Sunday, September 13, 2009


Lynn asked for a story about alien violins. It got me thinking, so I dashed off this little thing.

Tony cradled the instrument in his arms. It fit as if it had been made to rest there. The ship had docked twenty minutes ago and he had been waiting to see the commissioner since he got on board. He could wait.

Caruthers strode briskly into the room. “Congratulations. I see you've had some success.”

Tony looked at him quizzically.

“They gave you one of their violins. That's got to mean something. And linguistics is thrilled by how much more of the language you've worked out. I was right to send you.”

“They didn't give it to me.”

“Oh? You were still the best team for the job. Husband and wife, xenologist and musician. Just the right people to study these beings.”

Tony looked at the violin. He was sitting, the bow on the table in front of him. Caruthers sat down facing him.

“Look, uh, I'm sorry about Judith. How long ago was the accident?”

“Four months. We had only been here six weeks when it happened.”

“So you've been alone here all that time.”

“Not alone.”

“No, of course, you've been with them, the Londi. What does it mean, by the way, their name for themselves?”

“I'm not sure about the translation. The nearest I can come is 'keeper.'”

“I see,” he said, not sure that he did. “Well then, you've made some good progress on the language. Hoboken was particularly interested in their music. Did Judith learn anything much about that before . . .”

“Before she died. No, not really. It was what we focused on at first. We'd listen to them play for hours. Every musician playing a unique tune, all beautiful in their own way, but all clearly in the same genre. Totally alien, but eerily familiar. We'd listen to their performances, solo and in groups, we'd record and play them back, but Judith could make nothing of them. She said that the musical system they use is completely unfamiliar, and very complex, but for all that it is still moving, still beautiful.

“We worked on it for weeks. I moved ahead with basic linguistics and made cultural observations, but everything seemed to center on what we called the violins. After a while I began to wonder how they are made.” He took up the straw-yellow bow and held it over the deep green violin, as if he were about to play. After a moment he put the bow down on the table again. “I had gone to ask about that very thing when it happened.”

His head was bent down, as if he were staring at the table top. Caruthers wanted to interrupt, wanted to get him back on track, but he didn't.

“She just tripped. On a step. A slip and fall. What's the worst that can happen? A bad bruise? A sprained wrist? A stupid little accident. No sense.” His eyes were filling with tears. “We travel hundreds of light years. We put down on an alien planet, live among a new species, only the eleventh intelligent life-form we've found. Exotic, amazing, exciting. We're the couple on the recruiting poster. 'See the universe, discover new life, be a pioneer.' All that, and she dies in a household accident? Why?”

“I don't know Tony. It doesn't make any sense.”

“No. I didn't understand. But the Londi, they seemed to. They understood my pain. In mourning, we finally had something universal, something we both understood.”

“They understood mourning? That was some key to understanding?”

“Yes. They talked to me. They showed me how they make the violins.”


“Beautiful, isn't it? Notice how the deep color lightens as you move up the fingerboard? Look at the way it's shaped. All curves. No straight lines, not a flat surface or a sharp angle on it. It seems to flow, as if it were in motion, even though it is still.”

“Yes, they look as beautiful as they sound.” Caruthers waited for Tony to continue, but he seemed lost in thought. “So, uh, they showed you how to make them?”

“At first, I thought it was just a funerary rite. When we were on Silaris a tribal elder died. They built a fantastic boat with great gray sails, laid him on the deck, and sent it out during a storm. When we were part of the contact team on Trimania we learned that the dead were boiled in a mild acid, cleaning the bones of all flesh. Once every sixteen days for the rest of the year relatives open the tomb and wash the bones. I thought it was a Londi ceremony, nothing more. I was touched that they grieved with me.

“They helped me bury her. A little more than three feet down, no box, just Judith, in the rich, black soil. We buried her slowly, gently, one handful at a time. And right there, right over her heart, I placed the bulb.

“It was a little violet thing, half the size of my fist. When the all the soil was in place, we watered it. Tears, of course, but more. Her grave was like a mud pie.” He smiled slightly at the thought.

“Some sort of symbolism perhaps? Water of life?”

“I thought the same. Even in mourning, even then, I was still a xenologist. But no, not symbolic. Practical.

“In a few days the plant sprouted. It grew surprisingly fast. In a week it was a meter tall. In two, it began to twist. They showed me how to tend it, how to direct the growth so that it finally grew into the proper shape. This shape.”

“The violin? The instrument is grown? Any craft work? Whittling, cutting, sanding? What about the strings?”

“No. When it reaches it's final shape the stalk is cut, and that's all. The strings grow right where they are. You have to tend it carefully to make sure that they grow where you want them, but they do grow.”

“And they grew it over the grave. Why?”

Tony didn't answer. Not at first. He picked up the violin, the neck in his left hand, the base of it pressed against his chest. He took the bow in his right and drew it across the strings.

He had never been particularly musical. Not like Judith. Judith loved music, and she was good at it. But now he played, and the music was wonderful.

Judith had been a sad and lonely little girl. Alone much of the time with a drunken father and an emotionally distant mother, she had escaped into her studies. In her whole life she had never seen a happy marriage and didn't think they existed. Then she met Tony. Tony brought joy, enthusiasm, and unconditional love into her life. Her adult life was as different from her childhood as a lake is from a desert.

In time she felt that something was missing, something she needed but couldn't name. It was Tony's idea at first. She had never wanted, never dreamed that she would want to bring life into the universe. Now she knew. She wanted to be a mother. She wanted to make a baby with Tony, to have the family that she never had before. It would be soon, they would start right after this mission. They would take a leave to start their family. She loved the child, yet unborn, not yet conceived. The image of it was her great joy.

All this, all this and more, was in the music that came from the violin. Caruthers had only ever met Judith in passing; he barely remembered her, but now he felt all this, her joy, her pain, her dreams, her love, her yearning, hopes, prayers, tears, and desires. It was all there, in the loud, soft, soaring, simple, rich, vibrant music that Tony drew from the violin.

Caruthers thought of himself as a hard man, a tough man. He wasn't used to crying, certainly not in front of other people, but now he did. He looked into Tony's eyes as the music ended and he felt the man's loss.

“The music, it's . . .” He wasn't sure what he was going to say.

“It's their souls. The Londi play the souls of their dead, all their lives, and long after.” For a long minute he held the instrument close to him, then raised the bow and began again.


Lynn said...

Thanks, that's fantastic!

DM said...

What a really great story, Glenn.

You know, I've always been impressed with your writing, and I've thought of it as clever, eloquent and funny. This story forces me to reevaluate your talent.

This short piece is genuinely moving on a human level and an intriguing bit of speculative science fiction at the same time.

You must publish this.