Music and Stories
Feb10, 2018 |
Filed in:Music and Stories
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This third story was inspired by one of the few rules in military that is actually endearing: if there is an odd number of soldiers out in pairs, the second-to-last is required to fall back to walk beside the last. The second-to-last walks on his own, but there always needs to be a pair of soldiers bringing up the rear. I hope you like it!)
The Last One is Never Alone
At the end of the world, and during it, too, there was a place near the sea that the bullets and blood had not yet reached. It was built from the rough dark stone of the nearby cliffs, and had a steeple and high wall. It used to be a cloister, but now its ancient sides were scarred and blackened, the roof torn open to allow the smoke to leave the mess hall. Iron guns bristled along the top of the perimeter wall. Tarps and crates of ammunition sat among piles of furniture and relics. Golden boxes – centuries old – held toothbrushes nestled next to holy thigh bones. Tapestries were used as extra bedding. The vestry was the officer’s retreat, the crypt our meagre cold storage. This was a place for remnants and scraps of things, bits of equipment, bits of soldiers, too, whatever was left of us.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go on the bicycle patrol. The rumor spread ahead of his arrival at the guardhouse, the way it always does in barracks. The slightest whisper from an officer, a half-formed thought, and everyone down to the cook’s help knew within minutes. What we didn’t know was why all seven of us were going; but then, we never knew the reason for anything we did, only that if we didn’t do it we would be shouted at or forced to hold ourselves up on our elbows in the courtyard until we never thought to question anything again. So, just past 3 o’ clock on a bitterly cold morning, we found ourselves drowsily saddling up the bikes and heading out under the battlements, a curling snake of privates, helmets clipped under chins, radios strapped to our backs.
The patrol that night was a mixed bag: Beaker and Allmand, Porky and Masterson, Graft, Hillam and me. Normally only two went out on the bicycles while the rest sat drowsily in the guardhouse, or wandered along the walls, their chins tucked into their collars to keep warm. But orders were orders, and now there were seven of us wheeling away into the dark. An odd number, an uneven formation. A rag, a tatter, like everything else here.
The patrol route was a five mile loop, a country road skirting the cliffs and the sea and then rounding back through long-abandoned fields toward the cloister. “Pay special attention to the sea,” the lieutenant had told us, wiping his forehead wearily. He was bedraggled, his uniform in desperate need of a wash. It looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “There’s a possibility our location has been made known. I want a full report of any activity along the route, enemy or civilian.”
The front had long since moved away from these parts, disintegrating in the west into skirmishes and firefights. It was bad luck, being stationed here. We were cut off from support, and cut off from escape. We were living off canned beans and tack. An enemy fleet had been reported a hundred miles from the coast a week back, so there would be no rescue from the sea.
We didn’t speak to each other as we pedaled into the night. It was horribly cold, and our breath rose in white plumes from under our helmets, regular and steady, but each in a slightly different rhythm.
Beaker and Allmand were first. As soon as we were out of sight of the ramparts, Beaker stood up on his pedals, pumping them wildly. Beaker was a bug-eyed dolt. He was tired and wanted to complete the route as quickly as possible so he could return to sleep, never mind that if the enemy reached the shores and we failed to inform the command there would be a much longer, colder sleep than the hard bunks in the guardhouse. He was one of those people you could scream at or be kind to, and it would make no difference at all; it would all wash across his dull, hard-nosed face like water. Orders were nothing but small interruptions in his pursuit of food, sleep, and leisure, and if one could carry out a task halfway without punishment, it never occurred to him not to do so.
Allmand was a stolid, silent soldier and kept pace with Beaker. Porky did, too, or tried, though he should have been with me.
I was in the middle, where I liked to be: not good enough to be promoted to positions of responsibility and less sleep, but careful not to fall below that invisible bar of mediocrity where one might become the target of ridicule. Behind me was Masterson, and in the rear Hillam, who was weedy and short, and had never managed to pedal the patrol route in anything under an hour. Masterson should have fallen back to parallel him. But Masterson, like most of the soldiers at the cloister, held a subtle disdain for Hillam, and so he didn’t.
Eventually Masterson pulled in beside me. I glared at him as he passed, but either he didn’t notice or he didn’t care. The formation blurred and fell further and further apart. He peddled on after Allmand and Beaker, his red tail-light vanishing into the fog like an angry, bloodshot eye.
Hillam was breathing hard when he reached me, struggling against the pedals. His glasses hung crooked on his face, already fogged to the rims from his breath, two opaque ovals where his eyes should be. I cast a quick look forward. The red lights of our comrades were quickly receding up the path.
A part of me was angry at Beaker for being so stupid and hurrying the patrol, and another part of me was angry at Hillam for being so slow. That part of me wondered spitefully if maybe Hillam deserved everything he got.
I thought about that as we began to pedal again. The lieutenant back in Spanish Cove used to say that most people had either brains or looks. You only needed one to be reasonably happy in life. If you had both, the world was yours. If you had neither, God help you.
Beaker had neither, and yet somehow the world was no more closed to him than to anyone else. Hillam had brains, and it hadn’t done him any good at all here. He had arrived during the draft, quiet and clever but three heads shorter than the rest of us, clumsy and half blind behind his thick lenses. He couldn’t run more than five minutes. He was always the last in formation, always the slowest, but no one ever dropped back to walk beside him like they should have. The lieutenant never made them either, just because it was Hillam. Once, when he was the slowest yet again, the lieutenant ordered him to stand in the court at attention for hours, his bare hands full of stale bread for the birds to pick at. If the ache in his arms made him drop them, sergeants would come by and set the pieces on his head and the birds would land there with their sharp talons and pick at his hair. He never complained during the torment, only stood there with an expression hovering between bewilderment and amusement at the vagaries of the world.
I had never understood him, but we were friendly.
The cliffs were to our left now. There were no lights below, no sign of anything. All was uniform darkness. A thick, white fog had descended and wrapped around us like freezing wet cotton.
“How are you doing, Hillam?” I asked, drawing up beside him.
He looked up from under his helmet and smiled. “Time of my life,” he said. “Enjoying the weather and the view. Always did fancy seaside holidays.”
“Looking forward to leave?”
He nodded. His helmet was loose, and it clanked against his glasses. “I’ll be going back to Maryville if I can make it.”
“Farm there, right?”
“Just a garden. My parents own the farm. But it’s a good garden. Cecil Country’s 1st prize-winning hyacinths six years in a row!” He glanced over. “Thanks for waiting.”
I shrugged, as if to say, orders are orders, as if to say, it wasn’t a favour. I remembered the day we learned the rules of formation, how Hillam hadn’t even blinked when the sergeant at Spanish Cove went up to him, inches from his face, and started to hiss. ‘The last one is never alone, sure. But we got no place for stragglers and weaklings here. If you can’t keep up you die. That’s life, and that’s the army, too. You’ll get someone killed one of these days if you don’t pick up those feet.”
“I have a bike like this back home,” Hillam said after a while, cheerfully. He was pedaling so slowly. My muscles itched. “Same make and everything. I’d ride it out to the market every Wednesday, real early, when it was cold and foggy, too. Only instead of emergency flares in the front basket I had the hyacinths. It makes you wonder about things, how maybe things could be different.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant.
“But I don’t hate it here.” His voice was suddenly flat, solemn as a bell. “It’s just a blip, all this rain and cold. Then I’m gone. They can’t keep us here forever.”
I nodded, finally catching on to something I could talk about. “The big bombs are coming, lieutenant says. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. We’ll all go home.”
Hillam didn’t say anything, just looked ahead into the fog, his expression unreadable behind the steamed-up spectacles.
We reached the way-point. Beaker would have sent a message, but I already knew what he’d said: “Private Beaker to command, come in. Nothing to report.” He probably cast a single glance over the cliffs, paused to wipe the moisture from his face and the sleep from his eyes. Now he was speeding on, back to the cloister and his narrow bunk.
So Hillam and I stopped and looked out across the waves. I extended the antennae on my handheld. I hesitated a moment, peering down the cliffs at the shore. Had that been movement I’d seen in the dark? Or just my tired eyes inventing things to keep them from closing. . .
It was nothing. I gave the report and we began to pedal again, inland, away from the cliffs.
The final stretch of the loop was much more difficult than the way there. It was downhill and uphill, the road becoming rough and narrow, winding here and there between grassy hillocks. The wind came fast and hard here, whistling like a thin, spiteful voice. A bitter rain began to lash us as we rode. At some point Hillam fell behind again, a white light shimmering in the rain behind me.
And then, up ahead, gunfire. One shot, two, a volley.
I skidded to a halt.
“Hillam!” I hissed over my shoulder. Just up ahead, splayed on the stones Masterson and Porky, tangled with their bicycles. They were dead, neat little wounds in their jackets, the rain already cleaning the blood away.
I turned in a panic. Hillam was still coming down the road, the white globe of his light bouncing along about thirty feet behind me.
I wheeled back toward him, praying the shooters hadn’t seen our lights approaching. I reached forward, scrabbling to turn mine off. Now I was pedaling blindly, rocks jarring against my tires, pebbles flying like spittle. We’d take the road back, the cliff route and then into the cloister and we’d hope they hadn’t blocked the way yet.
Suddenly I realised Hillam was driving away from me. He was ahead of me, now paralleling me, a safe distance away in the fog. his light was still on. I followed him desperately, doubling my speed. Where was he going? There was no road anymore, nothing but the fog pressing around me. But then I came around the bend, and there was Hillam’s light just ahead, hovering silently, like someone was holding it in the palm of his hand. I squinted at it through the driving rain. “Hillam?” I called out.
No answer. I peddled on, and the light was there to my left, just piercing the fog. I hope you know where you’re going, Hillam, because I sure don’t anymore. We drove this way for some time, the guns still going in the distance. I pedaled on and on. My bicycle struck a rock and bounced painfully.
I blinked and the light was gone. Only pitch blackness and freezing rain. I peddled forward, my bicycle skidding and sliding on the loose gravel, the breaks creaking. I arrived at the place the light had been.
I realised where I was. In the distance, I could make out the cloister’s floodlights. I was almost back, almost back to where we started.
And then I saw a bicycle in a break in the fog. It was collapsed by the side of the road. Another few feet and there was Hillam. He was lying on his back on the stones, the rain streaming over is face. His eyes were open. A red circle was just peaking out from under his helmet: no blood, just a hole. And down by the shore, the sound of guns, the sound of voices.
Hillam’s lips were already turning purple. He must have been dead thirty minutes, shot just after we left the cloister. A silenced gun maybe, the dry pop swallowed by the sea. He hadn’t been the last. I was. But he’d hadn’t left me alone.
Terror seized me as I thought of the light following me in the fog, the conversation in the rain. They can’t keep us here forever.
In the dark, the bullets began to crack, strange, foolish little spats, like bursts of angry conversation. I ran to Hillam and tried his pulse, then held two fingers under his nose. But there was no breath. I turned my bicycle toward the gates, tears and rain streaking my face. I headed for it, then past it, into the freezing green fields beyond.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go. Did he know we were lost?
Goodbye, Hillam. They can’t keep us here forever, with the rags and the relics. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. I’ll plant some hyacinths if I get home.
Speak up:1 comment
Jan21, 2018 |
Filed in:Music and Stories
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are super short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This second story was inspired by the painting above – “All Hallow’s Eve” by Jakub Schikaneder – which I saw at the National Gallery in Prague and wondered who the old woman was waiting for, and why she looked so sad. I hope you like it!) 🙂
On Sokolov’s Bridge
In late October, 1799, Franek’s mother sent him to Sokolov’s Bridge to pull a bucket of water from the cold, deep lake below.
“And don’t fall in,” his mother warned, but Franek did.
It had been an accident of course. Franek had hurried along the dusty road between the tall autumn oaks, hoisting the heavy wooden bucket with him. He ran as fast as he could, because he had an entire evening of good things to look forward to, and they had not included going to the lake for water. Dusk was falling. The air held the first cutting edge of winter. Franek arrived at the place where the earth dipped down steeply toward the lake. He started across the bridge, which was very long and crumbling. In the middle of the bridge was the winch and the rope for the water-bucket, and he climbed the little steps along the rough stone wall that hedged the bridge’s sides. He heaved the bucket after him, put it on the sharp iron hook at the end of the rope.
And that was when he fell. There was no particular reason for it. Franek had fetched water from the lake a hundred times before. But today he looked down, and just as he was about to lower the bucket, he thought he saw something in the water below. He could have sworn there were faces peering up at him, a dozen or more, and a shape moving in the depths, a ripple, like the pearlescent spine of a great fish pushing up out of the ebb, a thin, sleek form twisting just under the surface and falling away again.
He tottered a moment at the edge of the bridge, a confused look on his face. Then he fell, very quickly, and the water rushed up to meet him.
When Franek came to, he was lying in a little cave with a rotting wooden door, and carpets over the rough wet rocks, and a diamond-paned window that looked up onto the underside of the lake
A woman was sitting across from him. She looked not a day over eighteen, dressed in a plain white shroud. There were rotting flowers in her hair, and spots of mould on her cheeks, and she was watching the boy sharply.
“Good evening,” said the woman, when she saw Franek returning her gaze.
“Good evening,” said Franek.
Now, Sokolov’s Bridge was one of those very old bridges that, by virtue of its age, was also the prison of a water witch. Her name had been Margosha once, and she had been bound to the foundations of the bridge a hundred years ago, for it was thought that if you mixed a bit of human in with the mortar and stones, your construction would remain strong through war and high-water, storm and earthquake. To move the road around the narrow, twisting lake would have taken years. And so one day in spring, Margosha was lowered into the water, her hair full of flowers, her eyes full of tears, and they walled her into the foundation pillar at the centre of Sokolov’s Bridge
She died, of course, slowly and cruelly, while her townspeople watched solemnly from the banks. She saw their faces as she sank into the dark, the baker who had given her ginger cakes as a child, her parents hand in hand, her betrothed, stony and upright. She saw them all turn to shadows against the sun, as her eyes blurred and went out like candles. But she did not leave the place she died. She haunted it, a water witch of the icy depths.
Margosha grew old and bitter as time. She watched the women and children come and draw their water. She saw the foxes and the birds passing by on their secret journeys. Peering up with her lidless, milky eyes she saw the merchants, and the soldiers, the highwaymen and the thieves, and her cold, wet heart grew hungry for revenge.
Every few years or so, a fool would dip into her waters: pedlars stopping to bathe before the village, lazy old fishermen in their boats, women with their sacks of laundry; all of them vanished, never to be seen. And when Margosha saw Franek teetering on the edge, she stirred in the depths and watched him fall, and gathered him up once he did.
“You may have three wishes,” she said now, in her dripping lair beneath the lake. She smiled a green smile full of snails and weeds. Sometimes a tiny fish would squeeze its way out of the corner of her eye and drop to the floor. “But not for you. You may wish for anyone in the world. And then you will stay here in the dark, with the ones I have taken. You will lie in the water and watch as the dreams of others come true, as they pass over the bridge with their children and grandchildren, as they go to markets you will never visit, and see sights you will never see, as they live on and on in the light.”
Because that was what she had done and what she had been: a wish, a lucky penny thrown into the water for the good of others.
“Why can’t I wish for myself?” said Franek, who had been planning to be very clever. He had planned to wish his way out of the lake and onto Sokolov’s Bridge, with a pail of water and perhaps a few toffees for the road home, and now the witch had ruined everything. But Margosha knew what he would wish for. She was not a stupid witch.
“Because I couldn’t,” she said with a smirk. And she gestured down a hallway of her lair. Its floor was covered with puddles, and in each one lay a dark shape, a jacket or a heap of petticoats, or a heavy suit of rusting amor. Puddle after puddle stretched away, and face down in each one was a man or a woman, their clothes all soaked to the bone, their bodies swollen and pale. “But the bridge still stands! No war or fire has broken it. That is sacrifice, is it not? All for the greater good.”
She watched Franek, her eyes glittering with fury. “Come now. Don’t you want anything? I have such a lot of trinkets and coins saved up for wishes.” She ran her long fingers through a chest of coins and ribbons and locks of hair, rattling them together.
Franek thought of himself staying in the cold lake forever, floating there while everyone forgot he ever existed. There had been no choice presented; he would stay here, wishes or none. The witch simply wanted the satisfaction of watching someone wish for things he would never enjoy himself. But Franek was not sure he minded as much as she thought he did. He wished for a new cow for his mother, and he wished his friend from the old schoolhouse could walk again. With each wish, Maryzska dropped a coin away into the water that lapped at the floor of her lair.
And then Franek had an idea: “I wish you weren’t imprisoned here,” he said. “I’m sorry the wicked people threw you down the well, but I wish you could be free again. I didn’t throw you down the well. I wish you well.”
Margosha pulled back in surprise, and suddenly she looked like her old self again. The snails dropped from her teeth, and a flood of fishes fell from under eyelids and slithered into the water.
“But will you allow me one thing?” Franek asked. “If I’m to stay here forever, let me come up on All Hallow’s Eve. Let me look out of the water and go up on the bridge.”
The water witch nodded, her eyes as green as the seaweed in her hair. And then she was gone, sliding and wriggling out of the water and running off beneath the red oak trees, and then above them, on and on toward the moon.
“And tell my mother I’ll wait for her there!” Franek shouted after her. “Go and tell her! Please go and tell her!”
Margosha never returned to the bridge. But All Hallow’s Eve did, swinging round like a great brass pendulum and dragging with it the smell of oak-logs and fires and hot cider. And every time it did, the door opened in a cottage not far from Sokolov’s Bridge, and a woman came out with a little bag of things, and a fine new wreath, and went to Sokolov’s Bridge, and waited all through the day, hunched and alone, for nighttime.
In late October, 1843, Franek looked up from the bottom of the lake. Seaweed slithered across his pale forehead and wound through his hair. Moonlight reflected in his eyes, turning them to silver coins. High above, an old woman was peering down at him, laughing and crying and waving. Franek waved back, his hand moving slowly through the water. And now he felt himself rising, breaking the surface and floating to the edge of the lake, climbing the mortar of the ancient foundations. They embraced for a moment on Sokolov’s Bridge, a boy forever eight, and an old woman, cut out against the bright cold light.
Then the moon shifted, and the clouds returned, and Franek climbed the little steps to the old iron hook. He fell away again into the water, just as he had before. His mother blurred, a rippling shape up on Sokolov’s Bridge. And as Franek sank, he watched his mother turn slowly, and shoulder her wreath, and trudge away into the night.
Speak up:6 comments
Jan14, 2018 |
Filed in:Music and Stories
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are super short – under a thousand words – and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. If you read more slowly, you can click on the Soundcloud link and then on the little looped-y-loop so that the music repeats itself. This first story is inspired by the now-very-famous 52 Hertz Whale, who spoke so differently from other whales that none of them could understand it. I hope you like it! 🙂
The Whale and the Tea-Kettle
Not far from a bleak winter beach – sharp stones and frost, thin grass and no sun to warm the edges of things – a boat drifted, rusting and old, its portholes covered in rime. It was the sort of boat people called a tea-kettle, which meant it was small and clad in metal, and had only one thin, crooked smokestack, and was prone to leakage.
The boat bobbed in the black water, mostly silent but for a few grumbles and grunts, until all at once a whale surfaced next to it. The whale’s great curious eye gazed at the boat, and the boat’s grimy portholes gazed back.
“Hello,” said the whale.
The wind whistled through the boat’s single smokestack. The whale took this to mean, “Hello to you, too.”
“Why are you floating here so quietly?” the whale inquired, not wanting the conversation to flag.
A wave came and knocked against the boat’s side. “Everything inside me has died,” said the boat melodramatically.
The whale peered into one porthole and sure enough there were skeletons around the table, and a skeleton tucked into bed, and a skeleton holding a mug in its bony fingers and grinning at the wall.
“What happened to them?” the whale asked, but the boat only bobbed to and fro and did not answer.
The whale stirred the water with its great tail, to wake the tea-kettle up.
“I don’t know,” the boat answered at last, in creaks and cracks of its rusting panels. “I suppose I took a wrong turn somewhere and they ran out of water. Funny, isn’t it, to run out of water in the middle of the sea?”
The whale wasn’t sure that was funny, but it laughed politely, a long, slow laugh that took several minutes. “How did you learn to speak to whales?” it asked, when it had finished.
“I didn’t,” said the boat. “I don’t know why I can talk to you. I suppose because your voice is very strange for a whale’s.”
The whale dipped its head underwater, feeling rather ashamed. It was true that its voice was not cavernous and bellowing like other whales. It sounded creaky and thin, much like the rasp of tea-kettle’s rivets and plates.
“I never learned to speak to whales either,” said the whale. “Or at least, none of them can understand what I say to them.”
One of the tea-kettle’s loose shutters clanked in the wind. “Well, I’ve forgotten how to speak boat-ish, if it’s any consolation. Boats wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to me, because I’m rusting, and I have only one thin, crooked smokestack, and I’m prone to leakage. But it’s not so bad. The fishers on my boat spoke nine languages between them, before they stopped speaking altogether, and it didn’t do them any good. They never agreed on anything.”
“I think,” said the whale, “that if I could speak to someone, I would never stop.”
“Well, you can speak to me,” said the boat, and one of the portholes in its prow spun in a gust of wind, like a wink.
The whale was delighted, and it told the tea-kettle its tale.
When the whale was no larger than a bicycle, its mother vanished in a cloud of orcas. The little whale wandered the seas, speaking to other whales with wild abandon. It spoke to great blue whales, and small bullish grey ones, and a white one as long as an ocean-liner. It asked them if it could join their herds, tried telling jokes and singing songs, but the other whales looked at it askance for its strange and ugly voice, and then chased it away. Not one of them understood what it was trying to say.
The whale travelled far and wide, growing larger and larger. It sang to a squid, and a coral reef. It bellowed a greeting to a child on a beach, who watched it curiously and then answered in an even stranger song than the whale’s own. It spoke to a starling, who was hitching a ride on a grey piece of driftwood. The whale surfaced very gently and murmured ‘good morning’ to the starling as nicely as it could, but the bird was startled anyway and fluttered indignantly away.
In time the whale grew weary, and floating in the blue dark of the ocean it wished it might turn into one of those small, mute, silvery fishes, or burst above the waves and become a starling, too, that could swoop away into the sky.
And just when the whale was as sad as it had ever been, it saw a boat floating on the surface of the water, and heard a sound – a long, rude creeeeeeak – and the whale was sure that meant “Hello.”
Perhaps you will say boats cannot speak. Perhaps you will insist the whale went mad from loneliness. But perhaps they were both very happy, the whale and the tea-kettle, drifting far from the shore and the thin grey grasses, and the sharp rocks, into the far cold sea, where they creaked and warbled in their own secret language for the rest of their days.