by Narrelle M Harris
Despite its desperately humble origins, the evening meal was well received. At least, nobody actively complained and nobody was sick later. With Yuka’s history of sourcing meals, this was considered a terrific success.
After the meal, Yuka laid her damaged sticks on the table. “I need new ones,” she said.
Sal brushed a finger over the abrasions on the tips and gave her a questioning look.
Yuka shrugged. “Last century’s dead under the market were waking. Something older too, annoyed at the disturbance. I sent them all back to sleep.” At Sal’s raised eyebrow, Yuka scowled. “If I thought it was serious, I would have got you. It’s not a problem. I just need more sticks.”
Sal frowned, but before he could disagree with Yuka, Steve leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, and drawled. “Sure thing, Yuka.” He nodded at Sal. “You know what those old burial places are like. Folks shift a few bones, build a car park or a shopping centre right over the rest and think that’s it. They don’t hear the dead turning in their graves.”
“It’s not funny,” said Sal darkly.
“Naw, ain’t funny,” Steve agreed, “Ain’t nothing too serious either. Some bones are just bones remembering flesh for a space. No evil in it. Just hush ‘em down, like Yuka said, and it’s fine. You know it, Sal. You’re just on edge. Let it be.”
Sal closed his eyes. “I can’t be the only one on edge, Steve. How can you…?” His throat closed up before he could finish the accusation.
Steve leaned forward, dropping his hand over Sal’s fingers, splayed on the tabletop. “I’ve been with this band since before Alex and Kurt. I’ve seen people I love die. I’ve seen ‘em be eaten by the dark, and by monsters, and you know I’m not being merely poetical when I say that. But I keep going because if I give up, I watched people I love die for nothing.”
Sal’s chest rose and fell in a shuddering sigh, and he nodded. “I know,” he said, “I’m trying.”
“I know you are. Just… try to breathe. The world’s full of restless things, but it don’t mean they’re all trying to eat us. Let’s just get our heads around the new gig, sort out our rehearsal schedule. Tomorrow, we’ll get Yuka’s sticks and we’ll start looking for new talent.”
Not replacement talent. Never replacements. Whoever they found to join them – if anyone – it would change the band and make them something new. That was how this worked, whether they liked it or not.
After the meal, Steve drafted a potential set list and a rehearsal schedule.
Laszlo sat, cradling the violin Steve had handed to him that afternoon, listening to Steve, Sal and Yuka play and sing through the set selection. He’d spent hours polishing and tuning the instrument, and played a few notes on it, wondering what he’d done to be worthy of it.
It was old, the ‘fiddle’ that Steve had retrieved from the trunk. Very old, with an elaborate carving on its back, of birds and vines. Whoever had made it – and it wasn’t a Micheli or Amati or any of the other early known luthiers – had been a genius with both wood and music. The violin was beautifully balanced and modulated. Laszlo had been lucky enough to hold and play a Stradivarius in his time, an exquisite instrument. This old, faded, battered, beautiful thing was ten times the instrument that Stradivarius had been.
Well, for a start, it was unlikely the Stradivarius had ever been used to sing the walls down on a nest of killers; to make harmonies while the band, fighting for their lives, sang up the roots of trees, and sang down branches, and taught the plants themselves to stake vampires.
Laszlo ran his finger gently over the fretboard, and wondered if the violin knew it had been used to help kill Alex Torni and Kurt Stefan: two men who had loved each other as fiercely as they had loved their now orphaned daughter; as much as they had loved their mission and their band. Their not-famous yet somehow infamous band.
The others paused in their singing and Laszlo paused in his caressing of the strings. “What did that man Malone mean,” he asked into the hush, “About what they say about you?”
Sal’s hands rested on his guitar, glad for a moment’s respite from learning the lead part. He glanced at Yuka.
“A band like ours,” said Yuka, a little stiffly, like it was a lecture she’d only ever heard before, not given, “There is magic in the music, even when we are not singing spells. If you sing enough magic into the instrument, it will seep out no matter what you are doing.” She nodded at the violin. “That instrument has almost four hundred years of music and spellwork in it. That is why it’s lasted so long, and why we needed it in Budapest.”
“No offence to your playing, Laszlo,” interrupted Steve, “But a six year old could’ve played that day and it would’ve helped.”
Laszlo believed it. He remembered too well the power of the song swelling out of the violin that day, and how he’d struggled to control it.
“So,” Yuka continued, “Our band has a reputation. When we play support, the tour always goes very well, no matter who the headline act is, or how bad they are. We play, and the audiences are always in a great mood, the gigs are always the best they’ve ever done, the most merchandise they’ve ever sold. When our band plays, it’s a golden ticket for the band we support.”
“This is why we only play shows when we need the money,” Sal added, then dredged up a faint smile, like this was an old joke. “Even though we always need the money. Don’t want to help too many sucky bands make it big, eh?” Then the expression dissolved, because the person who used to tell that tired old joke was dead. He rubbed a hand over his face and then left it there, trying to hide his sadness. Laszlo wondered if he should say something – something comforting, or something to change the topic – but Sal scrubbed at his face again and then looked up.
“You know we have to send half of what we make for Gretel.”
Steve shifted his bass from his knee to the floor. “You don’t need to worry about Gretel. We’re going to look after her.”
“How? Where’s she going to end up? Your niece can’t babysit her forever, her birth mother disappeared the minute she handed Gretel over to Alex, and we can’t look after her. We can’t take her on the road with us. We couldn’t keep either of her dads alive, we certainly can’t keep a baby safe. I told them…”
“I said,” said Steve with sharp emphasis, “She’s gonna be fine. I got it under control.” He met Yuka’s glare. “And don’t you start with me, Yuka. We heard all you and Sal had to say about the irresponsibility of Kurt and Alex wanting kids way back then. It’s done. A hundred told you so’s don’t fix the problem.”
Yuka blinked slowly, her challenging glare not faltering. “Being right does not make me happy, Steve. At least Alex had the sense to leave her with Kelly before we had to go to Hungary. But I don’t see why Kelly can’t…”
“Kelly’s just fine,” said Steve, “She can take care of Gretel as long as we need…” He grit his teeth on the rest of the sentence. “Don’t fret it.”
Steve pulled the bass back onto his knee. “So given that, and given that we have six days to pull a show together, I suggest we get on with rehearsing these songs. Laszlo, you heard enough to start working out harmony lines yet? Sheet music’s right there on the table. Sal, you get to forgetting the rhythm part and get to remembering the lead part, that’ll be a whole lot more help here.”
A brittle silence followed, then Sal swallowed and started picking out the notes of the first song. He stopped again. Without looking up from the strings, he said: “I didn’t think they should have had Gretel. That doesn’t mean I don’t love her. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to do what’s best for her.”
Steve released a hissing breath. “I know that, Sal. I know Yuka loves her too, even though she don’t say.”
Yuka narrowed her eyes at him, but didn’t deny it.
Slowly, Sal plucked out a simple melody on the strings. “She’s going to need protection,” he said.
“She’ll have it.”
“From us, I mean.”
Yuka scowled at Laszlo’s startled expression. “From those who would use her to get to us,” she explained impatiently.
The melody Sal was playing remained gentle but strong. Steve began to play a bass line through it.
“She’ll be protected,” said Steve.
“Will this have any effect from this far away?” Yuka asked, beginning a quiet beat anyway, her hands against the skin of the smallest drum, marking a sweet-sounding rhythm.
“It’s her song,” said Steve, “They wrote it for her, and we’ve been singing it to her since she was born. It’ll find her.”
Laszlo listened to them, and to the words that the three of them began to sing.
Heave a sigh, baby girl,
Don’t you cry, baby girl
Your daddies are guarding the door
He lifted the violin to his chin and raised the bow. The melody was simple, and he knew this old instrument was full of magic. It couldn’t hurt; and he was one of them now.
Laugh out loud, baby girl
Be strong and proud, baby girl
Keeping you safe is what your daddies are for
Laszlo drew the bow across the strings, adding a harmony. The song was uncomplicated, as lullabies should be, and sweet. It reminded him of his own long estranged children, and he poured his heart into the next two stanzas. He didn’t know if he had any music magic of his own, but the violin had enough for both of them.
(Please feel free to post your responses to the story here: thoughts, speculation, whatever strikes you, good or bad.)