War. When it first started, all I heard was Beethoven’s 5th. Urgency. Terror. Climax after climax.
But then it sunk in. It stayed and festered as families separated to march on alone. We were cursed to keep moving on while the air was saturated with Adagio for Strings. I watched my father leave in his uniform, his old gun clutched tightly in his calloused hands. My mother kept the house in the country, opening it for people to send their children to when the bombs came. I had a little sister and brother who stayed with her and helped despite being children themselves. My other brothers… they ran away.
I knew they hadn’t run from the fight. They were embodying Ride of Valkyries, chasing honour and adventure on the battlefield. Alex refused to sit back while his family and his country were in danger. Philip would follow him anywhere, and so they were gone.
They were both under aged, but they knew as well as I did that the identification systems were down to avoid hacking, and once they were on the battlefield, no one would complain the having of a few extra young men.
The army never complained about having extra lives to put on the line. They had taken my friends. Hallie was on the front, dragging half-dead bodies from decimated wastelands. Sara was in the stealth force somewhere with the first eleven seconds of Lacrimosa Dies Illa mirroring her every calculated move. I didn’t know where the others were. Marian was probably a Sergeant already.
They had left me alone. A few musicians were supposed to keep the spirits up at home. We played on the streets, and occasionally did concerts for the few who had enough money to pay. We played Op. 314 of On The Beautiful Blue Danube the most, trying to keep everyone in the mindset of grandness, trying to instil perseverance into the weary souls. It wasn’t working. They had left me alone, till now.
I turned the letter over in my hands, walking down the hallway to my apartment. Mrs. Topua eyed me sympathetically as she unlocked her own door. I shot her a wry smile and, “Well, rent here was too expensive anyways.” She didn’t respond, just shook her head and went in, shutting the door. I felt so bad for her. She was so tired, so worried, so tired of being worried. Just like everyone else. Not that I wasn’t, but not to the same extent. I knew that God had a plan in all of this, somehow, and I was going to hang on as long as I could to see it.
I headed into my little apartment and allowed about four seconds to look around and miss it, then Radetzky March, Op. 228 started up in my head. I packed up my few belongings. I wrote a note to my mother and shoved it in the front pocket of my bag. All my extra rations I brought to various nieghbors, knocking on the doors so they would find them before the thieves did, then stopped by the post office and dropped off the note.
The taxi only took me a little ways into the woods, and then I got to hike. I didn’t mind, it had been a while since I had been under the trees. The address brought me to a little shack surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. There was a man in full military uniform standing on the other side, hand holding a rifle, hip sporting a pistol, boots planted firmly in the dirt.
“Name and business?” he demanded.
“Dyck. Reporting for assignment.”
“Aye, sir.” I handed him the documents.
He looked at me strangely, but opened the gates.
From the inside, the shack looked like it would survive a fair amount of bombs. There was a uniformed woman inside. She repeated the questions, then, “Fourth room on the left.” She pressed a button just inside a cracked bowl on the dusty table, and a trap door lifted.
The way she was looking at me, I knew I had to go down there. I got down on my knees and crawled down the hole. The rough dirt scraped my palms. I was not usually claustrophobic, but when the tunnel ended and I could stand straight again, I could hear a mini version of the Hallelujah Chorus going off in my head.
The doors were far apart and had strange inscriptions. One read “Jelly”, the second, “Pickling”, and the third, “Cheddar”.
The fourth door was labeled “Pastries”. I opened it.
There were no pastries.
It was crazy. The walls were covered in screens, the tables were loaded with control panels, and wires streamed up to the ceiling from all of them. I closed the door behind me by instinct but stood still, staring. At least one person was in front of every screen. One person was right in my face.
I jumped a little, startled.
“Are you the musician?”
“Just say yes like a normal human.”
“Keep your coat on. Can you play a record without electricity?”
“Yeah, if I’ve got something to spin it on. Why?”
“We’re running low on batteries. Your placement doesn’t have electricity.” She pushed me back out the door and led me farther down the hall. “As long as we have a radio signal going, they can catch it. Their decoders are crazy good. We need something that can hide in plain sight.”
“And you want me to dress up like a milk maid and run the message over to them.”
“Even better. The only way we can keep a clear channel going without them understanding it is to do it through music. It won’t trigger the computers, and their decoders will think we are trying to cheer the soldiers up in their last moments instead of relaying information.”
It was obviously her own idea. I didn’t know how well it would work.
We went up another tunnel. I could hear the beginning of In the Hall of the Mountain King as we crawled through the darkness. Thankfully we got out before reaching the climax.
She led me through the woods, under trees where I occasionally spotted soldiers in the branches, to another cabin. This one looked bigger than the shack we had come from.
Once again I was astounded when she opened the door.
“We’ll send someone as soon as we have a message to send. Get ready.” She left.
I looked around. There were records stacked everywhere around the walls, and some type of half-bicycle half-stand in the middle of the room beside the radio input and packs of what looked like car batteries… I walked to the bicycle and pressed down one of the pedals. It turned a little screw on the stand. Perfect.
I turned to the stacks of records and began to organize them. I read the whole label of each, trying to memorize the hundreds of song names while sorting them into piles by singer/songwriter. It was not a quick job, and I was yawning before I was half finished, but I needed to get it done.
The windows darkened slowly. Thankfully it was still warm, so I didn’t have to worry about a fire. I lit a small candle with a match and kept working.
Everything was blurring together by the time I was was done. I wondered when the message would come; if it was a matter of minutes or weeks. My head was nodding.
I took a classical record and placed it on the stand, then tore a piece of paper from a notebook. They had left tape here, too; this had been well thought out. I sat down on the board seat of the bicycle, rolling a paper cone in my hands. If I pedalled evenly, it would spin the record, then I would place the tip of the paper cone on the groove, and… The sweet notes of Pavane filled the air.
There was just something about music. It could soothe and excite, warn and calm. There was a reason I had devoted most of my life to it.
Just as I came to the climax, the door burst open and I lost my place on the record. It was a young boy in uniform, who shot me a grin and handed me a piece of paper, then dashed back out the door.
I unfolded it. “From Pastries. To Snakes. Enemy is due south, 52 miles.”
This would be a challenge, but it was one that I was up for. My years as a DJ were still fresh in my mind. Memories you hated were bound to stay forever. I had almost been glad when the whole country went through the blackout; I could finally turn back to the classics in acoustic. Back to the challenge. How was I going to get the message across in a way that the enemy wouldn’t clue in?
I grabbed several records from around the room, making mental note of the lyrics I knew, and stacking them in order of the note. Then I plugged the battery into the transmitter, adjusted the mic, and began to speak.
“Good evening!” My voice sounded a little rusty and squeaky, which was perfect. It would be great if everybody thought I was some old loon playing a random selection over the radio. Everybody except who was supposed to receive the message, though.
“I hope the grandkids don’t kick me off the air again. I can hear them now: Granny, don’t use all the batteries. Well, they’ll live longer than me, I hope, and they’ll get their chance to use a whole lot more batteries yet.” Old person topic whiplash. “Music is like people, you know? Every song has a different feel to it, a different meaning. Some people are sweet. Some people are flaky! And some people; my personal favourites, are a bit of both. Here’s a song that comes from them!” I placed a record of Patty Griffin’s Making Pies, started pedalling, and played the whole song. Hopefully the message wasn’t extremely time sensitive, otherwise they wouldn’t have given it to me, right?
“Ahh. I do love that one. The next one I am playing is going out to all the snakes in the world. There is always so much friction between the sweet people and the venomous ones, but I think it’s all a communication error. We just need to learn to interpret each others’ messages!” Next song was King Snake.
“While we’re talking about relationship issues… One of the most important things is to be intentional about the direction of your relationship. You could go north, and get cold, or you could go south, and end up in hot water! Here’s a song by One Direction.”
I held my breath while the song ended, sending up a whole host of silent prayers that they would get the hints I was dropping. From pastries, to snakes, interpret messages, north was cold, south was hot…
“And one thing I hear from young people today is that they think they can only go so far. That isn’t true. When you dedicate yourself to a relationship, you should go the extra mile, and the one after that!” Old person rant, now old person memory. “Oh, gracious me, where did that record go? I had the perfect one, it was just here; it would have tied in perfectly. A thousand miles, or something like that. Well, the only one I can reach right now is, let me see… 52 Girls! There we go! If you can’t go a thousand miles, just go fifty two! And make sure you always go the right direction!” I played the record, flinching as the voices came through. This was not my style. Finally it ended.
“The grandkids are coming in now, I’d best be off before they find out I killed another battery. You’d think the things had a living soul, with the fuss they make—“ I pulled the cord as I spoke, cutting off the connection.
“God, I hoped that worked." I got up off the hard board seat of the bicycle. Sooner or later, a runner would come to tell me. Until then, my job was done. I put the records away, then shook out the blanket I had brought with me and curled up on the floor. What tomorrow brought, would come tomorrow.