Robert Johnson’s birthday is on Sunday, May 8th. Happy birthday, RJ.
Headlights streamed through the bedroom curtains and hit R J in the eyes. He shook the sleep from his eyes, then turned to the woman at his side on the bed.
“Clara,” he said, then louder. “Clara.”
The pickup stopped in the driveway outside.
“What?” she said, angry at being woken from her dream.
“I thought you said that your husband would be out of town all week.”
The headlights went off.
“Oh, shit. R J, you gotta get out of here.”
R J was already out of the bed and in his pants. He grabbed his shirt and his shoes. He leaned over and kissed her thick brown lips. “Be seeing you.”
He shoved the window up and threw his clothes out into the back yard. Halfway through the bedroom window, he remembered Euterpe. He ran across the room and picked the guitar up. The front door opened just as R J went through the window.
He heard Clara call out to her man, “That you, Hon?”
The husband called from the living room, “Who else you expectin’?”
“You, baby,” Clara said.
R J had his shirt and shoes on. He sneaked past the side of the house and then headed out to the street. Before he knew it, he was three blocks away and out of danger. He checked his watch by the streetlight. It was still early. Only ten p.m. He had enough time to make the appointment he had been offered. He shrugged his shoulders with a why-not and headed on out toward the countryside.
A half hour later he left the town behind him, making his way down the country road. The night was dark, no stars and no moon. Only the blacktopped road guided his feet.
R J came upon a bit of a forest. He stepped into the trees. If things were dark on the roadway, they were even darker among the trees. What was he doing? He didn’t need nobody to help him play Sweet Euterpe. He played that guitar just fine.
As he progressed, the oaks and the pines turned gnarly. They gave him the willies, that feeling they were trying to reach out and grab him and squeeze the dickens out of him. It was as if the forest was haunted. There were owls. There were the cries of wolves in the distance. Each of R J’s steps crunched something that didn’t sound quite like leaves. He was not about to reach down and feel the undergrowth. He advanced quickly, pushing back branches and vines that hesitated his progress. Without warning, he stumbled into a clearing. He dropped the case holding Euterpe to the ground.
It was not just any kind of old clearing. This was a clearing where the four winds met. This was a clearing where wizards were known to gather. This was a clearing where the supernatural and the natural encounter each other. This was a clearing where magic was done, and black magic at that.
R J advanced into the clearing, and he saw that the moon and the stars had come out of their closet. In the center of the clearing, four roads met. The road to the north, the road to the east, the road to the south, the road to the west. It was as if they were the four rivers out of Eden.
At the meeting place of the four was a giant stump, a stump as old as the world may have been. Upon the stomp sat a beautiful woman. She wore a long dress of the whitest and purest satin. Her golden hair fell down around her body. The glow pouring from her face put the light of the moon to shame.
“R J, what you expectin’?” she asked from her place on that stomp. “The devil?”
“Y-y-y-yes.” His teeth chattered with fear. It was that kind of fear that came from the preachers when they stormed their congregations with visions of hell. He’d heard their sermons many a time and he knew all the way down to his toes that he didn’t want none of that hell.
“Do I look like an Old Scratch? Do I look like Satan?”
“‘Course I do not. I want you to know I have had my eye on you a long time. The way you play Miss Euterpe there. Well, it’s like you play like that Orpheus who lived a long time ago. He played so good, he got Mr. Hades hisself to surrender Orpheus’ one-and-only Eurydice.”
R J turned to look back to see where he dropped his Sweet Euterpe. It was not at the edge of the clearing. He looked down at his feet. There at the side of his right foot was the guitar out of its case and lying flat on the earth.
“Come and show me how you can play the beauty,” the woman’s voice beckoned him to the stomp.
R J did not hesitate. Any chance to show his stuff and he was ready. Euterpe flew out of the case and into his hands. He strode to the stomp. The woman offered him a place to sit beside her. He accepted.
Euterpe rested on R J’s lap and under his right arm, ready for the music about to be. Her master’s left fingers turned the tuning pegs a few notches, then the fingers made a run down the fret and toward the rosette and they returned to the center of the fret. It was then that the fingers on his right hand began their dance on the strings of the guitar. The fingers on the strings above the fret turned wild. The woman watched, her eyes growing larger than the moon. It was the midnight hour and R J was bewitching the witch.
She jumped off the stomp and her feet took her round and round, her hands cavorting above her body. The music grew wilder and wilder. Her dance too grew as wild as the wildest of things. The dress dropped to the ground.
Deep into the night R J played, his music frenzied, then dropped into a softness like a feather falling slow and peaceful-like to the grass below. The sound landed easily to a finale. The woman capitulated, surrendering to the gravity that held her to the earth. She lay exhausted on the ground, laughing, ecstatically laughing. She had been right to choose R J, and this was the night to choose him.
Naked, she rose from the earth and walked to the Orpheus before her. She reached into the stomp and drew out a chalice and a dagger. The dagger’s blade pricked her finger and red blood dropped into the cup. She raised dagger and cup to the sky, then chanted the words of an ancient tongue.
Lowering the cup, she offered it to R J. “Drink, drink, my brother,” her voice commanded.
R J took the chalice and greedily quaffed down the nectar, draining the cup of its liquid. He went to return it to the woman. But she was gone. The moon was gone. The stars were gone. The clearing was gone. The chalice was gone from his hand. He was sitting on the side of the road, Euterpe on his lap.
R J did the only thing he knew how to do. That night and into the dawn, he soothed the sweetest blues out of his Euterpe ever heard by man or beast.