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Fifteen Notes

William Squirrell is a Canadian writer living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in numerous online and print venues and he is the editor of the science fiction journal Big Echo (bigecho.org). He can be found on twitter @billsquirrell, or through his website: blindsquirrell.com.

Six of the rioters were hung from the branches of the oak tree in the square. How they jigged to the Devil's tune! When their struggles ceased they dangled by their necks; heads at perverse angles; dirty toes pointing to the ground. We gathered stones, of course, us children, and called out targets, collected points, accrued merit. When the ravens came to feed the game improved and there were huzzahs for direct hits. Our merry laughter drowned the outrage of the sacred birds. It was the last glorious moment of our childhood. After a couple of days the windows and doors were bolted against the stench and the ravens ate in peace.
A hot wind blew down from the sunbaked peaks. It blew for weeks through the mountain gullies, through the alleys and streets of the town, moaning and groaning, scrubbing away the stink of death. People lay in bed listening to the wind plucking the sinews of the dead men, rushing through bones, rustling webs of desiccated skin. No one liked the song the hanging tree sang but the wind kept boiling across the roofs and along the streets and it was impossible to escape the melody. On and on and on it went: the first thing you heard when you woke in the morning and the last as you struggled to fall asleep in the oppressive night. It was even in our dreams. Everyone learned it. Everyone could hum it. Whistle along. I can remember it still. Those fifteen notes are sunk into the night-soil coils of my brain, scratched into the interior of my skull like a prayer into a prison wall. Finally, in August, in a fit of insomniac rage, a manager from the gas works painted the tree with tar and set it alight. The bodies danced again, popping and cracking like pine cones in a forest fire. The wind whipped the flames into a towering column. Clouds of flickering, fluttering embers were swept heavenward.
In the spring strange vines sprouted in the fields and the orchards that ringed our town. Thick and veined, they coiled tightly around whatever they could find, squeezing and choking. Their milky sweat caused boiling rashes; their long, thin roots broke off deep in the ground and festered like tick heads under the skin of the Earth; when cut or bruised they emitted a sulfuric stench so intense it made your eyes water and your stomach twist. Those that survived the farmers' vigorous culling sprouted fat, testicular pods which burst at the lightest touch. For six years they were a plague on our agriculture and we waged a holy war on them, defeating them in the seventh. But it was a hollow victory, for by then the wooded hills around us had become a horror. They had spread there, unopposed, corrugating the forest floor, throttling the saplings with ease. After fourteen years even the sturdiest of the trees had been torn down by the strangling noose. Only a few ancient oak groves survived, sturdy rings of massive gravity, draped with seething ropes, lurid flowers, dripping toxic ichor, surrounded by crawling miles of rotting timber. We didn't know what to do, we felt helpless, so we burned it all, and again the smoke went up, and, again, the seeds were scattered by the wind.
By middle-age the children who had once thrown rocks at the corpses of turbulent workers saw the end of the cotton fields and tobacco plantations that had made their fathers wealthy. The flood plains we looked down on from our fastness had become a desolation: tubers like deformed feet, twisting roots thick as wrists, bladders, gourds, pulsating tumors had all been dug up, pulled out of the soil with steel hooks, hacked into pieces, plowed back under with salt and lime. Their spread had, more or less, been checked, but at what cost? The land died, the cool forests were gone, the rich fields fallow, the sterile deserts reached our closed gates, and we grew old, reclusive, introspective.
And I waste water on the roses in my courtyard. I pluck their beds clean with knobbled fingers, coax the buds to bloom, caress the flowers, kiss the petals with my lashes. In the evening I inhale their delicate exhalations. In the mornings I examine the crumbled earth around their roots, sick with fear, expecting to find not only the usual weeds with their tender, twinned leaves, sprung up overnight, but a hand, pale as a parsnip growing out of the parched soil. One day I will dust debris from a curious lump to find an ugly face looking up at me from the dirt, white mushroom eyes, split lips contorting into a dry derisive whistle and I will hear once again, outside my dreams, my nightmares, outside my head, that vigorous, muscular melody, those fifteen notes so artlessly strung together, those fifteen notes that I first heard as a child, and whose echo I have lived with ever since, those fifteen notes which will announce the end of the old, and the beginning of something terrible and incomprehensible and new.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Author Comments

"Fifteen Notes" is the product of a dream. The titular notes are from Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

- William Squirrell
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