A FAMOUS WRITER’S ashes were scattered over the grey waters of the open sea. It wasn’t meant to happen this way. He died of a long illness while preparing for a journey West; his friend, with whom he was travelling, decided to cremate his body so that it might be taken on the ship. But there was a mistake. Something about taxes. And the law. So that he could not bring the ashes with him to the new land. He took the urn — small and ceramic, glazed in yellow — and overturned its contents into the waves. After a moment’s hesitance, they sank.
(The friend, who was of little importance, went over the sea and found a home in quietude. The story was forgotten for some time.)
MONTHS LATER, FROM the surf, an infant floated in seafoam to the northernmost bank of the continent. She was found in the sand by a fisherwoman, adopted, later, as the sole daughter of the young innkeeper. The infant grew to be a girl, a young woman — a fixture of the town! She would go down to the marketplace, buying eggs or tomatoes for the kitchen of the inn, greet the shopkeepers… The fishseller would lean in and tell his customer of her origin (much abbreviated and exaggerated). There was a healthy curiosity — but this led nowhere. There was nothing to be known. It was not a secret, only a mystery, and one content to remain unresolved.
The girl grew up in the inn. She cooked, changed the sheets, helped her mother, and spent hours pacing the beach or trawling the foothills, looking for what’s concealed under the scrub brush, unnamed, inexplicably dangerous. Where one’s legs, by journey’s end, are covered by a fine layer of dust. But most of all she played the pianino.
There was an old one in her mother’s foyer. It had cracked, chipped, yellowed keys — every note still sounded, like a bell. In an old trunk on the third floor of the house, under two motheaten blankets and a decayed bouquet of desert rose, the girl found sheet music, worn but legible. The great old songs of the reach. She held them out to her mother — who, seeing them in the hands of her beloved (grown so much in seven short years) wiped of a milky tear and told her:
—Those were your father’s.
Most afternoons, when the tasks of the day were complete, the town could hear the girl playing. Halting, in the early days, with bursts of energy, beats of dejection. But in months, the cord of genius had wound and tightened in the girl’s playing. She liked the new songs the best, their unaffected melancholy. The patrons grumbled, newfangled, gauche… So she picked at the ones that bottomed the pile, and reinvented history.
By her adolescence, she was an expert. Afternoon playing was a ritual. Locals flocked; travelers became interested. She played the old songs, the new ones — the truly new ones, brought from the sea, from one of the places of happening she always hoped to go. [But picture: it is the best day of a year. Rushing upstairs, dressed in faded cloth, she comes to her mother, smiling and weary, sitting on a bed, holding a red cardboard box — the same every year — tied with a simple cord. Untied hastily, fingers stumbling, and there, inside, sheets of paper, fresh and white, ready to be played. She grins; they embrace.]
The room would be full; it would be late afternoon and the light would be grey. Motes of dust would be hanging in columns from the uncurtained windows of the house. It would be just too warm, or just too cold, and on each and every seat, threadbare couches, uneven stools, one or two reading chairs (depending on the year) there would be a person, an expectant face. And she would sit in front of the pianino, fingers tapping for a moment, then resting, as one, on the starting place. And then she played.
And the room would fill with music. Slowly at first. But soon the air would be thick with it. Time would change with the rhythm, up and down, faster and slower. By the end, the young would be in love, the old wiping tears from sunstained eyes. Then the evening would be over, and the guests would leave, and they would notice the sounds of their footsteps on the gravel, the white haze of the gaslights, the color of the moon, and a feeling in their chest: something was missing, bereft.
THE YEARS WENT BY. They were good years, all agree. But they seemed to pass just too quickly, and without any distinct impression. A painter lived a full life trying to recall a sunrise from those years onto a canvas (a bluff, with the sea and the rocks and the pale gloss of the high hills). But it never came. The years came and they passed. This was enough.
A traveler came to the town. This wasn’t unusual. But his specificities were somehow vague: a dark coat, an old hat, worn boots, weary eyes. And the hat was the wrong fabric to be that old, and the face under it was not worn but the sun, only tired. Even the look felt practiced. It was too smooth. There was no catch. There was no moment of hesitation. There was no regret.
So the people of the town decided, one by one, that he was an imposter looking for adventure. They ignored him.
HE MOVED INTO the second room from the left on the third floor. It was said to be cohabited by a ghost. He learned what he could from the innkeeper — a murder, by a lover, or else a hereditary disease — but found this information unsatisfactory; he would go to the cemetery. He took his hat, his fine white gloves, a scarf, threaded from the soft grey wool of home, and set off along the dusty road.
The pianist watched him go, nodding to herself about the scarf. She was fascinated by him. She found his banality intriguing. She had heard his voice — his real voice, past the careful accent — in the night, in a gap in the floorboards. He was muttering, whispering… It sounded like lines from a poem. A thoughtful, musical quality. A faint quality of otherness. In how he talked. And walked. So carefully studied, yet he missed the most obvious things! The scarf! Nobody in town would wear such a scarf. And yet he did, and he did not notice how it set him apart.
And again as she folded sheets in the pale light of the afternoon, then again went over the night’s performance. She pictured him among the dogwood and the chamisa; the purple tinge of the air, as colored by the dust. (She had been to the cemetery only twice, to see her father, and each time it has looked just like this.) She heard the music in her inner ear, and with it the sound of his voice. Without thinking, she muttered:
— I wonder what kind of songs he could know…
HE CAME TO the right grave after only minutes of searching. It was short and grey. A simple arch of stone. A few words scratched onto its surface in a straight but rough hand.
1200 – 1229
He turned the flat of his boot into the dust, scattering a light pink cloud of apache plume. Almost nothing, as expected. Still. It might be enough. From his pocket he removed a small, yellow photograph — he was more resourceful than they thought him — and a silver lighter, from one by the river who trafficked in items of power. The lighter clicked, the air changed, the photograph burnt like the wick of a candle, like something old, with only a hint of flame. It leeched a single tendril of smoke. He held it until it threatened his glove, then dropped it, kicking up a cloud of dust — fine dust, an impossibly light grey, almost white. Ashlike.
At first there was nothing. Only the sunset, and the swaying of dogwood and chamisa in just-cool air. Then there, in the cloud of dust, faint, swimming, finally recognizable, was the geometry of a face.
He returned to the inn in time to hear the night’s music. The pianist picked an old song, melancholy, triumphant in its wake.