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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Black (10/15/09)

TITLE: Ebony
By Rachel Phelps
10/21/09


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I flinch as my finger hits the smooth ebony again in the midst of my scale, the frown making my lips start to ache with the tension. Perhaps this is why the piano master calls the black notes “acccidentals.”

Papa says I must always obey Mama about my music because it’s the courteous thing for a gentleman to do – respecting a lady’s wishes, that is. I say it’s awful hard on the gentlemen, particularly when they’re only 9 years old and can’t do any of the pleasant things grownup gentlemen do, like ride in horse races and go to Charleston to bid on new stallions and have brandy and cigars after dinner. Instead, I must trot right off to the drawing room and practice my scales and pray Mama doesn’t come in so I have to act pleased about it.

Two more sets of scales, and I find myself trying very hard not to crumple my exercise book and leave the room in a huff. Instead, I slam the lid closed – oh, satisfying thud – and prop my elbows on the curved mahogany, allowing myself the luxury of a good pout.

I nearly jump out of my skin when the drawing room door opens, but it’s only Zilla, coming in to tend the fire. I hunch a bit behind the music rack, hoping she won’t see me. I like Zilla. She calles me “Young Massa” and doesn’t make me feel like I’m being spied on when she’s around. Some of the other house slaves seem to get great pleasure out of catching me in mischief.

I can’t resist peeking over the music rack at Zilla as she works around the fireplace, sweeping the ashes up and stirring the flames back to life. She’s just a black shadow against the orangey light, but that’s not much of a change because her skin is so dark anyway. Zilla always seems… happy, somehow, even though I can’t imagine it’s very agreeable to be a slave.

She’s humming a little, now singing the words to the song. It sounds sad, like most of the songs I hear the slaves sing.

They crucified my Lord
And he never said a mumblin' word
They crucified my Lord
And he never said a mumblin' word

Not a word… not a word… not a word.

They pierced Him in the side
And he never said a mumblin' word
They pierced him in the side
And he never said a mumblin' word

Not a word… not a word… not a word.




I like Zilla’s voice. It makes me think of honey on that black bread Cook makes sometimes – rough and sweet and somehow strange and wonderful all at once. I like listening to Zilla more than Mrs. Jeffries who sings in church.

I slip the piano cover open again, trying to find the notes on the keys inside. I tentatively press down on a white key, only to recoil at the harsh clashing of sounds. Zilla stops singing and jumps up from the hearth, staring around with wide, frightened eyes.

“Who’s there, now?” she calls out.

I reluctantly sit up straight and man up. “It’s me, Zilla. I’m supposed to be practicing my piano exercises.”

She smiles a little in relief. “Bless you, Massa. I’ll just be gettin’on, then. Wouldn’t want to interfere with your practicin’.”

“No!” I didn’t intend to say it so sharply. I just have to figure out that song. “Please keep singing, Zilla.”

She looks confused, but picks up the tune again. I quietly peck at several notes, none of them right. Quite by accident, my middle finger hits a black note, and I recognize the sad tone. It fits in the song perfectly.

Zilla comes over, dusting furniture with her apron as she passes. She’s just as intrigued as I am. She leans over, singing the chorus again, as I finally find the right combination of notes to follow along.

The drawing room door bursts open as my father’s voice overpowers our song.

“Zilla! Where the devil are you?”

He stops short as he sees us together at the piano, his face growing even blacker with anger. Zilla pulls away instantly and I fumble with my exercise book.

“Out in the hall this instant, Zilla.”

In as much defiance as I dare, I start up the chorus again as she skitters toward the door, her eyes averted. She looks back, a quick smile lighting up her face, and nods.


Not a word… not a word… not a word.


_________________
Author’s Note: All negro spirituals can be played on the pentatonic scale – just the black keys on the piano.


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This article has been read 1119 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Beth LaBuff 10/25/09
I enjoyed this. I had to smile about the "accidentals"... sometimes they're a nightmare for the musician. :) It is fascinating that the spirituals can be played on the black notes of a piano. Nice take on the topic with this!
Jan Ackerson 10/26/09
Very good! Definitely one of the top stories in this level.
Virgil Youngblood 10/26/09
Outstanding writing! This is a winner, I think.
Mona Purvis10/27/09
You've done it again...excellent in every way!
This is on topic and so rich, I just love your writing style.
Can you tell I'm a fan? LOL

Mona
Sarah Elisabeth 10/27/09
Excellent! Great take on the topic! I felt like I was right in the room with them, holding my breath so they wouldn't see me ;-)
Loren T. Lowery10/28/09
A believable period piece without being over wrought. Your dialogue between the young master and the house maid immediately showed their mutual understanding of a truth yet to bare out in this time of history. There is so much to explore and understand in the genius of the old Negro gospel songs. You've presented one here quite well.
Joy Faire Stewart10/28/09
Very creative writing on topic. One of my favorites this week.
Myrna Noyes10/29/09
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR 2nd PLACE IN ADVANCED AND ON YOUR E.C.!! :) You did a wonderful job of writing with this engaging story! Very creative take on the topic, too!
Margaret Kearley 10/29/09
Excellent. A great story, very well written. Congratulations on your placing.
Beth LaBuff 10/29/09
Congratulations, Rachel, on your level placing and EC!
Carol Slider 10/29/09
Lovely story in every way! Congratulations on your very well-deserved EC!
Mona Purvis10/29/09
I'm so glad your excellent writing is recognized. Well-deserved EC.

Mona
Patricia Turner10/29/09
Excellent in every way! Congratulations on a well deserved win and EC!