Garvey Street was a wall of writhing sound. Everywhere Atticus turned guitars bent and screamed, pianists played blocky, rollicking chords. Rock and Roll warred with the Blues from the cracks of a dozen doorways. Drunken flotsam drifted from the bright pool of one dying streetlight to the next in search of the perfect sound or the cheapest drink. And Atticus, who had killed tonight, should have been right at home.
He wasn’t though. The skin hung off him loosely, more like a bad suit than a man. What passed for Atticus’s soul itched, and worse than that, nobody else could see. Certainly, the girls from the revue theater couldn’t: the ones who kept calling him “Cliff” and insisting that he really should be somewhere.
“Cliff,” one of them said again, “Betty has tickets! I was the one who told her, she’ll bug out at me if the gig got canceled!”
He’d killed a musician, or at least what passed for one now. Atticus knew more about musicians than any man alive. It had become— if not his business— then his sole and all-consuming passion over the last thousand or two years. Immortality did that to a man. In a way, Atticus wasn’t so different from the flotsam looking for that perfect sound.
He’d come close in 1954, but then Calliope had disappeared again. Sixteen years of regrets later, the Cliff’s couldn’t even take the edge off.
He shook his head and something about his expression made the girls step back. They were a sight out of the past, though not far enough back to make a creature like Atticus nostalgic. Sequined dresses caught flickering lights as patrons filed past into the theater’s archaic glitz and glamor. They’d been chain-smoking when Atticus walked by. One of the girls, the one who wouldn’t shut up, dropped her cigarette.
“Cliff? You okay?”
Atticus smiled, another cigarette dropped. His stolen faces always cracked around the expressions.
And then Garvey Street did an odd sort of thing— it took a breath. It happened suddenly as if for a fraction of a thirty-second note the entire world rested. And there in that rest, Atticus heard a single nearly perfect dissonance, trumpeted out into the void where the cigarette had fallen.
The rest ended, the street roared back in. Skin that had once hung loose was now stretched to bursting, and before he knew it Atticus was running through the crowd. He had the sense of it now, the thread of that note on the air, and once heard a note like that wasn’t easily lost. For the first time that night, Garvey Street felt like home.
Trumpet filled the rusted metal stair as Atticus descended into the smoky guts of the Blue Bell. The music here was riotous and experimental; a band of mismatched parts, no one worth his time except that exquisite trumpet and a passable drummer.
Atticus paused at the bottom stair, eyes closed. Two saxophones, an electric guitar, and an electric bass. Piano, a trombone— a vibraphone? He peered in, eyes following the trumpet’s call to a shadowy point beside the bass player. He’d found a jam session overflowing its stage. The audience all carried instruments, save four old men who sat drinking and smoking in proprietary stools by the bar.
Atticus walked to the bar, devouring sounds. He ordered the first drink Cliff’s compulsions thought of and sipped with the old men as the music morphed. More Rock slipped in as the guitarist screamed out an improvised duel with the trumpet, the drummer deftly threading his way through the fusion of competing styles.
Atticus’s skin hurt. This trumpet player was different, utterly new, and endlessly enticing. A true musician.
He could hear shades of Albert Ayler when the trumpet barked and wailed, the hard edge of Freddie Hubbard’s horn when they leaned into their runs. And there in that plaintive call was a sound straight out of Miles Davis’s last album, Bitches Brew, all wrapped around some new and indefinable core: the identity this musician had spent a lifetime honing.
Atticus sipped and listened, and as he listened he found more and more inside the trumpet player’s lines. So much new, yes, a synthesis of so many influences spat out into this modern framework, but also something old. Something familiar.
Something yearning to break free.
Yes, Atticus thought, yes, he heard it now. Hidden beneath those Freddie Hubbard lines and the slashes the trumpet carved through the pounding ostinato, there was a different, fully formed soul.
Atticus could have split out of his stolen skin. Torn free and raced across the room, lancing through everybody in his way until he found that trumpet player— found her.
The song flamed out to the sound of laughter. It had ended too soon, good music always did.
Atticus rose with the audience. An old man with steel-trap hands stared mournfully at the bass guitar, a good-natured argument broke out between trombones. Then Atticus was at the stage, all the distractions fading away.
“Borrow your sticks?” he asked.
The drummer glanced up from backstage shadows. “Cliff? What are you doing here? And since when do you play kit?”
“Since before you were born,” Atticus said. He reached out and the other man shrugged, handed the sticks over with a look that said he’d enjoy seeing Cliff fail.
There was chatter on the stage. People threw out names, keys, chord changes, trying to find songs that everyone knew.
“Cherokee,” Atticus called, a jam session classic.
Everyone looked at him. “I didn’t drag this down here to play old shit,” the vibraphonist said.
Atticus withered him with a glance. His skin was positively splitting, Cliff was wrapped so tight around him.
“I’ll play it,” a voice called. “Sometimes it’s nice to remember where we came from.”
She emerged from the bass amp’s shadow, a small, slim girl in a loose jacket and pants, a necklace, and too many rings. A river of dark hair was piled atop her head. Last time he’d seen her she’d strung her hair with flecks of gold. Last time he’d seen her she’d played the piano. Last time he’d seen her it had been 1954, sixteen years ago this past summer.
Calliope. She hadn’t aged a day.
The vibraphonist shrugged, hit the first chord. It seemed everyone knew Calliope, Atticus wondered what name she’d go by now. She snapped her fingers, a brisk but playable tempo. “Right here okay?” The band settled in.
Atticus smiled, remembering 1954 and then drifting farther back. 1954 hadn’t been a first. There had been 1923, 1899, 1871, and on down the line for hundreds of years. Atticus found her once a generation, following some exquisite sound on the wind. It had been Cherokee in 1954 too.
Calliope signaled the band, and Atticus reached back into his long memory, found the drummer he’d worn that day. The pianist played an intro and the band assembled itself along Cherokee’s brisk lines. Calliope took the opening melody, and the moment her notes brushed his Atticus saw her eyes widen. She looked at him with all the horror of their ages-long connection, because while Calliope might be skilled enough to reinvent herself, to hide the truth of her soul beneath the artifice of a new era’s music, Atticus never had. He wore the bodies, but the soul inside them never changed.
She did not scream. Calliope closed her eyes and bent herself to her horn, blowing a thunderstorm into that old, airy melody. Atticus smiled as the music hit him. There had never been another Calliope.
She raced through two choruses of Cherokee’s form, cried out a third. Atticus watched her closely, traced the tension in the sleek lines of her body. She would run soon. At the end of the song? When the musicians changed?
No, Atticus thought as she built her solo to its inevitable conclusion. She’d run when she finished her solo.
Calliope’s last notes were a restatement of the melody, all the playfulness sucked out of them as they staggered along behind the beat. She was not looking at him, Atticus saw, but at the old drummer now. Calliope shook her head very slightly. The man’s eyes were wide and scared. He was short, powerfully built. Handsome in an unfashionable way.
She dropped her trumpet and ran.
Atticus followed, kicking the drums aside. He picked her trumpet off the ground, jumped off the stage past the vibraphone and the shocked audience.
The drummer crashed into Atticus, ribs cracking in his wiry, stolen body.
Atticus released Cliff before the body hit the ground.
He slid effortlessly into Calliope’s drummer. A moment stretched out where he knew the man who held him. The drummer’s name was Max Evans. He’d come from Detroit the year before, too many established drummers there for another hungry young man, and the music he wanted to play was here. Fusion. The new shit. He’d met Calliope in this very bar, the first time he’d ever come to play. He’d fallen in love by the end of her first solo.
Atticus shredded the man, stared down from borrowed blue eyes into the husk of Cliff’s abandoned body. People looked so different after Atticus was done with them. Cored-out. Inhuman.
He stood. Silence reigned in The Blue Bell, frightened stares amid the smoke. He took the trumpet out of Cliff’s lifeless hands, took the stairs up to the rest of the world.
Up there guitars still bent and screamed, pianists pounded chords. Yet all Atticus could hear was a single fading rhythm, footsteps on the sidewalk.
Even when she ran, Calliope made such beautiful music.
He chased her towards the river.
Atticus had worn hunters before, he knew how to corral his prey. After so long he knew Calliope’s habits better than she did, and the man Atticus wore was strong and fit him well. Soon he smelled the dirty river. Up ahead gray concrete gave way to shadowed trees. They’d planted a park by the riverside, junkies slept between the flowerbeds. Calliope stumbled and fell. She came up limping and a dark hummock shifted on the ground. Atticus leapt over the man, only steps behind her.
Calliope ran to the very fringe of the stinking water, scarred picnic tables set out against the river. She turned, unable to run any farther, and saw the skin that Atticus now wore. He tried to smile, she flinched away.
Her hair had fallen, an oil-slick cascade beneath the park’s single working lamppost. She looked at him like an insect, eyes boring into the shadows of his smile.
“I hate you,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Out in the darkness junkies argued with god. Bushes rustled and the park echoed with snores. Atticus held her trumpet out.
“You look beautiful tonight,” Atticus said.
“Nearly good enough to eat.”
She turned back to the river. Calliope shook from head to toe, fists clenched at her sides.
“He tackled me.”
“He was in love!”
She sat down at one of the picnic tables, legs drawn up on the bench. Atticus sat beside her, felt the body he wore pulling him closer. Max’s death was still so recent, there were vivid flashes of the man whenever Atticus looked at her.
He pushed them down. They had their own history to draw on.
“You didn’t have to take him,” Calliope said.
And she was right. He hadn’t needed to take Max, not after he’d seen her, heard her music. He was a hunter, the oldest in the world, and once heard he could have picked her out of the writhing mass of Garvey Street at any time.
But then, he was a hunter and Max was perfect prey: that rare breed of man that crossed the line into musician. It had been instinct as much as desire.
Calliope would be better. Even now so soon after a good kill, Atticus could feel himself coming apart at the seams. The tethers of his soul were threads blowing in the breeze and once started there was no going back.
She was intoxicating, from the very first note.
He would take her. There was no doubt any longer, tonight would be the night— no regrets, as he’d had so many nights before. He would take Calliope’s hand, tear free of Max’s body, see the light go out of Max’s eyes even as he came to know Calliope like he’d known her note on Garvey Street.
Atticus held the trumpet out. First, he’d take her music.
“That wasn’t really you back there.”
“Don’t you think I know you by now?” Atticus said. “Sixteen years of searching and it all turned on a chance. So clever! You’ve tried disguise before, but you must have had a breakthrough. This generation suits you, my dear.”
“Fuck you,” she said again. “Seriously fuck you man, I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t ask for immortality. I didn’t even ask for music, it just happened. Is it such a sin to still try to play?”
Atticus set the trumpet in her lap. “Might as well be a sin to hide from me. Even behind such exquisite music. Cherokee was…” he shook his head. “Play for me again. Really play.”
Calliope stared at the trumpet in her lap. She tilted it toward the flickering light, the glint painting stark lines across her face.
“And if I do, what then? I have something, something I’ve been working on since ‘54, but I swear to god I’ll take it into the river if you make me. Atticus, I can’t stand another Max.”
She reached a faltering hand towards Atticus. “I’m beautiful tonight? Then take me, only me. End this, goddamn you!”
Atticus chuckled. “God, my dear? Do you still believe?”
“The last time,” Atticus said, grabbing her hand. He could feel Max’s skin growing tighter, his soul threatening to burst through their joined fingers.
She nodded solemnly and licked her lips, worrying at the trumpet’s valves. “Promise me.”
“Then… I call this one Thaumaturgy.”
Calliope looked at him one last time, a plea burning in her eyes. And then she began to play.
She played long, flowing notes, and at first the music was not in their melody but in their timbre. A procession of notes that could stop the world, each one a little closer to perfect than the last. Circular breathing, some part of Atticus noted. She took each note on a journey that might have lasted a minute or an hour.
Then the journeys threaded together. Atticus realized they’d been supporting each other the whole time, striving towards some common, astral goal. He looked up, saw a few stars through the city’s smog. They meant more now.
There was no artifice anymore. Calliope played as she was, influenced by the styles of the current generation but drawing on a history even longer than that of the instrument in her hands. She blew centuries out of her trumpet, pointed the bell at Atticus and pulled the trigger on her soul. She drifted through Rennaisance courts, walked down dusty roads in southern France, took ship for anywhere and washed ashore at Ellis Island as all the styles melted together. This was music like no other, as if Atticus was walking down the avenues of history towards some far-off future only Calliope could imagine.
Then the Jazz crept in.
Even the junkies put down their fights with god. She was crying now, the notes coming out in little gasps. Atticus saw her watching him, bright eyes roving across her lover’s body. Lingering on the dead man’s hands, on his lips.
The music staggered forward, an outpouring of raw humanity that settled onto Atticus’s chest like a weight. Like beauty could strangle a man.
A note flung itself towards the sky— Calliope caught it, strangled it.
She licked her lips, pawed at that oil-slick of hair. Then slowly, carefully, she blew the final four notes of Cherokee. She resolved and then slipped off, plunged down into painful dissonance.
She’d left him with dissonance in 1954 too. Soon, Atticus thought, she’d have found a way to gather all her heartbreak up into one shattering note: a dissonance perfect enough to kill a man.
She was almost there. Almost.
Atticus couldn’t say when the music ended, when the night air went from song to silence.
“End it,” she whispered.
He hardly heard her, his own soul was too loud.
“Atticus, you promised!”
She reached out, took his stolen hands. “Not again!”
Atticus didn’t react, he couldn’t. Her music, the thing that made him want her most all, had gutted him. Cored him out and filled him up again with unnameable things.
A junkie yelled at god. Her hand slipped out of his. When Atticus looked up she was gone, like she had been in 1954, 1923, 1899, and on down the years since that shocking moment when he’d first heard her, singing about spring to a boy in a dirt-floored tavern.
A man came up, asked Atticus if he was holding. The river stank, murky water splashed softly against the banks. Atticus searched Max’s pockets, found a joint, and handed it to the confused man. He saw Calliope’s trumpet on the scarred table and took it. Atticus stumbled to the river, went into the filthy water, and drew foul, choking gulps down into Max’s screaming lungs.
He cut loose when the body died, found himself wearing the man with the joint. Atticus lit it, stood vigil as Calliope’s most recent life bobbed out of sight downriver. She was out there somewhere, running away. Atticus could still hear the faint music of her steps. He let her run like he had all those times before. She had an Almost to fulfill.
That last, shattering note— it was the closest thing Atticus had ever heard to perfect.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Incredible. What an amazing, original, beautiful story.