This is the second installment of Pocket Finger, a collection of illustrated stories created by Ryan Call and Christy Call. Each piece was composed in alternating turns: Christy drew an image, Ryan wrote a text, Christy drew an image, Ryan wrote a text, and so on.
A new story comes out free every week in early 2018, or you can purchase a print version at PublishingGenius.com.
Long before his untimely death, my father had devoted quite a lot of his life to collecting all manner of odd instruments and bits of music. I recall as a child wandering into his study some nights and standing before the shelves behind his desk to look at the assorted artifacts he had accumulated.
If he were in a good mood, perhaps due to a successful day at the hospital, he might take down from the shelf an earlier form of a dulcimer or a slightly damaged crumhorn and share with me and my sister its storied history, its origins, its use as an instrument of humanity.
His one rule in the house, however, was this: instruments were not for play.
Not once did a musical sound emit from those instruments on his shelves.
He had spent a good deal of our family’s money—we were quite well off, I realize now, and could support his hobby—so that he might gather about him those objects that had at one point or another in their existence contributed to some musical significance. He frequented auctions in the city, he traveled across oceans and continents to meet eager sellers, and he combed through news stories and estate announcements to track sales of various pieces and the fluctuations of price associated with their movement. Naturally, he cared for the money here as much as he cared for the instruments there, as he had at some time or another acquired a good deal of wealth, perhaps through a deceased relative or lucky investment, and this wealth he supplemented through his successful medical practice. One might have thought that certainly his wealth and his passion should have brought him happiness, if not his wife and children.
Yet, he struck all of us—my sister and me especially—as incredibly unhappy, especially after our mother left him in the final few years before he died. She had, shortly after my sister and I grew up and moved from the house, finally taken issue with his myopic pursuit of his hobby. His devotion to his hobby had eventually become unhealthy, maniacal even, had driven him to selfish means that cut out all other aspects of his life, thus creating a rift in his marriage. Our mother could not accept the idea that she had become suddenly an afterthought in the house regardless of how loud she raised her voice, and so she left him.
Our father liked to joke in his notes to us that he did not miss our mother’s song.
So what drove them apart, then? Well, you see, he had at one point or another in his hobbyist pursuit read in some long-forgotten arts journal of an ancient lute created from the arm of a criminal, some sort of elderly prophet who had drawn upon himself the ire of the villagers. Shortly after rushing the prophet through trial, they had dismembered him, constructing from his body all sorts of exotic instruments with which to sing a warning song to other traveling prophets who wished to enter their territory.
I cannot remember all of the details, as I have since incinerated—for obvious reasons—all of his documents; however, I can recall from my reading of his journal, in which he had meticulously reported every aspect of his collection, that the only instrument to have survived the passage of time was the lute they had created out of this ill-fated prophet’s left, most sinister arm. The story goes that even this lute had eventually vanished during the violent upheaval of the Fourth Crusade, though apocryphal tales continued to describe the lute, or lutes like it, throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. Some historians eventually called it a lost artifact, an artifact finally relegated to the pages of esoteric history texts, and the more seasoned collectors scoffed at the notion that it had even existed.
I later discovered—one afternoon as my sister and I sorted through his belongings and read through his diaries—that my father believed he could recreate this exact instrument, and suddenly his late behavior seemed now explicable to the both of us. What followed his burgeoning obsession, then, became the most horrific few years of our lives, for our father became something other than our father, an entity unlike any we had ever witnessed, an other-father whose behavior tore apart our family, his marriage, and ultimately himself.
The most fantastic stories about this particular lute, the stories that tell of its existence after its disappearance in the midst of the bloodiest, most devastating of the Crusades, trace how it moved from one musician’s hands to the next through the passage of that destructive era, traveling from the sacked Constantinople and to Venice. Each musician who sought to possess it did so out of some impatient yearning for success and fame, for really only the most desperate and poor musicians sought it out, purchased it from various swindlers and scammers and other low-lifes intent upon making whatever profit they could from others’ misfortune. For these musicians, the lute initially proved agreeable, and as time passed with the instrument, the musicians improved, and the sounds they produced upon the instrument seemed to attain an otherworldly quality of the sort that no humans had ever heard.
Such was the impressive power of the lute.
But, no sooner had their good fortune begun did it cease. During certain performances, the lute faltered, a string broke at a certain strum or perhaps fell slightly out of tune. And then despite all the doomed musician’s attempts to tune the lute or to fix its play, the lute proved finally untunable, completely unplayable, and still these dreamers believed that the lute’s rumored powers might eventually make them into better musicians, into artists who might attract the attention of a patron and that patron’s wealth, if only they might trade some other aspect of their personhoods.
Yet, still, these aspiring musicians found the instrument increasingly troublesome, fickle, unreliable. In the final days of their possession, the instrument failed at the most important part of their last performances, and in most instances, the instrument failed to bring fame and fortune, and instead these poor and desperate musicians found themselves suddenly in great debt. Some of them disappeared in the middle of the night, while others turned up blind, deaf, or mute, or, even worse, limbless and bloody, in their dirty bedrooms located in the worst parts of the city in which they once lived—one musician had even lost his head due to this lute’s failure, for a noble’s impatience with the difficulties proved fatal. Another story of the cursed lute tells of blood streaming in bright red rivulets from the lute’s head and down the fret-board as the player looked on in horror, his lacerated fingers locked to whatever chord he had just strummed. According to that particular story, only after several years of disuse did the thick blood fade and the troubled instrument return to its natural state.
Historians, of course, mark these stories as apocryphal or mythic, for no such instrument could possibly create a supernatural effect upon such a massive population as that.
Yet, it was this instrument that our father wished to add to his collection.
And he meant to do so however he could.
Of course, we did not learn at all about our father and his mental instability until it was too late. Still, the extent of his illness plagues us now even into our adulthood, such was his paternity.
My sister and I grew up as all children do, eventually moved away, carried on as best we could with the movement of our own lives, all while our father lived alone—abandoned by his family, perhaps—and progressed onward through his own terrible coda. Now, after having finally sorted through his belongings, we are fully aware of how terribly he suffered at his death. Of course, his end in some way has influenced our own ends, and each of us pursues our own ends in our own terrible ways: my mother living off the land somewhere in a small cabin out west, my sister seeking psychological help in a facility in the city, and I deafly scribbling as best I can the story here, as if its record might free me from my own pain at his spoiled memory.
In his pursuit of this cursed lute, he had in our absence expanded his medical practice to take on several patients one might consider ‘non-traditional,’ a result of their common neuroses. His consultations, his diaries show, led to several odd operations after normal business hours, both at the hospital and later, elsewhere, at his own makeshift operating room in a small storage facility nearby. I do not have any particulars regarding these patients and their identities, nor could I possibly bring myself to submit these documents to the authorities—as I said earlier, I have since destroyed them—given how damning such publicity might be should someone discover them in my father’s personal effects; however, I do have numbers and case files and medical records, which my father meticulously kept. I only note them here because I hope that my writing down this story will in some way free me from my own horrific fate.
As if simply recording such a story to hide it beneath my bed might exonerate me.
By the time you read this, I will have long been dead.
But, for example, I can tell you that patient #??8956 was a repeat-amputee, one who sought my father’s surgical blade on numerous occasions, explaining that she “could not imagine herself happier armless, could not attain orgasm with her lover without the missing limbs.” My father agreed, for he later acquiesced and took her, made her less whole, made her apart. My father’s notes—written in that neat, tiny script of his rare for a surgeon of his rank—show that he recommended to her a “shoulder disarticulation and forequarter amputation” in addition to a “transhumeral amputation” for what he called “aesthetic’s sake,” whatever that little phrase meant. He must have had an infatuation with asymmetric bodies, for he sought to create them however he could, I suppose. Where and how he carried out this particular surgery, I do not know, but later dated notes in this particular patient’s file show that both amputations were successful and the limbs he had removed “functioned nicely as prototypes.” His other notes directed me to that vast air-conditioned storage facility at the outskirts of town, conveniently just beyond the hospital.
There I found his other collection.
When I alone—for I refused to allow my sister to accompany me—entered the storage facility and accessed the account under my father’s name, some half-blind, balding employee shrugged behind the front desk and pointed me towards a corner unit on the top floor of the building.
This unit I opened with his key, and as the door retracted, I quickly covered my nose and mouth on account of the smell. I found within the small storage unit a rudimentary operating table, a small writing desk, and a deep refrigerated cabinet, its drawers labeled with ranges of numbers, his patients’ numbers I assumed, based on my reading of his surgical journals. From the wall above the desk hung various tools, some surgical and others of the sort one might use for carpentry, and beneath them he had other useful machines: a drill press, a grindstone, a vice and clamp system.
As I poked about the unit, I discovered beneath the workshop table the wooden frame of a rough lute. It rested there beneath the table, dusty and unfinished, awaiting its fret board and other melodious parts, and I could not imagine what it could possibly have accomplished there in my father’s workshop. That is, I could not imagine its purpose there until I had opened one of the refrigerator drawers and discovered that in those drawers my father had stored numerous limbs: limbs broken, limbs sawed, limbs extracted, limbs shattered, limbs destroyed, limbs retracted, limbs removed, limbs notched, limbs attached to other limbs, limbs shaved down into thin hollows of skin and bone, limbs still raw and bloody, their tissues shredded and frozen in neat little tendrils of frosted, icy flesh. My father’s entire focus, it seemed, was upon these very limbs, and I suddenly found myself confronted with the truth of his investment, the real nature of his desire to create the most perfect lute.
I slammed shut that freezer drawer, selected from the writing table a brittle, yellowing notebook, and returned hastily to our hotel room in the city to meet with my sister. Throughout the night we read aloud—first I then she—my father’s purposeful and careful notes outlining his reckless pursuit, and in that retelling I understood perhaps what led to his eventual demise.
His last and unforgiving patient, he wrote in one of the final entries, had come to him so that he might remove her left arm, for without it, she felt, and I quote, “that she might finally feel complete stillness within her skull.” My father wrote in his neat script that she proved, upon his subsequent consultations, to be a “satisfactory and low-risk patient,” for she lacked sufficient funds and had no local family that might pursue him. He advised her that he could move forward with the operation, and she agreed enthusiastically.
Hers, he decided, might make the best lute (why, I’m not sure, for his notes fail to justify his decision here to move forward with the construction of the instrument), and shortly after the surgery, he began to manufacture a polished version, for she apparently had the strength of bone and the length of arm necessary, and so the lute slowly came into being. She, I must add, awoke from the surgery, and later, once the medication had worn off, expressed her happiness at her new life version. She seemed more complete, she said, and my father noted all of this in his booklet, though later notes refer to her as “dissatisfied,” “at times hysterical,” and finally “desperate to see him” before all mention of her drops away as he focuses his entire attention upon the lute.
Months passed in the diary, and during those months he meticulously described how he set about the delicate process of carving her arm bones and preserving her skin so that the lute ceased to decay. He drilled into her hand and wrist the necessary holes for the tuning pegs and planed down the preserved skin so that he might incorporate ivory frets into the bone. At the lute’s base, he expertly treated the dried flesh of her delicate arm so that it joined neatly with the bowl he had carved from a local piece of cherry wood.
Soon he had created as close as possibly the ancient lute.
And then, he decided, he might try to play it.
I regret to say that his notes regarding this new lute he had created trace the events up to the day of his death but do not at all reveal any sort of answer to the mystery of how exactly he died. I can only tell you that they hint at some ancient evil that he had somehow called to his home, beckoned to his workshop, and welcomed into his body.
His playing upon the instrument, he wrote, created an odd cacophony, at first, within the small space of his workshop. His ears tingled at the sound the lute made as he strummed its strings, and his body seemed to shimmer oddly about him in the slight darkness. He transferred the lute, then, to our old family home on the mountain above the city and stored it in a modified gun case in the converted attic of our three-story house. There he often went, I recall as a child, to relax after particularly stressful days with his patients, and now from this room, then, there most certainly came the soft sounds of the lute playing throughout the night. These sounds he soon began recording upon an old reel-to-reel tape player he had saved from his younger years.
It was on this player that I discovered his final recording.
Yes, in his belongings, my sister and I found this entire series of reel-to-reels, audio recordings he had made of the instrument, and there in the cramped space of the hotel room that next night, we listened as long as we could stand to hear the horrific sounds emanating from the ancient speakers, and in the magnetic spaces of these tapes, we heard a variety of sounds: odd twangs, the snapping of broken strings, the beautiful strumming of certain chords, but beneath all of these sounds there pulsed a subtle whirring, buzzing, a fluttering that was unsettling to us, a discordant noise that caused my sister to light as brightly as she could our hotel room and sit unmoving upon the bed. My father’s writings from this final period of his life too show that he spent quite some time each night learning the uncertain intricacies of the instrument he had created. Often he noted a moment of pride when he discovered how to create this or that chord, noting in his diary on which tape and at what time in the tape he successfully strummed the notes together for the very first time.
And yet, simultaneously, his notes spoke of an odd accompaniment, some entity that seemed to respond to his nightly sessions, and my sister and I too noticed a slight change to the audio he had recorded, especially as we listened to the later tapes. He noted in his book that he felt an oppressive heat within the room—my sister and I too felt it as we listened—that the instrument sometimes spoke without his plucking a string, that it grew warmer to the touch, that it had begun to condense a unique blood-red sheen across its polished surface. His handwritten notes at this point took on a harsher, more fervent tone, as he crazily marked the changes the instrument sounded upon his own body. For he wrote that the longer he played the damned thing, the less bodily his limbs felt, the less connected they seemed to him. He noted that at times as he strummed, in the heat of the room, sweating anxiously and yet ecstatically to some medieval tune or another, the notes of which he had set up no doubt upon a music stand in a corner of the room, his arms seemed to slightly pull from him, and he had to cease playing, set the instrument down, and walk away. He noted that blood had begun to weep from his skin, along seams near the edge of his shoulders and in his armpits, and he did his best to wipe these droplets away, but they returned daily, and they even began to weep when he did not play, when he had stepped far away from the instrument.
And then, we heard his final evening. Had I known what that final spool of tape might emit, I would have sent my sister from the room. I would have destroyed it. I would have smashed without hesitation the reel-to-reel and wiped the tapes with a magnet so that no one might ever have a chance to hear the sound of our father’s death.
If only I had done so, we might yet still be whole.
Be warned, for still these tapes persist, where I do not know, but I fear what might happen should another discover their magnetism and listen to their unholy noise.
After taking a big gulp of her drink, my sister loaded the last spool of tape—the tape that the investigators had discovered still winding lazily around the spool in the room near his body—and we listened to the usual notes of the lute, whatever ancient tune he had chosen for the night. He played quite well, we both agreed, though soon the playing increased in tempo to the point that we could not possibly imagine the sounds to be human in nature. I walked over to the machine to check it, but it continued to run the tape at the setting we had selected. I stood there to monitor it, and noticed then that as the music continued, a new sound joined: the sound of our father’s moaning, and his voice grew louder then, increased in pitch as well, and the modulation of the almost-words he moaned changed alternately, and then as his voice rose and the sound of the lute rose, a loud rending sound struck us, as though an enormous sheet had torn apart, suddenly crashed through the speakers, and a deep booming thundered there too, causing the machine to shake on the floor.
I awoke on the other side of the hotel room and stood to find that my sister had fallen back upon the coverlet of the bed. I stumbled over to speak to her, to see if she was okay, and discovered that she had convulsed there into the fabric, her eyes turned back into her head, her mouth the only part of her that moved, jittering and snapping up and down as she came to. For myself, I could only hear an intense ringing in my ears—a ringing that continues to buzz to this day—so that when I spoke to my sister, to ask her what had happened, I heard nothing.
She slowly sat up, shook her head, looked at me.
She mouthed to me something, but I could not hear her, so she mouthed to me again, but still I could not understand what she said, so she finally pointed with both her hands at my ears.
I put my hands to the sides of my head, felt a slick wetness there.
I held my hands up in front of my face to find them covered with blood.