Heart Songs

The threads drifted like spider silk or split strands of hair, its usefulness already cast aside – except to those like him that found, in them, another role to play. He picked a random one and strung it snugly on his bow.

The string trembled. The song hummed on his lips and finger pads and he picked up his violin. Its strings were already set; he only tucked its head beneath his chin and drew the bow across.

They sung him a song of a drowned little boy on the riverfront.

Flowers wilted even as she looked at them, but she picked a live bouquet anyway. Plastic roses for a funeral seemed inappropriate but a far more bearable symbol. Children were meant to outlive their parents. The little boy running through the house and upon the patio should have lasted forever - but, instead, he'd faded like a watercolour painting left to the rain, and the rain she wandered into now was the rain that had washed him away.

The florist had bagged the bouquet but that didn't spare a grieving mother the downpour, nor did it offer to carry the weight she held. And why would it? She glared when cold fire surged up, but the water dampened it quickly enough.

And her tears failed to move the sky who wailed independent of those it poured grief to.

It was a joyous, ignorant tune soured by a brief tragic note, and then there was only the plopping of raindrops in an ungratifying close. He freed the string from the bow and rolled it into a neat little ball to join others, like trophies, in his violin case.

His book was there as well, and a fountain pen and some tags. He numbered the ball before scribing its music, in full, as the echoes faded from the room. A brief, tragic tune it might have been, but one never knew when it would come in need and so he kept them all, meticulously drawn.

He plucked another thread from the air and strung it. This one cried: first with horror, then shock and undiluted grief.

The violinist chose too fitting a song for the funeral. Like the flowers the guests had brought: a vast array, but the colours had already begun to fade and blend with the rain. Tears ran too and the rain continued as though it were blind to the weight and deaf to the song. But for the grieving mother, the song was a tune her own heart played, and it stayed even as the rain drowned the after-song.

The violinist stepped off the podium and met her. She only stared. There were no words that could bear that heart song: the grief and pain and what the rain had hollowed out.

He bowed his head at her and offered sympathies far from the song he'd played. And the condolences that came after were equally imperfect. The bar had been raised too high.

"Perfect..." He heard the whispers as he slipped the crowd, and of course it was perfect. It was that woman's own song: the song of the mother who'd lost their child, who cried as the rain fell, who spluttered like the embers of a drowning flame.

It was a rare perfection. The threads existed but there were too many cast off in the world for him to play and know. They clung to his jacket now, as he moved. They clung to all the people still there, despite the rain. It covered the grass and sodden flowers and casket in a tender nest from what had once been a web - or many webs, all part of love and life.

They made a web together: the threads. Some drifted so close he could see the tendrils that spanned them, while others seemed not to touch at all. He tugged one free from his hair and strung it, and the bow trembled in his hands at the weight of a new, powerful song.

He tucked the violin under his chin and drew the bow across the strings. They sung of a crying, lonely, boy.

The tragic boy, the grieving mother - those songs had been potent but plain. This new string's tale was more subtle. Near, the source must be, because he'd picked it up between the funeral grounds and his home, but it was a dull resonance, and growing duller. A problem already resolved.

He rolled the string up and tucked it away. Not all tales were his to know and the sadder ones were all the more pleasant to pass by.

Lonely. Sad. Where had the happy children gone? He'd come upon those many songs before but now they were only ancient threads in his collection. Sadness were the only fresh ones he plucked. He ran out of new threads to play for birthdays, for weddings - only the funerals had their glove-fitting, perfect, songs.

Untuned ears heard no difference but they spoke it nonetheless; the threads were that fine. "Perfect" was saved for the funerals. "Perfect" was saved for when he plucked the thread off the black dress of the crying mother, the crying wife, the crying sister. There was an inadequacy that went unsaid when he played the old strings again and again –

And then one snapped, overused, and the others followed in a final ferocious symphony of their own.

And then he just had sad songs to play on.

The nights grew long. There was a thread-splayed ground, like snow, and he stood with bare cold feet upon it. So many threads and he picked them at random and strung his bow and listened to the melody they played with his violin strings. It was the same sadness, the same loneliness, the death and despair that choked his dancing fingers and silver tongue.

He tired after a few. He put his violin and bow down and sat, and the threads bit at his shirt and pyjama bottoms.

"Let's make an angel," he heard. But there was no small innocent child to give him that thought, and he was too old and weary for such a task himself.

"Let's make a snowman." He tried to stand instead. He was stuck fast; the threads were a web that held him tight and he didn't try too hard. It was night, after all. A slow, quiet, night he could afford to waste away. And the whispers continued, children pleading to play, until the harsh telephone ring cut through the threads and pushed him out of bed.

The snow came a few weeks later, and another rainy spell before it. More funerals called for him and he played the draining symphonies for them and watched the rain grow hard and cold till it became hail. And then after the hail came the snow, and he passed the park one day and saw them - the children - laughing and playing: making balls and fortresses and snowmen and angels that took an imprint of their own bodies along.

He watched them for a moment. Happy, smiling children - but where were the threads that clung to everything like dust? The white snow blinded him, and a part of him wanted to stumble over to those children and brush them head to toe until he found them but then they'd run. They'd scream and dash away and the angry parents would chase him off and then where would he be? Screeches echoing in his ears. Threads filled with tremulous rage and the intertwining lisps of despair.

And he would be the instigator instead of the musician who played the tune, even if it was triggered by an innocent thought.

So he watched, and once they'd all tired and drifted away, he pulled threads from the snow and wrapped them around his fingers so they didn't go.

Hundreds of threads, and the laughing children had been on top of them and yet he still couldn't find one that sung a happy tune. He heard scolding voices, noisy tears, but no cheerful giggles. They were swept under the sound of drifting snow, under the sound of footsteps scraping footholds through the ice.

His chin began to bruise and his fingers swell, and still he couldn't find the laughter, or why it alluded him so.

The snow built up, in his dreams and in reality too. His feet left deep imprints when he walked, but they were soon covered like he hadn't been there at all: a ghost drifting through the gloomy meadow, bathed in white but lonely, without even a bird in the sky or a child in the frost.

But he could hear their voices. Young voices, innocent and raw, begging him to come aid them in shaping the snow. But why? It was a childish thing to do and he was an adult. Moreover, he was an adult with a task of his own, though it gave him no fruit.

The snow hid those threads, and he stopped to dig them out, one by one. His hands grew cold, then numb, and when he picked up his bow, the strand he'd plucked from his file just fell again, back into the snow.

His violin and bow collected dust. His case was already drenched in it. His ears had grown dull in listening to those dreary tunes day after day, and his hands were too numb to string new threads anyhow.

The snowfall was a poor substitute, but he listened to it fall because there was only it and the creaks of silence to listen to.

Outside his window, children played. He saw no smiles turn his way. No laughs pierced the frosted glass. No boisterous voices called out, though phone calls – requests – still came. He turned them down. Even if no-one said it aloud, they knew something was lacking now.

"Come on, mister." Their tiny hands tugged at him. "Laugh with us."

It was the snowy plain again, and the children called. His shirt scrunched where the fists gripped but that and their voices were all that told him they were there.

"At what?" he asked. There was nothing but an empty plain to laugh at.

"Anything." They tugged harder. His knees buckled and he fell into a crouch to appease them. "Did you forget how?"

Perhaps he had. He hadn't found a thread that sung the sort of music to lift his soul since before the winter began, and they were now steeped in it. The threads that told of happy times: of birthdays, weddings, births, rewarding ceremonies... Not for the first time, he wondered where they'd all gone.

The hands tugging him faded away. The whispering voices too, and he ran his fingers down his shirt as though searching for those fingers again. They came away with a single thread. The rest of the world was snow.

He awoke with the thread embracing his fingers and he loosened it and strung it on his bow. He was stiff again, but he was in no rush: not to play, not to listen to another saddened song. And it was the same. And yet, when he closed his eyes and the bow pulled his fingers along those violin strings, he realised it wasn't the same at all. The song echoed from his heart: the voice he hadn't even known.

This was his thread: the emotions that clung to him like an unravelling cloak. Had one of those ghost children pulled it off of him? But they had been dreams. There was a message that still escaped him: in that thread, in that song.

He drew his bow against the violin strings and played the song again.

Written for the Writing Challenge Contest (The Review Game), January 2016
Prompt: "Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt." - David Wong in John Dies at the End