This story is by Dena Linn and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My real name is Youssou, yes, after the famous musician. My skin is so black my mother lovingly called me her darkest chunk of coal. When the sun dipped down, the earth cooled, and all was dark, we sat outside where family and neighbors could barely make out my hands, their fingers plucking determinedly in practice, more often tripping or tangled between strings. Mama dreamed big for her youngest son as I sat in the dirt, dust between my toes, a gourd so fat my sister could sit in between my legs. Soon a real teacher heard my fingers dancing and placed me on a wooden stool. My toes still dragged in the sand, and my small frame was swallowed behind my instrument. Swarmed by the music, engulfed by its rhythm, and taken by the beat; my mother couldn’t have seen me shrouded tight in chords and darkness, even if she’d tried. Now she only called me her little music star. I learned to speak with the sounds and pulses that came forth. As puberty struck, I sang love songs, but the sound of my love flowed out of the gourd’s hole, and no woman ever noticed me.
Soon, I grew into a man. I remembered mama, with ancient wisdom tapping my palm with her long brown finger, tracing my lifeline and telling me that my voice lived within it. She said, “People only hear your music my son; they come for your sound; they will dance to its rhythm.”
“But mama, it is not me then, that they see!” My voice lost, crying inside my head. My mother could not hear me.
Years later, I chose to emigrate, and I played my music in subway stations sending my sounds to dance, echoing down corridors and tunnels. Dressed all in black, a monk’s stillness ran through my spine, and only the whites of my eyes, like thin strips of a moon, shown on my coal face. Only my fingers danced and sang across the strings, and Praise be to Allah, I never went hungry with the quarters that were tossed. I survived on an island, apart but connected as a music man, hidden and comforted by my instrument. People who threw money perhaps thought my beautiful kora was hungry. Would they have been disappointed if they had known I bought coffee and bread and ate it myself?
One day an accident happened — a huge fire with hungry flames that took no prisoners. I flailed and fought. The flames caught my arm as I lunged in terror to save my lovely kora. In the heat, I felt sure my body would break away into tiny invisible pieces, to be lost forever, unseen and unheard without my calabash gourd.
The sounds that come from a burn unit are the worst. We all knew why the drugs were so potent. Chilling howls, usually only heard in the wild, rocketed through our charred frames. We lay isolated, even worse, sterile.
No one saw me, I’d lost my love, and they were all blind. The plastic curtain shut me out. They spoke solely to my right hand, telling it frankly that necrosis had set in, and they’d be cutting it off. They never said a word to me. They never saw me. The plastic bubble they had me in suffocated, and then, fierce drugs flowed through my unseen body, forcing the monkey grinder in my head to sleep.
And I dreamt.
My whole body leans into this plastic bubble, and I push until it pops, like pink chewing gum and I am free. I cradle an unknown stump. Whose is this? I wonder.
Two people and a dog approach. It is so quiet, and even the dog must be walking on silent paws. They look at each other engaged, eyes glowing with hands communicating in silence. I come to an elegant tower with a clock for a face and a copper-colored bell above. Both the sun and the clock indicate that it will soon be noon. But the clock’s big hand slides on top of the other, and the bell remains quiet, a glint in the sun.
A coffee shop, I see on the corner, is a relief. I anticipate a tinkling sound from over the door as I enter, but there is none. A young woman, a pink cap over blond hair, raises her hand to chest height, wiggles her fingers, and smiles. A wave, she sees me? I am dying for, “Coffee, black!” I tell her, and can almost taste the liquid before the words come out. She stares at me, shaking her head she points down to the menu, artfully designed with pictures of coffee drinks and food. Her finger taps the first picture and then slides to the second. She gives me a questioning look. I am wondering if, in actuality, this dream is some child’s game where one’s not allowed to speak and to win one must use pictures to communicate. I tap the cartooned black coffee and return her smile.
Everyone is sitting in silence, communicating in a language that I don’t know. I know music, melody, and scale. I am known, only known by my music, and suddenly I realize I’m alone in this world. Customers’ fingers flying like tiny finches in a private concert, while without my lovely kora, I am at a loss to be seen.
“Thank you,” I say, gulping the coffee and realizing she can’t hear me. I’m stuck in a bad dream. I cradle my elbow and feel the fingers moving. Looking down, I am shocked to see only a stump wrapped in fresh white linen, perfect. I look up, two men at a table make basset hound faces, and one points to what remains of my right limb. Did they see me? I can’t ask.
I hear my mama’s voice that follows me even into my worst nightmare, and she chides, “Still your body, use your fingers to communicate.” I stand before the silent clock tower and I yell. I scream with all the force that my body can deliver, not with her son’s music, but his voice, I rail at her, “Mother look now, I have no instrument, I have no hand, no one sees me! Help!”
Noiselessness and music are the only things I hear, and my fingers pluck invisible strings. I long for sound and wander looking for it. A movie theater! Here I will sit and let sound seep in. I take my ticket between scissored fingers, that arm supporting my stump whose phantom fingers are busy plucking, or are they reaching in jealousy to hold the movie stub?
In the theater, beautiful couples are finding their seats and attaching small LED screens to a connection in their chairs. The widescreen opens with a symphony of images of popcorn popping and soda slushing over ice, and yet, there is not one sound. I surreptitiously glance at my neighbor’s tiny screen and watch the words, ‘pop pop’ and ‘fizz splash’ interspersed with music notes march across in LED. The ticket lady didn’t see me, she certainly couldn’t hear me, and I didn’t get one of those magic screens. I watch the movie in silence.
I am voiceless in my world. When will this damn dream end? I wonder, can you daydream in your drugged-dream? I feel so alone and unseen. I know now it makes no difference if I wake or not. I have been carrying my stump like a dead baby around this town where I can’t communicate, and people don’t see me anyway.
I kick a metal bucket that must have been left out to catch rain. It first scrapes then rolls, the handle clanging, it’s a most delicious sound. I grab it up, and my stump dangles free. I sit down on a wooden step like I was a young boy, legs in a wide V. The bucket now held firmly by my stump, my left-hand taps, then slaps, then its fingers drum pinkie to thumb, testing the bucket’s sides and bottom.
The beat now comes, unsteady, testing, but it builds, finding its groove as my hand slaps a metallic rhythm. Even my grieving stump finds that it can change the bucket’s tone, and I smile. Within the gauze of my dream, I see the couple, their dog, the girl in the pink hat, a beautiful pair from the movie, the concerned men, and many others have gathered on the wooden plaza. They are swaying their bodies to my bucket beat, and you know, they see, no, they are looking right at me.
With the rhythm of a fading dream, my lovely kora flies away.
I woke, my fingers drumming. My name is Youssou and I am still a musician.