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Capo d'astra

"A mysterious object bought from a tabletop sale forms a telephone line to enlightenment"
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Capodastra: A small movable bar placed across the fingerboard of a guitar or similar instrument so as to raise the pitch of all the strings uniformly.

If a thing can call, then it called. Or maybe he just happened to be standing in the right place relative to the thing and the sun. The clouds played a part too, opening at exactly the right time to allow the photons through. The packets of light completed their eight minute eighteen second journey with a joyous bounce off the polished metal and a silent splash into the back of his eyeball. Inside Ezrric’s brain, a sentinel, programmed to look for such a change amid a sea of stillness, sought out the source of illumination and asked three questions: friend or foe; food or poison; shield or weapon.

Sounds clattered and conversation rattled around the high, white walls of the hall. He moved toward the gleam, but it suddenly faded and his eyes fell on just another groaning table, covered in the detritus of several house clearances. Bodies pushed in front of him. A river of them flowed in through the ornate mahogany doorframes, swirled between the tables and, eventually, out again into the street. They swept up the silt of tatty goods from the tabletops and threatened to carry him away too.

Beyond the tall smeary window, the clouds parted and again the gleam pricked his eye. He concentrated on it, pinpointing its position amid the clutter. The object had the semblance of something he recognised, but was constructed in such a way that its purpose could not be certain. Seated serenely amongst the chaos, an old gentleman lifted his gaze from the book on his lap and Ezrric caught his rheumy eye. The young man’s left hand pierced the crowd and lifted the object that had silently called him, all the while being aware of the old man’s stare. He turned the shining metal implement over in his palm. It was cold and much heavier than it looked. The old man’s fingers closed around the smoking bowl of his pipe. He slowly drew in and breathed out, the ensuing cloud momentarily obscuring his unshaven ruddy cheeks, hooked nose and raised bushy brows. A small, round, white sticker told Ezrric all he needed to know. £12.

‘It’s old. Older than you or me – though I know that must be hard to believe.’ The old man’s lips curled and displayed a twisted and yellow graveyard of a smile. ‘Give me ten – it’s the least I’ll take.

‘Is it a…’

‘You know what it is.’ He motioned to Ezrric’s calloused fingertips. ‘You play. Don’t waste my time. I’ll take ten.’ Unreadable eyes fell back to the page; the ancient body sank back into the folding garden chair. Ezrric saw the man’s worn shirt collar, his crumpled and creased tweed suit, yet noticed he had the accent and easy bearing of a man accustomed to wealth and position. Old money fallen on hard times. Ezrric couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, even though he seemed to have many years of privilege tucked under his tightened leather belt.

‘Twelve it is then.’ The old man smiled at that and this time his eyes half closed in curiosity as he studied the younger man’s face. Ezrric avoided the gaze, dug into his jeans’ back pocket and soon held out the two fivers and the two pound coins. They alternately wafted and rattled into the rusty, blue biscuit tin that the old man proffered. Ezrric stuffed the thing in his pocket and let himself be carried along by the human current, till he was deposited on the delta of the vast paved square, out beyond the megalithic hall’s huge doorway.

He locked the front door behind him. After switching on his old valve amp, he picked up his guitar and slumped onto the couch. A couple of strums, a gentle turn or two of a machine head and she was tuned. The hard lump in Ezrric’s back pocket had called to him on the way home, but he’d ignored it.

Only now did he take it out, run his eyes and fingers over it. It had a sheen like brushed silver, was covered in minute intricate markings and consisted of three joined and jointed bars. The longest one was about 5” in length and was bent near the centre to make a reversed number 7. The other two were attached by hinges in such a way that a rough letter E could be formed. The central bar was curved upwards, while an inch-long screw speared the bottom bar, half an inch from the joint with the upright.

Every edge was ground to perfection; the two pivot points were without lateral movement, yet seemed frictionless. It was surely a capo - a device placed on a guitar neck to shorten the strings, to raise the pitch and so facilitate playing in other keys – but Ezrric couldn’t see how it could work. He placed it on the guitar neck in various ways but just couldn’t fathom it. Then it caught the sunlight - as it had in the saleroom - and momentarily blinded him. When his vision cleared, the device had fallen into position. The top bar of the E pressed the strings down against the fretboard and the central curved bar rested behind the neck, hinging to fit its shape perfectly. He levered the bottom bar in towards it. The smooth screw tip resisted, but then slid silently along the curved central bar and toward its hinge.

With a little encouragement it then passed a fulcrum of no return and the thing was locked in place. It was so simple, so majestic. Unlike the capos he was used to, it had no elastic and no springs. The reverse 7 shape in the metal itself was the spring that held it in place; it was a perfect blend of engineering and geometry.

Ezrric knew that a vibrating string produces a fundamental note. Shorten it and the note is higher in pitch: that’s how guitars of six strings can produce many more than six notes. A capo raises the pitch of all the strings at once, leaves your fingers free to play the patterns and chord shapes of songs you know, but in a higher key. The notes seem to shimmer and sparkle like gold once a capo is added, return to dull, base metal when it is removed. He began to flip through the myriad songs in his brain, searching for something to play, but stopped as he recalled Kurt Cobain singing live on MTV just a couple of nights before. One of the songs he’d heard performed suddenly itched in his fingers. ‘On a plain’. Ezrric released his new capo and arbitrarily repositioned it at third fret, still marvelling at its simple, elegant beauty. He rested his fingers on the strings, closed his eyes and began to play.

It was angelic. His guitar rang like a harp and each note resonated through him. The sound was surrounded by a halo of harmonics that carried the song through every cell in his body and every room of the house. Now Ezrric opened his eyes. What he saw amazed him. Colours began to shift, scrolling through the rainbow. His old, red Stratocaster guitar bled into orange, yellow, then blended into turquoise. Blue wallpaper turned to indigo, then glowed violet and simply vanished into blackness.

He watched his faded denim jeans pass through the same process, while his green T-shirt shifted through shades of deepening blue and purple. Intricate red patterns glowed on the black neck of his guitar, then the heat of his fingerprints fluxed slowly into orange and slid into yellow and green. He felt the skin on his face begin to tighten and prickle as if he had been out in the sun too long. On and on he played, the simple chords and melodic picking somehow creating a heavenly symphony.

His thoughts escalated too and his emotions became tangible objects he could view from all aspects simultaneously. He was suddenly filled with a deep understanding. The capo. It’s the capo transposing everything. Sound, colour, thought, feeling.

The room ascended slowly into blackness. Only the sound from his amplifier remained. Across the giant sound wash he created, he recognised the colours of his room as they swept upwards and disappeared in waves of static. First the walls. He sensed their form, understood their encirclement of him, then they were gone. His jeans strode across the soundscape and they too vanished into the ether. The red guitar played itself into aural existence with a sunburst of white noise. Lastly, the amplifier gave the heat of his body audio form. He saw it with his ears, captured its dance in his mind and soon it too was gone. Impossible beings – fiery salamanders and dragons, elves and fairies, angels and demons - materialised and cavorted before him then disappeared into atoms, transforming and reshaping, dancing and playing. When all had passed upward and into darkness he heard the voice.

‘Stop, Ezrric! I command you.’ His fingers froze and the song faded. A single open string rang quietly and resonated, feeding back on a loop of its own energy. Growing in intensity, it slowly focussed into a pure and brilliant white note that illuminated the space around him. Yet the voice dazzled him more. Drawn up from the depths of his consciousness and tuned in by the capo, it simultaneously filled Ezrric’s heart with overpowering love and dread. The conflicting emotions swirled before him, encircled him, salved and tormented him and then stepped aside.

‘So, Ezrric. Mmm… You transmute music into a flow of electrons and amplify it. This was not foreseen. The power of the capo d’astra was never meant to be used this way.’

‘But I… I know you.’ Ezrric was in awe. ‘You are always here when I play. I can sense you, but can never quite see or grasp… like a leviathan moving in the depths beneath the notes. I have spoken to you before, but always in shadows, never like this...’ Ezrric’s words emanated from him in multicoloured solids that he could shape and paint with extraordinary feeling and meaning.

‘Yes, Ezrric. You have spoken to me through music. All humans can speak to me so. The capo was created so that I could converse with you. On its plain, we can truly meet and meditate together. Only a select few ever mastered it, but then the chain was broken, the capo was lost...’

‘How does it work? What happened to the light?’ He paused, stunned by the magnitude and clarity of his thoughts. ‘Are you…?’

‘You know who I am. You play. Listen to me now, Ezrric! My thoughts traverse star systems and encompass galaxies. They have a wavelength of billions of miles, far lower and deeper than anything you could sense or understand. As you play to me, I always speak to you, though I am mostly unheard. But tuned by the capo d’astra, my words can touch the minds of mortals. The capo transposes my voice so you can hear me. Sweeping up through the spectrum, it tunes to your frequency range like a radio dial, enabling us to link our minds, share our thoughts. However, I never imagined humans would so quickly harness electricity, and apply it so. Like radio waves but much longer, my thoughts too drive electrons through cables. Recycled by your amplifier, my thoughts fed back into the guitar where the capo transposed them once more. They were again amplified and this cycle quickly spiralled upwards, out of control… radio waves turned to microwaves, then heat and light waves, bouncing off everything around you. As they proliferated and shortened, X rays and gamma rays tore your physical being to shreds. Your body is no more. All earthly bonds were broken, all impurities were miraculously stripped away. The knots are undone, the roots are extinguished. You are free. You have transcended and reside only in this note, this one pure, perfect note. Ezrric, you have bypassed millennia and, by a cosmic leap, have reached enlightenment. I welcome you to Nirvana.’

The car park is full of stalls. Each is pored over by a bedraggled multitude. An elderly gentleman sits calmly behind his own table laden with junk. He counts the contents of his biscuit tin, draws on his pipe and blows a cloud of smoke into the cold, damp air.

A longhaired young man examines a small yet curiously heavy metal device, drops twelve pounds into the blue tin and hurries home.

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