The banjo began as dusk sank over the mountain. A single twang and then another climbed atop each other, up and down the scale. The dobro, guitar, and fiddle twined with the melody…But it always began with the banjo.
Little Alan’s pulse quickened as he sat by the trickling stream. Lightening bug’s flashing beams swirled thick in the woods. He glanced up to the house. Pigs snorted on the other side of the narrow dirt road close by. A glow of cigarettes penetrated the growing dark where Uncle Snowden, his dad, and the other men crouched with knees bent and pocket knives at the ready to carve a chunk of walnut, a stick of sassafras.
The women still washed dishes and he’d escaped here with a stomach full of ham and shucky beans. And to be still and watch… But not for long. The pace of the music quickened and his bare foot began to tap in the grass. He stood for a moment watching fingers move across the strings, unthinkable wonder. The music grew louder. He had to move! He ran, ran faster and faster. Some one started the familiar pop and tap of spoons. Then singing began. He shoved his hands deep into his overall pockets and shuffled in the dirt, shuffle, shuffle, spin and turn. Shuffle stomp, shuffle stomp. His sisters joined him. Spin and turn.
The duel began Who could spin faster? They fell in a heap, laughing. A high screech drew their eyes, “You, you, you, you!” Brother Homer split the air with a handless cartwheel. Little Alan tried one too and landed flat on his head. “Gee-oh!” The evening was too fine for pain. He rubbed his head and helped gather sticks for the fire. His older brothers dared each other to Jack-be-quick over the growing flame. Little Alan drew back. He didn’t want to burn his overalls. Shuffle and stomp, shuffle and stomp, his body content to give in to the music.
Aunt Nellie appeared in the doorway of the porch. His brother Danny ran towards her. A new song started. She gripped two hands-full of skirts and with a smile as slight as a sleepy eye, she danced. Shuffle, stomp, shuffle, stomp in her well worn Brogans. Her eyes sparkled the faster the musicians played. Danny pasted his hands to his side and dance along side her, panting to keep up. A jug was blown, but only for a moment. Swish and laughter.
The music slowed and so did Little Alan. He nestled into the rooty palm of a tree and traced his fingers along the bumps and knots that held him like an old hand. They were singing a song…something about grace. He didn’t know what grace meant, but he figured one thing. It was amazing. It was sweet. It had a sound. It saved wretches. He’d seen a lot of wretches. He’d even been switched more than once and that was wretched. Nothin’ like the elastic thwack of a newly green pear tree branch. He breathed slowly, watching the man in the moon. Wondered if he could hear all the Saturday racket…
His eyes shut, then opened again. Shut again. Amazing grace. Wretches. Grace. Spring. He closed his eyes to the slow hymn and did not wake when an old Pendleton shirt was draped across his small form. There he slept in the fresh found warmth of spring.