I wrote this for my friend's zine down in Buenos Aires; it's still got a second to be published down there, so I wanted to post it here, first.
I hope you dig it. It's especially fun because it's interactive. Check it:
Whenever the gent with the guitar starts to play something, listen to the following songs in this order:
(Complete Rumba Flamenca)
(Moonlight Sonata Classical Guitar Eric Henderson)
(Farruca: A Simple Arpeggio Falsetta)
(Flamenco Tremolo [Quintuplet])
And for the last section, listen to number two as a bit of a reprise.
I hope you like it.
Somewhere in the Old West
The desert can be so treacherous.
It's so vast, this landscape. So empty. Occasionally, a tumbleweed would trail along my front or back, but eventually the wind would have it dance away to my right. Sometimes a critter would scurry out of the corner of the eye, and if I'm fast enough I could get something of a meal for later. I managed to get a gopher, earlier. I paused behind one of those mounds of rocks that dot the terrain marking someone's grave to light one of my hand rolled cigarettes.
Maybe it was someone I knew. Maybe it was one of their kin.
I took slow strides of steps, my clothes covered in dust and drying sweat.
The red sky was sweltering, but I knew it'd grow cold too quickly.
You can imagine my surprise to see a figure sitting behind a warm glow in the distance, out of the left corner of my eye. He just seemed to appear out of no where. I'd been walking through the desert for weeks, I surely would've seen him at some point beforehand. I came up and made acquaintances. He didn't say anything. He was the man in grey.
He sat across from me, behind the warm yet meager fire, quietly strumming his guitar. He kept toying around with the same few strings; I reckon he was tuning it. He was fixated on whatever it was.
I turned over the gopher from earlier, listening to the meat and fat sizzling over the flames. It'd been cooking for about an hour. Just about done.
He strummed the guitar, seeming satisfied, and began to play something brisk. Powerful. Picking at individual notes before laying down flowing, rapturous chords. Sometimes he'd tap the body of the instrument before strumming more of those cascading notes. His fingers seemed to tap dance with the rhythms he played. I let my mind drift with the melody.
Half his face was covered by the low brim of a wide black hat. He appeared to wear only grey in the dwindling light--a grey jacket, a faded white button-up undershirt, and some grey slacks whose legs were crossed Indian-style beneath him, hiding the feet. All grey, except for the hat and some black gloves seeming to be made of silk, the tips cut off on the top for his strumming and picking. The nails were pale, long and pointy--almost sharpened. You could make out thin, nimble fingers through the material, like a spider's legs, dexterous enough to handle the complicated positions his fingers would make for the intricate chords and arpeggios ringing throughout the desert dusk.
He plucked a few more notes of the guitar before giving a powerful ending strum, and sat still for a moment.
'That's a good'n. Where'd you pick it up?' I asked.
He adjusted one of the nobs on the head of the guitar.
'Feller from Mexico, transplanted from Spain. Said it's a flamenco number he messed around with. Some love story.'
Some love story.
It made me think of the wedding ceremony I took part in some years ago. Not by invitation, not even by choice, but only loathing--both for the institution itself, and the parties at hand. It just happened to be there, in the town I was passing through. I killed the small wedding party. Every last one of them. The parents of the groom, and the father of the bride, as well as her little sister, not more than an adolescent. The bride was the one I took down last. After everyone else's blood and brains were splattered on that pretty dress of hers, I took her down.
He began to play a different song. Something about it immediately caught my attention.
'Wait a second! I know that one! I heard it on piano, once.'
He paused his playing, seeming a bit perturbed, but patiently responded.
'It's Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I managed to interpret it for guitar.'
I asked him to start from the beginning, to which he obliged.
I stared up at the darkening sky, as the notes drifted throughout the air, beyond the flames of our modest fire. Small stars scattered the nightscape, just beginning their emergence. The dulled colors of the sky and land began to match that of the man in grey. He swayed rhythmically with the gloomy notes he played.
I could hear it over piano, in my mind, but the guitar was equally as beautiful and haunting.
The last time I heard it, I was at a saloon just outside of Reno, making nice with one of the dancers there--her long black hair smelling so vibrantly, taking in every scent as she rested in my arms, kissing me with those rose petal lips.
We were up in her room, getting closer...
'Touch me' she cooed. She rubbed against me. 'Get closer.'
'I ain't in the right state of mind..' I replied, swigging off the whiskey bottle.
'That's kind of the point, cowboy' she laughed as she slinked her fingers through mine, deftly removing the bottle from my hand.
We kissed deeply. She grabbed my neck and brought me closer to her, panting.
'Get closer to me.'
I did. I wanted her.
But something inside of me wanted more.
I turned her around and started kissing the back of her neck, watching her reactions in the stand-up mirror, staring at our reflection.
Then I brought out the knife. My Bowie knife.
I held it against her neck and watched her freeze--her eyes growing wide with fear. She started gasping.
'No--no, I--I didn't--please--please, honey--'
She was so panicked. She walloped me good with the back of her hand against my cheek as she tried to make her escape, cutting me, and pushed me away trying to make a run for it. I laughed and grabbed her by her arm, then pushed her to the ground. She struggled, again taking swats at me however she could. We wrestled a bit more before I sat on her arms with my knees, and clasped her mouth shut. Her eyes were wide; frozen with terror.
I loved it.
'Say goodnight, baby.'
I slid it across her throat and stared into her eyes as I felt her warm blood spray over my shirtless stomach. I watched the terror dim from her eyes and become nothing more than a dulled stare. Her face grew paler and paler and paler, save for the splashes of blood reaching up to her cheek.
As her blood-soaked body lay there, I gingerly picked her up and held her for a moment, staring at the draining beauty.
'If only you knew--' I whispered to her. 'If only you knew. Sorry darlin'.'
I kissed her once more and laid her on the bed, face down. Someone would find her by the morning.
He finished the last few cascading notes, again pausing for a moment and tinkering with the strings and nobs.
The man in grey didn't know from whom he was sitting across.
It's what you do for survival out here: make alliances whenever you can. That's exactly how it happened for me and the stranger: I wandered, he had a fire going, I offered some food and he nodded. A fair trade; no matter of what may occur as the darkness grows.
He began to play another slow, somber piece, and I listened closely. It was a haunting melody. I took a swig of the tequila I nabbed off a tradesman from earlier, and offered him a swig that went unnoticed. He was fixated on his craft at hand, letting nothing else interrupt him. Again he swayed the whole of his body with the tempo of the morose tune. I tipped the tequila back and studied his fingers. He began to play the same notes, but in a more rapid fashion, a quicker tempo. It seemed to change the tone of the piece completely. It came to a frantic, feverish end. After another swig, I gave him a round of applause.
'Thank you,' he quietly acknowledged.
'Quite the minstrel, ain't ya?'
It grew quiet for another moment, as he readjusted the nobs again. I turned over the gopher once more, and tried to get a glimpse of the rest of his face in the glow of the fire's light. No luck. That damn hat was so big it cast a shadow over his mouth and chin, dimming the features.
'Not a man of many words, I take it?'
He shrugged. 'Music is what does the talkin'. Only thing that needs to, really.'
I saw a lizard scurry to my right out of the corner of my eye, whipped around and stabbed it in the back of its neck with my Bowie knife. I'll gut it and put it on another stick over the fire later. Desert dessert. I looked back at the wide-brimmed hat.
'Pretty fascinating how much music can transcend, I do say,' I acknowledged.
He strummed the guitar a bit more and finally responded with another nod.
'It's associated with everything. People write songs to emote the things words can't. The moon, the stars, even this damn desert. No 'ifs,' 'ands,' nor 'buts.''
'Y'know, they say the devil plays a fiddle,' I prompted.
'Indeed, they do,' he responded. There seemed to be a hint of laughter in his tone.
I continued, as I cut the head off the lizard: 'Some say if you outplay him, you can save your soul or make a bargain or what have you. Others say you hear it right before you die, as kind of a courtesy notice of where you're ending up.'
'Interesting...' he half-responded.
As I flayed open its belly, he started playing another slow piece--be it all too brief. Lots of tremolo in this one.
'What about that one? Where'd you learn it?'
He adjusted his hat, slightly.
'That's one they teach kids back in Spain, when they want to learn how to pick up flamenco guitar. Teaches them finger placement, as well as pacing.'
'I suppose so. Gotta start them off with something, though.'
'Play it again. I like it.'
He thought for a moment, and started playing it again at an even slower pace.
It took me back to the small spot I grew up in, down in New Mexico.
Of my momma.
Religious woman, she was. Feared God and expected the same of me. Drank heavily at the same time, off her White Lightning. Didn't want me getting any smarter, and leaving her. Beating me to a pulp while cursing me for being too much like my 'bastard daddy.' Didn't want me seeing 'any of those whores of girls' in town.
Always keeping me apart from Rebecca, the prettiest girl in town, unapproving of our innocent flirtations with each other. O, how I loved her...
Lessons to live by, she'd call them.
The last time she used the belt on me, spitting out damnations, breath hot with White Lightning, I grabbed it out of her hand and wrapped it around her neck. Her eyes bugged out in those last moments. She was sputtering curses all the while until she gagged the last breath and her tongue stuck out, off to the side.
I broke the bottle and let it spill over the floor.
Burnt the whole house down, I did; her in it.
I then left town. Raised myself since.
Rebecca married soon after, last I heard.
Just then a similar sort of darkness came over me. A trigger was set off within. My eyes honed on in that damn instrument, and the annoyingly quiet musician behind it.
Talk, you smug bastard. Say something more than two goddamn sentences.
'Where'd you get it?' I asked, absently nodding toward the guitar.
I could make out a thin smile cross over the man in grey's face.
'Got it just outside of Albuquerque some 18 years back.'
My brow furrowed and I looked off to the side. 18 years back? That was when...
'Been traveling the land with it ever since. Use it to make money where I can. Saloons, celebrations, weddings...'
I turned my head. Something in my memory remembered a stray guitarist in both the saloon and the wedding ceremony--years apart, but a similar sort of man being there both times.
I glared, staring daggers at the stranger before me.
'Wherever I may roam.'
A grimace crossed over my face.
'Always been a nomad, actually.'
I stood up and began to stalk toward the sitting man in grey. I pulled out my Smith & Wesson and aimed it straight at him, yet still he didn't budge. I pulled back the hammer.
'It's a nice instrument. Bet I could make some good money with it, myself.'
He almost stubbornly refused to look up at me.
'Hand it over, padre,' I ordered.
He didn't budge. He didn't even breathe.
'Fine. Make it easy for me.'
I aimed to his heart and pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through the top corner of the guitar which was resting against his chest. The bang echoed throughout the desert sky, traveling onward toward distant canyons and causing the strings to inadvertently play out.
There was gunsmoke coming from my weapon, and some emoting from the bullet hole itself, yet...the man didn't bleed. He didn't even fall back. It was then he raised his head to look up at me with a sinister, skeletal smile.
The stranger had a thin, bony face, with black stained teeth and grey stringy hair dangling beneath his wide brimmed hat. His pallid skin seemed to be stretched out in a thin layer over his skull. His eyes were colorless--just two perfectly round orbs of black. His smile was permanent. My position was stuck, and the gun was still pointing towards him but I couldn't make an effort to pull the trigger again. He then snatched me by the throat.
I suddenly realized that his fingers weren't just dexterous and pointed for fashion: they were, in fact, actual bones. He rose, and as he gripped my neck, I felt an icy chill shoot throughout my entire body; from the beginning of the actual neck, down into my core and spreading with a numbing cold onto my extremities, all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. I wanted to call out, I wanted to scream, but all I could do was stare back at the petrifying figure before me.
His eyes reflected the firelight like black onyx stones. He smiled that same cadaverous smile back at me after a moment, still clutching my windpipe.
'You should've known, boy, that we never travel alone. Ain't no such thing as a free ride. I'm your shadow, always stalking you.'
He tightened his grip and brought me closer to the horrifying grimace. His voice dropped to a demonic growl:
He opened his mouth to let out an almost animal-like roar directly to my face. In doing so, he released a stomach-turning sweetly sour stench accompanied by a swarm of thousands of black flies whizzing out and all around, none of which I could react to, save for a few blinks here and there.
I could feel my lips growing purple and my eyes becoming permanently stuck in a fearful stare. I couldn't move, I couldn't even sputter out a plea. At best, I could only wince at the Pale Death staring me down.
He suddenly dropped me to the ground just as a gust of wind blew out the small fire which brought me to my fate. I could feel everything draining from my being, but my eyes were stuck open, watching his every move.
He smiled down that terrifying grin at me once more, and then strode off some 10 feet before letting out a brief whistle through those black and grey teeth. I began to hear galloping in the distance.
From his right, a gaunt, grey horse with dark spots blotting its body came toward him. His expression didn't change but he patted the animal's rear with sort of a satisfied compassion, as you would a trusty old friend. The guitar had fallen off his wispy body during our altercation, and he strapped it back over his shoulders and swung one slender leg after the other over the horse's black saddle.
He gave me one last tip of his large brimmed hat.
'Been a pleasure, stranger.'
He gave a quick 'Hyah!' and nudged his heels into the Pale Horse, riding off into the night.
I could feel it all washing over me.
It seemed it was about time. I could only look out at the dark landscape and the dots of stars above me. I was so cold inside, it didn't really matter how frigid it actually was all around. I reckon it was supposed to be this way.
A lone fat scorpion crawled next to me and raised itself onto my cheek, when I heard it:
The faint sound of a fiddle playing right behind me, only growing louder and closer to my back.
Riding away from me in the distance, I heard the stranger's maniacal laughter.