Short Stories

Robert and the Razor Harp

by Jesse Russell

Wolf's dogs were barking.

Big men weren't made for this kind of distance walking, and he'd left his youth long ago in a sleazy juke, in the safe keeping of a lady of ill-fame, called Daisy (so named because she could almost pass for white) who would occasionally and charitably ply her trade for a few shots of corn whiskey, especially at the end of another slow, hot night, when sweat clung to bodies like an extra set of clothes, and any light at all was too much heat to bear.  The road beneath his feet was paved at first, then broken, then gravel, then dust.  His shoes were ruined. 

That's a shame, he thought, looking down at what was once fine leather and marveling at how the best of things always seemed to wear out so quickly. 

Like Robert, he mused.  For a moment, the immensity of his mission rooted him in place, like the land itself had taken hold of his feet, begging him to go no further.  The night air was thick with the promise of rain, and crackled high above where lightning played hack-and-slash with towering billows of clouds.  It was an unnatural evening, devoid of the small affirmations of life, the singing birds, the distant thump of the rail or lonely delta holler; and, also, perfect for what lay ahead.

Taking a pull off his diminishing flask, more to tarry than out of need, Wolf pulled his feet from the imagined grip of the earth, quietly thanked it for its concern, and continued on his way.  It was the principle that drove him on into the thick country darkness, away from the warm lights of the city and the rich successes he'd worked so hard to win, and harder still to maintain.  Robert was gone, and there was no force of man or nature that could bring him back.  He'd made a bad deal, played the short-term, and now, undoubtedly, he was paying for it. 

The newspapers lied. 

Said it was poison. 

They hadn't seen the way his guts had been spilled, or the look of defiance and revulsion that endured of what was left of his face.  They hadn't seen the claw marks and the missing chunks of flesh.  They sure as hell didn't believe in the Hounds; but that wasn't the thing that scared Wolf or filled him with an anger that had possessed all his reason, and made it play rhythm to a new, single-minded and vengeful front man.

What scared him was how much worse it must be for Robert now. 

He was a good kid; lazy and dumber than a bag of hammers, but good.  He loved The Music as much as any them, maybe more; it was just that hard work never really made sense to him.  From the day he told his boss at the plantation he was sick so that he could stretch a couple of broken strings down the length of a support beam in the barn and try to play slide like he saw Charlie do, to the moment he handed his Gibson to The Man, he never saw the journey.  God in Heaven, the kid never even made it off the rails, not really. 

The Man was going to pay. 

The beat-up Gibson, Robert's Gibson, they only object to survive the attack without so much as spatter of blood staining the finish, slapped against his hip as he walked, almost dancing at the ends of the clothesline that tethered it across his back, like an anxious puppy who's sensed the forthcoming arrival of its alpha before anyone else, and is perceived insane by those still ignorant. 

Another man in his position, maybe even Robert when he'd made this very walk, might have moved his feet a little faster, throwing occasional looks over his shoulder at the nothing he knew was there, or maybe in the direction he came from, envisioning for a moment another place and time when he'd decided to stay at home and drink instead; but Wolf's pace lacked what would have been a reasonable and well-deserved hurry.  It wasn't that he imposed an artificial control on his gait, and being late was all but a metaphysical impossibility.   He just wasn't built for speed.  He'd said it before, sang it at the limits of his imposing and ragged voice countless times, stalking across bar tops, wide-eyed and crazed like one about to testify before a fearful congregation, and thrusting his hips in time with the music with a grace that belied his massive frame. 

He was, in fact, built for comfort. 

So he walked slow, his footfalls like muffled downbeats against a storm that was just tuning up, and already loud enough to make the old ladies call it a night.  Wolf wanted to play his harp, to pass the time, but that wasn't an option.  Like his fine shoes, and Robert, it was a casualty of this nasty business.  The harp is a deceptive little instrument, and versatile beyond its simplicity when wielded by a master.  Wolf used to play it one-handed; his hands were so large that he sacrificed nothing in style or musicality to do so.  His harp had been his second voice, and he missed it something terrible; but it was the necessary thing to do, even though the fabricator thought Wolf was crazy to have him turn a harmonica into a straight razor.  Wolf simply flashed him a little green, and the question found its nirvana in sweet irrelevance.

It wasn't much further.  Wolf knew it well before he saw the dead tree, where the all but forgotten road he traveled intersected with an even less well known byway, where a man could step across worlds, if he knew where to put his feet; he knew it in his bones before the roof of the burned-out shack across from the dead tree peeked up over the rise, like a murderous hermit gone too long without a victim, who can do nothing but cast a blasphemous smile in your direction as you approach. 

It was all like the Hoodoo woman said it would be.  There was less and less call for her services, as people cared more about their automobiles and such, preferring to draw their curtains against the coming darkness and bathe in the imagined safety of their electric lights, rather than burn a candle and sharpen a blade; so she was grateful for Wolf's patronage, just as (the thought was bitter on his brain) she must have been grateful for Robert's.    After placing the coins and rum on her alter, Wolf had easily committed her words to memory.  They were like lyrics to a song that could only be played one time, if it could be played at all:

Put your purpose in your mind, and walk south at sunset from the old church out past route 2, the one no one goes to anymore.  Walk until you feel so lonely you wish you were dead.  If you intend it, you'll find a good, paved road.  Walk until it turns to dust.  Then you'll see them.  The shack is where we all live.  The tree bears witness and won't ever die all the way, even though it looks it already, and wants it forever.  Sit in that place, and play until midnight.  A Man will touch you on the shoulder.  Do not look at his eyes or speak to him.  Hand him your guitar.  After He plays His Song, the deal is struck. 

Fondling the coins Wolf had given her, the Hoodoo had called after him as he left, “Today I am fortunate!  I reap two commissions!”, the triumphant squeak of an underling who can't wait to run to her boss playing about the ends of her broken voice.

But she'd made a mistake; she'd given Wolf more information than she'd intended.  Or perhaps that was the nature of the deal, full disclosure muddied in contractual misdirection.  In either case, the realization of the loophole was a tiny explosion in Wolf's mind, one that set his plans in motion with such ease that it quickly eroded all projections of failure.  In short, it was so simple it had to work; and Wolf had absolute faith that it would.  As he neared the place he sought, Wolf affirmed his own design.  He thought again about what she'd betrayed about his quarry:  “A man will touch you on the shoulder”. 

A man

A man can bleed; it's the price of flesh.

He noted the subtle weight of the razor in his pocket.

As he drew within yards of his destination, he experienced another moment of pause.  He didn't stop walking, but each step felt minutes apart; each footfall was an invitation to succumb to an ever-increasing gravity that wanted to soothe him to death, then crush him and drink the paste.  The shack seemed to teeter on its haunch-like supports, leaning towards him, the remnants of its burned-out walls straining in anticipation to surround him; while the ground rippled in the opposite direction, making each step forward an effort of pure determination.  He was hungered for, yet coaxed away; he was the fulcrum and the finish line simultaneously.  Only the dead tree seemed aloof in the struggle.

It was towards the former that he managed to turn his weary feet.  At this slight change in direction, time again moved at the universally agreed upon pace, albeit with measurable reluctance.  The dust was only dust; the shack, just charred wood held together by the grace of non-prevailing winds.  Breathing hard, he sat beneath the tree.  All life is suffering, he thought.  Followed by, I guess someone's got to get fucking cut. 

He shifted the fidgety Gibson to his, and with one final pull from his flask, he began to play.

No sooner than he'd struck the first note, he felt a hand upon his shoulder.  A faint sound, like two ships wrecking each other in a fog, accompanied the vulgar undulations of the fingers against Wolf's sweat-stained shirt.  The owner of the hand tapped expectantly, and each tap sent an invitation to panic down his spine.  At the edge of his peripheral vision, Wolf could see gruesome yellow nails jutting from peeled back cuticles, ringed with blackened scabs and oozing a thick liquid ever so slowly onto his shoulder.  The skin beneath his shirt began to itch, then burn.  Even as tendrils of smoke licked out of his sleeve and the opening of his collar, even as he smelled the rank odor of his own sizzling flesh, Wolf played on. 

The tapping stopped suddenly and the hand leapt forth, fingers together, palm up.  The wrinkles of the palm were delineated clearly by caked dirt that reeked of the grave.  Similar dirt clung in a light mist to the arm, which Wolf could now see was clothed in a fine, albeit decomposing, black suit jacket, with silver cuff links.  The hand also bore a gold wedding band, unblemished according to its nature, and shining almost comically out from the haze of death and perversion that surrounded it.  Wolf did not turn around; he played.

With a almost child-like frustration, The Man stepped full in front of Wolf, who finally raised his eyes to meet those that glowered down at him with inhuman annoyance.  The Man was, indeed, wearing a suit of fine-making, as well as a stetson that looked like it had been pulled from a dumpster, rolled in a pig sty, burned, then reconstituted by a blind man with an unnatural hatred of hats.  The Man bore an indelible and sinister idiot's grin, which altered not at all as impatience contorted the other muscles of his face.      Wolf laughed. 

The Man's eyes burned as he thrust his hand forward again, motioning towards the guitar.  There was a moment of silence, and the air hummed like power lines in need of maintenance.  Without removing his gaze from the glowing eyes of the man, Wolf began to play “Smokestack Lightnin'”, his favorite, and a truly inspired song, in the divine sense, if ever there was one.  Wolf played repeats until his arthritis screamed at him, but never took his eyes off that stupid grin.

The Man repeatedly thrust his hand forward, entreating the gift of the guitar, and appearing more manic with each attempt.  Wolf played on.  He could barely move his fingers, and had abandoned the melody thirty-two bars ago, but it didn't seem to matter.  This wasn't a show.  It was life and death; Wolf's own grin was more akin to war paint than emotional expression.  It served a purpose, to demoralize and confuse, and to hide Wolf's own fear; a fear which had, in the last two minutes, acquired enough momentum to steam roll every other fear he'd ever felt, like they were no more than pennies on the track.  They were shiny, wasteful souvenirs by comparison, best given to children as novelties, and of no real substance.

“Give me your box, boy,” The Man said.  His lips didn't move; they continued to grin, but the sound was like two dischordant bears with lung cancer arguing over which would eat the last fish in existence.  Wolf put down Robert's Gibson.

“Sorry, I didn't see you there,” he said, standing up.  The Man's eyes were wild, confused, like the corpse he wore impeded his thinking.

“I was waiting.”  Wolf rolled up his sleeves.  The Man took the smallest of steps backward. 

“Waiting for you to look at me.”  He reached into his pocket and closed his ham-sized hand around the razor. 

“To talk to me.”  In a flash, Wolf withdrew the weapon, opened it with a practiced flick of his thumb and struck at the face of his adversary with all the might he could muster in his aging arm.  The blade slid easily upwards at a forty-five degree angle through the lips and into the eye, before lodging itself with a crunch into The Man's orbital bone.  The Man's surprise was the only companion to the pain which exceeded even that of inhabiting a rotting corpse, which he did only for the amusement of taking small souls.  He'd been caught out.

“You already done played her once,” Wolf said, glancing toward the Gibson, “and she won't abide you no more.”   Wolf ripped the blade free and lunged forward, taking advantage of his adversary's pain and surprise, knocking him to the ground, pouncing and ripping at the throat like his namesake, spraying vile blood into the night air as he slashed again, and again.

“Confusin' being a man, ain't it?!” Wolf roared as he sliced a chunk of scalp away.  The razor rose and fell with a vigor only the righteous can know, for a time far beyond the limits of human fatigue, and to an excess beyond that which most human men can observe without losing the better parts of their sanity. 

After a time, Wolf pulled back, surveying the ribbons of flesh he'd made, taking no delight in the pained exhalations of his temporarily fallen foe; seeking only to finish what he started.

Quarter,”  the man croaked, the word more dead on his lips than a word ever deserved.

“You mean, 'mercy', right?  Don't that beat all?”  Wolf's entire being screamed to take the victory he'd won and flee to holiest place he could find, where he could practice looking over his shoulder and fearing death like no man before him until the end of his days, but he forced himself one step further. 

“Mercy for mercy.  Let Robert go.”  Wolf waited.  He kept his features calm, but for the heavy breathing brought about by exertion that beat the shit out of even the hottest day on the plantation he'd worked as a kid.

That's all?”  The Man's laugh was like a rusted pick-axe dragged across rough hewn slate. 

“And I want him remembered.  He deserves that much.  We clear?”  Wolf's voice bit harder than the razor, and his eyes were cold lightning.  Thick, stinking blood coated his arm to the elbow, and pooled, hissing, on the ground below.

The Man knelt, panting and in pain, but still managing enough of that stupid grin through the gore that used to be his face to remind Wolf precisely who he'd just fucked with, and spat, “He'll be remembered.  Bits and pieces of him, in the ears, in the minds of men--”

He rose to one knee, sending new rivulets flowing, coaxing the earth to writhe where his blood fell.

-- of women--”

He rose to his feet, coughing,  spitting, choking on his words but forming them with a clarity and a sound that was like a thousand trained slaves fed nothing but broken glass, speaking in perfect unison, for whom pain meant nothing because there was nothing else.

“-- children.”

He lurched close, so close that Wolf could smell the rot of his decaying flesh, and taste the burdened air that oozed from this ruined lips; but Wolf didn't move.  Their eyes met, two creatures so far removed in power and wisdom that fear and vulgarity had no choice but to refuse their respective significances and wait for the universe to right itself; experiencing a moment in time so rare that it existed only to be the impossible exception necessary to prove the unquestioned rule.  Wolf was smart enough to keep his mouth shut as the Devil wound his ass down like a man.

“He'll be remembered, for what... I ... gave him....”  He shuddered and fell.  “... we're like this,” he whispered, and died with the first two fingers of his left hand crossed.

It began to rain.

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