“The Elf” By Sean Boyd
It was an ancient melody. I whistled through midtown Manhattan trying to remember where I had first had heard it or when I first realized I knew every note. I do remember my excitement the day I discovered it on one of my Mom’s old records. I listened to it over and over as the pipes and whistles alternated taking the foreground, and the mandocello and boron colored the background. The intense melancholy was intoxicating. Two sections repeated a few times, the energy elevated each time the top of the melody came around, exhibiting Celtic music’s brilliant, ferocious grace. The song’s name was in Gaelic andI never knew how to pronounce it, so whenever I met someone who could play the old songs I would whistle a lick to make my request.
Still whistling as I descended into the subway, I was tickled by the increase in volume and the endless echo provided by the tiled-wall corridors. After paying my fare I walked to the end of the platform to be alone in my whistling reverie and avoid the glances of my fellow travelers that would suggest sorrow at the sight of another New Yorker who had lost their grip. The sound of the train pulling into the station overwhelmed my performance so I paused my breathy exuberance to step into the train.
I stood with my back to the doors at the end of the car and considered entertaining my subterranean brethren. It wasn’t very crowded and I do whistle well, so I let it rip. Not casual and under my breath — I let it out. I received predictable looks, but when it became obvious I wasn’t going to stop I was ignored. Except by one person. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a figure change posture, and, in the way you know someone is looking at you from behind, I knew I had caught someone’s attention.
I was only going a few stops, and when the doors opened at my station I simply backed out whistling. I am sure my departure came as a relief to the other passengers who probably expected me to take out a cup and ask for donations. As I turned away from the train I saw a man bolt through the doors at the other end of the car. Either he had forgotten it was his stop, or it was the person whose attention I had attracted who would no doubt follow me and turn out to be some freak. As it turns out, the latter was closer to the truth.
I climbed out of the station and onto the sidewalk. Stepping into the buttery sunshine of a day that oozed the zest of spring, I was addressed from behind. I turned to survey my detractor and, as all New Yorkers must, calculate the danger level of the unrequested attention. I immediately realized there was no security threat as I found myself face to face with an elf; not short and squat like one of Santa’s elves, but tall and thin like those of the British Isles. His hair was golden and the thin strands danced in the light breeze. His sharp facial features were highlighted by a narrow nose framed by green eyes set deeply in his head. His skin was fair and though he was only modestly handsome he was lovely to look upon. Protruding from the sides of his head were the surest signs that I was dealing with an elf: delicately pointed ears.
He looked at me and asked how I knew “Shebag and Shemor”. He saw the confusion on my face and, still drawing a blank when he repeated himself, said it was the melody I had been whistling. I told him I had known the melody most of my life without ever knowing the title. He was surprised that a modern-day, urban dweller would know this old song, and asked if I knew what it was about. I told him I didn’t, having always known it as an instrumental. He informed me that though wordless it did in fact tell a story, and if I had a few minutes he would be happy to relate the tale. Time must flow differently for elves because his few minutes ended up being hours.
I led us to a small park with benches just across the avenue. We sat down as the sun played through leaves too young to have taken on the dark greens of summer, and he shared the tale. I have never heard or seen such an intense and involved storyteller. His oration gained energy as he spoke. It seemed he could talk for days. His voice was sweet and smooth at times, course and bitter at others. He made demonstrative facial expressions and gesticulated with his hands; at points becoming so excited he would jump up and dance around with his arms weaving patterns in the air as he told his tale. I could feel the climate, taste the smells, and my emotions bobbed and spun with the plight of the characters. His story was so vivid and real I felt transported to the time and place he described. It was easy to imagine he had been present when the marvelous events occurred. His story was so rich with details and characters there was no way I could keep track. Here’s what I remember:
Shebag and Shemor were two faerie hills in Ireland. Faeries build elaborate communities that are mostly underground in mounds with grass and heather growing over the top. With numerous entrances, terraces, and balconies their cities overlook the surrounding countryside. For the most part, these elf hills were concealed by the landscape, but the entrances and outside spaces were protected by magic. The only reason we have knowledge of their homes, besides elves, is that occasionally a lazy, or inattentive faerie would be posting guard when a human happened by. When this occurred an alarm would sound and a great number of inhabitants would pour forth from the mound and use magic to confuse and remove the innocent passerby. There are more than a few stories by people who noticed on many occasions when they had come to a particular place in the wood, they would become forgetful and find themselves back in bed, wondering why they felt so lazy. A few people were very persistent and upon swearing violent oaths of secrecy were befriended by the faeries. And of course the elves and faeries were known to each other and often had treaties and long-lasting friendships.
It turns out that faeries used to be more solitary creatures, but as the ages passed and the number of magical beings dwindled in the world they began to interact more with each other. As they found they could rely on each other as a source of mirth and protection from the men and institutions who sought to wipe out magical beings they began forming bands. At first they lived in small groups in treetops, clock towers, and other out of the way places, but being fond of laughter and tired of constantly being on the lookout they discovered larger groups better served their needs. It was then they started excavating mounds. As all the faeries of Ireland converged the result was two massive cities in the middle of the Emerald Isle, one facing north and one south. They were in close proximity which contributed to greater safety, and provided neighbors to tease and play tricks on.
The melody I had been whistling was about a time when the two faerie hills were battling each other. Of course they weren’t at war the way humans go to war with its bloodshed and shame leaving dismembered corpses and maimed persons in the wake of atrocious acts of terror. Battles between faeries were mostly magical affairs, with both sides likely to cheer when one side was outdone by the other. Clever tricksters and magnificent deeds were often applauded by all parties. Occasionally there might be a regrettable act, like trapping a faerie and forgetting where, at which time both sides would work together to find and release the captive. All forays relied on cleverness and magic, not force or might, and each side had its heroes who could single-handedly achieve some great act of plunder or mischief. There were even times when faeries would act as conspiring traitors and help in some mysterious incident that would be applauded in both camps once the truth was told. Faeries love to laugh and do not at all mind being laughed at. When on the receiving end of some act of trickery a faerie was as likely to laugh as hard as the rest and be thrilled with the occurrence.
The events he relayed occurred over a period of one hundred years. The heroes — masters of magic — and the events they instigated were too numerous to recount. Because of the length of the story and the number of plots and sub-plots, and perhaps mostly because of the unusual names, my mind was reeling after he finished, crammed with the excitement and the sound of laughter. The story was a jumble in my memory, and though I can’t remember the details I often find myself giggling with a very clear image in my mind of one scene or another. The thrilling story is still alive in my mind and my heart is warmed by the surreal remembrances I have, but I could not give a reliable account of any part of the tale.
When he noticed me growing fatigued from laughter and suspense, my new friend the elf, whose name is Jack, reclined on the bench and became silent. I was exhausted. I slowly became aware of the city sounds which heralded me back to the present. Then Jack asked me if I was a musician. I told him I was and that I knew many traditional songs. He said he was traveling with his fiddle and suggested we meet and play. I thought it was a great idea. He proffered 2:00 pm the next afternoon as he had a lecture to give in a little while. I pictured him in a room of wiccan-wanna-bes explaining old lore, as I figured without resorting to magic the odd-ball lecture circuit might be the best way for an elf to get by in this day and age. He told me the name of his hotel and, handing me his business card, asked me to call if my plans changed. I looked at his card expecting to see runes or magical symbols and was surprised to find he was a dean of entomology (bugs) at a Central-American university.
I had a feeling that the meeting on the morrow would not be a convergence of equals as I was sure he had more to offer than I. This turned out to be true, and I received one of my most profound musical teachings.
Washington Square Park was full of entertainers when I arrived. Musicians, comedians, mimes, trick skate-boarders, and more were out working on new material, sharpening performances, or just jamming. Entertainers who wanted to make money usually worked the streets which tended to be more lucrative, though a few magicians and comedians have been known to work the park and make decent money. I had played in the park a lot but usually found myself listening to somebody who would ask a question, feigning conversation, and then launch into a monologue about him or herself. I preferred to play on the street where people either stopped to listen or moved on. I usually had my case open. Not only could I use the money, but I had noticed years earlier that if you are not asking for money less people stop and listen. They question your motives. Once they see you are doing it for the money the relationship is defined and even if they don’t donate they feel more comfortable being an audience.
It was a beautiful day, warm with a pleasant breeze rustling through the trees. The park was brimming with gawkers, strollers, tourists, and the usual array of attention-starved entertainers. As I walked around the central fountain I saw many of the same old faces. There was the Jimi Hendrix impersonator, a bunch of white guys playing Neil Young songs, a fire-eater, the resident bad comedian, and a racially eclectic group playing various hand drums. When I found Jack he had his fiddle out but had unfortunately already attracted a lonely soul. He stood patiently listening to a monologue of obscure personal information and was thankful for my arrival which served to intervene. We tuned up and jumped right into “Old Joe Clark” as our first song.
He had an old-timey style. He held his fiddle not on his shoulder under his chin but low against his chest almost tucked under his arm. When he sang his voice acquired the soft drawl of Appalachia and his tone was like peat-lined, oak bellows pushing air through whiskey-soaked burlap. His rhythm was easy enough to follow, yet hard to explain. It was earthy. It rolled and careened with ambivalence to the downbeat while maintaining rhythm. It was funky. I could imagine people dancing, imitating plants and animals, and could smell the pungent, churned earth beneath their feet. I could taste the moonshine and feel the heat of a fire surrounded by miners and loggers who stared out at glowing possum eyes beaming from the trees. My musical heritage was coming alive in my ears as he played song after song that I had known my whole life. He took the songs and turned them inside out and gave them legs so they took on a life of their own. They became people and places, not stories about people and places. I knew and had played these songs my whole life, but each time he ripped open my previous understanding and let the richness pour out.
After playing five or six, he asked me if I had a song. I picked a favorite of mine, “Cindy”. While I played and sang I noticed a sterility in my presentation. My vocal tone was good and I had the melody nailed, but somehow both voice and banjo lacked the earthiness of Jack’s performance. After a third verse the volume of my mind-speak got so intense that I simply stopped playing. With hardly a dropped beat Jack stated he knew a version of “Cindy” and started leading. Again he turned it out. It was so similar I really had to concentrate to hear the subtle difference in his placement of the notes. The vocal and instrumental rhythms were related, but not glued together and there was a syncopation he seemed well accustomed to. He took all the same elements of the song and made it bubble with life. He fairly re-arranged my DNA and shared a lesson I will build on my whole life.
A few months later, when I had a started trying to write down what happened, I e-mailed Jack a copy of this story. He responded that mine was an interesting perspective. I guess I never expected him to admit to being an elf.