This morning I woke up and it was drizzling hard little needles onto the gray mud of our wasted fields and I thought that today I might finally do it. I would either drown myself in the Altmühl river or else scale the stone walls of our leader’s fortress under cover of darkness, strangle him with a rusty clavichord string, and suffer the consequences.
I wasn’t wedded to the weapon, necessarily, but I was sure as scheiße serious about the act. I’d even thrown caution to the wind and told Sarah about it, though she didn’t believe me. I could tell by the way she absentmindedly rubbed her wet hands on her apron and smiled and nodded at me like you’d nod at a child you were only half listening to.
Little curls of young wood flaked from my stick to our dirt floor. A blister was forming on the thumb side of my palm. I’d stolen Sarah’s cooking knife, which was barely sharp enough to slice through a potato without difficulty, and all day she’d eaten nothing but whole foods. I myself hadn’t eaten a thing. I was in a fever of ineffectual spear craft, a pile of somewhat sharpened sticks at my feet.
By the time I put the knife down, my hands were red and splintered, but I waved off all of Sarah’s attempts to examine, soothe, poultice.
“If the inspectors come,” I told her, “tell them I’m making drumsticks.”
Johann Sebastian Bach is the worst kind of dictator—careless, starry-eyed, painfully sensitive, with an artist’s desperate need to be witnessed and admired.
“I exist!” he (implicitly) screams from his balcony high above the crumbling stones of the Klavierplatz, “I exist!” (For the record, we all told him that limestone was a crappy rock to make a platz out of, but he insisted. “The way it gleams,” he said, on a rare town walk-through with his team of engineers. He raised his eyes to the sky with his hands in prayer pose at his lips, white lace cuffs shaking in ecstasy at some remembered limestone vision. We lost seven villagers in the mining process.)
Before the limestone, there was nothing but dirt, but what this verdammtes arschloch doesn’t seem to understand is that there was also, sometimes, joy. There were villagers walking from house to house with tin lanterns at Christmastime, sharing thick slices of schwarzwaldküchen. But these days who has the money for cocoa powder, for sugar? Our bundt pans have been melted down and reformed into organ pipes. Our town budget has been blown on castration operations for the boys’ choir and an acoustics guru from Mühlhausen, this tiny, mad botanist-looking guy who spent like two years rooting around in the new church, tapping crossbeams with a tuning fork. Meanwhile, I have contracted cholera (twice) and I am living on a diet of chalky, butterless spätzle. I don’t care about the unveiling of the music hall. I don’t care about the free concert. I want schwarzwaldküchen and I want blood.
“Listen.” Florian tipped the first, dark sip of lager into his mouth, foam flecking his reddish beard. “I feel you. But at the same time, no.”
Florian’s naturally built like a lumberjack, the kind of guy who’d save a little girl’s life from some fairy-tale witch, but even he’s grown sinewy in our current circumstances. He’s been looking gray in the cheekbones, increasingly biblical.
I searched for his eyes, the dying rebel spirit behind those eyes. “You’re telling me you’d rather file in like model citizens and listen to that little shit play a concerto.”
He shrugged. “Aren’t you at least curious to see the inside of the place?”
I pulled my tunic sleeves over my hands against the chill. “I guess we could do it at the concert.”
“Sure. And then you’ll come home and explain to my wife and kids that their dad’s getting hung for treason because he didn’t want them taking piano lessons.”
“Well, think about it.”
Discreetly, I peeked at the onionskin tablet that lay across my chest—it was printed, as all of our paper is now, with rows of staffs and clefs, a truly excessive amount of lines. I fished a stub of charcoal out of my graying pocket and crossed Florian’s name off my list.
His eyebrows bunched together. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“No offense, but I can’t exactly count on you.”
He squinted at my page, which only ever contained his name and mine. “Who exactly can you count on?”
Florian insisted on buying me a beer (to dull my resolve, maybe) before heading back to his wife and kids, leaving me alone to forget about the idea of a crime duo, or a band of assassins. (The band would’ve been a natural second step—Florian’s well-liked, and he could’ve rallied the troops. Me, no one would trust. I laugh nervously. I sweat.) As I walked back over the slick, deteriorated limestone toward home, a yeasty combination of beer and anxiousness sloshed around in my stomach: someone like me could only ever hope to carry out a lone wolf operation.
“So I’ll act alone. I’ll die alone. It’s my destiny.”
But Sarah didn’t seem concerned with any of that. She just poured the starchy, boiling water out of the potato pot, a practiced expert at failing to acknowledge anything she thought would eventually ripple past.
Dinner was wilted onions. Cabbage pickled with caraway seeds. Potato halves indented with little parallel trails from being forked in half.
“You could’ve asked for your knife back.” I told her.
She shrugged. “It’s fine.”
I ate my monochromatic food in silence, stewing. I wanted to snap at her that it was not fine, that nothing was fine, but I don’t know what it would’ve done. It was as if everyone—Florian, Sarah, countless aspiring bassoonists—had forgotten that for so many years, our only ambition had been to stay alive, and before our leader’s arrival, we had actually been edging toward something resembling progress. Bovine mortality was down. One of our villagers had finally survived past the age of forty-eight. We had developed a pretty good irrigation system for our turnip beds, and hadn’t lost a crop in five years. It would’ve just been nice if someone had taken a look at those things before installing this guy in his gaudy-ass castle on the outskirts of town.
I do not have a castle, or a singing courtesan/maid (rumored), or an in-house artisanal sauerkraut master. I have a dry, persistent cough, an anemic goat, and a state-issued harp that takes up approximately one third of my living space.
Sarah’s apron strings swiped it tunelessly as she brushed past on her way from table to washstand, as she methodically cleared our plates and wiped them down with a damp cloth, stacked them into a modest little pile next to the potato pot as she did every single night, and then yawned in my general direction. “Bedtime?”
“You go,” I told her, “I’ll come in.”
But, as happened more nights than not, it was Sarah who came to get me later, once the fire had died to embers and I’d dozed off in the chair staring at its slow graying. It was cold in the room now. It was late. I crawled in bed with Sarah— who fell into a deep-breathing sleep almost instantly with her arm thrown over my chest—and blinked into the darkness for hours and hours. I contemplated the trajectory of pointed objects, the possibility of disguising one as a walking stick. It wasn’t out of the question; half our town has osteoporosis. The lunar blue trickle from our malnourished cows has all but guaranteed it.
I woke up early, or maybe I was never asleep. I was kneeling on the floor surrounded by sticks when Sarah’s robed shadow appeared behind me. She looked from me to the weapons, from the weapons to me. She fired a warning shot: “Don’t.”
I ignored her and searched through my spears for the most spear-like. She crouched to the floor next to me, eyes glistening. “Please.”
The puddles were spreading, but I refused to drown there. I had better, more righteous places to drown. I looked away.
“Oh, come on. Don’t cry. You’re a young twenty-nine. You can always shack up with the oldest Beckenbauer boy—I’ve seen him checking out your ass at Gottesdienst when he’s supposed to be thinking about Our Lord and Savior. Go. Impart to him the things that only an older woman can impart.”
But now she really was crying, her voice an angry quaver. “I know you think you’re being funny, but you’re not.”
That was it. I’d done it. It could only get louder and more wailing from here. I tied up the sticks with a scrap of burlap so dry and brittle it triggered a shower of jute-smelling dust.
“There you go,” I told her, “Look what fancy kindling we have.” I stood my bundle of weapons against the wall. “If the inspectors come when these are in the fire, do not let them leave here believing you’re burning drumsticks.”
Sarah laughed, the nervousness blinking out of her gray eyes. She grabbed my wrist for a second, squeezed it, and then moved past me to turn and pull her cloak off a wall hook. As she did, I snatched her cooking knife and shoved it down the side of my pants leg, shivering as its metal grazed my pale, meatless thigh.
We filed in. Like model citizens. There was something about being in a building of such dark, wooden vastness; when I stood still, there was a sound to it that had nothing to do with the whispers of everyone around me, the swish of their woolen arms emerging from cape slits to point discreetly at the endlessly high ceiling. It wasn’t that. It was as if the building were breathing, filled with so much air that it had trapped some life inside for itself.
Somewhere unseen, from a dark hollow in front of the altar, a bow skated cleanly across strings. The sound was silver, a quick needle through cloth, and it sent a vaguely sexual chill from my knees to my nipples. But nothing immediately followed that first note, which must’ve been a mistake. It was more than likely the errant stringer would be executed.
I felt rattled, like I’d been interrupted in the middle of a sentence, left grasping at a receding thought so instantly unrecognizable that I’d never be certain if I’d caught up with it.
But as my mind stalled, my body migrated: Sarah’s hand was at my side, gently steering me toward our seats. It occurred to me now that there had been a time before she had to lead me around like a child, convince me out of bed in the morning, walk me in a blind haze from the chair to the bed at night.
“No,” I said, “I want to sit near the front.”
This made her happy. She nodded and smiled, scanned the room, then walked with purpose down the aisle toward a half-empty pew in the third row.
I settled into my seat, bending stiffly at the knees. I pleaded chilliness and kept my cape on, fingered the bone handle as I listened to the coughs and the rustle of everyone else filling in the rows behind us.
At the back of the concert hall, a heavy door swung closed with a muted thud. The only remaining light came through the stained-glass windows, one of which seemed perfectly positioned to illuminate a lone man, the conductor, at the front of the orchestra pit. He looked left, this thin ghost of a person, at something unseen. Then, from behind a marble arch, Bach: a whoreish confection of ruffles and rouge. The higher-ups in the front stood instantly, and then we all did.
Our leader strode across the marble floor, heels clicking in a perfect 2/4, and produced an ivory baton from his brocade jacket. The conductor bowed deeply before taking it, a tremor in his translucent wrist. Bach, too, was getting emotional. His eyes shone as he about-faced, walked a couple feet, and took his spot in the first row, as close to my knife as my bed is to my fireplace. Here was Bach fidgeting until he was comfortable, lifting a plump hand to scratch at a stray louse. Here was the man who had forced a generation of agrarians to struggle at the piccolo while their fields shriveled and their children starved.
The conductor stood, washed in blue, with his back to us. Then, like a doll coming to life, he snapped up both hands to hover at shoulder height. The players, an obedient army, raised their instruments, breathed in.
I looked away from the orchestra. I breathed in. I stared at the fat, dimpled neck of Johann Sebastian Bach, so close I could see the careless dusts of powder in the folds of his already very white skin.
It was exactly the way I had imagined it happening. Sarah beside me, the entire village beside her, but I might as well have been alone in that great, beamed, acoustically perfect building. I could focus only on the throbbing blood in my ears, the animal adrenaline bracing to propel me forward, give me the blind courage to lose my own life killing anyone who’d dare try to take it from me minute by minute, hour by hour, day by miserable day.
The younger ones, maybe—Florian’s kids—could aspire to be a part of this thing, to find the importance in being a puff of air in a hollow body, a flick of the wrist that speaks for a second. But I had already played my part. I was too sick and tired to learn a new one. Whatever our leader was about to wow us with would retreat across the sky like it had never been, leaving me a speck on the ground to prod my onion patch against the inevitable pecking sparrows and root rot of another Bachenviertel spring.
I was mapping out a mental path, determining whose shoulders to vault in order to reach him, when the first note of our leader’s creation reached me, and all of us. I say a note, but it wasn’t a note—it was so many notes at once, so many varied voices they seemed to occupy physical space, to float somewhere between the ceiling and the floor. And no sooner had they formed this shape when it shifted and expanded, summoned by the conductor’s vibrating hands—a cloud formation converged, something round and restless and changing.
We hadn’t been completely unaware of these sounds for the past few years. How could we be? We had heard them here and there—through a cracked window milky with spider webs, through a briefly opened courtyard door as a student late to viola lessons slipped in to escape the rain, holding a leather satchel of sheet music over his head. (He’d be punished upon arrival, for sure—nothing like a few bow-raps to the knuckles to instill a love of stringed instruments, Herr Bach.) But in all of those entranceways and window cracks, there had only been fragments—quick scratches of a pen, a line that ran out of ink before the rest was written.
But this was a whole landscape, an entire life. The trumpets broke through a dark forest into a valley, imitated the sunrise and the mountains they found there for the deep-voiced cellos who were too slow to follow, who could only hope to crawl forward and crane their necks toward such lightness. But slowly, constantly, they would push, would turn the soil and sculpt the canyons below a flock of flutes and oboes: weightless, swooping birds buoyed by a warm wind of strings.
And as I sat and absorbed it all—as I throbbed, and I gathered, and I prepared to die—all that heat inside me, it just broke, began to trickle warmly from my eyes, down my face, to the tips of my earlobes. It was as if, in the course of manufacturing my sadness, Bach had learned its every contour, had memorized its shape so fully that he could reproduce it on command, conjuring into existence every minute detail I thought that I’d forgotten. He had figured me out in advance of myself—he would always be one step ahead.
My fingers loosed their grip on the murder weapon, traveled with shame to my crumbling mouth. I buried my head in the cloth of my tunic sleeves and wept myself dry, as Sarah rubbed my prostrate back to the swell of violins.