Posts Tagged 'music'


Every time a bell rings, an angel gets her wings. Every time a horse hears thunder, he runs through the field; his eyes are white and wild. Every time my cousin played the kazoo, he left spit in it. He was hit by a car when he was twelve. Every time the lights go down, the guitar plays and the moon comes out from behind a cloud. Every time the clouds gather, the rains fall and the birds shake their wet feathers. Every time the birds shake their feathers, they make a sound like the flipping of pages in a well-worn paperback. The paperback, lying on my mother’s stomach, rises slowly and rhythmically as she snores. She snores until the thunder comes; she snorts and sits up, awake and remembering an old song in Spanish that she can’t sing now. She can’t remember a song about birds, a song about loss, a song about love. The rain comes down, and in the yard the wind chimes kiss together, little bells calling, calling to the wingless hovering halfway between here and there, listening to a melody almost, but not quite, reproducible.

Junkyard rhapsody

“Ta-da” I say and shake-shimmy my little sequined heinie onto the makeshift stage. Gramma and her old dog, Rasputin, sit out in front of the velvet curtain suspended between two oil barrels. Gramma applauds wildly, like she’s an audience of 1000.

I sing her a song made up on the spot, about agony and love and winning the most important game of all time and saving the world. More wild applause from the packed theater. I can see smoke rising up from the candles in the orchestra pit, I can hear the bass players tuning up, grumbling in their beards. The violinists are all bald, thin and dyspeptic, and I can hear them tuning up too, making a shrill shirring like bees whinging past my ears on the way to the show. I sit down and flip the pink tulle of my tutu out of the way and crack my fingers like I’d seen my grampa doing when he tested out the piano the day he moved it in.

Gramma’s never seen me play for real. She’s still thinking of me as some 7-year-old little frizzle fart showing off for her and grampa back behind the shack where we lived for the first ten years of my life, when she and grampa still owned the oldest junkyard in Whynot Texas. Grampa died, shot or poisoned maybe, I never got the same story twice from Gramma and all I know is one day we packed and moved and kept on moving.

Even now I dream about that junkyard. About the things I found and lost in there. The pillows with fancy embroidery on them, only just a little stained. The chocolate-scented lotion that almost even tasted good. The beard trimmer. The defibrillator that scared the bejesus out of gramma when I tried it out on her foot while she was napping in her best Adirondack chair in the screen porch grampa built up against the shack. The shack. I didn’t strictly know it was a shack at the time, I can say that. But looking back on it now I can see it. A small wooden shack, with tin roofing, a little loose, that was held in place with old tires in case of hurricane or tornado. We had electricity, strung over the fence and jimmied in by my grampa or one of his cronies so we never had to pay a dime for it. No phone, water from a faucet and a hose in the yard, but no running water indoors.

I believe now I would have to say that we were living outside of time. That I was performing as a child star in the imaginary world of Mark Twain and backroom poker, sometimes in the crazy twenties, before the robber barons and Black Tuesday and the dustbowl poverty that made everyone, absolutely everyone, suspicious and sad. I lived in a time and place that did not exist anymore, through its castoffs, through its junk.

The smells of a junkyard are more varied than you might think. A junk yard is not a dump. The smells are of other people’s lives. Other people’s cologne, in fancy Avon bottles. The smell of spray starch on someone’s old cotton sheets. The smell of boots and mixed auto parts souring things up a bit, but even that just seems like an accent. I close my eyes and smell starlight and surprises in the junkyard at midnight.

Gramma and grampa took me in when I lost my mother. When she lost me. They gave me my first piano, and were my first audience. Gramma was upset with me when I went off to that Jew-yard to study, wanted to know what the hell I was thinking, family’s always been Baptist girl, even if your mother did turn out wrong. Which maybe she did; I’m not saying she did or she didn’t.

I am saying that anyone raised in other people’s stuff is likely to get a taste for adventure, a taste for novelty, a taste for things that, discarded by one child, make a bright and shiny path into the future for another. A path that might be followed, if the distractions that surrounded me did not take me somewhere else, where velvet curtains and audiences of thousands might be obscured by other images, more quiet, maybe a little dusty, where gramma and grampa might be sitting in the front row still, clapping and nodding, smiling while I say “ta-da” and spin in my little girl tutu before sitting down at that upright piano to play my first song.


Butterfly hunter

In a small fishing village on the coast of Baja California, there lived a young man. The young man’s name was Gordon, and he was a musician. He played the piccolo, the piano and the flute. He also played the harmonium, pipe organ, and the xylophone. He was incomparable on the guitar, the violin, and the cello. In fact, every instrument he touched he played as if he’d known it all his life.


Gordon was a talented young man. Coincidentally, he was also the most beautiful person who ever lived, with curly chestnut hair, eyes of sea green and skin the color of honey. Although he was a brilliant musician, when he played, the young women of his village hardly heard him at all. They were too busy staring at his honey-gold skin and dreaming of wrapping his chestnut hair around their fingers.


Gordon never noticed them at all, so intent was he on making and playing music. Gordon wanted to write a symphony composed of every instrument ever played since the beginning of all time. He collected exotic instruments – the didgeridoo, the kazoo, the shakade, the lute – and learned each one of them just as quick as that.


One day in the marketplace, an old woman in a faded blue caftan with a shawl on her head told him of an instrument that he did not yet have.


“It makes a sound,” she said, “somewhere between a whistle and a hum. With it you can render the sound of bees buzzing, and horses’ hooves, a baby crying, a pounding surf, the laughter of children, and then again the bees buzzing.”


“What is the name of this instrument?” asked Gordon, in quite a tizzy.

“I can’t tell you that,” said the old woman, and she winked at him a little wickedly or maybe a little crazily, it was hard to tell which.


“I will only tell you where you may find it. The rest is up to you.”  She leaned over and whispered into his ear. “It is in Yakutz.”


Then she kissed him on his beautiful smooth lips, said “If only I was young . . .” and disappeared down an alley before he could say, “But where is Yakutz?”


Gordon decided then and there to go to Yakutz for this miraculous instrument that could the render the sound of bees buzzing, and horses’ hooves, a baby crying, a pounding surf, the laughter of children, and again the bees buzzing. He packed his bag (a striped Guatemalan bag that was deep and sturdy) and strapped it to his back.  As he left the town just at sunset, a wailing could be heard in the streets behind him as the women of the village realized that their handsome young man had left them without even as much as a glance from his gorgeous green eyes.


Young Gordon went to India and Peru and Paris and Beijing. He went to the Bahamas, Australia, the Yukon and the Sandwich Islands. Everywhere he went he asked “Where is Yakutz?” (which he could not find on any map anywhere). 


But everywhere he went the people he met were so stunned by his beauty that they would say anything to get him to stay with them. In Italy they called him “bellisimo.” In Guadalajara he was called “el guapo.”  In San Francisco they called him “honey,” and they called him all the time.


He worked his way around the world in a jiggery pattern (Gordon had a horrible sense of direction). Everywhere he stopped, he made his living playing exquisite music on exotic instruments. No one ever listened, though, because although he was a brilliant musician, his beauty eclipsed everything else. And everywhere he went, he asked every stranger about an instrument that could make the sound of bees buzzing, and then horses’ hooves, a baby crying, a pounding surf, the laughter of children, and then again the bees buzzing.


Gradually, Gordon became aware that he had a problem (he was beautiful and talented, but he was not quick). People were lying to him left and right, promising to take him to Yakutz (which more than once turned out to be a time share on one tropical beach or another) and then trying to seduce him instead. He became discouraged, and took himself to a small dude ranch in northern Utah, where he arranged to play the fiddle and teach clog dancing to pay for his room and board.


One evening he sat on a fencepost in an empty corral and played his fiddle with a sad heart. The corral was on a broad mesa with a view that went all the way to Wyoming (he assumed), and the moon was high and full. He heard coyotes howling not far away, and he thought they were crying with him. He wondered if the instrument he was seeking could make a sound like howling coyotes or belching frogs. He played even more sadly as he though of Yakutz.


Walking back along the moonlit trail to the dude ranch, young Gordon came upon an old woman walking slowly with a cane. She wore a babushka, and as he drew closer, Gordon saw that she was blind.


“You play the fiddle more brilliantly than anyone I’ve ever known,” said the old woman. “Except perhaps one, an old man I knew as a child who could play any musical instrument as if he’d done it all his life.”


Gordon thanked her, and they walked together in silence for a moment.


“You are a young man,” the old woman said at last. “What can possibly make you play so sadly?”


Gordon told her of his search for the one musical instrument he had yet to find, the one that could render the sound of bees buzzing, and horses’ hooves, a baby crying, a pounding surf, the laughter of children, and again the bees buzzing. He told her of his travels around the world, and of how sad he was that no one who saw his face would listen to him play or help him in his search.


The old woman listened without interrupting and then asked “Where did the old woman say you could find this wonderful instrument?”


Gordon told her, and the old woman said, in great excitement, “Why, I am from Yakutz! Let me take you there. What a fine time we will have!”


Gordon hesitated for a minute, thinking of past offers and hoping that the old woman’s Yakutz would not be another Club Med experience. Looking at her, though, he saw again that she was blind, and so they went to Yakutz together.


Yakutz is in Siberia, you know, and it is cold cold cold. The Yakuvitz keep warm with potatoes and vodka, with red-cheeked women and with music and dance.


How they danced in Yakutz! How they drank! Gordon was spun from dancer to dancer and his glass was filled again and again until he was as blind as the old woman, who sat in the corner with a potato in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other.


Late that night, Gordon lay on the floor with the room spinning wildly in a vodka dance around him. As the room settled and the Yakuvitz sank to the floor, where they slept, Gordon heard a sound. First he heard the sound of bees buzzing, and then horses’ hooves, a baby crying, a pounding surf, the laughter of children, and then at last again the bees buzzing, more faintly this time, as if they were buzzing away.


“What is that I hear?” said Gordon and he tried to get up on his knees, but he fell down again (because he was terribly drunk, to tell the truth).


“It is a Jew’s harp,” said a voice, and Gordon turned his head to see lying next to him a beautiful Russian girl, with red cheeks, flashing black eyes, big strong arms and the barest trace of a mustache on her upper lip. She smiled at him, and he stared back, entranced by the gap between her front teeth and the dimple on the left side of her face. She tried to sit up, but was just as drunk as he, and so they went to sleep, with their heads touching, on the floor underneath the table.


In the morning, the old woman introduced her granddaughter to Gordon, and was very pleased that they’d gotten to know each other on the floor underneath the table the night before. Her name was Valenka, and she hugged him with both her strong arms and gave him the Jew’s harp from a pocket under her apron.


Gordon put the Jew’s harp in his mouth and played. The cold morning air was filled with the sound of bees buzzing and horses’ hooves, and Gordon took the harp from his mouth and smiled bigger than he’d ever smiled before. Valenka smiled back, and Gordon realized that she was smiling at him and his Jew’s harp and his music, not at his most beautiful face, and he felt himself blush all the way to his toes.


That evening at sunset they were married. They played many an exotic instrument at the wedding feast and danced ’til the sun came up the next day. Afterwards they left Yakutz and traveled to Kyoto, where they’d heard a Zen master made a Jew’s harp of bamboo, and that with it one could make a sound like the beating of hummingbird wings. They didn’t know the name of the Zen master, but they were sure they could find him, if only they looked long enough.



©1995 Teresa Phillips. May not be used without permission.

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