It took him four days to reach the village. Four days of riding across the scarred back of this land, the barely healed scabs of the mountains and the canyons like low dry welts. Four days of a desert liquid with mirages, his teeth gritty with defeat and the disbelief shimmering in his heart. Four days with no company but the parching sun and the indifferent moon, and the creak of his old saddle calling out like a bird, and the rope of the thirst tightening around his throat. Four days in which the idea of destination, of arrival, grew hazy with dust, and the news he had brought rattled about in his head like water in an emptying canteen; the conviction growing on him that there was no road, no village, and that he was out here searching for something else - perhaps Death.
Four days in which the wound in his side had turned dry as a mouth, the raw lips of the flesh drawn back to reveal the dirty teeth of the sutures. At least the stitches had held. The old woman who sewed him up had promised nothing - I am a seamstress, she had said, what do I know of wounds? And he had felt like telling her that they lived in times when skin and muscle were cast off as easily as a dress, and men ran through the streets with nothing but their thin bodies to disguise the nakedness of their violence, their nude anger, their obscene hate. Instead he had waved his gun at her and she had done as he had bid, the fear trembling in her eyes, but her hands miraculously steady.
That had been five days ago. Just before he left on this expedition, one solitary rider bringing tidings of destruction into the heart of nowhere. He was there now, staring down at this village he had heard of only in rumour, its ramshackle huts scattered across the desert floor like abandoned packing cases. Or like skulls - the empty sockets of the windows, the front stoops rigid like mandibles. And he imagined the village as the enemy would see it, sitting their horses on this low ridge; how they would pour down upon this sleepy hamlet with their cries and guns, how the bodies would lie fallen in the streets, their shadows lengthening with blood; how the hands of the fire would snatch greedily at these dry roofs, and the screams of flame would rise howling into the sky. He had seen it all before. They called him a boy because as the seasons were counted he was still young, and they sent him out on a boy's chore, but he had seen more horrors in his days than most men were allowed in an entire lifetime, until even despair no longer seemed like a prophecy. He had been sitting there for ten minutes. They had not seen him yet. They would have to be more vigilant.
Riding into the village with the sun going down behind him, he saw an old woman washing the steps of the cathedral. She didn't turn to look at him. The water she was pouring onto those steps was muddy, its colour like rusted iron. And the image of it stayed with him as he rode down the street - the feet of the church being washed in blood while a bell hung from the steeple like a dead man's helmet.
Why am I here? he wondered, as he tied his horse to the hitching rail. This was not his home, these were not his people. Or were they? Did war erase personality, make identity binary? But even if the people of this village were part of this Us that he belonged to, what good would his message do them? How could they fight against the troops that were coming, where could they flee? Death was inevitable here, and his news would only bring its certainty a few days closer, as though he had ridden through the village leaving its mark on every door. Wouldn't it be better to spare them the agony of knowing, to let death surprise them, find them like a bullet in the dawn? No, no, they had a right to know. To be prepared. That is what the captain had said when he ordered him to go. It had not occured to him then to ask how death could be prepared for. It would have been useful to know.
He walked into the saloon, surprised to find it empty except for a grizzled old barman and a drunk unconscious in a corner. He had a couple of drinks, swallowing them down too fast because he was thirsty. "Where is everybody?", he asked. "They've all gone", the bartender replied. "Haven't you heard? The enemy is coming. A man arrived with the news yesterday. Most of the townfolk packed up and left this morning. There are only a handful of us old timers left. They say they'll be here in couple of days. They say they'll destroy everything."
So. He had ridden all this way for nothing. Defeat had got here before him, as usual. He felt disappointment, but also a sense of relief. "You didn't go with them?" he asked the bartender. The man shook his head. "I'm too old to make it across the desert", he said, "and besides, I don't see why they should kill me. I'm not fighting them - I don't even own a gun. I figure they'll come in here and I'll give them all the drink they want and they'll leave me alone. That's how it was in the last war, and the one before that. I figure I'll be all right."
He shrugged. The old man was wrong, of course. This time the rules were different, this time the enemy would destroy everything. But that was the old man's problem. He himself was tired. Tired from the long ride across the desert, but also from all that he had seen in the last few months. Tired of this long harvest of war where he had felt himself grow taller and taller even as those around him had been cut down. He needed a bed to sleep in now, and a clean place where he could dress his wound. Tomorrow he would leave. Maybe he would get clean away. Maybe the enemy would get him. Maybe the desert would. What did it matter? Tonight he needed to rest.
Then he saw the piano. It had been pushed into the far corner and covered with a dirty sheet, but the shape of it was unmistakable. "Does that work?" he asked the bartender. "It hasn't been played for a while" the bartender said, "but, ya, I guess it works." He went over to it, pulled off the covers, lifted the lid of the keyboard, dusted the top of the stool and sat on it. It had been a long time. Imagine finding a piano in a place like this.
He stared at the familiar arrangement of black and white, this pure, touchable altar of harmonic certainties, of unwavering ups and downs. He touched a key or two and listened to the way the sound sharpened the silence, made it more exact. Yes, this old piano was terribly out of tune. But no matter. So was the world. He listened to the silence reverberating around him, the fading ripple of the notes he had played, and thought about the parlour back home, the weekend socials, the sunlight of women's laughter and him so serious and unsmiling, dressed up in his coat-tails, playing mazurkas and toccatas for an audience that sat with smiles at once indulgent and appreciative. Carefully, he slipped his boots off, to get rid of the spurs. Then, with a deep breath, he began to play.
At first he fingered the keys tentatively, not sure if his hands, soiled with months of cordite and gunsmoke as they were, could still recall the fragility of those notes, their exquisite tenderness. Slowly, it came back to him though, the fluency, the song. No waltzes for him tonight, no merry polkas, no sonatas to structure feeling with. Only Chopin, the nocturnes, the nostalgia for that rubbed rose, for an immense beauty shattered into fragments, the notes spilling out of him faster than suffering now, carried by soft winds into the consciousness of the stars, into the unrelenting heart of the desert night, where the wolves waited to howl at the moon and the dust from the passing hoofbeats hung still in the remorseless air.