Chet Baker’s “How High the Moon?” rolled and rippled down a dark creek in Elijah’s early morning mind. He was thinking of himself back in Bold Moon at first, but he wasn’t there. He was still in his driveway. ‘There is no moon above, when love is far away too…’ Elijah kicked his dull red 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup with the side of his foot, unscrewed the lid of his Thermos, and smelled the coffee inside once again. Through the steam he observed Bailey straining out a poop, ears back, staring straight at Elijah. ‘Maybe I need to, too,’ Elijah thought. Bailey’s legs twitched. The screen door banged shut and out stepped Olive. “Bawo ni,” Elijah said to Olive, using the Yoruba expression. “Mowa,” she responded, “Am good, and you, how you dey? How is your health today? You chop? Have you eaten?” She held up aloft a tupperware container filled with cold rice. “I’m full on last night’s liquor,” answered Elijah, smiling and raising his eyebrows at her. It was the last of his uncle’s hooch which he brought up from Cheraw a month before. ‘How high was the moon last night, huh? We was pretty high.’ Elijah had sat up in the long winter night until eleven with booze and bonfire to accompany him. At one point Chester came over from across the street with a six-pack of beer and sat opposite Elijah on an old tree stump. Chester had said, “Ain’t nothin like a good fire,” then “Night,” after drinking two beers in silence.
“Deary,” Olive started, “You an dem hot drinks!”
“You mean the coffee,” he held up his Thermos, “or you mean the liquor?”
“The liquor, sweedy.”
“Well, I’m feeling fine. I taught ten classes yesterday, I have ten more tomorrow. Only a shame I’m fresh out of Uncle Clayton’s Sandhills sauce.”
“Am happy you’re sounding the way you do, thank God. Nawa for you!”
“Well, that’s different from how you sounded yesterday,” said Elijah, looking at the ground.
“How did I sound?”
“Displeased.” It had gone pretty much as normal, in fact. Olive acting impenetrably distant, Elijah choosing to overlook it until it had erupted. “And you just wanna sink this whole knowledge into…?” she had begun as usual, “C’mon sweedy! You’ve got something much better to offer to society, you’ve got a unique potential.” Always the same bourgie expectations. “I blow my horn,” he had said, “But working people work, that’s the deal. It’s fine.”
“You not fine. Abeg, don’t you ever settle for less. Would you believe that there are kings out there waiting for your rising?” Elijah had tried not to snicker at this. “You’ve got to explore your potential, give your society what you’ve got in your intellect. You are my musician, my philosopher, my acada… I need you to promise me that you gonna go out there and fetch you a nicer job.”
“Hey, why you give me wahala, man?” Elijah loved that Nigerianism.
“My dear, am not tryna criticize your job. At least am proud of you that you make a living from a responsible job. All am tryna say is that you could try aiming higher than you are right now. But if you think you just comfortable in the place you’re right now, then I still have no problem with that. As a friend, I will always respect your decisions, provided they make you happy.” That’s how it had both ended and not ended last night. Elijah could only pity anyone who didn’t know how to stare at a bonfire and appreciate the kaleidoscope of feelings contained in the flames. Chester understood, of course. Bailey did, as well. Probably Chet Baker, as well.
“Well, I am not displeased today, ok?” Olive said, opening her car door. She paused, expecting Elijah’s response. He closed his eyes, raised his hands before his face, fingered invisible valves and vibrated his lips to the tune of “How High the Moon?” He could sense Olive rolling her eyes all the way back down the driveway as she left. When the sound of her car had disappeared he opened his eyes and looked out to the dark road. “I’m driving to Cheraw,” he said aloud. He noticed Bailey sitting next to him. “I’m sorry, bud, you stayin.”
The sun rose over the rust red Chevrolet as it rolled passed the Uwharrie Forest, following the course of the Pee Dee River south toward the Palmetto State. Following the course of its tributary, Little River, past where it meets Town Creek at the Town Creek Indian Mound. Elijah road with the window down and the heat on, arm often exposed to the cold on the window sill. He recalled the summer visiting the mound, standing on top, lungs full of the scent of a controlled burn and wild onions. He looked down to his feet and saw a tuft of wild onions on the gentle slope of the mound. Without a second thought he grabbed it up and bit into the bunch of grass, chewing contentedly as he surveyed the horizon from his elevation. He lived in a world of infinite onions, even still. He drove the two hours this way, in silence. Content, if only eager for the seasons to turn us around again. He started to beat out a second line rhythm on the steering wheel, beginning with a 3-2 clave with the thumb. Bum Bum Bum, Bumbum. He then started flailing his fingers around enthusiastically, approximating eighth notes. He then began a call and response in his mind:
Wild onions — ‘Wild onions!’
On Town Creek Mound — ‘On Town Creek Mound!’
Grab a handful — ‘Grab a handful!’
Swallow em down — ‘Swallow em down!’
Wild onion — ‘Wild onions!’
Chew the sprouts — ‘Chew the sprouts!’
Town Creek people — ‘Town Creek people!’
Ain’t there now — ‘Ain’t there now!’
Elijah parked at Hickey’s Liquor on 2nd and Marlboro. He took his trumpet out of the case and listened to the air around him. He stepped onto the sidewalk and looked for the cracks in which he had once watched a solitary ant explore, or seen some pool of spit dry into a thin layer of sheen on the concrete. There were many such hours here, where he used to play with the old crew. He listened to a branch breaking somewhere along the downtown blocks, a windchime, a grumbling engine. He elevated his horn and did his best to play a blue note for them all. The horn bellowed. He looked around to see the streets empty. He became upbeat again.
Wild onions, April gooduns, crunch a few and swallow em down
— ‘Swallow em down!’
He entered Hickey’s. He recognized the clerk but didn’t give her much thought. He bought his large bottle of Everclear, tucked the brown bag into his jacket pocket and exited. He walked on down Market Street, saying hi to the Gillespie statue with a rendition of “Salt Peanuts”. A car drove by, honking and waving. Elijah followed it with his horn as it passed, returning the greeting. After a second car greeted him similarly, Elijah threw out St. Mary’s Trumpet Call and a cavalry charge before dropping his horn to his side and continuing his walk down Market. Ten minutes or so later a gold 2003 Ford Taurus pulled up on the curb beside him. “Hey, Eli!” said the older man behind the wheel, pinching the visor of his cap over the words ‘Vietnam Vet’ and raising it slightly. Elijah turned and grinned, “Yo, Uncle Clayton!” He knelt down beside the driver door. “Give ya uncle some dap!” said the older man with smile, as the two shook. “I’m thinking about moving back here to Cheraw, Uncle Clayton,” said Elijah. Uncle Clayton briefly looked confused, then closed his eyes and shook his head. He waved his hand, “Get in, young buck, I’m fixin ta grill back at the house!” Elijah stood, rounded the front of the car and got in. “Good to see you!” Uncle Clayton said as Elijah fastened his seatbelt.
A block farther and they stopped at a traffic light. “This damn thing needs a new catalytic converter. It ain’t worth it, but at the same time I ain’t doin nothin but drivin it aroun town. They got them emissions testings up there, don’t they?”
Elijah scratched his head, “Yeah, well, for the most part. I think it depends on the counties.”
“Uhuh,” said Uncle Clayton, probing for more.
“Yeah…” said Elijah, “around 85 they got em, for sure. And they don’t need no music teachers around there, either. But if you go up near Virginia, where they need everything, they don’t have the money. So no emissions tests, probably not a lot of tests of any kind.”
“Sounds like home!” laughed Uncle Clayton, “But you’re doin good, right? You’re gettin by? Enough for a twenty-somethin in college, at least?” Elijah nodded. “But I’m thinking about dropping out of school, maybe coming back here to Cheraw.”
“What happened with that African girl you was seein?”
“She wants to move to Atlanta.”
“Well?” laughed the older man.
The Everclear bottle stabbed Elijah in the side. He removed it from his jacket pocket, holding it in his hands and staring at the brown bag it was in. “It’s a lose-lose situation for me. She’s going after things she wants, she’s making steps she sees she needs to make, but none of these things and none of these steps mean the same to me. And so she sees me as lacking ambition, when I just see her as…”
“What’s that, rotgut?”
Uncle Clayton gestured toward the bottle.
“Anyways, continue. You see her as…?”
“I don’t know… superficial, I guess. Boring. Asking me to jump all the time, not really going out there and jumpin through any hoops for me. Just assuming her way is best.” The Taurus entered Uncle Clayton’s driveway. The sound of a stereo called from the backyard. “Ooo, she got company over already. Your aunt gone kill me with that business. Here, let me drop off these bags in the back, then you an I’ll meet by the fire, how’s that?” Elijah agreed, adding, “You don’t need no help?”
“Boy, a man always needs help when there’s a woman involved,” he answered, “but no, you just go round back.”
With the Everclear bottle under one arm and the trumpet under the other Elijah put the toes of his right shoe under the chain-link gate to lift it up while lifting the latch. The old chain-link had grown old with him, and his uncle’s house without it might as well be devoid of all its oak trees, as well. “Hi, Elijah,” sung a woman melodically from a plastic chair on the back porch. She waved a hand rattling with bracelets as he passed by. “Hi, ma’am, how’re you?” he called back, not entirely recognizing her. He proceeded towards the fire, unscrewing the cap from the liquor and taking a swig. Before long the large form of his uncle came lumbering over with a beer in each hand.
“Here, Eli,” he said, handing him a beer, “You see, me an your aunt know how to take a lose-lose an make it a win-win… like Khe Sanh!” The older man touched the visor of his cap again, and Elijah laughed nervously. “Well, we’ll be glad to have you back if you come,” Clayton began again, “but there ain’t much for a young man to do here, you know. That’s why your cousins are long gone. But I guess I’ll have somethin for you if you come back.”
“What?” asked Elijah.
Uncle Clayton drank some beer and belched. “The family Bible,” he said in an unintentionally high pitch behind the swell of gas.
“I already got our family Bible.”
“No, you got your family Bible,” said Clayton, pointing a finger at his nephew, “I got the Cheraw family Bible.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, y’all’s Bible was started by your mama by copyin down what was in the old family Bible an writin in her side. The Cheraw Bible was me and your daddy’s family Bible, to hand down to either the oldest chile or, as it turned out, the one who stayed in town.”
“Well, no one’s in town.”
“Exactly, so what am I doin with it?” Uncle Clayton slurped some beer from his can.
“A Bible’s a Bible, it’ll work the same in Cheraw or in Charleston. Send it to your kids,” said Elijah. Uncle Clayton raised a hand and swatted the air, “What you know about your daddy’s family?”
Elijah sipped his beer and stared into the fire, thinking. “Well, talkin to granny back in the days… grandaddy was mixed race, right? Light skin, his folks were ‘free persons of color’?”
Uncle Clayton nodded deeply. “He said he’d never leave Cheraw,” the old man began, “He said he was Cheraw. He said Cheraw was what they was before they was Benjamins. You know what that mean?”
Elijah filled his mouth with beer and shrugged his shoulders.
Uncle Clayton explained, raising a hand into the air, “You look up on that first page of the Benjamin’s Cheraw family Bible and up at the very top you see ‘Justice Sara’. That’s your grandaddy’s…,” he smiled, inviting Elijah’s patience, “…like, very great grandaddy.”
“Like, Supreme Court Justice?” asked Elijah.
“No, man. That cat was Indian!”
Elijah’s eyes grew wide as he heard his uncle speak, “No kidding?”
“Yeah, no kiddin,” Clayton’s eye peered off into the treetops as his lips moved silently, “My daddy’s great-great-great-great-grandfather… your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather…”
“How you remember all that?” asked Elijah.
“Oh, I just remembered four, that it was four greats for daddy. So yeah, that man was Indian and his name was Justice, and his tribe was called Cheraw, just like the town. We don’t know what happened after that. We got names on the tree, but it’s really hard to say. Who was Indian, who was black, who was free and who was slave. All we know is that Paw and his folks were ‘free people of color’, but darker than Indian… somewhere along the way the name Benjamin got picked up. You’ll see, I’ll get the Bible for you before you go.”
Elijah remembered Mae’s stories from Bold Moon, specifically the story of an Indian named Justice. “You know what, I think I heard a story about this guy…” he began. It was Uncle Clayton’s turn to widen his eyes. “Did he kill someone, do you know?” asked the young man. Uncle Clayton laughed loudly, “Whadya know? Ain’t that some crazy shit? That’s just about the only story we know about him! He left his kin. Went where he wasn’t supposed to be. He ran away, Mama said it was to find something for hisself since his family had all gone another way… here, let’s sit down!” Clayton excitedly gestured to two stumps in front of the fire.
The two sat, and Clayton continued, in a quieter voice, “‘Husquenaugh’! That’s what it was called, ‘husquenaugh’. I talked to them at the Chesterfield County Historical Society. So the Cheraws had this reeeeal rough manhood ceremony called ‘husquenaugh’, where they’d lock them boys up an torture em an oh it was sposed to be awful. Justice ran away from that. Now at the same time the whitefolks were out there killin these Tuscaroras, an some of the Cheraws went with em — some a his kin. So now Justice is goin up north, past the Pee Dee folks, an he thinks he’s up there safe from his kin an everythin. But then he gets startled, killed a white man and his slave to cover it up, cuz his kin woulda turned him in to stop the white folks and others comin down on em. So in the end he ran away from Cheraw and he wound up running back into it. All the menfolk of Justice’s family joined up with a Captain Jack one day to fight these Tuscarora with this white government man. As it was done back in them days, the Indians that got captured were sold. In fact, pretty soon after Captain Jack’s Indians met the Tuscaroras they started desertin with their prisoners, tryina make off to sell em. So Justice walked into the warzone and cut down a Tuscarora that had been sold and the man that had bought him. The only thing he could think at the time was that a Tuscarora was liable to see him as a combatant,” Uncle Clayton pointed a finger in Elijah’s face and stared into his eyes, “and a white man was liable to see him as an acquisition hisself. That’s what we think we know, anyway. And the whitefolk, already seeing Cheraws as a bunch of deserters an opportunists, would easily see them the next second as another bunch of combatants and slaves…”
Uncle Clayton took a deep pull from his can as the two sat quietly in thought. “Boy, it sure is good to at least have a story to tell, ain’t it?” Uncle Clayton added.
“And that’s all we think we know?” asked Elijah.
“Well, the Pee Dee Indians owned a slave named Fortune, me an your daddy thought some on whether or not that was the ‘Florence’ written in the Bible next to Justice, but that woulda been some luck there, just to find some more documented history. But at least we have the one story, which we can count on. The story likely stuck around cuz Justice killed an Indian and a slave and a white man all at once, just to survive, but to survive his own mistake before going home to his kin and just keeping on. He survived, so we’re here, an Paw’s whole family was the Justice family because Justice was either gonna fall in line or go down fighting the whole world around him. And Paw’s whole family was Cheraw, and now here we are today.”
“But I don’t get it,” Elijah squinted incredulously, “why would this story be remembered so well, and how could I have heard about it from someone else, if it was such a dangerous situation he was in? Wouldn’t you want to keep that secret?”
“I don’t know, young buck,” his uncle replied, “people’s fortunes change, and soon after I guess the story wan’t so dangerous to tell no more. Whitefolks done went an killed an enslaved all the Indians in the end, anyway.”
The two sat quietly watching the fire, listening to its crackling and to the din of the company talking and listening to music. “The family Bible, huh?” Elijah blurted out, rhetorically.
“Ain’t that some shit,” said Uncle Clayton, standing with a grunt, “I gotta check on these hamburgers.”