Fantasy Love

Nine Fingers on the Flute

By James Van Pelt
Nov 24, 2018 · 4,413 words · 17 minutes

From the author: People have told numerous stories about love spells, but I don't think they have considered the implications of them. If you could make someone love you, would you want to? JVP

What decided it for me was the expression on the painted woman’s face.

That afternoon as I walked with Kursh through the marketplace I had thought, this is a narrow city, a narrow, cold city carved out of stone and sitting in stone–-a place where the only magic to be had costs too much–-a city where no knows me or can touch me.  Named after a woman, this ancient city is a deep, unknowable place, built in a canyon, filling it half up to the high edges; reaching dozens, maybe hundred of levels down.  Who knows?  Even in the crowded marketplace though, on the city’s roof, open to the sun and wind, I was alone and hurt and sad.  I thought, they all have something to sell, and the one that matters won’t take what I have to give.  Twenty summers have passed, and manhood is upon me, for what use?

“Now there’s one who’s worth a finger.”  Kursh clapped me on the shoulder.  “Hell, she’s worth a hand at least,” he joked.

The girl he talked about balanced a basket of fruit on her hip, which rolled pleasantly as she walked ahead of us on the crowded market street.

“Yes sir, a man could do well by that one I expect.”  His humor–-his stone-cursed, never dying humor–-clashed with my dark mood.

“She is too skinny,” I snapped.

“Bah!  Skinny ones are best.  They don’t cost a lot to feed, and they’re all muscle.”

I could smell fresh ox cooking from a tent to our left.  Ahead, a deeply wrinkled old clothier hawked his samples to the passerby.  Kursh said, “There’s another.  Look at the legs on that one!”

“Short and fat.  You are going blind.”

He strode beside me nonplussed, scanning the crowd.  A bit of unidentifiable food clung to his dark scraggly beard.  His leather jerkin was sweat stained, and his pants torn.

“Picky, picky, picky.  They’re all the same.  Just step up and take one.”

I glimpsed a bright flash of a smile and heard a lilting laugh under the canopy beside us, and I started in, but it wasn’t her so I mumbled an apology and backed out.

Although the sun was brilliant in the clear sky, I found no joy in it.  A pot merchant offered me a cracked vase, and beside him, his son or servant stared blank eyed into the throng.  A dog with a broken hind leg, poorly splinted, whimpered under a meat table, his eyes filled with fear and hunger.

“You’re are not making yourself well.  Pick another and be done with it.”  Kursh palmed an apple out of a bin and bit into it.  “Your business is slipping away.  Customers do not want to deal with a surly blacksmith.”

I stared at my hands.  Carbon blackened the creases and calluses shaped the palms.  I clenched them into fists.

“These look good and strong don’t they?  You’d think I could make my life work.”

He pit a seed and it stuck to the back of a soldier in front of us.  The soldier didn’t notice.  “You are so dramatic.  A little trouble and you collapse like an empty sack.  Look around you.  Do you think there is only one woman in the world?  Do you think no one else has felt like you?”

In the gap between two tents, a juggler tossed a series of rounded stones in the air.  His female assistant, maybe his wife, lobbed object after object into the whirling group.  I tried to see if there was happiness in his eyes, but I only saw his concentration.  Sweat smeared his makeup into long streaks.  Catch and throw; catch and throw.  The stones blurred into a solid ring of rock.  Even moving as fast as it was, the misshapened left hand marked him: it only had four fingers.  The woman reached into the spinning ring and plucked out a stone.  One by one she removed them until the juggler tossed a lone object up and down.  Kursh flipped a coin into her bowl.

We turned left up the long set of cobblestone stairs that served as a sidewalk on this steep side street.

“Don’t walk this way.”

“I want to see her house.”

“Why bother?”

I had no answer for that.

The upper canyon edge glinted in the sun as we ascended.  I looked to our right at the marketplace spread beneath us where hundreds of tents and temporary pavilions lumped and swooped from one side of the trade grounds to the other.  Masses of people flowed between the rows of displays, but from this height they seemed less like men and women and more like toys moving in miniature parody of real life.  From this distance, their voices, laughing, yelling, bargaining, were tinny and false.

The shadow line from the west wall cut the middle, leaving half of the tents in darkness.  The contrast of rainbow colors in the sun and the tents turned grey in the shade seemed particularly intense.

I thought, I must see her today.  That is all that matters.

“Maybe your problem is books.  I never held to a working man reading books.”

“They relax me.”

He “humphed” in the back of his throat.  “Drink.  I think in the end it would give you more happiness than poetry.”

The staircase ended on Edgeway Straight, the longest continuous road in Shuleleigh, which the plain’s peasants call “King’s Town,” or just “The Town,” but I have always thought of it as Shuleleigh, after the old queen who founded her.  The city is a woman, and her spirit deserves the respect of her old name.

The straight was as wide as six carts, and on her east side were the most prestigious homes.  The wall soared two-hundred feet above us, and the apartment windows set into the raw stone reflected the late afternoon light onto the road.  To the west, of course, was the drop to the marketplace.  The wall on the other side was also filled with apartments although the tenants there were of the middle class.  The homes above us were often referred to as Edgeway Heights, and the people below, where I lived, jokingly called their homes Edgeway Depths.

Because of their outside, western exposure, the apartments of Edgeway Heights were much envied, and practically impossible to buy, being handed down from father to favorite child rather than sold.

She lived here.

I stared up at her balcony, but no one stood there.  Although I had come to this spot many times, I hand only seen her here once, yesterday, at sun set, leaning out, perhaps to catch the evening breeze, black hair tumbled in the air, face ablaze in the dying light, gazing into the distance.  At what I do not know.  There must have been music playing, because she moved slightly at the rail, swayed rhythmically, her head tilting slightly this way then that, her shoulders rolling subtly with the motion.  I saw her shape moving beneath her blouse, tightening the fabric here and loosening it there.  A long moment I watched; she looked out on the city beyond me, and finally she glanced down.  For an instant I saw . . . a flicker of recognition . . . a moment of contact, and I thought she smiled–no, not a smile, but a tightening of her cheeks on the verge of a smile, and she lifted her hand from the rail as if to wave; then, she turned away and glided through the door.

Kursh said, “Does she even know your name?”

I backed to the knee-high barrier that marked the side of the road, but sun mirrored the glass in her windows, hiding everything within.

“You think I’m a fool, don’t you?”

He sat beside me, careful to test the stone seat first.  More than one careless citizen had fallen from roadside after trusting solid appearing walls.  “No,” he sighed.  “No more a fool than anyone else, I suppose.  I’ve heard everyone meets their heart-trap some time.”  Our shadows stretched nearly across the road; sun warmed my shoulders.  “But,” he continued, “they’ve the wit to shake it out of their heads and go on with their lives.”

“You don’t know,” I said.  “You weren’t there when she came in.  I . . .”

“Don’t tell me again,” he said, not unkindly.  “Her eyes.  Her laugh.  The smell of her.  The touch of her hand when she paid for the latch.  The ‘lingering look.’  I’ve heard it before.  You’re a one note trumpet.”

“I haven’t slept for a month."

“Pity the waste,” he said.  “Night after night in bed, awake and alone.”

Market sounds drifted up to us: a clatter of pans, a shouted exchange, a steady drum beat from a dancer’s tent.

Kursh said, “Lovely daughters of the Heights buy from blacksmiths all the time–that’s where the money is–but they don’t fall in love with them.”

“I’ve saved,” I said.  “I can pay the price.”

“Bah!  You’re sick, man.  That’s fool’s talk.”  He grabbed my arm and dragged me from the straight, away from her unreachable balcony, to the market level, and then down one of the many stairwell entrances into the city.  Here, on the western side, the hallway stones glowed light green, a magical effect the city collected taxes for; on the east the light was more orange.  Up canyon or down, high in the city or deep, the tone and color changed so that one could tell where one was.

I knew the course.  “Not tonight.  I’ve work to do,” I said, but Kursh pulled me on, down one sloping street to another, until the ceiling stone pressed nearly to his head and we’d come to the artisan’s quarter, a hopelessly confusing maze of alleys, tunnels, stairways, apartments and shops where no one ventured except the residents and a few brave outsiders who were lucky to walk out with their purses, assuming they found their way out at all.

“You’ve no work more important than a beer with me,” he said, as he ducked through a wide doorway into The Nine-Fingered Flute, and into the raucous sound of Shuleleigh’s most infamous tavern.

Which is where I made up my mind.

On the wall of The Flute, above the long bar, lays the mural that gave the bar its name.  On her side in long grass, twice as big as life, head cocked, a naked woman looks yearningly into the forest.  He skin glows with muted lights and darks, and the artist incorporated the natural swells and crevices in the rock to form her, to paint her.  I’ve seen men and women at the bar for many long minutes staring at her, lost in whatever thoughts she provoked, but I’ve always found myself drawn to her face, the way her eyes look into the forest, the way the corners of her mouth turn down on the verge of some emotion I can’t name.  Back in the woods, almost lost in shadows, a small figure of a half man, half goat plays a flute.  She looks toward him, this mythological figure dancing in the wood, playing a song stopped forever in the moment of the painting.  He’s captured her with his song, and his hands, clearly, are one finger short.  The goat man plays his melody for her, and her undefinable expression shows she is lost to the flute player who’s lost a finger, who’s paid the love price for her attention.

Kursh tried.  He bought beer.  He made me sing with him, and he roused the others in the bar to verse.  Stories he told.  He danced on tables, but it did no good.  The woman on the wall still longed for the nine-fingered lover, the cloven-footed man in the shadows.  If only I could name the emotion on her face, I thought, I would solve the puzzle the artist painted on the wall.  I’d solve myself.

Near the end, after a couple of hours and sensing his defeat, he said, “No one who visits there comes back the same.”  His beer sloshed out of the mug.

“You know,” I said, “that I’m going.”  The musicians started putting away their instruments.  A fresh band warmed up behind them.  In Shuleleigh, no one cares what time it is.  In the depths, sunlight never reaches.  The Nine-Fingered Flute doesn’t close its doors.

Kursh placed his hand on my wrist, trapping it to the table.  “I once thought I’d do it myself, son.”  His glance dropped to the darkness of the beer.  He swirled the liquid around.  “I almost went down there myself, and I can tell you this, if you come back up those stairs, gold-free and bleeding, ask yourself what I did; ask yourself what you have gained.”

On stage the new band ceased twittering their instruments.  Conversation fell.  For a moment, silence reigned; only Kursh’s question hung on the air.  His fingers squeezed my wrist.  Again I sought the woman on the wall, her face tilting toward the goat man.  The answer seemed obvious; anyone who looked at the painting could tell.

“Why, I will have gained everything.”  I pulled my arm away.

I placed money for the drink on the table.  Kursh didn’t raise his eyes from his beer when I stood.  “I’ll tell you about it when I return.”

So I left the Nine-Fingered Flute and headed deeper into Shuleleigh, down the stone corridors, deeper and deeper, closer to the root rock that is the canyon floor.

Led by the queen several thousand years ago, the first men fled to the canyon, seeking protection from the dangers on the plains.  She directed the building of the first wall that protected all within.  Gradually the canyon bottom filled, and there was no place to go but up.  They quarried stone from the wall, making rooms and building rooms.  Magic held the structures in place, and the city grew high between the cliffs.  Shuleleigh became an underground city.

Down here, in the primitive bowels of the city, the oldest, smallest houses stand, and here people begin to change.  Generation after generation were born, grew old and died without ever seeing the sun.  Wall light cast most weakly here as I walked steadily down.  I passed beyond my farthest exploration.  My knees throbbed with the constant downward pounding, and I began to worry about climbing back up.  The nature of the stone changed to something darker and denser.  Here, the air felt different on my skin, heavier and still, and it smelled strangely more animal, like an old kennel or stable.

A child crossed my path; pale skinned, bulbous eyed, she skittered away.  With her huge eyes she looked back at me from a doorway, and I hurried from her.  I didn’t feel comfortable until I’d rounded a few corners and was far away from her inhuman gaze.  Soon, though, I approached two men sitting against a wall like shadows, their white and wispy hair falling across their wide eyes.  I slowed as I approached and crossed to the other side of the tunnel from them.  One stood as I passed, and a few streets deeper down, I saw that he was following me.

Directions to the finger-wizard’s shops are well known in the city.  “Go to the bottom,” they all say, either as a joke or a curse.  But no one talks about what they find there.  It is an ill choice to speak of the works of wizards.

Stairs led me deeper.  The walls showed no evidence of brick work, and the ruts marked the stone floor showing the passage of millions of feet.  I knew I’d passed below the city into the catacombs, the excavations below canyon floor level.  A slimy seep coated the wall that were within reach on either side.  Round, glassless windows opened into black rooms where an occasional whisper of cloth on cloth or a hiss of breath showed that people lived within them, silenced by my passing.  Still the tunnel dropped.  I twirled.  The man behind me stopped but didn’t turn away.

I ran, my feet slapping against the wet stone.  Blindly I took turns, always down, and when my lungs could take no more, I ducked into a niche in a wall and waited.  Water soaked through the back of my shirt, and my hands slipped on the slimy coating, but I breathed quietly through my open mouth and waited.

Like a crescendoing heart, his steps came close.  He’d slowed; no doubt confused about where I’d gone.  His breathing was liquid, as if he sucked his air through damp cloth, and I imagined his huge eyes casting left and right, seeking me out.  My teeth chattered, and I bit the inside of my mouth to still them.  At this depth, I could barely see.  When he finally walked in front of me, it was more as if the wall were eclipsed than I saw him, but I jumped and had him by the throat.

We fell to the floor.  In my hands, his throat felt as damp and cold as the stone around me.  He didn’t struggle, but only looked up at me, his eyes wide, like huge eggs, glowing with pale green light reflected from the walls, and the skin over his lips so thin that the shape of his teeth showed through them.

“Why are you following me?” I demanded.  A blacksmith’s hands are strong; I could have broken his neck with a twitch, but he didn’t move, only swallowed weakly.

A sucking sound came from behind me, and I shifted around so I could see.  A door had opened from the back of my niche.  A figure stood there.

“He is my servant,” the figure said.  Under my hands, the man swallowed again.  His pulse throbbed against my palm.  “Let him go.  You have come, no doubt, to see me.”

And so, I found the wizard’s shop.

When I went inside, he said, “You have the color of the sun on your skin.  You’re a long way from home.”

The walls glowed brighter here.  The wizard’s room surprised me with its size.  Oddments dangled from wooden frames, strange looking tools with shining barbs and brass bells, bits of feathers woven together into parchments, leather and wood plates twirling from strings.  Animal skulls covered the walls; everywhere else, piles of books teetered precariously.  The air smelled of poorly tanned hides and incense.

He wore a badly soiled robe that might have been white once, and his teeth were worn nearly to the nubs.  He continued, “A young man like yourself only comes for revenge or love.”  He studied me for a long time, and I realized he didn’t share his servant’s large-eyed look.  “My guess is that it’s love.”  Reaching into a heavy chest, he rummaged about for a few seconds, then emerged with a small book, an evil-looking candle and a hooked knife.  “You know the price, do you not?”

Looking at the knife, I clenched my fists to hide my fingers.  It was a natural reaction.  I knew the price.

“Yes,” I said.

He saw my gesture.  “Not just that, boy.  There’s money too.”

I put my purse on the table between us.  The gold within clinked heavily together.

He lifted it.  “Ahh,” he said, and let it drop.

“You have something of hers?”

I took the handkerchief I’d taken when she had turned her back for a moment from my belt pouch and draped it over the purse.

After clearing away the gold with business like efficiency, he placed the candle in the middle of the table on top the handkerchief.  Lighting it with one hand and holding the curved knife in the other, he said, “The spell is simple, a straightforward sacrifice for the boon.  Are you left handed or right?”

This was the moment I had come for, the one I wanted with all my being.  When I walked out of this shop, my love would love me, and all my pain would be gone.  I would never again toss sleepless in bed, aching for the sound of her voice, the touch of her lips on mine.  I would be complete.  Leaning forward, I placed my left hand on the table and painfully forced it open.

The wizard’s servant reached around me and held my arm steady, pressing my hand firmly against the table.

Wide-eyed, gasping, a thousand tingles racing up my arm, I tried to picture her as I’d first seen her, when I’d first fallen in love.  If I could keep her picture in my mind, then this little thing, the taking of a finger wouldn’t even hurt.  I’d make the sacrifice gladly and laugh at the inconvenience.

But nothing came.

I broke free of the servant’s grip and tucked my hands under my arms.  Now that I’d made it this far, I was having a hard time seeing my love’s face as she leaned out over her balcony, the afternoon sun resting there so warmly.

“Is this true love?” I said.  “Will she truly love me, or will it only appear to be love?”

The wizard sighed and put the knife down.

“What is the difference?  She will want you and only you.  She will give up all she has to be with you.  Her passion will rival the storied gods.  Who will care if it is real or not?”  He itched under his chin.  “And like any love, you will have given up something for her, but in this case it will be visible.”

At the back of his shop, hanging from a wire stretched from one side to the other, was what I had first thought to be decorative fringe, but now I suspected it to be desiccated fingers.  It was too dark to tell for sure.

“If you take my finger then, the spell will be complete, and she will love me forever?  Is that right?”

“Within certain limits.”

I swallowed dryly.  “Limits?”

“Other magic, of course.  Someone else might fall in love with her and make the same spell.  The fresher spell wins, naturally, and you will be out of luck and a finger short.”  He laughed to himself.  “Rivalries are good for business.  It happened once that two men came back nine times each for the same woman.”

Sickened, I said, “What became of them?”

“The first fellow gave up his arm, and the second one quit.  He said, and I always thought this was funny considering he had no fingers left at all, that love wasn’t worth it.”

The wizard tested the blade against his thumb, then rubbed the edge against a stone he took from a pouch.  “What really tickles me, though, is that none of you young men think of the woman.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“The woman might already love the man.  This has happened too: I’ve had a man pay for the love of a woman, and later the same day, the woman visited me or another wizard for the man.  Neither would have had to pay anything if they’d only thought to ask first.  But there are other variations too.  I’ve had old married men pay for their wives of thirty years because they were afraid that the wive’s head would be turned by a younger man, or the old wife will do the same thing fearing her husband has developed a wandering eye.  Oh, business can be good if you deal with the human heart.”

I heard what he had to say, but while he spoke, all I could think of was his first statement, that ‘none of you young men think of the woman.’  And, as he droned on about who had paid for what, I thought again of the mural in The Nine-Fingered Flute, of the naked woman with the indecipherable expression looking at the goat man.  I’d stared at her face for hour on hour, and the artist’s rendition of her emotion floated up before me in dreams.  What was she feeling, now that her flute player had cast his spell on her?  What happened in her head when she heard his playing now that the finger magic robbed her of any choice?

That word echoed in my brain: robbed.  Not until the wizard mentioned what the men think of the women had I even considered the woman’s place in this.

That is what it is, I thought.  The expression on her face is hidden mourning; on top is the love, and that is all the flute man sees, but underneath the passion and the longing, the artist painted her knowledge of loss.

“What of her free will?”  I said.

The wizard paused in his honing of the blade.

“You don’t know very much about love.”

I backed away from the table.  “I want my gold back.”

Sighing, he picked up my purse.  “There is a consulting fee.”

“Take it.”

He removed two coins and handed the rest back to me, but didn’t let go when I pulled on it.

“Think of this, boy.  Think of this.”  Flickering, the candle light danced off his face.  “You worry about her free will, that by casting a spell you are cheating her in some way.  It that it?”

I nodded numbly.

“As you climb back to the upper city, toward the markets and the sun folk, think of this: when you fell in love with her, where was your free will?”

He let go of the purse, and I almost fell.

The candle sputtered, nearly went out, but then flared up bright and strong.  In the back of the shop, I could see clearly now; they were fingers hanging from the wire, hundreds of them; and behind them hung another wire full, and another and another.

As I trudged up the tunnel, my hands whole but my heart heavy, he called from behind, “I’ll always be here, boy.  You won’t be the first to come back a second time.”

He was wrong, I thought.  He was wrong.  He didn’t see her standing on the balcony.  He didn’t catch that extra instant when our eyes met that afternoon.  Magic of all sort floats around us.

The climb was long, and I didn’t realize I’d risen out of the city until I was a hundred yards across the deserted marketplace, realized the walls no longer glowed beside me and saw a handful of stars twinkling through a rip in the clouds.

This story originally appeared in Adventures of Swords and Sorcery.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."

1 Comment
  • Val Lipow
    December 2, 8:06pm

    I remember reading this lovely story in the 1990s, and discussing it in Jim’s Grand Junction living room in our writing group, when his boys were so young and towheaded. What a treat to recognize this story after a few paragraphs!