The Gun and the Piano
Note to reader: I have been wondering what genre this story would classify as. It seems Western to me, but at the same time has certain fantasy elements (imaginary town) and even Gothic/spiritual undertones. I am planning to submit this to a magazine so I would a clearer idea as to what audience this story might befit. I hope you enjoy this!
Sombra is a strange world with its own tales, dark and dear and sometimes heart-wrenching. Like all desert border-towns it has empty horizons, blank cemeteries, stooping hovels bridged against the finery of the rich. Sombra has its churches and its taverns, its worshippers and its bandits. But despite its newness, its uncertainty, the townspeople speak the same language of toreadors and saint-knights as their long-ago ancestors. Everyone is a part of the antique past and the rugged, wild present.
Sombra is not a place for musicians. It had a pianist once, who was also a piano teacher. They tell his tale sometimes during the Day of the Dead.
"This was his room, and that, the carved mahogany, his table. Yes, and these too. They were all my piano teacher's."
Ana stood back while the men stepped in, observing casually. The room was not very big, but very close, and cluttered with piles of books and music that marked plain, deliberate chaos. The piano stood by the window. It was not a very big room, and suddenly the men seemed rather misplaced in it. From outside came the sounds of ribald celebration. It was Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The townspeople paraded to the cemeteries on this festival, with coloured paper mache and sculptures and feathered masks, to honour the peaceful dead. But these men were not here for celebration.
One of the men, in the white hat, who had introduced himself as Jean, turned to the table with half- interest. Photos and curios littered about its dusted surface. Jean lit a cigar.
"He collected these throughout his life. Memories."
"A pianist, you say?"
"He taught me piano."
"Were you close to him?"
"No need to blush, Señorita. Must've taught more than just music." Jean turned to the other man, Paolo, who laughed shortly in the cigarette-smoke. "A few useful tricks for the after-hours. Don't be shy, I know about rich bitch students."
"Listen," Ana said. "I will hide nothing. Only listen, and I'll tell you what he told me."
"Don't forget, he was a wanted man."
"Wanted," Ana whispered. She closed her eyes.
Jean picked up the black cigarette case. The interior of the case was lined in plush purple, and golden flowers laced the thin cover. He toyed it between his long fingers and scraped at the golden lock.
Ana began her story.
Allen was the newest addition to this town. He was not fazed by the dusty poorhouses that bloomed beside elegant (and somewhat shabby) state mansions. He was not surprised at the fights and shootouts that occasionally broke out at the local tavern. He had witnessed one during his first week there, and watched with muted apathy.
Allen soon became the town's admired but not envied piano teacher. He had once been an excellent pianist, but a tragic accident cut his career short, maimed his right hand, so it was now shrivelled, useless, and hidden within white gloves. The unfortunate hand did not prevent the rich and the rich and the elite – particularly the married wives who wanted culture – from calling on him to make an impression at their parties. Even the local church, in need of renovation and wholehearted worshippers, hired him to tune the gilded organ and conduct its choir. There was talk of rebuilding the ancient window above the organ, and that excited him.
Allen's hair was blond. He wore a coat of black silk even in the sun, and white gloves when not performing. No one, even he himself, could ever ascertain the colour of his eyes: these were cast in shadow.
Ana knew how well parents had wanted him to teach her piano. Why wouldn't they? It was a useful ladylike skill to cultivate in a town that otherwise lay in the middle of nowhere. Besides, Allen wore a black coat, a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, and seemed like a sinless and genteel church-goer.
She could not take her eyes off of him. He was completely different from her own father, the town's tough sheriff, who cursed loudly and smoked fat cigars and even started a few brawls himself at the tavern, as Allen only ever smoked tiny, gold-tipped cigarettes. There were rumours once that he dealt cards, games of luck and chance, but Ana dismissed these silly eccentricities.]
"Speak of the devil, who's this pretty lady?"
There was a photo, a faded sepia. Rose petals had also been scattered and pressed beneath the glass, the golden frame. They looked almost a shade of red. The girl in the photo had black, curling hair that fell about her temples and wistful eyes. "She's like a goddamned Virgin," Jean remarked. Ana had never quite understood these eyes, so much like a painted Madonna's, the gaze that seemed to encompass both the past and the future but never the present.
"Her name is Rosanna," she said.
"Not quite," Ana touched the worn glass. "Not quite. She was – Señor Paco's daughter. You of course remember Señor Paco."
"Everyone knows Paco. I had a deal with him once, and a few rounds of Poker," Paolo said. "Bloody man chopped all your fingers if you so much as cheated a wink."
"Paco loved her very much," Ana said. "He loved her like himself. He would do anything for his daughter."
And, apparently, so had Allen.
He had met her at one of those dinner parties. This one was held at Señor Paco's villa, a lavish banquet held in high style. The gardens were laced with flaming torches, paper diamond-stars, and obese red ribbons hitched onto the stone walls. Liquors were filled to over-brimming. Paco had even provided a piano, a horrid tinkling thing.
Allen knew he was crazy to fall for the only daughter, the only child, of a bandit lord. He worked up the courage to ask her for a dance. There had been so many people, and the lights so bright like far-flung stars, that even though she had closed her eyes for the whole dance, he tucked a love-letter into her sash.
Then he waited. When night fell he removed his gloves and cleaned his hands, even the injured one, and played snatches of Bach and Chopin, a fleeing fugue or a dark nocturne. Sometimes he could work both hands together, though it was only a matter of minutes before his injured hand flared in pain. The gloves came back on during the day when he taught his students. He would float through their lessons like one in dream.
(How precious this music could be, he thought, how incomplete, in its dissonance and scarcity and lack of aim and resolution.)
Weeks passed. At Rosanna appeared at his door. How long since he had seen her? She wore a white dress in muslim lace, a red ribbon in her hair. Allen was at the piano, his shirt unbuttoned, while sheets of music lay splayed about. She smiled at him.
"Allen," she said. "I waited, too."
He had removed his gloves, so Rosanna stepped up and slowly placed her hands atop of his, her fingers almost as long. She took his right hand, now marked with only a jagged scar, and kissed that.
"How well do you know me?" Allen asked.
"You don't sleep at night. The hours of darkness, and silver-tipped stars, they're reserved for the instrument you love. You weave ballads and tragedies, caprices and fairytales, all beneath this pale, pale moon; and so I must listen. I must listen to this magic."
Allen turned and kissed her deeply. He carried her to the bed and took her, whispering her name, caressing her as though she was a lost song found. Her arms came around him and he saw stars.
"My angel," he said, "My angel and saint."
"I'll tell you about my father one day," Rosanna whispered after long after they had lapsed back into silence. She looked as though she wanted to ask him about his hand. But she let her words hang, unused, instead.
Paolo chuckled. But he was much more attentive now, even concerned. "Must've been lovely, ain't it? Like a rose and a dream."
"Lovely," Ana said in her placid way. "I think he was happier then, though distracted, as though was something convoluted in his love for Rosanna, as though he couldn't see clearly… how can I explain? I did not want to hurt him."
"Did he tell you anything about these liaisons?"
"Well, I knew nonetheless. I could see right off his eyes, down to the way he walked. Others may have suspected. But no one talked about Paco's daughter."
Paolo coughed. He was remembering Paco's ways.
Jean, meanwhile, fingered the gold crucifix on the table. It would have once been very fine, but was now antique, and somewhat weathered. The Christ's lean and contoured body hung like a haggard ribbon on the cross. Jean had very little care for such; his God was existed in golden snuffboxes and offerings pouches, in money that passed through his long fingers. But this Christ's face was beaded in tears.
Days passed. Summer was fading and gliding into the cooler autumn months. After sundown, when all the students had gone, Allen made love with Rosanna behind the sheen of the black piano. The moon crooned, the trees swished, and the world seemed tipped in silver and faeries' lights. Sometimes he caught their reflections on the surface of the piano, entwined on snow-white sheets. Sometimes, he only saw himself, his face twisted by pleasure or pain, while Rosanna was a blank.
He took to sitting inside the church for hours, even after the services and communion had ended and only the altar-boy remained. The window above the organ was completed, and now it portrayed a gleaming gold-veined angel with a rose in its heart. The angel seemed to weep blue tears, though it held a jewelled sword. Allen could not understand its face that was beyond serenity or sorrow.
"You promised you would tell me about your father," he said to Rosanna one day. They were buried deep into the bed despite the heat; crickets sang outside the window, and the delicious smell of roast pig lingered from far off.
"I recall now. You were supposed to meet him." Rosanna said. "He was always out or busy, but I think he would have liked you."
"He's always needed culture and refinement. I think he would have you teaching me piano soon. He can be cruel but kind at once."
Allen traced the small of her back. "How so?"
"When I was a girl, he took me to a field of flowers, to fold golden wreathes to crown my head – wreathes of little suns. He carried me on his back and called me his little treasure. I can't understand him very well, you see, I can only love as a daughter loves."
"Do you understand me, then?" Allen's voice suddenly grew quiet and dry.
Rosanna watched him intently. "I can understand you as much as you want me to, Allen."
"Then let me tell you what it is like to play the piano."
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"Close your eyes." He kissed her with an almost renewed urgency. "Close your eyes if you want to know."
As she did, her fingers lit upon a velvety fabric.
"Do you feel this?"
There was something rectangular, hard beneath it. Then he unsheathed the velvet away and he touched her fingers to a cold metal surface, to the bumps and valleys of various carved designs. She ran her fingers along a barrel which tapered to one end, almost like the legs of a piano. Rosanna felt a hollowed chamber; the designs were more definite here. When she touched the trigger, he released her.
Rosanna opened her eyes and saw the gleaming revolver in her hands. She almost dropped it by instinct.
"Go on." And Allen guided her clumsy hands until she could steady the thing, this strong yet foreign thing that weighed like electric lead. He wrapped his sturdy hand around hers, and aimed towards the window.
"It's like this. Just like this."
"Allen," Rosanna was shaking, "Why do you need a revolver?"
He whispered into her ear, "You are my saint but I am a sinner. For this I apologize. I really do. But sinner that I am, I have no choice but to kill someone tonight."
That evening, alone, Allen drank himself into stupor – unusual for him – while he mechanically loaded, unloaded, reloaded the silent gun. He counted his bullets, but he only needed one. Then he made the sign of the cross and prayed while the suffering Christ of his crucifix looked on.
They were clearly discomforted. It was as though the candles in the room muted one octave lower.
"He was right," Ana said. "I remember it clearly – as the best piano teacher I ever had, perhaps the only piano teacher I ever had – what he told me about the gun and the piano. The magic, if you will. The beauty of an instrument that makes you conjuror, with the world at your fingertips. The beauty of an instrument that's like holding a gun."
Paolo lit another cigarette.
"Would you look at this," Jean said.
There were three playing cards on the table, odd that they had been drawn from the deck and placed here as though they spelled some pattern or message. There was a Queen of Diamonds, a King of Spades, and a Joker.
Allen had planned this for years. He had planned this for so long that he had lost track of time. Days and nights, with Rosanna, without Rosanna, had mashed into one ball of useless memory in his mind – but now, now he was alive.
He got up as soon as the clock struck midnight. Collecting himself, he snapped shut the lid of the piano, put on his hat and coat, and drew on his pair of whitest gloves. He tucked the loaded gun into his coat-pocket and headed off into the night.
Imagine: the moon is dark. The man is drunk, yet surprisingly clear-headed, as he runs down the dark corridors, as his steps pad softly and cast disturbed, oblong shadows. Allen thinks, it's like the first time he'd kissed Rosanna – he'd known exactly what to do, yet at the same time had not. But does he know what to do now? Is it only… fate?
"But in the end," Ana said, "The instrument is only a part of yourself, a tool. The power comes only from you."
The room which had no door, only a gaping entryway. The gun cradled in his good hand. He kept it lowered by his side, flashing against the black of his coat.
Señor Paco sat in the corner. He wore a large brimmed gentleman's hat and linen shirt that parted at the neck. His figure was once lean and strong. Now he smoked gently, a fat cigar, pausing to peer at the strange slim man through the haze and lime-coloured light.
"Who are you?" Paco drawled. "Alberto?"
"I am Allen,"
Paco's face was lined with wrinkles that lit when he smiled. "And you're knocking at his hour? I don't recall you much, but why don't you sit yourself down, son. I've got us a deck of cards."
Allen sat in one of the stuffed chairs. He removed his hat. Then his coat, and folded that over the seat. The gun lay in his lap. Paco regarded him but did not seem to notice the weapon.
Paco began to deal from a deck of frayed cards. Allen watched his face as it altered, changing with each new card, each new number that peaked from the pristine deck. There was a Queen, a King, a Joker.
"Now, Allen. I've been itching to know, frankly, what brought you here. Men don't simply drop by, ah, in the dead of night. Cigar?"
"No, thank you. I am here to kill you, Paco."
Allen raised both hands. One had a scar, like lightning, running through the shrivelled flesh. The other had his revolver, cold and winking.
Paco paused, the flame spluttering on his thick cigar.
"Ah. I don't quite get you, son."
"Oh, you do. Recall, if you can, La Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and the raid at the town of Cella Donna – thirty-three miles from present-day Sombra."
Paco said slowly, "That town no longer exists."
"There was a raid. You took your men there and cleared everything. The streets ran with blood, and there were ruined paper maches of the Christ and the Virgin. Men and women and children alike begged for mercy, and yet. If you look into my eyes, you may still see the face of my father – you put your gun in his throat and fired. You may also recall my mother and sisters, whom you locked into the church with other townspeople, and then razed to the ground."
"Look, son," Paco said. "You've never held a gun. You're not even holding that fucker right. Let me show you-"
"You are right. I never had. I once played the piano."
"You're a sensitive creature, an artist."
"I've never held a gun."
"Look at your hand-"
"I have never killed you!" Allen roared.
At this moment, they erupted. The chair fell, bearing down, smashing into Allen's shoulder while he kicked Paco to the ground, and crashed Paco's head against the table. Paco gasped a moment. Allen stood up but Paco gripped him again, and they fell to the floor like two adversaries, almost brothers, hands slipping on and off the shining gun.
Tables crashed against the wall. Paco crunched his hands around Allen's neck, and threw his full weight against the smaller man. The air was shot through with shadows, and only the light of an overcast moon and the broken ceiling-lamp.
Allen's fingers lit on a shard of glass and he stabbed his adversary, who coiled. With a hooked punch that levelled the man, he rammed Paco against the window and glass shattered, rained in blood.
Allen took his revolver. He raised it and aimed at Paco's heart. "I am going to take what is yours away from you. Look carefully, Señor. This would have been a rapier in an older age, a dagger in the one before that, a staff, a rock, all the way to one black heart from the dawn of time. Look at me."
Paco made a sound, something like a whimper. He clawed at his pockets.
Because Rosanna, Rosanna, had burst in.
Allen saw her from the corner of his eye. She wore only her shift, dragging along her bare legs. There was no need to see the look on her father's face, the shock as he made the connection between the girl and the mad pianist. Rosanna's eyes were red, her face stained by tears.
"No! Please!" She cried. "Allen- please – you can't do this – my father-"
Allen, who had lost track of days and nights to the point where he only saw blankness in his mind, the blankness of a town called Sombra that wasted beneath the desert sun, knew what happened next was only a matter of seconds. He had been distracted. And Paco was armed. When Paco's bullet entered him in a cleft of pain, Allen whirled like a demon and an artist. The revolver swung in sync with the line that blazed from his shoulder to his elbow to his fingertips to his eyes, an entire existence geared towards one revenge – The gun flashed like a meteor, an extension of him, as he fired –
"Rosanna!" cried Paco.
Allen shot Rosanna.
Ana was silent. She did not need to say how Rosanna must have fallen, like a withered leaf in a red river, or how the tears must have welled in the desert of Paco's eyes. Or if Allen had ever bothered to look for his visage again, reflected from the cold surface of his gun.
"So, wait," Paolo said. "He told you all this?"
"Yes," Ana said. "All."
"Well. What do you know. Student of his, indeed."
"It's not everyday this shit happens. How can we be sure you ain't making this up?"
"Because. It was early morning. I was practicing Bach in the parlour. I don't know how he got past the servants; he simply crashed into the room. He was a mess, torn clothes, crimson-stained, and he told me this story, the story I told you now, which is everything that he could have said and everything he ever will. He pressed his gun into my hands and aimed it at his heart. 'Pull the trigger,' he said, 'Or I'll kill you too.'"
"And did you?"
Paolo looked at Jean. Jean looked at Ana. Ana glanced at her fingers.
The strange things a human hand could do, a hand that could create, caress, kill. Hands that could play the piano and hold a gun, or hands that could clasp in prayer while the eyes beheld a weeping stained-glass angel on some church window.
The cards on the table had been stained, dots of dark crimson.
Ana said, "Only God could have judged me. Ah, only God can judge me."