Moles and field mice rode on the hem of the old man’s ragged, dusty robe that dragged in the dirt as he walked. His beard was so long that its tip scraped the ground. Gophers, groundhogs, ferrets and rabbits followed behind him. On his back was strapped a burlap bag filled with things that clinked and tinkled musically with every step he took. In his right hand he held a shepherd’s staff made of gnarled oak that he used to walk with. Each indentation it made in the bare dirt road was quickly filled with sprouts of grass or wild onion. As he walked beneath the branches of tall oak trees, they suddenly became weighed down by acorns.
At the hour in the day, just past the evening meal but before the sun had begun to set, the old man happened upon a cottage with a thatched roof. It was set back from the road on a barren plot of land. Alongside it stood a grove of dead apple trees. Their branches were black, twisted and bent, as if they had died an agonizing death. Some leaned so severely they appeared as if they would topple over at any moment. In the front yard was a well surrounded by a low stone wall. On the wall sat a bucket attached by a rope and a young boy with thick, curly black hair and doe-like eyes clanging a tin dipper against its side. The combined echoing that emanated from the hollow bucket and the metallic vibration of the dipper produced a discordant sound.
From the road, the old man called out, “My fine lad, could I bother you for a drink of water?”
The boy stopped tapping the dipper against the bucket and gazed at the old man thoughtfully and a bit sadly. “Our well is about dry. There’s no water to spare.”
“Is it thirst that has killed your trees?” the old man said.
“No, the trees and grass and vegetables in the garden died first, and then the well started to go dry.” The boy leapt off of the wall and walked over to the old man. Watching two moles frolicking on the hem of the old man’s garment, the boy whispered, “I’m not supposed to mention it, but my father says our land has been cursed.”
“Does he?” the old man said. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“The mayor’s sorcerer did it at the mayor’s bidding,” the boy said. “My father says the mayor wants to be the only one in the county to have a fine and fruitful land such as we had.”
The old man unstrapped the burlap bag from his back and placed it on the ground. “Do you like music?” he said.
“I like the sound of a flute.”
“Well, then, flute music you shall have. Go into your orchard and find the skull of a dead bird and a hollowed-out twig”
The boy wrinkled his button nose and said, “What if I can’t find those things?”
“Nonsense,” the old man said. “Every dead orchard has those things.”
As the boy ran off to the orchard the old man opened his bag. He took out a small piece of rolled up tin, several large buttons, a dragon’s tooth eaten through by a cavity, and a maiden’s slipper with several holes in the sole. He tied each of these items by string made of spider silk to the spine of a dead fish so that they dangled when he held it up.
The boy returned carrying the bird’s skull and the twig. He handed them to the old man and saw what the old man had put together laying on the ground. “That doesn’t look like a flute to me.”
“Few things look at first what they turn out to be in the end,” the old man said. He tied the skull and twig to the fish bone and then raised it above his head.
The slight breeze passing through the hanging objects first produced whistles and squeaks. Then the melodious almost bird-like notes of a flute sang out from the objects as if they were a musician’s composition.
In awe, the boy clapped his hands. “What is that?”
“It’s a wind chime, my lad. Now we’ll hang it in front of your door.”
The boy watched as the old man hung it from a beam over the door. Almost instantly the music from the wind chime began to fill the air.
“What can I give you in return?” the boy said.
“A dipper of water.”
“I think my parents would say that was a fair trade.”
The boy lowered the bucket into the well and brought it up to give the old man a dipper full of water.
“What’s your name, lad?” the old man asked.
The next morning the old man awoke in an abandoned barn where he had spent the night. He added to his bag pieces of an eggshell, broken bits of porcelain from a milk jug, and a tine from a pitchfork. He brushed the straw from his beard, gathered his staff, and bag and left the barn. Walking up the road he left behind a trail of spots of grass and wild onion sprouts.
Under an azure sky, the old man shooed away the animals on his clothes that followed him and walked through the open gates of the village of Piln. He walked up a cobblestone street lined with pink, yellow and blue stucco cottages with red and green tiled roofs. Their stone chimneys spewed spirals of white smoke. There was no grass, flowers or living trees in any of the yards. A hot breeze blew eddies of dirt across the cobblestones.
The old man wandered into the marketplace where farmers and villagers stood behind tables piled with shriveled and rotten fruit and vegetables. A very thin woman at one of the tables stacked with black-speckled, mushy tomatoes cried softly into her handkerchief.
“What’s happened here?” the old man said.
The woman looked to her left and right, and then leaned across the table and speaking very softly, said, “You’re a stranger here and if I’m overheard it could cost me my life, but leave now before you die of hunger as surely as the rest of us will.”
A rotund woman at the next table holding baskets of dead flower stems and wilted petals leaned over, and in hushed tones also, said, “The mayor put out an edict two days ago that no one will have any plant more fruitful as his or as pleasing to the eye. He had his sorcerer kill all forms of vegetation, grass, flower, bush and tree within the county except for that which is on his property.”
“He’s sentenced us all to a slow death,” the thin woman said.
“I’ve heard this same thing before,” the old man said.
At that moment the loud clacking of hooves and cartwheels on the cobblestones drew everyone’s attention. Coming up the street at a fast pace was Credo who was seated on the cart next to his father. The cart was loaded with baskets of ripe, red apples. Credo’s father brought the cart to a stop in the middle of the marketplace. All the villagers quickly gathered around the cart.
“Where did you get the apples?” they said.
“When I awoke early this morning my trees were restored to life and their branches full of these apples that you see. My yard is covered with grass again and there are carrots, beets and turnips in our vegetable garden,” Credo’s father said.
“But how can that be?” the rotund woman asked.
Credo pointed to the old man who was standing apart from the villagers. “It’s the wind chime he made and hung in front of our door,” he said. “It has more magic than the sorcerer.”
The thin woman turned to the old man and said, “Can you make me a wind chime to bring back my tomatoes, squash and cherry trees?”
“What is your favorite musical instrument?” he said.
The woman thought for a moment and then said, “A violin.”
He opened his bag. “Go home and find on your land a strip of bark and a piece of clothesline and bring them back to me.”
Excitedly she ran off.
A farmer and his wife stepped up. “What about a wind chime for us that will bring back our asparagus crop and my wife’s petunia garden?” the husband said.
“We both like the piano,” the wife added.
“Bring me back any part of a hammer and a cobweb.”
The couple turned and ran.
Individuals and couples, the young and the old, the fat, thin, handsome, ugly and beautiful, stepped up one after the other and told the old man what they wanted to be restored and their favorite musical instrument. When the marketplace was empty of everyone except for the old man, Credo and his father, the old man poured the contents of his bag onto a table and spread them out.
To Credo’s father, the old man said, “If you would permit it, I could teach your lad how to make a chime.”
“I see no harm that can come from it,” Credo’s father said.
As Credo stepped up to the table, the old man said, “Know this, lad. The earth is made of music. All you have to do is be in harmony with it.”
Throughout the rest of the day the villagers and farmers returned with what they had been told to bring back. The old man put together wind chimes, showing Credo how each one was assembled and why some things were used for some instruments and other things for other instruments. He sent everyone home to hang their wind chimes above their front doors.
By nightfall, the sound that arose from the village of Piln and the entire county sounded like a symphony orchestra.
“What is that racket?” screamed the mayor. He was preparing for bed and had just put on his night cap. He stood at his bedroom window and stared out at the barren farmland beyond his fertile vineyards, orchards, and crops of corn and wheat. Lights shone from the windows in every house in the village of Piln.
“Parkra,” he bellowed.
The ruffles around the mayor’s bed fluttered, the dust on the floor stirred, and the window drapes flapped. Parkra suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. At first, he was so tall he had to bend over to fit in the room. Then his height became that of an average sized man. His head went from being that of a fish to a man with a bulbous nose and dark, squinting eyes. He wore a blood-red silk robe adorned with images of a blazing sun.
He yawned and stretched. “What now?”
The mayor turned from the window and glared angrily at the sorcerer. “What is all that noise coming from all over the county? The houses are lit up like it’s a holiday.”
“It’s just some wind chimes some old man made,” Parkra said.
“Wind chimes? Old man?” the mayor screeched. “It sounds like mischief to me.”
Parkra rubbed his drowsy eyes. “It’s nothing. I was down there disguised as a rotten cucumber when he was showing that boy, Credo, how to make the last wind chime for that widow, Mrs. Lussa, who lives in that cottage that used to be surrounded by rose bushes. He had apparently been making wind chimes all day, but there was nothing sinister in what I saw or heard.”
“Who was the old man?” the mayor said.
“A stranger,” Parkra said. “Too old to cause any real trouble.”
“Bring him to me at once,” the mayor screamed. “I’ll be in the audience chamber.”
The old man and Credo were alone in the marketplace.
The old man shook his empty bag and laid it on a table. He handed his staff to Credo. “It has gotten late. As a gift for being such a good student, I’m giving you my staff.” He handed the staff to Credo. “Now, just find a patch of bare dirt and poke the end into it. The music you always carry with you will pass through the staff and into the ground.”
Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blew through the marketplace. The dust it stirred up formed a cloud that swirled around the old man. When the cloud vanished, the old man was gone.
The old man reappeared in a large, windowless, dimly lit room. Black smoke curled up from candles held in clay sconces on the otherwise bare walls. The air was stale and filled with the aroma of rotten fruit. The mayor was sitting in a throne-like chair on a small stage. As the old man watched, Parkra appeared, first as a three-foot-tall woman with black wings then as an average sized man with a hawk-like nose and round, rheumy eyes.
“So, old man,” the mayor said in a booming voice, “I understand you’ve brought wind chimes to my county. Why?”
“To restore the music, life and beauty to the earth your sorcerer took away,” the old man said.
The mayor let out a loud guffaw. “No one can undo what my faithful Parkra has done.”
The old man brushed dust from his beard. He then changed into a blue dragon with fiery red eyes, and then changed into a handsome young man holding a bow with an arrow pointed at Parkra.
“Master!” Parkra yelled out. “I thought I had killed you.”
As soon as the arrow was released, the old man returned. The arrow struck Parkra in the chest. He exploded into a thousand tiny sparks of light that quickly disappeared.
“I trained him and he only wanted to use his powers for evil,” the old man said.
Cowering, the mayor said, “Please don’t kill me. I’ll mend my ways.”
“Better that you mend the earth,” the old man said. He turned the mayor into a wind chime.
By morning, every farm, garden, and yard in Piln and the entire county were lush with bright green grass, every variety of flowers, trees with branches weighted by leaves and fruit, and vegetables to feed everyone, along with enough to share with poorer counties.
Forty years later Credo walked along a dirt road making imprints in the ground with the tip of the staff that was quickly filled with grass and wild onion sprouts. Chipmunks and bunnies played on the hem of his long, dusty robe. He stopped and adjusted the burlap bag on his back, and smiled at the sound of the musical notes that came from inside it.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.