Friday, February 18, 2011

FICTION: She Who Comes With a Guitar By Arthur McMahon

Blue sky sits atop red sand like oil on water, stretching across the vast horizon, undulating under the high noon heat of the shimmering yellow sun. The stark contrast across the boundless desert rests unbroken in all directions. Not a mountain, not a rock or tree stands tall enough to disrupt the limitless expanse.

The center of the emptiness holds a single man to whom this view belongs; a tall man with a lifetime of age that shows on his pockmarked face. Uncut black hair mirrors the color of his slanted eyes. Brown boots flap open at the toes, blue jeans patched with an assortment of other cloths, a sweat-stained white shirt drapes over his shoulders, ripped open at its sides and sleeveless, and a wide-brimmed tan hat crowns the man's thin frame. Among the dozens of buildings that line a single road, he is the only soul that remains.

The town floats on a sea of sand. The man wanders his island with his goat, his only companion and source of nourishment. He walks as he does every day and stops to stare at the horizon, always hoping to see a way to something better. Sense of time destroyed, it's been long since anything new has traveled in the distance.

But this day a new shape dances in the distant waves of heat. The man stands at the edge of town as he does every day, but now he finds reason to wait. The figure draws closer, and the man remains. At the end of vision to be called a dark speck, now a shimmering star growing larger as if fed by the sun. As the shape becomes more clear, the figure of a person is shown, soon a woman with a large package strapped to her back. The man does not stir.

A mocha-toned woman in a ruffled white dress approaches the man. Her beauty noticed, but not so much as to startle a man. Atop her curly, golden-brown hair sits askew a large, white hat with enough brim to shade most of her body. Strapped to her back is a black guitar that almost absorbs the sunlight around it.

“Allow me some of your water, kind sir, and I will play a song for you,” says the woman. The man holds to his position and gives no response. “Please sir, some water. A song is all I have to give in return, but I play well.”

His face is hard, but not by intention; it has aged that way. He mimics a drinking motion and makes a sound that she doesn't understand.

She tries to repeat what he had said, but realizes she doesn't know the word and settles on repeating his motion. “Water, yes. You do not speak English then?” Confusion lights his dark eyes and he shakes his head, then motions for her to follow.

As they walk down the street, the woman takes in the dilapidated homes. Windows are not only cracked, but dark and motionless. Shudders have fallen to the ground, and most of those that haven't are hung askew. The pale, red dirt of the desert has taken over the wooden buildings, blasted into sheets that cling to the walls.

Wooden boards squeak with the mice that hide in their shade, and the wind causes the structures to creak. No other sounds stream into her ears, no children laughing, no everyday clamor. There isn't enough sound here for a town. The smell that hangs in the air is only dirt and old wood. There is no smell of men, of baked goods, no smell of cloth or dirty children, no smell of a town at all.

The man ties his goat to a deck and walks into a building that appears less weathered than the others. Approaching the building, the woman would have known it was a home before ever meeting the man. Light flickers through the cracks in a wood stove and the air inside the home is moist with the steam of recently boiled water. The home exudes a subtle smell of spices and dried meats.

“Wotter?” The man says as he holds up a pot of cooled water to the woman.

“Yes,” she says. “Water. Thank you.” He takes one sip from the worn iron pot before handing it to her. The woman takes several big gulps before coughing in her haste. The man smiles and sits in a chair next to a window. His wrinkles are more pronounced in that smile, but the woman sees a youth to the man in this moment. The joy on his face breaks its former hardness as he breaks through his loneliness.

“Do you have more, sir? I'd like to fill my water skins before I depart.”

“Mo?” he says.

“Yes, more water. Please, if you do.”

The man sits there for a moment, considering his thoughts, and then stands up and walks her over to the window. Outside stands a large water tower. At its base protrudes a pump and several large spigots. If that tower is full, the man could live off it until the end of his days. The woman smiles at him and runs outside to fill her skins.

The man puts some more water on the stove and watches the beautiful woman that has graced his happiness with her presence. He has not seen another person in a long time and is glad for the interaction with her and the sight if nothing else. He sits in his chair and appreciates her as the water begins to boil. The woman glances back into the window and gives him another smile. How it warms his heart, how good it feels just to receive a smile from a pretty lady after all of these years. If this moment were to last until the end of time, he would be fine.

When the woman comes back into the house she is excited to see that the man has prepared a pot of tea for her of some soothing spice that she had never smelled before. She thanks him before taking a sip. The tea melts away her worries and is relaxing. The man drinks as well. He smiles and closes his eyes as the tea warms him.

The woman wanders the house as the man naps during the hottest hours of the day. By the fire stove lays a pile of wooden boards and shingles, torn away from nearby buildings and used to heat the man's home and his food. Large amounts of grains and dried meats adorn the cupboards of his kitchen. Several boxes of ammunition rest under a desk in the main room, and a hunting rifle hangs on the wall nearby.

She lays her guitar and other belongings on the main room desk and leaves the home, walking about the empty town. Not a person in sight. She sees a few of the places where the man had been gathering wood from and soon stumbles upon a long abandoned general store. The shelves are almost bare, aside from an area of canned goods and some large sacks of rice. Paper clippings hang on the wall near the entrance, crinkled and yellowed with the shirk of the uninhabited. Much of the stories are illegible, but what is (along with the large headlines) is enough for the woman to piece together some of the town's history.

The town is named “Tohk's Find” after the gold mine it was founded near. A large mine it was, but predictions fell severely short and findings became sparse. It had collapsed upon a dozen of the miners and no one thought it worth digging up again. A railway was scheduled for construction to connect Tohk's Find with its nearest neighbors, but after the collapse the project was abandoned. Townsfolk fled back to the city, vacating their homes and heading back east on their wagons.

The dates on the papers say that nearly three years have gone past since the mass desertion, three years that the chinese man who speaks little English has remained alone. Tears fall as she finishes reading.

She returns to the home and finds the man holding her guitar. He is feeling it's smooth, black surfaces as his eyes survey the extravagantly designed, pearly-white frets. Images of skulls, streaming notes, sharp eyes and more all repose under a large etching of the full moon amongst the clouds. It is magnificent.

The sun has passed its peaks hours, reddening the sky to mimic the crimson dirt of the desert.

“I said I would play a song for you,” the woman says as she approaches the man and slowly wraps her arms around the instrument, “and now I know what song I want to play.”

The man sits in awe. When the woman holds the guitar, her white dress holds the same designs as the etchings on the neck of the guitar. Ornate impressions that tickle him with fright, but overwhelm him with their beauty. She begins to play.

The woman looks into his eyes as her arm strums the strings. The man is captivated and unable to look away from her. She holds a slow rhythm, a simple mix of chords and notes that any person could play, but the tune is so unique no one before has ever put them together. The acoustic sounds enliven the images, and as the woman moves they seem to dance and sing. The music flows from the guitar and streams around the man, seeming to cause the air around him to laugh and to cry.

She holds her gaze steady; it is soft with emotion but strong with conviction. As he watches her, smells of sweat and fear fill him, smells of fresh baked bread, of horses and of men. The laughter grows stronger and the crying multiplies. Men shout and women whisper. The emptiness within him fills with the sounds of her guitar, with her beauty and her song. The notes soften, the rhythm relaxes. The song that lasted a lifetime is now at an end. The woman stands there and smiles; the images on her dress fade.

The man wants to cry, but he is unsure why. The woman eyes the window with a smirk, and the man follows her. Outside the window is night. The sky is a dark blue lit by the full moon. But below the sky, there is motion. Candles flicker in windows, horses stand hitched next to their troughs, women walk with men, and children run in the streets. Together the man and the woman walk outside. She holds his hand tight with excitement. He drops to his knees and lets the happy tears fall.

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