“How can you hold up the sky unless your hand is full of stars?”
The boy squirms. The twelve needles withdraw from his palm. Fire fills his body. “Don’t make me one of you.”
“You have been one of us since your brother died.”
“Not my fault.”
“We all thought so,” the man says.
. . .
The adults clench their jaws, but the children gape. To the youngest ones it is a parade, but the lack of gamboling fools and ostentatious musicians teaches them of their own mistake. Instead, solemn, cloaked figures, glowing blue-white like a snow-covered candle, walk past.
The adults hold their children’s hands tight, in case they run out and say hello to one of the younger ones.
The boy’s palm bleeds; white drops fall from the new tattoo. Each time his foot lands on their long path, agony turns the constellation white. The new scars weep.
. . .
“A hundred years since they last went through,” Grandmother told the children. “I was yet to be born; my grandfather told me.”
Caliba smiled as Grandmother continued. “They are ghosts from everywhere,” Grandmother said, “and everywhen. They are wrapped in starlight; they wear it as cloaks. They are tall and upright, and they walk forward step by step until they descend an endless, snow-sown spiral staircase.”
“Endless?” one of the other children said.
Grandmother nodded. “It is not a place for any of us,” she said. “They go down it, they do not come back up.”
“How can a staircase go forever?” Caliba asked. “Wouldn’t it poke out the bottom?”
“It should, yes,” Grandmother said. “If you would like to try and find where it comes out, be sure to tell your father.”
“So they just … walk?” Caliba asked.
“There is something they do as they walk,” Grandmother said. She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Running through the middle of the staircase is a long strand … a wire. The stair runs counter-clockwise.” Grandmother drew her finger along the floor to demonstrate the path. “And as they walk, their left hand is just in reach. They reach out-” Grandmother stretched her left hand as far as she could “-and pluck! What a note they create! What a song of a shattered voice! Like a person multiplied a thousand times, in unison with itself!” She sighed. “Can we hear this sweet song? No, I’m afraid.”
“Why do they play the string?” Caliba asked.
“Such questions,” Grandmother said. “More, more. No one knows. There are things people say, though: they play because it is something to do during an eternity of walking. If you had to do the same, you would bless the wire, I suppose. Others say it is to keep the end away, or bring it about.”
Caliba sat and hummed to herself as the other children asked questions. A thousand strings filled her ears.
The children wandered back to their homes. The next morning Caliba told her father she wanted an instrument.
“Hmm? What sort?” her father said. They sat in the tiny kitchen, and Caliba’s heart plucked, as it always did in the room.
“Something with strings,” she said.
“Ah, like cousin Drevous’s hurdy?”
Caliba wrinkled her nose. “No, sweeter. And gentler. Drevous is just noise.” Her father laughed. “I want the songbird to sing along.”
Her father nodded. “Such things cost much, girl.” He sighed. Caliba frowned, and her eyes caught the light the way her mother’s had. “But … your birthday is soon. Will you accept it as your present?”
“Yes, papa, yes!”
“Then I will call in favors,” her father said. “The village will make you one of your own.”
. . .
Caliba’s father had once called her mother a sweet name, Yada. A fine name for an instrument, but an instrument needed to make sound.
Her father had made it well. After she attached her fistful of silk strands to the squat, long-necked wooden contraption, it would make the proper sounds. She trimmed the silk and wound them around the small bolts, laying them over the bars to keep them taut and waiting. A few hours and several small cuts on her fingers later, she held the complete Yada. The body had a soul.
How to hold it? She picked it up and put it across her legs, right arm dangling over the top. It covered her vision. She laid it flat, strings looking up at the rough ceiling. Better. She plucked a few times, but shook her head.
The main road stretched past her window. Nobody walked it.
Twisting the bolts, she stretched each string. She strummed again. The notes could have been falling rain or rustling leaves, but they didn’t last long enough. They should go on through the night, through the years, until her children could hear them too.
She sat and stared. She placed her fingers on the strings like Drevous’s hurdy-gurdy, and the sounds changed, but it still didn’t do what she wanted.
She plucked at the strings and slumped her shoulders. Her vision floated to the small bits of silk lying on the ground. She tied them around the thumb and middle finger of her right hand, and stretched it into a tight wire. Her heart pounded. She pressed one of the strings and drew her right hand across it.
The hush of falling snow, the small footsteps of a child creeping toward its mother, a ticking clock’s second lasting a hundred years.
. . .
Five fingers for five strings. One hand for one song. She slowed her breathing down, trying to ignore the entire village waiting for her to start. Small candles flickered around her. Drevous had just departed the stage, decorated as mid-summer demands, and so came Caliba’s turn. Three years of practice held her up.
The rowdy crowd slowed and waited. Her father stood at the back.
To begin a song is difficult. She ran the bow between her thumb and forefinger along the first string, laying the fingers of her left hand in their proper places. She added the bow between her middle finger and ring finger to a different string, letting it play alongside the other. This note, a lower one, hummed underneath, while the first led at a higher voice.
Her pinky plucked a string. The voices danced around each other. The crowd swayed.
Certain happier notes dropped to instead become dire, heavy sounds. New notes overpowered the old. The bow between her thumb and forefinger continued to play, despite the daunting advance of minor chords. Soon it became too much for the sad sound to continue, and when it stopped, the happy sound of the first string kept going, as if there had been nothing trying to drown it out at all.
To begin a song is difficult, but to end one is simple. You only let the last note fade.
The applause buried her. She lifted her eyes. Grandmother nodded, hands clasped in her lap around a young one, smiling, and her resemblance to Caliba’s mother stung.
. . .
Her father crafted a tough case to carry it. Her aunts and uncles gave her supplies and advice. She had a map, and a small dagger, and a wide hat, and a list of places who wanted her to play. She gave everyone hugs, and kissed their cheeks, and pressed Grandmother’s knuckles to her forehead, and then she climbed onto the carriage. She became a young woman, full of beauty and grace, and her father waved as the last part of his wife left.
. . .
They froze her solid when they appeared. She walked down the street of a bustling, stone-built city, going to the hall where she played every night, her Yada in its case against her back. A boy sprinted down the street, calling: “Clear the path, clear the path! They’re coming, they’re coming!”
Pedestrians surged away from the middle, creating a long, wide area for a parade. Parents grabbed their children tight. Caliba stood in the middle of the street. A distant mass of glowing figures approached, blue and white and shimmering like stars, like melting snow, like music to the eyes. The mass separated into distinct blossoms of light.
A few people yelled at her, and she retreated into the crowd, pushing and shoving to get to the gate where they would enter the city.
She craned her neck up at their marble faces. They ignored the crowds. Their arms swung like metronomes within long cloaks and their feet moved them down the street under long, identical, blue-gray robes. Their left hands–the ones Grandmother said played the immense wire in the middle of the spiral staircase–shone, like little stars. They moved through the city like silent ships in still water.
Caliba whipped her head in the direction they walked. The long road ahead of them stretched forward, and then she ran back to the inn where she stayed. She plunged through the silence, like running through a graveyard, until she reached the inn. Out of breath, she pounded up the steps to her room and threw her belongings together.
She stumbled down the stairs in her haste, and her heart stopped while she checked her instrument, restarting only when she found it undamaged. She counted out money, giving it to the inn’s confused owner.
Giving herself no time to breathe, she churned the ground under her feet, running to the hall where she played. She burst in, sprinted to the manager, and told him she would not be able to play for some time. The manager hollered that she would receive no pay; she spun out the door.
The shimmering procession had reached the other side of the city. Caliba took the chance to regain her breath.
One of them, a young man near her age, turned his head and found her.
They proceeded through the gate, exiting the city. When the last one departed, the city woke up. People shouted around her. She wandered through the crowd–returning to its normal everyday hustle and bustle in the center of the street–and came to rest just inside the gate. Their forms dwindled; she gathered up her breath and courage and followed them.
. . .
Caliba had walked a hundred roads, and nothing interested her about this one, so she settled into a rolling gait to conserve energy. The countryside shifted from dusty plains to sparse trees, and then became a forest.
The blue light emitting from the figures faded, and she hurried forward to keep up. As night fell she broke through a line of trees to find them kneeling, sitting, or lying on the ground, their light faded. They became gray, dark, dead statues in the shadows.
At the edge of the copse she knelt down, taking her pack off her back. They didn’t acknowledge her. She ate, and drank from her canteen, washing the dust from her throat.
She couldn’t count their number. Was there a group of four near the big oak, or five? Were there three in a small circle, or four? She shook her head.
Kneeling, and placing her Yada on her knees, she used the remaining light to tune until the tentative plucks pleased the ear.
Some of the cold, dark people looked her way. She swallowed, exhaled, and closed her eyes, and music began.
When she opened her eyes, her shaking right hand hovered over the strings, fingers spread wide to keep the silk taut. Music filled the trees. She looked around, trying to find the musician or musicians who had beaten her by a few seconds. No one appeared, and then silence; her chance now.
It started as one of her songs, a peaceful one, pastoral and loving. She smiled as she played. She hummed the tune along as the Yada’s loud voice blossomed.
She plucked her way through the song–but another intruder joined. The other song took over, she gave a quiet gasp as her fingers moved on their own. A chill ran up her spine; her heart pounded blood in her ears, adding percussion.
It shook the ground. It lifted dust into the air and carried it away. The chords never resolved, instead they hung around her, waiting to fall. She plucked and strummed in a way she hadn’t imagined, and every time her hands moved against her will the pressure around her throat increased. She had forgotten to breathe.
After a few more minutes, she gained control of the song once more. While she played, she looked around at the cold figures. Were they listening? Could they hear her?
Her music stopped. Her hands separated from the instrument. It had no meaning. She had no control over it, like she held a brutal slab of wood she could not use to produce anything beautiful.
The quiet, dark figures slept. Still none of them acknowledged her, aside from the young man’s look back in the city, almost half a day ago.
Caliba yawned, and repackaged her Yada. She set the heavy case next to her, pulled her cloak over her, bundled her bag under her head, and fell asleep.
. . .
A shock woke her, and when she opened her eyes, blue light flooded into them, waking her in an instant. One of the figures, glowing again in the daylight, stood next to her wearing a flat expression. He turned and walked away, leaving her in the empty grove. His light faded. She hurried after him.
He rejoined the group of glowing figures, and they continued their march, their sandals scraping the earth.
The figure who had woken her up had beckoned her in the city. A young man, her age–though who could say for certain. Were they even human?
She trailed behind them again, munching on food. They didn’t eat, didn’t drink. They didn’t speak, not even casual conversation between friends. They just walked. Would they lead her down a snow-sown spiral staircase? Would they pluck the world’s string, and drive its heartbeat?
She caught up to the young man. He towered over her at least a foot. He walked, ignoring her.
They walked, side-by-side, until she cleared her throat. “My name is Caliba.”
The man said nothing. She walked on his right side, and the palm of his left hand–the one blazing like a tiny star–came into view when it swung ahead of his body. Numerous dots burned on his palm, and the pads of his fingers. Lines ran from one dot to another.
He looked down at her, face smooth. Her cheeks burned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … are they tattoos?”
The man continued walking in silence, again looking ahead. She hadn’t seen his neck shift–maybe he had never looked her way in the first place. “Do … all of you … have them?” she asked. Can he even hear me? She would find a question he couldn’t resist. Caliba cleared her throat.
“Why do you glow like that?” she began. “Why are you so tall? Where are you going? My grandmother told me you walk to a spiral staircase. She says it has a long string through the middle of it, and you use your left hands to play it as you walk down the stairs. Is that why your hand glows?”
His face remained unchanged. “The story my grandmother told me inspired me to learn this instrument,” she said, patting the case behind her. “I call it a Yada. My father made it for me. Yada is a name my father used to call my mother. I don’t know what it means but–“
She jumped when he spoke. “Where is your mother now.”
Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. A statement? A question? An airy thought, somehow able to escape? “She died when I was young. I don’t remember her much.”
“How did she die.”
His words buried coal inside her stomach. Hot bile rose in her throat. She wanted to take out her instrument to play, but couldn’t manage it while walking.
Music flowed over her. It came from behind. Like the night before, the tune hijacked the air. A strong, low melody, like a huge gear turning.
“Do you hear that?” she asked the man. “Did you hear me play last night?”
“We enjoyed it.”
Caliba smiled. “Oh, you did? Good! I didn’t really mean to play the song I did … I’m not sure how it happened.”
“None of us ever do.”
More fire in her stomach. Had she eaten something rancid? She took a few long breaths, and the music returned. Louder.
“You don’t hear that music?” she asked. He said nothing. “Can you tell me where you’re walking?”
“So you’re just-” Caliba put a hand over her stomach to try and find the source of the discomfort “-walking?”
The man raised his left hand. The brilliant light added to Caliba’s pain. Heat poured out of her. She put her other hand on her forehead. Twelve dots on his palm stood out: One at the base near the wrist, one in the center, one at the base of each finger, and one at the end of each finger. “Painful?” she managed to ask. The sky faded. She stumbled.
“I’m afraid so.”
She is kneeling in the center of the circle. The stars are black, but the light the figures give off is enough. Something tears her stomach from her body. The music invades her ears no matter how hard she stops them up. Her vision spins, swirling blue and white. She reaches for her Yada, to regain some focus.
“Where,” she shouts, but it becomes a whisper. “Yada.”
Something lifts her left hand. The world comes into agonizing clarity as twelve needles drive through her hand. She screams, trying to wrench away from whatever holds her still. Her cries become groans, and her wild motions become slight tremors. He stands in front of her. She winds all of her energy around her throat. “Why.”
“You have been one of us since you killed your mother.”
Her mother, twice as big as her, stood over the stove, humming. Caliba crept up behind her, hand pressed over her mouth to keep the laughter back. She leapt on her mother’s legs; a crash and a short scream and then blood spread from her mother’s body.
“I did it,” Caliba tries to scream. “A mistake. A misstep. I wish I had never tried.”
And then it is cold. The needles slide out, and shivers climb from her arm into her body. She falls still. The song fills her ears and drives through her spine.
She kneels around her hand. Lines connect twelve dots on her palm. Where is her Yada? The song has faded to a delirious hum. She is in a small, dark space. Blue light falls on her. The man–he is shorter–stands in front of her. Where is her Yada?
“What did you do to me?”
“The same thing that has happened to all of us.” He takes her hand. “How can you hold up the sky unless your hand is full of stars?”
A constellation. She smooths her right hand over her left, and the music rises and falls. “Where is my Yada?”
The young man turns and sweeps his hand across the view in front of them, and steps down the staircase. “Do not let the last note fade.” There is a long, translucent string, humming. She descends, plucking the string. The stars twinkle to the beat.