The Tuner’, Kip Manley

Illustrations © 2013 Laura Anca Adascalitei

 [ trumpet, © 2013 Laura Anca Adascalitei ] The sky was yellow. The air was heavy and smelled of rain. I was sitting on the porch writing a letter to the boy I’d left in Looe. The screen door opened with a ragged croak and the owner of the house walked down the porch steps, sniffing. She dusted flour from her hands and went out into the yard to take down the laundry. Her sons’ shirts snapped in a gust of wind, struck a brilliant white by the last clear rays of sunlight. There was a burst of flute-song from an unseen pipe and she stopped, stood still, her wife’s dress the color of turmeric heavily damp in her hands. They came over the hill then, one two many of them, under the lowering oak.

The first was pale and wore a dirty sheepskin vest. He carried a flute in one hand. With his other he drew a long skinny knife from a sheath bound to his bare thigh. Behind him a girl carried a tambur like a club, her hair matted with blood from an old wound. The wide-eyed man capering behind her wore filthy dungarees and a tall black formal hat. A tarnished trumpet flopped loosely in one dangling hand.

The owner of the house did not move as the boy with the knife slunk up to her. He reached for the heavy orange dress in her hands. No, she said then. One of them yipped. He tugged at the dress. Please don’t, she said. He waved his knife in her face. She flinched. —Stop that, said someone, loudly.

Under the tree stood the tuner.

He wore a pack on his back that towered a foot or two above his frizzled head. As he stepped out from under the tree pots tied to the bottom of that pack clanked hollowly.

Stop it, he said. Let her alone.

The boy with the knife whined. A grey-skinned woman in a striped singlet sang a harshly mocking seven-note phrase. I set the letter aside and stood.

Storm, said the tuner. Blowing in. Could we borrow your roof awhile?

The owner looked up at me. There were seven of them, all told. Her wife was gone with the truck. Her sons wouldn’t be back for another ten days. No one else was staying at the house, not that late in the season.

Yes, she said.

Gusts of wind dumped rattling loads of rain on the roof to drown out the mutter of far-off thunder. The owner of the house sat at the kitchen table shelling peas, dropping them into an orange bowl, the shells into an old lard tin half-filled with polchassa stems, coffee grounds, eggshells, olio husks. The boy in the sheepskin vest sat across from her, grinning, tugging at his half-hearted erection.

The youngest of them, an adolescent girl, leaned against the icebox. She wore grimy yellow socks and a single kneepad that once had been white, and breathed a tuneless rill in and out of an ocarina she wore on a string about her neck. The grey-skinned woman sat at her feet, rocking back and forth. The wide-eyed man did tricks with his hat, sweeping it off his head and sending it tripping back up along his arm, knocking it off again with a seemingly clumsy finger that caught it and spun it like a ring. He began to hum a deep and maddeningly rhythmic line, the same note pulsed six times then bottoming out suddenly and returning to a note midway between, over and over and over again above the drumming rain. I would hear this song many times in the days to come. It was one of his contentment-songs. —The grey-skinned woman began to rock a little faster, keeping time with the wide-eyed man. She began to chatter some fast-paced sing-song nonsense that tugged the girl’s ocarina after it, turning those breathy rills into a hesitant, repetitive tune. The boy at the table looked at the owner of the house who was still intently shelling peas. He looked at me, still stroking himself absently, lifting his other hand to chew at his thumbnail. Abada, he said, very clearly, and then he wiped both hands on his knees and picked up his flute from the table and began to play. I sat there on the kitchen floor, listening, my pen unnoticed in my hand, the letter to the boy in Looe forgotten in my lap.

The girl with the scabbed hair nudged my hip with her foot. Hey, she said. She waved her tambur at me. Hey, she said. She nudged me again.

Can you tune it? said the tuner.

He stood in the doorway of the kitchen sipping from a clay bottle of the owner’s homebrew. The music ebbed away around us. The grey-skinned woman’s chatter was ragged and meaningless. The girl’s ocarina tootled randomly. The boy’s flute shrieked and squealed as he blew angrily into it, his fingers clattering along its keys. Only the wide-eyed man kept humming his eight-note contentment-song, the hat still dancing in his hands. The girl with the wound on her head squatted before me, holding out her tambur.

I don’t know, I said to the tuner. He shrugged. The rain’s fury had passed sometime during the song. I took the tambur from her. Its twelve strings seemed sound, but made a sour, nasal jangle when I strummed them.

Please, she said.

I looked up, startled. Please, she said again. The wound on the side of her head glistened in the electric light, ugly, puckered, red around the edges I could see. The dried mat of blood a dull dead patch of black in her glossy black hair. The tuner hummed something almost to himself and as if it had been a signal they all began to laugh, the grey-skinned woman looking up at the young girl who bit her lower lip and giggled, the wide-eyed man barking pounding one hard heel against the linoleum, the angry boy leaping up from his chair, glaring, shooting his laughs from his belly like stones. He spun around and stomped past the biggest of them, the quiet shaggy one who smiled into his beer, stomped past him to the back door of the house. He threw it open and leaped out into the gentling rain.

Well? said the tuner.

The young girl blew a note into her ocarina, and again. I plucked the lowest pair of the twelve strings, tightening the over-and-under pegs, plucked them again, sweetening them to match each other with the young girl’s note. The girl with the wound on her head lay down on the floor before me, pillowing her head on one arm folded like a wing.

When the rain stopped I told the owner I’d be leaving with them. I asked her for the balance of the cash I’d paid up front. She frowned. Outside in her yard the wide-eyed man was playing his trumpet, fast blatting runs of notes that never went where they were going.

It’s not, she said, chewing the words slowly, not my concern that you are not to stay the entire time you contracted for.

I see, I said.

So I don’t think, she began to say.

I see, I said.

Her wife drove up as we were leaving, the hard white lights of the truck catching us at the edge of the polchassa patch. The tuner strode on into the copse beyond. The rest looked back at the house. As the owner’s wife shut off the engine, killing the lights, the biggest of them, the quiet shaggy one, lurched forward suddenly, throwing his arms wide. Roaring. The owner stood on the porch, peering into the darkness where we were. Her wife stood by the truck in a yellow dress and black rubber boots, one hand still on the truck’s ladder. The engine tocked and gurgled and was still.

Bitch! I yelled then. Thieves!

The owner didn’t move from the porch. Her wife looked up at her. I might have said something else, I don’t recall. The boy in the sheepskin vest shoved my shoulder, knocking me off-balance. The rest of them were ghosting off after the clatter of the tuner’s pots, into the copse and beyond.

For the next hour or so as we picked our way between the little farms that slept along the valley floor the boy would erupt with surprising bursts of laughter. Thieves, he would say, stretching the word into meaninglessness. Thee thee theeeef theeeeefs! The wide-eyed man hummed a hypnotically rolling twelve-note marching-song.

The sunsets were glorious at the end of that summer, on that side of the battlefield. Late the next afternoon we stopped up under the heavy rock ridges that beetled the southeast end of the valley. A chilled darkness hunkered somewhere behind us, but we lazed on warm rocks in a pool of orange light. The day-blue sky above us spilled into a lavender violently marbled with more of that orange. Long cloud-fingers hung over the north, their bellies chased with strange colors, yellows and reds and oranges like fresh paint, piercing greens, blues and greys like some rare smoke. The girl with the wound on her head sat behind me on the same rock and leaned back against me. At midday, resting by a stream far below, I had taken her hand and led her to a calm and sunstruck pool where I had carefully washed the old blood out of her hair. She flinched, and jerked, and yelled, and leaped away from me, her feet splashing. I waited patiently with my sponge in my hand. She came back and laid her cool cheek against my open palm. Fresh blood seeped from the gash when I was done, but only a little. I cut the tail from one of my cleaner shirts and gave it to her to hold against it. Better than nothing. A few hours later, climbing the knees of the ridge, I saw that she’d already lost it.

As the sun set she cradled her tambur and strummed three lofting chords. It was out of tune again, but the jangle was pleasant somehow. She found two pairs bent into a weird new discord and worried at them.

Hey, said the tuner.

He was looking up from whatever he was doing to the intricate valves of the wide-eyed man’s trumpet, pointing west with the jerry-rigged pick in his hand. Hey, he said. Quiet. Ships.

I didn’t see them at first. They were so far away they hung immobile in the fiery sky, seven, eight, maybe a dozen, like grains of pepper, like grit in the smokey callouses of the cloud-fingers. A wing of them coming south with the clouds.

The girl with the wound on her head turned the sweetly sour notes into a thrumming rhythmic line that spread out like a floor for dancing. The biggest of them, his shaggy hair stubbornly blue even in this lurid light, began to slap the stone in front of him, a harshly popping tattoo. The boy in the sheepskin vest leaped to his feet and he and the young girl sent their pipes skirling madly after each other, fluting runs too urgent to bother with melody. Hey, said the tuner. Cut that out. The wide-eyed man snatched his trumpet from the tuner’s hands and bounded out to the edge of a stubby pier of rock, lifting the horn and blowing one long loud note into the sunset. The others churned along behind him. He lowered his trumpet. With one swift jerk he yanked the tall black hat from his head and sent it sailing out over the valley. Then he began to play.

It grew colder. The green washed out of the sky. The oranges cooled to reds and purples. The lavender bled away. The tuner stood, said something, fuck all this, you’re idiots, go to hell, I don’t remember. He spat. Took up his pack as the big one grinned at him, hands popping against his chest, his thighs under his big coat, the stone in front of him, rolling the clatter of the tuner’s pots into his drumming. The tuner hiked up out of that draining pool of light up towards a dark cleft in the ridge. The boy in the sheepskin vest pulled his flute from his lips and threw back his head and howled at those far-off, unmoving ships.

We didn’t light a fire. The tuner clipped a light to his collar and shone it on a bundle of thick rubbery felt which he unwrapped. Inside a soft brick of quivering fatty stuff, greyly translucent in the white light like old ice. He cut slices each as thick as a finger and passed them around. As he tossed me a slice, gelid and moist, already streaked with dark floury dust, he asked if I had ever been to Cabester. I hadn’t. The stuff smelled like everything else this close to a battlefield: acrid, thick, like cold truck fuel, like shredded metal. The wide-eyed man laid his slice flat on his palm and slapped his hands together. He held it up, jerking and twisting, shivers of luminescence chasing through it. The grey-skinned woman slapped hers and wolfed it down almost at once. The girl with the wound on her head clapped hers twice then her hands still pressed together held it up before her nose and mouth, closing her eyes. The boy in the sheepskin vest slapped his slice against his upper arm and tossed it into the air. I began to smell something faint but slick and warm, like frying oil. The young girl shivered and burrowed closer to my side, trying to wind my blanket more tightly about herself. I’d already learned to anchor the opposite corners under my foot and my pack to keep her from pulling it completely off me. She didn’t take a slice.

In Cabester, said the tuner, there’s a festival. The Cloghohow. If we play there, they’ll give us toys and trinkets, metal cash, meat, vitamin pills. If we play well.

They can play for a festival? I slapped my slice of the stuff and nearly dropped it as it instantly grew hot.

We busk, said the tuner. In towns. You haven’t seen us in a town.

I closed my hands about the stuff and let it shiver against my skin. You could actually cook something in those pots, I said.

New instruments also, said the tuner. And warm clothing. Winter’s on its way.

So maybe you should head south, I said.

He smiled.

The stuff was mushy and melted to a sludgy slick on my tongue. It tasted of nothing at all but left a vague astringency at the back of my throat. I gobbled it down. The girl with the wound on her head squatted beside me and tugged at the blanket. I lifted a corner and she crawled into my lap. Curled up behind me the young girl began to whine. I’d given my other blanket to the grey-skinned woman, who now curled up tightly within it, wriggling it up over her nose and ears until only her tufted hair could be seen. The boy in the sheepskin vest pulled out his flute but did not put it to his lips. He stalked the darkness all about us, grunting, waving it in the air. The wide-eyed man sat down before the biggest of them who wrapped his coat about them both as they lay down together. The wide-eyed man breathed out a single phrase of slurry, sleepy music, another contentment-song. Hey, said the tuner, grabbing the angry boy’s wrist as he passed before him. The boy glared as the tuner carefully pried the flute from his hands. You ever crossed a battlefield before? he asked. Pulling two pairs of needlenosed pliers from his pack, one of them held together with a thick wad of black tape. In the sharp white spot of his collar light he began to pick at the wire hinges that held one of the flute’s keys half open.

Yes, I said. With a guide, of course.

We don’t need guides, said the tuner.

In my lap the girl with the wound on her head shifted a little and her hands under the blanket plucked at the tambur, unraveling the same chord over and over again. The boy, his fists tucked under his sheepskin vest, muttered something guttural, kicking rocks. We, said the tuner, holding up the flute with one hand, shining his light on his work, have never needed guides. You can tune.

The girl with the wound on her head had nibbled her chord down to one note plucked slowly, both strings just out of tune enough to make a richly sour sound. I suppose, I said.

Can you sing?

Not too well, I said.

We’ll see, said the tuner. He laid a hand on the angry boy’s bony elbow. The boy started. The tuner held up the flute and the boy snatched it and ran away, up to the broken slope of scree by the huge boulder that overlooked our campsite.

We could have lit a fire, said the tuner, listening to rocks tumble and clatter from the boy’s footsteps. Wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. How’s she doing?

I looked down at the girl with the wound on her head, who had stopped picking at her note. Her eyes had finally closed. She snored, softly. The young girl behind me reached over to almost touch the cleaned wound.

The battlefield slouched down and away from the other side of those ridges under a high white sky. The dessicated corpse of a river looped along the bottom of it. On the fair side could just be made out a thin haze of yellow and brown: old grass burnt half dead by the relentless end-of-summer sun, but still the only living thing that we could see. All the rest was grey dust and broken rock, a sharper, darker grey, marred with streaks of clean jet black and chalky white.

It took us three days and nights to cross. Sometime in the cold thin afternoon of the third day the angry boy in the sheepskin vest left us curled in our blankets in shallow ditches dug by the wind. We found him that evening, an hour or so after we set out, curled on his side in the dust. His skin was cold. Dust clotted his staring eyes and caked the corners of his face. The young girl squatted and tugged at his vest. The wide-eyed man helped her, wrenching the boy’s arms up and back so she could work the vest off without ripping it.

The tuner shuffled away from our little knot, his eyes on the dust. The wide-eyed man looked up from the boy’s body, his trumpet like an afterthought in his hand. He lifted it to his lips, held it there a moment, but lowered it without playing a note. The tuner stooped some ten or fifteen meters away and picked up the boy’s flute. He jerked to his feet. Go on, he shouted. Sing! You want the ships to find us? —The silence I had not heard until he broke it was terribly clear. I could hear the dust rustling as the breeze rubbed it. The grey-skinned woman wrapped in my blanket began to chatter something, but it was jagged, harsh. Out of place. She stopped. The tuner walked back to us spitting squally notes from the dead boy’s flute. Come on! he cried. Keep walking! Keep singing! Move! But it wasn’t until the boy’s body had been swallowed up by the starlit dust that the biggest of them began once more to clap his hands along with his rolling clockwork gait.

That beat had started on the very edge of the battlefield when the biggest of them drew a great breath into his chest and sent it booming in deep notes that rolled out over his handclaps before us. The grey-skinned woman’s glossolaly chattered over the dust after him. Startled, I looked at the tuner, who shrugged. The young girl clutched my other blanket tightly about herself, lifted her ocarina, and blew random, fluttering runs. The girl with the wound on her head hummed after, her tambur dangling from the strap I’d made out of a bit of rope. Aren’t you worried about them hearing us? I said to the tuner. He grabbed my arm and dragged me down to squat with him at the edge of the dust. It’s not the hearing, he said. Not here. Not now. The boy in the sheepskin vest marched past, his sing-song muttering under the hums and whistles and slaps. There’s nothing out there, the tuner said, nothing alive, nothing that hides us from the ships. Not our thoughts. So we have to hide them away. You said you could sing.

I said I wasn’t any good.

The wide-eyed man spinning his trumpet around one finger opened his mouth, and the boy in the sheepskin vest lifted his flute, and together his flute and the wide-eyed man’s voice went out and found a song, a simple song, a nursery song, a losing, hiding, lost song, and they sent it billowing out into the darkening air about us. And we could not hear the dust squeak beneath our feet and we could not feel the cold bite of the wind and we did not mark the stars as they wheeled so slowly above our heads until the sky turned grey and yellow and even a little white and green at the edges of it and we found ourselves sinking into the dust, throats raw, lips caked, heads swimming, eyes gritted, legs shaking, arms unaccountably sore. A bottle of water was passed around. No one could muster the energy to take more than a sip. Sometime before sunset the tuner began cutting slices of the fatty stuff. Already singing, we took it from him. Walking on through the dust, we slapped the stuff to life and at it, singing.

For three days and three nights I sang that song. There was nothing in my world but dust and that song, the thoughtless song, the walking song, the endless I-am-not-here song.

I can’t tell you what the song sounded like.

I don’t know if the girl with the wound on her head ever played her tambur along with it. I don’t think the wide-eyed man ever sounded his trumpet as we crossed the battlefield, but I can’t say for certain. I don’t know whether the song sounded different without the boy’s angry mutterings, his bursts of flute-song. I never heard the tuner sing, though. That I know. I never heard him play the boy’s flute, not while we were walking. —Some mornings I wake up and I know I’ve been hearing it again as sleep receded. Some days when I walk down the boulevard here, when I move through the medina on a rainy afternoon when it is deserted, everyone inside with their coffee and radios, sometimes the way my legs are moving, the way my arms feel makes me realize that I am remembering something, but by the time I realize it’s the sound of that song I’ve forgotten it again. I think sometimes the reason I’m still here is because of those almost-moments. I can’t leave because it’s here I’ve come so close to bringing it back.

Late on the third night, near to morning, the ship found us.

I stumbled out of the song and fell to my knees in the dust. The wide-eyed man was singing something that faltered, fell away like the hands of the biggest of them dangling from stilled wrists. We all looked up into a starless sky filled with something too regular to be called noise, to heavy to be quiet, too much everywhere at once to be coming from anywhere at all. The dust under my hands was vibrating, ghosting into the air, a soft fog about our toes and ankles. I felt queasy. A dull ache began in my eardrums and spread to my jaw, my skull, my chest.

The lights came on.

The ship was the size of a city and filled the sky and spots of blue-white light like avenues criss-crossing its belly flickered to life. We stood in a blue-white haze of buzzing dust, our shadows small and indistinct. A kilometer north of us or so and hundreds of meters above a pregnant ball the size of a stadium slowly began to turn, adding a grinding basso thrum to the whelming sound about us and within us. It was a gun, I think. Someone moved, then—the grey-skinned woman threw wide her hands. Her mouth hung open beneath her open eyes. Her throat and jaw jerked and trembled. She was howling.

The lights about the gun changed colors. Some flickered to green, some sparked a brighter blue, some long lines of neon yellow chased the base of the ball. Red lights flashed one at a time crawling down the curve of the ball at the very bottom of the ship. All of us were howling now. I think. I couldn’t hear anything but the smothering cocoon of sound from the ship itself.

We all ducked at once.

Whatever it was that came out of the gun lit the dust until it was too bright to look at. Our shadows staggered. Somewhere far away as the light died there was a roar. Something fell.

One by one the avenues crisscrossing the belly of the ship went dark as it began to climb into the sky. The stars crawled out from under it. The emptiness about us had been stretched so closely to some breaking point by the size of it and the noise that still rang and thrummed in our ears, our blood, our trembling muscles. I spat something tasteless, thick, the color of water and watched it darken the grey dust, clump it to a wet greenish black, and realized then that the sun must be rising. We looked up and there before us in the light not a hundred meters away were the first brown blades of baked dead grass.

 [ radio, © 2013 Laura Anca Adascalitei ] When we got to Cabester everyone was dancing.

A crowd of them milled about the square beneath the big electric clock. They clapped their hands above their heads and moved with long loping steps that changed direction with sudden exaggerated swivels of their hips. They were out of step with the jouncing beat being squeezed from the little red crate the small boy held aloft, as if the dances they danced were meant for other songs. They didn’t seem to mind.

The music was thin and scratchy, loud but somehow also far away. It jangled and bounced and someone was singing words that made sense until I tried to put them together. It all came from a round speaker there on the side of the crate that wasn’t much bigger than my head. A radio, someone said. The biggest of them laughed and clapped along, there at the edge of the dancing crowd. The wide-eyed man lifted his trumpet and bounced it along with the music, then sent a blatting run out to play with it, but the song ended suddenly as he played. The radio said something loudly and very quickly about liberation and the freedom of music and then a new song began, made of different jangles and thumps. The crowd cheered and laughed. The wide-eyed man lowered his trumpet. The crowd was dancing again, more of the same. The grey-skinned woman hummed a sharp little eight-note phrase and then began throwing some of her clattering nonsense syllables together in nervous scats.

No one seemed to notice them, standing there.

The tuner, pots clattering, led us to a dark hall he remembered from the last time they’d been to Cabester. There was a radio there, too, playing much the same music, and men with glossy mustaches and white shirts dancing together without touching. The tuner asked the host of the hall where the music was coming from.

Looe, said the host. The radio! It’s the latest thing. The caravan brought them.

The ships, the tuner said.

The ships have come and gone. They won’t be back for another year.

They won’t like this, the tuner said.

The host shrugged.

But the festival, said the tuner, and the host cried, This is the festival! And the men all cheered.

When the pink and orange streetlights began to come on we were in an open-air café in the middle of the main boulevard. There was a counter where the keeper sold brown bottles to men and women who sat on stools and drank. On the counter was another radio, loud and fast and blue. No one was dancing. The tuner leaned over the counter and told the keeper that we would play music for cash money, for vitamin pills, for food. The keeper shrugged. I already have a radio, he said.

What is that? said the tuner. What music is that?

Who knows? said the keeper.

It’s old music, said someone drinking at the counter. Years and years old. Out of the air.

The biggest of them, wrapped in his coat, was turning in circles, stepping in time to that jangling jounce, humming tunelessly. The wide-eyed man kept running his hands through his matted hair, one then the other, tossing his trumpet back and forth. The young girl in the filthy sheepskin vest pressed against me, tugging at my pack, until I pulled out one of my blankets. She wrapped it around her shoulders. Some of the people on the stools were staring.

The tuner shrugged out of his pack and dropped it clattering to the floor. He clacked a bit of metal cash against the counter and pointed to the cooler. The keeper plucked the coin from his fingers and fetched him a fresh brown bottle. The tuner drank it down in one long gulping swallow, set the bottle quite deliberately on the counter, walked down to the end of it as people turned on their stools to follow him, then picked up the blue radio and threw it to the floor.

There was a squawking burst of sound, but the music didn’t stop. The tuner picked up the radio again as a voice came out of it saying very rapidly something about the power of music and the liberation of the air. The tuner smashed the radio against the edge of the counter, and it cracked and the new song dissolved in a hissing rush of thin white noise. Jagged bits of plastic spattered to the floor. Again, and again, until it broke open in a spray of colored wires and thin green beaded cards. The speaker lolled out of its shattered case, a flat brown cone of cardboard held by a thick black cord. The tuner dropped it to the floor. Well? he said.

Get out, said the keeper.

Well? said the tuner, to the rest of them. Play!

The grey-skinned woman walked out of the open-air café, squeezing between a truck and a sedan parked there at the edge of the boulevard. After a moment the wide-eyed man followed her.

Come back! cried the tuner.

The biggest of them shuffled over to the remains of the radio and prodded them with his bare foot. People were setting their bottles down on the floor or the counter and leaving. The keeper was saying Get out, get out of here, you’re scaring my customers. The girl with the wound on her head slumped to the floor by the tuner’s pack.

Well? said the tuner.

The young girl looked at me, pulled at my sleeve, as the tuner said again Well? What are you waiting for?

I told the young girl she could keep the blanket. She bit her lip.

There were glorious sunsets all the rest of that year, I’m told. A caravan driver said it was because a ship had gone down somewhere else, to the west, over past Menkil maybe, shot down by another of those ships. It burned for months, she said, and it was the smoke that filled the sky with those colors. But no one else has spoken of a ship going down, and with the winter here the rains have come. The skies have been mostly grey, with only an occasional blue day, and the sunsets are nothing much to speak of.

The tuner was the only one of them I ever saw again. I walked past him without realizing who it was. By the time I did and made my way back through the noontide crowds, he was gone.

This is what I remember: his hair had grown long, and he had lost his pack, her coat, everything but a ragged pair of coveralls and the dead boy’s flute, which he held in his hand and did not play. I don’t think the girl who shook the empty cup at passersby was the girl who’d had a wound on her head. She didn’t have an instrument at all.

© 2013 Kip Manley

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