People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared… disturb the sound of silence.
An old man sat under the shade of a tree by the riverbank, his knotted hands dancing on the strings of a beaten, worn guitar that he had played under that tree for more summer days than he could remember. His fingers danced and the strings sang, and his eyes wandered with passersby as they walked over the bridge past his house and bustled into the little town. He sang a simple song, a song about the blueness of blue skies and shadows scattered by tall grass blowing in an easy breeze, a song about hard work in the day and rest in the cool air of evening, a song about the melody of the song to which these things were set. Life is a song, and to sing about life is to sing about the river of all music.
“Still breaking the silence, old bard?” asked a voice with wearied disdain.
The old man kept strumming his guitar and didn’t draw his breath short on the last note of his song. He kept strumming as he replied. “Silence is an illusion, old spirit. No one who listens could ever believe in silence.”
The voice cackled. “Still listening for the Muse too, I wager. We have music too, you know. The Architect doesn’t hate all music. Just the music that forgets the earth.”
The old man watched a young boy upstream land his fish line in the water. “The Muse could never forget earth. But when the music of the earth forgets her true song, then it becomes a violent silence and hurts the ears of those who make it more than the minds of those who listen. You make yourself deaf to the Muse with the noise you call music.”
A rhythmic percussion began to follow the guitar’s dancing strings, and the old man looked to see that his visitor had begun to play his drum.
“Whatever our theories, old bard, when we play together, we still make one melody,” he said with a sneer.
“That is actually my point,” said the old man, “not yours.”
The notes from the guitar lifted from the strings, and little flashes of light seem to gleam between their vibrating shivers and the floating motions of his heavy fingers. Between the skin of the drum and the sharp palm of the old man came little puffs of smoke. Da daladala ding dalalalalading, the strings were singing, and tumtum tadadadatum, the drum was dancing, and the sounds mixed and carried over the stream. The little boy fishing up stream began to notice their song and reeled in his line, and came over and sat down across from them on the other side of the river. He watched with big, dark brown eyes, his white teeth flashing in a smile stark against his dark skin.
Tumdatumdalatumdadingtum and the music played, and the flashes of light and the wisps of cloud began to grow as the sound grew and the strength of their music began to make a vision.
“We’re both bards, old spirit,” said the old man. “The lad can’t tell the difference, y’see?”
“I sing for silence and you sing for the Muse, old bard. We’re the same the way a cloud shaped like a man is the same as a man. The earth is real and the air longs to be real. The Muse is a wish to make air more real than earth, but such a wish is vanity.”
“Vanity, and striving after the wind,” said the old man with a laugh, and again he began to sing.
The power of his song met the flash of strings and the smoke of the drum, and billowing out now between the two figures was a cloud of bright and swirling mist in which the shapes of dreams were moving like a carousel, little men and little beasts moving in the likeness of living creatures, sparks of the music of the old man and the old spirit.
There were men who rode upon tigers and men who rode upon dragons, and in the field of smoke and light they clashed with mighty voices, for the tigers struck with fire in their claws and the dragons struck with lightning. And from their battle new shapes were born, the eagles and the ravens who drew up and away and shrieked at the battle below. But a deeper motion disturbed the earth of fire and smoke, for the sound of battle and the noise of those airy beasts had awoken a darksome sleeper, who began to shake all things. All rumbled and roared and shook and shattered, and at last in the horizon of the sky of the song-world a bright trumpet sounded out, and like a rising sun a melody burst from the burning clouds. Then she could be seen, her eyes ice blue and her hair like ropes of fire, and she was saying, “None shall unmake the music, for I shall send it out and you shall hear it and sing it back, and no melody shall be unreturned to its maker.”
There was a flash and for a moment the river and the tree, the old man and the old spirit, and the young boy, were lost in a white haze. Then sight returned, and their music was ended.
“Come here, boy,” said the visitor, his long teeth flashing in his grin. The boy obeyed, climbing onto the rail of the bridge and scurrying across with no concern for balance. Dust moved at his feet as he came and sat cross-legged before them.
“How did you do that?” he asked. “How did you make the music visible?”
The old man and the old spirit laughed and looked at each other.
“Well,” said the old spirit, “it is my belief that the music is an illusion, that the one truth is the silence of the earth. We can see the music because it is not music at all, but can be made still in pictures and images because it is made of air that steals the earth. Music is the wind’s parody of the silent land.”
The old man leaned his guitar against the tree. “What do you think, lad?”
The boy shook his head. “How could the music be an illusion of earth? It seems nothing like earth to me.”
The old spirit sighed and nodded. “That is to be expected. What is air but earth broken and scattered? What is the sea but earth unsettled and flowing back to its true home?” He began to tap a slow, measured beat upon the surface of the drum. “Music is a noise that longs for silence, and silence is from the earth. Because it mirrors the silence of the earth, music appears to prove that air has something to offer which earth does not. But what earth offers is greater than music. It offers the silence to which music points.
Confusion crossed the boy’s face, and a kind of understanding mixed with the confusion. “I guess I see what you mean. I don’t know if I can argue against it. But it still seems otherwise.” He looked at the old man. “What do you say?”
The old man smiled and picked up the guitar into his hand. “I say that music is the gift of fire from the Muse, and that fire is not earth or air or sea.” He began to strum the guitar and matched the pace of the old spirit’s drumbeat. “Some sounds, some melodies, break upon the soul in such total immersion that it overwhelms us in a kind of stillness that is silence become music, whereas the earth’s silence is merely able to become music. For even beyond fire there is something still greater, and that is the Voice who gave order to the Muse, mother of all flame. The silence of chaos completed in its course may seem like the silence of order given life in our ears, but that is the image of a finished work that one can glimpse even in an empty sheet of music. There can be no music without the stillness of earth, it is true, but stillness alone is death. Life is in the fire of the Voice, and cannot come from earth, or air, or sea.”
His final word ended with his final stroke upon the string of his guitar, and in time with the final beat upon the drum of the old spirit. Silence surrounded them, and they could hear the river washing itself out to the shore and the evening creatures beginning to chirp and stir. The bustle of the village was quieting and the loud trumpet of the sunlit sky was softening for the quiet clarions of starlight. The boy pondered what the old man and the old spirit had said as he looked and gazed upon the forest and the road that cut through it, away from their small village and on to other lands.
Suddenly the old man stood, and looked at his visitor. “It is time, isn’t it?”
The old spirit nodded, and something of his sarcastic poise seem to soften. “It is, old friend.”
“Then we must go,” he said, “but first I must speak with the young angler alone.”
The spirit also stood, though his feet scarcely stirred the grass at his feet as he lifted his white drum and slung it against his back. “Very well. I’ll be waiting for you just up the road. I’ll take you as far as I can, and then I will leave you to find out for yourself if the Muse still sings.”
Gently, like a cloud on a soft breeze, the old spirit went away, the scent of fresh tilled soil on his breath as he sang of rainstorms on wild fields.
The old man walked to the boy, guitar in hand. “Lad, do you ever catch fish in this river?”
“Sometimes,” said the boy,” but not today.”
Nodding, the old man bent down. “Play this guitar before you fish. If you play with a gentle heart, you will always find a lively tug on the hook. But when you play for men, play with fire in your heart and truth in your mind, for they cannot hear peace without a struggle.”
He stood up and turned to walk away.
“But wait,” said the boy.
“How will you play music without your guitar?” The boy gazed down at the frets and strings and woodwork of the guitar’s body, realizing he had never played any music before.
“I am going to a country where music can be played on the winds and mountains by the joy of many hands,” said the old man, “though my friend, the old spirit, does not believe me.”
“How can a spirit not believe in such a place, but you can?”
“The sounds of silence have left him confused, but I think the Muse still calls him her child. We will see in the harvests of time if I am right.”
“I do not know how to play,” said the boy.
The old man looked at him and nodded. “Neither do I, and so I let my hands play for me, for they know the music when I forget it.”
So he walked from the boy towards the forest and the road to other lands, and his hands were still within his pockets, but he whistled long and low as he walked. In the distance and the softening light of twilight, it seemed to the boy that the old bard was growing larger and smaller, moving faster than the earth but slower in his own pace, and he could see a golden light in the old man’s body as he joined in the dark horizon the smoky and pale figure of the old spirit, like two men walking into another story.
The boy looked at the guitar in his hand, and as he felt the strings with his fingers, it seemed that some melody stirred in the grass and over the river’s waters. He stood up, turned, and walked onto the bridge that spanned the river. At its middle, suddenly, he saw a figure dressed in blue, with long blond hair framing green eyes. She smiled.
“Are you the Muse?” he asked.
“No, I am not her,” she said, “I am a young spirit, only thirty-three and one thousand years have I listened to the Muse. But I saw you with him and with the old spirit. You must be the new Bard, I am sure of it.”
“New Bard?” His dark eyes widened. “But I do not know how to play.”
She took his hand and smiled with a kind laugh. “I do. I will teach you.”
They walked then into the darkening night of the village, and the soft sounds of laughter and song disturbed no dreaming sleepers as they passed by.
This story is a sample “B-Side” for the anthology “Of Gods and Globes,” in which my short story about Saturn appears! Preorder here: