Curtis Crawford was raised to follow two Gospels in equal measure. The first, of course, was that of the Bible, but equally important in Curtis’s household was that pervasive, unspoken Commandment of the South: Politeness before all else.
Had Curtis lived in a dusty era of stiff collars and brimmed hats, he would not have been a speck out of place. As it was, nobody tipped — or even wore — hats anymore, so he contented himself with showing everyday politeness in a friendly smile or a held door. Fellow churchgoers and neighbors knew who they could call on to help with nearabout any task, whether it involved a quick trip to the store or a day’s worth of manual labor. He was as generous with his smiles as he was with his helping hands, and you never could catch him in an ungracious mood.
Yes, Curtis was a polite young man, exactly as his mother had raised him to be. Even on this sweltering summer afternoon, he still thought of others before tending to his own comfort.
"May I get you anything?" he asked his houseguest, smiling down at the bound woman on the smooth concrete floor of his cellar. "Some water, or would you like me to bring you a fan? I'm afraid these uncomfortable Georgia summers are something you'll never quite get acclimated to. Why, even this cellar is no match for the heat, wouldn't you agree?"
His guest didn't respond — couldn't, more like, with her mouth gagged and taped — but the terror in her eyes communicated her wants quite clearly.
"I'm afraid I can't let you go," Curtis said softly. "So there's no point, ma'am, in asking for that."
The woman blinked up at him, blue eyes welling with tears, and she let forth a high pitched whimper. Even through the gag, Curtis admired how clear and delicate her voice sounded, despite her terror and pain.
"You have a lovely voice, ma’am. I'm glad I chose you. I think you'll do just fine. How’s about we begin?"
The woman responded with a low moan, and squirmed against her restraints, but she was quickly learning that the more she struggled, the tighter the knots became.
"There's no need to be frightened! I have no intention of sullying you, if that's what you're fearing. I need your ears, that’s all. I need you to listen. And tell me what you hear."
If the woman felt any comfort at these words, she did not show it. Curtis couldn't even be certain that she heard him, as she was crying in earnest now, desperately trying to talk through the gag. Curtis leaned down and ripped off the tape and gag in one motion. He felt a twinge of guilt when she cried out in pain, but he knew that the swift removal had been less painful than if he had tried to be gentle. Curtis knew that “gentle” was not the same as “helpful.”
"Please, God! Somebody! Please help me!" The woman screamed. Curtis sat down on a stool he had placed some five feet away from her, and waited. Waited for her to stop screaming. Waited for her to realize that nobody could hear.
"I made this cellar soundproof some years ago," he said conversationally. "It took a time, I can tell you. I couldn't ask anyone to help me, and this was before the 'do it yourself' trend that has overtaken the country. Still, I think I did a satisfactory job."
The woman would not look at him. She stopped shouting and began to whisper, eyes wild and pointed towards the ceiling.
"Please don't let him kill me," she prayed. "Please, please, God, please don't let him kill me."
"I like that you say please. I appreciate a woman with manners. Shows you were raised right. Did you have both your parents growing up?" He asked abruptly, leaning forward.
A pause, then: "Yes, sir."
"I knew it. I can always tell. Me, I only had my mama. And she was a difficult woman, although she loved me very much. She's been dead seven years and I miss her every day, but I can tell you, my childhood would have been better if my father had stuck around, as a man should."
The woman may have responded, but Curtis wasn't listening to her. He was heeding the ghost of his mama, as she carefully instructed her boy.
"Tell me, what five good things did you do today?"
"I helped you wash the dishes. I took Jax out for a walk. I asked Mr. Cook if he needed any help with the weedin’ in his yard. I helped Mrs. Cook carry in her shopping. I...I..."
Young Curtis bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Mama. I can't think of anything else."
"Four good things, my little mischief maker. You might think that's enough. But I can hear your soul, and I know it needs more than that to be saved."
She opened her arms to take him in for a hug, and he ran to her, as he would always run to those open arms. She pressed him tight against her, and for half a minute he breathed deep the comforting mixture of Dove soap and bourbon. Then she yanked him by his hair and dragged him to the closet.
"You're sleeping here tonight. No supper tonight, no breakfast tomorrow. End of tomorrow, I expect you to find five new good deeds to tell me about."
Curtis blinked himself back to the present, looking down again at the guest on his floor.
"My apologies, ma'am. Were you saying something?"
"What do you want from me?" the woman whimpered. Finally, her panicked eyes found Curtis’s, and they did not look away. "Please, I have children."
"I know you do, ma'am. I know you do. That's partly why I picked you. See, I think you're a good mother, and I am in need of a good mother. Someone like my own. She couldn’t play music, but she could understand it better’n anyone else walking this world. My hope, ma’am, is that you'll share some of the same talents as her."
He stood and walked towards his guest.
"You are of a musical sort, yes?"
She didn't answer, but he didn't need her to. Curtis had been watching this one. He knew she played the piano. He had spied on her, watching as she patiently taught her five-year-old son how to play. It was wrong, he knew, to covet, but he had still felt the bitter sting of envy as he watched the pair.
Curtis squatted, resting his forearms on his jeans, and stared into the woman's limpid eyes.
"I need you to tell me what sound my soul makes."
The woman looked up at him, saying nothing.
"Do you understand me?"
"There's no point in being coy, ma’am. I know you're musical. You can play it. You can read it. You surely can hear it. So you must be able to hear the sounds of souls."
The woman began to cry again, which sent a thrill of fury down Curtis’s spine — anger so sharp, he could taste it in the back of his throat. For a moment, his vision blurred and his hands shook, but then he took several deep, shuddering breaths. He resolved not to lose his temper.
"Five good deeds. Tell me."
"I helped Mr. Cook paint his porch. I helped Mrs. Cook bake a pie. I walked and bathed Jax. I helped you do the dishes this morning. I picked up Suzie Miller's books when she dropped them."
"Why, Curtis, I knew you could give me five good deeds! Mind you do the same tomorrow. We'll fix your soul right up. I'll know when we've done enough. I can hear the sounds of souls, O Lord, I can hear them singing! Can you hear them?"
"No, ma'am. What do they sound like?"
"All souls sound different. Your father had one that sounded like a beating drum. Mine is gentle, like a harp. Mr. Cook has a lovely bass soul, and his wife has a soul that sings like an angel choir. Oh, my sweet boy, how I wish you could hear the sounds of souls. Then you would understand."
"You have to listen," Curtis growled. "You haven't been listening, ma’am, but you will. You'll tell me what you hear. No talking about anymore nonsense. I'll gag you again if I have to, much as it pains me to cause you any discomfort. And if you don’t tell me what my soul sounds like, why, I won’t kill you. I’ll leave you down here, gagged, tied, alone, in the dark, for longer than you’ll think possible. This cellar may seem roomy to you now, but in the dark, the walls will start to close around you. Then your body will begin to cramp. First, your legs and arms. You’ll think you can handle that. But in that position? Your neck isn’t supporting you, ma’am. Your fingers are stiff. You won’t be fed. Every inch of your body will be in agony — and still, I will not come.
“Perhaps you think that’s nothing. You’ve been through childbirth, after all, so perhaps you feel equipped to deal with a high threshold of pain. And I admit, you will get used to your body achin’...eventually. But you will still be alone, in the dark, and your mind will turn on you. You’ll start thinking terrible things, awfully strange things. By the time I return — if I return — why, you won’t even recognize yourself.
“So you tell me, ma’am, what my soul sounds like. You tell me now, and you'll be just fine."
Curtis walked back to the stool and sat down, the picture of calm. It appeared his guest was not going to waste any more time with her foolish cries for help, so he decided to give her a moment to weigh her options. He pulled out his pocket book of verses to read Psalm 98, one of his favorites. As he tried to meditate on those sweet verses, he started humming a hymn, one oft-sung in his childhood.
“Sing it right, child. To please the Lord. Don’t make me whoop you when we get home.”
Young Curtis and his mother stood side-by-side in church, sharing the same hymnal and singing praises to God.
“I’m trying, Mama.”
“Are you talking back to me?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll sing it the right way, I promise!”
Some nearby worshippers, always ready to take in the latest gossip on a Sunday morning, turned their heads to track the commotion. Curtis’s mother took notice of the attention and smiled sweetly down at her son, eyes glittering hard like diamonds.
“Sing it right,” she said. But under her hard gaze, Curtis’s voice faltered, and as he moved his lips, no sounds came. He saw his mother purse her lips, losing her place in the hymn, and he knew that she had noticed his failure to please God.
The Psalms failed to soothe Curtis, who was overcome with the thought of how often he had shamed himself and his mother before God and their neighbors. This time would be different. He had faith. He would not fail again.
"Well now?" he demanded. "What can you tell me about the sounds of souls?"
"I'm sorry," she croaked, voice raw from a mixture of heat and exhaustion. "I can't. I can't. Please, let me go."
Curtis blinked rapidly in disbelief. "You must hear them! You must! It says right here, right here in this book, ma'am, that even the hills and the sea make a noise. Now, I know that if the hills can make a noise that the Lord hears, then my soul must make a louder, grander noise. My mama, she tried to teach me, but I could never hear properly. You know music, ma'am. So tell me what my soul sounds like. I will not ask you again, ma’am."
He stared at her, for a minute or more, but she could not meet his gaze. Curtis sighed, and stood to leave the cellar, when the woman’s voice halted him.
"It sounds...it sounds like...."
"Yes?" he pressed her, leaning forward.
The woman's voice sounded slightly stronger as she told him, "Your soul sounds like an organ. Like a church organ. It's deep and it’s strong. It surrounds everything with its reverberating tones."
Curtis let out a deep breath, and smiled at her.
"You're certain of that?" he questioned.
"Yes," she affirmed, voice steady. "Your soul is an organ."
Curtis smiled deeper, then stood and walked smoothly towards his guest. He squatted down beside her a final time, and brushed some wheat blonde hair out of her eyes.
"You're a liar," he told her. He grabbed her by that wheat blonde hair, lifted her head, and slammed it against the concrete floor.
"Do you know why I have you do five good things a day?"
"To be polite?"
"That's half the reason. You are right, it's important that you act real polite to everyone you meet. Makes me proud when you do that; makes me look like a good mother. But it's not enough. Your soul sounds wrong, Curtis."
"I'm sorry, Mama."
"I know you are, my sweet boy. Don’t you fret. Momma and Jesus are gonna fix you right up. You keep doing your five good deeds, and one day your soul will sound as sweet as the morning birds. Wouldn't that be nice?"
"I've always said you can hear people's souls, if you listen real careful like. Your soul, my sweet boy...your soul is like the clanging of church bells. Sounds strong, but those bells are empty inside."
"I am sorry, Mama. If souls are music, then I reckon I'm tone deaf."
Curtis Crawford walked away from the freshly dead woman on his cellar floor. Disappointed as he was that yet another had been unable to help him — for how could his soul sound like a strong organ when he had failed to do five good deeds that day? — he felt optimistic about the next time. He already had his eyes on a young lady in the church. She was a sweet girl, new to their congregation and choir, and her voice sounded like an angel. Curtis sensed a spirit of vanity about her, but he could help her overcome that sin. They could help each other.
Soon he would find someone who could hear the sounds of souls, and when he did enough good deeds, they would tell him that his soul was no longer an empty bell. Finally, he would have a song in his soul that could carry him to his mother in heaven.