Thursday, February 23, 2012

Zanzibar: Chapter One

On a grey and ghastly morning, as a light fall of rain hissed against the nearby wooden boards which constituted what once may have been a seaside promenade, an old man emerged from slightly sideways hut overlooking the beach. With nobody nearby, and a few gulls croaking their own problems to the wind, he looked to all the world like an entertainer, which, indeed, he was. He wore an old silk top hat. It was garlanded with faded plastic daisies that were once of unnatural, yet undeniably gay, colors. His bright blue top coat was festooned with badges and ribbons, a lifetime of notices and awards to his skills, proudly shining with nose grease which he had applied as a waxing agent.

In his right hand was an odd instrument, rather like a rounded box, with keys on the long end and a crank at the base. It was called a “hurdy-gurdy”, and it was the only one in all of Zanzibar: a sort of relic of a distant place, the times before the colony, the people outside of the sphere. They themselves had long forgotten about the hurdy-gurdy too, and would they have been present, they would have been bewildered by it. None ever saw the hurdy-gurdy, for nobody ever saw the hurdy-gurdy man, at least not in thirty years. Once they cared, now they didn’t.

In his left hand, the old man carried a covered brass bird cage, with a red satin drape over the top, fringed at the bottom with gold curtain thread and bearing the words BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF PARADISE painted upon it in a sort of glossy yellow paint which imitated, inexactly, the thread below. He placed the cage on the sand, in a spot which had been long flattened by his doing so.

A curious aspect of the hurdy-gurdy is it’s sheer necessity of preparation for use. It is a wildly complicated instrument. The player must be seated, and it is here where the old man perched himself on a small bench built for the purpose, and slowly, meditatively, began to do so. Strange, perhaps unearthly, sounds began to emanate across the beach, out into the ocean opposite his hut. It was a noise that had been heard here for nearly three and a half decades.

Across the village nearby, those who were awake began to hear the hurdy-gurdy, it’s droning siren of keening alarm, a wail of remorse. It was as if a banshee was on the beach, screaming to avenge a nearby murder.

This continued for nearly 90 minutes. Not a soul approached the boardwalk, nobody was seen on the beach, the occasional gull flew past, considered landing, realized it was not worth the effort, and continued to fly past. The tuning, which occurred daily, rain or shine, was always a time of loneliness for the old man. He thought about what melodies he’d play that day. He thought about the possible miracles that could arise from the sea. He thought about the past and he thought about the future. He thought about the birds, he thought about the crabs, he thought about the oil on the side of the hurdy-gurdy, he thought about the wind.

And the wind! O, dear reader, the wind thought about him, as it often does. The breeze dropped past, and blew his beard a bit, welcoming him to the day, consoling him for the dismal surroundings. The wind, and whoever made it blow, was appreciative.

At the precise moment at which the old man felt the hurdy-gurdy was properly tuned, he smiled to himself, and leaned over to remove the bird cage’s cover. Inside were three bright green birds, small in size. They were a local breed, finches from the nearby desert, certainly not Birds of Paradise but they were birds, and they knew of paradise, and they knew the futility of return. They had seen the angel and his fiery sword. They knew of Cain’s betrayal and Abel’s meek forgiveness, mutely given before his soul passed to his grandfather’s bosom.

“Good morning,” the old man said, “As you have heard, all is ready for today’s performance.”

He opened the hinged door to the cage, and the green birds hopped about the floor, and out into the damp Zanzibar air. They began to fly. They looped and twirled so lightly and their green feathers shone so brightly a contrast to the greyness of Zanzibar, bringing the faded flowers in the old man’s hat to the pink and red they may once have been, and he smiled. He turned the crank of the hurdy-gurdy and began to play.

He played for no human that day, although they heard him, and the few still able to listen thought briefly about the old man’s dutiful attention to their pleasure, but nobody came to drop a few coins into the cage and see the birds dance. He did it, the birds knew, for the same reason they did it, and they did it for the same reason as the Lilies of the Valley. Surely, was not King Solomon in all his splendor arrayed such as these?

On this particular day, into the afternoon, the sun briefly peeked out of the clouds, and the birds, sensing their benefactor’s demise, flew into the space. They never returned.

The old man’s hurdy-gurdy, having recently finished playing an air from a long-forgotten Italian opera about demons, simply stopped being cranked.

He drew in breath, slowly at first. It began to turn into an exhalation of liquid. He set down his hurdy-gurdy onto the sand, the first time he had ever done so, and struggled back into his hut. The clouds grew dark again, and the rain began to fall in earnest. The door was closed, softly, and he put himself into his cot, his hat fell to the floor, and he breathed his last.

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