He’d almost forgotten what they looked like.
The old soldier gripped his rifle strap tighter as if the canvas cutting against calloused skin could hold off the dull ache in his chest.
Pianos, they used to call them.
Instrument of the gods, according to her.
He’d laughed, but she just grinned.
One day you’ll see.
He swallowed hard and stepped forward. Ash crunched beneath mud-stained boots. A cool breeze crept around his raised collar. A few bits of green crept along the forest floor. Not enough to veil what happened here. Not enough…
His hands over her eyes. Smooth hands, unstained with age and blood. He pulled them away. A simple piano stood in the center of a bare room.
She said its music could contest the gods, but at that moment her laugh put every song to shame.
It was still there.
The ache in the soldier’s throat tightened.
Overhead, branches rustled with the sighing wind.
The piano rested in the center of the clearing, stained with half a century of rain and wind. It was only the tree that kept it standing, near as he could figure—a gnarled trunk, growing through the center of the piano like a prisoner’s face stretched toward the sky.
She’d been right. Its music could rival any other. Or maybe it was simply her voice.
She made up the strangest lyrics during their long walks as the shadows closed in. She’d whispered them to drive away the rumors of war. She’d laughed them as she said ‘yes’ to the greatest question a man can ask.
They’d sat, side by side on the bench, her head on his shoulder as he carefully carved into the sleek wood.
The soldier shivered and touched the battered wood. The lines were still there. Faded, but there. He traced the heart with a trembling finger.
‘The morning sings, the evening weeps. The eagles find the dead. And watching from the eyrie, the eagle child cannot speak.’
Her voice shook that night, but she’d smiled at him.
The next day, the nations ran in blood and fire. They smelt smoke on the wind.
They said her brother died. Her father and mother. He’d held her close. But in the night she was gone. He found her in front of the piano, fingers poised over the keys. She didn’t touch them.
She never played again.
He squeezed his eyes shut, bowing his head to rest against the wood. A single tear traced his weathered cheek.
“You didn’t have to go, you know.” The words were barely a whisper. “You could have stayed…”
He tried. Forced her to eat. To rest.
They didn’t leave the city, even as battle overtook it.
She didn’t cry. He wished she would if only so he could wipe away the tears.
One morning she didn’t wake. The sedatives he’d given her were gone—a week’s worth in one night. It would have been so easy to follow. So easy…
“You thought the music of life disappeared.” He pressed trembling lips together. “What I would have given for you to understand…the music only left when you did.”
He’d taken her away from the flames and bullets. The piano too. Far away, to a secluded grove with only the trees to witness.
He’d buried her there. No stone to mark the place. Only the instrument she loved best, resting above where she lay.
“I told you’d I’d visit, Clare.” He blinked against the tears. “I’m back.” He traced a hand down the molded keys. They were chipped. Stained yellow and black. His fingers splayed over the last several. He pressed them in soft succession.
The rusted notes whispered through the grove like the weeping of a god.