The Guitar-Maker

WE have no reason to believe that the ancient Mayas ever made guitars. They certainly did build great structures of stone, whose massive beauty is the wonder and despair of archæologists; but if they ever made the musical instrument now known as the guitar, their history, as engraved on walls, incised on tablets of stone, and painted on surfaces of parchment stucco, does not record the fact. Who did make the first guitar anyway ? Who knows ? But if not the pre-historic Mayas, wonderful race, at least Nicolas Kantun made guitars, during his time, some fifty years ago, and such guitars! Stradivarius made fiddles, Tomassi made fiddles also, Kantun of Yucatan made guitars. Fortunes have been offered and paid for fiddles made by these men. Crimes were committed, and as time went on, lives were lost in the frenzied attempts to become owners of these coveted musical toys of bent wood and catgut. Maestro Kantun, humble Indian and modest artist, made guitars, each one of which, though a musical poem itself, sold for a song, when compared with the prices paid for the old violins.

The Mayas were and are a musical race; the Spaniards, — well everybody knows what music, especially the music of a tinkling guitar, is to a Spaniard.

Consequently, is it necessary to state that the native Yucatecos, high or low, whether descendants of Spaniard or of Maya, like music, and know good music, especially the music of a good guitar? Kantun never lost time in seeking purchasers for the guitars he made. His clients sought him, he had his price, and his figures were never questioned or haggled over by his expecting purchasers, that is, by the wise ones; the others ceased to be expectant for the reason that he declined to serve them at any price. Like other geniuses, he was a master in his caprices, and since his guitars could not stand haggling, they lost their temper when he did his, and were never so good afterward.

So Maestro Kantun made his guitars in his own way; he had no apprentices except his son, no quarrels, and enough money to fill the simple needs of himself and wrinkled old Chepa, his mate. Musicians, artists who played on guitars, were spoiled for other guitars when once they fondled, with fingers vibrating rhythmically one of the guitars old Kantun made. His fame never spread abroad, because Yucatan was until lately a sort of hermit kingdom anyway; and then Yucatan itself absorbed all the guitars that the careful, slow fingers and musical sense of the old Maestro would let him make and sell. Later, when old Nicolas Kantun was dead, a foreign artist, master in guitar music, said, as he fondled an age-browned Kantun guitar, that as a genuine Stradivarius was to an ordinary modern violin, so was a guitar of the elder Kantun to the ordinary everyday work-aday-made guitar. Nicolas dead, Tomas his son became Maestro Kantun, and it was he who sat on his haunches, of a yellow-tinged afternoon, back of his house, looking as stolid and wooden as the thick, round, broad stool in frontof him. When a Maya Indian thinks deepest, he wears his most stolid look. Maestro Kantun was thinking deeply. The precious pile of wood, the pile that helped his father make the Kantun fame, and his inheritance, helped him to keep up the fame of the Kantun guitars. This precious wood,, of unknown age and strange virtues, was at last exhausted; but one small log remained, and even this was warped and twisted by long pressure of those above it.

Truly Maestro Kantun had good reason to think, and think deeply.

He well remembered the pile in his earlier, younger days, when he was but just married.

The pile then was new and large, a great pile of rusty dark-colored logs, so old and water-soaked and dirty that no man gave them a second thought, except to wonder that so knowing a man as Maestro Kantun should take the trouble to house such damp old logs, when he could easily buy nice dry faggots that would kindle quick and burn with a heat like tinder. Again, when a fire broke out, close to his house, and threatened to burn everything near it, he left the saving of his home and his household goods to the efforts of his neighbors, while he climbed like an aged monkey upon the thatch of the old out-house that held the pile, and like a man frantic with desperation, poured bucket after bucket of water on the smoking thatch, until, soaked and steaming, it showed no sign of flame, and the precious pile within was free from danger.

This was the strangest of all strange freaks of old Maestro Kantun, in his neighbors’eyes; but then old Nico Kantun was a strange old man anyway, and withal one not to be lightly gainsaid or questioned in his freaks, so long as they harmed no one more powerful than himself; so they shrugged their shoulders and thought of easy things.

When the time came for the old man to go, let us hope to where the celestial music rings, he called for his son. He lay in his old worn hammock, gasping and panting for the breath that came feebly, and when Tomas came to his side, lithe and strong, the old man said to him, “ Son! bring my old guitar.” He took the age-browned instrument in his trembling, weakened hands, and thumbed it affectionately for a second, then he laid it carefully on his chest, and turned his head slowly toward his son, saying feebly, “ The stranger was right, Tomas, when he told me of the wood and how it could serve me. I took care of him when sick, and when he got well, he told me the secret of the wood, where I must seek it, and the virtue that there was in it, for me, the maker of guitars. I sought for the wood, where it should be, long, and for a while vainly; then just as I had despaired of the search, and felt like cursing him who sent me on the useless quest, the good San Isidro sent me into the great cenote at the foot of the sierras, where the valley bites deep into the hillside, and the great Chacmol is cut into the face of the rock. There I found it. You—”

His breath failed him, and his trembling fingers fell on the strings of the guitar; a soft, low mingling of chords filled the darkened room, —a farewell that the old man could not utter. Then, as the last low notes ceased sounding, a silence closed over all, the stillness that comes only with death.

All this came back to Tomas, as clear as if it were yesterday, while he sat moodily musing.

Finally Fernanda his wife, who had been quietly eying him for some time, said, “Tomas, what ails you? are you feeling bad ? ”


“ Where?”

“ There,” and Tomas pointed to where the log-pile used to be.

“ Huh! ” she exclaimed, and looked dazed for a moment; then she brightened up and thought for a while; then said again, “ Huh! You mean the wood has gone, and you can’t make any more guitars, until you get more wood; is n’t that true?”

“ Yes, woman, it is so.”

“ Huh ! Then why don’t you get more wood ? We are not poor : you have silver, and I have my gold earrings, and chains, and rings, and — ”

“ Be quiet, woman; this wood is not to be had for the asking, neither can simple silver buy it.”

“ Huh! Your father got it, and when he got it, he was poor; are you not your father’s son, and you have a peck measure full of silver.”

And Tomas answered with sullen impatience, ” Fernanda, your tongue works easily; it’s a pity your understanding does n’t keep it company. Where am I to get the wood ? ”

“ Huh! that is easy to answer. Get it where your father got his.”

“ Keep quiet, woman, and let me think.”

Fernanda, with a final “ Huh! ” went about her grinding of the Indian corn, and left the whole affair to Tomas, knowing well that a woman’s counsel is lightly thought of by the native Maya. The next day Tomas spoke to Fernanda, briefly but to the point.

“ I am going on a voyage to-night,and may not be back for several days. Get me ready a suit of old clothes, and a suit of good ones, make me a ball of posoles, some tortillas with chile and salt, and put two bottles of anise rum in my sabucan.”

With a “ Huh! ” of assent, Fernanda went on with the interminable grinding of the Indian corn for the daily bread.

Early next morning, before the dogs had ceased barking at the moon, Tomas was off and away.

Fernanda could not sleep any more, so she went to work grinding corn for the morning meal. But while her arms were deftly moving the roller-stone of the mill, her thoughts were moving still more swiftly.

Why did Tomas decide to go so suddenly ? To that the answer was clear: he had gone to get some more logs with which to make more guitars. But where was he going, and how was he going to get them; for he took no silver with him, neither did he ask for her chains or rings or earrings, to pawn, or leave as gage if necessary.

She went on grinding, and her arms moved faster; he was not going to any pueblo or city, for he took with him posole, chile, and salt, and Kantun was too well known all over Yucatan to need to carry these, where there were people who played on guitars.

He was, then, going into uninhabited places.

The trip was not a short one, for he took with him new soles for his worn sandals, and a good part of it must clearly be made on foot.

He took with him two bottles of rum flavored with anise. This would not be unusual to most natives; but Tomas was not a drinking man, and only took drinks of the anise rum when exposed to cold rains, or when long immersed in wellwater, assisting neighbors, as was the custom of the region, in clearing out their wells. It was the dry season, and no rains could be reasonably planned for. He certainly did not go to clean out foul wells.

What then? She gave it up; she recalled the days early in her married life, when the old Nicolas Kantun, her husband’s father, then poor and hard-pushed for money, although a good musician, and better guitar-maker, came home and took not only his wife’s chain and ring, but also hers, and without more than a word or two with his son, went away again. She did not say a word in protest, for it is not the custom to rebel against the acts of the husband, much less the husband’s father; but she did rebel inwardly, for the chain was double, long, and very heavy, the marriage gift of her father, a goldsmith. She said nothing, and her h usband’s mother said nothing either, but the two went on grinding corn. The days passed; then came old Kantun, and after him, one load, two loads, three loads of deep, dark logs, that looked halfdecayed, but rang like metal as they touched each other and the floor of the hut, wherein they were snugly piled.

Then the father and son made guitars once more, and their guitars were the wonder of the musicians and the despair of their fellow craftsmen.

They worked slowly, and used their precious wood with greatest care, and so, although they did not make many guitars, each one sold for several times more than other guitars sold for.

Before long, the women had their chains back once more, and with them other chains and earrings, and many rings of pure gold, made by the native smiths; and as these are things dear to the heart of the native woman, both were made very happy thereby, and esteemed themselves favored above most women, in having husbands so prosperous.

Then the old woman died, and left her all the chains and earrings and rings of solid gold; and the old man died, and left the house, a peck of silver coins, and the pile of wood, now used up and gone.

All this Fernanda thought of and remembered, as she ground and ground and ground the Indian corn.

Meanwhile Tomas, in the soft gray dawn, was going along silently and alone with his thoughts. With head muffled in his jerga, as most natives go in the early dawn, he went with the tireless lope of his people, and soon left the drowsy pueblo far behind. As he entered the open, the low-swooping night-hawks fluttered in the path, close by his feet, and the last few belated bovine pilgrims breathed their fragrant breaths inquiringly at him as he passed.

He struck the forest, and still kept on until the high noon, when he crouched down at the foot of a great zapote tree, and made himself a bowl of posole; then he made a tiny fire, ate a few tortillas seasoned with salt and chile, smoked a cigarette, stretched himself, tightened his belt, and went on.

That night, at the first owl-hoot, he camped before the yawning mouth of a great open water-hole, a cenote. Strange thoughts came up, borne on the cool damp air of the great water-cave. His father said the cenote was twenty yards deep before it reached the water’s edge.

He made knots in the rope, a yard apart, and tied it securely around a large tree-trunk. Then he took off his clothes, tied them up with the new clean suit, and hid them in the forest.

He hung his little Relicario on a near branch, and prayed softly before it, as he put on his old ragged drawers, and tied about his head the shirt in which a flint and steel and candles were wrapped. Then he put his machete and a bottle of rum in the band of his drawers, took a last drink that emptied the other bottle, and after testing the rope, by a final heave swung himself slowly and cautiously into the velvet darkness of the great hole underground. Only the twisting and creaking of the new rope straining, showed signs of human presence.

Three days later, when Tomas Kantun, travel-stained but elated, came into his house, and almost without a word went to the family trunk and treasurebox combined, and took therefrom, not the peck of silver or any part thereof, but a pair of old gold earrings,Fernanda only said, “ Huh! ” But when he came up to her and took from her neck the heavy gold chain, warm with the heat of her body, her favorite “ Huh! ” took on rather a surprised tone. Hearing it, Tomas called back, “ This my father did, and who am I that I should change the way, because I now have silver? ”

This reasoning to an Indian is most logical, and Fernanda, satisfied, went back to her grinding.

The next night but one, Tomas came back filled with joy and also with some liquor, — not enough to hurt him, but enough to make him talk more freely than his wont. When he had eaten and bathed, and smoked away, communing for a time with himself, he lay back, with a sort of self-elation, swinging in his hammock, and told the story of his adventures.

“ I found the water-cave, as my father told me, in the woods, at the foot of the great hills, where the valley bites deep into the side of the highest. I found the great tiger carved by the ‘ Old One,’ cut deep in the ledge-rock, as he told me I should, right by the side of the great hole as black as the darkness of a night without stars. I am a man not frightened by many things that man fears, and you know it, but I nowsay there are things that frighten me, and that day that black hole in which I swung and trusted, clinging to a knotted rope in the darkness, was a thing to be frightened of. But the blessed relic about my neck kept me in my senses, and cool, although frightened; and so, by God’s aid, and that of the Virgin Mary, I soon stood on the great rocks at the bottom, close by the water’s edge. I shut my eyes closely for a while, and then, when I opened them, the darkness was so far broken that I could see dimly, as one sees on a dark night, just as the moon rises, a little light to outline things, nothing more. Step by step, I felt my way, for no one knows how stony or solid the cave-floors are. I struck the flint, and lit the tinder, and the candle, and then I looked around me. I saw my father’s foot prints, made in the damp cave-dust forty years ago, and they were there as though made yesterday. I trod in his footsteps, as a son should do, and they led me as they led him, him and his elder brother, to the place in the cave where great piles of wood were stored, trunks like those he brought up to the house. Who put them there ? Who knows ? God may, but I do not think that man does. Father said that when he went there, there was a kind of altar upon them, and around were strange figures, made like the earthen vessels. Of a truth, who knows? but I know that I have bought the cave and land about it, for less than the price of one guitar, and now I go straight to the Padres, to pay for a mass and singing in behalf of my father’s soul; my father who gave me the light and the knowledge that lets me do these things and do them wisely.”

The eldest son of Tomas Kantun now helps his father make guitars, and his father says with a little tone of pride, but not before him, “ Tomas can beat me making a good guitar, when he wants to, but little Petrona Ku has turned his head, so I expect that he won’t be good for much now until he marries her, and settles down to work again.”

Which is all right, and as it should be.