by Andrew Johnston
On the night of the world’s end, in the crumbling hours before the night of nights set in, a new set of lights appeared in the sky, masquerading as stars. Many did not see them, blind to the heavens as they quaked within their homes, mouthing heathen prayers to gods they had come to deny. Of those morbid few who elected to watch the sky as it blazed, few possessed the astronomical wisdom to divide these new arrivals from the ancestral glow of true stars. And of those most devoted souls who minded the skies, and whose curiosity overwhelmed their dread, and who further chose to take note of this discovery, there was but one who solved their riddle.
The legends – for that’s all that exists now – vary in their descriptions of this special soul. It was a 12-year old performing prodigy; it was an 80-year old woman, nearly blind with crippling arthritis in each finger; it was a man deaf and mute since birth; it was a young shop clerk who had a moment of insight. He or she always possesses some aggrandized past, some sequence of achievements and obstacles rich in embellishment. So too does the story vary in how those lights were recorded – a hasty note on a scrap of paper blown by an errant breeze, a hasty picture that came out clear against all odds, scrawlings in chalk on the sidewalk. The details are seldom relevant, more an opportunity to inflate the storyteller’s skill.
This one person, regardless of identity, was the only one who noticed that the skies were flickering with music. Each light was a note, arranged carefully on a staff traced in afterimages. The melody was brief – nothing more than a few lines, a few precious seconds when played. Nevertheless, this person hastened to the nearest instrument – an old, chiefly ornamental family piano in one version, a guitar discarded by a busker in another – and quickly set to playing those notes that he or she had taken down. It took a few moments to find the meter and to grasp the intricacies of the instrument (which, in many versions, was one this person had never learned to play). Then came the music proper – the melody of the universe, the last song on Earth.
There was only time to play the song once. In each version, that somber concert has a meager audience consisting of whomever happened to be within earshot. The storytellers say that those people sat in total silence until the last note split the air and vanished into the background. It was one final moment of peace in each heart before the final curtain fell. The vibration stopped, and the fire rose, and they were all consumed – the musician, the audience, the instrument, the makeshift sheet music, the final note itself, the song itself. No one who heard it lived to see the world that was to come.
Of course, there is no reason to believe any of these storytellers, these liars by trade. None can explain why anyone knows about the song if all in attendance died. None can describe the song or what made it so haunting. And what, precisely, were those mysterious points of light in the sky? How did no one else see them? Plus, the coincidences – what fantastic luck that this uniquely gifted musician happened to be so close to an instrument and an audience!
Still, you’ll meet few people who wholly doubt the story. A child’s tale, yes, but in bleak times it is the children’s stories that possess the greatest strength. Many are the wanderers who claim that in their loneliest moments, stranded in the wastes without the tools of survival or any hope of a friendly hand, they heard a trace of a melody – or even just a note – rising above a savage gale, and at once they felt comfort. Many, too, are those that flock to these wanderers, waving half-destroyed instruments at them, begging them to try and recreate what they had heard.
And the fools have the nerve to say that art didn’t survive the fires, but I say that there is nothing else left. Nothing but a melody and a tale, both waiting to be set free.
Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.