by Joshua Burnett
Thirty-one years after the initial blaze in 1969, chimerical fires still burn on the Cuyahoga River. That's why we Kithain call Cleveland "The Land of Burning Waters." I run a small club down in the Flats. It's called the Sacred Grove. Maybe you've heard of it; it's just a stone's throw away from the infamous river. On that night, the flames were flickering as bright as ever.
It was a few hours before opening, and the band was hanging out, practicing and tuning up. They're good kids, really. They actually named their band after the Cuyahoga. Burning River, that's them. I like having them around. They play a couple times a week, and they never fail to draw a crowd of Kithain and mortal alike.
Their lead singer and main songwriter is a local kid named Houngan. His skin is like mahogany and his startling eyes are the cold gray-violet color of amethysts. He's an Eshu, and he met the synth player, Gretchen, on one of his travels through Germany a couple years ago. Gretchen's a Nocker, and she can pull sounds from that heap of wires and keys that she calls an instrument so terrible and so glorious that you'd think the Rapture was here. Then there's the guitarist, Bowser. I'd never before met a Pooka that could pal around with a Redcap, but then I'd never before met a Pooka who was half pit-bull either. The Redcap in question, of course, is Crash, the drummer. He must go thru a dozen drumsticks a night. He and Bowser are tight friends.
Houngan spent a couple of years in Berlin with Gretchen, studying and refining a hard-edged electro-industrial sound. When Houngan finally came back to Cleveland with the Nocker, they met up with Crash and Bowser. The Pooka and Redcap had been playing around with several different bands in the local hardcore scene. They added a heavy thrash-punk edge to the sound, and the end product is an ultra-heavy mix of industrial hardcore political metal that grabs you by the testicles and makes your ears bleed. It's magnificent.
I was behind the bar, stocking liquor and taking a quick inventory before I opened the 'Grove at 8 o'clock. I wasn't in a big hurry, and I was taking it slow. If no one else is around I can get things done faster (three times faster, in fact), but I was in no rush, and I was enjoying listening to the kids play. Crash banged on his drums like rapid-fire thunder, while Bowser thrashed his head and made his guitar growl and roar. Gretchen stood behind her machine and let her fingers dance across the keys, releasing a stream of notes and sounds like a demon-possessed video game. Over this, Houngan screamed lyrics of anger and defiance with a voice like a sandblaster.
As the song ended and the band took a break, Houngan walked up and leaned against the bar. "Can I get a shot of 'Jack?" he asked as he flashed me one of his rare smiles.
"Sure thing," I said, returning the smile. I let the band drink for free. They don't abuse my hospitality, and the whiskey helps Houngan's voice. I was just about to pour the drink for the young Eshu when the door blew open and five figures stepped in.
I was about to say "Sorry, we don't open for another hour or so," when my heart caught in my throat. Four of the quintet of strangers were absolutely stunning. Tall and lithe, with long, gracefully steepling ears that extended past the tops of their heads. They radiated beauty. "Sidhe," I heard Gretchen whisper, quieter than a Sluagh. The fifth figure all but filled the doorframe. He was huge with skin the color of a cloudless sky. I could see the hilt of huge sword poking out from behind him. "Troll," I heard Bowser growl and spit.
Their apparent leader was a woman with long red hair that fell like a wave of molten copper down her back. I felt my heart melt as I gazed at her tight-lipped smile. The strangers walked across the floor towards Houngan and myself. The woman's four companions cast their eyes about the dimly lit interior of the Sacred Grove, their perfect smiles barely disguising their obvious distaste if not disgust. They were dressed in finery, gold trimmed velvet and silks with cloaks that whispered across the floor, disturbing peanut shells from the night before, and the Troll was clad in a burnished breastplate. Their voile stood in stark contrast to the leather, chains, chrome spikes, and torn denim of our little motley.
The woman approached. "You are Tuck Merriwether, the owner of this freehold?" she asked me. Houngan started to say something, but I silenced the wilder with a hand on his arm. I looked to him sternly. I could see the contempt for the strangers in his eyes. His people were considered gods in their homeland. Eshu tended to see the Sidhe as nothing but upstarts.
"I am Merriwether," I said. "And this mew belongs to all who accept my hospitality. The balefire answers to me, however, if that is what you are asking."
She smiled again. I could detect a condescending air about her beginning to grow. "My name is Lady Rowena Keely ap Gwydion. My companions and I have interest in this freehold. As I'm sure you are aware, the nobility has very little presence in the Land of Burning Waters. We would work to change this, to prevent anarchy and offer the protection of fiefdom to the commoners of the area." Her smile was as innocent as a lamb, but her eyes were as cold as a viper. "We are prepared take whatever steps are necessary to acquire this freehold."
I felt myself gritting my teeth, biting back the vitriol I felt. This mew had been in my family for generations. I was about to speak, when Bowser hopped off the stage. The brash Pooka walked up to the group. "Yeah, well maybe the reason there's no 'no-bil-i-tee' here is that we 'commoners' just love 'em so much they can barely stomach it." His voice was laced with irony. Bowser's "pooka-ese" manifested as bitter, bitter sarcasm. He was standing next to the Troll now, looking up at him with undisguised hate. "Ever think of that, genius?" The troll raised a thick eyebrow and smirked, amused, down at Bowser. Although the pit-bull Pooka was powerfully built, the giant was still several heads taller than Bowser and easily three times his weight.
"We do just fine without your protection," Crash hissed from where he sat behind his beloved drums. "Besides, some of us like a little anarchy," he said as he looked down at the large red "A" on his jacket.
"Where was your 'protection' for six-hundred years?" Houngan sneered. The Sidhe hackled at the unaccustomed lack of respect. The atmosphere grew dangerously tense, and I tried to defuse the situation, my own initial anger having had time to cool.
"Forgive my young friends. Diplomacy is not their forte." I cast a silencing eye about the band. They held their tongues for the moment. "At any rate, Lady Rowena, this mew is not up for sale. It will remain in our possession," I said with finality.
"As I said, we are prepared to go to any lengths to acquire it." There was more than a hint of menace in her voice. Gwydion are known to be combative.
Gretchen spoke up from the stage. "A freehold must be given freely, not taken by force," she said calmly. "And there are not enough nobles in the Land of Burning Waters-as you pointed out-to issue a formal fior." The Nocker smiled.
I smiled too. "You seem to be out of options, milady," I said.
"Not quite," Lady Rowena replied. She locked eyes with Houngan. "You fancy yourself musicians." She made a graceful sweep of her hand to indicate herself and her four companions. "We too are musicians. I propose a contest." She turned back to face me. "A battle-of-the-bands if you will, with the winner to be decided by the local Kithain. If your troubadours win, we shall leave peacefully and look for balefire elsewhere. However, should we be chosen as the finer artists, you agree to hand over possession of the freehold." She paused. "Do you accept?" She turned again and smiled coolly at Houngan. "That is, if you think you are good enough."
The Eshu shot up. "You're damn right we're good enough! We're the best band in Cleveland. You got yourself a contest."
I shoved him back into his seat. "Dammit, Houngan, just hold on a minute. Remember whose club this is!"
I had never seen this proud young Eshu plead before. "C'mon, Tuck. We can do it, I know we can. You know how good we are." The rest of Burning River nodded in agreement. They were all for it. His eyes flicked with years of pride and centuries of anger. "Let us show these seelie bastards what we've got."
I sighed. "Think of the risk, Houngan."
"We can do it, Tuck. We're more than good enough."
I looked back up to the Sidhe woman. She smiled. He companions stood behind her, smugly smirking.
It was that smugness that sealed it for me. "You've got a contest." I said and extended my hand. "By the power of the Dreaming, one week from now, the favored musicians shall name the rightful owner of the this freehold and its balefire."
She took my hand and repeated my words, sealing the oath.
I don't recall much of the rest of that night, or much of the following week for that matter. I had too much on my mind, as I'm sure you can imagine.
When the night of the contest arrived, I closed the bar to the unenchanted under the pretext holding a "private party" for invited guests only. Word had spread throughout the greater Cleveland area and beyond. The Sacred Grove held a little over a hundred Kithain hailing from everywhere from Toledo to Akron to Windsor, mostly wilders and no Sidhe that I could see. With so many fae only a few hundred yards away, the chimerical flames of the Cuyahoga River jumped and danced higher than they had in years.
Despite Houngan and the other's reassurances, I was a wreck of nerves. Despite the black polish on them, my nails were still nibbled down to the quick.
"Relax, Tuck." The Eshu sat next to me at my table. I was too nervous to work the bar and had assigned a younger Boggan to dispense drinks. "We've been doing nothing but practicing all week for this."
"I know, I know..."
"I wrote a new song for the contest. We'll win, don't worry."
"I know, I know..."
Bowser ran up to us, sneering. "Oh I've got great news for ya'," he said with a roll of his eyes. Houngan nodded and the Pooka continued. "Gretchen's synth is all muxed up. It's blowing circuits left and right. She can't get a single sound out of it."
I hung my head and sighed. "Perfect. Fucking great."
"Sarcasm's my bailiwick, Tuck,"
"Shut up, Bowser," Houngan said. "I'll bet that Sidhe bitch is behind this."
"Can't be," I said. The Dreaming would forbid cheating. She'd forfeit the contest."
"You sure about that, Tuck?"
I shrugged. "Pretty sure."
"Terrific. Alright, Bowser, where's Gretchen?"
The Pooka jacked a thumb towards the back. "In the back room. She's screaming obscenities at the mess and knocking it with a soldering iron right now." He the added with an ironic curl of the lip, "She's always the paragon of patience, you know." I listened, over the din of the crowd. I could just make out the sound of angry German swearing. At least I'm pretty sure it was swearing. It's hard to tell with German.
Houngan got up. "Fine, let's go see what we can do to help. Tuck," he said as he turned to leave, "don't worry. We got this in the bag."
Oh, optimistic youth.
At nine, the house lights went down. As the challengers, the Sidhe took the stage first. The nobles had been keeping a low profile all night, but as they took up their instruments and looked out across the audience, they seemed to glow with all the light of Arcadia.
One of the male Sidhe sat behind drums while another took up an electric violin. The third held a flute, and the Troll carried a guitar in surprisingly nimble hands. As Lady Rowena stepped up to the microphone, a hushed awe fell across the audience. Her low-cut gown was cinched tight at the waist. The fabric seemed to be woven from spider-webs and stars. Her long copper hair flowed freely about her like a fiery aura.
"We are Excalibur," she said simply with a voice like quicksilver. Then they broke into song.
How to explain it? Forget Clannad, Enya, and Steeleye Span. Forget Jethro Tull. Forget Tangerine Dream. This was music that held pure magic. The musician's hands played across their instruments as though they were making love to them. Golden streamers of glamour flowed from their fingertips and lips, cascading the room. Rowena's voice was like liquid crystal raindrops, clear and perfect. She sang in a language no one could decipher but we all understood--the language of the first Arcadians. I felt my heart melt and run down into my stomach.
I don't know, exactly, how long they played. But when Lady Rowena stepped back from the microphone and the others set aside their instruments, there wasn't a single unmoistened eye in the entire 'Grove. Three full seconds of awed silence passed before the crowd exploded into reverent cheers and applause.
When Houngan came back to my table to sit down, he found me with my head in my hands. "It was a nice place to live while I had it," I lamented. "I wonder if they need any bartenders in Toledo."
"Stop it, Tuck. Have some confidence in us." I looked up at the Eshu. Something about the fierce pride in that young cold face steeled me. I found myself infected by his confidence and ashamed of my doubts.
"Is Gretchen's synth fixed?" I asked.
He nodded. "I've never seen so much duct tape in one place, but it seems to be working okay for now."
At that moment, Rowena and her boys walked by on their way to the bar. "You're up next. Good luck." Her cruel smile held anything but good intentions. The other nobles chuckled softly. As they continued on towards the bar, the gathered Kithain parted to make room for them.
"Bitch," I heard Houngan swear.
I gritting my teeth and pictured dozens of their kind in the Land of Burning Waters, with scores and scores of commoners bending low to let them pass. "Houngan?"
"I want you and Burning River to tear this place apart."
After a few minutes, Burning River took up the stage. Crash sat behind his drums, stripped to the waste and proudly displaying his piercings, tattoos, and cuttings. Bowser held his guitar like a weapon with his teeth bared in a feral grin and spikes strapped on his legs and arms. In her black leather and latex Gretchen looked like a bondage goddess behind the mass of electronics and silvery tape that may or may not be a synthesizer. Most stunning of all was Houngan. The Eshu was dressed in traditional Yoruba costume, including the long, hooked headpiece. But over his tribal finery he was draped in chains and spiked leather, like something out of Clive Barker's daydreams.
He stared out across the murmuring audience. He knew, as did the band and everyone else in the 'Grove that they had an almost impossible act to follow. The Eshu's cold, amethyst eyes scanned the audience, meeting the gaze of each and every on-looker. The crowd slowly fell into silence. When it was so still that no one was brave enough to breathe, Houngan closed his eyes and gave some unseen signal to his band-mates.
Burning River exploded into blazing electric cacophony.
Houngan gripped the stand screamed into the microphone, his razorblade voice crying out:
- Iron knives! Iron knives!
- Innocent blood shed with iron's bite.
- Cold-blooded murderers fade into night.
- Never forget! Never Forget!
Crash's drumming sounded like a legion of machine guns. Gretchen's machine wailed and screeched like a tortured beast, while pounding industrial programs kept perfect counter-beat with the Redcaps drumming. Bowser tore into his guitar strings, making the instrument roar and wail with rage.
I looked to the crowd. They were transfixed by the heavy dark sound. They were rocking their heads to the music and clenching their fists.
- Never forget! Never Forget!
- Never again bound in tyranny's chains.
- Never let their sacrifice be in vain!
- Iron knives! Iron knives!
The crowd was lit. The music crackled of the stage like black and red lightning, grabbing the audience by the heart, by the guts, by the gonads. The dark glamour reached inside and tapped into the anger, the grief, and the rage that had flowed thru the collective unconsciousness of the commoners since that dark night in 1970. The audience raised their fists and shouted with Houngan. They shook their heads and slammed into each other in joyous outrage.
As the song ended, and the sweat-drenched musicians put aside their instruments, the crowd continued to shout and clap and cheer and chant.
- Iron knives! Iron knives!
The din was so loud I feared the rafters would shake from their walls. I looked over towards where the seelie nobles stood together near the back of the room. They looked uneasily about themselves, paling. They looked at the crowd where six-score commoners had simultaneously either succumbed to their unseelie halves or fell deeper into the darker legacies they had already embraced. Don't let the fairytales fool you. Love may conquer all, but Hate makes a powerful ally.
There was no question as to who were the winners. The nobles quietly and discretely slipped out the door, where the fires of the Cuyahoga awaited them. I smiled.
This isn't Haight-Ashbury.
This isn't Greenwich Village.
This is Cleveland, where the river burns forever.