Gifts of the Wise

"Are you a man or a woman?"

Gifts of the Wise

by Erin Halfelven

"What do you call that instrument you're playing?" the large man at one of the nearest tables asked.

Rae smiled. That sort of question came up at almost every performance. At least, those where the audience sat close enough to ask. "I call her, 'Gizmalena Ottano Bellatrixie Gildenlark Don't-Tell-Your-Mama Harpenstein' but his real name is 'Smoochie'." And so saying, Rae delivered a large, apparently juicy, theatrical kiss to the ribbed, pear-shaped body of the instrument.

Everyone laughed and the large man turned red in the face but he laughed, too. Rae ran a gurgling, recurring decrescendo on the strings in accompaniment. "No, I mean, what kind of instrument is it?" The large man persisted. "It looks like a banjo mated with a fiddle and raised their son to be a mandolin." More laughter.

Sitting up straight, Rae looked down a haughty nose and plucked a quavering, questioning chord, "That, sir, would be a ukelele." More laughs from the crowd. "Smoochie here is a luth-th-th." Rae's enunciation owed more to Sylvester Pussycat than to Renaissance French, but it was indeed a luth, the mandolin-like relative of the modern guitar with the typical "broken neck" Araby design, six courses double-strung in silver-wrapped gut and wire.

Keeping up a chuckling rhythm, the luth seemed to laugh in two keys at once. Using the little finger for stability, Rae wore a thimble-style plectrum on thumb and three fingers, like someone playing a steel guitar. It made possible an incredible density and complexity to the sounds produced by the antique instrument. Possible, at least, for someone with nearly inhuman dexterity and talent.

The large man caught his breath. "Where does it come from?"

"Ffrom Ffrance, by way of Damascuthth," sprayed Rae. "She was made by a Swiss luthier. That's a luth perthon who makes tight luths."

And while they still rocked and roared with laughter, Rae began to sing, singing the first line twice to let them get quiet and listen.

I wore the green of Lincoln with that outlaw Robin Hood.
Yes, I wore the green of Lincoln with that outlaw Robin Hood,
And we lived as was our pleasure in the forest of Sherwood.
They had a name they called me, 'twas Alan o' the Dale,
But that was long ago and far away and I already told the tale.
I crossed the waves on another time with old Teach they called Blackbeard,
We thought we were the boldest braves and never a man we feared.
They had a name they called me but it seems to've slipped my mind.
That was long ago and far away and maybe once upon a time.
I've lived a hundred lifetimes, you may think that I'm insane,
But once they called me Roland -- I think that was the name,
And when I blew that horn of mine to my side the chieftain came.
I played Dixie at Antietam when Lee gave Grant his sword
Or maybe it was Yankee Doodle, I don't remember what color I wore.
I beat a drum for Wellington, and I played a harp for Saul
And I made up songs for Billy in the Lincoln County War.
I carried a spear for Caesar, I just don't remember which one.
I carried a hod on the zigguraut, I don't know what I haven't done.
But mostly I've made music, with horn and lute and fife,
And it seems to me that's not so bad a way to spend a life.
For I've lived a hundred of them, and my name is Ysraefel.
But once they called me Joshua -- there's a story that they tell
That when I blew that horn of mine the walls of the city fell.
And I wore the green of Lincoln in the forest of Sherwood
And what we did we thought we did what we did was good.
They had a name they called me but it's been such a long long time
So long ago, so far way and maybe -- once upon a time.

The audience clapped when they realized the song had finished and Rae gave them eight more tunes -- familiar ones like Greensleeves, Sweet Betsy from Pike, three Simon and Garfunkel tunes, a Harry Chapin, a John Lennon, and one by Carly Simon. After the last, the crowd drifted away a bit or turned at their tables to speak to one another, magically allowing the musician time to take a break.

Rae put the luth away, taking out a blues guitar. The metal resonator glistened in the spotlight as loving hands set the instrument up where it could easily reach temperature equilibrium with the room. No metal-topped guitar would ever sound right played cold and Rae knew the individual peculiarities of every one of over fifty instruments after years of traveling together in the old Volkswagen van.

One lady still sat at her little round table front and center before the tiny stage watching Rae's little rituals. She wore a black tube skirt and an elegant white blouse with ruffles at neck and cuffs and a pleated bib front. Three necklaces, one of cut crystal, one of graduated pearls and one of brass tubelets matched similar bracelets. An empty cocktail glass sat in front of her and she rested her hands on the table, cupping her fingers around the stem.

After placing a ten-hole harmonica in a brace, Rae turned to the woman and arched one eyebrow. She nodded and Rae pulled over a chair from another table and sat down opposite her. A waiter silently placed a glass of German wheat beer in front of the musician and took away the woman's cocktail glass when she shook her head. Rae placed one slender hand on top of hers and asked, "Do you still sing?"

She shook her head again. "I'm not that brave," she said in a soft contralto. "How did you know I used to sing?"

Rae smiled, offering no elaboration but a simple, "I watched you."

"We've never met before. You don't know anything about me," she said.

"Nothing you haven't told me," Rae agreed.

She looked at the slender hand resting now between hers. Rae's nails were short while hers were long and painted. She looked back up. "Are you a man or a woman?" she asked.

"Are you?" Rae asked, still smiling.

* * *

Later they made love in the noisy bed of a nearby motel, squeaky music of springs and sighs. "I'd like to sing again," she said while they rested together like spoons in tattered velvet.

"Why don't you?" asked Rae.

"I'm afraid," she admitted. "I sang..." she trailed off.

Rae's fingers traced her neck gently. "You still sing, you just don't let anyone else hear you. You're afraid people will think your voice too low for a woman's?"

She nodded. "You have such an incredible range. No one would know?"

"Know what?" Rae asked, smiling.

"Whether you're a man or a woman?"

Rae laughed softly. "We just made love and you're still not sure?"

She stared for a moment then dissolved into giggles.

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