Son of Rock
January 7, 2319: Old Rock Day
by August Niehaus
“I don’t understand why you choose to torment me like this,” Fred’s mother said, and Fred hung up and threw the phone across the room.
He ground his teeth together. He had placed the long-distance call to StarChip III to wish her happy Mother’s Day, thinking—wishing? Dreaming? Naïvely believing?—she might have a normal conversation with him, just this once. No such dumb luck. She’d been in a foul mood; there were more of those than there used to be, or maybe Fred noticed them as an adult.
As usual, Marjorie Hall had had something to say about her son’s cancer research career.
You could have been an artist. A luthier, like your father, your grandmother, your great-grandfather before her.
Yes, Mother, I could have, he’d said, the looming horizon of his 45th birthday stiffening his spine a bit, but then I wouldn’t have cured bone marrow cancer for Saturnalia, now would I?
She’d scoffed and said her final line, and anything else she might have come up with to level at him vanished in the closing of the interplanetary connection.
He stared at the dent the phone had made in the wall and wondered at how it took on the shape of a Les Paul, only turned upside-down, if you imagined the bottom-left corner was more round and less of a gouge…
Fred got up from his couch and went to the FoodBox™. It offered him a few options, and he labored over the right combination: salmon, brown rice with a touch of garlic powder, and collard greens, tonight’s green vegetable of choice. The FoodBox™ gave him the option of pulling the levers for the seasonings, and he did so with his usual restraint.
He sat alone at the blackwood table, watching Saturn’s rings’ antics out the window while he downed the meal and a glass of water. He paid for premium gravity, so his experience of the rings was more pleasant than his ‘neath-neighbors, who could only afford mid-tier gravity and had to cover the windows with curtains to keep from getting motion-sick while they ate dinner.
Fred’s gaze was drawn by the absence of color to the empty hangar on his wall, awaiting the Lyra Guitar. He didn’t have the Lyra Guitar, of course. Better known to the public by her name, Lyra Hall’s favorite of her three solidbodies, Whammy, still hung on the wall of Marjorie Hall’s bachelorette pad and would hang there until Marjorie Hall was dead—when Fred Hall would place the Lyra Guitar on its rightful hangar on his wall. Thereafter he could daily pay tribute to his great-grandmother, who still held the human record for fastest shred guitar (robot hands be damned).
His phone buzzed, crawling a few inches along the base of the wall. Fred sighed and stilled the butterflies in his stomach as he crossed the room to fetch the phone. It wasn’t his mother’s image on the ID square, thankfully—it was his assistant, the med-stats student helping him on his current research project.
“There’s been a breakthrough.” Okafor was out of breath, and from the giddy warble in his voice, it was due to laughter. “We need you right now. At the lab.”
“I’ll be there,” Fred said. He pocketed the phone, washed the last bite of salmon down with a gulp of water, and went to his computer to write his two-weeks’ notice.
Fred stayed at the Saturnalia Institute long enough to sign the patent paperwork on the gallbladder cancer treatment, then left Okafor with the mandate to press on towards finding a full cure and sailed out the door to fulfill his family’s legacy and become a luthier.
Only his sister and mother were around to impress now, but—God help him, Fredrick Hall was going to be a damn fine luthier like his relatives before him.
Fred’s new girlfriend Ishani spotted the Guitar Universe review of his first guitar, a Telecaster with a matte gray finish, as they sat down to a breakfast of cream of wheat and fresh orange juice.
“Oh, hon, it’s so amazing, seeing your name in the paper. Here. Jon Egan writes, ahem, ‘When I was rushed through a twenty-minute tour of this instrument, I thought I might be sipping from the Holy Grail, unable to endure more than few moments in its presence. What was placed into my hands went far beyond unendurable. It was thick, lifeless, wholly devoid of any artistry. Between a poorly resonant and painfully heavy wood choice, an unappealing finish, and an unimaginable shape, this Telecaster bored and horrified me, knowing its cost to build. If one would call a guitar that delighted in play and the full potential of the luthier’s imagination a Peter Pan guitar, one would call Fred Hall’s first offering a Captain Hook guitar.’ Oh, Freddie, that’s no good at all.” Ishani’s face had fallen in a pouty way that would have been attractive under any other circumstances, but looked like a theatrical mockery to Fred when it punctuated Egan’s harsh words.
“It’s fine,” he said flatly, poking at the rubbery cereal in his bowl. “Clearly Egan never touched the instrument. I should have expected so-called ‘hands-on’ sham pieces like this, with such idiots filling the offices of the music trades.”
Fred felt the next few weeks bore him out: name after name, none of whom had called him to ask for an in-person demo of the Telecaster, chewing him and his instrument to tiny pieces via the written word. Ishani faithfully printed out the relevant articles for him on paper, even when she looked afraid to bring him that day’s batch, so he could read his news the way he preferred.
After reading a review by Heather Loess that claimed, “I was more inspired when I picked up last year’s starter Fender model—at least those overworked artisans know that an instrument is meant to play, not act as an eyesore collecting dust,” Fred crumpled the paper into a tight ball, growling incoherently.
“Hon?” Ishani asked in a small voice, topping off his orange juice.
Fred made a noise that sounded like he was choking on a vowel. It finally became words. “I,” he grated, “am a scientist. My guitar was made to exacting standards that would put a NASA capital ship to shame. I measured the paint to the micron. I chose a wood typical of early twenty-first century Gibson classics. I measured the traditional width of pickups in models selling in previous centuries for tens of thousands of US dollars, and I replicated them precisely!”
He paused, his chest heaving.
“Is there no room for technical perfection in this blasted universe?”
“Aw, Freddie,” Ishani said. She patted him on the arm. “I think he just meant you need a little more magic.”
No one would accept his sponsorship. No one would commission him for a personal instrument. No artist wanted their own line of Fredrick Hall Guitarworks originals.
The critics threw around words like “bland.” “Uninspired.” “Boring.”
Fred knew he was a laughingstock in luthier circles, but he persisted in making guitars and attending the conferences with them. He would stand beside his instruments in their no-wire anti-gravity display cases, gritting his teeth so hard his jaw hurt for weeks afterwards. There were many curious on-lookers, but hardly anyone wanted to pick up the guitars.
So when a young blue-headed girl bounded across the Guild of Saturnalia Luthiers showroom floor to his display, her parents nervously trailing after, Fred had no trouble believing she was after the Liesel Mo guitars on the racks behind his table. He turned away, unable to watch the youngster’s eagerness at such a factory-hewn monstrosity.
But then he felt a tug on his sleeve. Fred looked down into the girl’s bright brown eyes.
“Y-yes, miss?” He had to stretch his jaw to get the words out.
“Can I play it? It’s so pretty.” She was probably eleven or twelve, peering around him as if the guitar might bite. “It looks like a crown, or kind of a sword. I saw it across the room.” This, apparently, was a point of pride for her—not so for her parents, hanging a couple of yards back with hangdog expressions.
Fred recognized the mother as Caitlin Ardeni and his face warmed. The nerves down his arms tingled with indecision. Hand Caitlin’s daughter his instrument, or refuse a curious little girl her intellectual satisfaction?
Besides, what if she was the one who would understand his genius?
The possibility made his tingling hands tremble. He reached for the case.
“Here,” Fred said, very careful not to look over at Caitlin, “you can sit on the stool.”
It was actually a replica of Ivan the Terrible’s throne Fred had special-ordered for the occasion, but the only other person who’d seemed willing to try the quartz SG he was showing today had been scared off by his calling the throne what it was.
As he plugged the guitar into his Fender amp, he asked the girl, “What’s your name? So I can put it in my guest book.”
“Daniela Ardeni,” she said proudly. “The second. My gramma’s the first.”
“Very good,” Fred said. It cheered him to find a child with a similar sense of heritage as his. “Alright, I’ve got it all plugged in, and it won’t need a tuner. Go ahead, play whatever you like.”
He’d set it so it seemed to sit on her lap, but was actually supported by the arms of the throne. Grinning, Daniela flung her right arm over the SG’s curvy body and grabbed the neck in her left.
Her grin faded. She blinked, looked up sharply into the distance, slid her hand up and down the frets. The fingers of her left hand fluttered experimentally over the strings. Her right hand hadn’t moved since she’d rested it over the pick guard.
Then Daniela plucked the A string.
The amp poured forth a perfectly intonated, perfectly resonant, perfectly in-tune A note. It filled the hall, turning heads down the rows of the GLS floor. Fred’s chest swelled with pride as he savored that perfect A.
It faded away with all of the decorum of a great lion falling asleep. Fred let a tiny smile play on his lips as he turned to Daniela.
The look on her face was equal parts bewilderment and revulsion. She’d raised her hands off the SG and kept looking down at them as if they’d been burned.
Brushing the blue hair out of her face, Daniela glanced towards her mother. A new grimace of reluctance took over her pinched lips. “It’s, uh, really nice-looking, mister. You can have it back now.”
Fred lifted the SG back into its case and closed the door carefully. When he turned around, he could just spot the back of Daniela’s head retreating into the crowd gathered to see the Liesel Mo instruments.
He left the Ardeni name out of the guest book.
Ishani insisted on screening any calls from his mother, so she was the one who picked up when the nurse called to tell Fred that Marjorie Hall had gallbladder cancer. Ishani handed him the phone, her face turning ashen.
Marjorie had a strong chance of survival, with treatment, the nurse quickly went on. Fred’s hand went numb and it was as if a stranger held the phone against his head.
Of course he had left the space on the wall for the Lyra Guitar, but Marjorie’s death had never felt like an inevitability to Fred. Somewhere in the back of his mind, his mother stalked eternal.
But this. This was reality knocking on the door with brass knuckles.
There was only so much time left to show Marjorie what he could do.
He sent Ishani away for the day and paced around his apartment, his mind tracing paths as well-worn as the carpet in the hallways. The inklings of a plan began to gather around him like metal flakes attracted to a spinning magnet, and soon he went to stand triumphant at the window, to gaze upon the rings with a deep sense of destiny and magnitude.
Fred made a single call that evening, when he knew the citizens of Colony Barnard would be awake.
“Uli,” Fred said in his friendliest tone when the antiques dealer took the phone from his assistant. “Good to hear you. I need a few things.”
“Already, Fred? You promised me, no more for three years. It’s not even been one.”
“Yes, yes. That was different.” Fred paused, contemplated requesting an order of stem cells, then shook his head as if Uli could see. “No, this is something else entirely. I need very specific materials, and you were my first thought.”
“And why should I, huh? You screwed me and Marie pretty bad on that last order.” Uli’s anger roared through the phone.
Fred narrowed his eyes and injected all of the haughtiness he could into his voice. “Because you would be remiss to pass up an opportunity to help a member of the famed Hall guitar family with a very specific project.”
Two hours of exhausting verbal sparring later, and Uli promised to try to find the requested materials. He sounded defeated, and Fred snapped his phone closed with a triumphant smirk at the Lyra Guitar’s hanging place. It was lovely to be able to throw around enough money and the family name to get what he wanted.
A nervous-looking woman floated from her GalacticExpress shuttlecraft with a large crate in her arms.
“Package for… Mr. Fredrick Hall?”
“That’s me,” Fred said, kicking off his stoop to glide towards her. He’d been wearing his space suit for thirty minutes in anticipation of the delivery.
“Sign here, please.” She seemed all too eager to release the crate into his hands and swap him for an autograph.
Fred patted the crate with an immense grin and gestured to her clipboard. “You might want to keep that signature. Could be worth a lot of money soon.”
She gave him a look that clearly said, I doubt it. But now that the box was out of her possession, she seemed more inclined to talk. “Good luck with whatever’s in there. It kept screaming about ‘the fame of a dead man’s deeds.’ Made it impossible for me to get Pet Warehouse to accept today’s delivery.”
Fred considered apologizing but decided the steep delivery fee was thanks enough. He waved the delivery woman on and gave the box a hearty shove to send it floating towards his open front door. It bumped gently against the forcefield, as if waiting patiently for him to pull up alongside it and release the protective seal on his apartment.
Once inside, Fred struggled to push the box along the carpeted floor into the center of the living room; it was much heavier than he’d anticipated. There was an odd sound emanating from inside of it—like a babbling brook, if said brook was filled with malevolent blood.
Bracing himself, Fred opened the box.
Inside he found a piece of ash wood twice the size of his upper body, almost golden in color: a workable piece of Yggdrasil itself. Tucked beside it and wrapped in several layers of bubble wrap was a small box, and Fred knew that was the jawbone of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull.
He smiled and got to work.
His smile was gone within a day, replaced by a frown of concentration and heavy beads of sweat on his brow. Yggdrasil fought him every step of the way. From the moment he put it in his shuttle to take it to a mill for milling and planing, he heard a sibilant voice hissing in his ears, words that were hardly discernable as words, but were more like impressions, the kind that claws leave. That voice followed him through the hours of cutting and carving and hollowing out, through the days of sanding and shaving. It was an agony to work the wood—the tree actually screamed when he cut and shaped it, called him “stray-singer” and dunga, or useless man.
Indeed, Yggdrasil’s voice even whispered cruel nothings in his sleep. In the nearly year’s worth of work on the guitar—nearly non-stop, with only four hours of rest per day, in two brief naps—the sweat on Fred’s brow turned to blood.
I shiver on high, Yggdrasil promised often, and I will loose the giant on you.
When he couldn’t sleep, but his hands insisted on a few moments’ rest, he listened to recordings of Norse scholars reading the Eddic poems. He knew most of what Yggdrasil spat at him was some variation on the words of these ancient verses.
Sometimes, like when he tapped the wood all over to test the resonance, Yggdrasil snarled and bucked until Fred’s arms were tired. I was once the tree with mighty roots beneath the mold! The renowned tree of fate below the earth! The cry of the Shrieking Horn will follow you at my bidding.
Sometimes, like when he tried to pitch the neck forward with his hands, the tree grew hot and bellowed at him. I will call the wrath of the white water upon your cursed head if you do not cease cutting the holy tree!
Sometimes, like when he sealed over the finish with glossy lacquer in the hopes it might shut Yggdrasil up for a while, the tree was resigned and sullen. Nithogg would tear you to bits, you failing artist.
That last bit, Fred figured, was not strictly from the Eddic poems.
He carved the nut out of the skull’s crystal and carefully glued it in place. He commissioned, assembled, and installed a series of complex robo-tuners. He cut and set meteorite inlays along the fretboard in the shape of a runic phrase from Völuspá, Yggdrasil’s favorite verse from the Codex Regius. He set a large, flat piece of the skull crystal in the headstock, laid over his carved signature.
And at the end of his labor, Fred held a hollow-body guitar stained to look like a tree against a sky of fire, held perfectly in tune, suspended, like Odin’s body. Its intonation, resonance, and aesthetic were, in a word, sublime.
He called it Hávamál, after the Old Norse collection of poems. After eleven months of labor, it seemed only right to dignify it with such a name, even if he did refuse to call it Yggdrasil.
Despite Yggdrasil’s efforts, Hávamál fit perfectly into the titanium case he’d ordered custom-made to the exact measurements of the final design. Fred admired it for a few hours before carefully lowering the lid and latching it shut.
As he knelt beside the final latch, something on the floor across the room caught his eye. He went over and picked up a thin sliver of Yggdrasil’s wood and the chunk of skull crystal lying beside it. They lay in the palm of his hand, one across the other, and he was compelled to make the shape permanent and hang it on a string around his neck, under his shirt. It sat there, mysteriously warm and alive against his chest, while he made the call to Liesel Mo’s agent.
He only had to remind the pop star’s people twice in the days leading up to the Fredrick Hall Guitarworks Debut Revue that while this might not be a charity event per se, it was being commissioned by one of the researchers who had discovered the cure for bone marrow cancer and it was certain to be a historic occasion. The almost-cancellation was thwarted, the night arrived, and Liesel Mo showed up at the Virgin Galactic Center with a big smile and a noticeably missing guitar case.
Fred was right offstage, where he could easily correct improper prop placement. He noticed Liesel out of the corner of his eye and marked her arrival with some relief, but could not stop combing the Founder’s Box for signs of his mother. He had sent her a formal invitation to the show, along with a personalized video message about how much he hoped she could make it, but the trip from StarChip III was long, even without a nurse and medical equipment tagging along.
If Marjorie Hall wasn’t present, this entire performance was in vain.
Thank goodness Yggdrasil had more or less shut up since arriving at the venue, and he was left to his own dark thoughts. Fred dug his fingernails into his palms, craning on tiptoe to try and locate his mother in the crowd. When he came back down flat, a bright voice startled him.
“Hey! You’re Fred, right? Man, I am so stoked for this! The venue looks great.” Leslie Mo’s broad, infectious smile held her face captive as she swiveled, hands on hips, to take in the whole stage. She couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17.
Fred sniffed. “I am Fredrick, yes,” he said. “Have you seen the guitar yet?”
She shook her head, eyes sparkling with excitement. “Can’t wait. Will you show me?”
He led her to the case, stood upright against a wall so none of the grips would trip over it. When he opened it and stepped aside, Liesel gasped and covered her mouth with both hands.
“Oh my God. Fred, it’s gorgeous! The most beautiful guitar I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure.” She kept alternating between covering her mouth and clasping her hands beneath her chin. “May I hold it?”
“Yes,” he said stiffly, remembering Daniela Ardeni. “Please be careful.”
“Of course,” Liesel gushed. To her credit, her hands were gentle but sure as she lifted the instrument and held it out in front of her. The sparkle in her eyes doubled and she let out a low whistle. “Damn, Fred, this is some good stuff. What do you call it?”
“Hávamál,” he said, puffing up his chest. Her enthusiasm gave him a pleasant measure of satisfaction with his work. “After—well, it’s from Norse mythology.”
“Awesome. Hávamál.” Liesel pronounced it correctly on the first try. “I like it. I’ll yell that out in the show at some point if you like.”
Fred nodded, but his mind was already wandering back out to go up to the Founder’s Box and search for any signs of his mother. “Sounds good. You can put it back until it’s time to play it. See you in the show.”
“Thanks so much, Fred!” Liesel called after him, and he was glad when he couldn’t hear her oddly musical laughter anymore. It didn’t really matter what kind of a person, or even musician, Liesel was; what mattered was that over 70,000 people had gathered at Virgin Galactic Center to watch her play his guitar.
Marjorie Hall was not among them.
Fred’s arrival to the Founder’s Box brought with it an uproar of effusive commentary from the wealthy theater patrons who were eager to know more about this unusual addition to the year’s programming. He waved them off and went to sulk in the front corner reserved for him and his mother, hearing nothing but the roar of anger and defeat in his ears.
He couldn’t even appreciate the magnificent sight of Saturn’s rings spinning slowly overhead through the invisible field keeping the oxygen inside Virgin Galactic Center.
The house lights dimmed and the audience exchanged their chatter for their seats. Collective breath was held.
“Hello, Fredrick,” said the voice he loved and loathed most in all the world.
Without turning, Fred nodded stiffly. “Hello, Mother.”
A nurse wheeled Marjorie Hall into place next to Fred’s chair. She frowned each of them into silence before settling into the seat saved for Marjorie and leaning forward in anticipation.
Still, the only things on the stage were the paper-mache waves and silken lengths stretched and fluttered between them, setting a peaceful ocean scene. Thick smoke began to curl out from under the curtains bunched on either side of the stage, and soon the imaginary world onstage was obscured by what looked like an early morning fog.
As if out of nowhere, Liesel Mo rose up on what Fred knew was a secret platform in the stage. The crowd went wild as she raised Hávamál over her head in her signature salute to her fans. Then she settled the guitar across her body, the strap behind her neck, and lifted her hands for silence.
Miraculously, the crowd obeyed.
Marjorie leaned over so that her breath was hot on Fred’s cheek.
“I just filed my will with my attorney this morning,” she said quietly enough that although the room was silent, Fred was the only one who could hear her, “which includes my wishes that the Lyra Guitar be donated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
She straightened in her wheelchair, staring straight ahead with an expression of grim satisfaction.
Fred couldn’t have been more stunned by his mother if she had hit him across the head with a rock. His innards felt emptied of life. He thought of that space on his wall, empty forever.
Liesel’s voice broke the silence. “YEEE-EAAAAHHH!”
As she stretched the H into endless syllables, she struck a hard A chord on Hávamál. The crowd screamed in delight at the sound, which reverberated endlessly around the bowl that was Virgin Galactic Center. Liesel’s smile was huge enough to see even from the second level, and she launched into the next three chords of her new song “Be My Shooting Star.”
Giant screens flashed the lyrics on-screen; even though the crowd had never heard the song before, they valiantly attempted to join in with the chorus. Hávamál’s tone was rich and open, inviting Liesel’s precious voice to dance.
It was so flawless a partnership of instrument and artist that even in Fred’s shocked condition, a part of his outrage melted away in the face of the beauty before him. He even raised his hands and clapped in time when Liesel transitioned to her most popular song.
Despite Marjorie’s proclamation, Fred allowed himself to feel successful. The crowd was obviously elated, and the patrons in the Founder’s Box all looked nostalgic at worst and ecstatic at best. Hávamál was indeed the beginning of his fresh start as a luthier. It would make his name great, too, right alongside those of his family.
Then Liesel began a crazy guitar solo that travelled all the way up the neck and landed firmly on the highest E.
The instant she bent that final note, the robo-tuners fought her. Liesel made a valiant effort to keep bending the string, her perpetual smile twisting into a frustrated frown as she battled the instrument. Hávamál seemed to come alive in her hands; Fred’s bleary eyes were sure they saw a massive snake, born of the winding branches of the stained tree, rear up and snap at Liesel’s fingers.
Hávamál emitted a terrible, screeching wail and the amplifiers caught it and magnified it and flung it around the room. The sound made the air tremble, reverberating against every eardrum and wall and sensitive component until the whole place seemed to shake with the force of the sound.
That was when the stage’s gravity machine sputtered off.
When it had come time to set the budget for every aspect of the show, Fred had had to make some hard choices. He’d opted for higher-quality props and sound system, since he was already paying for the videographer to capture footage for the future documentary he planned to produce.
And he’d signed off on mid-tier gravity for Virgin Galactic Center.
It turned out that mid-tier gravity machines were not only as powerful as their premium counterparts, they were also less reliable.
Flung by the force of the Saturnalia’s gravity generation rings, Liesel shot straight into the air above the stage. She clutched Hámavál with her entire body, a look of terror contorting her pretty face as she flew beyond all hope of safety and right through the oxygen field, which hadn’t been designed to hold people inside the arena as well as breathable air.
The field sealed behind Liesel’s body, and 70,000 pairs of disbelieving eyes watched their beloved pop star vanish from sight with a Fred Hall original guitar in her hands.
Fred slowly turned to meet his mother’s horrified gaze. There was no need for her to speak to him—perhaps she never would again.
The wood and crystal necklace warmed unbearably until Fred had to reach into his shirt and grasp it in his fist to keep from searing his chest and to steady himself. He squeezed his eyes shut. Yggdrasil’s sibilant voice slithered through his mind once again.
Go back to curing cancers, stray-singer…
Image from Wikipedia (Yggdrasil).
This story was inspired by my husband’s recent interest in guitar repair, refinishing, and rebuilding. I’ve been saturated in the lingo and culture the past year and a half and it all conspired to become, well, this! I took the way my husband does things and imagined a character who did exactly the opposite. Special thanks to him for his input on my accuracy!