“Gravestones or piano keys?”
The mall—pocked and picked over, blinding white at noon—offered stray sections of fallen pillars and an upright Steinway & Sons. The piano was painted a sickly olivine, its middle six tuned and within a half note. Mickey peered inside the harp board and made a mental note of the missing high and low cables. Low for strangling, high for cutting, he thought.
“May as well be,” said Nance. She eaved her eyes with her hands and squinted for signs of recent disturbances. Nothing had been moved, upturned, or removed since the last rain. “Check for chalk.”
Mickey shrugged at the washed out clouds of pink and green Crayola sidewalk chalk—the new bulletin board. “Nothing since the rain,” he said.
They puzzled over the missing 28s’ whereabouts. Food and water stood on shelves along the Chester Street Row. Sirens mumbled many miles east in the basin. Since the Guard started using water cannons every afternoon the chalk solution became more primitive. A green cloud of washed out chalk meant the zone was monitored but not cracking down. A pink cloud indicated some violence was seen, cannons were set to blow out eardrums, and vans were rendering civilians with impunity. Blue chalk was known as ‘the death buffet’, a zone known for looting and cross-purposed bloodletting.
Mickey lost his brother on the last day he saw blue on the walls; since watching the round burrow into his brother’s spine and turn him into a three minute spasm of confusion and translucent eyes, Mickey had thrown out his blue chalk. He’d also seen a handful of his friends drain out above the asphalt and figured the moment he ever felt the need to use blue chalk would be the moment of his final act.
“Don’t—!” Nance pulled the keyboard sleeve over Mickey’s hands. “The fuck, you brain damaged?”
Mickey pulled his hands from the heavy Steinway lid and cowered from the impotence of the moment. “I just wanted a few measures of Chopin,” he said. “Just a few to remember it. I’d run out of keys soon enough on this thing.”
“What, you think the Guard wants to hear Chopin? You think this wasn’t placed here to bait an artist fuck like you?”
“There’s a potter’s wheel a block down,” said Mickey. “And we passed an amphitheater thirty minutes back. The Guard knows by now that all they need to do is spit to hit an artist.”
The sirens from the east basin ceased. They could hear the vibrating strings of a cello one block to the south.
“Air on a G,” said Mickey. “She’s playing a variation…sounds like she’s working a variation for cello.”
“You think every stringed instrument is being plied by a chick. How do you know for sure?
“Simple,” said Mickey. He rose from the bench and closed his eyes. The wind carried a few bars of Bach to the mall, playing with his imagination. He meditated on the cadence, the lack of cantering, the restraint. He pictured a Slavic exchange student in a barren dining room, pouring her needful essence into the wood of the instrument, guiding it to her goal. “Her name is Veronique. The transitions are seamless, her hands are close, nimble. Her strokes are narrow, her arms are short. You can’t make it out right away…but…she’s overcompensating…she’s drawing out the resolutions to make up for her short arms…and the flourishes. Only a woman would suggest the passion using timing instead of brute force and projection. She’s—.”
An artillery shell shook the mall. Glass sprinkled under the sun, glinting like snowflakes. Blast frags embedded into the olivine upright piano. Nance and Mickey stood twelve feet away, untouched by the shell. The blast concussion deadened their hearing and their will to play with wonder. The girl, the boy, the someone with a cello was doubtlessly still living, thought Nance. The obvious danger rarely killed, she knew—most were killed by cholera, knives, medication shortages, random violence. She hoped the music would return when the hairs in her ear canal came back to life—at least enough of the hairs needed to appreciate the art of sound.
Nance heard “Fresca.” “Hmm?”
“Maybe her name’s Francesca,” said Mickey. “Something suitable for a girl wearing a print dress and buckle shoes.”
Nance walked to the piano. She pulled out a stick of pink chalk and knelt as she walked a circle around the Steinway, marking the ground in the color of cautious optimism. “I think she’s wearing cotton over denim with boots and a shoulder holster, but I won’t deny you your watercolors,” she said. “You mentioned we passed an amphitheater, soooo, where are the actors hiding?”
“Dania,” grunted Mickey. “Boots, yes. Denim, no. Still in the print dress, but with boots instead of buckle shoes…and her name’s Dania.”
Nance heard cello arpeggios reemerging through the air. The siren of their shared myth was running scales now, shaken as the three of them were from the blast, but alive and kicking, still.
“Resilient li’l chipmunk, huh, Mick?” Nance smiled and kicked a rock across the mall. She was determined not to witness a death or a capture today, but she wondered at the loud absence of the stage actors. She asked her friend if he’d mapped any progress on her old companions.
“The actors?” said Mickey. “There weren’t any in the original 28s. I think the Stage and Screeners made a move for Seattle and Vancouver. There are many wild blackberries and tons of rabbit meat out there. There are freshwater stores. The actors will be well provided for above the Columbia…” Mickey turned his eyes to his friend. “I’m more concerned with you, Nance. Are you going to make a break for Montreal?”
Nance booted another stone across the mall. She knew what Mickey was hinting at. Nance was an undeterminable quantity in the eyes of the Guard; Nance had too many gifts and her talents bled into one another in a way rarely seen or heard. Montreal was the only refuge for undetermined artists as most who weren’t self designated and tattooed as just painters, just acrobats, just playwrights, were summarily tied to a sandbag and thrown to the depths of the Great Lakes. Nance refused to self-designate. The Guard couldn’t tolerate her multi-spectral commitment to her art. It was hardly simple enough for the Guard to manage the migration of actors to Cascadia. “I know, Mick. I need to make my way to Vermont.”
“Before winter, at that.”
“Yes, before the leaves fall, even.”
“I’ll miss the fuck outta you, Nance, but I’ll die before I see you get collected, here. You need to honor your calling and go up there. You need to respect yourself.”
“Someone needs to respect this bloodletting enough to stop it,” she said.
The original 28s were named after the June 28th Revolution, the historic and well coordinated uprising that declared the permanent secession of the arts from the free market and civilian grid. During the course of one long night the regions of Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago and Denver all submitted a Declaration of Free Will to their local news centers, exclaiming that all working artists were Dauphins of Righteous Inspiration, and—therefore—exempt from all obligations of citizenship. For the first fourteen months these enclaves were laughed at and monitored as rogue mice in sheep’s clothing. As confrontations grew between the Dauphins and the administrative branches of these regions the issue of money and representation led to blows. Contract killings, followed by art heists, then the riots, and—finally—the Guard. Any 28er, or, in other words, any artist practicing their art, became a processing target for the well-deployed oceans of domestic troops. All artists were labeled, tattooed, chipped, scanned and required to submit to required labor under the supervision of their state liaisons.
Two years after the original June 28th Declaration a second uprising took hold. On the anniversary date at one in the morning all processed artists left their monitored homes and dormitories and marched through the squares and plazas, armed with IEDs and blood carbonating songs of defiance. After ten days—when the smoke cleared—the streets, burghs, and parks were occupied by two classes of beings—the 28s and the Guard. All paying, contributing citizens began an interminable stretch of remaining housebound while working, educating, and developing free will and unmitigated opinions in fearful secrecy. The swing of this bloody pendulum, however, could only be stilled by the docile housebounders, the ones too afraid to lead, kill, create…And—as in the enclosed circle of the self consuming snake—the middle class, the very class that precipitated this polarization and blood, guided neither the goals nor the silence of the warring interests. “Cause and remedy land in the lap of the docile,” as the 28s’ leader, Lynn Welder, once said.
One may only imagine just how actively and bountifully the Church Leadership salivated at this blood-lusty reward trove of conflict. It was as predictable as a mammalian life cycle. It is—and remains—as obvious to all who have lived within the strains of a silenced life. Free will living in full relief against structure, structure protecting the free-willed from harm. Ashes to ashes…