Moon wash. That's what she bathed in regular. Moon wash and salt winds, and when she could get it, the seagull's cry. White folks might have marble or porcelain tubs to wash in, but black folks washed in the scent of earth, the smell of pine, and the sound of guitar music. Her daddy played the guitar. Sweet music that would break you if you let it. But Williana didn't let it. She just allowed his songs to smooth out on top of her, butter her skin, wash her down. Music ran over her dark face, across her ten-year-old belly, onto the floor, where it beaded up and trickled down through the cracks in the floorboards. That's what happened to Daddy's songs. They washed over her for a time, wetting her eyelids, warming her hands, cleansing her hair and feet. And then the effect of the music dried up, water-like, as if it had never been.
ABC. … the music had a rhythm like the lessons she was studying with her older sister, Patience. DEF. … Williana was tapping her feet. Once for the guitar, once for the alphabet, once for her soul alone. GHI. … Patience rapped Williana across the knuckles, reminding her to pay attention. Williana was learning her letters. "A" a lean-to with a bar across its middle. "B" a stick with a ribbon undulating toward it. "C" three quarters of a hoop. Her mind was making the alphabet her own. ABCDEFG. … Gotta Gotta Gotta learn to read. HIJKLMNOP. … Pay me, pay me, Pay me my money down. … If she learned to read she could be Somebody Someday. Patience was teaching her, for Patience Johnson had learned how to read a few years back on Master Johnson's plantation. QRSTUV. … Very, Very, Very Important to learn how to read. … WX. … That was all Daddy knew how to write. X. X for his name, Dangerfield Ransom Johnson. YZ. Begin again. The letters blew away in precious dust on the slate as Patience wiped it clean. You try.
No! Do it again.
But it was hard to pay attention when Daddy was playing his guitar. Sweet stabs, like unfathomable sighs in Williana's breast. The music made her remember places she had never seen. Daddy had once been a slave. So had Patience, Maryann, Lana, and Burrell. All of her older siblings. Seven in all. So had she for that matter. Pickaninny baby girl. She had been a slave for the first formative year of her life. Sucked slave titty. Drank slave dust. Breathed slave air. Not that she remembered, not in the ordinary way. But the music wrapped around her, stuffed sweet cotton up her nose, choked her, reminded her, remembered her. Slavery days. Rice fields. Daddy had been a blacksmith on a rice plantation. Strum, pling, the guitar recalled it. And then the memories were gone. Daddy laid down his guitar.
The moon washed silver patterns across her brown face. If there had been no moon Williana might have been invisible as she stood, hesitating under the dark trees. She wore no coat and the September wind disregarded her thin sleeves as it raised goose pimples up her arm. She might have been bare. She could have been a ghost. Perhaps she was not real.
Lighted windows in the large brick building in front of her made stages on which Williana watched syncopated dramas. A tall girl in a nightgown, light colored hair in [End Page 171] a long braid, made her way up the stairs with a candle in hand. Williana saw the candle bob from one round window on the second floor, to the third round window on the last staircase. Two other girls sat by a window over to the right, heads together, giggling. One blew the lamp out and the window went opaque with quiet. A third window showed a female scholar bent over her desk, a short candlestick burning low beside the book she was reading.
Williana might have been a ghost, observing the occupants of Elisabeth Lamb Hall preparing for bed. A ghost...