Dublin, c. 2055
Grandpa’s antique accordion wheezed gently. Its bellows breathed the cool, damp Irish air for the first reedy notes of my song. Grandpa was long dead, but his polished instrument came alive in my hands, as always. It had been safely in its case during my transit between the fishing boat and the shore, so it was untouched by the salt spray that had touched everything else.
I played a tune that had haunted me from the moment I first heard him play it at his home, after a service at his Russian Orthodox cathedral in London. That was back when London – part of London – was still a vibrant, multiethnic showpiece.
The city wasn’t like that anymore. It had decayed into lukewarm tribal warfare, like the rest of the Pan-European Alliance for Peace and Social Justice. A hundred factions chose their allies and fought their enemies with laws, protests, barricades, and often weapons. Alliances shifted and shifted again, and the conflict continued.
“In church this song for only voices, unaccompanied,” Grandpa explained in his thick Russian accent. I had tried for years to master that accent, with its rich, long vowels, but I couldn’t. In truth I spoke poorly in words, accented or otherwise. Everything music was to me, words were not.
“In Orthodox Church only human voice worthy for praising God,” he rumbled. “But I think is music well suited for accordion.”
It was not well suited to the accordion. I wrestled with it hour after hour, month after month. He taught me to play melodic lines, not just chords, with my left hand, using the buttons to supplement my right hand on the keyboard. With practice I could produce three or four independent voices at a time.
Grandpa was long gone from earth. I was lately gone from London.
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My song began with gentle, four-part harmony around a simple melodic line. The melody’s first three notes were the same, and for a while it didn’t wander far from them. Then humbly, gradually it began to ascend. It reached back over the Irish Sea, which lapped restfully behind me, on the other side of the fence they built to keep me out. It flew beyond Grandpa’s corner of London, across Europe, to its Russian home, which I had never seen.
Four quiet voices moved together, weaving gently in, out, around, and through. My French mother would have said the long melodic line was typical of Rachmaninoff. The song was from his All-Night Vigil.
The original language wasn’t even Russian. It was the Russian Orthodox liturgical language, but I knew the translation:
Virgin Mother of God, rejoice! Favored Mary, the Lord is with thee.
The words played in my head in Church Slavonic, because I had heard them so often, but like many words in my own language, they meant little to me. Religious words in particular meant nothing. I wasn’t Christian like my Protestant father and his Orthodox parents. I wasn’t Jewish like my mother. I wasn’t Muslim like my stepfather. I wasn’t atheist like my teachers, who enjoyed pointing out how often people who professed one of my family’s religions had enslaved, tortured, or slaughtered people of another of my family’s religions.
My life was on this earth. My soul belonged to this earth, even when it soared above it. My music was on this earth – and beyond music nothing mattered. Many other things existed, but they didn’t seem to want to. They kept destroying themselves and each other.
The voices in my song slowly gained strength, weaving sweetly in and out, as my fingers moved among the keys and buttons in a dance which had finally become second nature. Now a descant soprano line joined them, soaring gently higher, gaining strength.
Blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the Fruit of thy womb. (Virgin mother!)
Now there were four voices at once, two with their own harmonies, weaving, soaring, louder, softer, always harmonious, never dissonant even in strength. Each melody was as simple and endless as the line between earth and sea; together they were as complex as the world from which I had fled – fled because there was nothing in it for me, no combination of people or things as beautiful as the music its geniuses and outcasts had revealed.
It had taken me years to master this song and this instrument, years to evolve from playing notes to playing music, more years before the music began to play me.
You have borne a Savior. (Rejoice!) You have borne a Savior
Then the four melodies became one again and, in slow, simple harmony, faded peacefully away.
Of our souls.
“With yer gift,” my old Scottish neighbor had said more than once, “ye should play the pipes.” He meant it as high praise, but bagpipes would have suited someone standing on the other side of the Irish Sea. I knew from having lived on that island that I belonged on this one.
I had never been here before this hour, but I could feel that here was my home. This place had made war on itself for decades, then simply stopped and made peace. Later – but long before my birth – to preserve their peace, the Irish built a fence to keep Europe out, to keep their world harmonious. Commerce still flowed, but migrants and refugees did not.
My next song began where the first left off, in simple chords which grew complex but not dissonant. I flew back in time.
“Mamá, these words here must be the name of God in French,” I said as I pointed to the sheet music. I was eleven years old.
“’Dirait on?’ No, child. Why would you think that?” she asked.
“Because this is a very religious song, and the best part of it is the chorus, where they repeat these two words again and again.”
“Why do you call it religious?”
“Because it feels to me just like the ‘Ave Maria’ Grandpa taught me. I feel the same way inside when I play it. That is a very religious song.” I explained my reasoning with great confidence.
“You’re right about Grandpa’s song,” she said. “I don’t know how a song could be more religious. But this one isn’t religious at all. It’s beautiful, yes, but it’s about a flower.”
“A single rose, its wildness and tenderness, and how all it knows is itself. It could hardly be less religious. By the way, the words are French, but the composer is American.”
This was wrong, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to fight someone. Or run and hide. I struggled to keep my temper. How could something so unmistakably sacred actually not be sacred at all?
“Then what do these two words mean, that they keep repeating?”
“Nothing of consequence. Something like, ‘as they say.’”
“No, Mamá, that’s impossible!”
She raised her eyebrows when I raised my voice, but she was patient. “Why impossible?”
I wanted to cry – no, to wail or rage – but I had to speak. “It can’t be just a silly song about a selfish flower, with a chorus that repeats two words that mean almost nothing. It feels bigger. It feels like Grandpa’s song. It has to be bigger.”
“I’m sorry, son,” she said. “It’s not religious at all.”
I grasped for words I knew but didn’t use. I needed to describe what the music did inside me, but I couldn’t. I could never describe anything important in words. I tried one more time.
“How could someone put such … nothingness … of words to such … holiness … of music?”
What I knew for certain was that Morton Lauridsen, whoever he was, was a bad composer. He didn’t understand what he had created, and he put nothing words to it. I tried to explain this to Mamá.
She was horrified. “Oh, no! He’s brilliant, a genius. One of the greatest choral composers. And many things are holy besides God.”
No, I said to myself, he wasn’t great. But I was done arguing about it. Religion meant nothing, I reasoned for the first time, if it was indistinguishable from unreligion. And words were helpless cowards.
Only music mattered, and this music mattered immensely, even if the words didn’t.
I didn’t play the words.
Now I played my music with the sea to my back, cobblestones under my feet, and Dublin in front of me, across the street.
The verse might have been a quiet dance. It started as a single line of melody, beautiful, simple, gentle, spun from clouds and dreams. At the end of the verse, two perfect four-note figures stirred my soul with the promise of what would come.
The first chorus fulfilled that promise. It was gentle, another simple line of melody, but it lifted me like few notes ever had. My spirit danced and soared.
The second verse was a simple melody again, and so was the second chorus, until a counterpoint emerged which, once I heard it, seemed as inevitable as the sky. Then, like the Rachmaninoff, it split briefly into four voices. They echoed each other, like gently swirling zephyrs, until everything resolved in one long, harmonious chord.
There, with Ireland breathing into me and all around, my spirit was as light and free as ever, as always when I played this song.
The third verse was four voices, four melodies. Had I four souls, they could have pirouetted together on the breeze, unique and lively but still somehow one. Then came the same four-note cadence, but more complex, and then it came again, resolving into a single chord which promised an imminent chorus of eternal bliss.
Each chorus’s ecstatic flight was different. Now I played two voices with harmony, and my soul spread its wings full wide. The voices merged in diminuendo and an even softer, brief reprise, and I floated like a feather to the Irish earth.
Except it wasn’t just earth anymore, and the air was different. Sweeter, lighter, vigorous but … peaceful. My music was my life. I was my music. And now, for the first time, I was home.
I heaved a contented sigh into the Irish air and began the song again. It wasn’t like the electronic drugs the boys on my old street used. It didn’t drop you lower after lifting you, and it never stopped working, and you never needed more of it than before. There was no such thing as more of it; you already had all there was, all that could be.
I heard the scrape of feet. They’d said I’d surely be caught and expelled, if not killed. But I was Irish now. This was my home. Surely a young man playing such music on the street could not be an intruder or an enemy.
The feet belonged to woman. She was barely older than me, if at all. Her hair was a perfect, angelic auburn. A few strands strayed wildly in the breeze. Her clothes were like a uniform, and she wore some kind of badge and a sidearm. I clung to the music, so as not to fear or doubt my fate. But then I saw her eyes.
They were green and fixed on mine, reaching, probing, listening, understanding. Her step slowed long before she reached me.
I played on, watching her watch me as she approached.
Her cheeks were flushed, and I saw that she was breathless too. Might she be afraid of me? How could she fear me? I studied her eyes again, as I played and she listened.
I recognized them, having never seen her before. Her eyes were my eyes, and my music was our music. Our souls rose in an airy pas de deux.
I paused after a chorus. She blinked, then spoke in a soft, rasping voice.
“You should go. They’ll find you.”
I played on, soaring until the song was finished. Three long chords, and I settled back to earth, renewed as it was renewed.
Something had changed. Her eyes were different. The hope in them, the freedom, was gone.
“They’ll find you. What’s your name? Tell me your name.”
We were not where we had been a moment before, nor who we had been. I was instantly heartbroken, and I began to be afraid. I still held the accordion, but the sea air had turned cold, and my arms, shoulders, legs, and heart were drained of half their strength. I felt like I was back in England, or on the Continent. It scarcely mattered which, in recent years.
She must have seen my growing fear. “I won’t hurt you,” she said. “I want to help you.”
I shook my head. “You’re with them, aren’t you?” Her eyes and her stance, like her weapon and her badge, said she was.
“Yes. No. I mean … I’m new … I don’t want …” Her shoulders slumped, and her eyes were wide. “It’s my first day on patrol. I wanted to be a teacher.” She smiled sadly. “I was a teacher for two years. I taught children to open their minds and wrestle with ideas. I helped them learn to think and live.”
“They don’t allow life or thinking there,” I said. “That’s why I came here. I want to be free.”
She stared at the cobblestones and slowly shook her head. “Free?” Her voice was at once gloomy and ironic. “And you came here?”
“You can’t imagine how bad it is there.”
“I do imagine it. At least I did.” She waved dismissively at her badge. “Now that I’m doing this, I’d go to jail for listening to the British Broadcasting Authority.”
“It’s getting worse there,” I said. “Worse than the BBA would ever tell you.”
“It gets worse here too,” she said, “despite the fence, but perhaps more slowly.” She looked toward the sea.
She put a finger to her ear; I assumed she was receiving a transmission. Her eyes went wide, and I heard her official voice. Its strength was pleasing. Its tone was not. “Acknowledged. Approaching location now. Will advise. Out.”
Her eyes were alive again. They didn’t match her official voice. They looked into me gently, full of hope and meaning, and welcomed me to look into her. When she spoke again, it was almost a whisper.
“I’ll keep you safe. I know where we can go.”
I shook my head and played again, softly and in halting phrases. I saw her eyes and willed our souls to resume their flight.
“Where are we going?” I asked over a long chord.
“I heard of a place in Europe,” she said.
My heart sank. Europe was no place for her or me or anyone else alive. Didn’t she know why they built a fence to keep Europe out?
“Here is better,” I said.
“Here is death,” she said. “I will die soon if I stay. You will die sooner. Come with me.”
“There’s no place for me there. I wish to stay here.”
“You cannot stay.”
“I cannot leave. I belong here.”
“If you do not go, we will kill you.”
“You will not kill me.” I knew that, at least.
“They will kill you, if you do not go.”
“Will they punish you for not arresting me?”
“Not if I go with you.”
“There’s no life there. Only death.”
“We will make our life together.”
“How do you know this?”
“I know your music, and by it I know your heart. But we must hurry. There is no time.”
Her eyes and voice persuaded me that she was sincere. She wasn’t tricking me into showing her how I got through the fence, how I neutralized the tiny mines woven into it – before she arrested me or killed me.
In her eyes I saw my own reflection. I saw that our existence was so different from the cobblestone street where we stood, so separate from fenced islands and restless, frightened continents, that there was no place in this world for either of us – which in that moment somehow meant something hopeful.
There was no place where we couldn’t live, if we could live together.
She touched her ear again, listening first, then speaking. “Negative. Searching further. Out.”
We heard sirens approaching.
“There will be a search,” she said. “We must go.”
I summoned every last fragment of courage. “So … Europe?”
“A place in Europe,” she repeated. “Together.”
I stared for a moment, then packed my accordion quickly, and we ran. We left the island the way I had come in.
Before long we heard shouts from the shore behind us. They’d found our hole in the fence.
Our little rubber boat had already slipped us into the fog.
Author’s note: My short-story-of-the-month for April is an etude of sorts, a study. I read an unpublished short story by a promising Irish writer, Silvia O’Dwyer, written from the viewpoint of the woman in this story. As I read, I thought of writing from the man’s perspective, mostly as an exercise in describing music in words, a skill I need to develop for other writing. I borrowed her setting and characters, invented a lot of backstory for him, and choose the songs he played.
If what you see here seems like only half a story, and it might, in a sense you’re correct, because you haven’t read her story. Alas, I have no link to offer.
Photo credits: E H Mitrich and Alejandro Luengo at Unsplash.com.
From the Author
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