“I know a guy who’s got a good guitar — a really, really good guitar — and he’s willing to let it go,” I said.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, that is so.”
“And why would this guy be getting rid of such a really, really good guitar?”
A reasonable question, and a pretty direct one. I’d have to answer with truth. I wondered whether Eddie would perceive the whole truth when he heard it. Only one way to know. “Because it wants to sing but it won’t sing for him, that’s why.”
Eddie’s steps faltered. I grinned in the dark of this side street. He had heard me true — not just with his ears, but with his heart and soul.
“Come on,” I said as I turned at the top of a steep and unlit stairwell that led to a place Eddie had never seen before and would never see again. “Watch your step. Better watch your head, too, ’cause this doorway is low.”
“This isn’t a club,” Eddie said as he ducked through the door into a gloomy hallway that smelled of stale cigarette smoke and booze.
“Sure it is,” I replied. “Just not one you would know about.”
A glass-paned door at the end of the hall was ajar, a gray-blue light shining through it. I pushed it open and stepped aside to let Eddie peek in. Faces turned our way. I don’t know if Eddie could feel the pressure of a whole roomful of people wanting us to turn around and leave. I was trying to block it to spare him. Didn’t matter what these people thought. I was here for one reason only. My target was the man with the guitar.
Everyone here could see me of course, but my presence was immediately dismissed, not a little bit irritating. The people — mostly men, but a few women, too — were sitting at mismatched tables and on ratty sofas that ringed three sides of a stage at the end of the cave-like room. The lighting was dim, the smoke a haze that hung from the ceiling, the conversation a low murmur. A white haired old man, his wizened face walnut dark, was perched on a kitchen chair on the low stage. The beat-up electric guitar on his lap was connected to a small amp next to him. He turned clouded eyes in our direction.
“Ah, there you are,” he said softly. “Took you long enough.”
Eddie glanced behind us, thinking maybe the old man was speaking to someone else. I threaded my way through the seated people, some of whom leaned away as if disgusted by what I was. Not my problem, I was here on an authorized mission. Eddie followed me, oblivious to the small crowd, his eyes on the guitar in the old man’s hand.
It was the holy grail of electric guitars: A 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, faded to a tobacco brown, blackened at the rim. Its maple top had a pattern running perpendicular to the grain so that looking straight at it the flame would be almost invisible, but as we approached it became very clear. I knew a guitar like this would suit Eddie’s playing style. If anyone could make it sing, it was Eddie Edmunds.
All eyes in the room followed the two of us as we approached the stage and stopped. The old man sat there like a gnarled root, the guitar cradled flat on his lap.
“Come on, then,” he chuckled. “I won’t bite.” He reached for my hand as I stepped onto the low platform and I took it lightly, carefully, and felt his answering squeeze, full of secrets. I glanced at Eddie’s face. I saw he saw what I had intended for him to see, now that he had torn his eyes from the guitar. The guitarist was not only old, but blind. His hands were crooked and deformed by arthritis. It was hard to imagine that these crippled fingers could even hold a pick, much less play as he now began to do.
There was no sign on the impassive black face, but this was a man whose soul could not be not hidden. He paid a high price in pain to wrap his hand around the guitar’s neck every night on this stage. I wasn’t his Muse but I felt what it cost him to press the strings against the frets with his lumpy-jointed fingers, to strum and pick individual notes with his stiff right hand. Somehow the old man coaxed a melody from the guitar that wove around and supported his quavering voice. I could feel the pain, but also the deep pleasure that the music brought him. I knew that in just a short while his pleasure and pain would no longer be an issue.
He knew it, too.
The last notes lingered in the room. The old man brushed the guitar’s maple surface. He nodded in Eddie’s direction. “This your boy?” he asked me. “He comes for this guitar?”
“Yes,” I answered simply, but my voice was drowned out by a shout.
“No!” A man stood up abruptly in a dark corner. I couldn’t quite make out his features, but he was youngish, big and angry.
“Oh yes,” the old man countered. “Less’n you can play this dark-hearted Lady better than this gentleman can.”
“I could…” Someone yanked the man back to his seat. He settled down but I could feel the hostility from his corner. The rest of the room emanated resignation, with a few small bright sparks of curiosity here and there.
“What’s your name, son?” The guitarist tilted his head. “I want to know who’s come courtin’ my Lady.” He grinned toothlessly at me and winked.
“Eddie Edmunds, sir.” Eddie started to offer a hand to shake, but thought better of it and let it fall to his side. His fingers twitched though. He wanted to be the one holding that Les Paul.
“Hmmm. Edmunds, you say? Not the name I’m hearing in my heart. Still…” He sighed, turning his face down to look with sightless eyes at the guitar he held, absently caressing its neck as he searched for words.
“This Lady been waiting for someone,” he muttered. “She told me that right from the start, that it wasn’t me. She cried a lot about that, ‘specially in the beginning.”
I heard faint sighs from the audience as the old man lifted the guitar into position and touched a knob on its face, adjusting it minutely.
“She cried for her lover, but not for me,” he crooned as his fingers stroked the strings and the guitar wept.
“She moaned when I touched her, but it wasn’t for me,” he whispered as the guitar groaned.
“She just been passing time with me, is all. Waitin’ for the man she was born for,” he said. A pure single note rose, soaring into the smoke haze, its passing making the candles on the tables flicker. The old man raised his face to Eddie.
“Might that man be you?” He held the guitar up with both hands, but before Eddie’s greedy hands could touch it, the old man flipped it over exposing the back.
“Look at her,” he commanded. “See it, her mark?” And indeed, there was a darker area in the center of the back of the guitar, stained as if the luthier had been careless with a bottle of lacquer.
“Her dark, black heart,” the old man said. “If you’re the one she’s waitin’ on, then she’ll bind your heart for sure. If not — well then, she stays here with me until her true love comes for her.”
“How… how will you know if…” Eddie was practically hyperventilating with lust for the guitar — lust tinged with not a small amount of desperation.
The old man snorted. He turned to face the silently watching crowd. “He asks me?” He shoved the guitar at Eddie. “I’m not the one who will do the choosing. Either the Lady will sing for you or she won’t.”
The Universe centered on this moment. Time stopped as Eddie’s hands moved in slow-motion to receive the guitar. When he touched it, the world quivered around me. Or maybe I was doing the quivering.
It was begun.
The guitar trembled in Eddie’s gentle grip like a wild thing, its heart thumping in the fierce joy of a hawk about to be released to the skies. A circuit closed, energy flowed that had not flowed before. The bonding had been accomplished by just the touch.
Eddie flipped the plain leather strap over his head. He sighed as the guitar settled against his body.
I followed the energy as Eddie let a sound form in his mind. It had gravity and an inevitability that pulled other sounds to it. The guitar fed him memories he had never known. They felt like his own.
Eddie didn’t have to try for the music to form, he just let it come. A small thought that the guitar wasn’t really alive, wasn’t really doing what it felt like it was doing hovered nearby, but he pushed that away and let the sequence of notes form themselves and in doing so, take on meaning.
When the single sound in his mind had become many and had organized themselves into a small melody in his soul, he exerted his will and invited the music to become one with his body, and to inhabit his hands. He did not know how it happened but then he had never had a guitar like this to work with before.
He had only had me.
All I had even done was open the way to the music. I had never given the music to him, he had had to grab it for himself using his own power. It was what I was meant for.
But now. Now some other music lurked near the dark heart of a guitar with a soul of its own. It sparked across the gap from inanimate body to living flesh and back again, where it was finally freed into the world. Dimly, Eddie was aware that there was music forming outside of himself and not just his mind, but that was not important, for in his inner world where he dwelled the sounds took the shape of his desire.
His desire was more than music. It was an entry into power. It had always been. The Lady, unlike me, had no reason for restraint.
There was a great need for restraint when it came to the powers around creation.
Music filled the room. An eternity came and went. When the last note faded away, Eddie blinked as he returned to the here and now. Sweat ran down his face and he glowed with the inner light of a lover fulfilled. His hands caressed the curves of the Lady’s body.
Eddie took a breath, and then another, and finally his everyday street face reasserted itself.
“How much?” he asked. “I can pay you tomorrow morning, whatever you want.” So much for bargaining. I could see the thought of having to leave the guitar even overnight was killing Eddie, but he expected this instrument to cost much more than the small amount of cash he carried around with him.
“You’ve already paid me,” the old man said. “That music was the Lady brought alive as she was meant to be. I am content.” He waved at a beat-up tweed Litton case near the amp. “Take that, take her. She’s yours.”
The old man grinned, his eyes wet with unshed tears though I doubted they were of joy as much as relief. Eddie saw none of that. He yanked the cord from the guitar and quickly, but carefully, packed the Lady away. I could have told him that the old man wasn’t going to change his mind, but Eddie didn’t know that. He wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Then shame overcame him and he remembered his manners.
“Thanks,” he said as he stood with the guitar case in his hand, avoiding looking at the old man. “I can never… just thank you, thank you so much.”
“It’s not me you need to be thanking. She won’t stay with you if you don’t treat her right, you know.” Eddie nodded at the old man’s words, but he didn’t really hear them. He turned to thread his way through the tables, not noticing that the room was now empty, the candle wicks smoldering and adding their waxy smoke to the fog in the room.
Guitar case cradled in his arms, Eddie hurried through the door, leaving me behind without a thought. I turned to the old man, but there was no one there, just a dusty old kitchen chair and the empty shell of a small amplifier. I allowed myself a brief moment of all-too-human envy at the freedom that soul now enjoyed before I accepted the mantle of the Muse once again.
Excerpt from Evolution Device, (c) Lif Strand
Available July 28, 2020 from your favorite bookseller