Connor had been working steadily in his field, a merry
tune upon his lips, when the shouting first reached him. The hoe thudded
to the ground a moment after his boots pounded the ground in his sprint
to the roadside. A mass of people, seemingly the entire village, clogged
the road. Some had baskets and bags slung over their backs, others carried
small children or lead them by the hand. The noise was deafening. Small
children cried, women wailed, men cursed. Here and there could be heard
the sounds of the rattling coughs of the sick amidst the clamour of voices,
feet, carts and animals.
"Whatís going on?" Connor called to anyone who would stop
and answer. No one did, so Connor called out again, louder this time, that
his question might be heard.
A woman near him, her eyes showing more white than blue,
gestured back towards the village, then retracted her hand as if the air
itself might bite her. "Itís back. Get away before it comes here!"
A man stumbled into the woman from behind, then fell away,
coughing. The woman screamed as if she had been pierced by an arrow.
Connor tried to make sense out of the rampant confusion. "Whatís
back? Whatís wrong?"
The woman wheeled on him, terror in her eyes. "Death,"
Connorís boots thudded over the freshly turned soil. Understanding
made him stagger when he reached the small farm house. He slammed into
the door, disrupting one of the hinges.
"Letís go! We have to go. The plagueís back."
His wife seemed not to hear him. She stood near the hearth,
rocking their latest child in her arms. The air was dead upon the childís
lips, but Shannon continued to sing a soft, silvery lullaby.
Connor woke up with the tune still in his ears, as he had
for the past several months, since the birth of his third child. He slipped
softly out of bed and looked at the babe sleeping soundly in its crib.
Connor sighed and tucked the blanket closer about the child, shaking himself
of the dreamís imagery.
The cow was complaining, sending her impatient cry over
the farm. Opening the barn door, Connor found her large brown eyes upon
him. Her udder hung full. Connor sat down on the stool and began to milk
her. The stream of milk created a sonorous tone as it hit the pail. As
the bucket began to fill, the pitch lowered. The sound vibrated within
the pain and echoed around the barn. The mare snorted in her stall as a
stray droplet hit the lip of the pail, releasing a shrill ping.
Connor smiled, listening. Wherever he went, he heard music.
At the market, the minstrelsí rounds and jigs always created a lively atmosphere.
His wifeís singing at home, though rare, was high and tremulous, weaving
its way out from the open windows to where Connor worked in the field.
Even the steady tread of his boots over the earth produced a march for
his ears. He never went a day without humming a popular ditty or mournful
aire, without taking a moment to listen to the chirp of the birds and the
lowing of the oxen.
The last few drops of milk splished into the bucket to
join their companions. The cow closed her eyes in thanks and turned away.
Connor stood and patted her withers, lifting the full pail and carrying
it over to the holding barrel before quitting the barn for his fields.
Evening rolled around and Connor washed the dirt and sweat
from his arms and face before going inside. Four chairs were set around
the table, but only two sat down to eat. Connor gazed a long while at the
two empty chairs before picking up his spoon. Supper passed in a silence
broken only by the scraping of wooden spoons in wooden bowls. At the end
of the meal, Connor leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his
stomach. He looked again at the empty places. Derrik would have been seven
this year. Avery ten. They had both been strong boys, good workers, eager
to learn. They had taken after their mother, speaking only when they had
something to say. That did not stop their screams from filling the house
when the plauge struck. It did not keep their chests from rattling and
the late night whimperings. The house had been silent after their wasted
bodies were carted away. Silent to the point that echoes of the past took
over every corner. It had been five years before Connor would let himself
have another child. Now it gurgled softly in its sleep.
In the still, warm kitchen, the dream came back to him. Connor
watched as Shannon leaned over the cradle and lifted the child, holding
it tenderly in her arms.
The chair sighed as Connor discarded it for his feet.
Shannon turned her eyes to his.
"Iím going to the ministerís," he said without thinking,
his eyes on the child.
Her brows shot up. "Why?"
Connor kept his gaze on their child. "To arrange
for the christening."
She smiled and sat back down. "Donít be gone too
He nodded, grabbed his coat, and left. The minister lived
just over two leagues away. Connor saddled the pi-bald and mounted up.
The breeze flicked at his coat tails and hair as he coaxed the mare from
a walk to a trot. The trees shifted by while the sounds of twilight stayed
clear. The wind waltzing in Connorís ears provided an atmosphere to which
the frogs were the deep bass beat. The crickets hung far above with their
chorus of soprano wings. The reeds along the wayside and the leaves in
the trees kept up a counterpoint and even the occasional creak of the saddle
resonated within the orchestration. The mareís hooves pounded steadily,
in time with the night. The pace was quick and Connor found himself lifting
his head high in order to catch every nuance, every variation.
The sounds died down as Connor neared the rectory. Across
the way stood the church. Connor tried and failed to recall the last time
he had heard music within its hallowed walls. Slowing the mare, he gathered
the last strains of the nocturne about himself, as he might a cloak.
In the rectory window, a candle burned.
Connor drew the mare to a halt and dismounted. Stepping
up to the rectory door, he rapped softly on the frame. The door swung open
and a small, plump serving woman peered out at him, her eyes continually
squinting and re-squinting in order to gain some measure of focus.
"Is the minister in?"
Connor stepped into a small entrance hallway. The house
felt very quiet.
"Wait here." The woman disappeared down the hall.
Connor stood alone. The nightís song seemed terribly far
away. The wood floor complained loudly as Connor shifted his weight. He
hummed softly to himself, trying to steady his nerves, but the acoustics
of the hall were such that no tune would carry. The sound died on his lips.
And then he was back in his farm house. Shannon stood before him, singing
a lullaby to the still child in her arms. But the air in the room was stale.
No childís breath warmed and sweetened it. Only his wifeís singing as she
lulled the child stirred the air. Something began to nag at him: a question,
"How may I help you?"
The voice startled Connor. He found his hand pressed quickly
in the ministerís own and then released. The hall yet echoed with the discord
of the ministerís bellowed greeting. As the echo faded, Connor found his
voice. "I was wondering, sir." He paused, unsure yet as to what that was.
"Yes?" The ministerís voice seemed every convinced it
spoke from a pulpit to a congregation far below.
"Forgive me for calling so late, butÖ" Connor took a deep
breath and spit it out. "What music do dead men hear?"
The minister was quiet a long time, appraising Connorís
rough home-sewn clothing and wind-tossed hair. He looked at Connor as he
might a novice who had asked why the minister wore robes. At last the minister
grunted and dropped his pitch to a conspiratorial growl. "The only music
that troubles the dead is that of the angels, and their singing is what
composes the divine silence within which the deceased rest. They float
in clouds of resounding quiet, where nothing may disturb them. Our voices
here on earth are for the praising of God. But once the good have crossed
over, praise is the realm of the angels, and they do it in joyous silence.
So be not concerned. The noises of this world shall not follow after and
plague you in the next."
Silence crashed in when the minister finished speaking.
Connor felt weak and confused. He mumbled a thank you
and groped for the door handle. Finding it, he flung himself outside. The
sounds of the night started up immediately, enveloping him. The tempo had
slowed to that of a dirge. The frogs were out in full force and the wind
had lessened, leaving only the crickets to provide the harmony.
Connor slumped to the ground, pulling the music ever closer,
warding off the memory of the ministerís words. As he rested, he saw again
his wife, but from a strange angle. He was looking up at her chin. She
seemed to be saying something, but he couldnít hear what it was. She moved,
and he moved with her. Now he saw himself looking down as he had upon his
child. It was then he realized he was the child, and Shannon was singing
to him. But he could not hear the words, could not even feel the vibration
of her chest as she took in breath. There was no breath for him. No sound.
All was harsh silence.
The mare stamped her hoof and bent her head to the grass,
her tack jingling as she took a bite.
Connor awoke gasping. He sucked deep breaths into his
lungs and spewed them back out, each time accompanying them with a different
sound. At first it was only a choked scream, then a deep whimper, a soft
murmur, a hum, until finally he was singing. Or not quite singing, but
articulating a melody, tapping out the rhythm with his fingers.
The mareís ears twitched back to listen as she continued
Connorís song ended and he recalled what he had told his
wife about arranging for the christening. Looking over at the cold light
of the candle shining in the window, Connor shivered. He wwould not go
back in there tonight.
The night continued to chime around him as he sat back
and listened. He could breathe. He could hear. Where was the evil in that?
he mused. Gathering himself, he stood and brushed the dirt and dead grass
from his trousers. Straightening, his gaze landed on the stone facade of
the church across the road. It stood empty at this hour. If in the midst
of natureís recital the place was so cold, how could it be anything but
in the discord of the ministerís daily sermons?
Connor turned and swung himself into the saddle. He took
his time returning home. The dirge had shifted to a processional and Connor
spent his journey enjoying the multiple variations, and occasionally raising
his own voice into the mix.
Shannon was waiting for him when he finally reached the
farm house. "What did the minister say?"
"The christening," a tired note crept into her voice.
Shannon pursed her lips, but kept her peace.
That night, Connor dreamt of taking the babe out to the
stream at the edge of the farm and christening it in the center of the