondering if he really would live forever. Ten years stretched to fifty, and fifty to a hundred, and by then he knew he would be privy to delights most men would never experience. The learning!
Of all the other houses that made up his brotherhood's community -- the House of Mystics, the House of Science, the House of Meditation, the House of Tongues, and the House of History -- Dawit had most treasured his studies in the House of Music. The first instrument Khaldun taught him to play was a simple, monochromatic flute carved from bamboo. Next, the stringed krer, with its wondrous ability to follow any human voice. And Khaldun had collected other instruments from around the continent: Egyptian lutes, bowl lyres from the lands south of them, the beautiful stringed koru from the far west coast, Bantu trumpets made from elephant tusks. And drums, of course, of every variety.
Dawit carried the love for music that Khaldun had cultivated in him wherever he went, always finding a way to indulge it. He'd bought this clarinet from a closet-sized music shop in Chicago in 1916, in January, his first day back in the States after his last short visit home.
How long had it been since he'd played his beloved instrument? At least fifty years, perhaps longer. He'd tried to make himself forget, but now the walls of his present were collapsing around him to clear space for the past, a happy past.
He moistened the reed with his lips and tongue, then blew. The aged reed spat at him. Too brittle. Damn it to hell. He searched the case for new reeds, or at least reeds that weren't already worn out. He found two wrapped in a small cardboard box.
He put on a recording by Satchmo with his Hot Five, "Cornet Chop Suey," turning up the volume until the music seemed to hold up the walls. After a breath to steel himself, he began to play. The reed and sticky keys fought against him. He was clumsy at first, stopping and starting as his head nodded to the music's flow. He lost the beat and honked when he should have found the notes, but then it began to fit back together again. Oh man, oh man.
His fingers played under, over, and around the cornet's lead. He had it, the way he had it then, just like that one precious time when the remarkable young cornet player from Kid Creole's band appeared from nowhere, climbing up on stage with Dawit and his boys -- "Hey, lemme try this one, boys," the kid said with a wink. Then he gallantly pulled out the piano stool for Lil, his delicate-boned little wife -- and they played their hearts out, almost enough to bring tears to the others' eyes, who were just trying to keep up. "Cornet Chop Suey," the kid told them it was called. Just wrote it, he said. Wanted to try it on for size.
That kid was something else. As much as Dawit loved to play with his own boys, he began looking forward to the end of their nightly gigs. And then he wasn't ashamed, like every other true musician he knew in town, to find that kid wherever he was playing and watch him hold a club in a trance late into the night. He reminded Dawit of Khaldun, the way he drew them all around him.
Goddamn, he could go!
To go back there again and hear Louis Armstrong with his Stompers at the Everleigh Club! No, the Sunset Cafe. Nineteen twenty-seven. No one could play like Satchmo. No one.
Playing on, Dawit heard his clarinet's smooth notes swirling around his head. His flying fingers hurt. He blew until his face was dripping.
"You go on, Spider, show these cats something."
"What 'chu call this band?"
"The Jazz Brigade. Here every Friday and Sat'day night. Place jumps."
"What's that cat's name on horn? Blowin' the stick?"
"Bandleader. Spider Tillis."
"His mama named him Spider?"
"Name of Seth Tillis. Hey, Spider! Man say we gon' make a recording!"
He knew it, he knew it, even then he knew it. The music they made was new, it was an invention of sound, an American-born hybrid; it was going to take hold of the world and not let it shake loose. From the moment he'd heard it, from the instant he'd picked up a clarinet or a saxophone or sat at a piano to imitate it, he knew it.
Seth was the name Dawit lived under then, left over from slave times. He found the name Tillis in a book -- no way he'd go by Ole Master's vile surname -- but Tillis was as agreeable as any other American name.
"How come they Call him Spider?"
"Don't ask, just watch his fingers move."
He lived for that music. Lived for it. It woke him up in the mornings and would hardly let his brain go at night. For the first time in a century, he'd been happy to be alive, very nearly giddy, because the music was something fresh every time he played it. And it became something else again when the boys in his new band joined in, every voice distinct, their instruments conversing.
"Pumpkin seed, what are you doing in here?"
"Mama said I could watch you play, Daddy."
The music stopped. The record had finished, and the only sound in the room with Dawit was the overloud popping and hissing from his speakers. The noise swallowed Dawit. His hands, suddenly fumbling and feeling too big, shook around his clarinet.
Dawit howled and sobbed. The clarinet fell to his feet, the mouthpiece breaking loose. He nearly sank to his knees, but he lurched against the sofa and leaned against the armrest as he cried.
Were the Searchers watching him even now, in this state? Dawit, the fearless soldier, reduced to this?
The telephone rang on the coffee table beside him, and Dawit jumped. He let it ring three times, hoping that when he picked it up he would hear her voice, the voice that was his salvation.
Yes, it was her. The first word she spoke was his name, the name he'd told her, the Hebrew variation of the name his mother had given him in his first language, so long ago. She spoke it like a melody.
"David? It's me.
"Hey, baby," Dawit said.
"What's wrong? You sound awful."
"I was sleeping," he lied. He hated the lies. Everything he said or did was an utter, complete falsehood. Everything except what was in his heart, at its core. "What's up?"
"Uhm. . . there's been a development. Peter's agent has already talked to somebody who's really interested in our book."
He couldn't help pausing before he spoke. "You're kidding. That's wonderful," he said cheerfully, ignoring the vise wrapped around his chest.
His words, it seemed, had stunned her. Her end of the line was silent for a few seconds. "Really?"
"Jessica," he said, "I'm sorry for the way I've behaved. I've been an ass. There's no excuse. You're publishing a book, that's your dream, and I would be a fool not to be thrilled. I'll run to the store before school lets out to pick up some steaks for a special dinner. Does that sound good?"
She made a sound like a gasp. "Are you sure you're David Wolde? My husband? The voice is familiar, but. . . "
"Just hurry home. We've endured enough unhappiness in this house. It's time for a celebration." He knew he had found the right things to say. He wanted so much to be sincere in sharing her elation that he'd nearly fooled himself. She deserved happy words. She deserved all he could say and more.
"David, I love you," Jessica said.
Dawit closed his eyes. The vise, for that instant, was gone.
Copyright '1997 by Tananarive Due