Anthony Self: [The Music Man]

Smelling sweetly with stored hay, dust motes danced wildly through the cracked rivulets of light inside the barn. Caleb took off his jacket, kneeled to the floor and laid it neatly beside him. His father took the length of leather strap down from its nail on the wall.

The warm air was also heavy with the smell of feed and animals. Caleb looked towards one of the pens, where Archimedes, their black mare was hitched, eating impassively from her bag. Caleb started to lift the white cotton shirt off his rakish thirteen-year-old body as he heard his father’s hand-pegged boots slowly make their way towards him.

‘You ready?’ his father asked.

‘Yes, Da.’

He sucked in some air and braced himself for the first lash. It wasn’t the pain that Caleb feared the most; it was the sound of the undulating slap of leather against skin that set his teeth on edge. When it came, it felt like an explosion going off on his shoulder. He didn’t cry out, or whimper. He knew that he had to take his medicine like a man, or run the risk of receiving further lashes for his cowardice.

After the fifth, it felt like an avalanche of searing heat flowing freely down his back. Trying to keep his sight and focus on Archimedes, Caleb felt that the horse could give him a specific strength, a thick hide or impenetrable armour to deflect the blows of the supple leather strap. He remembered reading a book once, about a magical horse that could fly, granting wishes to all the good children in the land and he imagined now that Archimedes spoke in human tongue and could utter words to him, instantly transforming his skin, hardening it into a metal carapace, protecting him from the blows. Another lash came down, the hardest one yet and the pain jolted through his entire body. At this one he did let out a gasp and he felt something warm running down the contours of his spine, knowing it was blood.

Archimedes couldn’t speak. Spells didn’t exist. He was foolish to think of that book, read so long ago. Fiction. It had probably been burnt now, like all the others.

There was no place for fiction in this world.

His punishment had seemed like hours, but barely a minute had passed. With head bowed, tears ran slowly down his cheeks.

When he finally raised his head, his father towered over him. He held the small rectangular object in his hands. The surface was black and sleek. When Caleb had first held it, he could see his own reflection in the black mirror.

‘Where did you get this?’ his father asked. Caleb took a moment to collect himself. He cleared his throat, for when he would speak it would be precise and clear. There would be no stammering, there would be no half sobs in his answer.

‘Found it.’

‘Where?’

Caleb bit his lip. He meekly sat upright, pain scorching his back. His father’s stern, reproachful gaze would have normally broken him by now, but the older he was becoming, the more Caleb realised that his father, like everyone else, was just a fallible human being. He was scared, just like all the rest. There was also something else written across his father’s face, something he may have missed before. It was gone in an instant, but he could have sworn he saw his father’s eyes widen with worry.

‘There was a box of them left by the entrance to the docks.’ He said, as a way of explanation.

His father said nothing for a moment. Caleb noted that his father’s grip on the small rectangular device had tightened so greatly that his knuckles were balled white. It was a half-truth, to be fair. He and Arlen were always hanging around the sealed off entrance to the docks, wondering about the land across the river and what mysteries lay outside their rural community. They knew that the merchants that provided their hamlet with tools and essential materials used secret tunnels and gaps along the fenced off walls to bring in other scarcer items, artefacts that they could barter with. Caleb had heard some of the other children call it ‘the black market’ where they would meet and sell some of the items from the lands beyond. Illegal items. Forbidden treasures.

Caleb and Arlen had pretended that they were adventurers, playing in the cordoned off lands that no one in the community ventured. That was the story he told his father, at any rate. Whereas Arlen may have felt that they had been playing in the old mines, an area that they were strictly prohibited from setting foot in, Caleb had wanted to go in there to explore. He had found a crate nestled amongst empty oil drums and carts long ago abandoned. There had been something about the crate, it seemed out of place. Like it didn’t belong. Caleb knew the feeling. They knew that the items inside the crate didn’t belong to them, but they couldn’t help themselves.

‘Were there guards?’ his father asked.

‘No, Da.’

His father nodded. He dropped the device to the barn floor and stamped on it with his boot. Caleb involuntarily winced as he heard a sickening crunch. His father repeatedly stomped on it until the treasured item was nothing more than broken shards.

His father leaned down and looked his son in the eyes. ‘Bury that. Bury it deep so no one can ever find it. The pigs still need to be fed and the cows milked. When you’re finished we’ll eat.’

Caleb wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. His father stood up, seeming to consider something. ‘But first,’ he said, ‘go get yourself cleaned up.’

 

Arlen was waiting for him outside the barn. He had watched Caleb’s father take Archimedes out and tie him to the wagon. Shortly afterwards they had trundled along the path of their small farmstead.

Arlen could see that Caleb had taken a good licking the moment he saw his friend wince as he walked towards him.

‘That bad?’

‘I’ve had worse,’ Caleb answered, throwing a bucket of unused slop against the barn wall.

A moment of uneasy silence descended upon them. Arlen kicked at a tuft of weed growing through the soil around the entrance. He was finding the days when he could speak his mind in front of Caleb shortening; they both were inclined towards an inquisitive nature, however, Arlen respected and usually abided by the rules of the community, he was finding that his friend was starting to drift towards an uneasy road paved with rebellious and feral intentions. It had been Caleb’s idea to search through the abandoned mines last week and he hadn’t uttered a word of resistance or caution as they had made the trek to the outskirts of the town. At first he thought the idea another whimsical flight of fancy, but as they travelled further away from the farms and familiar roads, a certain sense of foreboding came over him.

He had felt initial excitement when Caleb mentioned going to the mines, but the closer they approached the dark entrance, an acute awareness of his own intrinsic nature of following orders flooded back into him. The mines were a forbidden place, a place where boys shouldn’t play. His own father had lashed him for minor discrepancies in the past, but this was something else. There would be dire consequences if their parents found out.

Caleb narrowed his eyes as he looked at Arlen’s flushed face. ‘Don’t worry none,’ he said impassively, ‘I didn’t tell him you were with me.’

‘I wasn’t worried about that,’ Arlen replied, rather too quickly to sound like anything resembling the truth. Caleb let out a derisive snort and starting to walk towards his house. Arlen trailed behind him.

‘What happened to it?’

‘Da broke it.’

‘Truth?’

Caleb got to the steps of his porch. ‘Truth. But I’ve got a plan.’

Arlen stopped walking.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.

Caleb turned, a wicked grin playing across his face. ‘I reckon Uncle Franklin is coming tonight.’

Arlen knew the stories of Uncle Franklin. He was a merchant, forever travelling the local hamlets selling his wares. He also knew that there were rumours that he had been across the forbidden zone and travelled as far as the land beyond the sea. Arlen suddenly became aware that Caleb was studying his face, so he raised his chin and stuck out his chest.

‘What are you going to do?’ Arlen asked.

‘I reckon uncle Franklin’s been to the land across the sea,’ Caleb said, ‘I reckon he’s got a boat and that he’s going to be using it to cross over tonight. I plan on stowing aboard…’ his eyes glanced over the farmstead, waving his hand dismissively,‘…and getting out of this.’

He looked at Arlen. ‘You want in?’

Arlen nodded. His stomach was turning over and he felt that if he uttered a word he might have vomited at that moment.

Caleb smiled. ‘Good. Be here for Midnight…I’ve heard my Uncle arrive before but it’s never before the witching hour. Bring your essentials…might be that we won’t be back here for a long time…’ His lips parted into a mirthless grin, ‘…if at all.’

 

A mass of grizzled hair from ear to chin, Franklin scowled at his brother from across the wooden table. The Merchant had travelled for hours and had avoided detection by the hamlet’s guards. All he had wanted to do was have a cup of some warm broth and perhaps a long soak in the bath. He knew this would be a short stay.

‘Was that a stash of your iPhones?’ his brother hissed between clenched teeth.

Franklin sighed. It was inevitable that his caches would sometimes be discovered, but he was careful not to leave any fingerprints leading back to him. He assumed Caleb had found one.

‘Little brother,’ Franklin said in a hushed tone, ‘if you knew what was best for you, you’d shut up.’ He was tired now, and suddenly impatient.

‘If the guards caught him…’ Edmond trailed off, leaving the unspoken words hanging in the air. Franklin was a big man, with eyes very keen and penetrating. Each hamlet had their rules, their town criers…most had taken religion, banishing anything that was ungodly…Franklin had never wanted that kind of life. He could stay in one town for little more than a couple of days before feeling imprisoned. He’d been away for a long spell, this time. He estimated it had been about half a year. All he wanted to do was listen to the music from across the sea. He would like to see the Music Man again, just one more time.

‘You know the rules,’ Edmond continued, ‘No electronics. They can’t ever know of the world before.’

Franklin pulled his chair away from the table. ‘Rules,’ he snorted. ‘Brother, your voice is becoming thin and bitter like the rest of you.’ He stood, taking his hat from the table. ‘Say hello to Mary for me. There’s timber and metal out front.’

Edmond opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again.

As he was about to leave the room, he turned to his brother. ‘If only you could hear it, Edmond. The music. It’s really quite something.’

 

Two hours later, Franklin was rowing away from the harbour. Stretching inland from the sandy tongue where he had safely moored his decrepit boat, he could see the faint outlines of leaning telegraph poles, now devoid of wires. The moon was full and cast a great light for him to navigate without the aid of a lantern. At this time there were hardly any guards patrolling the docks, and he mumbled to himself as the black reef became smaller from view. Soon he lapsed into a moody and apprehensive silence. Leaving the oars to the side, he closed his eyes. It would take him a half a day of rowing to get across, but he had made this journey before. He knew the music wouldn’t be audible this far out, but he imagined it anyway, and that gave him some solace.

He lent back and listened to the sound of the water lapping against the stern of the boat. He tried to imagine the music, the rhythms and the flow of it, but it was an irrevocable truth that to simply try to emulate the divine sounds in his mind was impossible.

There was a cough from his haphazardly stowed packs.

Franklin sat up rigidly.

‘You best come out now, before I slit ya,’ he said, perturbed that his moment of succour had been cruelly interrupted. His hand slowly reached for the switchblade he kept fastened to his ankle. A good merchant always needed to be prepared. A head poked out of one his large sack bags. It was his brother’s son. His nephew. Caleb.

‘I’m sorry, Uncle Franklin.’ The boy said.

‘You’ll be a might sorry when I get ya back to your Da.’

Caleb unravelled himself from the small hiding spot he had chosen, stretching out his limbs on the diminutive craft.

‘Please, Uncle Franklin…I want to see the lands across the barren sea. I want to see all the lectric’s I’ve been hearing about.’

‘Lectrics? Whose been filling your head with nonsense, boy?’

Franklin went to grab the oars. Caleb was fast though, imposing himself in the middle of the vessel. ‘Please…I know that the guards change each hour. The docks will be too dangerous now to go back.’

Franklin scowled. The boy was clever, he’d have to give him that. Obviously took that from Mary’s side of the family. He didn’t like it, but he was right.

‘What am I going to tell your father?’ he said, after a long pause.

‘I left a note in my room. Sure, he’ll be furious an all…I’ll probably take a licking the likes I’ve never experienced before…but…’

‘But what? Spit it out boy.’

‘I just want to…know. I want to know what it’s like away from the Hamlets. That…iPhone you and Da were speaking about…’

Franklin had heard enough. He started turning one of the oars and the boat began to move.

Caleb put his hand deferentially on his knee. ‘I can’t go back there, Uncle. Not when I know that there’s…more out there. I see it in everyone’s face…they’re scared. Scared of the lectrics…scared of…I don’t know…what used to be. Like it will go the way when the big boom came. But I want to know…I need to know. Surely you had that urge, once?’

Franklin stopped and closed his eyes.

The land across the sea was no place for someone like Caleb. But he thought the same thing himself so many years ago when he started out as a merchant. The boy had tenacity that was for sure. But he also had guile, and courage. Something his father lacked.

‘Where’s that young fella you’re always hanging round?’

Caleb’s head dropped notably. ‘He was meant to come. In the end, turns out he was like all the others.’

They sat in silence for a while. Franklin finally sat back and fished in his long coat for some tobacco. He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it, the yellow spark of fire illuminating everything in an instant. Caleb turned his head, looking back to the reef.

‘They won’t be able to see us from here,’ Franklin muttered, taking a long pull from the cigarette. ‘It’s human nature, I guess,’ he said, looking listlessly out to sea, ‘every generation’s prerogative – the unashamed belief that they know better than those who came before them…’ He sighed wearily. ‘Well, you better start rowing, then.’

Caleb smiled.

‘And whilst you’re rowing, I’m going to tell you a story.’

Caleb grabbed the oars and started mechanically pumping them. ‘It’s a story about the greatest sounds you’ll ever hear…they don’t have instruments for musical pleasure in your world, see…but there’s a device called a Calliope, do you know what that is?’

Caleb shook his head.

‘It’s a musical instrument that produces sound by sending gas through large whistles…they’re very loud. Even some small calliopes are audible for miles. There is no way to vary the tone or loudness, you see. When I was a boy, we used to go to something called a circus. They’d have these machines playing all the time. Where we’re going, you’ll hear one of them. And boy, mark my words, when you do hear it, you’ll never be able to get the sound of your head. You’ll dream about it…’

Franklin spoke more about the lands across the sea, and of the Music Man. Caleb could hardly contain his excitement. He listened intently about the world outside of his own, where books weren’t burned, where people danced and sang, where the Music Man would make your feet tap along and put shivers down your spine.

And he knew then that he’d made the right decision. He knew he would never go back to the farm, slopping buckets of swill and milking the cows. He knew that his life had more meaning than just surviving.

He would meet the Music Man, and he would ask him to play a song.

 

*

Photo by Aleksei Drakos.

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