Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Melody From Lost Days

The old man walked down the cement steps slowly, holding onto the metal rail with his right hand while he held the violin case with his left. As he leaned forward, the sunlight fell invisibly upon his short black hair, which showed long streaks of white and little spots of naked pink scalp in the strong clear light. One step at a time he moved, breathing slowly, while small groups of people walked past him in a rush. A Latin couple holding hands and talking in soft whispers, their heads almost touching. A proud middle aged man, his head up high and pulled backwards, examining the plaza as if it was his private kingdom, and his two beautiful brunette daughters in smooth elegant dresses, the thin fabric subtly tracing the outlines of their soft thin bodies. A group of three middle aged women talking loudly about the sunny weather in voices that echoed through the small trees, words that attempted to hide too many afternoons passed away in restless boredom and troubled vague angst.
The old man would nod slowly at each stranger that passed by him, whether they acknowledged it or not, and then he would continue moving at his own slow pace. He stepped down onto the light brown dirt path that led to the dry fountain and he moved a bit faster on the flat surface, carefully looking forward with slim, tired eyes. He came to an empty green bench, next to the short baby trees that were not tall enough or full enough to offer shade from the sun, and there he sat down, nodding his head back and forth in a simple affirmation of his actions. Placing the violin case on the bench next to him, he leaned back and took a few deep breaths with his eyes closed, his brow furrowed in a sincere effort at concentration. The sound of kids playing came from the direction of the fountain. The sound of cars honking came from the direction of the museum. The sound of birds singing came from the short little dry trees all around the path. After a few moments of darkness and deep inhalations, he opened his eyes again and he looked all around him, his eyes blinking at the light as if he had just woken up from a long sleep. Then he stretched his arms and took hold of the violin case.
He opened it carefully, unfastening one lock at a time. Very slowly and methodically, he took out the Gao-Hu, the traditional Chinese violin that his father had given him on a sunny afternoon much like this one, many years ago. He looked at it for a moment, examining its short, fat cylindrical body, its long thin neck, the two taut strings and the two large tuning knobs, all carefully polished, as shiny as the day he had first laid eyes on its delicate curved shapes. He leaned back once again, opened his legs and placed the instrument between them. Then he pulled out the bow and ran it softly across the strings. A thin ghostly sound emerged that echoed over the noisy plaza, trailing away into the distance to become intertwined with bird song. Two older women turned over to look at him. They were sitting on a bench much like the one he was sitting on, but closer to the dry fountain. Their attention held on him for a moment and then it faded and they returned to their conversation. The old man rearranged himself on the wooden bench. He propped up the violin case and left it open, in case someone wanted to pay him for his effort. Then he turned his eyes back towards the violin itself.
He allowed the sounds of the kids playing in the fountain to drift into him, like cool water sliding into a finely crafted vase. The laughter, the screams, the calls, they all resonated within him, and he could almost be a little boy once again, a little boy that could now hear his father calling, asking him to come and play the violin while he ran away into the woods, ‘no, no violin today. I want the creek. I want the forest. I want to run. No violin. No.’ And the kids screamed louder and their screams rang through the plaza and then he pressed the bow onto the strings, and he pressed the strings with his left hand. He closed his eyes once more and then ran the bow over the strings in a single decisive move, and the sound was now loud and present and full, resonating through the plaza with the confident beauty of folk tales and mythic legends, and the sound of running laughing children was like a tinkling counterpoint to the lilting melody that sprang from his hands, growing from a faint whisper to a soaring musical statement and then back again. Up and up, sliding into a higher octave that bounced off the sunlight like electrical explosions over a charged metal plate, he pulled his head back and the light fell on his closed eyes and it was as if the music had flared into fire and the fire was all over his skin and it ran like little incandescent rivers over the trees and up to the sky and the melody was slow and stately and sad and it was all coming from him, through him and around him. In the midst of clear resonant ecstasy and lost conversations that mingled like frenzied ostinatos under the vibrant power of the simple song, only he could remember. Only he knew that it was the same sad melody his father had played, back when time went on forever and no danger could stop a little boy from running into dark waters or jumping over dark holes in the ground. Only he knew that it was the same melody he never learned when he had his father for a teacher, and that he now learned when he only had himself in a cold land of ghosts.
He opened his eyes as the melody came sliding down to its original register. The ladies across the path were looking at him once again, smiling. He had made some mistakes, he knew the melody wasn’t perfect, not yet, it wasn’t quite the same melody that he remembered, but he was getting closer, a little closer every day. He nodded at the ladies as he played the final low note, making the strings rumble with grounded finality. He pulled the bow away from the strings and took a very deep breath. Two men in thick leather jackets walked by talking of finances. He looked up at them but their faces were turned away, not even interested enough to purposefully ignore him. He looked back towards the stairway and saw a teenage girl in a light brown summer dress walking by slowly, her half closed eyes turned towards the thin clouds and their clear blue background. Then he looked back at the two ladies and smiled and nodded.
He leaned backwards and pressed the bow to the strings. He heard the first strains of the little melody roaming through him once again, like the fingers of his father’s hand petting his little head, like his father’s voice telling him about the future, about countries far away where things would be better, about dreams, about disappointment and about sadness. He closed his eyes and slid into the melody with renewed commitment, with a sense of rediscovered passion, letting the notes take him far away, to a place that had no beginning and no purpose, a place where death was an illusion and loneliness was just a drink of cool water from a gentle lagoon in the middle of a meadow. The melody stretched and soared, bursting from his old wrinkled fingers like a flock of pigeons seeking the emptiness of the open sky. It was almost there. Maybe this time he would get it right. If not today, then tomorrow. Soon enough, the true melody, the one he remembered in dreams and hummed while he walked in the morning, the one that made his heart shiver like crystal tears about to shatter, that melody would come out from the old violin, soon it would live again and it would fill this sun soaked plaza in the middle of a noisy urban park, and it would touch it with the same gentle colors of melancholic hope that had once washed over that little wooden cabin, peaceful and delicate, sitting quietly by the side of the forest.

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