In honor of Halloween, I’m posting the first ever short story I had accepted for publication. This appeared in 2004 in the genre magazine “Black Petals”. Hope you enjoy it! Happy Halloween!
by Scott Lyerly
OLD JACOB SAT in a hard-backed chair in his living room. His hands were clasped before him and his bent frame hung over them. In the crook of his arms rested an old violin. It was well used with peeling varnish and worn strings. Between the thumb and the index finger of Jacob’s right hand dangled a fraying bow. Horsehairs drooped down upon the floor in whispy strands. Jacob was caught in a motionless state, staring at a fixed point that was no longer there. He had been so animated, so alive with every fiber of his being a few minutes ago, but that was all gone now. His aging body sat in its hunched position as he stared at a spot close to the floor where nothing existed but air. He was caught in the stares and didn’t have the strength of character to break free from them.
Unlike his body, Jacob’s mind was unfettered. He thought back through the many things that had brought him to this point in his life. He remembered when it had all started with a wish and a dream. Many great people had started off with nothing more than a wish and a dream, a fairy-tale way of getting ahead. Many of those with dreams see them come true. But few ever foresee the extent of their wishing. This is much like Jacob. He wanted only talent. Talent enough to play violin for his ailing father. And that desire led him to seek talent in dark corners where talent didn’t really exist, except in illusion.
He thought back to the story of the guitar player at the crossroads. In many ways, Jacob’s acquisition of talent had come the same way: with a bargain. He had uttered words found in a dusty leather clad book in his father’s basement. It was meant to grant wishes. What it actually did was summon a strange thin man with a puff of smoke and the burning acrid smell of brimstone. The thin man said strange things and danced in a slow spinning way that rather hypnotized an eleven year old Jacob. But he became deadly serious when it came time to deal. And so Jacob bargained and sealed it with a vow and a pinprick of blood. And then he played for his father. He played like no one had ever played before. Rounds of melodic harmonies, ancient reels of prehistoric origin, and haunting dirges with deeply woven memories. He played and played until at last, his father, with a sad smile on his lips closed his eyes for the last time, his voice, already nothing more than a rasp of wind on stone, never to be heard again.
With the death of his father came a new world for a now fifteen year old Jacob that he never knew could be so exotic. Turned out of his father’s house by unpitying tax collectors, he ventured down to the marketplace for the first time since infancy. The sellers were conducting business with gullible shoppers who were willing to buy more for things considered “fresh” or “local” or “unique”, which few if any of the items for sale were. The food stands emanated aromas of sweet smoky meat, heavy spiced drinks, and dry powdery breads. The soups and breads gave off a heat so strong in the cold fall air that Jacob was tempted to thrust his hands into them just for warmth. There were pick-pockets lifting wallets and con artists scamming the marketplace uninitiated and policemen in blue uniforms with dirty pant cuffs from walking in the mud all day, collecting graft from the undesirables who paid to avoid arrest. Jacob wandered through this mire of humanity until he grew tired and his eyes began to water from the smoke of barrel fires.
He sought shelter in an alcove under a brick building behind the main thoroughfare of the marketplace. It was in this nook that he met the young prostitute taking shelter from the wind. She was wrapped in dirty rags with a shimmering lace shawl that didn’t belong in her corrupted tableau. Her face was framed by wildly unkempt locks of raven dark hair and her porcelain skin glowed underneath the street grime that painted her. Jacob fell in love in an instant and the whore, moved by the sentiment of someone who wanted her for her, not for her wares, took him to bed. For Jacob, it was an experience he would never forget, one of intense emotional connection and utter surrender to another human being. He would never forget her comfort, her dirty cramped dwelling, lit by foul smelling patchouli candles, and the expert way she touched him. He would treasure it always in a dark place in his mind. Nine months later, when she dropped his daughter off on his doorstep, she forgot him entirely.
Jacob raised his daughter almost entirely by himself. His father dead, his mother drunk and in another man’s arms in another city in another part of the world completely, and he, an only child, was left to fend for himself and his new baby daughter. Mostly he scraped by on the kindness of strangers and their amazement that a common street urchin could play the violin with such grace and elegance, such depth of emotion that no child of fifteen should know. He played close to the market, his daughter bundled in every rag he could spare from his own body. She cooed quietly behind him as he sawed away on his father’s old fiddle. The music always soothed her in a way that his touch never could. With the pennies he garnered in an old felt hat he bought her milk and dribbled it into her open hungry mouth. His own food was often cast-offs from the middle class gluttons who never failed to buy more than they could consume. He had made several friends in the food stalls as well, vendors who sympathized with his station in life as a father, a street player, a vagrant. More often than Jacob would have preferred, the food vendors would slip him a bit of bread or a healthy chunk of meat. Jacob hated to take their charity, being a proud man at the age of seventeen, but he was often in no position to refuse, especially when his daughter was in need of real food.
Jacob’s street life changed when a passerby heard his music. She was so moved by the sound he coaxed from the old instrument, she paused mid-step and stood listening for a full twenty frigid minutes. When she had heard enough she continued walking but took a different route from the one she had planned. Two days later she returned with two men. They stood off to the side, absorbing the sweet melodies Jacob produced. He pretended not to see them as they appeared to want to be left unnoticed, but he always knew who was listening and who wasn’t. When they approached him, he was hardly surprised, having obviously enthralled them for nearly an hour during which time he ran a gamut of musical styles. Often people this absorbed would leave generous contribution to his daughter’s meal fund. But this time, Jacob was surprised, for they offered no money.
Jacob’s entrance into the music conservatory had touched off wild speculation. The rumor of a mythic street performer now living in their midst caused a wild buzz among the students, and some of the faculty as well. Adding to the buzz was the fact that this street urchin was plucked off the street by the dean of students who happened to be passing him at the time he was playing. A “discovery”, as it were, of a prodigy, right under the noses of the most learned group of musicians teaching in the world today. Lastly was the unsubstantiated rumor that he had come to the school penniless, with nothing but rags, an ancient violin, and a two-year-old daughter. Some had claimed to have already seen her, being in the right place at the right time as he entered the dormitories for the first time. An noxious mix of curiosity and jealousy spread like a dry fire amongst the high-nosed life at the university.
Jacob felt enveloped by grand brick facades and towering marble columns. He basked in the glow of the warmth of his little girl, for whom he no longer needed to play and beg. He had heat in his room and was able to dress her in fewer rags than ever before. It pleased him to see her growing plump throughout the year. His classes were amusing, if not boring. He knew so much already about the violin, how to play it, caress it, coax it to issue forth music that moved every eye in earshot to tears. All of this learning seemed to him a waste of time. He could no more be asked to refine his technique than Monet could be asked to take a course in brushstroke. He knew already, and aced every test, every recital without once cracking a book. He did not read musical notes so much as they simply lifted off the page and told him what to play. He was beyond such talents as sight-reading, bordering on a psychic understanding of the piece.
Within four years, he had graduated and his little girl had become the terror of the conservatory, running and playing in the tight places into which only children could fit. He had decided not to go farther than those first four years of formal study, for he simply saw no point. He learned during his studies that a larger world of concerts and money was out there to be discovered. He launched an impressive solo career with a stunning concert in the intimidating city of New York. Carnegie Hall was supposed to be a high point in his life, a moment when the jitters take firm hold and force focus as it had never been trained in school. But he felt no fear. He never did when he played. His entrance to the stage was as casual as any had ever seen and his style was so relaxed that many who had come to write critical essays on his debut marveled at the poise usually reserved for the more experienced. His little girl watched her father from the backstage, still hypnotized by his playing.
The years of his career were brilliant in many ways. He played sold out performances for dignitaries and kings, gave lectures about technique that he never needed, and quickly became a bored wealthy man. He aged more each day as his lust for life faded behind the obscene talent he was given. His fortune allowed him to live well, and he lavishly spent his money on his daughter. She grew into a beautiful woman who also played the violin. As naturally talented as she was, she was never her father’s equal, and she struggled to make her career noteworthy. She married and quickly divorced, an occurrence that sadden Jacob, but the granddaughter that resulted from the ill-fated union was more than compensation enough. Another little girl running wild around his house made him feel young as he hadn’t felt in years, and he played again with a liveliness that had been long absent in his music.
But when his daughter was killed in a car accident, his career came to an end. They had finally settled in a beautiful old country house in a littoral setting after such a nomadic existence. The countryside was vast and rolling and the land at the coast of the wide river drew him in a way that few things had since he first picked up his violin. The devastation over his only child’s death was soothed somewhat by the parental custody of his granddaughter, a spitfire copy of her mother. He never feared of hearing from the girl’s father, who was a common petty criminal and had disappeared some years back. His granddaughter, now four, bounced on his lap, not fully aware that her mother would not be coming home.
As many young women do, Jacob’s granddaughter grew too quickly. She sprouted up like a legendary beanstalk and her beauty deepened as she matured. Her hair became her most striking feature. Long and wavy, with a darkness like her long-forgotten grandmother’s, it framed her pale face, transforming her into a porcelain doll. Deep green eyes smiled upon the world and their very touch made Jacob’s heart light. She reminded him of a moment long ago when he was passionately out of his mind for someone from another world, as well as of his daughter, the candle in Jacob’s heart, snuffed too soon.
At the tender age of eighteen, she fell in love and became engaged. She was dating a nice young man whom Jacob had met and even approved of. She would be the first of his family since his grandfather to have fallen into a relationship more solid than ice in a spring thaw. Jacob threw a celebratory dinner for the two young lovers and their friends. He had few close friends of his own, so he simply enjoyed watching the younger crowd dance, eat, and forget their earthly worries for a time. He puttered around with the caterer and generally hovered over the kitchen, where, when alone, he was almost the culinary equal to his musical side.
He lit a long cigarette and stepped outside for a breath of air on this chilly spring night. He wandered through his garden absently, his feet simply taking him on a journey of their own on the carefully laid brickwork. He had paused to look at the moon and the deep blue glow of night when he appeared.
A tall slim man in a narrowing overcoat; he had grown much since Jacob first met him. He thought back to that day when he had been longing to ease his father’s pain with a method he had no skill for. He remembered the words, strange words that he had trouble pronouncing and the sudden appearance of this man. He was older and taller now, and his face seemed withered, like Jacob’s, but there could be no doubt about it: it was the same man. He smiled at Jacob and the old fiddler suddenly remembered the bargain he had struck. It had been a whim at the time, an off-the-cuff remark that the stranger took as consent. Jacob had shrugged at the time, never knowing that anything could come from it. But the thin man had returned and Jacob felt fear in a way he never had before.
He was not good at begging. He had little practice, since people used to throw him all kinds of fortune when he played on the street. But he fell to his knees and clung at the tall man’s coat, uttering pleas of every kind with not a single one affecting the tall man’s demeanor. Jacob begged, pleaded, cajoled, and when all else failed, offered another bargain. A competition. His talent against the tall man’s. The tall man found this a very interesting offer and countered.
A dance would be the bargain. His granddaughter’s dance, in fact. They would both play for the engagement party and whomever she favored would thus be deemed the winner. If Jacob won, the bargain they had struck so many years ago would be considered dissolved. If the tall man won, the bargain would hold and the fate would be sealed. It was the only chance Jacob had, so he took it.
He introduced the tall man to the party as a good acquaintance and fellow musician. He lied about a gentleman’s bet they had placed about whom was really the more talented violinist. The guests, they concluded, would be the judges. Whomever they favored more would win the bet. The audience applauded and the granddaughter moved the furniture out of the way for the festivities. There was no telling what might be played and some of the dances that her grandfather played could be frantic.
But this time was different. Jacob started with a slow melodic tune that requested the presence of dancers on the floor. It spun in lazy circles and drifted around them as they merrily waltzed their way among the furniture. As it progressed, it sped up slowly, increasing in rhythm, increasing in urgency, until, at the end, the dancers were whirling in colorful flashes of motion, spinning like tops on the hardwood surface of the floor.
Jacob finished and the tall man produced his instrument. Jacob had smiled at the end of his piece because he knew he had won. He had played more beautifully than he ever knew possible. The dancers applauded and clapped him on the back for his bravado and he turned to the tall man with a smile. Now, as the tall man played his own violin, the dancers started again. But they moved in a hypnotic way, entranced by the music the tall man played. The smile died from Jacob’s face when he realized just how talented this man really was and his heart started to beat faster, in time with the quickening music. The dancers spun in psychotic reels and finally when it seemed that the music itself would cause the earth to split her seams, it ended and the partyers panted and caught their collective breaths.
It was time to choose. Jacob was nervous. It came down to his granddaughter. She alone held the power to dissolve Jacob’s horrible pact. And Jacob thought he truly had a chance at winning. But his daughter was raised properly, and her manners dictated that she not embarrass her grandfather’s guest. She chose the tall thin man in the narrow overcoat and he smiled. Jacob caught a sob in his throat. The thin man turned to Jacob and bade him farewell. He took the granddaughter by the arm and led her away from Jacob, out of the country house and into the night shadows. The guests vanished in swirls of mist before Jacob’s very eyes, and his beautiful house decayed as he stood there. What was once beautiful disappeared and all that was left was Jacob, now sitting in a hard-backed chair, caught in the stares.