Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen (EXCERPT)


He can’t see it, can only feel its warmth on his skin—feathers of light and shadow—but this sun is a guarantee against forgetfulness and also a way of forgetting what needs forgetting. Steady light. Everything waits to be seen, wants to be seen, and remembered. The world taunts him with its sights. Sense eludes. Touch is witness. Taking stock. Fingers restore, recall what the hands have welled up in hard-etched lines. The patterned ridges of tree bark reveal less of what is actually there--weight, density--offering only the skeletal outline of some longing. An unequal compensation perhaps. Limited contentment. For the world sways in sunshine and in rain. Or something else impossible to capture by word or phrase. (How poor our vocabulary.)

Birds warbling in motionless air. And snakes in branches below that repeat the same songs, believing them new. And frogs that spell slowly in day and crickets that count quickly in night. And ants that dance a frenzy over a meal. (It often happens that we leave behind bread crumb or crust.) And a flame that buzzes as it burns on its own going. Crackling noise.

Animation surprises him, caught by the performance. (What lives leans into the sun.) A dog barks, its silhouette nonetheless friendly, inviting. Come for a moment. In this way may you build up keen and humorous enjoyment against lack. Flies hover about his nose, a mingling of pleasure and suspense. He does not drive them away. (How he took life in.) Alarmed, the world rushes at him from every side. The palms are enchanted. The magic of lift and fall. Successive positions, durations. By what gradations do the fingers measure and record these changes? Reduced, encapsulated, in a single image perhaps that shows hands what eyes can’t see. Casts what they can’t feel. Mute the family and before she must begin the tasks that will carry her through dinner and beyond. She enjoys this spot, her husband’s handiwork all about, wood he has neatly cut and stacked. Almost like an unfinished house (hers), the laying down of some promised future. (Suspicions of destiny.) Not that she ever really thinks about it that way. Her break affords her the opportunity to go slow with a coffee, provides a chance to be starkly alone with Tom, belly down on the ground beside her, her thoughts soft, faint and faraway. She remembers the silence of this day, just the sound of her sipping coffee, turning her little spoon in her big cup, and the usual curious noises of the boy, harsh and moist. The Bethune residence is an amazing site, as light is actually pushing up from the ground so that the mansion seems to be floating on a blanket of illumination. She lowers her head and brings the cup to her mouth and the next thing she knows Tom has somehow managed to climb up an inclined stump of wood to perch at the top of a pile, a deliberate elevation of self. 

That was the start of it. Crawling brought a striking transformation, a living thing changing before your eyes, some lowly creature confined to dirt, his hands directly under his chest and his knees bent outwards at odd angles, allowing him the sideways motion of a lizard weaving between legs and chairs. By this means achieving ambulation, however odd. And then, once more, he became unhinged from time. No slow progression from crawling to standing to the first stumbling steps with hands balanced against the wall. Instead the crawling went on for years, his legs refusing to allow him to stand upright let alone step a foot forward.

In vibrations of grass earth records the sound and intensity of falling shafts of sun. And things man-made too: the peanut-shelling machine’s gyrations forever imprinted in the soil below. Arms and legs moving at the same time. Big circles and small circles. Tiny rituals (ceremonies) Accidents of air. 

Nothing strange about sound pressing in, showing a sense of mission. Place. Names rise from locations. Hollow’s Bend. These few sounds, segments of breath, he rehearses. The syllables of his name skip across his tongue. Thomas. Where do you live? Whose boy are you? Boy, where do you live? Even if there is tangible distance between saying and meaning, a distance which keeps enlarging in breadth and range. 

The sun drifts back inside, hidden behind a curtain of clouds, already damp, beginning to swell. Stars penetrate along with the smell of the fields, the stable, the shed and the gardens, paths and roads. Freshness, a shift in the way he feels. 

His legs hold him upright, his head floating off where birds fly past. This body isn’t his (he doesn’t own it) but moves when he moves, takes him traveling. Easy-gaiting. The long way round. Knows it, knows it all the way. 

He can hear the sound of his own breathing. (Does he own it?) His feet working harder now on the earth.     

Home. (What else would you call it?) The keys line up like hogs in a pen. They are cool when you touch them, as if cleaning (baptizing) your hands in a cold stream. Trees bend towards earth in strong wind, the longest leaning touch. Each element a shadow of the other. To be rescued like this. Saved. How surprising that sound carried him through the world.

Is it any wonder he sang like that? Why he played like that? 


A pail of water remains near the stovepipe in case of fire. Its cousin, a larger wooden tub, positioned a few yards in front of their cabin. When open, the cabin door frames a tree-occluded sky. Dirt, the solitary chair, the rough table—all that is sparse here makes it enough to see this wooden tub, set off in a grass-free area of the yard, where they often wash their dream-weakened faces and bare trembling torsos in the morning. (A pond a half-mile down the hill services the body.) It is here that what she remembers happened.

No one missed his shadow moving before the house. Nothing unusual there. Familiar in fact. Little Thomas quick and secretive that way—some shadow scurrying across your shoulder beyond vision. It is a struggle even to hold him, to cuddle him, Little Thomas, all vigor and resistance. So easy to lose the chain of connection. His form appears clearly among the leaves, and just as quickly, in a surge of color and motion, you see two brown legs sticking out of the wooden tub like ladles, your eyes surprised, well before understanding catches up. (And this part she has either reconstructed or invented: his head disappearing, one arm thrust out of the water and then nothing more.) Words of panic hang on her lips. She runs to the tub and sees him splashing beads of light. An onrush of angry swells, all of the world’s seas lashing at the baby. Remembers lifting him from the tub, hugging his chill limbs to warm them as she carried him to the cabin. Heads and bodies rising in guilt and alarm--You must keep up with Little Thomas—everyone (her daughters) except her husband, Domingo, who continues to slouch, a bony-shouldered hump. He is a small slim man, quietly sensitive about both his height and weight, refusing to allow things of denser body or stronger elements to torment him. (No sun or heat is enough. No spiraling rainstorm.) He even resists the ease of a man-made chair, preferring the uneven planks of the floor. She hugs the baby against her chest, his breathing infinitely far from his heart. She closes her eyes. Whispers a prayer in the dark. Her body is cautious and will not ask too much, just this one thing. 

She opens her eyes to find herself looking through the open doorway. Sees herself taking a clean rag to wipe down the baby’s body. Her hands lifting him like a plant destined for a pot and plunging him into the wood tub. A sound slips out of the corner of her mouth.

Mingo gets to his feet, shaking off tension and fret. Casually—do not get caught up in the uproar of the moment—takes the baby from her and holds him up and out for inspection, rough assurance. Kisses the baby and hands him back over to her. But he doesn’t have quite the skill to pull it off, to calm and convince. (Which comes first?)

In the days that follow the near tragedy works on and into all of them, even the girls, everyone silent and uncomfortable, nervy and on edge, muted and mutual disgust at their failings, although Little Thomas’ injuries are few. This will not be the last mishap, his last escape from serious harm in the formative years. Her unusual son. (She prefers the term curious. He seems receptive to things that usually escape our notice or that notice tries to escape: shit, piss, spews of dirt, foul odors such as the smell of stagnant water or boiling chitlins, what crawls or flies, buzzes or hisses. Seems to imbibe as much pleasure from the sound of sucking sap from the stalk as from the taste of the sap itself.) So she devises this method of keeping an eye on the baby as she goes about her work. She puts him in a cotton-bale box that she can carry around with her. But he soon masters the ability to crawl over its high sides and scramble away, on the prowl, the border between him and the world thin. (He can’t observe the universe so the universe is without boundaries.) In this way rusty nails puncture his knees. (She is convinced to this day that the metal found its way to his skin less by accident than by choice. Put simply: he had unearthed them. Recall the dirt under his fingers and impacted in the map-like creases of his palms.) Splinters embed themselves under his fingernails and make wood claws out of both hands. His injuries become a discernible point of reference, crawling and walking one continuous thing to her. For the first fifteen months of life he either lies or sits, shaking in his own noise. Then the helpless scatterings that typified his first attempts to push and pull himself. He never seemed to get better at it. Never seemed to move forward or back, but remained, immobile, confined to his belly, like a worm—forgive her for thinking this about her own child, Forgive me. Almost never see him sitting in an upright position unless he is propped up against a leg of the piano while Mary Bethune or one of the Bethune girls sit prim and proper playing above him. Even takes his food while prone on the floor on his belly. Comes the day when she is sitting on a stack of logs a few yards behind the mansion, where she usually takes her break under the shade of a tree, a block of time which belongs to her, short as it is, a few minutes after she has finished serving supper to the family and before she must begin the tasks that will carry her through dinner and beyond. 

After a frustrating year or two, he somehow upped his crawl, amplified it, acquiring speed and lift, so that he was able to actually lope cat-like above the ground.

But the miracle of walking brought new challenges. (The lineage of a thing in its later stages.) He never mastered the ability to go up or down stairs unaided, or to sit down or get up from a chair. Trying to perform one action or the other he would totter backwards and forwards, and from side to side, his otherwise strong legs brittle and uncertain. (Not unlike General Bethune attached to his black canes.) And rarely could he put one foot in front of the other with natural recognizable rhythm and ease, his gait either so heavy that he seemed to be sinking into the ground, or so light (in Mary Bethune’ s presence) that there seemed nothing solid about his person.



He squeezes the pale shell until it cracks open, rubs off the crackly brown skin with a set rhythmic motion of thumb and forefinger, and tosses the nut into his mouth. The husk remains on the ground, collecting water and sound, one among many, humming gourds. A numbing buzz in his hands and feet--there is a nerve that stimulates, another that slows down--music entering him as far from the voices and fingers that made it.


The sun appears as to one looking through smoked glass.

Where is Little Thomas?

Smoke rises in shafts of pure black illumination.

Where is Little Thomas? You must keep up with your brother.

Glass glints, half smoke, half sun. 


Why doesn’t he respond to the sound of his chanted name? Truth be told—she knows it, her whole family knows it--he is caught in the grip of a habit to flee the restraints of their scrutinizing presence and gaze—his conspirators, pigs and chickens rush to greet him, perhaps smaller creatures too, those undetectable to the eye--and find his way into the mansion. in fact, he finds his way all over, seemingly no place or thing he can’t pry his way into. Rambling. Has even wandered miles to trespass on neighboring farms and estates. Marches into people’s homes and lives. (Presses his face against the window, smooth glass, flattened nose. Consider the position this places them in. His escapes, invasions, necessitate new secrets and new lies.) Quick and fearless. (Unconcerned, wind and rain splash him with mud.) Unable to see ahead. Like a carriage hurling along in the darkness.


After dinner each day Mary Bethune plays the piano like a medical regime. She returns to the piano to give her daughters lessons in the long deep lull after supper and between retiring to bed. Tom leans out from between the lower levels, the legs of the furniture, the side of a cabinet. He sidles up to the piano while the daughters practice, his body writhing to the tones.

It‘s okay, Charity. Leave him be.

One day like any other after she has completed the lessons, put an end to her daughters’ complaints and hesitations, and called for Charity to see them off to bed, one day like this as she is walking off she hears the music that had just ended begin again, the same piece. She turns and sees Tom with his chin at the keyboard, his hands in their mischief toying with the keys. Struck by the moment, they all stand and look, she, Charity, and the girls. 

Charity gives her an expression of half-amused, half-apologetic. She would like to invent some excuse. No, Tom, she says. I’m sorry, ma’m.

He certainly takes to the instrument, she says. I’ve never seen anything like it. Thinking, They surprise you this way every so often. (One day he is crawling behind her as was his habit and the next day he is walking behind her. Skips a stage in his evolution.) She picks up the blind boy, his bare feet kicking the piano keys as she hands him over to Charity.

Anything else, ma’m? Charity shifts her gaze. I best be getting these girls off.

Although the other tries to veil it she detects a bit of admiration in this event. More than a little. No doubt about it. Charity seems pleased by the look on her mistress’ face.

One afternoon not long after, she hears music rising from the room and enters it expecting to see one of her daughters at the piano. (Any excuse to avoid their other studies.) Can’t believe what she sees. What she hears. Before the moment can overwhelm her he hits another chord, tinkles out another melody. Hands flashing everywhere.

She sends for the mother, her other, who is not sure she sees things clearly. Eyeballs humming. Ears spinning. A feeling in her body, light, tilting over, all link lost to her surroundings. Ah that’s it. I’ve finally gone off the deep end. Jumped the plank.

She sets out to retrieve him.

Tom drops down to the floor and embraces a piano leg. A small target of conflict. Refusing to let go. She has to pry his hands away, finger by finger. Another time he actually crawls under the piano itself, slides and burrows into the cramped space between mahogany above and pine below. Stays a long time, calm and happy.


General Bethune stares at his oldest daughter indifferently, taking in her report. it is a disagreeable feature of her character that she always seemed to enjoy revealing secrets in her possession. But he hears what she has to say, half believing, and dismisses her with instructions for Charity and Mingo to appear before him immediately. Not later, now. His daughter skips off in excitement. While he waits for them he tries to reassemble the essential facts from his daughter’s garbled telling. This much he knows: if what she said is true, his wife hasn’t told him about it. Why hasn’t she told me? Not a question really, but a rumination, a reflection. How well he knows the sentimental attachments of the weaker sex. 

While busy with one thing or another he will hear music drifting through the house. This is not listening, a conscious effort on his part, far from it, only the music’s lurking presence following him from room to room. No way he will ever sit and watch the girls and the women—his wife, his daughter, his servant--and the boy at the piano, an act of spectating that is as much vulgar as it is awkward, like spying on someone engaged in an intimate act. 

He gets to his feet with a certain effort before they enter the room. (Best to be on your feet in situations like this, assume a stance of authority and command.) On first sighting he fixes them with a ferocious glance before they can avert their eyes. He means business. The general means business. They come in cautiously, as if the house might collapse under their footsteps. Come before him slowly and quietly with heads bowed. Suh, you wanna see us? The woman, Charity, saying it, not her husband.

He doesn’t even bother to speak to reply, to speak at all, ferret out their account, but waits for a lifting of their gaze and casts his eyes first upon Charity then upon Mingo—he knows they can see him, even if they pretend not to--his look itself demanding a full and factual explanation.


If he wanted to play, play he would. Any right-minded person should be ready to do the same, be willing to afford a pitiful soul this much. The crude but touching expression that bares his innocence and devotion. Little more than simple curiosity perhaps, explainable by some of nature’s extraordinary aberrations. What matter the source? The motive? (Could you call it that?) Let him play. Under her guidance. Not training exactly. (What would you call it?) She sees his face go bright. He is enjoying this immensely and she begins to enjoy it too.

At the piano he is strong and loose, no matter how awkward and ungainly he is at other times. She is quite careful in her instruction. Everything is shown in motion and in harmony. Whenever he plays a lesson correctly—well, truth to tell, he plays everything correctly; he shows himself capable of great technical variety; demonstrate a scale and he will play it; show him a melody and he will bounce it back, working the pedals as she worked them; she can only fault his playing for being excessive, too forceful; all that frantic passion (once he embraces her, laughing into her neck); then too there are times when he duplicates her exactly in volume and intonation, the original inflection--she rewards him with, Admirable! An odd calm completes each lesson, as if he is waiting for her to say the word. Admirable! She comes out of the room exhausted after she finishes her lessons with him, for she can never show him too much, his desire an insurmountable force, hands having made a hundred exertions, ready for a hundred more. Given an attentive pupil—no that is not the word. Given a faithful pupil, timing and technique--his left hand may even be better than the right, the Negro’s natural sense of rhythm—are easy enough to demonstrate, familiar ground under our feet. But the finer things—a definite feeling for order, a communicable clarity, an accurate sense of form, the lucky finds and the discovered refinements, the ascendance of beauty--are untranslatable, locked away in the farthest and darkest corner of the soul. No instructor or academy could teach that. And what can’t be shown can’t be mimicked. A long way of saying that these lessons are headed nowhere, are the proverbial dead end. Nothing gained. Still she feels inclined to continue as she notes some change in his playing—she wouldn’t exactly call it growth, development, more a polishing, the mastery of repetition until something shines—as each day he performs some little note or phrase which causes her to look at him with renewed interest and surprise. And when they are done for the day, he sits with his dark hands on the ivory keys, fingers spread wide, a settled pleasure. 

So she continues to follow her method of instruction. Some months into their engagement, she rises from the piano at the close of a session, ready to summon Charity—Take the boy and tidy up a bit—when Tom’s voice shoots out. He is singing. What she sees and hears tells her that he is transplanting the foreign lyrics to the unrelated melody she just taught him. She knows the words to the song. He gets some of them right, some of them wrong. No. Something else. In fact he is mixing the verses of three different songs her daughters are quite fond of singing away from the piano. Somehow the phrasing and timing are just right, perfect. 


He bites into the pink skin of the boiled pig snout. Admirable! He drains his glass of lemonade and places it back on the table. Admirable! He tastes his potatoes. Admirable! He gets up from the table and walks around the cabin touching things. Admirable! 


Standing still, taking pleasure in the idle noises his shoes make. Steps can form whole words. But the words do not move his feet forward. In the shed a cow with a large belly standing as cows do, standing and staring stubbornly. He stretches out his arms to caress her muzzle. Sound in the saliva collecting on his fingers. 


General Bethune beckons her to sit. Her legs will not move at first, fearing they have misunderstood his command. He points at a chair. She sits down.

Your boy, General Bethune says.


Her glance briefly meets his steady gaze. Her eyes fall. 

Your boy, Thomas. Grant her this. Can you explain it? 

Thomas knows what he has to do suh, she says. He is smart, she thinks. He clacks a little, she says.

You call that clacking?

Here comes trouble, she thinks. Tom is out to expose them. No, suh. Some of my other ones had it, she says. What she doesn’t say: she even stammers herself some time. Certain words drawled strangely. So she’s been told.

You call that clacking?

Yes, suh. I mean, no, suh. Tom’ body is renouncing speech while amplifying every other sound that enters him. Unusual—she will admit that—but how rewarding, to offer for the ear of others the blind forbidden silences that exist beneath the skin.

Her mistress wants answers too—of course, Mrs. Bethune gives advice too; she is anxious about Tom—her interest and concern amounting to a challenge. But the questions don’t annoy or anger her—they are decent enough questions--for the light in her mistress’s eyes, the other woman’s pure excitement, is enough consolation. Tom issued from her body. No denying it, no changing it.


She tries pinches and hard rubs, burning the skin. That not bringing the desired results, she takes his fingers and squeezes them as hard as she can. The long ongoing drama of a war compressed into these few actions, A pause in his breathing. Is he stopping to note the pain? His head lifts. His face empties out. Has she finally won the battle? Thinking this while he continues sitting, tongue lolling in his mouth.

More and more Tom deserts them to spend all his days in the mansion. Tom, where you at?

Sun burning in the heights, burning all the way up to heaven, birds, caught, motionless, aflame and dying, bested by common flies veering near her mouth, her ears. No surprise, the wind is hot enough to make her eyes water. The road rises and bends and she finds herself ending up in weeds. How is this possible? After all these years her body chooses to forget basic things. Call it a flurry of action in avoidance. Gotta see the general. She starts back. Off to see the general.


The culminating structure of the house, set in this landscape, a natural part of it, no other place it can or should be, rising white out of the ground like a mushroom. She stands wincing in the light. Takes a deep breath, fills her lungs. Call it a gathering of courage. She hesitates to go in. General Bethune looks bad-tempered, the room otherwise cool and pleasant. Only an accident of timing has allowed her to get here now, late as it is.

Not the first time he has questioned her about her boy. Nor does she feel it will be the last. No one to blame but herself if she is here standing before him yet again, if she hasn’t already figured out a way to tell him once and for all what he wants to hear and in so telling put an end to the accusations. Not that she is eager to aid him. Of course, she has thought it over, she is prepared, armed with excuses, ready to count the hours and the days, sketch in what only exists for him for them in shadow outline. Easier said than done. Already her story starts to lose coherence. 

He looks sourly at her. Instructs her to bring Tom to the house in the morning to begin daily obedience lessons. As well, he details a list of chores he expects the boy to perform. Starting tomorrow. Bright and early. 

Out in the barn Tom milks the cow. Each udder has a different feel. This action. Tom churns milk. This action. Out in the stable Tom slings hay to the horses. This action. Let us suppose, the one and the other are less a matter of thinking, evidence of a conscious or buried intelligence, and more the simple reality of muscular expectation and release, habitual movement not unlike the sidewise rhythm of horse teeth, chewing cud. Stable, barn, shed, house—harmoniously linked. 

Sit, Tom. Good.

Stand, Tom. Good boy. 

Be quiet, Tom. Quiet down now, Tom. No blubbering. 



They are walking briskly now, a constitutional, under the elms at the edge of the garden. A walk seems to help settle him, make him easier to cope with for the day. She always takes the lead, with him behind her, though they take turns at varying the pace, a shifting distance. A hot day, and the air so still that it seems to absorb all sound of their footfalls. Then something changes. She isn’t sure who first steps up the pace, only knows that she turns to see him following her as fast as he can, arms pumping, head bouncing, a charging bull. She picks up speed, and so does he, matching her pace. It is not unlike watching your shadow following you. And she will admit that this unsettles her. For she has reason to believe that the skin of another is no barrier against his advances. In fact there are times when she swears—has seen it with her own eyes--that he assumes the look of another person, their stance, their gestures, their posture, his face a mask of theirs, changing expression when theirs did, their bodies and identities like clothes he can hang on his person. Where some see the presence of the supernatural in his feats of imitation, feel a foreboding, the first elements of some danger to come, she seeks a physical cause which will—she is sure of it—eventually reveal itself. (Although a believer in both the Man Above and the Man Below, she is not inclined towards either fundamentalism or superstition.) Granted, she will admit that his behavior on occasion unnerves her—for instance, how can he embody her gait? But these occasions are rare. She is perfectly at ease around the boy and finds a certain comfort in his presence. They leave the shade of the trees, bright light now, sun in every step. Perhaps you don’t need to see a thing to be it. (Can she help it if she thinks this?) After all, this boy is bonded to sound. There must be some way that his ears are able to register and measure the exact rhythm of her footfalls and his. An interesting notion, even moving in a way. She turns her head to look back at him and sees him take one step, two, before he also turns his head and looks back over his shoulder. 


Steeple. Church. People. The congregation is in step with the church and the church is in step with time. After service ends the pastor sends the lead deacon comes out front to give poor farmers and such unlikely beings to understand that the pastor does not converse with ordinary mortals. They must put everything in writing—ask the impossible--and hand him a note the moment he leaves the church. He never leaves through the front but through the back. Where Negroes push and shove each other amid a hubbub of noise and gossip while they wait for the pastor to appear before them and lend ear to their secrets and complaints and mouth opinions and advice, usually in the form of biblical scripture but sometimes in plain English if you are lucky. She thinks she is going to faint, everything whirling around her. When he appears in the doorway, the world draws to a hush. Ritual perfection. He holds up the bottom of his black gown to avoid tripping over it as he comes down the stairs. One after the next they begin to pour out their sufferings. She hears him say to one man, But after all, who is your father? Moves on to the next person. She breathes the air at calculated intervals. Deeply moved, he squeezes one woman’s slender bony hands. As the solemn moment draws near she quiets her breathing. He puts a hand on her shoulder, leans forward some, and turns his ear towards her face to hear what she has to say. Saying done, he draws back and looks at her with a stern expression. You ought to be ashamed to ask me such a question. How is it possible for a mother to pray for the peace of a living soul? It’s a great sin, I tell you, and it is forgiven only because of your ignorance. Your son is alive, is he not? 


He has an inkling. Once, not many years ago, he successfully treated a three-year old Negro for the usually incurable and often terminal affliction. The boy had poked himself in the eye with a twig, what at first seemed a minor injury, a scratch, a doctor’s poor diagnosis setting the stage for greater injury. A week later the eye became infected. After a second week the other eye became infected, both eyes causing the onset of brain fever. Then he was called in. Upon a careful review of the case, he decided to remove both eyes, and remove them he did and in so doing he not only saved the boy’s life but prevented any further physical and mental damage. A paper detailing the case had been published in a medical journal.

Now he has the opportunity to study the effects of the illness in its later and perhaps even final stages. (The Bethune boy promises much. He senses it and trembles at the possibilities.) Does the fever seep down to the most profound layer of the mind, rooted, biding its time, never to rise again until the terminal moment? He can see another paper on the horizon. How he would love to deliver it in Paris before the most distinguished men of his profession, or at some other open and welcome gathering on the Continent, so attuned to the latest advances in science and medicine. How slow the progress here. How thick the ignorance. Where are our lavatories and hospitals animated by the breath of Europe? A matter of endless frustration for him. So good to have an ally like James in the scientific cause. But he is as much struggling to comprehend James’ uncharacteristic stealth--why had they kept silent about the boy, kept him hidden, and for all these many years?--as much as the strange case of this boy Tom. So unlike James to keep secrets from him. They are old friends, best friends perhaps, although he doesn’t always agree with James’ national and ethnological policies and prophecies. (So much more the reason why he rarely attends their soirees and functions; frankly—Why lie? Nothing to hide, he has told James as much—he feels weakened and defiled by the company they keep. Still, he has to admit that James with his prominent political and social connections had helped put him into the world.) 

He is moving briskly but not urgently, headed toward the Bethune mansion. He is six people at once in his own head, medical companions, reciting the details of James’ message, reviewing the supposed facts, pulling up old cases and the latest research and hypotheses, the discourses which might lead him in the direction of a solid diagnosis. Although preoccupied he makes it a point to tip his hat to all he meets, regardless of their position in life. Plenty of them, faces that he knows, some he doesn’t. He has yet to reach the height of his fame, but he has already developed something of a reputation as a man of science bent on ridding the men and women of their region, their country, of their faulty and dangerous notions and traditions. In particular, he sees no way of holding his tongue against the planter’s wasteful practice of forcing expectant mothers to work in the fields down to the period of delivery. No way to prove it but he is convinced that either maternal anxieties or industry itself cause crippling and irreversible effects on the brain of the unborn. Hence, a mentally weakened infant enters the world, fulfilling the prejudiced hypotheses about the Negro’s limited intelligence. Believes that the planters can do away with many of their numerous complaints against the Negroes if only they took it upon themselves to rear a better crop of workers. Naturally, he advocates rest for the expectant mother in her final months. Some planters have taken his advice to heart with improved results. But they remain in the minority. Sadly, ignorance is a mountain he must climb. A case in point: one idle-thinking peanutter thought it clever to wheel the expectant mother to the field on a cart, where she could repose in the vehicle or on the ground, as she chose, under the shade of a tree, be tree available, and assist the overworked overseer, serve as his spying eyes. 

Some of his beliefs rub his fellow citizens the wrong way, but his authority is too great for them to disregard his opinions. 

Now in his carriage his thoughts fade, awaken, and return. The boy takes form in his mind even before he has seen him. Never mind the details of manner or appearance, the patient (body, subject, study) at rest and in motion. Jumping the gun perhaps? (Yes, James’ words have prejudiced him. So too his own hopes and aspirations.) Sweat collects in the smooth skin between the brim of his hat and his eyes. He feels waves of air against his face, and he is willing to believe that they are brought down from hundreds of feet above by the forceful fanning of bird wings. How quickly he arrives at the mansion and how gracefully he steps down from his carriage without the assistance of his Negro driver. Now high shade, the immobile green flames of the trees. Trees higher than the mansion itself. (The higher the leaf the hotter.) He arrives on the porch, out of breath, out of words. The Bethune’s Negress opens the door, and he removes his hat and bows a little, taking air into his lungs, lets his hat return and says a few casual words to her, the way one makes polite conversation, before she takes him in and shows him to the library, him on guard, observing and evaluating, beginning his inquiry as soon as he is one foot inside the mansion, looking for the signs. 


She wonders if she should thank General Bethune for bringing the doctor. (The vague hope that the doctor may reveal something useful.) That is, she wonders if she should feel thankful. Even if she decides that the general’s action warrant her appreciation—she is only beginning to mull that over, hasn’t had long to think about it, all so unexpected and sudden, in a rush of minutes—how can she voice the words? Not her place to. And even if it were she doesn’t think she could bring her tongue to do so. 


No, it doesn’t surprise him, for the Negro, like his Anglo-Saxon superior, is an imitative being. How wrong of them to sneer at any act of simulation, no matter how peculiar or extreme. Might imitation be proof of buried intelligence, the first stirrings of coherent function and knowledge which, when thought and deed come together in noble agreement, form the basis of culture? The question warrants further investigation. 

His thoughts on medicine mingle with the voices of fellow doctors and surgeons he has reviewed the case with, all rank outsiders in matters of research. So easy for common eyes to refuse to see what they should see because they don’t wish to see it, for common mouths to parrot the same reductive beliefs in the same old weighted language. Freaks of nature. Oversights or accidents of God. He longs to get the examination under way. He has never been so upset by waiting. (Yes, something about to be born.) The thought hardly out of his mind before he feels something shift around him. It takes him a moment to locate the subject, sitting still and quiet on the sofa, blending in. How had he missed the boy’s entry? Might he have been here the whole time? As impossible as it seems, he senses that the boy had deliberately tried to catch his attention only moments earlier, for he sees a definite alertness in the face (Later, he will recall having heard a noise--a cough or a clearing of the throat—a sound coming before the sight. This addition.) No doubt about it. The boy is listening and smelling. 

That’s when it hits him. This is the boy. The odor of candles mingling with the other’s dark complexion glowing before him, body and face causing him to draw back as before a vision of rare life. What difficulties an artist would have in painting his portrait. His physical advancement, certain aspects of his appearance—the bulging forehead, his ample mouth and cheeks, the wide neck, his broad shoulders, the height and strength— evidence of the vital spirit within. In the struggle to survive his illness the strong thing within had stripped him of all it thought unessential, hindrances to living. Confined as he is to his world of darkness, is he even capable of detecting the ailment present but hidden within his person? How difficult to get to the ordinary life behind a thing. 

He can scarcely sit on his chair. Light enters his eyes, almost as if he is watching his own face reflected upon mirrored in his patient’s shining skin. The floor gleams in anticipation. He does not keep it waiting. The skin is not that different from any other he has touched. He runs his fingers across the ridge over the brow—a feature common to the African species—testing the strength of the skull. The eyelids are impossible to lift, dead weight, even against maximum force of the fingers. The ears show no sign of under or over development. (Some wax inside.) Two rows of shining teeth--he has never seen such clean teeth on either Negro or Caucasian—well enameled and formed. A light film coating the tongue. (Something glinting there, dancing, until sucked under.) The spine seems somewhat soft to the touch, like a plant’s lacy skeleton. He lifts one arm by the wrist—he can both hear and feel the patient’s breathing change— then the other, both limbs limp and weightless despite the developed musculature, loose threads somehow still clinging to the spool. The lips move. Is it a strange wild smile or a silent conversation? He puts a hand on the knee and feels a softening then opens his bag and takes measurements with the latest instruments. Takes in his entire form and structure.  

James enters the room, working his noisy canes, a smile spreading slowly over his goateed face. He holds back on reporting his findings, asks that the boy be removed from the room and the parents brought forth. A short time later, they appear before him—ah, so she was the Negress who had answered the door--heads bowed, hands cupped. Both before he begins and after he finishes interviewing them, he and James talk in low tones and try not to look at Charity and Mingo. (Those are their names.) He does not rush his questions. Had he fallen into some calamitous illness? Suh? A calamity? They look at one another. Yes, suh. Tom did indeed suffer a serious injury in childhood. A fever? They look at one another. Was he weaned on a cow’s tiddy? Did they bath him in homegrown wine? (Both are practices he has observed firsthand.) Did he crave the thick taste of goat’s milk? He awaits each answer, looking at them, openly evaluating. Their awkwardness causes him to feel embarrassed. (He considers himself a quiet champion of the Negro cause.) He can see plainly enough how hard it is for them to respond to his unusual inquiries and suggestions. His feelings of sympathy offset by a certain anger as he senses that they seem determined to keep the full facts from him. (How foolish his fellow white men to trust every word and smile and expression of glad thanks and plea of innocence or ignorance from their slaves.) If only they could understand that a full confession might aid him in a precise diagnosis and an effective course of treatment and possible remedy for their son.      Satisfied that he has elicited the best answers he will ever get the parents are dismissed. He returns to his original place on the couch, while James remains standing, leaning forward over his canes. He drinks in all of James’ concerns, matters more troubling for Mary, he suspects, than for James himself. Tom might wander into a serious harm in a barn or under the wheels of a speeding carriage, stumble into a well, or come to accident by fire. He sits passively and digests the information. From James’ lengthy report—he absorbs every word, image, and description--it is clear that this matter has been troubling them for some time. (They already have enough trouble with their son Sharpe. Constantly on the go. Running here and there. Away. Always away. Cooking up reports for the newspaper. Brought him up the best they could, although he had been a handful and still is. Trouble spares none of us.) 

The end of obedience is protection, James says. 

How poorly his good friend understands that the dangers from without are far less threatening than those from within. 

Would this have been the moment when Mary entered the room? 

Dr. Hollister. 

Still formal after all these years. Her hands spilling from the sleeves of her dress, pale against the cloth’s dark shine. Her skin toneless, almost gray, the color of stone, a heavy contradiction given her slight figure. She still looks young if you catch her in the right light. (The wrong light now.) He recalls the one time he saw her with her hair down—what circumstance made that possible?—black strands falling freely to both sides of her face. The novelty of that sensation as she stands before him now hair fixed in place and dressed as he usually sees her in plain unassuming garments. Despite her noble stature and bearing she is not a vain woman; nor will she allow James to be carried away by exaggerated feelings of self-importance.

James, he says, why don’t I have a look at your legs while I’m here? His offer is an excuse to push Mary out of the room. They all know it. She won’t stay around and watch her husband with his trousers down around his ankles before a third party. No fool, she knows that the men want to be alone, and she will concede, as a woman of discretion and taste should. 

Without a backward glance she reaches the door and goes out. James begins again, but he holds up his hand in a gesture of silence. I’ve seen this many times before, he says. My own person has treated many a case. You should have spared yourself any feared embarrassment. Where had they kept the boy hidden these many years? Why didn’t you call me sooner? 

He drops a knowing smile. Don’t vex yourself, James. He has already formulated some very precise ideas about the nature of Tom’s improbable condition. Through research and meditation had sought out and outlined the etiology of a vicious disease, numbed here but refusing to be quelled completely, believing that it still roaming free in the jungles and deserts of Africa. If I were a man who had not been out in the world, he says, you would find yourself hard put for answers. 

    James looks at him, measuring the words. What can you tell me? 

    The organs learn to adapt themselves to an existence which at first sight would appear to be utterly impossible, he says. My own eyes have seen it. My own hands have examined it.

    What? What have you seen?     Brain fever, a cruel malady which lasts for a cruel length of time: a lifetime. A debilitating sickness that began long ago, before the invention of medicine.

James stands and listens, eyes alive and searching. 

I’m not talking about this religious foolishness that so many of our people spout from bench and pulpit. That black people are children of the devil and such nonsense. It always pained him that so many of his colleagues in the county, in their region, in their state, in their nation, were so ignorant and vulgar. Over in Macon, one so-called doctor had advised (ordered?) the members of his town, his patients, not to drink water from the river, where the recently arrived Jews had cast their sins. 

No one here is questioning your knowledge or experience, James says. I trust your knowledge, James says.

I trust you would.

So we’ve said that.


And you will tell me more?

Yes. It’s a simple matter, really. Africa is the chief stronghold of the real Devil, those reactionary forces of nature most hostile to the uprise of humanity.

Go on, James says. He will take it all standing. He refuses to sit down. 

Here Beelzebub, King of the Flies, marshals his vermiform and arthropod hosts, insects, ticks, and nematode worms, which, more than on any other continent, convey to skin, veins, intestines, and spinal marrow of men and other vertebrates the microorganisms which cause deadly, disfiguring, or debilitating diseases, or themselves create the morbid condition of both the persecuted human being and lesser forms--beasts, bird, reptile, frog, or fish. The inhabitants of this land have had a sheer fight for physical survival comparable with that found on no other great continent, and this must not be forgotten when we consider their history. 

His good friend remains silent. Looks at him as if he hasn’t understood a word of it. Or was it something else completely? Perhaps lie gets nothing, accepts nothing except by instinct. Or maybe it is simply hard for him to define exactly what he wants, both what he had hoped or expected to hear and what results he expected. 

I suppose that’s more than you care to I know. I’ve laid out the pertinent facts. Indeed you have. 

If only you had called for me sooner, James, we’ve known, each other a long lime. Much sooner. Many years ago.


The best I can do is to provide you with a powder which might restore the use of his tongue. Otherwise he might lose his voice forever.

Once outside, he angles his hat on his head to let his hair breathe some. It is only then, when he is leaving the house on approach to his carriage, after the extensive meditation, inquiry, and examination, only then does a simple fact register. He can’t see me. The thought strikes him again. He can’t see us.

Contributor Notes

Song of the Shank is a novel loosely based on the life of Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth century African American piano virtuoso and composer who performed under the stage name Blind Tom. Told through the eyes and minds of people who try to manipulate or use Tom for one reason or another, the novel is an imaginative meditation on issues of blindness, race, and the role and importance of art and critical thinking in our world today.

Allen began work on the novel in 2001 while a fellow at The Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library. A recent recipient of The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his short story collection Holding Pattern, Allen is also the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and of the novel Rails Under My Back, which won The Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction. His other awards include a Whiting Writer's Award, an Honorable Mention for Adult Fiction from the Society for Midland Authors, a special citation from The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, and support grant from Creative Capital. Chicago-born and raised, he is currently a Professor of English at Queens College of The City University of New York and an instructor in the graduate writing program at The New School. He now resides in Far Rockaway, Queens with his wife and two children. Graywolf Press will publish Song of the Shank in 2011.