Hours passed between the prayers. Slowly, the health of both mother and son began to improve, and before the stroke of midnight, Mayhayley was finally able to press the infant to his mother's breast. "He's not like other children," the soothsayer warned. "He's been touched."
Velma's eyes grew wide as she caressed her son's soft skin. She had long heard talk of caulbearers born with psychic powers, special souls connected to both the living and the dead. She stared at her infant child with a fear-filled love. Emotions flowed as the realization of all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours finally began to sink in. The sting of her brother's death. The dangerous and painful delivery. And now this child, this beautiful boy born cloaked in mystery.
The baby's eyes, blue as cobalt, already seemed to carry a sensitivity that Velma had only seen in one other man. "He's got my brother's eyes," she said, her voice hoarse from the battlefield of birth. "We should name him Fred. In his honor."
"He's got more than just his eyes," Mayhayley replied with a knowing nod.
Velma was too exhausted to ask for explanation. Instead, she cradled her son against her chest and fell into a deep sleep, the weight of grief still heavy upon her.
After surviving such a traumatic entry into this world, the baby carried his late uncle's name and soon became known to all as Fred Allen. Though his years had been short, Uncle Fred Freeman had developed quite a reputation for his musical talents, playing several instruments even though he had never taken a single lesson. So when the younger Fred showed an interest in song, the family wasn't surprised to see him follow in the footsteps of his namesake.
Despite their poverty, the Allens had acquired an old upright piano, and while it couldn't hold much of a tune, Velma could hammer out a few familiar hymns and folk songs. In his earliest days, Fred would sit in Velma's lap and toy with the keys as she played, her fingers bearing calluses from working double shifts in the weaving room.
Like many toddlers, Fred began tapping a few simple rhythms on the ivories, but his talents quickly proved to be anything but typical. By the tender age of three he was already performing entire songs on the piano by heart. Having been warned at her son's birth that he had been "touched," Velma was alarmed by this unusual behavior—so much so that she tried to keep Fred's talents a secret, even from her husband, Grady, a hard worker known to numb his many frustrations by making it to the bottom of a bottle.
Because Fred not only shared his uncle's talents but also his blue eyes and strong jawline, Velma feared that Mayhayley may have been correct in her claims: "Sometimes, when a child is born so near in time and place to another person's death, the spirits can intersect. Seems to me," the midwife had warned, "your son is carrying his uncle's spirit. An old soul. Sent back here to do some very important work."
Mayhayley's psychic abilities were accepted by nearly everyone across both Troup and Coweta Counties, including the community's most devout churchgoers who were known to consult the soothsayer. She was well liked, a woman of "good Christian standing." Even the sheriff was not above seeking her guidance on difficult cases. So Velma—already a superstitious soul—had taken Mayhayley's warning to heart and was determined to protect her son from any curse that might have cut her brother's life too short.
Despite wanting to guard Fred from danger, rotating shifts often kept Velma and Grady working more than sixteen hours each day. Even when they were home, they were usually far too exhausted to interact with their young son. So the piano became Fred's closest companion, and while other children tuned their ears to the sounds of bedtime stories and playground chants, music became Fred's native tongue.
One day Fred's little three-year-old legs dangled from the piano bench as he began to tap the keys. When the insurance collector made his way to their screen door seeking payment, the man was stunned to find such a young child playing The Old Rugged Cross without any flaws, not a note missed by the pint-size preschooler.
"How'd he do that?" The man stepped inside uninvited, his eyes wide as the screen door slammed behind him.
All color drained from Velma's face, and she protectively pulled her son away from the ivories. Young Fred stretched for the keys again, despite his mother's resistance. She nudged him toward the porch, trying to shoo the collector back outside too.