The Seven Misterious Gifts
Author: thesailor

Chapter 2
The First Gift - Custer's Last Band

FAR BEYOND the mountains that encircled the kingdom of the Snow Queen, deep within the swirling high altitude mists forever present in those regions, there lived, in a small cave cleft between two rocks, a retired rock 'n' roll singer called Coalhole Custer. He was a strange man, as befits his calling, with a wild beard and long, flowing yellow hair. His music had been way ahead of its time and so he had retired (not entirely voluntarily), penniless and unappreciated at the age of thirty three, to live alone in the mountains with only the company of a small cat and his thirteen string guitar.

But Coalhole Custer was content. He had room to breathe that clean, rarefied air that sparkled forever round the mountaintops, and he had time for his thoughts. The solitude of those mountains freed his mind and let it fly to all manner of strange places, in a way that musicians' drugs had never been able to. He was happy simply to dream his dreams and sing his songs, and allow his restless mind to wander whither it would. And his cat was all the companionship he needed. Those crowds of weirdos that used to surround him at the court of the Snow Queen held no attraction anymore. They had never understood his music and he had never understood them. In truth, he had never even liked them. Trivial was the word that sprang to mind whenever his memories recalled them. He was missing nothing.

On calm summer evenings he would sit quietly outside the cave, puffing on his pipe and gently stroking the cat. He would watch the glowing red ball of the sun slowly sink beyond the twinkling, distant lights of the Snow Queen's city. At times he fancied he could hear music, drifting up on the thermals and attenuating in the thin, clear air far from that city.

Rubbish, he would think to himself; utter rubbish. No idea at all, any of them. Same old emotive diatonic junk: froth for filling meringues - or the minds of citizens. And his cat would purr in agreement, feline disdain twitching its whiskers.

He wrote his music for the mountains now, and for the heavens that seemed so close around him. This was real music, dragged up from the depths of his soul: music that soared above the minds of mortal citizens; that suffused the earth, enveloping it, enjoining it, and drawing it up, rejoicing, to meet the gods that truly made it. For Coalhole Custer knew that he no longer stood alone in the forming of his music.

And in between times he would walk the foothills with his cat, the old thirteen string guitar slung over his shoulder. In his mouth would be the special thirteen-note Pipes of Pan, built for him by an old radical sculptor who had been banished from the kingdom for carving images of truth. For the Queen's people desired only illusion - shadows behind which they could hide. Even the soil of the Earth was hidden by concrete. The brothels were garnished with fairy lights and the people's faces painted with ochre, their clothes tailored to deceive. Their smiles belied the material machinations constantly occupying their meringue-like minds. Truth was a dream, metamorphosing only in the clean air of the mountains.

Coalhole Custer breathed it in deeply. Down into his lungs and around his heart it flowed, to be formed finally into music and expelled through the pipes, forever in his mouth. And the music of the gods, set free by this man, took wing and ranged all around the mountains, reaching into every crevice and every creeping thing. It filled the plants and diffused into the Earth; it formed into the songs of birds and the whirring of insects, it shaped the clouds. It brought the winds and softened the rain, and reached out for the sun. But it never reached the city.

 

At that time the city was in something of a turmoil, owing to the impending Coming-of-Age of the Queen's daughter, the beautiful Ice Princess. The trouble was caused by the Princess's nature, which was as cold as her name. Nothing was good enough in the preparations for the Grand Ball. The decorations - holly plucked from a thousand trees throughout the Queen's domain; castles sculpted from ice; fountains and rare flowers; her name picked out in the lights from ten thousand glow-worms - were tawdry. The specially-made gown - designed by the greatest couturier in the kingdom, assembled by a hundred hand-picked seamstresses from the finest silk of faraway lands - was cheap. The Queen's coach - fashioned from ice of the deepest blue and drawn by twelve golden reindeer, bred for this purpose alone - was uncomfortable. And the band was abysmal.

All the bands were abysmal. The Princess had listened to thirty seven of them, each one worse than the last. “Can no-one write decent music in this God-forsaken land?" she raged. Everyone around her was incompetent. Would anything ever go right in her life? Did she have to do everything herself?

She had the holly burned and a thousand more trees cut down; the castles melted and rebuilt to her own design; the fountains destroyed and the flowers dug into cesspits, along with the glow-worms and the designers. She took a carving knife and hacked the gown to shreds then burnt it, along with the couturier. She drove the coach - with the reindeer - over the highest cliff in the kingdom, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks at the edge of the ocean; then demanded of her mother that a new one be built. And she banished all thirty seven of the bands into the icy wastes of the glacier region, where Snowman fought with polar bear over the flesh of anything that moved.

Finally, on the very eve of the ball, she had the decorations to her taste. The gown at long last fitted properly; and a brand-new coach stood at her door with twelve blue reindeer specially captured by the Queen's Hunters after a fierce and bloody battle with the Warriors of the Tundra.

But still she had not found a band.

The palace was in consternation. The Queen was in floods of tears, and the King had long since gone to visit his brother on the far side of the ocean. The courtiers gathered to hold council.

The Chief Minister presided. “I know of no band left in the kingdom," he said simply. He was ready to resign himself to his fate. He looked around with faint hope at all the courtiers gathered in the Meeting Room but they were all reluctant to catch his eye. For a long while there was uneasy silence; then a young courtier at the back stood up. “I know of one," he said.

The effect was electric.

“Who? Where?" The Minister almost screamed with relief at the prospect of maybe seeing the morrow. “It must be brought here immediately," he demanded. “At once! I will send a battalion of the Queen's Escort to fetch them. Where is that band?" He pointed almost accusingly at the young courtier, as though the whole business were his fault.

“We..el," stammered the young man, now wishing he had kept quiet. It was probably only the Chief Minister who would have had the chop anyway. “Er, it's not quite as simple as that," he said. He explained: “Some years ago I used to play the psychological synthesizer in a band called ‘Half a Ton of Nutty Slack', run by Coalhole Custer ...." He paused, brought up by the sudden tension he felt in the room.

The Minister of Technology whistled: “Coalhole Custer! You played with him? That lunatic troublemaker? He's not a musician." The minister felt himself begin to perspire at the very thought of the man. He wiped his brow and calmed himself before continuing: “You must be joking. I can just see the face of the Princess if he appears in the ballroom and strikes up that cacophonous rubbish of his. We'd all be boiled in oil."

There was a strange silence in the room. The young courtier who had confessed to having played with Coalhole Custer quietly sat down, now regretting having opened his mouth. The others stared at him, as though he were a strange being from some foreign land.

“Just a minute," came the testy voice of the Chief Minister. “I don't know much about this Custer fellow, but as far as I'm concerned the Princess wants a band and if he's got one he'll do."

The room erupted in raucous cries of dissent, but the Chief stood his ground. He held his hand up for silence. “If there is no band here tomorrow," he said firmly, “our heads will be impaled on the palace gate. If there is a band, they might not be. So unless any of you know of another band in the country that has not been banished to the Snowmen, we will just have to take our chances with this Coalhole Custer." He looked around for dissent, but the logic of his argument was irrefutable. Only the young fellow who had played with Coalhole Custer spoke.

“Er, he might not come," the young man muttered diffidently. “He lives alone up in the mountains now, and never has anything to do with the city. He was thrown out if you remember, and I don't think he likes it down here very much."

The Chief Minister smiled unpleasantly. “He will come," he said, in a deceptively quiet voice. There was no mistaking the meaning.

 

Coalhole Custer sat huddled by his campfire. He poked gently at the embers, stirring up sparks and crackles in the slowly dying fire as he did. His eyes focused quietly on the red flickering in its depths as he hummed a few bars of his new song, as though seeking a reaction in the flames. For a long time he sat there, intermittently humming as he played around with the music, gradually drawing around it some sort of structure. Finally he picked up his guitar and struck a few chords to adjust the tuning; then he began to sing softly to the glow of his camp fire:

 

Look into my eyes, Prince of Darkness,

tell me what it is you see.

Is the Lord of Light in me

or is my soul reserved for thee?

Will you fight the Lord of Light,

Prince of Darkness,

for the soul that lies in me?

Is it worth your while, my Prince,

to save my soul from being free?

 

My life, O Prince of Darkness,

is it rooted in the Earth?

Will my sanity in whispers sound

around this barren land in which

not even you, my Prince, have cause for mirth?

Can I walk upon the emptiness

within the nestling void of death

that follows me from birth?

I must delve into your darkness,

look towards the Lord of Light,

and leave the twilight to the Earth.

 

My life, O Prince of Darkness,

does it lie within the Moon?

Will I bask in silken starlight

as I sway, seduced in sorrow by

the piper's haunting tune?

Can I withstand the sirens

and their symphonies of darkness

that would draw me to the devil spider's loom?

Have I any hope of holding out?

O Lord of Light,

please make the Sun come soon.

 

My life, O Prince of Darkness,

will it take me to the Sun?

Can I survive the solitude

in all the seas of loneliness

around this race I know that I must run?

Lord of Light, help me survive

the race; it seems each time

I've won I've just begun.

Hold up for me the hope,

O Lord of Light,

thy will be done.

 

Look into my eyes, Prince of Darkness,

tell me what it is you see.

Is the Lord of Light in me

or is my soul reserved for thee?

Will you fight the Lord of Light,

Prince of Darkness,

for the soul that lies in me?

Do you think you have the power,

Prince of Darkness,

to prevent me being free?

Lord of Light, I see the night -

please rescue me.

Lord of Light, I see the night ....

Please .... rescue me.

 

The haunting notes lingered on the still night air, as though addressing themselves to the darkness. The cat lay close to the fire purring quietly, and Coalhole Custer remained quite still, his fingers holding, as though reluctant to leave, the closing chord of his new song.

“I like it," came a familiar voice from close behind his shoulder. The musician whirled round, to face his one-time psychological synthesizer player, now a junior courtier in the Snow Queen's city. They had been close friends in the old playing days, before things had become too hot for the band and Coalhole had been hounded, not altogether unwillingly at the time, to the hills.

“Well, well!" A welcoming grin lit up the guitarist's face. “Psycho! What a surprise. Come and get warm." He grabbed his friend's arm and steered him to the fire, where he rattled up the smouldering ashes and piled on some more logs, along with the kettle.

“Kicked you out as well, have they?" he enquired, when they had settled themselves by the fire.

“No, Coalhole," said the courtier, “but I'm in big trouble, and only you can help. It's the Ice Princess's Twenty-First birthday tomorrow and we haven't got a band. She rejected the lot of them; sent them to the Snowmen. The only band left in the entire kingdom is the old ‘Half a Ton of Nutty Slack', and the Chief Minister will personally emasculate me if we don't get it together for the ball tomorrow night. I've found all the others, but we need you. Will you come?" The young man was pleading.

Coalhole Custer grinned. That was original - him being asked to play at an official function. Then he laughed. The only band left in the land, eh? Whatever his feelings about the Ice Princess and life in the city, he was a musician, and there were interesting possibilities here. He scratched his long yellow beard thoughtfully.

“Does the Princess know that we are supposed to be the band?" he asked.

“No," said his friend nervously. “She might have us all shot when she finds out; but if there is no band, she'll shoot us anyway. So we've nothing to lose." He looked hard at the unkempt figure of the guitarist and crossed his fingers surreptitiously. “I won't blame you if you don't want to do it," he went on. “It's your life and your decision, and anything could happen down there when she finds out, although we've bribed as many of the guards as we can".

“Never you mind about that, Sunshine," said Coalhole briskly, suddenly making up his mind. “Tomorrow night is going to see the first appearance of Coalhole Custer's new band - by appointment to Her Regal Majesty the Ice Princess herself. And it'll be a stormer, believe me - the start of a new musical era." He chuckled and picked up his guitar.

“Rehearsal time, Psycho my old buddy. Let's run through the programme."

 

The city streets were athrong with people; noblemen and their ladies, Princes and minor Princesses, courtiers, ministers and Royalty from neighbouring lands; all clutching their gold-embossed invitations and wending their way to the ball. The gutters had been whitewashed, and the common people sent out into the fields for the night. The city was clean and tidy, as befitted the Coming-of-Age celebrations of a cold-blooded Ice Princess.

Gay bunting filled the streets and gay people the carriages. Trumpeters stood on either side of the Palace steps sounding a fanfare for the arrival of each carriage. The Royal Standard flew from the flagpole. At the top of the steps the Ice Princess stood in her new ball-gown cordially greeting her guests, while backstage of the ballroom Coalhole Custer's new band was tuning up.

Finally, all the guests were received, and the Ice Princess made her regal entry to the ballroom on the arm of a suitably handsome neighbouring Prince. She looked very beautiful; quite splendid in fact, and was rapturously received by all the guests spread around the room sipping champagne. The ranks parted to allow her escort to guide her to a small daïs close by the main stage, which she mounted before turning to the assembled company.

“I thank you all," she said, “for your fine gifts, and I welcome you to this Grand Ball. Let the music begin."

The heavy drape curtains drew back from the main stage and the wild, yellow-haired figure of Coalhole Custer stepped forward. He turned with a smile and bowed low to the Ice Princess. An audible gasp came from her lips and she stared at him, tight-lipped with anger. Belligerent murmurings rumbled from the crowd.

Ignoring their reactions, the guitarist walked slowly into the centre of the stage and surveyed his audience. They glared at him challengingly: the nobility of the kingdom; soon to be sliding slowly beneath a sea of champagne and lust. And why not? the glares implied.

It was their night. A night for pleasure. The night of the wrong wives. When the guardians of the Nation's morals might forget their own.

The common herd was in the fields; armed guards at the doors. Who need pretend between these walls? The band must conform. Their scowls relaxed into satisfied smiles. The singer dare not censure them.

Coalhole Custer smiled too. Then he turned and addressed the glowering Princess: “Your Highness." He bowed again. “My first song is for you. A celebration of your flowering."

He stepped back, picked up his old thirteen string guitar and slung it round his neck.

“OK!" he shouted. “Let's go. One, two, three, four."

 

The audience was stunned, as a melody of exquisite gentleness flowed softly from Coalhole Custer's band. It was conventional, beautiful, and totally unexpected. The ballroom was hushed and they all listened, as Coalhole Custer sang:

 

You must be sad, my little Princess,

in your boudoir full of incense,

when there's nothing in the world

you haven't tried.

How much d'you have to pay

to get your body through the day?

Have you ever seen your soul, or has it died?

 

Since this morning's scented bath

not a cloud has crossed your path -

your life's a crossword someone

slowly fills each day.

Today your hair is fair

and your breasts are almost bare,

for your body is the key that pays the way.

 

He sang slowly, in a clear, well-modulated voice such that every word was perfectly audible to the Ice Princess and her guests. The Princess stood on the daïs rigid, her face white and set. The guests began to mutter. Coalhole ignored them and continued singing, waving in a little extra bite from the Elephant Tusk Horn Section;

 

I grieve for you, my Princess,

safe within your cloud of incense

where you never see the world that's going round.

You'd rather take a bath

than walk the endless winding path

to where the Roller Coaster Road can be found.

 

The muttering turned into uproar, with guests shouting and brandishing their fists. The guards from the main door advanced on the stage, called in by the irate Princess.

Suddenly the singer chopped his hand through the air and the song finished abruptly; on an ill-fitting, expectant note. It caught the attention of the guests and the ballroom went quiet. The guards paused and looked to the Princess for guidance; but she had left.

In the momentary silence, Coalhole Custer's voice carried clearly to all parts of the crowded room: “For you, my friends; drunk, drugged, satiated; occult-ridden in the endless hunt for happiness, I give PANDORA’S BOX”.

He raised his guitar high in the air and struck a chord that dug deep into the marrow of the watchers' bones, freezing them like a charmer his snake. The sound lingered, as though resonating within the guests. There was something peculiar, almost purposeful, in the manner of its going.

Then the band echoed it, in a wild soaring run of theme and variations that streamed among the spellbound guests like a plague of spiders, spinning its web of music to hold them entranced, and captive before the stage. And on this foundation the musicians layered yet more music until the whole palace trembled in a desperate attempt to contain the ever-rising crescendo of sound. Then they stopped. The sudden silence was almost unbearable.

Somewhere a window shattered, splintering and tinkling to the polished floor of the ballroom. Its faint echoes accentuated the silence. Then Coalhole Custer began to sing, the ‘Half Ton of Nutty Slack' filling in behind him to build complex, subtle patterns of strange and oppressive music. It seemed to permeate the very fabric of the palace, reaching out through the walls as though to escape, and Coalhole Custer sang:

 

You take the path to Wonderland

Through the door marked forty-nine

Where the werewolves lope in moonlight

Through the snows within your mind

And the vampires rise to swallow you

In the land of unknown time ---

You'll never hide away from what is true

For the images reflect what lies in you

 

Another window broke at the far end of the ballroom and some plaster rattled down off the wall. The music was throbbing heavily now, weird and vaguely out of control. It began to pound at the walls and pierce the windows, trying to break its way out. But Coalhole Custer sang on:

 

When spiders crawl across your eyes

And your limbs begin to shake

When snakes swim through your daylight

From the darkness of their lake

When reality is doubtful

Will you know which path to take ---

You'll never hide away from what is true

For the images reflect what lies in you

 

As he sang, oblivious to all around him, his strange music filled the ballroom like an alien entity. It crept into every crack and carving; it ran along the exquisitely moulded lines of plaster that covered the high ceiling; it swirled around the paintings, the icons, the graven images.

Wherever its delicate fingers probed, it drew out resident demons; sucked them from their sanctuaries to be cast helpless and screaming into the spiritual wastes of the ballroom. And as they went they dragged their hiding places with them, pounding the terrified guests with broken images, bricks and dying paintings.

Then it suddenly retreated; permeating the bones of the musicians as though to hide from the horrors it had disturbed. And its alien resonance drove them into a wild frenzy of playing that fed it and strengthened it, charging it with energy from a long and furious run of riffs and discordant key changes that took the musicians to the very brink of their already crumbling sanity. Then, rejuvenated, like a bolt of lightning it struck back into the room.

It left Psycho foaming at the mouth, clutching at his psychological synthesizer like a man possessed. The copper triple bass player was kneeling on his instrument in a desperate attempt to stop it levitating, his eyes bulging like balloons. The Elephant Tusk Horn Section was upside down, pumping out a strange, grinding dissonance that seemed to drive the other instruments berserk. The dodo drums appeared to be dancing; pounding away blindly by themselves as the drummer lay flat on the floor in a trance.

Only Coalhole Custer seemed untouched by it all. He stood at the front of the stage dragging indescribable chords out of that old thirteen string guitar, his long yellow hair flailing in the peculiar breeze that seemed to blow from nowhere.

Then a heavy truss crashed from the ceiling, pinning guests to the floor in a shower of dust and debris. Unable to reach the exit through the jam of bodies, the ones still able to move added their screams to the wild, electrifying music. And Coalhole Custer sang on:

 

When the cities fall in ruins

Will you damn the human race

When the sun goes supernova

Will you smile upon its face

And when Armageddon strikes us

Will you cross yourself in case ---

You'll never hide away from what is true

For the images reflect what lies in you

 

The music was now clawing at the very structure of the palace, breaking up foundations and vibrating the huge oak roof beams into clouds of feathery dust which filled the air, choking guests and musicians alike. Deprived of support, half the roof collapsed in a roar that almost drowned out the music.

Smoke poured through the gaping hole and Psycho in his frenzy could see Heaven itself, the eyes of God peering through the stars at the carnage caused by Coalhole Custer's music.

And through the smoke and fire, the broken beams and falling bricks, the screams and the running feet, Coalhole Custer's band played on; its manic music whirling around the insane and dying musicians, to pour ever more violently into the shattered ballroom, pounding, hammering, tearing at the nerve-ends; juddering the brain, roaming round the room now way beyond the control of the musicians.

Psycho was lying on his back with one leg in the air, a completely vacant expression on his foam-flecked face. The psychological synthesizer played on by itself, a great steel beam piercing it from above. The copper triple bass player was now airborne, clutching at the curtains as his maddened instrument struggled up through the dust towards the stars.

Small fires had broken out around the stage, licking up the heavy drapes, but still Coalhole Custer stood firm at the front. His yellow hair was singed and blackened with a smoke that seemed to dance to the unearthly harmonies flowing from his old thirteen string guitar, which he now held high above his head. And still he sang:

 

With the universal life force

Of the cosmos at your feet

You're standing at the crossroads

Where the planes of life all meet

And when you look inside yourself

Who do you think you'll have to greet?

 

Then the demons his music had released turned on Coalhole Custer. As he stood at the front of the stage, his yellow hair plastered with dust and sweat, his chest heaving with exertion as he jerked out the closing chords, he was struck hard in the neck by one of the guards' spears. Travelling with a force that no human could have imparted, it knocked the singer right off his feet, hurling him backwards and nailing him in a cloud of spraying blood to the front of the huge leopardskin bass drum.

The music stopped instantly. An eerie silence fell on the room like a blanket, stifling every tiny sound. Coalhole Custer hung motionless, spreadeagled and dying in the middle of the stage.

The tableau remained, still, in a silent snowfall of soot and dust; the only sound the soft crackle of subdued flames. Coalhole Custer's old thirteen string guitar lay on the floor at his feet, where it had fallen.

As the dust slowly settled on its strings it began quietly to play, alone, with no human intervention. The tranquil notes, clear and liquid in their simplicity, curled cleanly upwards through the few remaining rafters, to fall like crystal rain around the dying singer's face.

Coalhole Custer opened bloodshot eyes that were squinted in pain. With a supreme effort he twisted his head and gazed upwards into the blackness of the night sky. And as the guitar notes sprinkled on his upturned face he called out, slowly and agonisingly:

 

“There ... goes ... my ... last ... band."

 

Then he died.

~

 

And his death aroused a great wrath

in the music he had formed.

Around his empty body

the discords gathered like storm clouds,

sweeping all that was harmonious before them,

and the stars were darkened

as Coalhole Custer's music went to war

with the very demons it had itself brought forth.

 

For it came not to bring peace

 

o ------------------------ o

The young boy closed the book on the First Gift

and remained a while with his thoughts

in the lonely tower at the end of the beach

And the Angel watched over him

o ------------------------ o

 

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