Winners: Julia Molloy - The Pianist
Short Story 1500 - Runner Up
Two men carry a piano across a field. Frost clings to their skin and their breaths leave a trail behind them. The day is just about dawning, though the two men don’t recall having been asleep. The weight of the piano holds them to the ground, but in the same moment they are drifting outside of themselves, watching their progress step by step.
The field will bloom red in summer, but on this day the grass has aged and hardened with the frost so that every movement from the two men crackles. The piano hovers above the grass. Its lacquer is chipped, and in the weak winter sun it is difficult to tell its original colour. The key cover is missing. The keys themselves have yellowed with age. If the two men look closely, they can see faint bloodstains dashing the off-white keys.
‘Rest,’ one of the men says, and they lower the piano into the grass. The taller of the two men leans against his instrument. His clothes, stiff with mud, have all merged into the same brown colour. It leaches its way into his skin, and where the clothes end and the skin begins, only he can tell. He stands with a casual pose, as perhaps he might have done in a bar before sitting down to play for the customers. His body is still and imposing in the landscape around him. He clasps his hands across his midriff to stop their tremors.
The pianist looks out across the field in the direction the two men are travelling. His gaze is calm but stern. Already that day he has spent the energy he will get from his rations. At home, across the ocean and through many fields like this one, his wife will be preparing the turkey and all the trimmings they can afford. He wonders if she will stop to think of him.
‘Go,’ the other man says, and they lift the piano again and continue their way through the field. They have travelled a mile or two already, and they have just as far still to travel. The field is an abyss between villages the men have seen decimated, but for now their focus is the instrument they carry. Though it’s the pianist whom everyone will thank when the day is done, in truth it’s the second man, the captain, who deserves the applause. It was he who found the piano and decided it should be brought to camp. The captain is smaller and stockier than the pianist. Perhaps, with sufficient food, he might get used to heavy lifting and surviving under a sky of fire. The mud is less stiff on him, and his skin chafes red from nights out in the cold. He worries at how numb his fingers are and whether he will ever be able to feel them again.
They are over halfway through the field now. The black smudges of tents are visible in the distance. The captain thinks they’ll move on tomorrow, keep going into the fire. The dawn is bringing the day to life, but he cannot hear anything above the tinnitus in his ears. In the cold field, the pianist’s shallow breath comes out in sharp bursts like artillery fire, and sometimes they both jump at the sound.
‘Rest,’ the captain says, and they stop again. They take their positions: the pianist leaning against his instrument, the captain sitting on the grass. Another time and the captain might have been bothered by the cold wet seeping into his trousers - his mother would certainly have disapproved - but now, it is the least of his concerns. He flexes his fingers, reassuring himself they can still move. His mother always made sure he had gloves on as a boy, and the captain wishes she would appear in the dawn light and hand him a pair now. He dreams of her, though he could never tell his men that. Some things cannot be said, even at the front.
As they rest, the pianist and the captain turn towards the camp. They can hear the sound of men talking through the air. It is an unusual sound, soft and bubbling, and it takes them a moment to recognise exactly what it is. The captain smiles, but the pianist doesn’t catch his eye. The man is completely still.
‘Go,’ the captain says, and they lift the piano again. Their rests are getting shorter. The end is in sight.
A few minutes from the first of the tents, the pianist drops the piano and falls to the ground. The captain’s arms are pulled forward, and the piano narrowly misses his toes in its descent. The ringing in his ears crescendos with the instrument’s thud. The captain goes to shake the pianist’s shoulders. The man’s breath is shallow and hardly visible in the air.
‘Come on, lad,’ the captain says, the first intelligible syllables he can get across. He feels panic washing through him, a familiar sickness in the guts. ‘Come on.’
The pianist has his eyes open now, but he cannot focus. He doesn’t remember falling and thinks this is the end.
The captain looks towards the camp and sees men heading their way. He hauls the pianist to his feet and supports his weight. ‘What are you going to play for us, eh?’
The pianist doesn’t answer. His world is revolving around and around.
‘Come on,’ the captain says. ‘What are you going to play?’
‘Carols,’ the pianist manages. His voice is pale.
‘That’s right. The men need it, don’t they? That’s what we agreed.’
The men from the camp have reached them now, and four of them take up the piano without waiting for the captain’s orders.
‘Carols,’ the pianist repeats, but no-one answers.
As the party draws near to the camp, the sound of the men talking swells into song. It drowns out the crackle of grass clothed in frost. The captain joins in, bellowing louder than he wants to and a beat after the main chorus of voices. The men salute him as the group carry the piano to the centre of the camp. They place it beside the cooking fire. The heat licks at their skin.
The captain sees all of the regiment gathered around, singing, smiling, and settling down a respectful distance away from the piano. The pianist is able to stand on his own now, but still the captain does not want to leave him. A private brings a chair, something salvaged from one of the abandoned houses no doubt, and the pianist sits at his instrument. The captain stands behind him. At times like this, the captain would order a hot drink or a brandy to be brought to revive the man, but no-one can remember when such things ran out. Instead, the captain places a hand on the pianist’s shoulder. He is still pale from the faint.
‘You play for us, now?’ the captain says.
The pianist doesn’t respond. He lifts his hands above the keys and the camp falls silent in the way only a group of men at war could. The captain knows it is time to take his place in the crowd and so, with a last nervous look at the pianist, he walks away.
The pianist still has black spots in his vision and the tremors in his hands are worse than ever, but he has long since given up trying to make them stop. He thinks of his wife and children sitting at the table, enjoying their food, and the silence after their meal that would normally have been filled by his playing. He feels that silence here, in this abandoned village with a piano at its centre. He feels he has carried it throughout these long months and only now has he recognised what it is. He takes a deep breath and tries to settle himself. It is not easy when his vision is still spinning, and the height of the chair he’s sitting on means his knees are bumping against the keys. But he tries, and then he begins to play. The sound is rich and full, a fraction out of tune but warming in the cold air. After a few bars, when the men stay quiet, the pianist adds his own voice to the instrument’s song.
‘In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan…’
Then the men join in as one, a chorus like none other, and the pianist continues playing away the silence in their lives. At the end of the carol, the captain catches his eye and nods, a bond forged in the long journey across the field and in the silence of their hearts.
If he plays for long enough, the pianist thinks, the sound will carry them all home.