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I live with my wife, Veleta, our three dogs, Lovecraft, Dickens, and
Lafferty, and our two cats, Plato, and Kafka, in Fairbanks Alaska. I've
been writing seriously now for a long while and I also work part time for an
agency that provides services to kids with emotional and behavior problems.
Writing has become the dominant force in my life and I recently realized
that I would rather be an unsuccessful writer than a successful anything
else. Fantasy of all kinds, as well as science fiction and horror have
always been a big part of my life. My writing groups, Critters,
Camprobbers, Fangs, and First Draft play a big part in my life. I'm a member
of SF&FWA, HWA, and also a graduate of Clarion West '95
Rhapsody in Wood
by Joe Murphy
Rhapsody moans with a hundred voices as Charles carves the date into her heel. Ten years, ten years to the day. The Santa Ana winds slip beneath her reed fingernails, whirling through the grooves in her joints. The hot wind, filled with the stink of L.A., penetrates pinprick irises and parted lips, becoming a moan that careens into a warble as air resonates through a hundred carefully sized internal chambers. Charles sets the thin-bladed knife with the ebony handle aside. He touches the lustrous cherry wood of her cheek.
"You will be the one, my love. You will make everything right." He stands and takes her hand; Rhapsody croons in random major chords, a Gershwin interpretation of Bartok. The satiny wood vibrates beneath his fingers. He limps as he lugs her to the oak leaf-scrolled railing at the porch's edge. Together they stare into the hazy night of L.A. spread like jewels upon a tarred and tarnished plain. Headlights flicker up through the jumping cholla and ragged stone outcroppings clinging to the cliff side beneath the porch. Far below, a jet black Land Rover® rumbles up the dirt road.
"Here she comes. You must be patient with her. She's never been quite the same...."
Rhapsody hoots at that. Charles smiles, stretching the scars that band his right cheek and jaw until they itch. He limps into the lightless house, threading the furniture maze. Outside a car door slams. Voices ride the wind as muted whispers. Charles hurries back to the porch; the creak and bump of his bare feet shiver through the parquetry floor.
"She's brought them again."
Rhapsody mutters when he takes her hands; a sheet for a shroud and his love falls silent. He lays her down and stumbles inside to his workshop, pulling back the veneer of a peephole in the wall. Lights flood the living room and he squints at the real Rhapsody moving stiffly to the couch.
"There." She taps her cane against the end table he finished only yesterday.
"Oh it's beautiful." The slender hand of Lisa, Rhapsody's sister, runs over the mahogany and pinyon inlaid squares of the table top.
"Five hundred dollars at the very least." Lisa's husband Mike blots out the peephole. Rattling tools accompany the clump of a metal box hitting the floor. Charles winces; lips draw back. Mike's bald spot and white suit shoulders appear as he gets down on hands and knees. "Christ, he's stripped the bolts again."
"Can you remove them without damaging the table?" Rhapsody asks.
"Yeah, have to use a hacksaw."
"Do it." Rhapsody scowls, gripping her cane.
All he can see of Mike now is the flash of his jacket. Tools clatter; a saw slowly wheezes into the bolts holding Charles's table to the floor.
"More like fifteen hundred." Lisa's folded arms cover a tan stomach, obscuring the room as she moves past. "Maybe two grand over on Rodeo Drive."
Rhapsody sits down on the long black couch, her favorite spot, ramrod straight, hands on the hilt of her cane. Charles studies her faded blue eyes.
"Then take it there," Rhapsody says, straight at the peephole. "Get all you can for it."
"Is he watching us, do you think?" Lisa perches on the edge of the couch beside her and shivers in her crimson halter top and shorts.
"Of course." Rhapsody lifts her cane, then slams the metal tip crunching into the floor. Charles howls through clenched teeth, seven layers of varnish pierced; the carefully inlaid squares of oak and cedar are scratched, torn ragged as the cane cuts deep. He slams the peephole closed and buries his face in his arms with the muffled laughter from the next room.
After a while he feels the two outsiders leave. Charles gets up and wipes at his eyes. His face seems numb, the texture of half-hardened wood putty beneath his fingers, gritty with salt and sawdust.
The kitchen gleams with a thousand planes of well-oiled veneer. He places Rhapsody's supper, a T-bone steak and baked potato, on a tray of walnut.
"It's about time." Statue stiff, she hasn't moved from the couch. Charles gently sets the tray on her lap. Long, cool fingers, the nails blood red and perfect in symmetry, stroke his face. Her touch guides him down, his bad leg folded awkwardly as he sits at her feet. Rhapsody's hand flutters like a maimed lizard when it searches for the fork.
Charles studies the pockmarks her cane left in the floor. The wind picks up outside and the house shivers. He removes Rhapsody's high heels and sets them to one side. "I really liked that table."
"I know you did, love." Rhapsody swallows a bite of steak.
"Must have been a rough day for you."
"They're all rough days. Not everyone can stay home and hide."
He won't talk about his face. "They'll sell it to the same place that bought the dresser and bed frame?"
"I don't know." Rhapsody's thin jaw tightens as she chews. Charles reaches up and pushes a long blond strand of hair away from her mouth.
"I used the last of my mahogany on it."
"I suppose you want some more."
"Call in the order tomorrow. No more than five hundred dollars worth. I'll have Mike pick it up."
"He'll come out here again." Charles's hand tightens on her calf. Rhapsody drops her fork. When his grip eases she begins to eat once more.
"These trays will have to go." Rhapsody reaches down and takes his hand, moving it to the seamless walnut. "Have them all on the couch when we get here."
"It took a month to make that set."
"Do you want the mahogany or not?"
Charles looks down at the gashes in the ruined floor. The house jumps as the wind slams into it. Rhapsody flinches, then takes another bite of steak.
A low moan drifts in from the porch and Rhapsody stops in mid chew. Her head cocks as the sound slips away. "What is that?"
"Nothing." Charles shifts onto his good leg and glances towards the doorway. A sheet crawls across the floor like an albino octopus, pushed by the Santa Ana currents. The moan wanders in, louder, accompanied by a high trilling cry.
"It makes me ache inside when you lie." Rhapsody pushes the tray at his face. His hands take it, start to put it on the end table that is no more, then place it on the couch beside her. "Take me outside," Rhapsody demands.
Silently Charles stands. Her hand fumbles up his side, feeling a path through the scars beneath his worn work shirt, and she climbs to her feet. Her eyes flash by him, gazing as always towards the sky.
Sage and wild flowers mix with the carbon monoxide bringing a trace of freshness to the night as he guides her onto the porch. Rhapsody the doll twitters beneath the swing.
"Stand here," he tells Rhapsody the wife, and places her hand on the porch rail. Charles limps over and slowly lifts his creation. Life size, limbs cool and graceful, hair carefully carved and etched until you could see each individual strand--if you could see.
He halts abruptly, staring as his wife toys with the ebony-handled knife; he'd left it on the railing. An index finger tests the blade; a drop of blood appears but the aloof distance in her gaze does not change.
"I made this for us." He places the new Rhapsody in front of her, guiding a wooden hand to the railing.
Rhapsody the living fumbles, gasping slightly as fingertips touch fingertips. The wind moves through Rhapsody the lifeless, humming faintly, singing a wordless song and the living one shakes her head.
"How did...how did you make it sound so beautiful?" she asks.
"I tried to give her your voice." He almost shrugs away the pride yet can't quite manage it. "But it's something more...." The wind sings its way over the San Gabriels and into the doll; a hundred voices merge into a wordless chord, like liquid velvet spread upon their ears.
Rhapsody of flesh moves her hands up, stroking the high cheekbones, the slightly upturned nose and then higher. "You gave her eyes? Why did you have to ruin it?"
"They're beautiful eyes." His hand closes upon a wooden wrist.
"They should be empty holes, just big ragged gashes of useless nothing." Harshness darkens her voice. Rhapsody the doll sighs into silence as a sudden stillness descends upon the house he'd built.
"I couldn't do that." His eyes burn; he wants to jerk the wooden arm from her grasp but doesn't. He knows what she will say and waits, but she surprises him.
"Take us over to the swing."
He finds her cool, graceful elbow and obeys. Rhapsody the wife fumbles with the swing chain and then cautiously settles into place. Charles limps over and struggles with the doll. She chirps contentedly as he settles her beside his wife. He takes a warm wooden wrist and carefully wraps each finger around the opposite chain. The other hand rests upon his wife's knee. Twins, tall and slender, hair straight as a board hangs to just below perfect breasts.
"Leave us now," Rhapsody the living demands and her wooden sister hums agreement.
"Please, can't I stay with you a little while?"
"No. Go inside. You've work to do."
"Yes, my love." Charles allows his shoulders to slump. He limps inside knowing her ears follow him. He picks up the tray with her half eaten steak and returns to the kitchen. Above the shushing gurgle of hot water he listens intently as Rhapsody the instrument flutes a wordless melody. As the yellowed dish detergent slides through his fingers he smiles.
Rhapsody the living adds her voice to the doll's song, crooning softly in the deepening night. Mellifluous in their harmony, glowing with a bright smoothness, and touched with just the faintest hint of joy, their song curls through the house. The first time she's sung in ten years. Charles grins, nodding to himself, and begins his nightly chores.
"Take me out to her. I want to sit on the porch," Rhapsody tells him the next night.
"Don't you want supper first?" he asks, a pine tray with its iroko plate full of spaghetti already in his hands.
"Not right now."
Charles sets the tray on the kitchen counter. Limping into the living room, he glances with some satisfaction at the floor he's repaired. The newly refashioned squares feel smooth beneath his toes, the varnish already dry and sanded. He'd even used tweezers to correctly set the splinters.
Rhapsody stands and takes his elbow. Rhapsody of wood hums, welcoming them to the evening darkness. The Santa Ana winds seem less angry, blowing smooth and clean without the city's stench.
"I want to warn you about the porch railing," he tells his wife. "I wasn't happy with the scroll work, and since your brother-in-law hasn't delivered my mahogany yet, I've taken it down."
"You put something in its place?" Rhapsody's voice twists up a half octave and her counterpart twitters nervously.
"Of course, dear. Two inch thick rope; it's securely anchored and quite safe. I just didn't want to surprise you." Charles gazes beyond the rope; cloud shadows swirl over the prickly pear and jumping cholla that cling to the steep ledge, fading to jumbled blurs as the moon vanishes.
"You have chores to do then." Rhapsody sinks carefully into the porch swing and takes a wooden hand. The doll flutes contentedly and the swing creaks.
"I'll be in my workshop."
"Have you begun a new project yet?"
"No, just the railing...and I'm waiting for the mahogany."
"Mike didn't have time today. Lisa told me when she dropped me off. He'll bring it tomorrow." The breeze tugs at his hair and Rhapsody the wooden laughs.
In the evening the wind always rises. Charles sits down at his work table and gazes fondly at the chisels, planes, and carving knives. One knife is missing; he will not ask her for it.
Rhapsody sings and the doll adds her hundred voices. Charles closes his eyes, listening, a flat edged chisel cold in his fingers. Their song flows through the house like ethereal honey, sweet beyond reason, golden beyond price.
He should get back to the railing. For the last ten years he's always had a project. First came the house, largest of all, then the tables and chairs, the porch that leaps out over the high nothing, trays, lamps, dishes, figurines, each pointing the way towards Perfection, culminating in his Rhapsody in Wood.
The song strokes his ears and he shivers with delight. He can't work right now; he only works when he's sad. He walks through the house silently, knowing every floor board, every joint, where each creak lies until he can look out at them through a peephole in the kitchen.
Rhapsody the living stands by the swing, her twin in her arms as if dancing. Rhapsody bends a wooden wrist, pointing the reed fingernails into the breeze and the doll moans. Rhapsody turns the carefully fashioned neck joints; full wooden lips sigh with satisfaction as the head rests upon her shoulder.
Swaying in the breeze, turning languid circles in the hot night air, the Rhapsodys hold each other, and merge more than voices. A cold glimmer from the full moon trickles down his wife's cheek as her head tilts back and her throat opens, guiding the song into a superb crescendo.
The wind dies at midnight; crickets and cicadas take over the song. Rhapsody the living gently returns her twin to the porch swing, laying her down upon it, tucking her in with the sheet. Charles closes the peephole as his wife comes inside, the floor boards announcing each step. He hears the faint click of plastic on plastic as she picks up the phone, and the swift, familiar touch tone fanfare.
"No, nothing's wrong. Well, yes, I've been crying. Don't worry about it, all right?"
"Listen, have Mike bring the mahogany tomorrow. I've got something that'll bring a fortune. You won't believe what he's made this time. It's...it's incredible. No, I don't want to sell it. But I will. You know why so just drop it. Have everything ready when you guys bring me home tomorrow. Yeah, you too. Bye."
Charles stops breathing, motionless, snared in the shadows, silent as his wife chokes back a sob and finds her way to the bedroom. The plumbing growls when she flushes the toilet; the floor groans when she falls into bed. His feet move like sidewinders over sand, soundless as he returns to his workshop. He clears the worktable, carefully returning each tool to its proper place--all but a small carving knife.
Ash will do this time, he decides, placing two small blocks in front of him. He thinks of Rhapsody, both of them, and begins to work.
Charles clamps his hand over Rhapsody's mouth and nose, forcing her silence. She huddles in his lap, swaddled in her sheet as headlights glare through the cactus and Joshua trees, making shadow monsters on the steep arroyo wall.
His lips brush her cheek; the taste of wood fills his mouth as he cups an unyielding breast. A sudden gust of wind flicks around them and Rhapsody chitters her disgust. His hand jerks away as if cut.
Finally the car rumbles into the distance, buried in the Santa Ana wind. Breaking glass forms a melody as Rhapsody the Vengeful's silhouette fills each window. Charles buries his face in a wooden shoulder and moans. A hammer echoes a percussive reply and he clings to his creation until his pulse throbs in sullen counterpoint to the blows.
How could she hurt him like that? His eyes jam shut, thumbs abruptly reaching up, pressing into the wood, gouging harder. A thin splintering crunch, shards bite into his flesh.
The hammering pounds into a reverberating crescendo and he can stand it no longer. His eyes flutter and he gazes into twin jagged shadows set high in the moon-polished face. Charles rises from his hiding place, the sand still warm beneath his feet. With Rhapsody thrown over a shoulder he returns to the house.
The living room floor is cratered like the surface of the moon, each jagged gash shaped like the head of his ball-peen hammer. The kitchen veneer lies shattered at his feet. Splinters dig into the soft places between his toes as he creeps out to the porch.
Rhapsody stands there, breathing heavily, the rope rail gripped in both hands and the hammer on the floor. "Where is she?"
Charles limps past and fumbles the doll onto the porch swing. He pulls the sheet away and she shrieks her freedom.
"You would have sold her." His voice is low, rough. "You would have sold yourself."
"Bring her to me."
"Bring her to me or I'll sell this god damn house right out from under you."
"Where would you live?"
"What do you care?"
"I built it all. Everything for you."
"Liar! Now bring me the doll." The wind roars with her words, pushing at him, flicking up through his scars and pulling his hair. Rhapsody the wooden squeals high and thin with wanting. Only when he lifts her arms, raising them as if they reached for his wife, does she cease.
He can't withstand the two of them. The house quivers as he picks the doll up, straightening each exquisite joint so it will stand alone, then he drags her carefully across the porch. She leans out over the edge, held only by the rope, and moans with happiness as his wife touches her arm.
The wind drops away, filling the house with silence. Rhapsody's arms reach around her counterpart, caressing, moving as if they could straighten and soothe each carefully carved hair. His wife's shoulders shudder, the slightest of sniffles the only prelude to a wailing sob. How she cries, the wind returns and the two weep together, voices melding into one as they search for a final release.
Before the last note drifts away, the living Rhapsody's fingers find the doll's empty eye sockets. With a wordless cry, she picks up her twin and hurls her over the porch. Rhapsody the wounded tumbles end over end as Charles bolts to the edge, the rope creasing into his gut. She shrieks a dissonant agony, banging, splintering, pallid limbs clinging to the outcroppings or scattered among the cactus. Only the head reaches the road below.
She must be looking up at them, he thinks, and a ghost of many voices cries forlornly, abandoned to the hot night air.
"We're even now." His wife's voice seems so flat, void of any texture.
"I don't know what that means anymore." Charles stares at her shadowed profile.
"I won't sell anything else. Whatever you make will remain here...with us." Rhapsody's head bows.
"What about the money?" He clings to the rope to keep from falling.
"Oh, Charles, we never needed it. I make more than enough now."
He'd known that for a long time, years in fact. He doesn't tell her. "Will we ever talk about it?"
"You killed us both that night. If we hadn't gone to the workshop I would have sung to you and made love."
"Why did you have to smoke around the paint thinner?"
"It doesn't matter anymore. We're even now, but that doesn't mean I forgive you."
"Will you sing for me again?"
"No, never." Rhapsody turns away from him and feels her way into the house.
Charles looks down at the pale blotch centered in the dark road below. He reaches into the pocket of his jeans and takes out the two immaculate eyeballs he'd carved last night. He drops each in turn, listening as the wood rattles over the loose stones.
Rhapsody the shattered whispers softly below, murmuring of guilt and time. Charles starts into the house but pain slices into his heel. Bending down he finds his carving knife. Blood glimmers on the blade, etching the steel in black. Sharpened to the point of obsession, it cuts the rope cleanly and there is nothing to keep either of them from the edge.
"I've got a lot to do," he whispers to the head in the road. So much has been destroyed though, jagged shards in the shadows around them. It's hard to know where to start--until a voice drifts up from below. The ebony-handled blade firm in his hands, slick with blood and sweat, he follows his wife into the darkness.
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