Haley Richardson, Union County Vocational-Technical School
Sometimes at the edge of the world, there is a spark. A fleeting moment of relief against the endless nothing. It can be anything, really. The spark that lights up the individual and tells them to keep pressing on.
He had been walking for days toward a war no one wanted to fight. Red welts stung against his cheeks where the wind had struck him and his fingers were so numb he could barely keep hold of his pack. He had long since lost the faint sounds of carriages on the roads and guessed he must have walked miles away from what had once been home. The muscles in his legs ached and he could feel the soles of his boots wearing down with each melancholy step. He knew he had to find a place to rest because soon the little light provided by the sun would be gone and he would once more be plunged into darkness. A clearing, a small town, it really didn’t matter. The minutes melted away as he walked and the light weakened when he saw it. There, in the middle of a small glade, was an old piano.
He could barely believe it. Its paint was chipped around the edges and some of the keys were yellowed with age, but nevertheless there it stood. He approached it cautiously, as if it were a Trojan horse and the enemy was waiting around a corner. With one frostbitten hand, he reached out and gently pressed down on a key. The resulting sound was faint, but left a soft echo reverberating through the trees. With one sound, a dam in his mind crumbled and released a flood of memories.
A glowing window. Through that window was a woman with weathered skin and graying hair twisted back sitting at a piano, with a small boy, no older than four, placed squarely on her lap. The boy squirmed, desperately trying to free himself and follow the tabby cat that had slunk around the corner. The woman sat firm and straight, and gently took the boy’s soft hands in her brittle ones and placed them on the keys. She pressed his fingers into them and walked him through a scale. Then another and another, until he was able to turn out a few clear notes by himself. They sat like that for hours, and eventually the tabby cat was forgotten and the boy's wide eyes were locked on the woman as she played songs for him and let him pick his favorites from a book of yellowing sheet music.
The memories came faster after that. There he was, aged six or seven, sitting on his grandmother’s rickety piano bench as she played old hymns, dutifully turning the pages of her song book for her. Then again, at age eight, his small fingers tripping over themselves as he raced to meet the next note, desperate to reach the tumultuous chorus before suppertime was called. By age ten, he was surrounded by his classmates at a birthday party, raucously plunking out childhood songs as dozens of tinny voices chanted their lyrics, bolstered by glasses of punch and birthday cake. The memories kept coming, winding through his mind and body, until before he knew it he was playing those old songs from his childhood in the woods. Finally, he reached the last memory, one that had been patiently waiting for him to collect it, like a dusty book sitting on a shelf, biding its time until someone opened it up and unleashed the whimsy it contained.
Resevaire Academy, four years ago. He had been but a child then, with the confidence and gall that only youth has. It was the night before graduation, and the graduating class had gathered around in the common room, sipping poorly concealed glasses and stealing bites of cookies sent by someone’s mother. June had snuck up on them, and with graduation mere hours away, the students had decided to gather for one last night before they exited the oakwood doors they had entered all those years ago. The gathering had been going on for a few hours now and one by one voices had begun to patter out due to exhaustion or nerves or the heat coming in through the open windows. The party was coming to an end, but he didn’t want it to. Graduation was tomorrow, and he knew that the end of the party was officially the end of childhood. And he wanted one final night that he could tuck away and keep for his remaining years of whatever “adulthood” would bring. So he did what he knew best, what he knew would make them stay for a final hurrah, as cliché as it sounded. The common room was large and packed with people, so it took great effort to worm his way to the grand piano in the corner. It may have been laden with used napkins, cookie crumbs, and half-empty glasses, but the instrument still held its grandeur. The keys were much nicer than the ones on his grandmother’s piano, but when he gently pressed them, the same beautiful sound rumbled through it.
In an instant, he was back in his grandmother’s house, sitting side by side as they worked their way through her endless piles of sheet music, mixing songs and chiming in with new harmonies in a never ending game. He took a seat at the bench and struck a chord, trying to remember the songs he used to sing with his classmates at birthday parties. He sang quietly at first, the lyrics not quite forming right, but they steadily crept back to him from the farthest reaches of his mind, until his voice became sure and strong once more. His voice was the only one singing for a while, but eventually more kids joined in, until the echoes of an entire student body shouting the words reverberated throughout the common room and out into the warm, summer night. The party didn’t last long after that, and soon enough the boy was the only one left in the common room, the glow of the street lamp outside emitting just enough light for him to continue playing, careful not to get too caught up in the music and risk waking the others. He remembered playing all through the night, getting lost in his last night of childhood. He paid dearly for his night of fun the next day when he nearly fell asleep while waiting to walk for graduation, but he knew it would always be worth it.
All this and more rushed through the boy, now a man, as he stared at the instrument before him. The piano was out of tune and some of the keys released no sound at all, but the songs were still there, floating out of the instrument and into the brisk night air, bringing a sort of lightness with them. Slowly, he sat down on the wooden bench and started at its creaking, as if it were an old man whose joints were long out of use. His freezing fingers pressed down hard on the keys, searching for the songs hidden within them. Before long, the piano was turning out melodies, albeit a little out of tune, but still there. The man had no idea how long he’d been sitting there, entranced by the memories and music, before his fingers gave a jolt and he was thrust back into the present, into the cold, dark woods. He knew his fingers couldn’t take the night air much longer, but it still took everything in them to tear them away from the keys and stuff them back into his pockets before they fell off.
The piano faded away into the distance as his feet carried him away, in what he hoped was toward a town he could stop in for the night. Inside his pockets, his fingers still twitched, tapping along to imaginary tunes. He couldn’t risk crying, for fear of his tears freezing to his face, which would make for an altogether unpleasant experience, but his eyes welled, though whether it was from joy, nostalgia, or sadness, he could not say. Walking had always relaxed him as a boy and he had carried that habit with him as an adult. As he walked he thought. He didn’t know how the piano had found its way to the glade, or who it had belonged to before he had found it, and he realized that he did not want to know. He would take the moment in stride and continue on, toward whatever was waiting for him ahead, grateful for the reminder of home.
But wait, he thought. Is that- The slightest of sounds had perked up his ears. Through a thicket of trees ahead, were the flickers of light and the gentle plinking of a wandering soul sitting at a piano, who had found their spark that kept them playing on into the night.