One upon a time a woman sat by the side of a river and sang a sad little song to herself.
A passing captain heard the song and was immediately smitten by its mournful tune.
“Why do you sing such a sad melody?” he asked.
“I sing it for my husband who is gone for a soldier,” she told him.
“And what is your husband’s name?”
She told him and he was surprised to recognise it as one of the men in his company.
“I know him,” he said. “He is a good man and a fine soldier.”
“Perhaps that is so, but he was a good husband and a fine father until the army took him.” And she began to sing her sad little song again.
The captain rode on and left her by the banks of the river but her song stayed with him and he found himself singing its melody as he rode.
Now at that time there were wars being fought all across the land as wars were ever fought – but the more the captain sang the tune the less inclined he felt to return to his regiment until, after ten miles or so, he made up his mind to cast off his uniform and leave the fighting to those who cared for it.
In the morning, when it was discovered that the captain had not returned to his unit, a patrol was sent to discover his whereabouts, since he was a good and capable officer.
The men discovered him sitting in the shade of an oak tree. His jacket and hat had gone, cast away into a ditch, and his sword lay broken at his side. He was humming a little tune softly to himself.
“You must come back with us, sir,” the corporal said. “For we go into battle tomorrow.”
“If you go, then you go without me,” the captain told them. “And I wish you good luck.”
“The man is mad,” one of the soldiers said. “Look at his face, listen to his voice, obviously his wits have gone.”
And so they took the captain back to his regiment with his hands bound behind him. He did not protest but continued to sing his sad little song as he marched.
The soldiers that heard it found that the song stayed with them and they too began to hum its melody.
When they brought the captain before the general he said:
“There is no room for cowards in this army. Have the man shot.” The general was deaf from many years of cannon fire and could not hear the song so he was unmoved by it.
They took the captain out into the middle of a field and tied him to a tree. All the while he was singing his sad little tune, since nothing in the world short of death would make him stop.
When the muskets sounded the song ended. But the men in the firing squad had heard its refrain and when they returned to their comrades they brought the song with them.
In the morning the general emerged from his tent and found that his men were not ready for battle. They leaned against their muskets with their eyes closed and, if the general could have heard it, they filled the dawn with music.
“Cowards!” he stormed. “Cowards all!”
When the enemy crossed the plain towards them, their flags unfurled and their bands playing martial tunes, they were met not by bullets and grapeshot but by wave after wave of a sad little tune. There were no words, for the captain had never learned them, but the melody held such longing, such loss and such love that no one who heard it could be unmoved by it. And as each man heard it, he lowered his musket to the ground, threw off his tunic and began to sing along.
In the end, when the song was taken up by a hundred thousand voices, it drifted across the battlefield and back to where the woman sat by the side of the river.
She smiled to herself.
Her husband would be home before long.
James Lecky is an actor and theatre director from Derry in Northern Ireland who lives with his wife and cat and is sickeningly happy about it. His previous work has appeared in EDF, Mirror Dance and the anthology Emerald Eye.