Storyglossia Issue 36, October 2009.

Music For My Son

by Zdravka Evtimova


"They say you've got an ear for music. It's nothing important, of course," Yackow said. "But I want to know how it happens. How you catch it, that damned music of yours. Tell me."

I told him nothing.

When I saw an oak tree I could hear its roots bite the dry stones, fighting for water. There was sand and rubble in the valley all around us, and there was only one well. It rained so rarely I forgot what rains looked like.

My voice was no good, too weak to speak about the heat at night and the blazing sun at noon. There was a cave that the winds had carved in the sandstone. I hid in it and I hummed or I wailed. I chanted in the dark, and there were no words in my song. I was afraid to hum outside the cave. My father would say I was crazy, my brothers would say I had a screw loose.

"What are you singing about, son?" My mother asked one evening. "Days are bitter and there is nothing to sing about. You'd better learn quick. Your father wants a blacksmith in the family and you are strong." Then she ruffled my hair and said, "You sing beautifully, son."

"Nonsense woman," dad said. "He's got to work. No singing. It's a waste of time."

So I had to hide in that cave and I wailed in the night. Then hunger in my belly was bigger than the dry sky. Dad bawled at me, my brothers learnt quickly. I didn't. And there was that girl, Yasme who sneaked to the cave.

"What are you doing here?" I said. "Spying on me?"

"I'm listening to you," she said.

"You are crazy," I said. "Go away. Go away or I'll break your neck." She went away.

One night my mother came to the cave.

"Shan," she said. "Where did you hear that song?"

"That's not a song," I said. "It doesn't have anything in it, just a tune poor like us."

"It's huge," she said. "That tune is richer than a bag full of money."

I didn't tell mother the song was about her well. It was a hole in our backyard and there was no water in it. The heat had drained the moisture at the bottom and dad was angry he had to dig deeper. But even deeper there was no water and dad was mad.

A tiny part in the tune I hummed was about the girl who wanted to listen to me, the one I'd driven away.

"Humming and wailing doesn't fill an empty belly," dad said to mom. "He must be a blacksmith. He is a lousy learner and I don't like that."

"I have three brothers," I said. "Let them become blacksmiths."

"You eat my bread and my cheese and you'll be a blacksmith."

"He sings well," my mother said. "He sings tunes no one has heard."

"Shut up, woman. There is no voice in his mouth worth speaking about," dad said.

I knew that.

That winter the snow was waist-deep and I was lucky dad dragged me to Yackow's smithy. It was a wonderful place. I worked in the dark and I roared at the top of my lungs. No one could hear me. At times, Yasme sneaked to the narrow square in front of the smithy, but she didn't dare to enter the workshop. She stood by the door for a minute and I roared on hoping she could hear me.

It was Yasme who brought Yackow to the workshop. She didn't dare to cross the threshold and I was sorry for her.

"This is Shan who can sing, Sir," she said and ran away.

Yackow was a small dark man. He wore a leather coat and good boots.

"Yasme says you sing," the man said. "Sing to me."

I didn't like his voice.

"Why should I sing to you?" I said looking at his good boots. I knew he was a rich guy but I didn't like even his good boots.

"I'll give you two tans," the man said.

Two tans! A stove, a packet of coffee and a bag of potatoes cost two tans.

"Sing!" Yackow said.

I bent down and tapped on the cauldron I was working on, feeling the weight of my hammer all over me. The man took a bundle out of his pocket and waved it under my nose.

I went on hitting the big black cauldron in which soup for a whole village could be cooked.

"Don't waste my time," Yackow said.

I hummed under my breath. I tried hard not to look at him.

I saw the cave I loved and I remembered the well that had run dry. I thought of the big cauldron and I saw the village waiting for that rich soup. I knew the children hoped to get a piece of the cooked goat, and I saw their mothers praying there would be enough for everybody. I saw my mother, too, and I saw Yasme. There was nothing left in the cauldron for Yasme, and there were no words for the song I wanted.

"You don't want the two tans," Yackow said.

I wanted the money but my mother was not around me any more. I didn't see the snow in the street and I couldn't hear the wind. I forgot about the cauldron for the rich soup. I watched the man's coat but I didn't envy him. I hummed and I choked on the air, then I hummed on.

"Who taught you these tunes?"

"These are no tunes," I said.

The man was silent. I went on hammering the cauldron.

It had started snowing, the fire glowed in front of me and it was hot in the workshop. Yackow's boots sparkled and his face shone red. The cauldron was almost ready.

"You make music for me and I feed you and your brothers," Yackow said.

I went on hammering the cauldron.

"Your brothers are hungry," he went on. I worked with my hammer trying not to think of my brothers and of our backyard with the dry hole of the well in it. "Your mother's hungry," he whispered.

I saw the trough in the cellar scraped empty, and I thought of the hen-coop behind our house with no hens in it. I saw my mother limping down the fields to pluck some nettles and cook soup for us.

"I'll make music for you," I said.

It was snowing hard outside. I looked at Yackow's red face and I thought I couldn't stand the heat in the room.

"You make music for me the way I tell you," he said, buttoning up his coat "Or I'll kick you out."

I wondered if Yasme was somewhere near the door, Maybe she'd heard what Yackow told me.

"There'll be no lunch for you today," Mr. Yackow said. "You were not diligent enough."

He'd given me an old clarinet, dented and scratched, and said, "Play."

"I don't know how."

He showed me and said, "Play. You play four hours what I've showed you. Don't stop."

It was a simple tune, dry and flat. I repeated it a couple of times and I tried a different thing.

It was then that he'd said for the first time, "There'll be no lunch for you. You were not diligent enough."

There were many days with no lunch for me.

At the end of the winter, he showed me the notes. They were little black dots that meant sounds. I'd heard before there was a way of putting music to paper and make even deaf men hear it. In the beginning, the notes looked dead to me, sprawling like dead lice on the white sheet of paper. Then I discovered a thing I'd never believed: the paper could sing. The notes made the old clarinet new, but that was nothing, they could make the rain stop falling. They killed the hunger in my belly.

Mr. Yackow gave me two sheets of paper with notes on them and said "Play this for three hours."

I played the piece for twenty minutes then I jotted down new notes. They were black dots of sounds that were big sandy valleys stretching as long as my eyes hurt. They tasted of the thorns I collected for my mother to make tea for us in the cold evenings. They were the cool dark caves in summer, they were biting winds, and they were the wolves in winter, too. The wolves were starving, and the notes I wrote on the paper were dangerous and evil.

"You didn't play what I ordered you," Yackow said. "You were not diligent enough. There will be no lunch and no dinner for you."

I didn't care. I remained in the dark corridor where my bed was and played the clarinet. I loved every dent in it. I'd kissed its every scratch. Hunger was in my belly, but I had the clarinet. I had the summers and the blazing sun, and I had the snowdrifts and the wolves. I didn't mind it was freezing cold in the corridor where I slept. The walls were covered with drops of water and there was no window at my place.

"You don't play what I order you to," Yackow said to me. "You are not diligent enough." He saw that I could survive without dinners and he added, "You don't listen to me. There'll be no fire in the corridor where you live."

The drops of water on the walls froze. I had my clarinet and I saw the enormous sand dunes and the scorching sun on them. I played and the valleys came to me. I wished Yasme knew I made summers for her, and I left warm pebbles in the tunes because I hoped she liked them.

Then one day Yackow said, "You are not diligent enough. Give me the clarinet."

He took it and I remained in the windowless corridor, with the hunger in my belly and the frozen drops on the walls. I wished Yasme was here. I could hum to her and she'd know I was trying to make another summer day for her. I wished my mother were here. She always had a chunk of bread hidden for me. You sing beautifully Shan, she'd say. I didn't have my clarinet and I tried to remember the time when my mother and I sang together. She never had enough time, she had to cook for my father and my brothers, and she had to wash our clothes. She didn't have a beautiful voice. Her voice was weak, but the words she said were beautiful. She sang slowly like a lonely bird with a broken wing in the autumn, not strong enough to follow the flock. My mother sang rarely but then the time stopped. Her song was a wind that brought rain to our house and it was a soft shadow of a smile. I wish mother was here. I'd only tell her I was OK and then I'd let her go to cook for father and for my brothers. Without her, our house would be like me without my clarinet.

At a certain point, I found a way out. I started putting the black dots of the notes on every piece of paper I laid my hands on. I was hungry and the walls reeled before my eyes. I tried to eat some snow, and I thought that perhaps my father was right. I should have learned to be a blacksmith; a blacksmith's belly was full almost all the time. Hunger and cold made me wail. It must have been horrible that wailing of mine. I wanted to escape from the corridor, but Yackow had locked the door. I screamed about Yasme, about my clarinet. I screamed until I had no more power to open my mouth.

I heard people clapping their hands, "Go on, Shan, go on."

Those were the other boys from Yackow's smithy, four altogether.

"Eat," a voice shouted. I recognized it. Yackow, my master, stood at the other end of the corridor. I remembered he also played the clarinet and for once I was sorry for him. He played it so poorly as if all his teeth hurt him at one at the same time and his clarinet was full of worms. He threw me a chunk of bread.

"Where did you learn that song you've just hummed? Yackow asked.

"It's not a song," I said guzzling the bread.

"It was a beautiful piece," he said. "Is it about that girl Yasme who had forgotten all about you?"

"It's about that girl Yasme who hasn't forgotten me," I said.

That night Yackow came to the corridor where my bed was. There were icicles on the walls. I had eaten goat's tallow to keep warm. The blankets were not enough, I had put on all my clothes and I had crept under the mattress with my boots on.

"Take the clarinet," Yackow said kicking the side of my bed. "Play!"

He waved the clarinet above my head, a dented, scratched piece, pitted and lusterless.

"Play that song you were screaming. Play and I will let you eat a whole roasted rabbit if I like the tune."

I didn't remember anything about screaming a song. That was the hunger in my belly and the thought my mother had to bring water from the frozen river. I knew her old torn shoes and her frozen feet. I sang no song, no I didn't. That was the despair I had not seen Yasme.

My clarinet was in my hands, and the thing had a beau-u-tiful voice. I didn't play on it about Yasme although I wanted to so much. I didn't play about my mother and her poky fireplace; I didn't play about the nasty wind and the snowdrifts that were bigger than my courage. I played about the rabbit, about how he jumped in the warm summer and how they killed him, and how much I wanted to grab the grilled meat, gnaw at the bones, guzzle the sauce, eat everything to the last tiny morsel, lick the platter clean, gulp down the last drop of grease on it. The old clarinet was hungry with me, and its dents and scratches were an endless day in summer, so hot that the icicles on the walls all melted down.

Yackow was gaping at me.

"Stop! Stop!" he shouted. "I'll bring you the roasted rabbit."

He let me eat it all. It was a huge rabbit, as big as a mountain. I ate and I ate and ate, and my stomach ached, but I could not stop. I crushed the bones and sucked the marrow from them then I gnawed at the squashed pieces and swallowed them. They were so delicious.

Yackow looked at me and said, "Give me your right hand."

I stretched it out and he took it. He stared at my fingers then he bent and caught hold of the axe. I used it when I chopped the firewood I dragged out from the dilapidated shed.

Yackow looked very calm and relaxed.

"You think you are a good musician," he said.

Suddenly he lifted the axe and let it drop onto my right hand. Blood spurted out. He hit me again. He hit my hand hard.

It hurt. I thought I was dying. There was blood on the floor and there was blood on his trousers.

"You are the devil," Yackow said. "It is impossible for a human being to play like that."

It hurt. My old clarinet, dented and battered, lay on the floor, in a pool of blood.

One of the boys came with a wash basin.

"It will heal, Shan," he muttered. "Yackow had to kill the devil, you know."

He washed the blood and poured brandy onto the wound.

"I wish I had a devil like yours in me," the boy said. "I'll have to throw you out, Shan. Yackow ordered me to. Will you forgive me?"

My hand hurt and I was dizzy. I didn't know if I lay on the snow or I was on the clouds that were mixed with the wind.

I saw red drops on the road. I saw my mother's face above me and I saw Yasme's face. I knew they were not there but I kept on looking at them.

"Yasme will marry me," Yackow said. "She will. Then perhaps I'll be able to make music like you."

My hand didn't heal well enough to hold a hammer. It could not hold a clarinet either. The sand valleys remained there, my mother's fireplace was there, in my smashed hand. The winter was there and I gave it to the paper with my music. I gave the paper scorching August sun and freezing rains, I gave it the sky full pf cold moons. I gave it my mother's soft voice when she sang and the time stopped to wait for her. I gave it Yasme's smile that was always there. Yasme didn't leave my music for a second.

All tunes I made were for Yasme who did not become Yackow's wife. I could never stop making them for her.

"You couldn't become a blacksmith," she said. "So what? Don't you worry. Don't worry you can't play the clarinet. You make music and your music is strong. I want to listen to it. I want to listen to you to the last day of my life."

And the black notes, as tiny as lentil grains, became bigger than the hills, became quiet and soft, like the old broken clarinet I could hold no more.

But I filled the summer with the most beautiful music, the lullaby Yasme sang to my son.

Copyright©2009 Zdravka Evtimova

Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria. She lives in Pernik, Bulgaria and works as a literary translator. Her short stories have appeared in American journals such as Antioch Review, Massachusetts Review, the anthology New Sudden Fiction, as well as in various journals in UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Austria, Japan, Russia, India, altogether 19 countries in the world. Her short story collection, Bitter Sky was publish by Skrev Press UK, 2003, her short story collection Somebody Else was published by MAG Press, USA, 2004, her short story collection Miss Daniella was published by Skrev Press, UK in April 2007. Her novel God of Traitors was published in Books For a Buck Publishers, USA in 2007.

Interview with Zdravka Evtimova