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Copyright © 2017 Lynette Aspey
This story remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Exhalation

The forest’s vaulted canopy shut out all light from the bright double moons and the path of Trow’s torchlight wove confusion in front of his stumbling feet. He was afraid, he admitted, as he stumbled again on the uneven ground. He was afraid of this ghastly forest and of the man waiting for him at its outskirts.

Trow carried his prize in a roughly woven bag slung across his shoulders. Although the air was chill and dank, he was sweating and the coarse material of the bag itched through his jacket. The object’s rounded base slapped against his thigh as he chased the frail, yellow beam of his torch.

Arboreal night sounds populated the forest heights; the sweep of vast wings far above, interspersed by the harrowing caw of surprise and death as one life succumbed to another. The raucous cries of the forest’s denizens raised the gooseflesh on Trow’s pale arms.

He had always hated this planet but the first settlers had thought it beautiful. They had called it Lorien and immediately set about clearing the planet-wide forest. So many trees: they thought the forests would last forever.

Trow didn’t know much about the ecology of Lorien, and cared even less, but he knew that the dominant species of tree, the Sergao, were vast organisms with one Great Tree at their centre. Take out the Great Tree and the forest connected to it, died. The colony biologists had set out to save the species by protecting what was left but then someone touched the heart of a Great Sergao, and discovered that it could sing.

One by one the Great Trees were found and their hearts ripped out. Too bad. The Sergao forests, and the eerie creatures that depended upon them, were doomed.

Personally, Trow would be glad to see the last of them. Besides, the threat of extinction only made the object that he carried all the more valuable. If his buyer was there, as agreed, he was free. He could leave this forsaken planet and go home.

Trow gripped the bag harder and stumbled on.

The trees ended abruptly at the top of a cliff and he could hear the quiet slither of the calm, weed-laden ocean below. He stood for a moment, under the eaves of the forest, reluctant to reveal himself in the bright moonlight. Eventually, he moved out and stood at the top of the cliff, looking down. He could see no craft on the moonlit crescent beach below and no evidence that there was anyone waiting for him.

He cursed, feeling at once betrayed and relieved. He hadn’t wanted to make a meeting out here, in the middle of nowhere but the buyer had insisted and Trow was desperate. A dangerous situation but the buyer had offered an astronomical price for the rare, rapidly becoming rarer, heart of a Great Sergao; a Lorien Harp.

Still, if this buyer did not turn up, there would be others … if the authorities did not catch him with it first.

Trow shuddered at the thought. He shrugged the bag off his shoulders and let it drop carelessly at his feet. The ground was hard and the Harp reverberated with a hollow, hurt sound.

“Be careful with that,” hissed a voice behind him, from under the cover of the trees.

Trow swung around, nearly losing his balance on the edge of the cliff. His legs felt suddenly weak and shaky. He picked the bag up quickly, hugging it to his chest.

“Maestro,” he breathed, gripping the bag so hard his knuckles gleamed bone white through taut skin.

A tall figure moved into the clearing and walked towards him, with slow, long strides. Trow’s hand jumped to the small weapon hidden beneath his jacket but stalled by fear and indecision, it hovered ineffectually, before falling limply to his side. Trow felt himself held by the man’s gaze, like a small animal cowering in the shadow of a hawk.

The Maestro’s long black coat swirled about him in the gentle breeze, his face was planed in shadow and light, as intent and calm as a mask. But one look at the man’s eyes and Trow knew, fool that he was, that in trusting this man, he had made his last mistake.

* * * * *

The Disembarkation Hall was heaving with people and it was easy to go unnoticed if you were a small, wiry youngster. Pickings in the hall were always good when spaced-out passengers, recently awakened from deepsleep and cleared from quarantine, wandered into humanity’s largest space habitation.

Reece, and others like him, loitered with intent when a starship arrived. Sharp eyes and quick fingers were always rewarded. Besides, he enjoyed the atmosphere. The rhythm and cadence of hurrying humanity, the rise and fall of voices in the hall, the rushing waves of passing feet, were all music to his ears.

He searched the crowd, looking for changes in the flow of people and opportunities that might present themselves, and quickly picked out two groups of men; it was easy to single out the hunters in a crowd. He watched from his corner, interested and alert.

He did not recognise these men and it was clear they were not drawn from the gangs that controlled the station’s underworld. These were no ordinary thugs. Someone had paid a lot of money to bring professionals to the station.

The target appeared, carrying a holdall bag, the only luggage usually allowed on the long distance space cruises, and a leather instrument case. He must have paid dearly to have that shipped with him.

One group of men moved quickly to meet him, their long black cloaks matching that of the man who had disembarked. Their faces hard and their eyes alert.

Security, thought Reece.

The second group moved in before they were in place. They were quick – perhaps too quick.

The mark clearly knew he was in trouble. Reece saw his face go rigid with shock as his security was overwhelmed. Short range weapons flashed and the target dove for cover, falling beneath the surging feet of passersby.

Someone yelled “Maestro!” A jumble of shouts followed.

The instrument case flew out of the man’s grasp, skidded across the polished floor and was swiftly engulfed by the crowd.

People swiftly sidestepped the vicious altercation in their midst, no-one stopped to investigate. Like the flow of blood through arteries, humans as cells of some vast organism, carried on unheeding.

The case was knocked, trodden on and kicked further and further aside.

Entering the flow, Reece angled towards the case and smoothly picked it up, then allowed himself to be carried along, away from the Disembarkation Hall.

He did not look back and so did not see the Maestro get up from the floor and his men overwhelm their attackers.

The whole incident had lasted a few seconds.

Heart hammering with excitement, Reece ducked into a side passage and disappeared into the labyrinth of corridors in search of a quiet place to ditch the case and look at his prize.

It was not a violin, as he had hoped, but the sound that it made as he studied it, turning it over and over in his hands was a chord to break any heart.

Reece hesitated, wanting to keep it for himself but recompense was owed. There was a debt to pay.

He carefully bundled the strange object into his own bag, padding it out to disguise its shape and headed off in the direction of his old music teacher.

Reece palmed his way into Wally’s compartment, went straight to the old man’s bed and sat down, straight back, cross-legged.

Wally said nothing about the uninvited entrance but he did raise his eyebrows at the bag before getting up to make the boy a drink.

“I brought you something, Wally,” said the boy, trying to mask his glee in a conspiratorial whisper. “I found it. It’s mine but I want to give it to you, to make up for losing your violin. I’m real sorry about what happened, Wally. My Ma, well, she’s..” there was a pause, as small shoulders shrugged upwards, “she doesn’t understand.”

Wally felt bile burn the back of his throat. He kept his back to the boy, forced it down, while his gnarled hands trembled. It would do no good to rail at the child, to strike out at an innocent who at least wanted to right a wrong. He took a deep breath and concentrated on preparing drinks for them both.

“You’ll be in trouble for coming here again,” he said quietly, his back still turned.

He heard the boy shift restlessly on the bed. Whatever it was that he held in the bag gave out a quiet thrum, a discordant, questioning note and the boy whispered, “shhh. Quiet.”

The hairs on the back of Wally’s neck rose in alarm. He took the drinks to the table and sat down as quickly as he could. He studied the vaguely round, swaddled shape in the bag.

“What have you got there, Reece?” he asked.

“I found it,” declared the boy, his young mouth set in a determined line.

By this time, Wally’s heart was thumping so hard, he thought he was going to faint. He knew! That sound, that outline, it could only be one thing. He blinked, felt a prickle of sweat break out on his forehead. He gripped his knees to keep his hands from trembling violently.

He repeated his question. “What have you got in the bag?”

The boy’s face fell at Wally’s tone. “It’s hurt,” he said. “I knew that you’d know what to do. I knew that you could help it.”

Carefully, Reece pulled back the opening of the bag and lifted out a smooth, green and brown object. Its rounded body no bigger than a violin, the long shapely neck showed dark, violet marks where harsh treatment had bruised its delicacy. There was no head, or legs, no arms or hint of eyes or face.

Wally could not take his eyes off it.

A Lorien Harp.

Hints of phosphorescence flashed beneath skin with the texture of fine chamois. The puckered, leathery tissue of its opening was pale, flaky and shut as tight as the pursed lips of an angry, frightened woman.

Pity stirred so swiftly in his heart that Wally had already reached over and lifted the Harp out of the boy’s grasp before he realised what he was doing.

The Harp’s surface felt dry. Very gently, almost a feather touch, Wally ran a finger down the Harp’s neck, carefully avoiding the closed folds of its opening.

Wally looked into the boy’s expectant eyes. “It needs something,” he said at last, “its skin should be soft.”

Reece was up and gone before he had finished the sentence.

Silence filled the room. The Harp was not heavy and Wally could hold it easily in his arms. He studied it, savouring every line, every curve of this miraculous, living instrument. It was a legend, a treasure beyond calculation – and here it was, in his hands.

Wonderment filled him. He didn’t want to think about how this magical thing had come into his life. This moment, this brief possession, was something so precious that there was no time for questioning.

Reece returned, just as suddenly as he had left, to find that the old man had not moved but he saw that the colours of the Harp had deepened a little.

“Here,” he said, passing over a small container. “It’s from Ma’s cosmetics. She’s always putting it on her hands and face. It’s meant to soften skin. Will it do?”

Wally undid the container and the smell of cheap, perfumed moisturiser wafted up. He remembered the woman’s hard face and her narrowed, feral eyes reflecting only satisfaction as she destroyed his violin, trampled his music and slandered him for keeping the company of her boy.

He was too old to fight such battles, too weak, too heartbroken. Even so, he had understood and even pitied her. And she had been right, too, to fear that his relationship with Reece would weaken her hold on her son; her crutch and provider. Through his music, Wally had set out to share something of himself before he died, to pass on a little wisdom and hope that some seed might take root.

Even so, the fury of her reaction had stunned him and Wally had been forced to accept that once again, life had found another instrument through which to bludgeon him.

The old man sighed, wondering that such a woman would want to soften her skin. Still, did it matter now?

Surely a little moisturiser would not hurt and perhaps it would help. He dipped his finger into the cream and gently rubbed it into the surface of the Harp.

Reece leaned forward, watching as the Harp appeared to absorb the cream.

“Will you play it?” he asked at last.

Wally shook his head, smiled gently. “No,” he said, “this is a living creature, not an instrument that you tune and play. To force music from a Lorien Harp would be like forcing a wo-.” Wally caught himself.  “You can make them play but their real music cannot be forced. If it recovers, if we are patient and caring, perhaps then it will share with us.”

Reece’s face was solemn. He studied Wally and the Harp for a long moment, the usual mischief absent from his eyes. He reached out and touched the arm that cradled the Harp.

“My ma used to hold me like that sometimes,” he said, “a long time ago.” He gazed down at the Harp for a long moment. “Can I come back tomorrow?”

Wally nodded. “Please,” he started to speak a warning.

“Don’t worry,” said Reece, waving his concerns aside, the mischievous grin returning. “I won’t tell. This’ll be our secret.”

Wally watched the boy leave before going over to change the code on his lock. The door would not be strong enough to hold back a determined intruder but at least he would have some warning.

Still holding the Harp in his arms, he went back to his bed and lay down.

“I don’t know what you need,” he said to it quietly, “and chances are I won’t have much time to find out. At least, for a little while, you’ll be safe here with me.”

He nestled the body of the Harp into the crook of his arm and lay his cheek against its warm surface. His other hand rested lightly against the Harp’s curving side.

After a time, he fell back to sleep.

* * * * *

The humid air of his breath washed over the Harp’s surface, rustling its tiny follicles. The cream had clogged its pores, dulling senses that were already stressed from recent rough handling and the emanation of violent, alien passions.

The tranquil presence of an unhurried, undemanding body, so like the vast warmth that had once nurtured it, encouraged the Harp to clean itself. Tentatively at first and then with more confidence, tiny anemone, as fine as the dust on butterfly wings, rose out from minuscule follicles. In waves, it cleared its clogged surface of the cloying gunk that the man had so carefully applied, rolling it in greasy droplets down its body, to where it dripped onto the bed. Once clean, the Harp’s anemone-like tentacles searched for a more suitable source of nutrition.

As lightly as the flutter of a lovers eyelash against his cheek, the Harp explored the creases of Wally’s old skin, the corner of his nose, the wrinkled nest around his eyes, his temples and the stubbled edge of his beard, gently removing oils that it could use.

All the time, the Harp was aware, as a bud might feel the warmth of the sun, of the man’s soft-rough skin and pressure of his hand, light and gentle. Then, in its own way, the Harp too, slept.

* * * * *

Reece came back. He brought Wally food so he would not have to go out and leave the Harp. The two of them sat at the table like old buddies.

Reece asked to hold the Harp and Wally carefully placed it in his arms. The boy rocked it gently, humming nonsense tunes to it, before giving it back.

“It feels safer with you,” he said. There was no jealousy or rancour in his voice. Reece knew his responsibility. Wally and the Harp depended upon him to look after them, to keep their secret.

The Harp looked much better; its lights were shining with new vitality beneath its strange, luminescent skin. It sometimes made small sounds that brought a delicious tingle to the base of Reece’s spine. He wanted the Harp to be happy with them.

He didn’t want to worry Wally with news of dark cloaked strangers in the corridors. He could protect them.

“Do you think the Harp will want us to play it one day?” he asked hopefully.

Wally smiled. “Maybe,” he said, “if we’re patient.”

* * * * *

Reece gave his coded knock on the door and waited. Wally opened it and let him in, putting a finger to his lips. He locked the door behind them and they crept together towards the bed. The Harp was glistening, shimmering with expectant vitality.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” said Wally, and his voice was warm and deep. Reece noticed that the folds of the Harp’s puckered opening had relaxed, revealing a lush crimson interior.

The reaction this stirred in him was immediate and manifest with adolescent urgency. He blushed deeply, swinging his bag off his shoulder so that it hung down in front of him.

Wally was unaware of the youngster’s sudden discomfort or the self-conscious way he held the bag. He was focussed on the Harp, feeling the heat rising from its surface as he took it in his arms. He gently stroked its side, whispering and murmuring as it opened itself to him, revealing more of its tender surfaces as it began to hum in time to his caresses, a pleasant, mellow sound that became steadily warmer, telling Wally where and how to touch it.

Colours fused and melded across its surface, rising and falling beneath Wally’s hand as he gently and with infinite care moved closer to the opening, until with the very tips of his fingers, he gently touched the inner chords.

The surface of the Harp suffused with colour and a sound of exquisite, aching melody rose and fell as his hand moved deeper, stroking, exploring. Wally’s body moved with the building rhythm, muscles growing looser and suppler with joy. His hands roamed along the Harp’s neck, stroked the smooth bole and his other hand continued to caress and touch the Harp’s hidden, secret heart.

Captured, enraptured by the sound, Reece abandoned himself to the music, his body writhing in ecstasy. He dropped the bag and began to dance while Wally’s hands moved with confidence, grace and skill. Harp and man learning and teaching each other in a passionate exploration.

The Harp’s music filled the small room, lifted them up, bonded their senses with joy, and set them free.

* * * * *

When Reece got home, he discovered his mother waiting for him.

“There’s ‘bin people ‘ere, asking fer you,” she accused. “’Bin sayin’ some music-man were robbed of his stuff – his real valuable stuff. They’ll pay ‘ter get it back.”

“Ain’t seen nothing,” declared Reece, feeling his heart stop. No!

The woman got up from her seat, swift, despite her size. Her face was clenched in an unpleasant grimace as she snatched up her son and shook him violently.

“Yeah. You see nuffin’ so often, I’m wundrin’ if you ain’t blind.” She cuffed him. “Passed it on, didn’tcha.”

She studied him with a knowing look that only heightened the avarice in her face. “So, how much d’old man give ya, eh? Can’t ‘magine it be much.”

Reece cried out in denial and in doing so, gave away his secret. She grinned at him, triumphant.

He stammered something but his heart was pounding too hard to spare the breath. He wriggled out of her grasp, retreating until his back was against the wall.

“You, you didn’t say – you didn’t send them to Wally’s?”

Wally! The Harp!

Her smile said everything.

The next moment, Reece was out the door and bolting blindly through the corridors. Even taking shortcuts, he knew he could not beat the men in long coats.

All the way, between gasping breaths he sobbed, “oh no, oh no”, knowing that he was already too late.

* * * * *

Wally lay the Harp down on his bed and gently ran his hand down its side. Languorous swirls of phosphorescence followed in the wake of his caress and it gave a quiet hum of contentment; a peaceful melody with undertones of loneliness and past suffering. The sound trailed away into what might have been a question, “How long?”

Wally’s eyes filled with tears. He wanted to think that the Harp understood him, this alien heart of a now extinct forest but even if its music was only a resonation of his own feelings, he did not care. It was precious, it trusted him and these moments were a joy. This time was a sanctuary of sorts, and in their own way, both knew it could not last.

Wally’s back was turned to the door when it exploded inwards with a muted thud and a vicious hail of plastic and twisted steel. Wally did not feel the thin blade of shrapnel that hit him in the back, piercing his thin old body. His legs collapsed beneath him and he grunted as he hit the floor.

He was conscious of several pairs of black boots entering his compartment, crunching the remains of his destroyed door. He was conscious of being kicked in the side but he did not feel anything.

Something crashed into the side of his face and his world fractured into spinning kaleidoscopes that threatened to drown him. He wanted to cry out, beg for understanding.

The Harp! Please don’t hurt it. But no sound came.

With an exclamation of triumph, one of the men swooped down upon the bed, the edges his long cloak swept the walls of the small compartment like the wings of some great bird. The Harp made a sound that could have been a whisper of fear as it was grasped around its neck.

The intruders spoke words that Wally could not hear. He did not really care that he was dying. After all, what was the worth of an old man’s life when his music and his love were stolen?

He saw the Harp, one final time, as it was swung down in front of his face still in the grasp of the black coated intruder. It seemed that the man was taunting him.

Wally wanted to touch it, to say goodbye, but he could not move and the only sound he could make in farewell was a quiet sigh of regret and loss, carried away on his final breath.

* * * * *

A small group of tenants crowded around the remains of the old man’s door. None of them had entered the small compartment. A light strobed the corridor in flashes of blue, and an alarm rang shrilly, but security would not hurry to this part of the station.

Reece shoved his way through the observers, his feet skidding on debris. His breath came in a harsh, rasping moan as he knelt down beside his friend’s body.

He gently touched the shard of steel that protruded from Wally’s back. Blood was already turning his clothing black, creating a sticky pool amidst the rubbish.

The old man’s face was turned towards the door, one eye a bloody, pulped mess, his hand stretched out across the floor.

Reece sat beside Wally for a long while before getting up and making his way to the door. What was left of the crowd of onlookers moved aside quickly, falling back before the look on the boy’s face.

* * * * *

Finally! Safely in his suite, the Maestro caressed his prize. It had cost him a fortune to obtain this treasure and now at last, the journey was over, the Harp was once again safe in his hands.

His.

The Maestro could wait no longer. He stroked the Harp and his hands, sticky with anticipation, left streaks down its greenish sides. The Harp’s puckered opening was clenched tight.

Disappointed at first, the Maestro soon became angry. His elegant, powerful fingers stroked and probed, growing intrusive, impatient and demanding while the Harp’s surface grew dull and grey, its phosphorescence fading.

Eventually, the Maestro put it aside but as he did, the Harp sang.

A single chord that captured unmistakably a whispered sigh of regret and loss: the last breath escaping an old man’s lips in a soft exhalation of life.

“Exhalation” was first published by Aurealis in 2000. It was also the story that accompanied my submission for the ClarionWest Writers’ Workshop which saw me accepted into the Class of 2002 – a truly life-changing experience.

The first draft of “Exhalation” originated as a recollection of – believe it or not – an Hawaii 5-0 episode that I watched when I was just a kid – about an elderly music teacher who finds himself the brief guardian of a stolen Stradivarius. That episode affected me deeply, so much so that one day, many years later, I wrote a story in which I tried to capture the tenderness and tragedy that imbued that theme.

“Exhalation” is a story of abuse of power, obsession, innocence, love and loss. One day I will return to this universe: the Harp is a seed and Reece’s journey is not finished.

 

Illustration by Kerry Valkova 2001. (Accompanied the original publication in Aurealis issue #27/28)

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