THE VIOLINIST

 

When he first came into the town from the other side of the river, he didnít know what he was about to face. He thought he knew, but how wrong he was!

Usually, when people saw the well-protected, polished case, shaped tight-fitting around the instrument, they rejoiced, they came out of their homes to greet him, to offer him handshakes and drinks, to invite him to parties noted on their calendars, usually more than he could attend, and to weddings, and to beautiful gardens underneath balconies when the moon was shining.

However, when he stepped off the boat this time, he found the townsfolk strangely cold. It was as if they knew him from before and he had done something terrible he could not remember. No one spread a carpet underneath his feet. No one handed him a flower. No one introduced himself, or gave him an invitation. When he asked for a match to light the hand-rolled cigarette he had brought from across the river, no one could find one, not even the old men whose pipes were alive with billows of smoke, curling upwards into the gray sky. They were such a cozy group, gathered about the little fireplaces in their hands, but when the violinist came the mirth in their eyes fled, leaving grim faces and speechless lips as the travelerís only landscape.

In the old hotel the clerk behind the desk gave him the key to a room that was at the far end of the establishment, in an isolated wing, all by itself. And he told the violinist that no music was allowed in the hotel, as it might disturb the other customers. This, the violinist could understand; after a long journey the sweetness of sleep was sometimes more to be treasured than the sweetness of sound. But notwithstanding his understanding, the clerk felt it had to be said one more time: "Sir, may I remind you, no music is allowed." One could sense ferocity behind the polite forms of speech with which the clerkís brain had been indoctrinated.

The violinist spent a restless night in a silent room, then, as dawn broke through his tattered window shade, which refused to cooperate with the darkness it was intended to protect, he got up to wash his face, went down to have some breakfast in the hotel eatery, and wandered out into the street with his cherished companion of four-strings, searching for an ear to pleasure. He found nothing but empty streets and windows tightly closed.

When at last he found a young couple who seemed very much in love, sitting beneath a generous tree which scattered its leaves and fruits like alms to the world, he smiled, and opening the case that was like the oyster in which a pearl rests, removed the brilliant violin, its fine wood aged like wine, glistening with light which seemed to be golden sweat streaming from its pores. He thought to play a piece by Tchaikovsky, intense and moving like a fire that burns two hearts at once, or else something by Chopin, melancholy like a soul surrounded by a moat, transferred from keys to strings. With the mere touch of his bow, he would draw from the strings a declaration of the obvious that would make it eternal. But the couple was unanimous in its disapproval; its intimate bonds were expressed by the stern harmony of its frowns.

"Please, donít!" the woman protested.

"No!" the young man said. "Donít play, donít disturb us here!" And he indicated the beauty of their setting, underneath the caresses of the tree branches.

"Itís for free," the violinist told them, thinking, perhaps, that they thought he wanted money from them. "I play for nothing more than for the love of music, and for the love of man."

"Didnít you understand us?" the man chided him. "We want you to go away."

"Yes, please go away," the girl told him.

"But music," the violinist told them, trying to explain. "Music is the heart of man. Love, without music, only walks. Love, with music, flies."

The man stood up, with anger in his shoulders which were used to carrying heavy things, his sweet eyes suddenly hard.

"No, please," the violinist told him, as the woman stood up also, upset as though he had just spilled something over her. "Donít lose the moment youíre in. I apologize. Go back to each other. Your love is so great, I am sure you do not need my music. Pardon me."

Perplexed and disturbed, the musician wandered on, surprised by the impervious aura of the lovers, until he found sitting on the stone rim of the townís ancient well, an old man who was nearly as old as the history of the place he lived in. The manís eyes were sad, like an endless fall, the violinist could tell that he was the last vestige of something noble that was gone; he could see in the manís eyes a beautiful young woman who had become old and died in his arms, and a wild host of friends who had danced and laughed the whole night long, many years ago, but who could now no longer be found no matter on which door he knocked. The violinist saw the last leaf of a great tree, once gloriously adorned with green, about to float to the ground, and thought it should not drift to the earth without a requiem. And so, he took out his violin again, to play a homage so deep and true that pain and loss and failure would seem trivial things, that brevity would realize it was nothing but immortalityís lack of self-knowledge, and that separation would discover it was only walking in a gigantic circle back towards its days of happiness.

But when the old man saw the violin come out, he waved his withered hand at the musician who dared to try to honor him, and shook his finger at him with all the decisiveness his faltering body could muster. "Leave me alone, young man!" he told the musician, who was young only by comparison. "Let me age in peace! Do not demean my trials with a concert, as though four strings could compensate a hundred years: thirty lonely ones that have damned the seventy that went before. Do not try to remove the weight which these breaking shoulders bear with wisps of air engendered by your bow."

"But, good sir," the violinist told him, "I come only to hold your hand. Only to part the clouds that cover you with gloom, to let the sun in."

"Do not degrade my last days," the old man replied, with a firmness the violinist could not reject. Amazed, for a moment, he realized he could not change the vision of this man who had lived long enough to earn the right to intransigence. Sadly, he left him to wither.

And on it went in this strange town as the musician tried to make a friend, tried to lend a hand, and found himself pushed away and denied time and time again. Sometimes, it was mere aloofness, other times, outright hostility. He felt, sometimes, as though he and his violin were the most outrageous sinners who had ever lived, who the town would stone to death if it were allowed to. And yet, he knew it was not because these people were frozen and shut to joy. He saw them kiss, he saw them embrace, he saw them looking at the flowers and standing reverent underneath the stars that sparkled in the sky above them, he saw them writhe like fish on a line as they told each other jokes, and heard them singing when he was not around.

"Perhaps it is only that they do not love strangers," he thought to himself.

After a while, he decided that it was pointless to stay on. He had come to enrich their lives, because that is what made his own life worthwhile; but they would have nothing of it. And so, he decided, at last, that it was time to go.

He finished paying off all his bills, turned in his keys at the hotel, and walked sadly with his violin to the shore of the river awaiting the arrival of the weekly ferry. As he waited, and as the ferry drew near, he heard, all of a sudden, drifting from the open window of a distant building which served as the townís concert hall, the sound of instruments playing. "Good Lord!" he thought, grimacing with discomfort. There were violins and cellos, and instruments of brass, and drums and flutes. The strings were all badly out-of-tune, and on the violins particularly, the bows were grating, squeaking like torture devices with all sense of beauty lost; for their part, the brass and flutes were playing discordant, clashing notes, utterly out of key, and the drums had not even the concept of a beat, they seemed to be thrashing about in their own world like hallucinating dancers in the middle of the street. The concert, it appears, was more of a formality than anything else, the townís commitment to have "art", since it seemed from the abundance of people elsewhere, that the performance was poorly attended. There was an orchestra here, but not a public for it. Ė And no wonder! "Good Lord!" the violinist gasped again. "If Armageddon had a sound, this would be it."

The ferry boat arrived, and as the violinist boarded it, in part drawn irreversibly onwards by the certainty he had felt in the morning, and in part pushed forward helplessly by the crowd in which he was imbedded, hurrying with its bags to claim a seat, he realized: "No wonder they would have nothing to do with me and my violin while I was here! This is their only experience with music!"

And suddenly deeply troubled that he was leaving, as the ferry boat began to stir up waves from the sea and to hurl trails of white foam to both sides, he took out his violin, and began to play a haunting melody of parting to the receding shore that did not know what music wasÖ

 

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