Ears to See and Teeth to Tune.

By Jay St John Knight.


Autumn had finally awoken. Somewhere in the scrub nearby a meadowlark chirped as it plucked fat bees out of the air, and the snarls of coyotes in the low valley slipped through the gaps in the workshop. The alluring scent of wet prairie grass mixed with varnish as the old man finished stringing a guitar on his lap. Each string was threaded into the headstock and wound until tight. So acute was his ear that it took only a few plucks for him to find each note perfectly. The guitar had a sparkling tone; the notes dancing with each other through the air. His hands were made to shape wood that made beautiful music.

He spent the remainder of the afternoon checking the instrument over. His fingertips ran over every millimetre of the instrument, feeling for tiny hairline fractures in the woodwork and varnish. Finally, as the bullcrickets took up their nocturnal chorus and the night-birds stirred in the bush, he hung the instrument amongst the others on the wall. He was done. It was done. He shuffled slowly out of the workshop and locked the door.

Night had the world firmly in its grasp. A wind howled through the trees and battered against the log cabin. He was sat in a padded armchair pulled close to the fire. In the corner of the room a phonograph played a Willie Brown record, the fuzzing of its surface noise blurring with the crackles of the fire as he sipped whisky. The evenings had been quiet recently. His apprentice had been sent back home before the snows made travel impossible. He’d return in the spring, along with the prairie violets and the frogspawn in pools of freshly melted snow. The boy was eager to learn.

The bottle of whiskey was running dry. He’d gained a stockpile of it from the store owner down in New Creek, in exchange for fixing a mandolin. It was good stuff, keeping him warm each night when the cold crept in. As he sunk back into the armchair, he noticed the wind had stopped howling. There was no rustling of the trees outside, no creaking of their branches. The midnight calls of the nocturnal birds had ceased too. The world outside of the cabin had fallen silent. The final notes of Willie Brown’s guitar faded and the record player joined the empty orchestra. All that remained was the gentle purring of the fire and the sound of his breathing. He cocked his head, straining to hear. Then, there was a knock. He froze, heart pounding. Three sharp taps on the door to his cabin. The old man rose and moved towards the door, running his hands over the furniture, feeling for the gun that was propped up against the wall.

‘Who is it?’ he called.

‘The name’s Enoch. Enoch O’Hare.’ The voice was rasping and gravelly.

‘What on God’s earth do you want at this hour, Mr O’Hare?’

‘Shelter and warmth for one thing, Mr Hermann, and also to discuss a proposition, if you’ll let me that is.’

There was a pause before Mr Hermann leant the rifle back against the wall and unbolted the heavy door.

‘Can’t let a man linger in this cold. Get yourself by the fire and have something warming to drink.’

‘Thank you kindly, sir.’

Mr Hermann closed the door behind the stranger and shuffled to his kitchen to find glasses. Enoch O’Hare had an odd air about him. The man brought a multi-layered odour into his house. It was a strange smell of smoke. Not just tobacco, but a kind of sulphurous amalgamation of gunpowder and saltpetre, speckled with wood ash. Yet underneath that that was something earthy, not mud and dirt like the other spontaneous travellers who came calling, but of solid rock. Like ancient granite from deep underground that had recently surfaced, mineral-laden. The very air around him felt vibrant and alive, as if he emanated some sort of energy. Old man Hermann was not a superstitious man, but he had learnt to wholly trust the senses he had left.

‘You have a nice place out here, Mr Hermann, between the prairie and the forest. Away from the bustle of the town. It’s quaint. Old-country style.’

Mr Hermann poured himself a drink. ‘Yessir it’s quaint. I still remember what it looks like. I’m too slow to live amongst the townsfolk now, that’s a young man’s game. They take care of me, mind. Good folk.’

He heard Enoch shift in his seat. ‘Aye, they are good folk, ‘tis true. Times are moving fast though, things aren’t what they used to be.’

‘Never a truer word been spoken mister,’ old man Hermann threw another log on the fire. ‘So what’s your proposition, Mr O’Hare?’

Even though Hermann couldn’t see the man smile, he felt it dance through the air between them.

‘Straight and to the point, a man of my own persuasion. Well then, I know of you. You’re quite renowned in these here parts sir, and further afield. William Lee Hermann guitars are built with skill and love, so I hear. Men pay handsomely to own one of your creations. Heck, I heard a boy in Monticello shot a man just for his Hermann. I’d like you to build me an instrument, if you’d be so obliged.’

‘I can do that. I can’t get the materials until the way’s clear back to town, mind.’

There was a crack of a matchstick and Enoch took a long drag on a cigarette. ‘Don’t worry about that. I will supply you with all the materials you need.’

‘I have good suppliers. I get the finest woods and materials.’

‘No. I want this to be made out of something in particular.’

Old man Hermann mulled it over as he drank. ‘What’s your discipline? You a guitar man, Enoch?’

‘I have many disciplines. I want you to build me a banjo. The finest five-string banjo you’ve ever made.’

‘I can do it. Two hundred and fifty dollars in labour. And it’ll take a while.’

‘I want it before winter’s out. I’ll pay you a thousand dollars. I know you can do it.’

There was a teasing confidence in his voice, like he knew more of Hermann’s capabilities than even he did.

‘Alright, you’ll have your banjo. I’ll need to get started soon as possible, mind.’

‘I will be back in three days with the first materials, and your payment.’

‘Then we have an accord, Mr O’Hare.’

‘Good. Now then, I must thank you for your kind hospitality and move on. I am a busy man.’

‘Won’t you be wanting a drink for the road, Mr Enoch?’

‘No, thank you. I don’t partake I’m afraid.’

‘My father always said, never trust a man who doesn’t drink.’

Enoch’s raspy laugh was like stones in a tin can, ‘Your father was a wise man. G’night.’

The strange encounter stuck in the old man’s mind, but he remained adamant the instrument would be made. As the sun sank below the ridge on the third day O’Hare had not come. Once again the chill crept back into the cabin. Old man Hermann had a warm fire bellowing away and the stripped-back guitar of Skip James playing loudly as the moon emerged. The music stopped abruptly midway through Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, and Hermann rose up to wind the phonograph again. Then came the knock.

‘Mr O’Hare?’ called Hermann, as he shuffled about the cabin.

‘Evenin’, Mr Hermann,’ the voice responded.

He let the man in. Old man Hermann could hear he was carrying something heavy.

‘Here’re the first lot of materials and your payment. There are all the parts for the body. I’ll come back next week with the neck materials.’

Mr Hermann reached for the wooden box, feeling the strangely familiar material within. It was jagged and rough, in unequal pieces and odd shapes like broken branches.

‘What is it? Feels like no wood I’ve worked with before.’

‘Something special, and secret. Call it part of the commission.’

The old man grunted. ‘I ’spose I’ll get started right away.’

‘Then I will see you in a week, Mr Hermann,’ and with that O’Hare was gone.

Old man Hermann started working that night. Lightly sanding and polishing each piece to remove any residual dust. Gently treating it with a light varnish. Over the next few days he shaped eighteen blocks to make three hollow hexagons, and glued them overnight. He clamped the hexagons together and gently tapped pin-nails into place to reinforce the bond. After another day of drying, he began the slow process of shaping the hexagon with a saw and laboriously sanding the rough surface down, until he was left with a perfectly spherical layered ring that would make the banding of the body. More days passed, and the instrument began to take shape.

It was late evening and Hermann was in his workshop when Mr O’Hare knocked again. This time, inside the crate was a long shaft wrapped in cloth, and another misshaped piece to make a headstock. It felt the same as the other material: brittle, and as cold and as dense as ebony, but different. Whatever it was, it was not wood.

Another week slowly passed, with old man Hermann carefully shaping the long piece of dense material to make a neck. He then inlayed the fret-board with small off-cuts, perfectly measuring the distance of the fret markers and treating it with blended lemon oil each night. Once the headstock had been crafted, he fastened the three pieces together.

The next time he visited, Enoch arrived with no crate. Instead he brought with him a rolled cloth bundle and a small leather pouch. Enoch asked to stay the night and watch him work. Hermann nodded, saying he would like company, and let him inspect the nearly finished instrument.

In his workshop Hermann unravelled the bundle. Inside was the skin for the banjo: a perfectly circular sheet of vellum. He felt it with his fingertips, placing it over the resonator hole. It was smoother, thinner, than the calfskin vellum he normally used. It felt more like pigskin to him, which seemed an odd choice, but at the same time didn’t feel quite like pigskin. It was unsettling. A luthier always knows the materials he works with. Hermann swallowed his questions and fastened on the metal heading, fixing the brackets in place, tightening so the skin was as taut as possible.

Once the skin was fixed he reached for the small pouch. He felt five lumps within and guessed these were the tuning pegs. What he took out, however, filled him with dread. In his hand were five front teeth, human judging by the size, with the roots entirely attached. They were not rotted as if plucked from a corpse, but fresh, smooth. Slowly, it all began to fall into place: the brittle material that made the body; the smooth shaft of the neck, the oddly shaped piece for the headstock, the skin that was like a pig’s, the teeth.

He’d crafted an instrument of human bone and skin.

‘What is this?’ he exclaimed, ‘Human skin and bone? You’ve made me shape an instrument of death and disgust, an abomination!’

There was a grim silence before the rumbling voice replied, ‘Yes. I have. I knew you would refuse if you knew the truth. Now finish what you have started.’

Old man Hermann was grasped by something at those words: an unnatural compulsion, forcing his hands to work the pegs in place. All the while Enoch stood over him, breathing with sinister intent. He worked with hellish fury, threading the sinewy strings into the instrument, tuning as he went. Finally he collapsed, exhausted, back into his chair, the banjo lying on the tabletop, complete.

‘Who are you, really, Mr O’Hare?’

He chuckled. ‘I am not O’Hare, I’ll tell you that. He, or at least most of him, sits upon your table.’

‘What kind of man does this?’ Hermann gasped.

‘Oh, I am no man, Mr Hermann,’ he picked up the banjo, ‘No man at all,’ and walked from the cabin into the darkness beyond.

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