It was Dana who first introduced him to me. She had a small unit tucked up in the recesses of an ancient building, its sole window affording such a grand outlook of the wall across the alley that she had taken down the curtains and put around the aperture some pieces of wood, so framing her prize painting – ‘Relief of Pigeon on Brick.’ And the artists, coy, cooing, pooing, had shown great style in the way they had emptied themselves – in fluids if not of feelings – over the years, so that in the daylight it was relaxing to sit back and contemplate the rivulets of white and greying black against the earthy brown.
I will give it to Dana that she had herself shown a dab touch in decorating, in a spare style, so that her guests never noticed the rising damp unless they looked closely. Along one of the walls she had erected some shelves using old bricks and planks of wood whose provenance she never bothered to explain. There were a few books and the inevitable trinket or two, and a collection of CDs. Yes, compact disks. She was the only person I knew, at least among our age group, who still had a collection of the things. There was no particular order or theme to the music she owned – she simply picked up whatever took her fancy at garage sales or second-hand shops, clueless as to the actual music thereon until she popped it into her machine.
She had what might be called eccentric tastes, which is, to be honest, the fundamental reason why she is only here in the first part of my story, because in the end the oddities that tended to grate outweighed those that were want to endear, and we did not last as a couple. But it was exciting for a time, and it was somewhere in the middle of it all that, sitting on her couch one evening drinking cheap chardonnay, she suddenly jumped up crying you’ve got to listen to this! We were sufficient entwined that some combination of arms and legs immediately pulled her down again, but after a grapey kiss and disentanglement she rose, took a disc from the shelf, slipped it into her player and flopped back down beside me.
In the beginning there was silence. Then a drumbeat – deep in the belly, not in the chest like a drumkit or up on the head as a marching band’s tattatering step-rhythm but lower, bubbling the gut. Now a voice flowing over that pulse, high, like the call of an eagle from a mountain’s far vale. What the hell, I asked the girl, and she told me that it was music from a far country whose name I knew but nothing more. As I listened to that first track I thought that it was pleasant, a listenably laid-back tune, enjoyable as the cheap wine we were downing started to unshackle us, the rhythm and the play of unknown instruments pushing me into that zone where all troubles lifted themselves from the world awhile.
It was Track 7. The first time I heard it, the first time I heard that voice, I delipped from Dana, lay back, and just listened. I remember it was number 7, because when the CD had done I asked Dana to play that song again and not knowing what it was called – not even the language of its name – she stood at the machine skipping around the listings until we found it again.
He sang a cappella and it was like hearing the taste of honey as it softened and flowed in the mouth, all the sweet streams running along the walls, dripping on the sofa, climbing the table, flowing around the chairs, staining the prints, until the entire claustrophobic unit oozed with his voice. It called, and drew me to him, to his world, to a home of my then ill-formed imaginings. I did not know the words, I did not know the language, but it was a sad song, and of whatever he sang I wanted nothing else than to reach out and comfort him.
When the disk had finished I had Dana find and play the track again, and again, and I think five more times, and I would have had her play it yet more but she made it plain that that was that and I was there for other things.
Before I left Dana’s the next morning, I carefully wrote down the name of the singer from the back of the CD. Almost as soon as I had returned to my own home I got onto my computer and began searching for his music. I had thought it would be easy, but I realised later that no one had agreed on how to write his language in ours. It would take me weeks, and no small chance, to find the variations of his name and for all I know there were some I missed. There was also, I will admit, not a lot – most of what I found when I first began my search were single tracks from the kind of compilation albums that seemed to exist only in airport souvenir shops, and when I finally found a full album it was through the chance misspelling of his name in the search bar. That night I turned off the lights, shut the blinds, and in the near darkness of my room listened to that recording over and over again.
How can you feel moved by songs you cannot understand, to think that a single melody can pull from you all the moments of sadness and loss when the words may have been simply about shearing a sheep, or cause you to feel all the world’s joy, every first kiss and newborn child and first payday and your team winning the grand final, until all you want to do is get up and dance for life, when the song may mourn the perishing of love? I don’t know, and frankly I couldn’t care. The music meant what it did to me, and whether I tapped my feet or let out a laugh or felt the tears soften my eyes at the remembrance of my life’s pains it was my reaction that mattered, and bugger whatever the words actually said.
Of course, I discovered the sounds of his country – songs and singers and musicians – and though I never discovered the like of that voice, I found myself streaming continuously what I could find. I began purchasing CDs online from shops an entire globe away – really, I had no need to, but I think I found what Dana had, how holding one of the disks in hand, turning it over and watching the light rainbow upon it, reclining in my heirloomed armchair perusing track listings and notes, I could feel like I possessed the music, that it was mine and I its.
I even tried learning the language. I bought a book with which I fully intended to teach myself so I could understand what I heard, but advanced no further than the second chapter, which dealt with the past tense, and finding no conjugational love I became tense and let it pass.
I had read of a time at the dawn of music when white boys, collars upturned and caps slunk low, would shuffle into record shops to flick through the albums of black blues and soul. I imagined them pulling out the records, greedy eyes drinking in the covers, flipping over to the back, glinting over the tracklist, then to the counter, pennies exchanged, and home to the sacristy of the bedroom to listen. And the only ones who ever need know of such transgressions were treasured friends and the girl behind the record-shop counter.
That is not the world we live in. As soon as I began my search, the electronic ether knew of my fresh-found habit. I think the first advert that popped up was for a restaurant two suburbs over, then exports of finest sheep-fleeced jumpers delivered straight to my door. And then the tours got into the game – visit this land of open sky and mountain and plain, and explore, as ancient explorers would have explored, with hot water and silken sheets and airport pick-up and natives whose swords were strictly for show.
I worked as a server in a café. Money and I were not the best of friends, and I spent it like the young do who still believe in unnumbered tomorrows, but of vices I was too frugally endowed, and so there was a little in my bank account. Distracted by those winking adverts I slowly slipped from wishing I could go, to thinking there would be a day I could go, to wondering if I might in fact be able to go, to the day I, out of idle curiosity of course, found myself visiting a flight booking website. From my city to their capital, click search, watch the dancing dots think, then up pop half a dozen flights. And the cheapest? Well, I did have more money than the fare but… no. Not quite enough.
Then the next day I did it again, and this time – just fantasising of course, pure curiosity – I looked at hotel prices. You know, the cheapest hostel wasn’t too bad.
But… no. Not quite enough.
But the thing is that little bug bites you, and you begin to itch, and every day the itch becomes worse, but you can’t scratch it, and you convince yourself slowly there is only one way to salve it. Suddenly it is not money spent on a frivolity but on the necessary retention of your mental sanity.
I took a night flight that was to land sometime in the afterdawn, and as the cabin stirred from the sleep no one over the age of six had enjoyed, I opened the blind of the window and watched as the sun, slow in its coronation, ashed and then honeyed the world, the winkles of our planet emerging out of a light-flecked void. I looked down upon the land I had trod so often in my mind, and thought I could hear it sing its songs to me as it woke.
I checked into a cheap hostel, sharing my room with ten others, nine of whom snored while the other fairly farted the night away. When I escaped that place, everything had the patina of freshness bestowed by the new and unfamiliar, and the disruptions of routine. I spent my first days walking the streets, meandering through alleys and ways that were nothing but the scarcely noticed thoroughfares of daily life for the locals but for me were lanes as interesting as any Venice or Paris could offer. I dined in the small local restaurants, not knowing what I ordered and most of the time what I ate.
But of that music that had called me here, I heard little. Indeed, my only experience of it was at a concert performed once a week for visitors. It was a glorious sound, and as I sat there drowning in the warmly flickering air, I marvelled that here, in a sense, was the real thing, just as I marvelled that here, in a sense, was not the real thing, but a pastiche, actors in costumes no one had worn in a hundred years for tourists more interested in ticking an event off of a list.
It was on the Friday, with only the weekend between myself and my return flight, that walking back to my hostel I passed a bar, and as I went by it I heard from within the sound of someone singing. I recognised the tune – how often had I heard it these last few months? I stopped to listen, unsure whether to stay on the footpath or go, calculating how much I had in my pocket, for strict sobriety was the sacrifice to pay for this trip. Yet I had only three days to go, and the voice told me to spare my change, just this once, as the price for admission.
I ordered my beer, sat down at a table to the side away from anyone’s attention. Two men sat on a small stage on the far side from the entrance. The younger of them wore jeans and the jersey of one of the larger European clubs, his companion just a shirt and well-used pair of trousers. They were between songs. The young man held upon his knee a bowed instrument. He took a sip from a bottle, played a few testing notes, raised his stroker and began.
It was a slow piece, one I knew well, and when, after a few notes, the older man began to sing, rasping as though he were clearing his throat but swelling to the call of taught plied gut, I even quietly hummed a few of the bars along to myself, tapping the table with my middle finger.
The pair played a couple of songs, and then a woman came up to join them, and as the bar slowly filled with the night so more acts came and went on the stage, in no particular order. I realised this is what we would have called an open mic, though here it was just what they did. They played slow songs and fast ones, and there was one man who for a few numbers sang songs that brought laughter from the crowd: I joined in though totally ignorant of the joke. And there were times too when they played the music of dance, the bows of the fiddles tripping and skimming the strings, patrons arising to hop and jump and skip and sway to no discernible style – nothing, at least, of a shadow of the careful choreography of the tourist show I had been to.
Sometime that night a man sat next to me – I would have preferred to sit alone, but by this time the place had filled and I could hardly hold against the man a free seat. Maybe a little older than me, he wore a black leather jacket and had a bright red bandanna tied around his head. He looked at me a couple of times during the next few acts – I had noticed a few glances from the other guests, I assume pondering the presence of a solitary foreigner.
After a little while the man leaned over and asked, in a fair rendition of English, if I understood the songs. I shook my head. He began to relate the songs to me, but it may be that he perceived something in my demeanour that I just wanted to listen, and so he restricted his conversations to those moments between the music, if one or the other of us wasn’t making an appointment with the bar. During a lengthy pause, between one group leaving the stage and another settling in, he asked why I had wanted to come, and I began the story of how I had come to be so enamoured of the sound of his people. And I dropped the name of the singer that I most wanted to hear, whose voice had almost by its own power pulled me to his country.
He looked thoughtful for a second. Then he got up and went to the bar, where he had a word with the keep. He returned and said the barman says he knows who you are talking about, he is very famous singer, but he lives far away and never comes here to the capital.
I had my couple of beers, then a third. I stayed until the hours and crowd were small and the stage empty. As we were rising to leave, the man turned to me and asked what I was doing the next day. Nothing, I responded, so my new friend said we could go and visit the singer. He would show me his country and I would meet Track no 7.
I hesitated. I was not one to make friends quickly, and while I had enjoyed the night we were leaving behind in the drinkery I was not sure a weekend away with a man I had just met was the best idea, but I was three-beered, and balancing the caution of the moment against the regret of the future, I agreed.
Saturday was sunny, the pale dome above unmarred by any hint of cloud. I ate, dressed, threw my toothbrush into my shoulder bag as soon as I had finished using it, a book also, and then left the hostel. From the north a light wind blew, a whisper of cold snaking and eddying around the buildings of the city.
Fifteen minutes late a car – old, well-loved, dirt-kissed, time enamoured – horned and pulled up in front of me. I got in beside the man, still sporting his bandanna, after he had grabbed a handful of papers and food bags and cassettes – yes, cassettes, such was the venerability of the vehicle – off the passenger seat and dumped them behind us. He saved one of the cassettes, shoved it into the player, and as we tore away into the empty streets, through the still bleary city and out into the countryside, I watched the slow-moving people and the incomprehensible signs and the trees and fields so foreign to me while the growl of Diesel and Dust pulled me half a world backwards.
Here I should give you his name, but here too I admit I cannot. He had told me it in the pub, but between the music, and the contortions of glottis and uvula with which the locals seemed by some miracle to string together a language, I never quite got it and afterwards was too embarrassed to ask him for it again, so let me just refer to him as Bandanna and pretend it is a nickname.
Bandanna and I jolted over the crumbling roads that cut the plains, stopped at a town as scraggly as the dogs that roamed its streets for lunch, and then shook on into hills that rose to become mountains, until we were motoring along roads snaking the sheering slopes like a slim rope carelessly cast aside, the car bouncing heavily as my driver edged around the ruts and holes of the ill-kept way. The behemoths of rock rose above us, clear now, now dull, now sullen with clouds mobbing their peaks, and then the bright and sunny day was a memory and we were twisting around rock grey walls under a slate grey sky.
A few drops slopped onto the windscreen, then the torrent. Across the road mini-rivers of lashing brown rapids bloomed and flowed. We, in what seemed to be our little, beat up submarine, slowed to a crawl. Our path here was some way up a slope – how far I had no way of knowing for the mountain pierced the low roof of cloud only a short way above us, but I could see down, even in the gloom, and spy far below us a tiny stream that already seemed to be growing with the stark bounty of the heavens, and only a slim fence of wood between ourselves and the drop. Then the road suddenly turned and we began crawling across the floor of a high valley, and I sighed with relief.
We passed a few houses – very few – mostly of rough stone that appeared to have been hurriedly clumped together yet to have stood for the ages. I wanted to ask my companion how far we had to go, but there was something about the way he stared out at the road before us, and the throb of a vein in his temple, that told me silence was the better way.
Eventually, the shower eased a little. My watch showed it was late. I sat back and wondered how long it would be before we finally reached the small town that was our destination.
Then we turned a bend and didn’t take it. We skidded, ending our brief pirouette just off the road in a muddy field.
Bandanna swore and clambered out. I followed him into the drizzle. We slowly revolved around the machine like two moons a planet, but while his exertion had the purpose of surveying for damage I was simply… Well, I could hardly have stayed sitting in the car, and as a man I had an image to keep. I even mirrored my friend when he sank low to the ground and peered under the machine, and I mumbled it looks alright, ignorant of what not alright would look like.
If the car had suffered it was impossible to tell for all the skirting mud. We looked at the road, and the sky, and my friend said sorry, but we can’t get to town tonight. On the road there is a place. We stop there.
Here in this valley, with the mountains raising above us and the cool patter of the rain, we could have been alone in the world. Only the dirt slick of the road reminded us that beyond this valley our species dwelt. Soft mist entwined among the rain, and in its slow roll it abruptly parted just enough that we spied a building way up the valley, a distant tendril of smoke the sign that someone was within. We clambered back into the car, started her, somehow eased and slipped her back onto the road, and slower than the tread of man we drove the kilometre or so to the house.
The building was grey, built and tiled of mountain rocks. There was a door, ajar, that someone had once painted in joyful hues of red but whose iridescence had long since faded as though the grey of the walls had slowly seeped into the wood and won. A couple of windows too broke the façade; recessed into the stone and set in plain wood frames they were smeared, good perhaps at letting in the light but not so much sight out.
The walls, as I said, were of stone, and while they encompassed the house they did not stay with the building but flung off it, so the sides were a collection of corrals and shelters and, I guess, just plain lees from the wind, for it was treeless here, and I guessed the gales would be strong. To the right the rocks ran off the house in a low wall and recollected themselves in a small structure that seemed to serve as a shed, judged by the few rusty tools that we could see lying inside.
There was a man in the shed. He was sitting on a crate, and as our car came to a stop outside he looked at us. He didn’t get up, made no motion to disturb his repose, showed no surprise. He looked at this muddy vehicle that had just pulled up in front of him as he would a familiar bird jumping onto the paling of a fence.
My friend got out of the car. He went over to the man and began talking to him. After a while he came back. More rain comes, he said, and the road not good. We must to stay one night.
I appraised the house, its dank walls and smeared windows, with little joy. Climbing out of the car I tried to tell myself that it would be an experience to spend a night in a real local’s hut with a real local, but I could not make the feeling stick. We opened the boot for our bags, and only then did our unexpected host stand up.
He did not stand erect, but slouched, and as he guided us to his front door I noticed that he seemed to shuffle along. He had known his years but he was not old, yet still there seemed to be the weariness of a long, toiled life in his inching steps.
The flame in the fireplace within was weak, but it gave off enough heat to warm the room, and a good deal of smoke besides, so the scent of burnt wood mingled with that of two wet dogs that pattered up to closely sniff us and the general aroma of dampness for a strong and not altogether agreeable smell.
The interior was a single room, divided somewhat into two by a long low chest, green in hue, about half the size of a person, roughly two-thirds the distance to the far side. I would have expected more than the scattering of photos and the faded tapestry that hung down one of the walls. Everything seemed not just old but weary. Perhaps if I had come into this place on a warm summer’s day it all would have been gayer, the furniture old in a well-loved, well-used kind of way, but here, on this liquid day, with the gloom of a rainy afternoon outside seeping into the house, it all appeared decrepit, and tired.
There was a woman there, who when we came in had been standing against the green table cutting vegetables. When she saw us she looked at us stonily, and she said something to the man. He responded with a dismissive grunt, she spoke in return, and he suddenly shouted at her, a verbal whipcrack that slashed around the room. She said nothing else and went back to her cutting. My friend and I exchanged uneasy glances.
We were sat on a couple of old chairs around a table. Our host went to the green chest, and from one of the drawers took a bottle and three cups. He placed these on the table and opened the bottle. I could smell immediately the strong odour of spirit. I looked at my watch. It was just after four. He poured our glasses, raised his, downed the liquid in a single motion, an action we had, as guests, an obligation to follow. I tried not to wince as I felt my throat burn.
Our glasses he refilled and we emptied them as before, and again, and again. I was scarcely a drinker, and spirits I never touched unless mixed. A couple of sips would have been enough for me. And yet I was a guest, of this man and of his country, so I drank as he did, sculling back the water that ate my innards like acid.
No one said much as the slow symphony of the rain, now overture, now adagio, allegro, shortish scherzo, played in the valley outside. My companion and our host exchanged some words, my friend only translating what referred to myself, that the man, pointing to me, had asked where I came from and what I did in this land. But for the most part we just drank, and listened to the music of the lamenting sky without. At one point one of the dogs came up and laid its soggy head on my lap, looked at me with watery eyes, and I reached down to ruffle its wet fur, until our host growled at it and it ran off to join its companion by the fireplace.
After four glasses, the rain now an interlude, I asked where the toilet was. When this was translated our host barked an order to his wife, who in all this time had been at the other end of the room cutting vegetables and meat and stuffing them into pastry sacks. She put down her work, walked over to the door, beckoning me to follow her. We went outside, around the back of the house through a gap in the maze of stone walls, and with a quiet finger she pointed me to a wooden shed that lay a little away.
The valley was in the first grip of night. A ragged cow looked at me over the walls of a corral. I had to be careful as I picked my way along the sodden ground, swaying already a little as I walked, the few pecks of the now light skyfall on my cheeks helping a little to sober my senses.
And fully sobered I was when I entered the outhouse, the stench smothering me, so the poison that had been sloshing in my guts reacted and came out the wrong way. I retched, leaning over the hole, sparing my intestines unintended pain by delivering two glasses of vodka straight from my mouth into the malodorous pit.
The regurgitation cleared my head, and I was able to finish my business. I rezipped, sloshed over the mushy ground, back into the stone hut, into the faint warmth of the fire and the smell, of wood smoke and tobacco and wet clothes and farm.
I may have given the impression, in my previous description of the inside of the house, that it was all invaded by a general air of decrepitude. There was, however, a single exception to this rule, but it was an incongruous one. Screwed into one of the walls was a television that must have been bought in the last year or two, a great monster of a thing whose very size mocked the exhortation to never leave the thing on standby for the sake of our tender climate.
Bandanna and the man were watching a sports programme when I re-entered. I lowered myself onto the sofa next to them, somewhat gingerly, feeling the springs shifting beneath me. Our host reached over my friend, and handed me a glass. I raised it as he filled it, out of no want but because I had a sense the rules of hospitality of house and country demanded it, and who was I, guest in both, to deny them. And I thought how strange it was, listening to the two men comment on the match, watching a game whose rules I didn’t understand, drinking a spirit I had neither wish nor taste for, with my now frustrated goal however many miles further along the road into the rain infected darkness.
When the game had finished the man said something to his wife. Of course, I assumed that it was his wife, either in law or in custom, and not, say, a sister. She could have been his sister, I suppose, but I would have guessed their ties were conjugal, for I do not think that a man would speak to his sister in the way this man spoke to the woman.
For whatever he said to her, the tone, even across languages, was unmistakable. And what she retorted was just as sharp. The man rose from his seat, went into the kitchen where the pair spoke to each other in words that bit and scratched. The man raised an arm, the woman flinched, and my friend and I were so obsessed by the adverts we could not move our eyes from the screen.
That hand was raised but half a second before being lowered. Without another word the man left the house, the two dogs pattering after him. The woman continued her work, finished the vegetables, threw them into a pot on the stove together with great hunks of meat and some herbs she pulled from a bunch of dried plants hung up on the wall. In a second pot she poured some water, then some dumplings. I asked my friend if perhaps we should offer to help but he shook his head, and began to speak of other matters.
After a time the woman ladled the contents of the pots into two great bowls, took rice from out of an electric rice cooker, placed these on the table, fetched from the green table some plastic plates and cheap cutlery, set four places and then opened the door and yelled something into the darkness. She told us to sit, and just as we had placed ourselves into our seats her husband came in with a whirl of two mongrels and took his place at the bord.
We ate in silence, simple courtesies of gratitude aside, without smiles. The wife served us, and the food was filling, even if, to me, barren of taste.
The meat in this is the best sort they have, my friend told me.
Then, to my dismay, for I thought that with dinner we may have escaped the ritual, the man again placed glasses in front of himself and I, and taking the bottle poured a measure into both of them, and raising them we drank a silent toast.
And suddenly I staggered up, and out, into the unlit blackness, trying to trace my path, retrace it, back and forth, trailing by stone walls guiding and blocking my way like a maze god what did I step in a little further surely no wrong way back again here’s a gap sit down on the wall feel the water flushing my face running down my neck now back up again to seek the dunny is that it no it isn’t hello Mr Cow Christ I have to go my groin feels like a bomb that is going to explode there it is duck in down with the fly… and leaning over so my head rested against the splinters of the rough-hewn wall, for it was the only way I could steady myself, I sent another stream out into the world and, I am proud to say, was mostly accurate in hitting the mark beneath me.
When I came back I stumbled across the door and somehow managed to divest myself of shoes clodded with muck while pushing the two dogs away from me. My footwear I placed, very deliberately, on the mud-streaked floor next to the door, and then staggered over to where a mattress with a pillow and sheet had already been placed on the ground.
I fell onto the bed. The world whirled. I shook in an earthquake of languid elasticity as the crust beneath me tossed on the rolling waves of a molten sea, gentle, eternal and sickening.
So I stared at the whirling ceiling, felt the shifting floor under the thin and dirty mattress, smelt the admixture of smoke and mud, wet dog and stale food, heard the snipes of the ongoing war between our hosts. I tried to hold myself together by imagining the tomorrow when I would be back in my own place and on my own soft bed with a promise that I knew would be broken never to touch alcohol again.
The telly was switched off. Into my ears came a silence that was loud and hammering and seemed to claw at my drums. My friend lay down on the mattress beside me. I turned my head, saw the woman sitting in the kitchen working with a needle on some material, the man still on the sofa, a glass in his hand, quiet now, a glazed stare blind to its cast.
I thought of how this was not the day I had woken up to, of how, had it not been for the rain, I would now be in a hotel in that town however much further down the road it was, sober… soberish, listening to the songs that had bought me from Dana’s unit into this place so far from my home, having met at last the singer whose voice had enraptured me long ago and had drawn me to this hut, so close and yet beyond reach. Like the beckoning croon of the sirens calling me up that road I could hear him now, that voice of sunlight upon warming fields, singing a tune I heard many times, a tale whose words I could not understand but knew to be of hopes for love and life and the beauty of mountains and valleys and the grasslands swept over by eagles. I heard it my head, began humming it along to myself, wanting almost to cry, until it slowly came to me, this sedate revelation, that it was not in my head that I heard the song. It was here in this room, with me.
I turned my head. The man was singing. He sang with the glass in his hand and the glass in his gaze, staring at nothing, until he had finished his song, then he finished his drink, rose, stumbled to his bed, fell into it and ended his day.
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