Through the hazy watercolor of a child’s memory, those months stand out with clarity even into my ninth decade. They start with the bombs dropping in the village streets. Even a child couldn’t mistake the bone-shaking howl, the blinding flashes cutting through the autumn night, the gritty rain of soot and sand that had moments before been cobblestone streets, for anything but war.
Papa’s frantic packing came soon after. His tight lips, jerky movements as he threw our bags together, his refusal to answer Mother’s questions, all struck me as the actions of a different man, one whom I’d never met and never wished to. Mother’s tears only angered him more, and to a child the anger born of naked, helpless fear seems incomprehensibly hideous. Perhaps that’s why I don’t remember fleeing the city.
Although there wasn’t a day on the road where my feet didn’t bleed through my only pair of socks, I never saw that ugly man again. Instead, Papa told us stories. First the ones of the old ways, stories of our ancestors, our heroes, our monsters. When our need for a future became as concrete as our need for the bits of bread we took twice a day, Papa told us of the refugee camp. Of our cousins, aunts and uncles, Grandfather and Grandmother, many others like us, waiting across the border.
“Just you wait, Lia,” he told me one night. We huddled close for warmth, he and Mother and I. We didn’t chance a fire. Instead, we pooled our heat in a futile bid to keep Mother’s cough from growing any wetter. “It will be a fair, more crowded than Market Street at the solstice. Jugglers, fire-breathers, wagons with cloth of every color. And the music!” his eyes flashed with light, a pale hint of the glow that Mother would speak of when reminiscing on their courtship so many years before. “I promise you, a session that will play for three days and nights on end!”
We may have walked for weeks or years. The road ahead was a ceaseless expanse of weary brown dirt, cutting apart scorched fields of dead grass on into a gray horizon streaked with columns of black smoke. My feet stopped bleeding but never stopped aching, and once my socks fell away we cut foot wraps from the torn canvas of a burnt-out wagon that had been rolled into a ditch.
Mother died on a sunny day. I woke up to Papa’s embrace, his arms unmoving around my shoulders but for a slight shake, his tears hot through my matted hair. I saw a patch of flawless blue sky, rendered brilliant through my own tears that welled but never fell. We remained in such a position for the morning, a battered family under the silent sun. His shudders had abated, his tears mostly stemmed, when the soldiers arrived.
Papa shoved me to the ground and drew his knife in one stumbling movement as the small contingent came over the hill ahead of us. Our poverty saved our lives; such as it was, a pistol was well beyond our means, and while a firearm may have drawn a reactionary hail of bullets, the sight of this emaciated, tear-stained peasant wielding a notched fish knife elicited only pity. One of the six soldiers made a calming gesture with one hand and spoke words in a language I didn’t understand, in a tone many kinds of foreign.
Papa understood, and after a brief exchange, the weapons went away. A few more words, and the leader made a quick gesture to his men. They scrambled forward and in short order dug a shallow grave for my mother in the shelter of a small cedar copse. With a few soft words and a hand on my father’s shoulder, the contingent moved on down the way we came.
“A three-day dance, my Lia,” said Papa that evening. “And a feast every night.”
The border was a harsh hedge of razor wire and cyclone fencing, the gatehouse a two-room shack. Speaking again in this strange language, Papa first reasoned, then pleaded, and finally begged the chief of the guards assembled there, a collection of men whose expressions ranged from desperate empathy to dull indifference.
At last, Papa produced a pair of golden rings, one of which he’d slipped from Mother’s finger before kissing her brow and sprinkling upon it a handful of dirt. Wordlessly, with a stone expression, he gave them to the chief, who sat behind the desk before which we stood. The chief slid back a folded paper and dismissed us with a wave like flies.
This side of the border looked no different, though perhaps hindsight removes some of the columns on the horizon, made the road less pitted and torn.
We made the camp on a rainy day. No more than fifteen wagons made a half-circle in a field of tall grass. Four campfires, ringed by scattered women, children, and elders, sputtered meekly in the drizzle. They looked at us briefly, then returned to small bowls of stew.
In the last wagon, an old man sat alone, running a warped bow along an old set of fiddle strings. The sound was raw, and real, a soaring reel whose triumphant leaps of passion spanned any gaps in technique. The rain drummed accompaniment on the caravan roofs; distant lightning danced in time on the far side of the border.
We lived hard there, but we lived. The war ended. I moved to America, started my family anew, and devoted a very rewarding life to the enigmatic depths of music. I’ve grown respected in the field, sat in the presence of living muses whose dedicated hands coaxed the finest strings into harmony.
Still, after a century of waltzes and symphonies, sonatas and concertos, I have yet to hear earthly sounds as breathtaking as those of the fiddler in the last wagon.
Owen Rapine is a firefighter/EMT who writes when nothing is burning. Check out his fiction at Under the Bed Magazine and Flash Fiction Magazine, or his travel work (as Sam Rapine) at Outpost Magazine and GapYear. If you’re feeling particularly courageous, follow him on Twitter @RiotousRapine!