Chapter no 19: Fingers and Strings

The Name of the Wind

IN THE BEGINNING I was almost like an automaton, thoughtlessly performing the actions that would keep me alive.

I ate the second rabbit I caught, and the third. I found a patch of wild strawberries. I dug for roots. By the end of the fourth day, I had everything I needed to survive: a stone-lined fire pit, a shelter for my lute. I had even assembled a small stockpile of foodstuffs that I could fall back on in case of emergency.

I also had one thing I did not need: time. After I had taken care of immediate needs, I found I had nothing to do. I think this is when a small part of my mind started to slowly reawaken itself.

Make no mistake, I was not myself. At least I was not the same person I had been a span of days before. Everything I did I attended to with my whole mind, leaving no part of me free for remembering.

I grew thinner and more ragged. I slept in rain or sun, on soft grass, moist earth, or sharp stones with an intensity of indifference that only grief can promote. The only notice I took of my surroundings was when it rained, because then I could not bring out my lute to play, and that pained me.

Of course I played. It was my only solace.

By the end of the first month, my fingers had calluses hard as stones and I could play for hours upon hours. I played and played again all of the songs I knew from memory. Then I played the half-remembered songs as well, filling in the forgotten parts as best I could.

Eventually I could play from when I woke until the time I slept. I stopped playing the songs I knew and started inventing new ones. I had made up songs before; I had even helped my father compose a verse or two. But now I gave it my whole attention. Some of those songs have stayed with me to this day.

Soon after that I began playing…how can I describe it?

I began to play something other than songs. When the sun warms the grass and the breeze cools you, it feels a certain way. I would play until I got the feeling right. I would play until it sounded like Warm Grass and Cool Breeze.

I was only playing for myself, but I was a harsh audience. I remember

spending nearly three whole days trying to capture Wind Turning a Leaf.

By the end of the second month, I could play things nearly as easily as I saw and felt them: Sun Setting Behind the Clouds, Bird Taking a Drink, Dew in the Bracken.

Somewhere in the third month I stopped looking outside and started looking inside for things to play. I learned to play Riding in the Wagon with Ben, Singing with Father by the Fire, Watching Shandi Dance, Grinding Leaves When it Is Nice Outside, Mother Smiling….

Needless to say, playing these things hurt, but it was a hurt like tender fingers on lute strings. I bled a bit and hoped that I would callous soon.

Toward the end of summer, one of the strings broke, broke beyond repair. I spent the better part of the day in a mute stupor, unsure of what to do. My mind was still numb and mostly asleep. I focused with a dim shadow of my usual cleverness on my problem. After realizing that I could neither make a string nor acquire a new one, I sat back down and began to learn to play with only six strings.

In a span I was nearly as good with six strings as I had been with seven. Three span later I was trying to play Waiting While it Rains when a second string broke.

This time I didn’t hesitate, I stripped off the useless string and started to learn again.

It was midway through Reaping when the third string broke. After trying for nearly half a day, I realized that three broken strings were too many. So I packed a small dull knife, half a ball of string, and Ben’s book into a tattered canvas sack. Then I shouldered my father’s lute and began to walk.

I tried humming Snow Falling with the Late Autumn Leaves; Calloused Fingers and a Lute With Four Strings, but it wasn’t the same as playing it.

My plan was to find a road and follow it to a town. I had no idea how far I was from either, in which direction they might lie, or what their names might be. I knew I was somewhere in the southern Commonwealth, but the precise location was buried, tangled up with other memories that I was not eager to unearth.

The weather helped me make up my mind. Cool autumn was turning to winter’s chill. I knew the weather was warmer to the south. So, lacking any better plan, I set the sun on my left shoulder and tried to cover as much distance as I could.

The next span was an ordeal. The little food I’d brought with me was soon gone, and I had to stop and forage when I was hungry. Some days I

couldn’t find water, and when I did I had nothing I could use to carry it. The small wagon track joined a bigger road, which joined a larger road yet. My feet chafed and blistered against the insides of my shoes. Some nights were bitter cold.

There were inns, but aside from the occasional drink I stole from horse troughs, I gave them a wide berth. There were a few small towns as well, but I needed someplace larger. Farmers have no need for lute strings.

At first, whenever I heard a wagon or a horse approaching I found myself limping off to hide by the side of the road. I had not spoken with another human since the night my family was killed. I was more akin to a wild animal than a boy of twelve. But eventually the road became too large and well traveled, and I found myself spending more time hiding than walking. I finally braved the traffic and was relieved when I was largely ignored.

I had been walking for less than an hour one morning when I heard a wagon coming up behind me. The road was wide enough for two wagons to run abreast, but I moved to the grass at the edge of the road anyway.

“Hey, boy!” a rough male voice behind me yelled. I didn’t turn around. “Hullo, boy!”

I moved farther off the road into the grass without looking behind me. I kept my eyes on the ground beneath my feet.

The wagon pulled slowly alongside me. The voice bellowed twice as loud as before, “Boy. Boy!”

I looked up and saw a weathered old man squinting against the sun. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy years old. There was a thick-shouldered, plain-faced young man sitting next to him on the wagon. I guessed they were father and son.

“Are ye deaf, boy?” The old man pronounced it deef.

I shook my head. “Ye dumb then?”

I shook my head again. “No.” It felt strange talking to someone. My voice sounded odd, rough and rusty from disuse.

He squinted at me. “You goin’ into the city?” I nodded, not wanting to talk again.

“Get in then.” He nodded toward the back of the wagon. “Sam won’t mind pulling a little whippet like yuself.” He patted the rump of his mule.

It was easier to agree than run away. And the blisters on my feet were stinging from the sweat in my shoes. I moved to the back of the open cart and climbed on, pulling my lute after me. The back of the open wagon was about three-quarters full of large burlap bags. A few round, knobby squash had spilled from an open sack and were rolling aimlessly around on the floor.

The old man shook the reins. “Hup!” and the mule grudgingly picked up its pace. I picked up the few loose squash and tucked them into the bag that had fallen open. The old farmer gave me a smile over his shoulder. “Thanks, boy. I’m Seth, and this here is Jake. You might want to be sittin’ down, a bad bump could tip ye over the side.” I sat on one of the bags, tense for no good reason, not knowing what to expect.

The old farmer handed the reins to his son and brought a large brown loaf of bread out of a sack that sat between the two of them. He casually tore off a large chunk, spread a thick dab of butter onto it, and handed it back to me.

This casual kindness made my chest ache. It had been half a year since I had eaten bread. It was soft and warm and the butter was sweet. I saved a piece for later, tucking it into my canvas sack.

After a quiet quarter of an hour, the old man turned halfway around. “Do you play that thing, boy?” He gestured to the lute case.

I clutched it closer to my body. “It’s broken.”

“Ah,” he said, disappointed. I thought he was going to ask me to get off, but instead he smiled and nodded to the man beside him. “We’ll just have to be entertainin’ you instead.”

He started to sing “Tinker Tanner,” a drinking song that is older than God. After a second his son joined in, and their rough voices made a simple harmony that set something inside me aching as I remembered other wagons, different songs, a half-forgotten home.

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