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Friday, October 29, 2010


M. David Black Blake

Catgut Variations (on a G String)

I once owned a violin, covered with green silk, wrapped in gold and gauze, bound with iron chains and hidden in a teak-wood cask. It was an odd way to keep a violin, I'll admit.

The violin was beautiful, almost iridescently grained, but as useless to me as an ostrich plume on a seal-clubbing expedition; no blow I could strike had any impact, and no stroke of my bow brought forth anything more pleasant than the aggrieved tones of a feline suffering an unpleasantly soapy delousing, with all the associated indignities. I always assumed it must have been some flaw in the varnish, some hidden fissure within the maple, that caused such raucous reverberation. For that matter, I suspected the strings had been gutted from an improperly tuned cat.

On the odd occasions I took it out to admire, I held it reverently, horsetail bow hovering no closer than a half inch from those catgut strings, lest one should inadvertently make contact with the other and misery ensue. So when the Tufted Capuchin monkey knocked upon my door and asked in a perfectly-articulated accent, "I believe you are in possession of a rather unusual violin, which I would most obligingly wish to see." I did my best not to register any visible surprise.

"I don't recall," I said, "advertising a violin."

"Ah," said the monkey, "but undoubtedly you misunderstand. I said nothing about having encountered an advertisement."

"Then I utterly fail to understand your speech," I replied, "on more than one account. But your words are enchanting, so if you would like to come in and entertain me while I have another drink, I'd welcome the diversion."

The monkey cocked an eyebrow and whistled, and then said in the same affected voice, "Utterly fail? No, you have only misunderstood the nature of my capacity for speech. That is a single account. I am now quite certain that you clearly understood my meaning." With that impertinent response the creature flung itself through my door, and scampered down the entryway toward my coat closet.

"A moment ago you were saying I undoubtedly misunderstood," I called, as the monkey disappeared behind the door.

"Undoubtedly," said the monkey, in a voice that sounded a little gruffer than before. "But that was before you invited me inside."

"I don't see--" I began.

"Clearly you don't," said the creature, in a voice tinged with bass undertones, hard liquor and nicotine.

As the closet swung open, my eyes tried to focus in the approximate vicinity of where the monkey's eyes should have been. It took me a moment to realize I was staring at an unanticipated set of spindly ankles, the most visible of which was covered in a mixture of shaggy hair and opalescent scales.

The crowning touch was the red, glitter-covered stiletto pump that graced the foot. No, the crowning touch was that there was only one shoe. The other foot--if it was indeed a foot--ended in something resembling a flipper. And the other other foot had something that was probably a chitinous exoskeleton.

"You aren't a monkey," I said.

"No shit, honey-bunch," said the creature. "And your violin isn't a violin, either. Now, be a dear... I believe you said something about a drink?"

"A drink?" I echoed.

"And make it stiff, please," she added. "It's been so long since I've seen it, I suspect I'll need a bracer."


As I wrapped myself around equal parts lemon juice, ginger-currant wine, vanilla vodka and seltzer water, my friend wrapped herself (look, she was wearing a red stiletto pump, okay?) around one of my dining room chairs. Literally. Tentacles wove in and out of the spindles supporting the Windsor back, leathery wings folded demurely across what might have been a trio of shoulders, while scales and fur seemed to blend seamlessly between the wooden seat and the tile floor. Every surface they touched seemed a part of them, and made it difficult to focus.

In all fairness, equal parts of the aforementioned ingredients may have contributed to that last impression. They also helped me to cope with the apparent presence of a high-heeled Elder God, so I felt fully justified in pouring myself something to go along with hers. And by "hers," I mean the red plastic gasoline can from which she was drinking, using the spout as an obscene straw.

"You can really put that stuff away," I said. "Are you sure you still want to talk about my violin? I could just as easily run down to the quickie mart and fill up your glass."

"You're sweet," she said, a single oversized eye sizing me up, "but dense as a desiccated Ankylosaurus. I must see the--"

"Dense as a what?" I slurred.

"Oh, sober up," she said, and I did. Immediately, and with no discernible after-effect.

"How did you--" I started to ask.

"Please," she said. "Spare me. I get thoroughly sick of having to explain the intricacies of metabolic inhibition and carbohydraturia whenever I sober one of you up. You were pissed. Now you'll piss. Ultimately you feel better, which is better for me, because I need you coherent enough to focus. It's remarkable enough that you aren't freaked out by my appearance."

"Speaking of, I was going to ask how you made yourself look like a Tufted Capuchin," I said. "Sobriety I can accept, because I live with it three days out of every week."

"Hmm," she said. "You are an unusual one. Perhaps that's why it felt safe here with you."

"Why what felt safe with me?" I asked. "The violin?"

"I already told you that it isn't a violin," she said. "But it looks like one to you, in pretty much the same way I looked like a Tufted Capuchin when you first saw me."

"Well, now you look like something out of a Sam Raimi film, if Sam Raimi was trying to film the Cthulhu mythos." It didn't seem like that much of a stretch. I could almost picture Bruce Campbell holding up my end of the conversation.

She laughed. "You see my physical dimensions. You can't see past that. I'm a lot more massive than any monkey, and a lot smaller at the same time. If you took out all the empty space, so are you. Call it a costume, if you'd like."

"Like Halloween?" I asked.

"Hardly," she responded. "But you've at least stumbled into the same vein of thinking, more or less."

"So my violin isn't a violin, and it's just wearing a costume. Seems a little far-fetched, if you don't mind my saying so." Frankly, what she was suggesting seemed more than "far-fetched," but that seemed like the safest level of disbelief to confess.

"It was good enough at hiding," she said, "that finding it again was a real challenge. But it had also been through a lot, so I'm guessing it just got tired enough to curl up into a safe shape and sleep it off."

"You've completely lost me," I said.

"Cthulhu, sweetheart," she giggled. "Didn't you ever wonder why you felt compelled to bind it up and lock it away?"


As we crept up the stairs (all right, I crept and she sashayed, if something with a hairy foot, a flipper and a chitinous whatever-the-heck-it-was can sashay... the tentacles definitely gave that impression, though) I had an uncomfortably sobering thought. If we were really going to face down Cthulhu, wasn't he one of the Old Ones, capable of driving anyone who looked upon his visage mad, and a being of unspeakable horror?

"You've really studied that crap, haven't you?" she said, doing a fair semblance of reading my thoughts.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

A tentacle rubbed the spot where her eyebrow would have been, if any eyebrow had been over that one large eye.

"Look, you only saw enough of the violin shape whenever you took it out to drive you slightly batty, and I'd be willing to bet you pickled your brain before you unwrapped it, every single time," she said. "This time, I'll unwrap it, and you won't have to do a thing. And I know what to do, so that it won't squall and fuss. Nothing to worry about."

"Your confidence is reassuring," I said, although my bladder felt less than reassured.

We had reached the top of the stairs, and as we crossed the threshold of my generally-unused guest room she spoke again. "You keep Cthulhu in your guest room? No wonder you live alone."

Other-dimensional snark could be answered in kind. "Isn't he my guest? For that matter, so are you. And pardon me for being a little nervous about what we're about to do, because it isn't every day that I knowingly face down one of the Old Ones, who may or may not still be holding a grudge against the other Elder Gods."

"You do realize all that Elder God hokum was straight out of a hack writer's imagination, right?" she asked. "The bit about inducing madness in unprotected humans is true enough in certain circumstances, and that Lovecraft fellow got a moderate dose, but all the rest was about as accurate as if a colony of ants tried to describe the antics of a cat scratching at the anthill."

"Cats don't scratch at anthills," I said. "At least, not in this dimension. Cats have better things to do with their time."

"Do they?" she asked. "To be frank, my perspective is a little skewed as well. We've known for a while that humans are approaching sentience, and we can communicate with you to some degree, but I'm not giving away any major secrets by admitting that the flow of information is mostly unidirectional."

"I suppose it must be," I said, "although I'm not sure about your analogy. Cats and ants?" I lifted the teak-wood cask onto the guest bed, and my fingers started numbly fumbling at the iron chains.

"Whales and shrimp, if you prefer," she said. "Either one is close enough, and still out-of-scale by an order of magnitude. Here, let me do that."

I stepped aside. Although I had been in this same room countless times, it was suddenly an alien realm, and the most familiar presence was waving tentacles and wearing a red stiletto heel. Plus I was sober.

She plucked delicately at the bindings, until gauze and gold lamé lay upon the bedspread in an untidy heap. After a few moments longer, her tentacles cradled a small, green silk-swathed package.

I drew a sharp breath. "Are you sure you want to do that? I mean, I understand that thing is from your world, and to you, it's probably harmless, but before today I never had any idea how dangerous my violin was. Even if it isn't dangerous to you, and even if most of what I think I know about Cthulhu is hokum, that's still a Hell of a lot more scary than I'm accustomed to dealing with."

"No it isn't, sugar-britches," she said. "not by a long shot. You see wars, and social injustice, and disease every day."

"None of them are wrapped up in green silk, in my guest room, where they could kill me," I muttered.

"But any of them could be," she said. "and in that, we aren't so different after all. The scariest things are the ones we never see coming."

"Wait a minute," I said, as she began to unwrap the violin. "You guys--gals?--still have wars and social injustice?"

"And disease," she said, shaking her head and causing a third of her mouth-tentacles to sway, "and don't be so surprised. We may be able to do a lot of impressive things in your dimension, but we Elders aren't omnipotent. As easily as I sobered you up earlier, I could also have rearranged your insides so thoroughly that no human physician would ever recognize you again... but there are still some things we don't understand about our own physiology, any more than you do."

"Elder Gods have physiology?" I asked, dumbfounded.

Her tentacles did a little ripple. "Elders got everything, buttercup."

The green silk had fallen away as she spoke, and I saw the exposed neck of my violin. A shiver crept up my spine as I recalled the ghastly sounds those strings could produce.

"As you see it, Cthulhu is a monster," she said. "As I see it, Cthulhu is my _ ."

And that's just what it sounded like. There was a blank space in her words.

"Your what?" I asked.

"Oh, that one doesn't work in English, does it? I'm not sure how to explain it, because you wouldn't quite think of the relationship in the same way. It's sort of like 'pet,' and sort of like 'mate,' and from the way you just wrinkled up your face I can tell that isn't getting any sympathy." She trailed off, as a tear fell from the single large eye and trickled down a tentacle, to splash upon a the fingerboard of the violin.

The violin shivered.

I flinched.

"Did you see that?" I shouted.

"Of course I did. It's waking up," she said, stroking the strings.

A hum began to fill the room, as more and more notes took their place in the unexpected swell of sound. There was no way to get those notes from a violin. Not from my violin, or anybody's.

She stood there, foot, flipper and whatever-it-was splayed to give herself support, cradling her _ and crying, one tear at a time. "Shh," she whispered. "It's all right."

"What's going on?" I asked.

"It's been sick," she said.

A question was dancing in the back of my mind, trying to get out. "It hid..." I began.

"... because it was afraid I would suffer," she said. "We had come here to enjoy your world together, long ago, when we first learned what was happening."

The violin shivered again, and the neck drew up into a ball, before it flipped and inverted. Catgut strings hummed into mouth tentacles, and soundholes reshaped themselves into a pair of eye sockets as the face stretched into an oversized grotesquerie. As if someone had pulled a handkerchief from the underside of the violin's body, another body began to emerge, and expand, and stretch.

Wonder of wonders, I did not go mad.

At the time, I didn't bother to marvel at how we all three fit in the guest room, although I suppose I would have any other day. Maybe it had something to do with what she had said before, about being much larger, and much smaller, and empty space. No, I marveled at the beauty of the thing: The Dread Chtulhu was suffering, and had hidden itself away so that someone it loved wouldn't suffer as well... and that someone loved right back, and pursued, and persevered, and said it didn't matter, because it was still her _ and always would be.

For a long time we stood there as they held each other. I think they might have even forgotten I was there, until finally I couldn't take it any more, and spoke.

"How long do you have?" I asked.

"No one knows," she said, tentacling away a tear. "We have good doctors, though. And we have each other."

That put me at a loss for words. I was scared to be in that room, and at the same time, scared for them, and for their uncertainty.

"I don't know what to say," I said.

"No one ever does," she said. "but that works."


They left in the afternoon. She helped Cthulhu to shuffle along, and it (apparently the Dread Cthulhu wasn't exactly a "he," but I'm not sure if whatever it was would translate anyway) leaned on her for support.

As they reached my front door, she turned, and pulled something out of what I'm guessing must have been a pocket or a purse, although I still haven't figured out where she was hiding it all that time. She held it up to Cthulhu, and Cthulhu used one long, bony claw to scratch upon the surface for a moment, then rested its head upon her shoulder again.

She handed it to me, and said, "For you." Then they shuffled out the door, onto the barren sidewalk, and down the street, leaving me holding the odd object.

It had six sides surrounding a wide surface, and a ridge that joined two opposite corners on the underside. On the largest flat face was an image that must have been the other-dimensional equivalent of a photograph, of Cthulhu, holding something that looked for all the world like an inside-out cat tucked beneath its chin, with the tail rigidly stretched out toward one bony wrist. Smoke swirled behind small, leathery wings, and the other clawed hand held what looked as much like a flaming chainsaw as a bow.

In characters that could have just as easily been burned into the surface with acid, Cthulhu had scrawled an inscription. In Roman letters. In English. And the words said, "Thank you for the music."

Now, if I only had a way to play the damned thing.

Story-a-Day is an attempt to bring a small bit of humor and amusement to Mrs. ~brb and Audrey as they fight very serious illnesses. If you have a short, amusing story, please send it to kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com. If you'd prefer, you can drop it in the drop.io (password: challenge) and email me to let me know it's there.

Over the course of three and a half decades, M. David Blake has been a Revolutionary War reenactor, a ditch digger, a troubleshooter, a gallery artist, a woodturner and a poet. His work has appeared in Stupefying Stories.

MobileRead.com hosted a successful eBook Signing Event for "We Don't Plummet Out of the Sky Anymore," Blake's first published short story:

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