Music Inspiring Writing: Timothy Reynolds
by Emerian Rich
My friend Timothy Reynolds joins us here today to share a piece of fiction inspired by music. “Blue-Black Night” was previously published in Danse Macabre from Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing and then again in The Death of God & Other Stories.
It was a cool Southern Utah evening and I was sitting on the front stoop of my rented trailer, strumming on my battered flat-top. I say ‘battered’, but even with worn strings, a missing pick guard and through-and-through bullet holes that have matching ones in the case from a long night in Buffalo, it was in a sight better shape than me. Granted, I have no bullet holes, but who needs them when you’ve got cancer?
“I want to learn a love song, Mark.”
I looked up from the barre chord I was working on and nearly crapped my drawers. “Are you shi—kidding me?!” I was raised to not curse in front of a lady, especially a full-on beautiful one; even if that lady is Death. Yah, that’s what I said. Death is a woman, and she wanted to me to teach her a love song.
“I’ll pay you.” She sat down next to me and vanilla drifted over to tickle my nose and tease me.
“No disrespect, miss, but money’s not much use to me this late on.” She knew what I meant. None of my friends or family would have had a clue because none of them knew the cancer was back. Matter of fact, none of them had seen me in at least six months; not since I stood up at Easter dinner and told them I was heading out the next day to tour with a buddy and his band. I was to be the show’s MC, throwing out a little stand-up, a few song parodies, and keeping the boys out of all the small town jails waiting for 21st-century troubadours like us.
Of course there was no tour. There wasn’t even a band. There was just my own Yamaha guitar, the Chevy and the wide-open state of Utah. And my tent, at least until I decided a few weeks ago to make my way to St. George and spend what time I had left with a roof over my head.
So, like I said, Death is a woman, at least to me. She’s a pretty, pony-tailed brunette with dark-green eyes and a little gap between her front teeth. She wears a well-loved, baggy, soft denim shirt with just enough buttons undone that her cleavage taunts me. Her jeans are tight enough so as to not hide her cute little butt and loose enough that she could spend three days in them on a saddled chestnut mare following trails wherever they lead without chaffing or burning. And she’s wearing sneakers. Simple, no-logo, timeless, white sneakers.
“What payment would you accept? I can’t cure you, though I can help a little with the pain.”
“Can’t what? Teach me a love song?”
“No, I can’t take payment.”
She was a stubborn one, Death was, but I was no rookie either. “You’re hardly in a position to insist on anything.”
“You do know who I am, don’t you? The power I have?”
“I know exactly who you are. You’ve been standing just off to the side since I was a kid. With any face, in any shape, I’d know you.”
“So then —”
“But I’m not taking payment. If you pay me, all you’ll get is a song about love. If you just sit back and let me give you this one thing, then you’ll get a love song, a song from my heart to yours.”
She got real quiet for a moment, caught off guard most likely. It’s nice to know that even Death can still be surprised.
“How do you know I’ve got a heart? I’m not exactly mortal, with blood coursing through my veins.”
“A heart isn’t about being a blood pump, and it doesn’t matter whether you have one or not, because I do.”
“Yes, you most certainly do.” She gently placed her palm on my chest, over my heart. While she felt the rhythm of my life still beating, I noticed her long, slender fingers, her nails short, clean, and simple. She had good picker’s hands, as my teacher used to say. Chord shapes would come easily to those fingers and picking would be sure and quick with practise.
“So, do you want to learn a song about love or do you want to learn a love song?”
“You’ll teach me a love song?”
“I’ve been playing love songs for you for the past ten years or so, so I suppose it’s time I teach you to play one yourself.” I traverse-picked a simple G-C-D progression to punctuate my point, but she put a hand on the strings to still them.
“Back up a minute there. What do you mean, you’ve been playing love songs for me?”
“Just what I said. What’s so tough to understand?”
“You’re saying you love me?”
“Love you, in love with you—yes’m.”
“You love Death?”
“Ever since the car accident. I saw you smile down at me lying on the shoulder of the I-65 and when you shook your head to say ‘not yet’, I was hooked.”
“You’re in my dreams, waking and sleeping. You’re first in my thoughts in the morning and last in them at night. Everywhere I go, every happy laugh I hear, every taste that touches my tongue, every sunset I watch, you’re with me. Every perfect moment I want to share with you and every imperfect, painful moment I lean on the knowledge that you aren’t far away.”
“You’re just in love with this form, this face.”
“Is it your form? Your face?”
“One of the many.”
“Then that’s part of it. But there’s your essence, what makes you unique. Your light.”
“I’m Death, Mark. My essence is death. My light is darkness.”
“Not to me.”
She wasn’t getting it. She didn’t know that love sees none of those things.
“You’re not afraid?” she asked.
“Of what? Dying? I’m fifty-one. I’ve had more time than many and less than others. Now, do you want to learn a love song or not?”
“There’s nothing I would rather do more. What did you have in mind?”
I have over a hundred songs in my repertoire, and probably a third are love songs of one sort or another. Croce’s Time in a Bottle? Chapin’s Taxi? Or The King’s Fools Rush In. “One of my own, ” I said. “One I wrote for you when I was finishing up chemo the last time.”
If I thought she’d lit up when she was feeling my heartbeat, then finding out I’d written Blue-Black Night for her made her go supernova. She glowed like there was no darkness left in the world, let alone the darkness that she carried with her.
“None other. Or would you prefer something more popular? Some Michael Bublé?”
“Your song, please.”
What? No, I sure as Hell didn’t see that coming. “Jill?”
“It’s a twist on Giltinė, one of my many names.”
After all these years I now had a name to go with the face. “Thanks.”
I shifted my butt back to make room for her and patted the wood between my legs. Yah, I know how rude that sounds, but it’s what I did, literally. “Sit here, please.” I swung the guitar out of the way so she could sit but she just looked over at me and raised one eyebrow.
“Are you sure? I can see just fine from here.”
“If we had two guitars a side-by-side might do, though I’d go for a face-to-face, but this old Yammy is all we’ve got so this is how it has to be.”
She didn’t move.
“Look, Jill, you’re the one who wants to learn a love song. You opened that can of worms that is my heart so let’s get past it.”
“Are you afraid I’m going to try and take advantage of you? Just because my heart’s full of you doesn’t mean I’m going to be anything less than a gentleman.”
“I don’t feel fear, Mark.” She scooted herself up and over my left leg until she was sitting on the wood stoop in the V between my open legs. She leaned left and spoke at me over her right shoulder. She kept leaning forward so only her thighs touched mine. “It’s just that this wasn’t what I had in mind when I asked you to teach me. To be honest, I was really just hoping you’d play one for me. I really needed to hear you play.”
Damn. “Had a long day and you needed a break so you thought you’d come taunt the dying folkie?”
“No! That’s not it at all! Well, yes it’s been a long day, but that’s the nature of what I do. No, I was at the Long Island Expressway yesterday and was just thinking about a musician I had to take a few years back.”
“Harry. And thinking about him made me think of you and then I realized that what I needed was to hear a love song, maybe even learn to play one.”
“So no one is dying right now because you’re here for a guitar lesson? Wow.”
“Not quite.” She looked out into the yard and I followed where she was looking. There was a sleeping hound, a prowling tabby and two sparrows. The tabby was stopped in mid-step and the sparrows frozen in mid-air.
“Wow. You stopped time?”
“Something like that.” She leaned back into me, slowly, but trusting me now, for some reason.
“How long have we got?”
“As long as it takes to teach me, Mark.”
She twisted around and kissed me on my unshaven cheek. Her lips were cool, but not cold. It was nicer than it shoulda been. I swung the guitar around in front of her and she placed her hands where they were supposed to be. “We’ll keep it pretty simple. Start with the easiest chords that’ll get the job done and go from there.” I put three finger tips down on the strings and strummed her a G chord. “This here’s a G and pretty much the underlying chord to the whole song. Give it a try.”
I shifted my fingers up a fret but kept the chord shape and pretty little Death copied my finger position almost exactly. I lifted my fingers and strummed her chord. It was a bit off. I adjusted her fingers a tad to get them back from the brass fret then pressed them down a bit harder. I strummed it again and it sounded a whole lot better. “You’ve got the perfect fingers for this.”
Then she leaned back into me and we fit together like it was pre-ordained or destined or something like that. My heart pounded, my head swam and I was thinking that I’d just died and gone to Heaven. That wasn’t the case, though. The birds were still frozen in the air and Death-who-was-also-Jill still sat in my arms, learning to play a love song. My love song to her. I took a deep breath and got back to the task at hand. I’d been waiting for Death’s arrival for a long time but now that she was here, I wasn’t ready to stop or give up. There was at least time for one more song.
“The chorus is the easiest part so let me just sing it for you. You watch my left hand so you can start associating chord changes with the lyrics.”
“Okay.” She whispered it like she was afraid to break the moment, so I stopped talking and started singing, softly, in her ear, like I’d imagined ever since I wrote the song for her.
It was a car wreck on the I-65,
that made me stick around.
It was the blue-black night and the light from her smile,
That kept my feet from touching the ground.
In the pouring rain, with the thunder growls
I walked on into Huntsville.
It was the blue-black night and the light from her smile
That lights my way and always will.
I let the last chord fade away. She took my picking hand in hers and kissed it.
“Thank you, Mark.”
“It’s just an old-fashioned love song.”
“But you wrote it for me. I can honestly say that it’s a first.”
“Not true. There are plenty of songs about you, about Death.”
“They’re usually about obsession with Death or fear of Death or taunting Death with the immortality of Youth. Never a love song.”
“Then I suppose it behoves me to teach it to you.”
“That would be the highlight of my eon.”
I can honestly say that I have no idea whatsoever how long we sat on that stoop like lovers, close and intimate, teaching and learning and making the stolen time our own. I felt more alive than I had in a long, long time. I suppose that’s why I considered writing it all down in the old leather-bound journal I picked up in Sedona my last time through. Why? Beats me. Some nod to the immortality I didn’t think I cared about? I’ve got a few other more personal thoughts in there, mostly about the cancer stuff that I just can’t talk about to anybody. Some day someone’ll read it, or it’ll end up in a box, ignored. Either way, I won’t care ’cause I’ll be gone. Immortality is for, well, Immortals.
Jill stood, stretched the kinks out of her back, then turned and kissed me firmly on the lips.
“Time to go?” I knew it was, but I had to ask.
She took my hands and pulled me to my feet. “Shall we sing while we walk?”
“Whatever your little heart desires, missy.”
Then Death linked her arm through mine and we sang our love song as we strolled off into the blue-black night.
Tim Reynolds is a Canadian twistorian, bending and twisting history into fictional shapes for sheer entertainment. His published stories range from lighthearted fantasy to turn-on-the-damned-lights-now horror, and can all be found in various anthologies around the world or all in his first collection, The Death of God & Other Stories. His first published novel,The Broken Shield, is an urban fantasy with pixies, Sasquatch the Holy Grail, a smart phone app, and Lucifer himself. His new novel, Waking Anastasia arrives later this year, telling the story of a man who accidentally awakens the ghost of Anastasia Romanov. Tim can be found online at www.tgmreynolds.com & www.TheTaoOfTim.com (blog).”