Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

Wideman’s deft shifts in point of view convincingly dramatize the alienation of slaves from owners and of both groups from Ryan. However, whether the boy finally hears Damballah’s instructions and the murdered slave’s stories or merely has grown simpleminded is a question that the author resolves through other techniques.

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First, Wideman suggests a soul-link between boy and man by describing their physical features and actions in related terms. Both Ryan and the child resemble tall, gangly, aquatic birds, specifically storks or cranes, for example. Similarly, just as the story opens with Ryan absently bathing and peering into the shallows, so the boy himself spends much of his day dreamily studying his image, “like his face reflected in the river,” in Mistress’s flatware. Thus, to the careful reader, this child’s communication with the dead old man is merely an extension of a bond that always existed between them.

Also, because of references to versions of the Greek Orion myths sprinkled throughout this story, Ryan comes across as not a pitiful slave but an extraordinarily gifted spirit. Three elements prominent in “Damballah”—eyes, water, and a bull—play key parts in the ancient tales as well. The Greek Orion, blinded by an angry king, regained his sight by looking directly into the rising sun. Interestingly, black Ryan watches the morning sun illuminate the river, and the boy is struck by the penetrating quality of the man’s “hooded eyes.” Further echoing a variant of the Hellenic tales, wherein the appearance and disappearance of Orion’s constellation signal impending rain (the word “Orion” itself means “he who makes water”), the enslaved Ryan senses a storm brewing, a harbinger of his death. Finally, although a bull is associated with the classical Orion’s birth—his desperate father sacrificed one so the gods would grant his wish for a child—in “Damballah” a sound like a bull’s scream comes from the barn on the night of Ryan’s death. The graying slave’s thin body and distant air hence cloak a majestic soul searching for someone worthy of his gifts, recalling the Greek gods and goddesses who visited so many mortals, including Orion’s own parents, disguised as poor, ragged old couples. Because Ryan shares the legacy of a demigod, it is believable that he can maintain a mystic rapport with the boy even after death.

Indeed, one particular thread from the Orion myths woven through “Damballah” serves to do more than legitimize the boy’s talks with a corpse. His eyes put out by his lover’s furious father, Orion impressed Cedalion, a young blacksmith’s apprentice, into service as his guide. Clearly in a similar fashion the slave youth, drawn magnetically to the outcast, directs Ryan at the end of the story. Whereas Cedalion conducted Orion toward the sun and sight, the boy sees Ryan’s spirit home to the light of freedom: “Orion talked and he listened and couldn’t stop listening till he saw Orion’s eyes rise up through the back of the severed skull and lips rise up through the skull and the wings of the ghost measure out the rhythm of one last word.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 191

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