“Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.”
― Edward Bulwer Lytton
The little house was bright, deafening in its silence.
Sunlight streamed through the big bay window, refracting off the black hole of the TV and outlining the scattered toys and stuffed animals that littered the carpeted floor in a harsh, white glow. A few cushions had been scattered from the couch to the floor, and a series of action figures were jumbled in a haphazard heap beneath the legs of a scratched piano, their smiles frozen, their faces glazed and still.
It was a house that seemed like it ought to be loud, boisterous. It was a house whose joy itself was a sound that could be seen pressing against that big bay window.
But today, it was quiet. Ominous. Still like the waters of a vast, dark lake.
And in that bright silence, every noise — that came unshrouded by running feet and laughter — echoed loudly.
The metallic rustle of a key in a lock. The creak of a hinge and the click of a closing door. Footsteps across the hall.
Steady, at first, then harried. Heels clicked on tile like the manic screaming of a machine gun, tapping and echoing into the silence; dark ripples on a lake.
Then she spoke, her voice high in that early, burgeoning stage of concern amidst the quiet.
“Tommy?” she called out. “Tommy?”
She rounded a corner, the clicking of her heels instantly becoming muffled as she crossed over into the carpeted living room, shadowing the sunlight that glared through the big bay window.
“John,” she called, and there was an edge to her voice now. “John, where are you?”
She rounded another corner and began to stride up the stairs. A light buzzing had taken residence within the confines of her swirling mind as her fingers glided along the wood of the railing. She had walked past his car on the way in. She had seen his house keys laying on the counter, just three feet from the always-empty hook by the door.
Her breath was sounding loud amongst the ringing in her ears. She rounded the landing and proceeded down the hall, poking her head into Tommy’s bedroom as she moved past it, keeping the lights on behind her as she journeyed on, past the empty bathroom, past the empty guest room and into her own bedroom.
The bed was made, the covers smoothed flat — untouched from this morning. A pair of loafers sat beside John’s side of the bed. She moved closer to them, taking in the little black brick that was John’s phone, lying face-down beside his shoes.
She bent to retrieve the phone. Two notifications glowed green over his home screen, that picture of the happy little family taken last summer in Yellowstone.
His sister had called twice, more than an hour ago.
Her eyebrows knit in confusion as her pulse quickened.
She slipped the phone into her pocket and moved, haunted and wraithlike, out of the room and into the hallway, leaving the lights on behind her like some sick, silent sentinels.
She rechecked the rooms, looking for something, some sign.
She glided back to the first floor, now losing an internal battle against a rising tide of panic that was flooding her lungs and pressing upon her throat. She walked throughout the house, close to tears, when it occurred to her that maybe they had stepped outside. It was warm, after all, for March.
She took a shaky breath, smiled to herself, choosing to ignore the screaming lack of noise from the backyard.
Yes, that would be it, she thought. John had been meaning to teach Tommy the finer points involved in hitting a ball with a bat.
She moved to the back door, past the big bay window, her eyes alight. She had placed her hand on the handle when she froze. The back door was open, just slightly, no more than an inch or two, as though it had been slammed with such force that it had sprung back.
There were two large splotches of something dark and thick and brown on the floor at the base of the door, another streak of the stuff against one of the glass panes, and a third on the wall.
The doorjamb was black with the stuff, as though it had been painted on.
Broken glass sparkled in the sunlight on the patio beyond.
Trembling, her chest burning, she retreated in mounting horror from the door, backing into the living room, stumbling over the scattered pillows and toys and plushes, her shaking hands hovering over her mouth. And the buzzing between her ears became a piercing shriek. And she longed to unknow.
The sun was falling, the sky a bloody, cloudless flare.
A soft blue-red light pulsed from the street, reflecting off the undrunk cup of cold tea Evelyn Thatcher gripped between the white knuckles of her hands. Her face was dry, though her eyes were red; she seemed to have forgotten how to blink.
A neighbor sat on the sofa beside Evelyn, saying nothing, unsure what comfort she could possibly offer. The police had invaded the home earlier, taking photographs of the back door and samples of the blood. They had interviewed everyone up and down the street, speaking to Evelyn herself for nearly fifteen minutes.
They had cleaned up the blood when they left. They had been gone for a few hours now, had split up into teams of officers and dogs to search the thick stretches of woods that made up much of the surrounding area.
They had left their cars in front of her house; they had left their harsh lights on. At least one officer was seated in that lengthy pileup, watching the house in case anything more were to happen.
They had been unable to tell her anything conclusive. Nothing beyond an assertion that they would do their best. These unsmiling, faceless men and women, invading her tragedy, pushing through the thick veil of her trauma.
She had answered their questions softly, slowly, as though she was merely in distant operation of this body, pulling miserable strings from miles away. She had fallen into a daze that she was unable to climb out of; everything was too unsure. Too grey, too uncertain to mourn; too grey, too uncertain to hope. She was in this fugue state, this horrible in-between, crushed against a rising tide of possibly misplaced grief.
It was easier to simply forgo functionality, to freeze herself as though in so doing she could freeze Time itself, prevent that moment of hopeless, terrible, shattering knowledge. She both longed for and dreaded a soft knock on the door that would herald the return of the hunters whose prey was her two great loves.
Her head drooped another inch, and her world became consumed by the dark brown liquid sitting still and malevolent in the teacup.
She was aware of movement long before the knock came at her door. The piercing scream of a siren was added to the pulsing blue-red lights outside her window; several of the cars there burst into gear and vanished down the street.
The thumping, mechanical roar of a helicopter, flying low, rattling the windows in their frames, followed, just a few short minutes after the desperate, unmistakable screeching of an ambulance.
Something was happening, but her stomach burned with impending grief, with terror and hunger and exhaustion. She let the cold, porcelain mug fall to the floor and buried her face in her hands, unaware and uncaring of the shattered ceramic that littered the carpet before her, like so many pieces of a jigsaw.
The nieghbor, a woman she had always called Mrs. Finegan, placed a warm, gentle hand on her shoulder as she began to shake with fresh sobs. She hardly noticed.
Time seemed to be rushing around her in great, uneven swirls. She hunched, blanketed by a suffusion of unreality. Hours might have passed, or minutes or seconds, but the roar of the helicopter rattled the windows once again, followed by the shattering scream of sirens and the rush of vehicles as they sped down the road.
Something was happening, but she wanted nothing more than the ignorance of sleep; the unknowingness of death.
She was about to push herself to her feet when the dreaded knock came at the door.
She found her legs had turned to lead. She could not rise. She turned a tormented gaze to Mrs. Finegan, who stood and opened the door in her stead.
An officer whom she did not recognize stepped into the room, holding his cap in his hand which, Evelyn noticed, was streaked with grime and blood.
“Mrs. Thatcher,” Joe Connel said. He had been rehearsing this conversation over and over again in his head, unsure of how best to deliver this piece of news. He kept asking himself how he would want to hear it. Standing before her now, he saw again the two bloody bodies he had found at the base of that great tree, in the center of that dark clearing. He fought to keep his face impassive. “Your husband was found dead a few minutes ago,” his voice was soft, her reaction poignant. Her body seemed to convulse, her heaving chest caved in against her stomach as her hands gripped her face in a death grip, her nails digging into the soft flesh of her cheeks. His apology died in his throat, lost in the viscera of her grief.
“Your son is still alive.”
Evelyn looked up, tugged out of her misery by those five simple words. Six syllables and hope was returned to her. Her eyes lasered in on Connel’s own, suctioning onto the man with a pure kind of desperation. Still made it sound like he was close to death.
“Take me to him,” she said, her voice soft but firm.
The hospital waiting room was bright, garish in its harsh, clinical glow, deafening in its overwhelming silence.
She sat, surrounded by loving faces whose names she could not recall. She had room in her brain only for one. For Tommy. Her son. Her boy.
She would grieve for John. She knew that would come. Knew that the only thing staving off that grief was this last thin, wavering hope for the thin seven-year-old who lay on an operating table somewhere beyond those heavy double doors. She felt as though she had begun to dissolve, breaking down to her core elements.
She had not eaten in more than eight hours. Nor was she even slightly hungry. She was nothing more or less than primal care for her child. Her mind played out alternative scenes of a doctor in a bloody white coat, opening those dreaded double doors with hooded eyes and a grim expression, informing her of her son’s survival or death. If he were to die, she thought her own life would instantly cease.
She could feel her pulse, pounding away in her throat, a betrayal to the cold, faded memory of her husband. She could hear her breath, loud in her ears, life balanced on a razor’s edge between hope and despair. She thought she might pull apart from the strain of it all.
Her body was still numb. Any movement she made was an intrinsic reflex that she was hardly aware of. Her consciousness was miles from her limbs, shrouded in guilt and pain and a darkening monsoon of torrential proportions, whose rain was the fire of grief and whose wind was the biting sting of love.
The darkness of the sky through the window made the fluorescent lights above her head seem harsh, brutal even.
Somewhere, she registered a warm hand resting on her thigh. From a different time, she heard someone softly calling her name. She supposed she must have fallen asleep, though it was a strange, conscious sleep, a retreat of the mind into itself to inflict its own special brand of torment upon her.
With a great effort, Evelyn pulled herself toward the warmth, toward the voice, surfacing in subdued, shaky consciousness, surrounded by the concerned faces of her mother and sister, of John’s sister. Tears began to fall once more from the corners of her eyes, tracing ready-made tracks down her wan cheeks. She had thought she had no more tears left to cry, no more of her soul left to give.
She heard her name again, and this time turned her head, an animal, wide-eyed and innocent, startled by the noise.
She looked around, then she looked up. The dreaded doors had opened, and she had not even noticed. How long must that doctor have stood there, calling her name, his eyes sunken and shadowed, his head slightly bowed?
The ink-black darkness outside the window was softening. It was almost dawn. She cocked her head, staring headlong at the doctor, her eyes wide with innocent, naked desperation and terror alike.
She seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.
The funeral was a small, quiet affair. It was held on a grey, rainy day at a little cemetery in the shadow of an enormous old oak tree. She liked to think of the tree as a sentinel, Nature’s guardian over John’s bones.
Her blonde hair was pinned up above her simple black dress. Tommy clung to her side in dazed determination the entire time.
She had considered speaking, but couldn’t bring herself to do so. It was too soon. It had been too harsh, too sudden. She had not slept properly in any of the last four days. If she did ever manage to fall asleep, it was a sleep ravaged by bloody nightmares that left her sobbing and ashen-faced upon waking. She had begun to eat again, though, out of the necessity of having something — someone — to direct her care toward.
The rain pelted the little family, darkening the cherry wood of John’s coffin, plastering the hair of his wife and son to their damp faces. The air was heavy with grief; the rain fell as somber tears from some dark, sorrowful god.
Words were said as he was lowered into the ground. Not ‘he,’ she reminded herself, his body. He was somewhere else, gone, everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing at all. How do you get to be everywhere and nowhere, she wondered. She squeezed Tommy close, revitalizing herself in his calming, steady heartbeat. Wet, muddy dirt began to fall over the coffin, slowly obscuring it from view. She cried again, then, her tears invisible in the torrent. She cried until her throat ached, until her eyes were dry and the sorrow — in its immediacy — had been satisfied.
Only then did she turn, and that short, quick pivot was the most difficult move she had made in all her life. Each inch that brought her farther from him felt final, definitive, as though when she completed the little half circle she would be slamming a door closed that she would never be able to reopen.
She did not shake, though. Nor did she falter. She couldn’t hear the words of comfort murmured to her by those friends and family members who had come today; nor could she feel the driving fingers of the rain or the brutal gusts of the wind. Her entire world had zeroed in on the small, pale-faced, weak-kneed boy at her side, the little child who clutched onto her hand with all the desperation of a drowning man.
Gazing upon him, she almost seemed to smile. Or perhaps her frown became just slightly less deeply etched.
“He won’t speak,” she said, lowering her voice as she glanced over her shoulder, where Tommy was staring, frozen, at the TV. She took another step and partially closed the door, keeping him within view. She didn’t like being separated from him, now. “He hasn’t said a word since,” she paused, grief bubbling, fierce and hot, in her throat. “Since that night.”
“To anyone, or just to you?”
“He hasn’t seen anyone, Mom,” Evelyn said, staring at the child in concern. “He understands, and he communicates silently; he nods and shakes his head, he points at things he wants, but he won’t say anything.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.
“Have you taken him to see anybody?”
Evelyn sighed. “No That’s why I’m talking to you,” she took a long pause. “He’s been through enough. He doesn’t need doctors and psychiatrists and tests and evaluations.”
“It’s been four months, Eve. This can’t go on. Maybe it’s time.”
She tried to form an answer, but tears instead began to trace their somber tracks down her cheeks. “He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t play, he just sits and stares,” her voice was a whispered shriek, choked by sobs and raw in its inflection.
“That monster cut his soul out.”
“Mrs. Thatcher,” the man said, his voice smooth and somehow inhuman. She hated him, hated his thin tie and shiny black shoes, hated that he had decided to wear green pants, hated the framed degrees that hung on the wall. “I believe your son has something called Psychogenic Mutism.”
She looked at him in confusion, stroking the dirty-blonde hair off of Tommy’s forehead, her left arm locked securely around his chest.
“It is a response of the mind to trauma,” he said, in answer to her unasked question. “Your son suffered through a horrific ordeal. That left scars both on the surface and beneath the skin,” the jagged scar that ran in its raised, pink circle around Tommy’s exposed left wrist seemed to draw the eye as he spoke. “Something about that,” he paused, “event, triggered a response in Tommy’s brain that is resulting in selective mutism. He is technically capable of speaking, but has been rendered incapable.”
She shook her head at the man, her brow raised.
“Is there anything we can do about it?”
He took a deep breath, crossing his legs and leaning back into the cushions of his chair. They were in a small room, well-lit by two floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over a lush park and let in plenty of harsh, over-bright sunshine. Evelyn had the sensation of being examined within a microscope. She had been on edge the moment they entered the building.
“There are certain anti-anxiety medications that might help,” he said, though she was already shaking her head. “In lieu of that, treatment centers around resolving the trauma, providing Tommy here a pathway to work through and beyond it so that he can find his voice.”
He paused, and his clinical mask seemed to drop for a moment as he stared at mother and son. Tommy was gazing directly into his own eyes, bold and unafraid. There was something inhumanly old about that expression; the tilt of his lips, the slant of his eyes. He had to remind himself that Tommy was a boy of seven. He was reminded of photographs of veteran soldiers returning from the second world war.
“Mrs. Thatcher,” he said at length, “I will not deny that you both are in for a long and difficult journey. I would be delighted to see you both for weekly sessions, to try and give Tommy an opportunity to work through what happened to him,” he could see the hesitation written on her face. “Whenever you both feel ready,” he said, raising his hands in a placatory gesture. “In the meantime, he will need your support and your patience. The worst thing you can do in this situation is apply pressure toward Tommy, or grow upset with him for this blockage. That would only further delay his speech.”
She absorbed his little monologue, her eyes studying the premature lines in his face.
“Mrs. Thatcher,” he said, leaning forward.
Here it comes, she thought. She fought to keep her face impassive. She had heard this all before.
“I am truly so sorry for what happened to your family,” he paused and shifted his weight. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. “Have you ever considered therapy for yourself?”
Abruptly, Evelyn stood up, without relinquishing her grip on her son.
“Thank you for your time,” she said. “I’ll call if there’s anything more we need help with.”
“What’d he call it?”
“Psychogenic Mutism,” she said softly into the phone pressed against her ear. Harsh, bright spears of sunlight were slanting in through the big bay window, wrapping Tommy in an effervescent, blinding halo as she watched him from the stairs.
“Did he have any suggestions?”
“Drugs and weekly therapy sessions,” she said, her voice shaky. “As though what Tommy needs right now is to relive what happened,” her voice had risen in her anger, and when she spoke again it was in purposefully hushed tones. “No. Like usual, they don’t have any useful tips, knowledge, or information, and I’m out on my own.”
“You’re not alone, sweetheart,” the voice on the phone chided. “You’ve got me.”
“You don’t count, Mom,” she said, brought to the verge of laughter with a sudden flashback from her younger years. “I’ll always have you.” She could hear a smile on the other end of the phone, brought on by those words she had uttered a thousand times, a reminder of more innocent times.
“Are you still coming over —”
A loud bass bang interrupted her. Falling back into old reflex, Evelyn had the phone covered with one hand, a full foot from her ear, about to request some peace and quiet in the living room please, when reality caught up to her. Tommy hadn’t made so much as a sound in months.
“Mom, I’ve gotta go,” she dropped the phone on the stairs without hanging up and sprinted around the corner, her mind showing her images of hooded, masked figures punching their way through the glass.
What she saw stopped her in her tracks.
Tommy had moved from his silent vigil on the sofa to the old, scuffed bench that sat before the scratched piano. He was sitting with his knees folded beneath him. The bang, it seemed, had been caused by his violent raising of the keylid. She watched him, frozen, as he stared at the eighty-eight black and white keys, seemingly entranced.
He dropped a finger and pressed a single key whose ensuing note was clearly out of tune. He hit another. And a third. He repeated those same three notes, a triad that began in the center, rose two steps above the first note, and ended two steps below it. He repeated it again. And again.
He seemed hypnotized.
After the fifth time, he paused. He seemed to consider the keyboard again. Then with a swift movement, he swung his tiny fist down, smashing into the lowest register on the piano, eliciting a deep, discordant gong. Then he slumped forward and began to cry.
She kissed Tommy on the nose, her heart aching at the stoic, silent way he accepted it, her mind showing her faded, lost scenes of laughter, of bright giggles. She hoped they were not irretrievable.
She rose, leaving him alone on the couch, still and silent and faded, somehow less than human. He felt insubstantial, as though the slightest gust of wind might blow what was left of him away.
She slipped onto the scuffed old piano bench with a loud creaking that drew his slow, cautious, uncaring gaze. She placed her fingers over the keys, remembering, from what seemed to be several lifetimes ago, instructions she herself had heard as a girl: straight back, curled fingers, smooth wrists.
Slowly, painstakingly, she began to play a lilting melody, doing her best to shut off her mind and allow her fingers to recall the music. She stumbled several times, issued discord, and her fingers, stiff and out of practice, slipped from the keys.
But there was a haunting beauty in this stilted, out-of-tune remembrance of Fur Elise, a darkness to the artistry. She swayed as she played, with her eyes softly closed, allowing the melody to carry her to that wonderful place that existed outside of herself. For the first time since that fateful day, she found herself, not distracted, nor forgetful, rather momentarily whole in some sort of exorcism of the soul.
A hand tugged on her sweater and she stopped abruptly, fingers coming off the keys, foot sliding off the pedal with a brass bang.
Tommy was staring at her, staring deep and directly into her eyes in a way she found disconcerting. His were haunted eyes, the windows into the soul of a ghost. She was struck by the sad realization that the boy who had gone into that forest had died, in a way.
“Do you want to sit and play with Mommy?”
Tommy nodded, his cheeks sallow, his skin pale. She lifted him onto her lap, gently settled his fingers onto the keyboard, curling them where they sat, arranging his thumb so that it rested in position on middle C.
She began to play again, nothing real this time, just random progressions, random, soft melodies. Sad, repetitious melodies that echoed out into the little room in the little house, their backs to the harsh light that soared in through that big bay window.
His hands followed her movement; his fingers struck seemingly random notes and chords with the apparent simplicity of ignorance, incidentally creating harmony, sometimes through discord. The harsh light behind them gradually suffused to a deep yellow, bathing the room in glowing, reflective gold that turned the sparkling white ivory of the keys to a darker tan. She bent down and around Tommy, brushing her forehead against his, kissing his cheek, nuzzling his nose.
She was shocked to see the gap-toothed grin that split his face.
Nothing, she thought, could have been as immediately transformative as that. The darkness, the age in his face, seemed to fall away, replaced by the suggestion of future smile lines. His persona seemed to glow; he was emanating something soulful, rather than sucking life into his dark orbit.
Her heart was swelling fit to burst. She ran a probing finger into his ribs, a weak spot he had always had, and, to the backdrop of her running bassline, he cringed away from the tickling onslaught, contorting his body in ways only a child could, throwing his head back and laughing in this high-pitched, infectious, beautiful, stunning, ceaseless, simple, bright, wonderful sound.
The scars that lined his wrist and jutted out from the collar of his shirt seemed to shrink into his skin, becoming invisible.
He stepped out into a harsh circle of blinding light, a white beam that soared from a spotlight in the rafters of the hall. Today, he was glad of the light.
He strode barefoot to the gleaming, black piano that sat, resplendent, in the center of the stage, and took his seat, aware of ten thousand eyes focused on his progress, aware of ten thousand expectant ears, of five thousand silent throats. He lifted his hands, gazing, as he always did, at the thick, white scar that traced its wide, jagged circle around his left wrist.
The scar served as a trapdoor, a portal into memory, an access hatch to a long-lost man from a shattered time. His father’s face, warm and bright and smiling, swam before him. His vision tinted red and he blanched, though he did not turn his gaze. He needed to look, he needed, always, to remember, to never forget.
He straightened his back and placed curled fingers on the keyboard, resting his thumb in position on middle C. The key acted like a lightning rod, pulling life and laughter from the recesses of his memory and into his mind. He thought of his mother. A faint smile touched the corners of his lips.
The silence was expectant; the air heavy with tension.
In that moment, shrouded and shadowed by harsh, white light, he sat in the eye of a great storm; around him, winds raged and screamed their agonies to the heavens, forcing all to listen; rain drove and cut in its joy and its grief, drowning everything, leaving naught but bloated remains; lightning flashed, demanding the total attention of absolute fear; and he sat, in the midst of this maelstrom, watching, head tilted to the side, both part of, and beyond, this swirl of suffering, a central point flooded in equal parts by joy and crippling grief, by resilience and acceptance, by tears whose origin was increasingly impossible to pinpoint.
He closed his eyes and his left hand drifted down the length of the keyboard. He began to sway as his fingers found the notes he had composed, that collection of purposeful discord, of soft agonies and soul-biting crescendos, of aching space and startling emptiness. His knee bounced along, keeping slow time, and in that swirl of sound, he was a boy again; hands struck and pulled, shouts issued from rough throats, the pounding of running feet absorbed him. The music sped up in time with the ferocity of the memory, of the moment; the quiet, beautiful, repetitious simplicity was disrupted by a rhythmic intensity. He was a boy and his head was aching and his face was sticky with blood. He fought and squirmed and screamed until fists struck him again and he fell limp.
His right hand fell from the keyboard, resting on his thigh as his left performed the subtle, rich arpeggios of mounting fear. The tempo grew, and with it, expectancy, anxiety in the face of what was coming.
He struck deliberately, smashing the fingers of his right hand up and down the keyboard, selecting those notes that would set you on edge, selecting those notes that he pulled up out of the darkest parts of himself.
There was a great bang and silence fell. And into the silence came the high-pitched slashes of steel, cutting and biting, rending flesh; and in their answer came bellows of pain, bellows that quieted into a sober acceptance of impending doom. The ferocity faded; everything began to fall away.
And into the remnants he delivered himself, a lone note, soft and slow, repeating in his barest of survivals against a silence that wrapped itself around this single note, threatening to extinguish it. Each stroke was softer than the last, each hit the barest element of resistance.
He was a boy again, and all he knew was pain, pain that burned like fire along his veins, pain that tugged and ripped and roared with every breath, with every moment of continued existence.
He was a boy and the pure hope of death surfaced in the primal part of his mind.
And still, that single note pounded on and on, the hammer ever so slightly striking the string; a fading, slowing heartbeat.
He was a boy, shrouded in harsh, white light, fading in and out of consciousness as cold, gloved hands probed his lacerated flesh; as cold needles plunged into his veins and machines beeped and screamed for attention.
And still, that single note pounded on, and his eyes remained closed, shut tight against the onslaught of his pain, selected and personified, and he remained unaware of the tears that painted his cheeks, glittering diamonds in the white light.
He was a boy, and he was awake, though he felt that he was asleep. His mind was fractured, split and torn asunder; he could not find words within the torment of himself. He knew only loss and hurt. He had forgotten even the shapes his lips had learned to make, to produce those strange sounds that he seemed to recognize and understand but could not, himself, create.
And that single note faded into silence, a heartbeat fading — in the closed-eye universe of his mind, the image of his father’s face faded, was lost to the recesses of time and memory and thick, obstructing scar tissue — and from the silence blossomed a lilting, sad melody, a melody that swayed and flowed like water over rocks.
He was a boy, gripping his mother’s hand with every ounce of strength that remained to him, and he watched, lost and unaware, yet somehow comprehending, as the thing that was his father was lost to the world, buried in rain and mud and cherry wood, buried in grief and trauma and self-loathing.
And from that sad, slow melody there came a bright ringing; the tempo slowed, his fingers questioning, both sure and unsure, of how to proceed. And from that cliffside loomed a trio of harsh, brightly discordant notes that bit into the throat and drew the attention.
And from that biting place of misalignment trumpeted something different. Some new element to this twisting, dark tale. The key itself had shifted; major chords shouted out their triumph over their darker, minor cousins. There was a strength here, now, a power that moved the spirit in some strange, primeval way that for all its beauty existed outside man’s uncanny ability for description.
No longer hunched into the keyboard, his back was straight now, his lips split in an open-mouthed, almost surprised, smile beneath his softly closed, moist eyes.
He swayed to that symphony of his soul, transcendent, everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere; he was the smallest atom, he was beyond and beneath thought and breath itself; he was the tallest mountain; he was immortal and eternal, briefly all-seeing. The lines of tragedy that had led him here were outlined in gold before him and he was a ball of triumph contained, for a brief moment, within the cruel, temporary confines of human flesh.
He was a boy and the loving arms of his mother pressed his fingers into that keyboard, and he screamed and he cried and he laughed and he felt, again, for the first time since that knife had rent so much more than flesh from his bones.
His song — if so crude a word could be used — was full of resplendent hope in its ringing crescendos and climbing arpeggios. Confusion had become fear and fear pain, pain had purified into agony and agony had fallen into death. And from death came life, hopeful and joyous beyond its sorrow. The flower that sprouted from the stump of this great, felled tree was different, little more than a simple, thin offshoot of what had been. But it was, and that was enough.
And his fingers were not fingers, they were conduits to the past, and his piano was not a piano, it was a gateway to a higher life; the notes were not sound, they were the salvation of spirit.
He pounded out his conclusion in all his teary triumph, and he kicked back his stool as he stood over the keyboard, leaning over the depressed keys and crying passionately into the piano, that book of his life.
And he could not hear, and was uncaring, of the tremendous roar of applause that pounded against his back; he could not see, and was uncaring, of five thousand people that had risen upon ten thousand legs, a tide and sea of humanity, moved to the best and worst aspects of their hearts and minds by the wordless story he had set before them.
He just cried and cried into the echoing remnants of those final notes, eyes wide and vision blurred, staring into the fine lines that made up this terrible, beautiful instrument, tracing the strings and the hammers and the gold lettering.
His father’s face swam before him again, only now it was not faded, not almost lost. He was there, smiling and crying and joyous, rough hands coming together in slow claps meant only for his son to hear.
“Thank you,” Tommy whispered, “thank you.”
And as he spoke in his silence, shrouded in a soft, warm glow, she watched, speechless, her voice taken from her as surely as his had once gone. And she was everything and she was nothing; she was there and she was gone.
He was a man and he was broken.
But it was a fissure from which issued the rawest, purest, most beautiful form of humanity, and so he was a sort of whole.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
I have long felt a passionate love for music and for the act of musical composition. The Ballad of Broken Things provided a pathway for me to further explore the mystical, otherworldly power that music can have in our lives.
Ian is a passionate storyteller in all of its many forms. In his novels, poems, and short stories, he strives to explore concepts of morality and human willpower, while also examining the different relationships characters have with their own mortality. He lives for the wonderful exhilaration of creation, of sculpting lives and conflict and reality; filling a blank page with ink and all the life that is summoned with the majesty of the written word is a powerful, magical thing. Ian is also a musician and composer and has worked professionally in both the journalism and freelance writing fields since he was a senior in high school. He lives in New Jersey.