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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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The Banjo

By Howard Samuely

The Magpie, Spring 1941, v. 25, n. 2, p. 4.

Miss Rill picked up her blue teapot to dry, and the lid jangled.

"You know anything about a runaway slave?" came a low voice from the doorway, as Mr. Buren fingered his rifle quietly. A chicken gave a throaty cackle and strutted out of the cabin.

The pot jangled in her hand and came down with a clatter on the table. She began to dry her hands in the folds of her dress. As she leaned against the cabin door, Miss Rill's hair was burnished with sunlight. "What business have you coming around here?" she asked.

Mr. Buren pushed into the cabin and sank into a chair. With a heavy groan, he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his big face. "We've been out since yesterday morning, through every bit of that rain." He began to finger his rifle again. "The rest of the party, with the dogs, has gone on ahead. We had the scent right up until yesterday afternoon." He turned his eyes to the hayloft under the roof. "You wouldn't have thought that a runaway slave would get very far with a banjo," he said. Mr. Buren picked up his rifle and fired into the loft. That, naturally, was the safety-first thing to do. It was quiet in the cabin again. He picked up his hat and was about to go.

One night, Jez slipped out of the cabin, to where the tall grass, tinted with blue, waved sleepily when the air quivered. The air sure felt mighty fine.

And then there was Calico too. Calico was a rat-gnawed old Negro. His hair was a jungle of low ringlets, and his skin gleamed. Nobody knew Calico owned a banjo. Nobody remembered anyway. He'd hidden it away a long long time ago, and, besides, he'd never learned to play it. To tell the truth, he'd forgotten just how he'd gotten hold of it in the first place. He just had it. But Calico crawled out that night and let Jez hold it. Jez almost crushed it the first time. But he plucked one of the strings, and soon he'd plucked all of them. And then he ran his fingers against all of them at once. He laughed, a kind of inner laugh, and did it again. Jez asked Calico to play it for him once, to show him how it went. But Calico said his hands had worn out on him.

Inside of a week, Jez could pick out a tune, a low whining sort of tune. Calico always lay in ecstasy alongside, and his fingers always moved with the rhythm. Jez played every night—even Saturdays when the boys went down for a dip in the river—and that made Jez forget altogether about cotton picking. Then one night, Calico said Jez could have the banjo all for himself. Jez knew Calico was leading up to something, but he waited for it to hatch.

One night, Calico dropped an ordinary sort of hint about runaway slaves. Jez stopped off playing just like that. He grabbed Calico by the neck and almost choked him to death. Jez made him tell him everything he knew. Calico was scared. But he told Jez everything the next night, too, about freedom, and Miss Rill and the other stations on the Underground, and how he'd learned a long time ago just about the best ways there were to get across the border. Calico spoke his heart because he'd had it deep in his heart for a long time. Pretty soon Freedom became a capital-letter thing with Jez because Calico knew how to tell it. Calico had been too old to get his Freedom, he said. But Jez knew, anyway, that Calico never had had the courage to run away.

Sometimes Jez made Calico tell him more than he knew about the Underground. So Calico had to make up things which Jez believed because he'd put his faith in Calico. One day Jet climbed to the top of a big tree and wouldn't stir a wink. But he came down late in the evening, and the farm hands asked him why he'd stayed up there in the big tree all day. He didn't know.

And Calico and Jez agreed to run away in the spring.

Right before autumn, Calico started to miss coming out once in a while. One afternoon they carried Calico in from the field. And they laid him down to rest, and the winter set in. Calico had his Freedom at last.

When spring came, the earth woke up, and Jez woke up, too, from a long long sleep. Things began to stir around inside him. He found the banjo and began to play it—play the old songs again—the songs he'd played to Calico—the Freedom songs.

Like the rivers that rose that month, Freedom rose and swelled in Jez. And one night, it burst its banks and overflowed.

And you couldn't have stopped him, either, even if you had wanted to. Jez had the banjo with him when he took the way Calico had told him they'd take. Once he left the banjo behind in a thicket when it got too clumsy to run with. But later Jez ran back eight miles to get it again, because he knew he couldn't do without it. And when he reached Miss Rill's, with the afterglow still in the sky, she gave him food. Jez wondered at the chicken that strutted about her cabin. But first, she made him tell her everything about running away—everything about chasing through coffeeberry swamps and through streams and fields and mud—even about how he hadn't eaten at all and about the mule driver who had asked him where he was going. Miss Ril] said that Jez might have been across the border if only he hadn't run back for the banjo. But Jez said nothing. He only sank into a corner and let his jaw hang down.

Jez wouldn't go up to the hayloft until he'd told Miss Rill all about Calico. Jez just wouldn't take no for an answer. And Miss Rill heard all of it. Jez said that the banjo would give him Freedom. He believed it, too.

That night Jez slept in the hay with the banjo alongside him, way up in the loft near the roof.

Jez tasted bits of hay between his teeth when he woke up late in the morning. The sun had been baking down hard. Through a crack he could look out and see the fields, a riot of color, and he began to wonder why he wasn't back on the plantation. Jez heard pebbles grinding underfoot, and started, like it were a thunderclap. He flung himself into the hay.

He heard Miss Rill's teapot clatter. "What business have you coming around here?" she asked. Jez lay still and cold as death. Mr. Buren's shot went wild, and all Jez heard was: "We're giving up the search. He probably got over the border last night." Mr. Buren was almost out of the door.

A nervous kind of motion ran through Jez's hand. His finger plucked the banjo. That's all.

They stuck Jez up against a post. They whipped him good. But first, they smashed the banjo.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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