Screaming Winds and Smashed Guitars: A Short Story
Screaming Winds and Smashed Guitars
1. From the Dust Cloud
When the town bell rang, young Paul jumped to his feet, eager to answer the call. He barely had time to put on his armor when the bell rang again.
“Hang on. Hang on,” Paul grumbled, struggling to strap on his armor-a motley assortment of pots and pans culled together from Sophie’s kitchen. He tightened the straps, hung his sword from his belt, and headed for the door. As he turned the doorknob and remembered the Red Winds.
"Slow down," he said to himself, "or you'll end up like Wren."
Paul dug through the cluster of breathing apparatuses that hung near the door, looking for his mask. A week ago, he made the mistake of putting on Wren’s mask and nearly gagged from the smell of rotten breath lingering in the mouthpiece. He found the mask with his name written on the strap in black marker and put it over his mouth.
Paul stepped outside into the ripping winds, and the tavern door slammed shut behind him. When the red dust burned his eyes, he remembered the goggles and pulled them over his nose, securing them onto his face.
With his eyes and lungs protected, he hopped off the porch and headed down the southern road leading to the outpost where the alarm bell hung.
Two townsfolk, wrapped head to toe in rags, passed him without word or wave. They reminded him of the mummies from the decaying silent films down in the town’s archive. The red winds lasted for roughly two weeks, so the locals only ventured out for necessities like food and companionship. Sophie was convinced that the windy season was getting longer and less predictable with each passing year.
“Back when the winds first started, they lasted three or four days," she said. "But in the last few years, the winds come every couple of months, sometimes lasting for weeks."
When the bell rang a third time, Paul hurried down Main Street, eager to reach the outpost and find out what the ruckus was all about.
Someone’s in trouble, he thought, or maybe the Jenkin's kid is fooling around again. I'll give him a smack on the head if this is another one of his stupid pranks.
The Watch used the bell to alert the townsfolk of approaching caravans and strangers, but no one manned the lookout during the winds leaving the town vulnerable to howling Desert Grubs looking to pillage and steal.
The Grubs don't announce themselves, so who’s ringing the bell? Paul wondered. Maybe a lost merchant looking for solace? Or was it The Amazing John Foster and his Momeurs arriving earlier than expected? No way, Foster's never early for anything except maybe a free meal.
I can hope though. I haven’t seen a genuine smile around these parts in months.
Paul saw the hazy form of the outpost through the veil of dust. 'Outpost' was a strong word to use for what amounted to a crow’s nest built up next to a wooden archway with a sign reading “Well-Come to Benton” just above a bell made from a chamber pot, a ladle, and some string.
From the wall of dust and dirt, a man emerged. He stumbled toward Paul, laughing and coughing through a bandana held over his mouth and nose. Paul rushed forward and grabbed him by his shoulder. His grip was gentle, but the man flinched and drew back as if noticing him for the first time.
Paul reached out again and took hold of the man, saying, “You look sick, sir. The Red Wind takes many lives when she’s kicking about. You need to get inside, or we’ll be digging another hole when she leaves us.”
The stranger was a grizzly bear of a man with a long beard, a wrinkled face, and a cowboy hat tied around his chin. A dark shape loomed over his left shoulder. At first sight, Paul thought it was another person but soon realized that a black guitar case was strapped to his back.
“Water,” the stranger choked. “Please.”
“Come with me, sir. Sophie’s tavern is just down the block,” Paul said, still looking at the guitar case. The man ignored Paul’s glance and leaned on him. Paul grabbed his arm tight and led the stranger into town.
“Are you a soldier?” the man whispered.
“No, sir. I’m a stableboy at Sophie’s Wigwam. I’m covering for Wren until he recovers from a nasty case of Red Lung. Caught it at the beginning of this year’s storm. The Gent tried healing him with The Aural, but he's still sick.”
“Gent? There’s a…”, the stranger’s words jammed in his throat, and he coughed hard.
“Steady,” Paul said. “You’d best keep quiet until we're inside and we can get some water down your throat.”
Paul carried the man toward the tavern, sticking close the buildings where the wind lost some of its force. All of the shops along Main Street were closed, and their windows shuttered, except for Jane's Food Stuff where lonely candles flickered behind reinforced doors.
“There,” Paul said, pointing to corner building across the street. “That’s Sophie’s Wigwam. A fire and good food are waiting for you inside.” He walked the man to the wood-planked porch of the tavern and heaved him up each step by his underarm. The man grabbed the rail with his free hand and took the burden from Paul.
When they reached the landing of the porch, the man said, “What’s your name boy? I need to know who to thank.”
“Folks around here call me Paul, so I guess that’s my name,” he said. “No need for thanking, though. Sophie will get you fixed up.”
“I have some money,” the man said. “Nothing with a seal that you would recognize, but it should be enough if my counting’s worth a spit.”
“Sir, if you can play that guitar of yours, you won’t need to pay for much of anything around here,” Paul said and led the man into the warm sanctuary of the tavern.
2. The Road Urchin
Within the warm belly of Sophie's Wigwam, young Paul held a bucket in place while the stranger hacked into it, spewing bile and red dust.
"Get it all out," Sophie said with her hands laid gently on the back of the man's neck.
After his coughing subsided, the stranger took a mouthful of water from a cup Sophie offered him. He swished it around his mouth and spit it into the bucket. He drank a few more sips, swallowing each one slowly.
"I'm alright now," he said and stood up on wobbly legs. Sophie seated him on a comfortable sofa by the fire and left him to regain his strength.
Paul gripped the bucket handle and continued to watch over him, for fear that the stranger might become sick again. After a few minutes, the man closed his eyes. When Paul heard the soft whistle of snoring coming from his mouth, he left the bucket and decided to see what Sophie was going to cook up for dinner. His stomach rumbled despite the smell of sick wafting in the air.
Sophie stood behind the bar, flipping through an ancient tome of recipes passed down through her family. The tome bulged with clippings and sticky notes attached to different pages with scrawled words only she could decipher. If there was one thing everyone in town knew, it was not to peek inside Sophie's recipe book because you might end up losing your inquisitive hand.
Food supplies were sparse during the storms, but Sophie always managed to whip up something tasty whenever she consulted the tome. She clapped the book shut, tucked it under the bar, and shook her head.
“No sense,” Sophie said to The Mayor, who was seated up at the bar and looking his usual grumpy self. “Travelers have no sense these days. Imagine! Wandering around without a mask when the winds are blowing.”
“The winds are coming more often,” said the The Mayor. “How many storms have we seen this year? Three or four at least. If this keeps up, we won’t know when one storm ends, and the other begins. It’ll be all storms, all the time.”
“Watch your tongue around the boy!” Sophie said, wiping her hands on the spotted apron wrapped around her rotund body. “Some mayor you are, scaring the youngins like that.”
Paul frowned at being called a 'youngin', although it was true. The Doc said that he was "probably 'round sixteen or so," but Paul felt much older, especially when he had his armor strapped on.
The Mayor cleared the glob in his throat, and mumbled, “I’m only mayor because no one wants the job, and he ain’t no youngin if he’s old enough to carry a sword.”
Paul wanted to change the subject, dreading the prolonged argument he spotted on the horizon. “Sophie, are you cooking something from the book tonight?"
“I’m thinking of Lazy Paddy’s Soup. I may have some carrots and escarole in the cellar. Most of the celery has gone to rot, but I should use the good stalks before they go to waste." She looked past Paul to the stranger.
"He’s shivering. Warm soup will help to keep the Red Lung out of him. He should be in the clinic, truth be told."
"Doc Black's a stubborn cuss when it comes to strangers," The Mayor said. "No way he'll see him, not while he's tending to Wren."
“The soup will do him good. He looks like he's been traveling for weeks,” Paul said, and then lowered his voice. “He has a guitar with him. Do you think he's a Gent?”
“He may have a guitar,” Sophie said, “but I’m not convinced that he’s a Gent. He looks more like a road urchin.”
“He probably knocked someone over the head for that guitar,” The Mayor said. “Maybe gutted him too. Look at his clothes! I've never seen a Gent look like such a mess. We should just throw him in the tank for vagrancy.”
Sophie gave The Mayor her Medusa stare. No snakes popped out from her hair, but her look was enough to make him drop his eyes down into his beer.
“Paul, why don’t you go check and see if he’s okay. I don’t want him dying in my favorite chair.”
Paul nodded and crept over to the man with his head down and hands in his pockets. The fire was low and crackling like a scratched record. The man’s eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell with each slow breath. To his right, a battered guitar case rested against the wall.
“Can you play that thing?” Paul whispered, wondering if the man was awake.
“Aye,” the man said without opening his eyes.
“I knew it! I told them so, but they didn’t believe me.” He leaned in close and said, “The Mayor said that you must have stolen it from someone on the road, but I knew better. I could tell by your fingernails. They’re longer on your right hand and trim on your left.”
The man half-smiled and said, “You have a good eye. How do you know so much about guitar playing?”
“Mostly from books and records, and some movies too. There's a rusty projector and screen down the basement of the town archive where you can watch movies. We don't have much else to do around here, especially when the winds are kicking up," Paul said, and then ventured further, "I can play a little bit, too. I bought a guitar from Lucky's Caravan last year. It only has four strings, but it does the trick. I try not to strum too hard, though. There’s nowhere around here to get any strings, and Sam Slim won’t sell my any of his."
“Sam Slim?” he said, sitting up and stretching his arms. “Is he the Gent you mentioned?"
Paul nodded. “He comes into town during the storms and tries to calm the winds. We don't have much money to pay him for his services, but he takes almost anything as payment."
The man’s brow scrunched up for a moment, and he clucked his tongue a few times. “This Sam Slim, can you describe him for me?”
“Sure, he’s about your height and slim, obviously, and he has a handlebar mustache,” Paul said through a huge, bursting smile. “He even wears a top hat with a huge rainbow feather when performing! A true showman if I’ve ever seen one. I’ll bet he could give ole Tom Foster a run for his money!”
“And you say he helps out with the storms?”
“He tries to, but he says that the Red Winds are too strong even for a gent of his caliber.”
The man stroked his bushy grey beard. The beard had two white stripes that made it look like the tail of an ancient animal. “Do you think this Sam Slim will be by today?”
“He usually shows up around dinner time. He always seems to know when Sofie's cooking. He says you can smell her food through the winds. He’ll come in, play a few songs, and Sophie will feed him.”
The man grunted, and said, “Well then, I’ll just wait around until he comes. Do me a favor and don’t tell him about me. From what you’ve told me, this Sam Slim is a mighty powerful Gent. I don’t want him to think that I’m moving in on his territory.” As he reached the end the of his words, his voice became raspy, and he hacked up more red dust. Paul patted him on the back until the man beckoned for the glass of water that stood out of reach. Paul helped pour the water down his throat until the man held the glass with both hands.
After a few long drinks, he said, “Thanks son, now let me get some rest. I need to close my eyes for a while.” The man leaned back in his chair, pulled the hat over his eyes.
Before Paul left, he eyed the guitar case once more, wondering about the instrument inside. Judging from the size of the case, it was most likely a dreadnought class acoustic guitar. He restrained himself from taking a peek and headed back to the bar.
The evening cast a dark pallor over the town of Benton. The winds tapered off-they always did when the sun went down-only to return during the small hours with a howling vengeance.
No one walked the streets at night, at least not until Sophie kicked everyone out of her tavern, and that didn't happen until after the midnight hour when the patron's festive spirits dipped into melancholy. She despised nothing more than a bar full of brooding faces sunk into their mugs and whispering about dark things in the night.
Paul locked up the stable after feeding and brushing the horses. A mare named Zelda, Sophie’s favorite, hacked up her food and refused to leave her stall. When Paul looked into the horse's eyes with his penlight, he saw that her pupils were pink, a sure sign that Zelda had caught a lungful of the red wind and wasn't long for this world.
Paul sighed and killed the penlight. He hated to break the news to Sophie. She was in a good mood, hassling The Mayor about this and that and telling stories of the 'olde days' to the customers who braved the winds for a night a drink and merriment. You would think that the threat of Red Lung would keep people locked up in their houses, but a few years ago, Pastor Stevens got a touch of cabin fever after weeks of seclusion and launched himself off the bell tower of his own church. The note he left read like the meanderings of a madman driven crazy from paranoia. When something like that happens in a small town like Benton, the townsfolk always learn a lesson. The Red Winds were dangerous, but the mind, left on its own, was just as deadly.
Maybe they can smell her cooking through the winds, Paul thought as he looked around the crowded bar. The rich scent of hot soup and lager, married with the warmth of the fireplace, made it easy to forget the world outside. As Sophie poured bowl after bowl of steaming soup, she was bathed in the flicker of candles burning inside mason jars placed at every table. The clank of spoons and mugs and mumbled conversation made Paul smile; the most downtrodden people could forget their problems with some good food and companionship.
Paul squeezed onto a stool at the bar between Joe “Lanky” Langford, the town's blacksmith and tanner, and Celia Jones, who worked as a nurse at Doc Black’s office. Joe nodded at him and said, “I heard that you plucked a drifter off the road today.”
“I did,” Paul said, looking through the scattered faces around the tavern until he settled on the stranger. “Try not to stare. He’s over there, sitting in the corner table.”
Indeed, the man was there sucking down a bowl of soup, and from the looks of it, he’d been sucking down bowls all night long. A pile of dishes stacked six high teetered next to the bowl he was working on. The color had returned to his cheeks and with it, a renewed vigor in the man’s demeanor.
“I don’t know where he ’s putting it,” Sophie interjected from behind the bar. “He keeps calling for more. It’s flattering in a way, but holy cow, he must have four stomachs."
"How's he paying?" Paul asked, hoping that he made some arrangement to pay with music. Maybe I'll get to hear him play a song before the night is through.
“Does he have gold?” Lanky said. The shimmer in his eyes may have come from the candles, but it was there nonetheless. Paul thought that Lanky looked nothing like the blacksmiths in the fantasy books. In those stories, blacksmiths were portrayed as bald musclemen with arms like oak trees from hammering metal. Lanky was tall and built more like a birch tree. Despite his appearance, the man knew how to work metal. It was Lanky who put together Paul’s pots-and-pans armor ensemble, and he did it cheap, which was surprising since Lanky loved gold. When Paul asked him why he’d made the armor for so little money, he said, “If you’re crazy enough to fill in as a watchman during these terrible winds, then someone better make sure that you stay alive to keep doing it.”
“He has gold, alright," Sophie said, "but I don’t recognize any of the markings on the coins. He says that he’s from some distant land. Camel-something. I don't care where he’s from, his gold is real enough.”
“Hmm,” Lanky said, eyeing up the stranger, “I wonder if he needs a new leather coat?”
Celia swiveled her stool around to see the stranger, and said, “You dragged that man in from the storm? He’s lucky to still be breathing. I haven't seen a new face around here since last spring when that soldier arrived with the wolf bite. Doctor Black tried so hard to save him, but the infection wouldn't let up.”
“How’s Wren doing?” Paul asked. “I wanted to get over to see him today, but with everything else going on, I never made it to the clinic.”
Celia shook her head and glanced at Sophie, “He’s not doing too well, Paul. The Red Lung is spreading through his system. If he doesn't turn around soon…”
Celia's eyes were bloodshot and weary. Her hair was pulled back tight, revealing the lines around her eyes. Paul thought that she was aging before her time. He remembered when she first came to Benton to work with Doctor Black, the men would gather together on drunken nights and pine for lovely Celia Jones. Back then, Paul was too young to appreciate her beauty. He looked at her now and could still see a pretty face behind the dark circles and tired eyes.
The front door swung open and Lanky said, “Here comes the entertainment."
A slight, yet tall man stepped into the tavern with a guitar case in hand. He took off his leather duster, removed his breathing apparatus, and hung them both by the door. Without his coat, Sam Slim looked almost skeletal. Paul expected him to disappear when he turned sideways. He didn't have his top hat on, so his balding dome shined in the light.
Sam waved and grinned to the patrons as he made his way to the bar, stopping here and there to shake or kiss a hand. He wore a charcoal black suit and bolo tie with a silver musical note holding the strings together. Sam looked more like an undertaker than a musician. Sour faces glared him as he strode to the bar; the good faith extended to him by the people of Benton was running on empty.
When Sam reached the bar, he said, “Evening folks! Hot damn, that soup smells good. I was in bed, ready to retire early when the most delicious smell wafted in through the cracks of the window. I said to myself, Sam! Sophie’s-a-cooking, so get your butt out of bed and get down to the tavern.”
Paul looked past Sam Slim to see if the stranger had taken notice. The man was cleaning his bowl with a huge chunk of bread.
“How about a bowl of that good stuff for old Sam? A bowl for a few tunes, maybe?”
Sophie shrugged and said, “Beings there’s a crowd tonight, I don’t mind, but you need to learn some new songs, Sammy boy. My patrons are getting tired of Proud Mary and Jumping Jack Flash.”
“Ah, Sophie, you sure know how to hurt a man’s feelings. After all that I’ve done for this town?” He said with a broad smile, showing a gold tooth. “I’ll see if I can remember something from my early days.”
Sam laid the guitar case on an empty table, unhooked the clasps, and flipped the lid open, revealing an acoustic guitar with a gleaming soundboard made of spruce.
Paul wanted nothing more than to hold the guitar, but he knew better than to ask. A Gent’s guitar was his and his alone. Some considered it bad luck to even touch a Gent’s guitar. In a book called The Six-String Way by Lin Sto, Paul read that the energy within an owned instrument can be fouled if touched by another musician.
Sam lifted the guitar out reverently, sat down in a chair, and placed it on his knee. He pulled a wallet out of his back pocket, fished around inside until he revealed an ivory pick. He stashed the wallet away with the speed of a magician and was about to strum a chord, when a voice called out, “Are you taking requests?”
Sam looked around, perturbed at the interruption. All eyes went to the stranger, who was leaning back in the chair, feet up on the table. There was a fire in his eyes that Paul had not seen since the man arrived.
“I don’t take requests, sir. A Gent plays what a Gent plays.”
“He does, does he?” The man said. “Surely, a Gent of your stature can rustle up a few standards? I’d like to hear Blackbird, myself.”
“I don’t think that I know that one, sir, now, if you will just let me get on with…”
“You don’t know Blackbird?" The man said, dropping his feet to the floor and sitting up. "The boy here tells me that you’ve been helping out around town, wielding The Aural, in exchange for food, drink, and comfort. You can’t be much of a Gent if you can’t even muster up a simple tune. Blackbird is one of the first songs a Gent learns.”
The tavern grew silent, all eyes were fixed on the man in the corner. No one ever dared challenge Sam Slim; he was treated with a mixture of both respect and fear. Before Sam arrived, Benton’s town records showed that a Gent hadn’t visited the town in over 30 years!
Sam, like Lanky to blacksmiths, was nothing like the gents in the history books. They were heroic figures, knights almost, who used their powers to heal and right injustices. Sam was more like the Gents in the pulp novels-showy and stylish.
Sam Slim laughed, and said, “Good sir, no doubt you are new in town, but as my friends here will attest, I am master at my craft. Tis true, I don’t know this silly song that you mention. If it’s so easy, I’d like to see you take a crack at it.”
The patrons around Sam laughed at the jest, but their laughter fell when the strange pulled a gleaming black guitar from behind his chair. Gold etchings were traced around the rim of a sound hole so black, that light
( ( ( (((bent))) ) ) )
around its edges.
4. The Gent
The man that Paul would come to know as Gerhard strummed the dreadnaught with his fingernails, loosening a brilliant chord that consumed the room. That hanging chord burrowed into Paul's soul, filling him with warmth. In all of his nights spent listening to Sam Slim play, he never experienced anything like that sensation. He looked around and saw expressions of surprise and pure joy on the faces around him--save one. Sam Slim soon rigid, gritting his teeth and gripping his guitar as if it were attempting to fly from his hands.
Gerhard began to strum the strings. The song was simple, yet beautiful. He played the bass line with his thumb and plucked the melody with his fingers, all the while tapping his foot in perfect time.
The air in Sophie’s Wigwam tingled as the notes swelled and swirled around the room. The hairs on Paul's arms stood on end as the song built into a rhythmic crescendo. To his left, Celia Jones rubbed her arms, and to his right, Lanky wiped a tear from his eye. Sophie held her chest and possibly her breath. The Mayor's face was impassive, but his wide eyes told a different story.
Even Sam Slim, with a red face and quivering lips, was enchanted by the stark beauty of the music coming from the jet black guitar, with the soundhole that swirled with all the stars in the sky.
The shutters blew open from a window near the fireplace, and a black blur flew through the glass window-without breaking the glass-into the tavern and rested on the headstock of the stranger’s guitar. When the shutters slammed shut, many of the startled patrons nearly fell out of their seats.
The song ended, and the raven perched on the headstock cawed. Gerhard played one final chord, so powerful that it shattered Sam Slim’s guitar into splinters.
Sam fell back onto the floor, holding on to the neck of his destroyed guitar. His face, a mask of wild dismay as he stared at Gerhard in utter disbelief.
The only movement came from the raven as it twitched it's head, appearing to move from person to person until it settled on Sam Slim.
Gerhard stood up holding his guitar by the neck and body. The raven did not move from his perch. He said, “A Gent does not take, he gives. He serves the people. They do not serve him. Now! Away with you, charlatan. Leave these good people. In my land, it’s a crime punishable by death to impersonate a Gent."
"Be glad that we are not in my land.”
Sam Slim didn’t bother to collect the pieces of his guitar, nor did he stop to get his coat or breathing apparatus. His bony frame, looking frail and defeated, fled Sophie’s Wigwam, into the unforgiving Red Winds.
The denizens of tavern stared in wonder and terror as Gerhard took his place back in the chair next to the fireplace. He strummed a few chords and fiddled with the tuning knobs before placing the guitar back in its case. He settled back into the chair and noticed that no one had moved a smidge since he disposed of ole Sam Slim.
Gerhard smiled, moving his gaze from face to face to face around the bar until he settled on Paul.
Finally, he said, "What's the matter? You've never heard real music around here before?"