Thursday, February 7, 2013

Prompt: Soldier Playing Piano

Erik tapped his fingers against his thigh with restless energy. The commander had signaled Silence. Wait. over three hours ago, and they’d had no further word. Martin had caught an ant lion and was watching it crawl up his rifle shoulder strap. When it neared the top, he flipped the rifle and watched with amusement as the ant lion bit and held on, then began its journey once again.

Erik was starting to feel like the ant lion, doubting they would ever reach a real destination. They’d been marching through the Ardennes for days, bivouac tents providing little protection from the biting December winds. Erik had eyed the small, shuttered woodkeeper’s hut they passed at lunchtime with longing. Sleeping in his bag on a wooden floor was unimaginable luxury. At least it was not snowing. Erik lit two cigarettes and handed one to Martin.

Martin reached over and took it with the ghost of a smile.  “These things’ll kill you,” he said, an old joke between them. He flipped his rifle again, stamping the butt in the leaf litter. Erik flinched at the noise. He looked for the ant lion and was impressed by its determination. It still hung on, and as the strap’s swinging stilled, it began to climb once more. Martin motioned to Erik’s fingers. “What are you playing? Would I know it?”

Erik shot him a hard look. “It’s not a cabaret tune. You probably wouldn’t know it.” His fingers never stopped moving.

Martin grinned. “Try me. I bet it’s Mozart. You love your Mozart.”

Erik rolled his eyes. Martin knew nothing about classical piano. He didn’t even recognize “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” when Erik hummed it for him, their first week together, on the train from Köln to their first station in Bastogne.

Martin soon discovered Erik’s nearly continual finger-playing, and teased him mercilessly. If Erik could consciously have stopped doing it, he would. He’d done it for so long, he didn’t even think about it any more. In fact, he wasn’t even always consciously aware of what music he was playing. Martin would ask him, and he would have to stop and think, to hear it in his head.

“Handel. From the Messiah,” Erik said after a long moment. He continued playing against his thigh and hummed the tune softly.

Martin listened closely and smiled with recognition. “Hey, I know that one! They play it in church at Christmas.” Erik nodded. It was the most he could hope for from Martin.

Their radio hissed static, and they both froze. Move out. Martin sighed and flicked the ant lion back into the leaves. He buckled his helmet and settled his rifle on his shoulder. He stepped out of their makeshift shelter, and Erik leaned over to tighten his bootlaces. His blistered feet groaned in protest. And the world exploded.

Erik woke at in dim light. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t hear anything else. He put his hand to his forehead and felt it sticky with blood. He’d been out for awhile then. He sat up and fell back as his head tried to fall apart again. Sitting up more slowly, he looked around for Martin, but there was no sign of him. There was no sign of anything. The forest was burned to the ground around him. But nothing still burned. He sniffed the air, and there was no smoke, no ash drifting.

Unnerved, Erik called out for Martin, then froze. He did not hear his own voice, even inside his head. He said Martin’s name again, softer, he thought. He still didn’t hear it. He reached his hands up to his ears, but felt no injury, no blood there. He shook his head in confusion.

He looked around for the radio, but Martin had carried it. How could there be no sign of him? Looking around, Erik thought of the woodkeeper’s hut. Perhaps there was a radio there. Maybe some emergency rations. He stilled for a moment and did an internal survey. Other than the head wound, he didn’t feel any injuries. All right then, the hut. He headed back through the woods, except now it was almost open field, covered with thick leaf litter, but no standing trees. Along the way, Erik kept listening for bird song, for combat sounds, anything. He didn’t hear a sound. He snapped his fingers right next to his ear, but heard nothing.

There was a slight rise near the hut, Erik remembered, and scattered boulders that he’d thought looked like a giant’s marbles tossed on the ground. Although he’d wandered a bit off course with no familiar landmarks, he soon saw them in the distance. Coming past the last of the boulders, he stopped short. There was no hut.

Standing on the leaves was a high-backed piano, like he used to play in school. He looked around and saw no signs of movement. He approached the piano as if it might be a bomb. He walked slowly around it, noting the scratched up sides and worn keys, just like the school pianos he remembered.

He stood in front of it and ran his fingers over the keys without touching them. Finally, he let his fingers fall, one by one. Each sweet note sounded pure and strong. “Was is das?” he said, and did not hear it. He started to play, and tears ran down his face. He played the Handel he’d been fingering earlier, and Eine Kleine as a tribute to Martin. He knew a few cabaret tunes, and he played those too. He paused to drop the rifle from his shoulder and lean it against the piano. His fingers returned to the keys and he let them lead the way, from one melody to the next.

Erik was afraid. He didn’t know what happened in the forest. He didn’t know where anyone was. He didn’t know what happened to his hearing, and if he would ever get it back. But he could hear the music, and for a little while at least, that would be enough.

Thanks to <> for the great image prompt!

Dogs in house:
Houdini, Brindle

February word count:

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