Monday, December 26, 2016

Careless Drumbeat by Jennifer Coats

It is day four of the Renegade Shorts Winter Holiday Showcase. Today we have a tale from the incomparable Jenifer Wilson Coats, about a mysterious find in an ancient city junk heap, and the small boy whose life will never be the same again. Beware, gentle readers, for in this story, the rhythm is going to get you.

Careless Drumbeat

By Jennifer Coats

            Long, long ago, a scrawny boy searching for treasure in the dump found a drum tucked behind assorted cart parts and broken pottery. It was small and bright and stood out among the other leftovers of a busy desert city.
            He dusted it off, and a strong thrum ran down his arm as he brushed the supple skin stretched across the blue wooden base. He shivered, and traced the designs carved and painted onto the sides.
            “Time to go, kid,” his master said, “You better’ve found me something good.” He loomed over the boy, his sweat-stained robe steaming in the evening heat, his scowl not improving with use.
            The boy quickly slid the drum into his pack, hiding it with his body. “Just…this jug,” he said, grabbing the first thing at hand and holding it out for his master’s scrutiny.
            “A worthless jug? Boy—“ WHAM! His master’s hand had lashed out too fast to see.
            The Boy rubbed his ear and blinked away tears. Day and night, he dreamed of escape, freedom, a life of his own making. Soon as he was old enough, he’d make a run for it.
            “Thing is, I’m going to have to cut you loose, you don’t find me something useful. That trader said you was sure to bring in the valuables. Guaranteed. That right?”
            The boy nodded. He backed up against the building, the drum between him and the wall. Surely the drum wasn’t something valuable. Was it?
            “Well, Boy, it’s been seven long days, and you’ve found nothing useful. With what I paid for you and what I’ve wasted on food for you, I coulda fed myself twice over, you see?”
            The boy let out a shaky breath. Freedom was one thing, but if his master turned him out now, he’d be even worse off than before.
            “If you want to keep living good like you’ve been—good treatment, shelter, and plenty of food—you’d better start showing that talent for finding useful old junk. Or else…” He lifted his hand again, daring the boy to twitch.
            The boy kept his eyes on his master’s, waiting for the blow.
            All he had to do was show his master the drum, and he’d prove his worth.
            He had to show it to him. He remembered the feel of the thrum down his arm when he touched the drum.
            He was obliged to give it to his master, or be counted a thief.
            The boy struggled to remove his pack, but his hands felt like they were encased in thickest honey. They shook as he tried to force them up to the straps on his shoulders, but he couldn’t budge them, no matter how he strained his muscles.
            His master’s hand began to reach out—
            A loud whistle cut the air, and both master and boy ducked into the entrance to the dump as soldiers marched past on their rounds.
            After the soldiers cleared, the master grabbed the boy’s wrist hard and shook him. “Start finding me treasure, if you know what’s good for you. C’mon. I’m going back out to trade these for some meat,” the master said over his shoulder. “Make yourself useful and start the fire while I’m gone.”
            Alone, he finally had time to look at the drum. He’d never seen such a thing up close before: music was for those with money. His hands itched. He needed to tap it, pull the sound out of it, but he was afraid his master might hear if he came back early, and discover the boy’s thievery.
            He couldn’t help himself.
            He looped the cord around his neck and cradled the drum to his chest. It rested there as if he had been specially made just to hold this instrument. He reached out a flattened hand and popped it on the skin, just once.
            The power of the thrum raised goose bumps on his arm.
            He looked around. Had anyone heard?
            No one knocked, or entered his master’s rooms.
            Apparently no one heard.
            He tapped again, this time using both hands.
            Rum pa pum!
            Those notes brought his made every part of him feel alive with energy.
            Rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            “Ai!” he cried, afraid of the power of the sound. He yanked his hands away from the drum.
            It was like tearing off a part of his own body.
            He should hide the drum. It belonged to his master by rights, but he couldn’t let his master have it. He would surely take it, sell it, and the boy would never feel this power again.
            Instead, he threw open the door and drummed again, longer this time.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            A wild joy crashed into his heart, and he dashed out into the street, drumming wildly, away from his master’s rooms and the fire waiting to cook their meager meal.
            Rum pa pum. Rum pa pum.
            “Let’s go!” A man ran up to him and began to step in time with the drumbeats.
            “Yes!” A woman and two men appeared on his other side, also moving in time to the drum.
            He began to dance, laughing harder than he had in months, maybe even years. The boy moved further down the street, drumming madly.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            He tried to stop, but the crowd and his own feet carried him forward.
            “Get yourself back here now,” the master thundered. The boy looked back over his shoulder to where the master stood by the entrance to his rooms.
            “Now! Or don’t never return,” the master commanded.
             But the boy’s hands drummed of their own accord, and the distance between him and his master grew.
            “Sorry!” he called.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            Out into the night, to the edges of town, they danced.
            His arms were getting tired, but he couldn’t seem to slow them down. A woman joined him, her robe in disarray and her scarf askew on her head. The boy felt askew himself, no longer in control of his own body.
What was this drum doing to him?
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            “Help!” he cried to the woman next to him. “Make me stop!”
            The kind woman grasped his hands, but it was as if she tried to hold leaping fish in her embrace. He drummed even faster, and she held up her hands in defeat. “Don’t fight it!” she said, dancing away. “I surely can’t.”
            Out into the night the boy led the crowd. More and more people joined in as the drum’s beats reached out from the road, drawing them in. Soldiers looked on with puzzlement as they reached the edge of town, out beyond the inns to where the animals sheltered.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            He had to stop. His mouth was dry, his feet were sore, and his shoulders and elbows ached from the drumming.
            But he couldn’t.
            The boy looked around wildly, and a flash of light illuminated a crusty old barn on the edge of the desert wilderness. What if he fenced himself in somehow? Or dashed himself against the wall of a donkey’s stall? Could he stop then?
            He followed the light, drumming, drumming, and the people followed behind. Were they as trapped as he? Did they wish to stop dancing as desperately as the boy wished to stop drumming?
            Bright starlight shone down through a hole in the roof of the barn. He swung his head, searching the ratty old place for a likely corner to wedge himself into, somewhere among the oxen tethered with tattered ropes and donkeys shut up in stalls with rusty hinges.
            A youth appeared, blocking the boy’s view. He was near adulthood, and he was not dancing. He spoke, but the sound of the drum drowned out his voice. He pointed to the door of the barn.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            The boy pushed past him and was stunned to discover a girl standing there, holding a scrap of a baby in her arms. The barn smelled of blood and sweat and triumph.
            “STOP DRUMMING,” the youth yelled into the boy’s ear.
            “I CAN’T,” the boy said.
            “THE BABY. YOU’LL WAKE THE BABY,” said the youth.
            More and more people pushed into the barn, dancing to the beat the boy’s hands refused to abandon. It seemed even the animals joined in. The boy was frantic now, exhausted and sore, near tears.
            Pa rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            “HELP ME,” the boy cried. “I CAN’T MAKE IT STOP!”
            The girl was very still. She gave the boy a steady, measuring look, and stepped closer. She moved gingerly, as if it pained her to walk.
            She nodded, and held the baby out for the boy to see.
            It was just a tiny little scrap of a babe, and the boy wished that he could put down the drum, silence his hands and touch its fuzzy head.
            But the drum wouldn’t let him go.
            Pa rum pa pum pum.
            The girl shifted the babe in her arms.
            Rum pa pum pum.
            Several blisters had raised and broken on the boy’s palms, oozing fluid with every tap, and still the drum held him.
            Pa Rum pa pum pum. Rum pa pum pum.
            The crowd pressed in on them, the little family and the drumming boy. He staggered forward, and the babe stirred, yawned, opened its eyes and stared right at him.
            Its eyes were as old as the universe, and the boy felt it look through him, into his past, and back to his future.
            Pa rum pa pum pum.
            Rum pa pum pum.
            Sweet and slow, the babe smiled at him. Right at him.
            And his hands finally stopped.
            The silence was painful, but the boy was too busy panting and smiling back at the babe to really notice.
            The dancing crowd had stopped, and the people were coming back to themselves, looking around at the barn as if they’d sleepwalked into a neighbor’s house. One by one, they noticed the babe, and some knelt down in the hay before it. Folk dug into their robes and packs and pulled out a coin, or a hunk of bread, or a scrap of clothing, and piled them up in front of the babe.
            Others nodded their heads and slipped out into the night. Soon, it was just the four of them left in the barn. The babe fussed, and fed, and quieted, and the boy slipped the loop of the drum over his head and held it out to the girl.
            “Get rid of it,” he said.
            The girl nodded, and set it behind her in the shadows. In return, she handed the boy a hunk of bread from the pile of offerings.
            He looked deep into the babe’s eyes, and this time, he smiled first.
            The boy stepped out into the desert night, and he broke the bread with blistered hands. Inside were a handful of coins, more than enough to pay for a new start in a village far away.


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