by Samuel Barnhart
She’s slumped over a guitar. The hair in her eyes is natural, thick and purple-black. Imperfections crawl up her dark cheeks. Heavy earrings clang backup as she tunes the instrument. Her sleeveless dress bunches above the knees; an intoxicating gold when purchased, washing has turned it brassy and robbed the luster.
Lost in thought, Mount Qaf nudges the edge of Shahrazad’s mind. Words and gestures from Dinarzad, the younger sister and talent agent don’t register. Someone walks past them, looks out the heavy curtain that hides Shahrazad from the audience. He steps back abruptly, nearly falling against Shahrazad’s stool. Dinarzad drags the man upright and wants to know what‘s wrong. Shahrazad has almost returned now. She sees arms moving, impatient hands. Her eyes dilate from pinpricks and her mouth relaxes.
“No way she goes on,” The house manager bawls, insistent with sweat and shivering dreadlocks.
“House empty or something?” Dinarzad demands.
“No. But she can’t play. I have to-”
Dinarzad pushes past the house manager. “Need to see who’s out there. We had a deal. Get paid no matter how many asses fill your seats.” She thrusts her head through the curtain, whips it shut again and turns to the house manager, still sputtering, and motionless Shahrazad.
“So she can’t go on,” Dinarzad admits. “Just pay us half what we agreed, then call the police. We‘ll leave.”
Shahrazad is stunned. “I have to play tonight.”
Dinarzad’s expression matches the house manager’s. She takes her sister’s face in her hands.
“Shah, we can‘t stay.”
“I gotta play.”
“Maybe try Camaralzaman and Badura’s tomorrow. Do their talent night, lots of important people’ll see you, Shah.” Dinarzad is soothing yet firm. She pats Shahrazad’s shoulder.
“I’m ready tonight. I don’t play, I’ll lose it. Did at Hindbad’s when he kept pushing us to the next day. I feel it going, same as then.”
Dinarzad returns to the house manager. “Half and we’ll be on our way.” Her hunger for an answer is a snarling, skinny dog. If she gets just half the money, Dinarzad will carry her sister out screaming. The hunchback has to say yes. Dinarzad is staring at him hard as possible. She wants to shake him, but he’s already scared. The manager runs, they get nothing.
“Callin’ the police right now,” The house manager is dancing away when Shahrazad lurches off the stool and grabs his hand. The guitar hangs by its neck in her other. Shahrazad tries to say something. Words creep up but won’t blossom, and the house manager is pulling free. Shahrazad yanks him hard. He falls at her feet. She looks down at his sweaty face, his eyes everywhere but up her skirt. Her grip is springy but tight, with calluses on Shahrazad’s fingers scratching the hunchback’s palm. Dinarzad watches quietly, her sister’s outbursts are rare rays of sunlight poking through opaque clouds.
“Raise the curtain.
His answer rushes out on a tide of mumbles. “N-n-n-n-no.”
“I’ll do it free.” Shahrazad whispers. Dinarzad’s eyes cross.
The house manager pleads. “Not about the money. Out there, this guy-”
“Five people or five thousand, I play.” Shahrazad drops his hand and climbs back up the stool, rocking on the uneven legs. She swipes hair from her face, crosses her legs and balances the guitar at an odd angle. Instead of bending towards it, she clutches the guitar to her shoulder like a gun.
No more words. Shahrazad simply waits. Eventually, the hunchback shoots a final glare at Dinarzad and stands. He lifts the curtain. The stage is overrun with light as he sprints for the back exit, pooka shells in his hair beating a clacking retreat. Dinarzad is more discreet with her escape, and moves just fast enough to catch the door before it closes. Her departure is silent. The alarm died years ago.
Despite the brightness, Shahrazad easily sees the savaged nightclub. Chairs are overturned, tables broken. Bodies, limbs and heads cover the carpet. Blood radiates from the walls, gathering in puddles everywhere. The painful, salty scent crawls toward the stage. Sitting front row is an undershirted man, cleaning a machete on the only surviving table. His head gleams bald, cast-iron black and he runs his tongue across his mustache, looking expectantly at Shahrazad on stage.
“Shahrayar.” She murmurs.
“Come to see me play?”
Shahrayar nods. “Wanted to know what you were ignoring me for.”
“You kill them?”
“Got in a mood. May get in another after you finish.”
Shahrazad glances behind her. No one’s there. Dinarzad usually gives the signal, just out of the audience‘s sight. Shahrazad is afraid to start by herself, but realizes even if she starts, she doesn’t have to stop.
“My first song’s about a fisherman. Hope you enjoy it.” Shahrazad taps her foot. Slow chords drip out of the guitar, and music replaces the violent silence.