His chest felt heavy, his legs tired. Dead leaves rustled under his feet. Nailed to the sky, the moon’s sardonic smile quivered among a cluster of cold stars. His body just a coffin for his soul, Robert seemed to take every footstep with infinite precaution, as if fearing that the dirt road would swallow his feet.
On each side, pine trees stood tall. Ancient guardians.
“Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of-” he tried to recite, but was interrupted by hounds barking somewhere in the distance. Long, reverberating shivers of sounds that seemed to had spawned from hell itself bashed against his ears. His black skin glistened with sweat; droplets shuddered down from his hairline to his eyebrows, down his temples. The skin of his neck burned, hot. His eyes glimmered in the dark void, hopelessly trying to peer through that endless ocean of fear and agony. He pressed the guitar to his chest, his long arms forming a desperate embrace around the black wood. The sharp smell of lacquer flooded his nose.
Robert was so young. He would have liked to believe that all this was just the terrible lethargy of a nightmare, but it wasn’t because he could smell the fresh and clean scent the trees around him emanated.
When he reached the spot where the road that led to Dockery Plantation and the one that led to Clarksdale met, he sighed. A small lamp hung from a wooden street sign, and a bench overlooked both roads. He turned around – a sinuous and dark pathway slowly dissolved into the night.
He stood there for a long time. Then he began to stagger his way toward the bench.
With his guitar resting in his lap, he took a deep breath, the cool air making its way down his throat with a prolonged hiss, and then he began to sing a lullaby, his hands drumming on the guitar. Above, a comet was cutting through the black sky like a knife, its bluish tail shining bright.
His singing was cut short by hounds barking. He gulped. His heart throbbing inside his chest, he rummaged through his mind for a bit of clarity, for a bit of strength, but couldn’t find any. It was as if someone was walking toward him, a vague perception hinted by the shadows that danced on the ground around him. His body froze as he could now clearly hear footsteps, growing stronger and stronger. A gust of wind rattled all the ghosts that resided inside his soul. Twigs fluttered spasmodically and screeched as if possessed by a demon.
“Where are the others?” A deep voice killed the silence and shattered into a million pieces inside his head. Robert closed his eyes. His shoulders shuddered. This was all just a dream.
When he opened them, he saw a puny man sitting beside him on the bench. The man’s eyes were a strange grey, a color he had seen many times before in his nightmare. He wore a black trench coat that came all the way down to his knees.
“Where are the others?” the man repeated, staring intensely back at Robert.
A frown flickered across the man’s pale face. “Others. Like you. There should have been more tonight.”
Robert rubbed the sweat off his eyebrows and forehead.
The man leaned forward and fixed his gaze on Robert’s eyes. Deep wrinkles traversed his forehead. He caressed his chin with his tiny fingers.
“Can you see my soul?” Words struggled to come out of Robert’s mouth.
The man didn’t bother to answer. He pointed toward the guitar. “This is what you want?”
The man took the guitar from his shaking hands and placed it on his lap. A lifetime of agony passed between two heartbeats. The man tuned the guitar with care, and then he began to play. His hands were performing such an intricate choreography, making the chords cry underneath his small, white as bone fingers that a tear formed in the corner of Robert’s eye and lingered there for a moment.
As the painful melody sent ripples through the night, the man stared hollowly at the dirt road that stretched toward Clarksdale. A long time passed, with Robert hopelessly rubbing life back into his arms and shoulders.
Then the song stopped. The man glanced at Robert with his ash colored eyes and smiled.
“Thank you,” Robert whispered as the man handed him the guitar back. “How’s this going to…” he muttered, his fingers caressing the chords. A sharp pain pierced through his fingers and travelled upward through every fiber of his body. His soul fell into a deep abyss, and his heart began to boil inside his chest. He felt that he couldn’t breathe, that air couldn’t make its way down to his lungs. He closed his eyes and began to play vividly, his hands shaking in despair. Soon the fire in his body and limps dissolved, and he opened his eyes, his eyes as black as tar – they were void of any light. Empty and cold.
The other man stood on the street a few feet away from him, with his hands tucked in his pockets. “What’s your name?” he asked and grinned, revealing yellow, crooked teeth. His grey eyes shone bright.
A faint breeze quivered around their bodies. The two dirt roads that collided underneath their feet glowed in the shy light of the lamp. A weak heartbeat tried to keep an empty body alive.
And the black man said, “Robert, sir. Robert Johnson.”
This short story is a part of The Writer. Find out more here.