Rita’s first ship was called the Blackbird. It was a simple name with little pomp or circumstance, and it fit the freighter for what it was: modest on the outside but smooth and perfect as it cut its way through space.
What she never talked about was that the name didn’t come from the Earth animal, but a song that her father sang when she was younger. “Blackbird fly. Into the light of the dark, black night.” He played it on an ancient instrument made from wood and string, his weathered hands somehow turning the box into something magical and mysterious, that emitted a melody that trailed into her dreams each night.
When her father died, Rita took the instrument on board her ship. Several times, custodian bots would try to take it out with the craft’s garbage. “Don’t touch that!” she screamed, and they would turn their round servos at her, curious as toddlers. “Not that,” she said, quieter, shameful. “Everything else can go.” Nothing else mattered.
She tried to play it on more than one occasion, pushing her fingers into the metal bits in the wood, running the back of her nails down the strings. They let out a dull intonation at that, as if in affront to her blasphemy. When she accidentally broke one of the lines, she stopped picking it up except to let it sit in her lap.
“Hey, is that a guitar?” When she was at a drop, Rita turned to find an older woman pointing at her father’s whimsical box. Her face was long, old, as worn as the canyons on a desert planet. “May I?” she asked, reaching out her hands as if asking to hold a newborn.
Rita wasn’t sure why she didn’t deny the woman her request. But she wanted to see what she would do with it. Would she actually know how to handle it? Would she pretend it was something other than what it was? It didn’t matter. She picked it up – the priceless gift that the woman called ‘guitar’ – and placed it in her bony hands.
The old woman pulled the string back into its spot – “Just slipped out. Ain’t broken yet. You’ll want to be careful,” she said – and then she strummed, three times, in three notes. And then, her fingers moved like they were dancing across the thing, plucking and pressing and creating a song, a song for joy, a song for glee.
“Teach me,” Rita whispered, the tears spilling down her cheeks.
And she did. She showed her until Rita’s fingers tingled painfully, until the three suns had aligned and dropped to the horizon.
“Come with me.”
“No,” the woman said.
“I still don’t know how to use it. Not like you.”
“You know enough,” the woman said, as she collected her box from the cargo bay of the Blackbird. “No one can teach you all the songs that have passed through the universe. Write some of your own.”