I thought they'd get up there and loose hellfire on the world.
Not even close.
At least, not at first.
Ankou stood on one side of the stage, J.J. on the other. One of them--to this day I can't tell you which--began playing Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze," fingers so light and gentle against the strings, a whisper, a ray of warm sunlight on your face after the storm clouds had passed; the other began playing "Joy of Man's Desiring," a sigh of thanks because you'd lived to see another morning and hadn't really expected to, the sound of dreams laughing quietly because they know something you don't, something great; and despite these two pieces of music being written by the same composer several years apart, Ankou and J.J. played them in perfect opposing harmony, as if the pieces had always meant to be joined together, "Sheep" filling in the empty spaces left after "Joy's" refrain, and I couldn't help but wonder if Bach had planned it that way all along, the two pieces simply components of a much larger musical puzzle, because the two skilled guitarists on the stage before me merged the two separate themes together to create a third and--believe it or not--even more moving theme.
I looked down at my crippled hand and felt a sting of something like regret, but a quick shot of Jim Beam put that back in storage.
Their warmup evidently over, J.J. moved to the side of the stage while Ankou crossed to his amplifier and used his knife to split the speaker cones right down the middle.
The backup band was looking ready for battle.
Outside, the Listeners were gathering.
I cannot ever hope to fully articulate the grotesque magnificence of these creatures. Some were tentacled and hairy; others were both steel and organic in nature; one, a lithe female figure with the head of a black horse, vapor jutting from its nostrils, danced around the rest, twirling a long silken scarf; another was tall and skeletal, with fingers so long their tips brushed against the ground: it hunkered down and snaked its fingers around the bars on one of the windows, as if absorbing the sound through vibrations. Some hopped like frogs, some rolled, and one, the Listener I remember best, scuttled on rootlike filaments that were covered in flowers whose centers were the faces of blind children.
I could feel their anticipation.
And it scared the hell out of me.
So I looked away from the Listeners and returned my attention to the stage.
Nodding to J.J., Ankou struck strings with pick, his Strat gave out with a little shriek, but it didn't end there because he bent those strings and played with his volume knobs and in a breath took that little shriek and turned it into feedback that he pulled down into his whammy-bar and rebuilt right before my ears, taking the atonal and filtering it through the pickups and strings and his surprisingly deft fingers and before you knew it those tones and feedback were singing a portion of Bach's "Fugue in G," building higher on the final note, higher, louder, wider, until at last Ankou hit and sustained a note that must have pulled from the guts of all the Fallen Angels, and he threw back his head and let fly with a laugh that was equal parts glory and grotesquerie, then stomped his foot four times, real slow but not too slow, and on the fourth stomp the backup band kicked in all at once, bass and piano and drums and guitars--
--and the sound was that of a flaming 747 screaming down from the sky as they broke into a traditional blues riff, the classic twelve-bar harmonic progression of one-four-five, and God it was something to hear, the band so into it, so tight, so together, thrashing out the four bars of tonic, then two of subdominant, two more of tonic, two of dominant, and the final two of tonic, laying the groundwork that Ankou built upon, and I wish I could tell you that there was something evil in Ankou's playing but there wasn't, it was pure, man, as pure as you can get and still expect to be breathing once it's over, and as the band kept it together underneath, Ankou's finger dragged and ripped over the strings, bringing forth the ghostly voices of every slave who worked in every field and coal pit--Born a day when the sun didn't shine--bending the strings until they shrieked in agony and desperation--Picked up my shovel and I went to the mine--spitting out notes like bullets from a machine gun, hammering it out at double-time, then quadruple-time but never sacrificing a sense of order--Loaded sixteen tons o' number nine coal--his touched isolating overtones by playing one string with his pick while simultaneously brushing another with his fingernail--And the straw boss he said well bless my soul--and now he was Up There someplace, someplace where the Music lived, his ax releasing the vocalized screams of a Pentecostal church choir trying to overpower the sliding-trail notes of a hillbilly steel guitar--
--outside, the Listeners rejoiced in the sound--
--then something went wrong for a second, he hit a bad note--even I could tell that--and it was ugly and sour and discordant as hell, as the second he hit it something flashed off the surface of his guitar, a twisting ribbon of light that shot out into the bar and shattered one of the mirrors on the far wall, then ricocheting into a table and blowing the chairs in all directions--one of them flew right up to the bar, right at my head, decapitation time, but was stopped dead in its tracks by the magic surrounding me, hitting the invisible barrier and smashing into kindling only inches from my face but I felt nothing--didn't stop me from squirming and doing a safety jump, though--and when I came back up I saw that the bolt had taken up space in a corner, whirling like a twister filled with breathtaking explosions of sparks and splintered prisms, but Ankou wasn't paying attention to it, he brought the music back on track, finishing his solo with a master's flourish--
--and then it was J.J.'s turn, and he took over in the middle of a note as if he'd been the one playing it; only where Ankou ended in fire and brimstone, J.J. started in gentle waters: mercurial, warm, yet defiant and biting: subtle and tender, to be sure, yet just as often brutal and cool--he knew the value of playing few notes with frightening precision, standing there as proof of what a man could become when he resisted easy answers, and just when you thought he couldn't make his ax sound any more loving, there was a sudden eruption at his fingertips, naked, razor-blade howls of anger and power as his body and Ankou's became alive with bands of light that snakedanced over their forms and ran in stunning rivulets up and down the necks of their guitars--Take this ol' hammer, take it to the captain--and Ankou answered him, just as cocky and mad--Take this ol' hammer, take it to the captain--then it was the two of them together, opposing harmonies in perfect synch--Tell him I'm-a-goin', I'm-a-goin' HOME!--
--and that's when they reached even higher, sounds swirling around me like mythical winged creatures dancing on the unforgiving metallic truth of their guitars, and the bass, it was a-thumping, and the cymbals, they were a-crashing, and the piano keys, they were a-crying as the pianist's fingers made glissandos over the ivories, and I was there, I was with them, hanging on to every note and nuance, not worried when a bad note was hit and the lightning bolts blew up another section of the tavern and then joined the snarling twister in the corner, adding to its power--no, I was letting fly with ol' spirituals, the work songs and field-hollers and arhoolies...I swear I could still hear the griots of all the old tribes in there, as if the bodies of the slaves buried in the field had risen up, risen up high, oh Lord, singing loud and true and fine, the bent-pitch blue notes of the guitars giving these ghosts back their collective voice--
--and just as quickly as I was with them, I was suddenly apart, because somewhere in there, between Ankou sliding out of his second solo and J.J. starting in on his third, I saw my dad during the last weeks of his life: Broken and sick, spending too much time in his near-empty room that writhed with loneliness and defeat and sadness and drift, and I wished he'd lived to see this, to hear this, to be here and experience this sound for himself, but he hadn't, he'd died in his sleep after missing one shot too many of his insulin, and I missed him more at that moment than I ever had before, and I wept, Jesus I wept like a baby and didn't give a damn who or what saw me, just stood there crying in the middle of a Music that no human ear had ever heard before and probably would never hear again--
--my hand, my stinking hand, my stinking, good-for-nothing, might-as-well-be-a-claw hand--God, how I wanted to be able to play like they were, and I knew that was never going to happen because boys with crippled hands, oh Lord, they don't get to Reach for the sound, they don't get to step into the wholly other, no, they stand behind bars and sling the booze and listen to the Songsters from all walks of life, even those who don't cross time and space and Highway 61 to get here, they stand and sling and listen and long for some way to achieve even a little piece of that dream--
--but isn't that what it's all about? I asked myself suddenly, my dad's voice strong in my head. Isn't that what Music is supposed to do, give you dreams, give you songs to sing when you're feeling down, songs that'll make the hurt go away and, if not go away, at least loosen its grip on your spirit?
Damn straight, I thought.
And I put myself back into the battle with them. I listened, I listened good for my dad and hoped he was able to snatch himself a little listen, wherever or whenever he was.
Hellfire and Angelic song loosed on the world then. I couldn't tell which of them was playing what because their hands and fingers were moving so smoothly, so fast and furiously, for several moments I couldn't even see their fingers.
I swear to God, until the day I die I'll swear on a stack of Bibles, I tell you, that right at the end, just as the twister of sparks and splintered prisms created by their few mistakes looked like it couldn't hold it in any longer, when the Listeners outside were whipped into a frenzy of sound and movement and celebrating, when everything was winding up and grinding down and the guitars looked like they wanted nothing more than to limp off stage and whimper in a dark corner--right at the end, I swear that flames leapt from the strings--
--then the twister took flight, shooting across the length of the dance floor like a heat-seeking missile--
--it hit Ankou squarely in the chest, frying his shoulder strap and kicking him in the air, throwing him off the stage to land in a ragged heap by the door--
--and then it was over.
The Listeners, now gone, had chosen their Champion.
Not even fuzztone feedback from the smoking amps.
J.J. put down his guitars and invited the band to have a drink, then stepped down and gently, with great caring and tenderness, helped Ankou to his feet and led him toward the bar.
Ankou was no longer the frightening giant who had entered this place a little over an hour ago; now he looked like a shattered, stoop-shouldered old man.
I was still crying when they all took their seats, crying so hard, so openly and unashamedly, that I couldn't get my good hand to steady the bottles, so I just sat the booze on the bar and told them all to pour to their hearts' content.
And you bet that's just what they did.
I couldn't blame them.
Creating that kind of Music had to be thirsty, thirsty work.
I have no idea how long I stayed that way, bawling my head off behind the bar, but eventually I became aware that they'd stopped talking among themselves and when I was able to wipe my eyes and look, everyone was gone except for Ankou and J.J.
J.J. cocked his head in my direction. "Feel better now, do you?"
"I don't know." I blew my nose and managed to pour myself a shot. "What happened to him?"
Ankou looked at his Fender Strat which J.J. had retrieved, picked it up, and tried to play something, a simple chord, but couldn't even do that.
"Ohgod," he croaked. "Ohgod...I didn't think it was true...I thought it was just something they told us to scare us from the fight."
"Everyone's got to pay a price," whispered J.J. "Just remember: This was only a battle, friend. The war rages ever on."
Ankou put down his Start, hung his head, and wept quietly.
J.J. put a hand on his opponent's shoulder. "It's only for a thousand years. The blink of an eye."
Ankou nodded, stood up, and started shuffling toward the door, defeated, broken, hopeless.
"You forgot something," said J.J., holding out Ankou's Strat.
"What the hell good's that going to do me now?"
"Feels bad, does it?"
"Empty. It feels empty and so...so silent"--he touched his chest--"in here."
"Blink of an eye, and you'll have it back to fight the good fight again one day." He pushed out the guitar. "Take it."
"I don't much care for you, probably never will, but that don't change the fact that you're still a Songster and always will be, and while you're waiting, you got to keep the dream alive."
Ankou thought about it for a moment, nodded once, then took the guitar from J.J., went outside, climbed on his hog, and drove on down the dark road, toward the End of Silence.
J.J. turned toward me. "Looks like y'all get to keep the Music for a while longer."
"But I don't understand--"
He held up his hand, silencing me. "The whole point behind our doing this, Mr. Slow-On-The-Uptake, is that as long as your race continues to help the Music evolve, you get to keep it. You maybe didn't hear the mistakes we was makin'--hell, maybe you couldn't even tell they was mistakes, but we made 'em, you bet'cha. And you know why? Because it's starting to look like you folks are getting the hang of it. You're getting closer and closer to getting it right. Ought to make you feel good."
"It should...but it doesn't."
"That hand of yours?"
"You ever hear the story about Paganini? Wanted to be a concert pianist, had his heart set on it, but his fingers was just too damned long to master the keys. So he took up the violin and became a virtuoso."
"Meaning that you done spent so much time crying over what that crippled-up hand of yours can't do that you never once gave a thought to what it can do." He got up from the bar, handed the two E strings back, and said, "Take a little stroll with me."
We went down to the crossroad where Smokestack was still playing.
"Remember Paul Butterfield?" asked J.J.
"Yes, I do. I wept the day he died."
"Did you know he had arthritis in one of his hands?"
"Yeah, I'm a real cut-up, known for my whimsical wit and snappy repartee--hell, no, I wouldn't lie." He snapped his fingers, and Smokestack stopped playing, tossed his harmonica to J.J., then disappeared. Just like that.
J.J. handed the harp to me. "You'd be surprised what a claw-hand like yours can do when it comes to holdin' on to one of these, to movin' it back and forth while your other hand does the easy part." He shoved the harmonica in my pocket. "You're a good kid, and I'll be sure to let your daddy know you're doin' right by him and the Music."
Before I could say anything, he picked up his battered guitar case and walked into the shadows, wrapping them around him like a blanket and vanishing back into time, space, and the shortcut to Highway 61.
I looked up to the stars and heard the music of the night birds, of passing cars and the dying storm.
"I may be right and I may be wrong," I sang to the night.
And suddenly I didn't feel so dreamless.