There’s a road in Costa Rica that is watched by snakes and stones. The stones don’t make the best sentinels (stony-faced as they may be), mostly because they have no eyes and can only roll loosely in one direction or the next to warn of trouble ahead. The snakes, by comparison, fare a little better. Though their legless-ness proves a real crutch, they can still slide across the dirt and hiss whenever evil turns the bend.
But even snakes and stones almost missed the arrival of the Trumpet Player and his Muse.
They drove up the road on a sticky-hot Tuesday in a small, white van; the kind you’d imagine would be the last left in the rental car lot on a busy weekend when all the more suitable cars were long taken and the salesman, grin toothy and unapologetic, hands over the keys without so much as a warning not to scratch the paint.
This van—not rented but stolen—was a sorry thing to behold clickety-clacking down the road, the left front window stuck at half-mast, the windshield fissured deeply along the top, the paint flaking off its body like vehicular dandruff. And yet, if its appearance was meant as a reflection of the passengers it held, the van wasn’t nearly damaged enough.
Years ago, any description of the Trumpet Player that labeled him a damaged man would have been a lie, back when he was decent and simple, when he didn’t steal vans or ransack stereo supply stores. He only drank his decaffeinated coffee and spent his days and nights performing wherever he could, earning the money necessary to travel the globe then travel it again. Back then he played in taverns on the Côte d’Azur, bars in Reykjavik and sprightly street festivals from Dublin to Dimitrovgrad. At each locale, the Trumpet Player was kind to those who clapped for him and never greedy to those who paid him to perform, even if they could only give him a glass of wine in exchange for his music. Whatever he got was always fine with him. Money was only a means to survive. And to survive meant he could play.
Life trumpeted on like this for many years and would’ve probably remained just so if he hadn’t agreed to perform at a Costa Rican café last year and there, between plates of tres leches cake and bowls of fried plantains, met his Muse.
The thing he remembered most about their first encounter was her hair, inky black as it was and perfectly straight, prompting his fingers to twitch with the idea they might one day run themselves through every strand. She approached him on a break between sets and as she walked up, he felt a wave of urgency tumble inside his belly, like she was the wind and he a trumpet-playing engineer who had to invent a machine to contain her or else she’d blow away.
“You’re good,” said the inky-haired woman and the trace of her lips created inside him an inability to speak.
“Now I’d like to show you my art,” she whispered into his ear and took his trumpet in her right hand and his left hand in hers, leading the Trumpet Player across the street to the tallest building in town, nine stories high.
They walked up the stairs that unwound and ascended to some kind of heaven—in this moment he thought surely Dante’s nine circles of hell had reversed to the sweetest paradise. Then on the rooftop, she stayed true to her word (for the first and only time), and his Muse showed him her art.
Though to call her his Muse would be to understate the term; after that night on the roof, she became his everything. Before her, he only played the songs of others (Davis, Armstrong and the jazzy like), but in his new Muse-life, he wrote his own music and the notes he blasted out were said by his audiences across Costa Rica (and even into parts of Nicaragua and beyond) to touch the very soul. In exchange for his Muse, the Trumpet Player gave up his goodness, his morality, even his name, which she simply made up whenever she addressed him directly, an act that happened only once in a while. His Muse said looking at the Trumpet Player straight in the eyes was “too much for her gilded mind.”
Most days he gave serious consideration to the thought that she might be crazy but then again, so was love.
Now they were on the road with snakes and stones, readying to burn down a house she told him belonged to an ex-love who was a “bad, bad man, muffin. A really bad man.”
Over the past year, he had done many awful acts of lawlessness, the cruelest cutting off with his pocket knife the wings of a Glasswinged butterfly his Muse said was “taunting her with too much clarity.” But never had any of these terrible deeds yet involved fire.
Their stolen white van careened down the Costa Rican road and after two turns on this path, his Muse held a hand to his chest. “Stop, Rindondo,” (again, not his name), she warned. “It is the house on the left that we must burn.”
The house was an unassuming structure painted blue with a bright purple door and a swing hanging from a young Guanacaste tree standing wide-leafed in the front yard. He imagined children riding on that swing and thought how they might miss the feel of the air on their faces after the tree and the house beyond were both gone.
Some say that nature, and especially its snakes and stones, can crook in the direction of the crooked; watch any tree branch in a thunderous storm and you’ll see its limbs moving along to the swirling rain. And really, this ability to flex against the wicked is nature’s only way to battle the maleficence of humans and the oft-stupidity of their ways.
Such was the case this Tuesday morning, when his Muse instructed the Trumpet Player to shut off the car so they could retrieve the gas tank stored in the trunk.
He couldn’t have known that when he went with her to the trunk and lifted the tank, a stone would throw itself to the near-bottom of the tank with enough force to puncture, pouring the entire liquid contents on the feet of the inky-haired woman who stood by the Trumpet Player’s side. He also couldn’t have predicted that a snake standing guard by the roadway would slither toward her, a packet of matches clasped in its unhinged jaw, and cause her to trip into the puddle of gas on the ground. Never could he have seen that this snake might use a stone to scrape the matches in his mouth against the smooth surface in order to light them, then toss the lit sticks onto a woman who once showed her art. He did, however, see that as she burned, a thin smoke formed ashy letters that rose toward the sky. “It’s time, Trumpet Player,” the message read. “Go find another muse.”