Maps in a mirror, p.49

Maps in a Mirror, page 49


Maps in a Mirror

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  And so finally he did what he knew he should have done in the first place. He called the Watchers.

  They came in the middle of a performance, a blind Watcher with a dog on a leash, and a Watcher with no ears who walked unsteadily, holding to things for balance. They came in the middle of a song, and did not wait for it to end. They walked to the piano and closed the lid gently, and Chris withdrew his fingers and looked at the closed lid.

  “Oh, Christian,” said the man with the seeing-eye dog.

  “I’m sorry,” Christian answered. “I tried not to.”

  “Oh, Christian, how can I bear doing to you what must be done?”

  “Do it,” Christian said.

  And so the man with no ears took a laser knife from his coat pocket and cut off Christian’s fingers and thumbs, right where they rooted into his hands. The laser cauterized and sterilized the wound even as it cut, but still some blood spattered on Christian’s uniform. And, his hands now meaningless palms and useless knuckles, Christian stood and walked out of Joe’s Bar and Grill. The people made way for him again, and they listened intently as the blind Watcher said, “That was a man who broke the law and was forbidden to be a Maker. He broke the law a second time, and the law insists that he be stopped from breaking down the system that makes all of you so happy.”

  The people understood. It grieved them, it made them uncomfortable for a few hours, but once they had returned to their exactly-right homes and got back to their exactly-right jobs, the sheer contentment of their lives overwhelmed their momentary sorrow for Chris. After all, Chris had broken the law. And it was the law that kept them all safe and happy.

  Even Joe. Even Joe soon forgot Chris and his music. He knew he had done the right thing. He couldn’t figure out, though, why a man like Chris would have broken the law in the first place, or what law he would have broken. There wasn’t a law in the world that wasn’t designed to make people happy—and there wasn’t a law Joe could think of that he was even mildly interested in breaking.

  Yet. Once Joe went to the piano and lifted the lid and played every key on the piano. And when he had done that he put his head down on the piano and cried, because he knew that when Chris lost that piano, lost even his fingers so he could never play again—it was like Joe losing his bar. And if Joe ever lost his bar, his life wouldn’t be worth living.

  As for Chris, someone else began coming to the bar driving the same doughnut delivery van, and no one ever knew Chris again in that part of the world.


  “Oh what a beautiful mornin’!” sang the road crew man who had seen Oklahoma! four times in his home town.

  “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham!” sang the road crew man who had learned to sing when his family got together with guitars.

  “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom!” sang the road crew man who believed.

  But the road crew man without hands, who held the signs telling the traffic to Stop or go Slow, listened but never sang.

  “Whyn’t you never sing?” asked the road crew man who liked Rodgers and Hammerstein; asked all of them, at one time or another.

  And the man they called Sugar just shrugged. “Don’t feel like singin’,” he’d say, when he said anything at all.

  “Why they call him Sugar?” a new guy once asked. “He don’t look sweet to me.”

  And the man who believed said, “His initials are C H. Like the sugar. C&H, you know.” And the new guy laughed. A stupid joke, but the kind of gag that makes life easier on the road-building crew.

  Not that life was that hard. For these men, too, had been tested, and they were in the job that made them happiest. They took pride in the pain of sunburn and pulled muscles, and the road growing long and thin behind them was the most beautiful thing in the world. And so they sang all day at their work, knowing that they could not possibly be happier than they were this day.

  Except Sugar.

  Then Guillermo came. A short Mexican who spoke with an accent, Guillermo told everyone who asked, “I may come from Sonora, but my heart belongs in Milano!” And when anyone asked why (and often when no one asked anything) he’d explain. “I’m an Italian tenor in a Mexican body,” and he proved it by singing every note that Puccini and Verdi ever wrote. “Caruso was nothing,” Guillermo boasted. “Listen to this!”

  Guillermo had records, and sang along with them, and at work on the road crew he’d join in with any man’s song and harmonize with it, or sing an obligato high above the melody, a soaring tenor that took the roof off his head and filled the clouds. “I can sing,” Guillermo would say, and soon the other road crew men answered. “Damn right, Guillermo! Sing it again!”

  But one night Guillermo was honest, and told the truth. “Ah, my friends, I’m no singer.”

  “What do you mean? Of course you are!” came the unanimous answer.

  “Nonsense!” Guillermo cried, his voice theatrical. “If I am this great singer, why do you never see me going off to record songs? Hey? This is a great singer? Nonsense! Great singers they raise to be great singers. I’m just a man who loves to sing, but has no talent! I’m a man who loves to work on the road crew with men like you, and sing his guts out, but in the opera I could never be! Never!”

  He did not say it sadly. He said it fervently, confidently. “Here is where I belong! I can sing to you who like to hear me sing! I can harmonize with you when I feel a harmony in my heart. But don’t be thinking that Guillermo is a great singer, because he’s not!”

  It was an evening of honesty, and every man there explained why it was he was happy on the road crew, and didn’t wish to be anywhere else. Everyone, that is, except Sugar.

  “Come on, Sugar. Aren’t you happy here?”

  Sugar smiled. “I’m happy. I like it here. This is good work for me. And I love to hear you sing.”

  “Then why don’t you sing with us?”

  Sugar shook his head. “I’m not a singer.”

  But Guillermo looked at him knowingly. “Not a singer, ha! Not a singer. A man without hands who refuses to sing is not a man who is not a singer. Hey?”

  “What the hell does that mean?” asked the man who sang folksongs.

  “It means that this man you call Sugar, he’s a fraud. Not a singer! Look at his hands. All his fingers gone! Who is it who cuts off men’s fingers?”

  The road crew didn’t try to guess. There were many ways a man could lose fingers, and none of them were anyone’s business.

  “He loses his fingers because he breaks the law and the Watchers cut them off! That’s how a man loses fingers. What was he doing with his fingers that the Watchers wanted him to stop? He was breaking the law, wasn’t he?”

  “Stop,” Sugar said.

  “If you want,” Guillermo said, but for once the others would not respect Sugar’s privacy.

  “Tell us,” they said.

  Sugar left the room.

  “Tell us,” and Guillermo told them. That Sugar must have been a Maker who broke the law and was forbidden to make music anymore. The very thought that a Maker was working on the road crew with them—even a lawbreaker—filled the men with awe. Makers were rare, and they were the most esteemed of men and women.

  “But why his fingers?”

  “Because,” Guillermo said, “he must have tried to make music again afterward. And when you break the law a second time, the power to break it a third time is taken away from you.” Guillermo spoke seriously, and so to the road crew men Sugar’s story sounded as majestic and terrible as an opera. They crowded into Sugar’s room, and found the man staring at the wall.

  “Sugar, is it true?” asked the man who loved Rodgers and Hammerstein.

  “Were you a Maker?” asked the man who believed.

  “Yes,” Sugar said.

  “But Sugar,” the man who believed said, “God can’t mean for a man to stop making music, even if he broke the law.”

  Sugar smiled. “No one asked God.”

Guillermo finally said, “There are nine of us on the crew, nine of us, and we’re miles from any human beings. You know us, Sugar. We swear on our mother’s graves, every one of us, that we’ll never tell a soul. Why should we? You’re one of us. But sing, dammit man, sing!”

  “I can’t,” Sugar said. “You don’t understand.”

  “It isn’t what God intended,” said the man who believed. “We’re all doing what we love best, and here you are, loving music and not able to sing a note. Sing for us! Sing with us! And only you and us and God will know!”

  They all promised. They all pleaded.

  And the next day as the man who loved Rodgers and Hammerstein sang “Love, Look Away,” Sugar began to hum. As the man who believed sang “God of Our Fathers” Sugar sang softly along. And as the man who loved folksongs sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Sugar joined in with a strange, piping voice and all the men laughed and cheered and welcomed Sugar’s voice to the songs.

  Inevitably Sugar began inventing. First harmonies, of course, strange harmonies that made Guillermo frown and then, after a while, grin as he joined in, sensing as best he could what Sugar was doing to the music.

  And after harmonies, Sugar began singing his own melodies, with his own words. He made them repetitive, the word simple and the melodies simpler still. And yet he shaped them into odd shapes, and built them into songs that had never been heard of before, that sounded wrong and yet were absolutely right. It was not long before the man who loved Rodgers and Hammerstein and the man who sang folksongs and the man who believed were learning Sugar’s songs and singing them joyously or mournfully or angrily or gaily as they worked along the road.

  Even Guillermo learned the songs, and his strong tenor was changed by them until his voice, which had, after all, been ordinary, became something unusual and fine. Guillermo finally said to Sugar one day, “Hey, Sugar, your music is all wrong, man. But I like the way it feels in my nose! Hey, you know? I like the way it feels in my mouth!”

  Some of the songs were hymns: “Keep me hungry, Lord,” Sugar sang, and the road crew sang it too.

  Some of the songs were love songs: “Put your hands in someone else’s pockets,” Sugar sang angrily; “I hear your voice in the morning,” Sugar sang tenderly; “Is it summer yet?” Sugar sang sadly; and the road crew sang it, too.

  Over the months the road crew changed, one man leaving on Wednesday and a new man taking his place on Thursday, as different skills were needed in different places. Sugar was silent when each newcomer came, until the man had given his word and the secret was sure to be kept.

  What finally destroyed Sugar was the fact that his songs were so unforgettable. The men who left would sing the songs with their new crews, and those crews would learn them, and teach them to others. Crewmen taught the songs in bars and on the road; people learned them quickly, and loved them; and one day a blind Watcher heard the songs and knew, instantly, who had first sung them. They were Christian Haroldsen’s music, because in those melodies, simple as they were, the wind of the north woods still whistled and the fall of leaves still hung oppressively over every note and—and the Watcher sighed. He took a specialized tool from his file of tools and boarded an airplane and flew to the city closest to where a certain road crew worked. And the blind Watcher took a company car with a company driver up the road and at the end of it, where the road was just beginning to pierce a strip of wilderness, the blind Watcher got out of the car and heard singing. Heard a piping voice singing a song that made even an eyeless man weep.

  “Christian,” the Watcher said, and the song stopped.

  “You,” said Christian.

  “Christian, even after you lost your fingers?”

  The other men didn’t understand—all the other men, that is, except Guillermo.

  “Watcher,” said Guillermo. “Watcher, he done no harm.”

  The Watcher smiled wryly. “No one said he did. But he broke the law. You, Guillermo, how would you like to work as a servant in a rich man’s house? How would you like to be a bank teller?”

  “Don’t take me from the road crew, man,” Guillermo said.

  “It’s the law that finds where people will be happy. But Christian Haroldsen broke the law. And he’s gone around ever since making people hear music they were never meant to hear.”

  Guillermo knew he had lost the battle before it began, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Don’t hurt him, man. I was meant to hear his music. Swear to God, it’s made me happier.”

  The Watcher shook his head sadly. “Be honest, Guillermo. You’re an honest man. His music’s made you miserable, hasn’t it? You’ve got everything you could want in life, and yet his music makes you sad. All the time, sad.”

  Guillermo tried to argue, but he was honest, and he looked into his own heart, and he knew that the music was full of grief. Even the happy songs mourned for something; even the angry songs wept; even the love songs seemed to say that everything dies and contentment is the most fleeting thing. Guillermo looked in his own heart and all Sugar’s music stared back up at him and Guillermo wept.

  “Just don’t hurt him, please,” Guillermo murmured as he cried.

  “I won’t,” the blind Watcher said. Then he walked to Christian, who stood passively waiting, and he held the special tool up to Christian’s throat. Christian gasped.

  “No,” Christian said, but the word only formed with his lips and tongue. No sound came out. Just a hiss of air. “No.”

  The road crew watched silently as the Watcher led Christian away. They did not sing for days. But then Guillermo forgot his grief one day and sang an aria from La Bohème, and the songs went on from there. Now and then they sang one of Sugar’s songs, because the songs could not be forgotten.

  In the city, the blind Watcher furnished Christian with a pad of paper and a pen. Christian immediately gripped the pencil in the crease of his palm and wrote: “What do I do now?”

  The driver read the note aloud, and the blind Watcher laughed. “Have we got a job for you! Oh, Christian, have we got a job for you!” The dog barked loudly, to hear his master laugh.


  In all the world there were only two dozen Watchers. They were secretive men, who supervised a system that needed little supervision because it actually made nearly everybody happy. It was a good system, but like even the most perfect of machines, here and there it broke down. Here and there someone acted madly, and damaged himself, and to protect everyone and the person himself, a Watcher had to notice the madness and go to fix it.

  For many years the best of the Watchers was a man with no fingers, a man with no voice. He would come silently, wearing the uniform that named him with the only name he needed—Authority. And he would find the kindest, easiest, yet most thorough way of solving the problem and curing the madness and preserving the system that made the world, for the first time in history, a very good place to live. For practically everyone.

  For there were still a few people—one or two each year—who were caught in a circle of their own devising, who could neither adjust to the system nor bear to harm it, people who kept breaking the law despite their knowledge that it would destroy them.

  Eventually, when the gentle maimings and deprivations did not cure their madness and set them back into the system, they were given uniforms and they, too, went out. Watching.

  The keys of power were placed in the hands of those who had most cause to hate the system they had to preserve. Were they sorrowful?

  “I am,” Christian answered in the moments when he dared to ask himself that question.

  In sorrow he did his duty. In sorrow he grew old. And finally the other Watchers, who reverenced the silent man (for they knew he had once sung magnificent songs), told him he was free. “You’ve served your time,” said the Watcher with no legs, and he smiled.

  Christian raised an eyebrow, as if to say, “And?”

  “So wander.”

  Christian wandered. He took off his uniform, but lacking ne
ither money nor time he found few doors closed to him. He wandered where in his former lives he had once lived. A road in the mountains. A city where he had once known the loading entrance of every restaurant and coffee shop and grocery store. And at last to a place in the woods where a house was falling apart in the weather because it had not been used in forty years.

  Christian was old. The thunder roared and it only made him realize that it was about to rain. All the old songs. All the old songs, he mourned inside himself, more because he couldn’t remember them than because he thought his life had been particularly sad.

  As he sat in a coffee shop in a nearby town to stay out of the rain, he heard four teenagers who played the guitar very badly singing a song that he knew. It was a song he had invented while the asphalt poured on a hot summer day. The teenagers were not musicians and certainly were not Makers. But they sang the song from their hearts, and even though the words were happy, the song made everyone who heard it cry.

  Christian wrote on the pad he always carried, and showed his question to the boys. “Where did that song come from?”

  “It’s a Sugar song,” the leader of the group answered. “It’s a song by Sugar.”

  Christian raised an eyebrow, making a shrugging motion.

  “Sugar was a guy who worked on a road crew and made up songs. He’s dead now, though,” the boy answered.

  “Best damn songs in the world,” another boy said, and they all nodded.

  Christian smiled. Then he wrote (and the boys waited impatiently for this speechless old man to go away): “Aren’t you happy? Why sing sad songs?”

  The boys were at a loss for an answer. The leader spoke up, though, and said, “Sure I’m happy. I’ve got a good job, a girl I like, and man, I couldn’t ask for more. I got my guitar. I got my songs. And my friends.”

  And another boy said, “These songs aren’t sad, Mister. Sure, they make people cry, but they aren’t sad.”

  “Yeah,” said another. “It’s just that they were written by a man who knows.”

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