The Toes of the Sun
The second of three stories
The Lute and
say that Don Entrerrosca was once a minstrel.
But something happened which made him reject the idea of
performing for other people. The details of this incident are
not mysterious, despite his best efforts to make them so, but at
any rate he decided to become only a spectator. First the
blisters on his fingers healed, because he no longer used them
to play the lute. Then his chest sagged, because he no longer
needed to take such deep breaths to sing at high balconies or
across ravines. He had turned into just a man in any audience,
quiet and meek and supposedly safe. He never regretted his
exciting old life but now he preferred not to cause trouble. No
more serenades from him!
He spent his free time demonstrating to himself that his
involvement with the entertainment business was purely passive.
He visited theatres and art galleries and music halls and always
bought a ticket which he kept as evidence, pasting it into a
little book later, so that nobody might raise the suspicion that
he, a former romantic, had actually created the work in question
or even contributed the smallest part to it. His appreciation of
what he saw or heard was obscured at the beginning by his need
to prove he was not the centre of attention. He did this with
the most forceful expression of unobtrusiveness he could devise
and the effort of this emotional paradox occupied all his
concentration. But slowly he relaxed enough to genuinely absorb
the creativity which he sought out.
Best of all for him were dances. He loved confronting a talent
he could never possess, for despite his lithe body he was
surprisingly stiff. His bones creaked like stairs when he moved
too fast or even when he never moved at all, so that he once
believed his skeleton was haunted. But other things creak too on
their own and they do not always suggest ghosts, so perhaps his
bones were more like shoes, small ships or the necks of lutes
strung too tight. But this last comparison is against what he
now believed. He had vowed never again to touch a lute nor even
a lyre, which might be confused with it. And figurative small
ships can smuggle lutes from one distant song to another and
shoes are perfectly able to do the walking on their decks. So I
was correct the first time. His bones were like stairs.
the sort of dancing that appealed most strongly to him was
simple and natural. He thought ballet was too artificial and
complex. Waltzes were more agreeable because they reminded him
of swirls of leaves blowing in circles in autumnal gales. The
tango and samba were very human and passionate, but they spoke
of brothels and carnivals, which in turn suggest sinners and
communities, both of which are often highly organised, even when
they go wrong, and have little to do with naivety and
artlessness. The dances of animals held a greater interest but
even these had too much purpose. He started to wonder if his
ideal show was one in which the performers were ignorant of
every aspect of what they did. He planned to discover a troupe
of dancers who had never been alive. Inanimate artists.
To ponder this matter further, for he could not imagine where to
look, he climbed a hill for its peace and solitude. The
afternoon was coming to an end and the sun was sinking in the
west. By the time he reached the summit and found a large stone
on which to sit, the clouds were rosy and strung out on precise
rays like notes on a lute. No, that is not a permissible figure
of speech! Let me try again to describe the scene, but without
any fuss. The sunset had started. The great fiery orb touched
the horizon and for a few moments it seemed it was balancing on
its toes on a tightrope, but that is absurd, for round objects
may not have toes, or feet or any such appendages, otherwise
they are no longer round. And how can something not be itself
but remain the same? Impossible! Not that the sun was a perfect
circle now, for it squashed as it sank still deeper.
That was just an illusion, of course, caused by atmospheric
distortion or some such optical effect. But Don Entrerrosca was
charmed by the whole affair all the same. He judged it the best
sunset he had ever witnessed. It was almost the special dance he
hoped to see. Very simple and certainly natural. The three
elements of the sky involved in the performance acted in grand
harmony. The star of the show, the sun itself, would have been
uninspiring on its own. The chorus of clouds and stage of the
atmosphere, very dark blue now, played essential parts. Don
Entrerrosca felt compelled to express his delight and reverence.
He clapped and shouted: "Bravo!" He applauded so much and so
loudly and for such a long time that a peculiar thing occurred.
The sun did an encore.
It came back up!
blinked his eyes and rubbed his chin. Yes, it really had unset
itself! The sky grew lighter and the clouds stopped drifting
away and returned to their former positions. Then the top rim of
the sun showed itself and the rest of its bulk eased itself into
view until once more it was balanced on the horizon. It seemed
as if somebody or something under the world had tickled its
inadmissible toes! But as we have already agreed, that is
nonsense. So there must have been an alternative explanation for
this sudden reversal of its normal routine! Why come back up
when you are down unless you feel appreciated? It was clear the
sun was responding to the enthusiasm of its audience of one on
the top of that hill. Its encore was identical to its first
setting. Then night came and a chill wind ushered Don
His astonishment did not leave him at all and he slept badly.
The art of people no longer seemed of much consequence. He
waited unbearably for morning between fragments of impatient
dream. When he awoke properly and went out to greet the day, he
felt an odd embarrassment, like a man who returns to the same
play in the same theatre. The citizens of the town were
grumbling about their clocks and watches, which were running a
few minutes fast. The encore had disrupted the whole cycle of
time, but nobody else seemed aware of the real reason. He
avoided them as much as possible and drank coffee irritably in
restaurants, waiting for the evening and the next sunset. The
day dragged on and he fretted and perspired, not with heat but
anticipation, until finally the afternoon was almost done and he
climbed the same hill again in the same way.
before he was halfway up the slope, a grey mist came from
nowhere and washed over the town and then lapped around him too.
It was chill and very damp and made the rocks slippery and he
could not rise above it, even though he climbed faster. When he
reached the summit he was panting hard and desired nothing more
than a rest, but the large stone which had made such a
comfortable seat only the night before was now occupied by the
mist. It was slimy and wet. He could not frighten these
disadvantages away, so he stood with his hands on his knees,
pulling the clammy air into his lungs and wondering if anyone
had ever composed a great piece of music about mist and fog. He
hoped not. When he had recovered, he straightened his back and
looked for the sun.
It was there but hardly its usual self! Instead of a ripe ruddy
ball flanked by clouds with clearly defined shapes, it had
become a small pale disc the same colour as the mist which tried
to hide it. There were no rays or anything of that kind. In fact
it was difficult to tell when it touched the horizon. Instead of
obvious movement, a grand but graceful sinking, partly involving
a squashing which was slightly comical but not ludicrous, there
was just a gradual decay of steely light, as if a prison door
was shutting without a sound on an innocent man who would be
forced to dine on grey bread and grey broth for the duration of
his unjust sentence, which in fact was for as long as it took
for him to become grey himself. And this grim and colourless
image is apt for reasons which are concerned with Don
But before that, he decided to make his displeasure known where
he was, still standing and not quite sure if the sunset was over
yet or even whether it had begun, so thick had the mist become.
Not only did he refuse to applaud, he went to the opposite
extreme. First he hissed and then when he realised that the sun
probably would not hear this, he cupped his hands around his
mouth and shouted as loudly as he could: "Boo! Very poor!
Absolute rubbish!" And he continued to boo and jeer until all
the breath he had caught back was lost again, but the way home
was down so he had less need of it than before. He stumbled on
the rocks and the mud between them, insidiously soaked and
thoroughly miserable, and the imprint of his heel was more like
the lock of a dungeon than the rear part of a shoe.
reached the town safely and went home and slept more easily this
time, because disappointment is less of an irritant in bed than
excitement, at least for him. He slept long and woke up but saw
it was still night. So he slept some more, convinced that
morning must be close. He slept so much that he nearly made up
for all those long nights of his youth when he serenaded many
late moons and the midnight thought the songs were for it, with
consequences which were either minimal or still unknown. But
despite all this sleep he could not arrive at the morning. So he
rose anyway and had what he imagined was an early breakfast and
then went out to greet the dawn on the street. But he was
jostled by many people, all of whom fumbled along in the murk on
their way to the shops or to cafés for lunch, for the real time
was almost noon.
Noon but still dark! How could this be? The people he stopped to
ask did not know. They just carried on living and working as
normal, for daily bread must still be earned even when there is
no apparent day to butter it by. And they sat on park benches
and struggled to read newspapers and found it impossible. And
there was so much rustling and turning of pages as they tried to
look for at least one paragraph which was legible that the mist
was all blown away as if by thousands of slaves waving huge
fans. The sky grew clear again. And there was a dark circle
where the sun should be! A black hole directly above them with
silver fire all around its rim, very pale flames indeed, much
too feeble to use for anything. It was a total eclipse! The sun
was behind the moon. But this was not natural at all, for such
an event had not been predicted by any astronomer. And even more
unexpectedly, the sun remained behind the moon all the time,
following it across the heavens as if deliberately hiding behind
it. The eclipse was permanent! But why had this happened? Don
Entrerrosca lamented the fact he had jeered at the sunset and
some pedestrians overheard him.
"What's this? You insulted the sun?"
"Yes, it must be my fault," admitted Don Entrerrosca, "and so
it's my responsibility to put things right again if I can."
"You better had," they said, "or else!"
soon spread that a man had climbed a hill to boo the sunset and
before long all the citizens of the town were clamouring for his
head. But they decided to give him a chance to redeem himself.
If he was unable to coax the sun out of its eclipse, he would
have to find a substitute for daylight, and if he was unable to
do that they would set upon him without mercy, if they could
find him in the dark. The days passed and Don Entrerrosca
remained at home, desperately trying to think of ways of undoing
the damage he had caused. He kept his windows shut, because
people often stopped to hurl curses against him from outside. He
was running out of time. They never failed to mention that. But
news of what he had done must have spread far beyond the limits
of the town, for one day, if it is right to continue speaking of
days when they are identical to nights, there was a knock on his
front door and it was so soft and unthreatening that he did not
hesitate to answer it.
A man stood there who had come a long way to visit him. He
introduced himself as Sergio Gustavo and said he was a writer.
Don Entrerrosca invited him in and sat him down in a chair and
listened to what he had to say, which was this:
"I know what you have done and it is the same thing as a man
called Rusiñol did many years ago. But the sun did not take
offence when he did it. This time the sun has retired to its
dressing room, which is the dark side of the moon, and refuses
to come out. Nor will it emerge until it is ready. There is
absolutely nothing you can do about that. In the normal course
of events it only visits its dressing room occasionally, for it
is a busy performer always putting on a sunset somewhere or
other, if not in China then in Africa, and if not there then in
Brazil or Norway or New Zealand. But now it has slammed the door
tight! And talking about performers, if you had remained one
instead of becoming a spectator, this calamity might not have
"Very true," mused Don Entrerrosca, "but what shall I do now?"
Gustavo tapped his nose and leaned forward and replied, "There
is only one true substitute for daylight and that is the smile
of the most beautiful woman in the world."
Don Entrerrosca sighed. "I remember her!"
"Tell me what you know."
"Her name is Eber Marcela Soler and she lives in Córdoba. When I
was a minstrel I serenaded her, but it went wrong and I vowed
never to make the attempt again. Besides, she is very choosy
with her affections and probably wouldn't give me a second
glance. To make her smile is surely beyond my power. I doubt I
might even get close to her."
Sergio Gustavo smiled. "The last part is easy enough. I can
arrange it. My surname, you see, is also Soler. I am her cousin.
Come with me back to Córdoba. I believe it is your only chance
to restore daylight to this planet."
Don Entrerrosca realised he had nothing to lose, so he followed
Sergio Gustavo and they left the town and headed south and many
people of the town went as well to make sure he was not
attempting to escape justice. And when they arrived in Córdoba
they found its streets were not quite as dark as the streets of
all other cities and towns, for the locals carried special
lanterns before them. There were no wicks or oil in these
lanterns. They held little smiles drawn on pieces of paper, the
smile of Eber Soler reproduced as accurately as possible by a
multitude of artists, some more talented than others. The worst
artists had painted smiles which gave off no light at all, but
the best had managed to capture a glow with a fraction of the
power of the real thing, and these smiles cast a radiance which
was just bright enough for washing dishes or recognising
friends, but certainly not strong enough for reading books or
paying taxes. At last the two men paused outside their
was the house where Eber Soler lived and Don Entrerrosca
remembered it, for he had once stood in this very spot and
played the futile lute for her. Now he felt very unconfident and
miserable. There were many other men there too, all standing in
line, and most of them looked foreign or weary from travel. They
were waiting to play their serenades and each took his turn on
his instrument under the designated balcony. Perhaps she was
there, leaning over to listen, but it was impossible to be sure,
for the top of the building merged with the shadows and even the
reddest loveknots in the darkest hair could not stand out from
the general murk, and so the songs may have been played and sung
to an empty space. Don Entrerrosca wanted to retreat but Sergio
Gustavo held him tight and hissed into his ear:
"None of these minstrels are any good. Not once has Señorita
Soler given even the faintest smile in response to a melody
performed for her. And thousands of troubadours have tried.
There was Luís Rodrigues on his little guitar and Otho Vathek on
an accordion and Tin Dylan on a harp and another fellow from
Wales with a broken banjo, to say nothing of the famous poet
Humberto von Gibbon. I can't remember the names of the others
because there have been so many. One had long red hair and a
burnished trumpet. But they all failed and these new lovers will
also fail. Only you stand a chance of success because you are
the best. That is why I came to fetch you."
"But I have given up the lute!"
"I know that. You had a bad experience during a serenade when
your own instrument abducted you. But I must ask you to be brave
and risk another misadventure for the sake of daylight. If you
refuse I will return you to your own citizens. The best
carpenters in Córdoba are ready to make any kind of new lute for
you. They simply require your instructions."
"She may not smile anyway," protested Don Entrerrosca.
Sergio Gustavo shrugged. "There is only one way to be certain.
Without daylight, crops will fail and pickpockets rule every
"I have another idea. What if she is told that I am about to
serenade her, but I keep her waiting indefinitely? She will pout
with disappointment and because we are in the southern
hemisphere (for this is Córdoba in Argentina, not the one in
Spain) her drooping mouth will be seen as a smile from above?
That way the sun will be cheated and I will redeem myself
without plucking a single note."
Sergio Gustavo objected to this suggestion and he prodded Don
Entrerrosca in the ribs with something harder and sharper than a
finger and shaped exactly like a knife and the people who had
followed the minstrel from his own town clapped and applauded
this action, which promised a sunset of his heart, so that the
troubadour found himself nodding vigorously and saying:
"Very well. I shall design the appropriate lute."
And he described exactly what he wanted, but Sergio Gustavo
frowned and sheathed his blade only reluctantly and maybe even
his shoes clicked in a tango rhythm to express his displeasure.
But at last he decided to trust Don Entrerrosca and led him to
the front door of the building in which Eber Soler dwelled. The
other musicians played their serenades and wandered away with
downcast eyes until they were all gone, but a curious rhythm
continued inside the house, a hammering noise. The unsuccessful
minstrels groped their way to the Parque las Heras and lay there
on the dying grass, or sat along the banks of the Río Primero
and dangled their legs. And they talked in hushed tones as
people often do at night. But then their voices were suddenly
raised and they blinked their eyes rapidly, for it was day
This was not sunlight and the radiance did not come from the
sky. It poured from the house of Eber Soler, and when they
listened hard they detected a faint melody and knew that Don
Entrerrosca had achieved what they could not. But how? Well, it
was not with talent, for the cunning troubadour knew she was too
difficult to please that way. All her adult life she had been
serenaded and now it was just a normal part of existence rather
than something to smile about. So he had tried a different
approach. He occupied the room directly below hers and converted
it into a giant lute. Wires were strung between the walls and he
lurked in this web like a spider of love, playing notes in rapid
profusion until the whole room vibrated. They were fine
melodies, for sure, but not quite charming enough to win a smile
from Señorita Soler. No, that was not how he had dispelled night
from the world!
he had done was to tickle her toes. As the room throbbed to his
music, so her floor pulsed in sympathy and made her laugh. Her
attempts to hold back this laugh resulted in a smile, the
biggest smile of the most beautiful woman in the world, and this
shone out across the land. There were certain problems still to
be solved, for the days and nights were no longer regular but
depended on the length of each particular song and whether the
shutters on her window were open or closed, and half the globe
remained always in darkness, but Don Entrerrosca earned his
reprieve anyway and there was much rejoicing. The people of
Córdoba cast away their lanterns and these shattered and
released their contents which were caught by the wind and
scattered far and near, so that gutters and trees and the belly
of the sea glimmered with little smiles at all times.
never before published
The Toes of the Sun
previously appeared in the
Locus Recommended Reading
ALBUM ZUTIQUE #1,
edited by Jeff Vandermeer,
published by the Ministry of
Whimsy Press, 2003.
Hughes is, by his own
admission, a heterochromic logodaedalus much
He is also the author of 350 short stories and many
concerned with ontological fripperies, the deep
pondering of which has turned his static nimbus into a
corybantic fulgor. He may get better.
WORMING THE HARPY, THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES,
NOWHERE NEARMILKWOOD, JOURNEYS BEYOND ADVICE,
THE PERCOLATED STARS and
A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF
INFAMY. For the past ten years he has been working on a long
novel. It is nearly finished!
He enjoys travelling — when he
can afford it — and in an ideal world would spend all his time
visiting other countries. He also loves music, cooking and
reasonably light physical exercise. His literary hero is Italo
Calvino. His puppet hero is Bagpuss.
Rhys Hughes can be contacted at