Everyday for the past year, Free has been haunting me.
I’ve seen him standing in a corner of my bedroom, his shirt all bloody red, his lips stretched wide in a grotesque grin. Sometimes it’s like he’s about to tell me a secret.
I told my best friend about my dreams of Free, and how I’m sure there’s more to his death than the common act of violence.
My friend told Free’s friends, and they cornered me one day.
“Were you his lover?” they asked me.
I shook my head and tried to look indignant. I admired Free, but the attraction between us had been more of the musical rather than the carnal kind.
“So, why all this talk about Free?” they asked. “What was Free to you?”
“He was kind to me,” I replied. “If not for Free, I wouldn’t even have dreamed of playing outside my own genre.”
“I bet you had the hots for him,” Skylar said. “I saw you following him around, saw you making puppy eyes when you thought no one could see. Not that Free would ever go out with someone like you.”
Skylar had tried to take Free’s place as M-U’s lead. He wore his hair loose, kept a four-o-clock shadow, and dressed hippie, but no matter how he tried, he just couldn’t make the strings cry, the way Free did.
I stared at Skylar and thought of how M-U had sunk low on the charts since Free’s death.
“You’re jealous of a dead man,” I said. “Without Free, M-U is nothing.”
“Free’s gone,” Skylar retorted. “You shut up about Free, or else. . .”
He made a mean face, but I knew he didn’t have the muscle to back up the unspoken threat.
Elizabeth was Free’s girlfriend. On the night Free died, she was waiting for him with her bags all packed and ready. Her father was at a Lion’s Club meeting and her mother had gone off to play Mahjong with her friends. They wouldn’t be home till way after midnight, giving Elizabeth and Free enough time to carry out their plans.
Free had told me how Elizabeth’s parents didn’t approve of their only child going out with a musician, and they were planning on sending Elizabeth away to some finishing school in Switzerland. Free and Elizabeth had something else in mind.
“I’ve got a friend in Vegas,” Free said. “He’ll put us up until I can find a gig and we get a place of our own.”
“But what about the band?” I asked.
“They’ll understand,” Free said.
Nothing I said could make him change his mind.
They were heading for L.A., after which they’d go on to Vegas. By the time Elizabeth’s parents came home, they’d be halfway to becoming man and wife.
I’d gone over to see Free for one last time. I wanted to try and change his mind, when Elizabeth called him on his cell.
Free said, “I’m coming, Elizabeth. I’ll be a bit late because the car broke down. ”
“Take a taxi,” Elizabeth begged.
“I’ll see if I can get one,” Free said. “Don’t worry, Beth. I’ll be there on time.”
It was dark on Magsaysay Avenue, and the street leading to Elizabeth’s house was lined with banyan trees.
Elizabeth looked out the window but all she saw was an old man collecting leftover bones for his cats.
She dialled Free’s number, but the machine simply told her the subscriber was out of range and she could leave a message if she wanted to.
I met Free when I was a first year student. Free was in third year, and already he was one of the superstars of our small conservatory. M-U was gaining in popularity, and the local radio stations had picked up a couple of their songs.
Our class was putting together a show, and I’d been elected to play bass for our elective band. I’d never played rock before, let alone held a bass guitar. Our teacher insisted it was important to learn to appreciate other instruments and other genres. If I wanted to pass her class, I would have to learn how to play bass or get a big fat F. I was struggling with synchopations when Free came strolling into the practice room. He laughed, shook his head, and volunteered to help coach me.
I remember sitting there, my fingers useless on the bass strings, wondering if my face had turned red like a tomato.
“You can count, can’t you?” Free said.
“It’s just a question of keeping rhythm,” he said.
His fingers moved through the changes, and he plucked out the rhythm, strong and sure. I could feel the bass resonate all the way through to my chestbone, it made me want to cry and sing at the same time.
“It’s all you’ve got to do,” he said. “Give yourself over to the rhythm and it’ll take you where your fingers are meant to go.”
Next time I saw Free, he was in the crowd, and I was on the podium. He shook his head and laughed when the band made me play the bass solo. It went down simple and smooth. I counted inside my head and tried to make like a rock star.
Our teacher gave us a B+.
“Not bad,” Free said afterwards. “You need to loosen up a bit. Give it time, we’ll make a rocker out of you yet.”
The day after Free died, Carla phoned me.
“Elizabeth found him,” Carla said. “They were planning to elope. She had her bags all packed and ready, and when he didn’t show up by midnight, she knew something was very wrong.”
She was all confused so I made her repeat it twice.
“Slowly,” I said.
“Free’s dead,” Carla said. “Someone attacked him on the road to Elizabeth’s house. He was just a few meters away from where she was waiting. His body was mangled and torn to pieces, and whoever killed him took his heart.”
I thought of Free smiling at me, shaking his head, and telling me I could be a rocker.
“Who did it?” I asked. “Did they catch the one who did it?”
“No,” Carla said. “There was this old man who said he saw a woman with wings like a bat.”
“That’s nonsense,” I said. “Perhaps the old man was drunk. ”
“But what if the legends are true?” Carla asked. “What if winged women who eat hearts really do exist?”
I snorted my indignation at her statement.
“There is a reason why we call them creatures of legend, Carla. They are not real.”
“Poor Elizabeth,” she said. “She lost the baby.”
“It’s so tragic,” Carla went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “Elizabeth hasn’t stopped crying since Free’s murder.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I thought I’d tell you,” Carla said. “You never said it, but I know you loved Free.”
After Carla put down the phone, I sat for a long time. Inside my head Free was still playing that bass, and I could see the intense light on his face as he cradled the guitar against his body.
I thought of Elizabeth and of the baby, and wondered if Free met his baby’s soul halfway on the trip to heaven. At least the baby would have his daddy to protect him.
Just like that, I remembered that I’d forgotten to ask Carla whether the baby was a boy or a girl.
When she still lived with us, my grandmother used to tell me stories about the full moon festival.
“The villagers would take the sacrifice into the fields,” she said. “They’d flay him or her first, so we could smell the blood from a distance. How we feasted in those days. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh heart.”
I remember the shine in grandmother’s eyes, the way she smacked her lips, before she sent me down to rummage in the freezer.
“I hope your father bought some pig heart,” she’d say. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but it’s close.”
She grumbled about the way times had changed and moaned that father was turning into one of the herd.
One morning, I woke up and she wasn’t in her bedroom. When I asked father about her, his face turned grim and he told me to go do my homework.
I’d like to find my grandmother. I wonder what she’d say about Free’s death and the fact that he’s haunting me.
I’ll never know how father found out. But one month after Free’s death, he took me to the secret room.
“You don’t understand,” I said to him. “It was all about the music.”
“You can’t do what you did and get away with it,” Father says. “It’s this or punishment at the hands of the clan.”
His smile is sad. He’s been like that since the day Free died.
I’m thinking of Free and remembering the surprised look on his face when he saw me waiting under the trees. When he saw my wings, he smiled and shook his head as if laughing at a private joke.
“You can’t just leave,” I said to him.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I’m marrying the woman I love.”
“What about the music?” I asked. “What about being a rock star?”
“The music will always be there,” he said. “When it’s in your heart, it never leaves you.”
“You’ll have babies,” I said. “She’ll want a house, a future for your children, security, you know the works. You’ll turn into a balding has-been, drowning your dreams while you try to make ends meet.”
“You’re looking at it all wrong,” he said.
I shook my head.
“No. You’re looking at it all wrong.”
I remember the warm gush of his blood on my hands, the sharp tearing sound of his sternum giving way, and the sweet, salty taste of his heart. Already, I can feel it pumping the beat inside my chest.
“Give me a guitar,” I say to my father. “I’ve got the rhythm in me now. You’ll understand why I did it, when you hear me play. I can be a rock star, I tell you. It’s just a matter of time.”
This odd little tale was written as an experiment way back in 2010. I’m publishing it here and dedicating it to those who’ve sponsored my Clarion West Writeathon this year.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, August 2015
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