Unapologetically inspired by all manner of Patricia A. McKillip books. Let's see how this goes, at any rate.... Bringing in two of my great loves: Music 'n pointing out how ridiculous people are, and how no matter what they do, they always manage to screw something up for themselves and everyone else. Which I completely adore about us.
Souls for Sale
Broken fingers grasp at cloaks and stretch out a trembling cup, sloshing with water. No one heeds the one-eyed harpist with the silver hair and the shattered hands. Only the rain is here to keep him company. Its presence is wet, yes, and very cold—but he does not mind. The pattering has become little more than background noise over the years, a white buzz in the back of his mind as it drips down the starved furrows on his cheeks, squelches in his boots. And besides, it keeps his begging tool of the day fuller than it might be without—cup, upturned cap, empty harp case riddled with moth-bitten holes… nothing seems to attract more than water.
The weight of the rain in his empty cup makes the days on which he starves (yesterday, today, a year from now and two and a half prior
) all the more bearable.
The people see only a shadow crawling after them, eyes starred with fever, hands cracked to pieces and music crumbled to dust. He plays joy for the masses, but they do not hear; they do not bring him food, do not lend him their cloaks, do not lead him away to a fairy-tale life in a feather-down bed because a broken-fingered harpist pleases them as little as a no-fingered harpist, because his halting tunes are useless, because they think he means nothing (and they are right).
And then one day the harpist’s chest is as stiff and unmoving as his hands, frozen in the middle of a heart-beat, halted in place at the beginning of an inward breath.
(The Murkrow begin to pick his corpse clean, starting with the single eye that no one bothered to close and ending with his curled fingers. Only the rain cries over him.)
No alms for the beggar; only pity for the poor.
Only the city streets and the mime across the way notice when the dead harpist’s notes play again. A passerby’s offhand glance results in a momentary confusion (The dead man, that was the trash the birds were scraping off the pavement…
and then, Meh, they all look the same anyway
), but it fades into the background far faster than the hands blunder across the harp’s fraying strings. The resurrection of the dead is surreal, but impossible—and therefore he has not been raised, merely reincarnated in the featureless face of another weathered wraith. Soon he is nothing but landscape again, another dirtied stone clinging to the alley wall with crumbling mortar, striving to get kicked as little as possible.
There is something about him now, though, a darkness in his milky-white eye. Travelers cross the street to skirt the wall opposite from him; carts swerve just a wee bit away from the curb. No more does he receive the occasional rotten fruit to dull the ache in his belly. Footsteps move more quickly past him, and young children hurry along a new route as soon as they catch sight of his grizzled gray mane. (And something about his overly-patched clothing is shabbier, dirtier, as if tar leaks from his very pores…).
They have begun to give their spare change to the street performer and his dog-eared, paint-tailed monkey across the way who pantomimes faux emotions, selling his soul to the masses.
While the white-faced mime with the tear drop below his left eye caricatures intimacy to the people, this beggar plays his songs only for the crows (not for joy—not even for sorrow.)
One day, someone stops.
From the other side of the way, behind a trotting horse with a jumpy-fingered rider, the white-striped mime ceases its dancing with charades partner. Kohl-rimmed eyes stare curiously at the first who dares to give uncharitable alms; the Smeargle turns, uncaring, to dash graffiti onto the wall with its paintbrush tail, fingering the back of its beret-shaped head as it seeks the perfect hue.
The mime senses a kindred spirit in the woman who unties strings from her pack and turns to the beggar. She, too, works with silent creatures. (Marionettes slump, falling slackly from the crosses slung over her back.)
“You need new strings. These might better your playing, I think,” she says, making her offering.
Puppet strings, newly dripping with rain, dangle from a nimble-fingered hand—bright red strings, spun of silk. Decorative, slack, something more likely to form a cord than a chord. The woman stands like she knows they’re useless but has nothing better to offer; her shoulders tense against retaliation, lips quirked into a tight grimace.
The harpist levels his eye at her and blinks—once, twice—black eye sharpening beneath the haze of illness. His fingers halt against the strings.
“Those will not coax music from any instrument.” (His voice is sharper than his right eye, duller than the blindly-staring left. Frailty crackles in his wheezes and punctures his lungs with blunted edges.)
“Nor do your fingers.” Dark hair, dark eyes—the face twitches from impatience with an addled old fool. She shoves unattached strings into his useless palms; the sharp motion throws the puppets dangling over her side into frantic, clacking movement (dancing, they are waltzing—together, but out of harmony.) Their strings shine darkly in the sun. (Even the rain can not keep light at bay.) “I’ve nothing better to give you, save a new eye from Ira.” Her free hand plunges awkwardly into a multi-fabric pack at her back and reemerges a few moments later, a faceted gem clutched carefully—she holds it towards him, tilting its surface until the light catches and refracts into his eye.
A savage, toothless grin lights up the beggar’s eyes; his own hand reaches towards hers, straining for the gem. It gleams coldly in the rain. The beggar’s seeing eye narrows.
“Huh…” She holds it to her eye, out of his reach. He falls back helplessly. (The mime’s face—it mocks him, mouth turned down into a dark-painted frown.) “You don’t want this. It’s said to steal souls. It’d snap a weak one like yours right up.”
She turns away, leaving him with only the useless crimson cords. From the slipshod knapsack pokes the head of a bent-backed Sableye, single empty socket staring blindly into the distance. One of the puppets shifts its button-eyed face towards him, turning on its red-burnt strings. Their dull gaze meets the beggar’s one-eyed glare for just a moment.
There is something alive about the sheen of their eyes… But they drift on their strings, and the moment is broken. The puppet’s blank stare winks off into the rain.