Master of the Menagerie
I couldn’t look away, couldn’t move no matter how many tripped over me on the sidewalk. My ten-year-old soul had been pierced by an invisible string, and I was tethered to this spot, only a thin pane of glass separating me from this wonderous creature.
She also stood motionless and silent, curves stained a dark cherry, neck long and black with four silver lines descending her front. She said nothing, but I heard her like chimes. She begged me to touch her. She promised she would sing if I did, me and no one else. All others ignored her.
But all I could do was stare.
Night draped a cold blanket on the world, and the shop owner locked up, chasing me off in the process. As I neared home, I heard shouting and entered through the broken window in the back rather than announce my presence by negotiating with the crooked front door.
Sweeping a meager handful of crumbs off the counter, I crouched behind the hole-ridden chair in the corner of our one-room shack, ate, and listened to the rhythm of the bellows. The words were different from those spoken in our town, their meaning lost to me, but the melody they wove warned me to stay hidden.
My father pleaded. The stranger wearing a soft suit demanded. Father was scared. The stranger possessed no mercy, teeth sharp like a dragon’s, mustache shaped like a bull’s horns, eyes round and dark in the shadow of a top hat’s brim.
Gentler voice gliding between the stranger’s, Father backed toward the counter. Was he aiming for our only knife in the drawer beneath the sink?
Is this the only way? I wondered, gut clenched so tight it was surely about to snap my spine. This scary man is so big. Father can’t fight him alone. Am I meant to help? Do I jump out now or wait until he has passed?
Fingers dug into my bicep and yanked me from behind the chair, my breadcrumbs flying. A hand on either shoulder, Father stood me in front of him, speaking more fervently. I tried to step back, to lean against my father, but he pushed me toward the stranger.
Arms crossed, the large man sounded dismissive and derisive, like the snap of a heron’s wing as it leaves you behind.
“Sing, my child,” Father whispered.
I couldn’t, not with my heart blocking my throat or my diaphragm hiding in my toes. I shook my head.
“You must sing,” Father hissed. “I would give you to this tycoon to pay my debt, to save my life and the lives of your siblings. He won’t take you if he thinks you’re worthless, and singing is your only skill.”
I gasped. Father was supposed to protect me, not hand me over to monsters. He told us that every night, that he would always protect us. But when danger drew near, he shoved me at the monster, both our knees shaking.
Father was a coward, and so was I.
I opened my mouth to do as I was told, but only a wheezy croak emerged, like a toad getting stepped on. The stranger scowled and hollered over my head.
Do not disappoint Father. Do not let this man hurt your family.
The words became a beat in my head, giving my heart something to follow. Slowly, it slid out of my throat, and my voice grew stronger, high and clear, like the song of a nightingale, the bird for which my mother named me: Kocho.
Father always thought it was a stupid name for a boy.
I sang of the freedom of the ocean and the wind. Of how the rain roamed but always came back again. Into the music poured borrowed emotions wrought from when my mother had sung the same song. I knew nothing of the sea beyond the stench of the harbor, yet I sang as if I had tiptoed along the crests of its waves. All I knew of freedom was running through crowded streets just fast enough to avoid being crushed by carriage wheels. That feeling, too, was knit into the music.
The song took all of me, and I didn’t notice when the shouting stopped. I fell back into reality only when the stranger’s hand clapped over my mouth. It smelled of foreign spices, skin as soft as a kitten’s fur.
He knelt, an odd glint in his gray eyes. “This shabby town is not worthy of such art. You could compete with any of the pet musicians back home.”
He threw me over his shoulder.
This room was thrice the size of our shack. I stood in the center, surrounded by cushioned divans and glittering lamps. The suit I wore was a miniature version of the master’s, with a short breast and long coattails, but I had grown considerably in the month since he first brought me here. The pant legs revealed my shins, and the coat restricted my breathing.
Based on the visit of a man with a measuring tape that morning, I hoped a new, larger outfit would arrive soon.
This evening, another stranger stood before me, holding a curious case. It called to me, a low hum, the purr of a cat, with the high-pitched jingle of a bell. It wanted me to open it, to set the contents free, but Master didn’t like when I opened things. When he was displeased, I received no food. When he was pleased, I had more than enough.
Even the dumbest of creatures could understand that.
So I held back, hands shaking as the call grew louder. I stared at the case, a harpoon shot through me, digging at my insides as I disobeyed its tug.
“Eyes like a starving man’s,” the newcomer chuckled, propping the case on a couch.
This must be a truly valued thing if it’s allowed to touch the cushions.
I wasn’t allowed to touch the cushions.
The man spoke more, words too fast for me to catch and squeeze the meaning out of. Master replied in kind, leaning forward on the largest of the divans, elbows on his knobby knees as the elongated case flipped open.
Breath left me.
Polished cherry wood gleamed in the flickering chandelier light, again crying for me to touch it. What started as the tinkle of a lone bell rolling across the floor grew into a cascade of chimes pouring off a balcony, each one landing on my head and ringing in my ears. I could no longer ignore the harpoon drawing me closer, my hand lifting, fingers stretched.
I stopped, frozen, the pull still loud and strong, but Master’s gaze was on me. With effort like pushing a boulder uphill, I turned my head to him, all my strength stuffed into staying still, waiting for permission.
He nodded, explaining something I couldn’t hear and wouldn’t have understood anyway.
The newcomer held the instrument out to me, telling me her name: Violin.
Tentatively, I ran my fingertips along her edges: the ridge where her faceplate met her sides, the c-shaped niches at her waist, the pins on her head, and lastly the strings. They were unique, arranged from thinnest to thickest.
The newcomer, a teacher, impatiently shoved Violin into my arms and grabbed a smooth stick lined with fine hair. Arranging Violin’s body at my chin, my left palm supporting her neck, he fit the bow into my right hand and glided it across her strings.
She hummed one note, a question: What did I want her to do?
Teacher turned me toward Master and let go. A grin tugged at my lips, and a song sizzled within my veins, smooth and quick like raindrops.
I pulled the bow back across the strings, but Violin was nervous of my touch, shy, and she sounded like a cat choking up a hairball.
Master threw a book at me, and I managed to turn, shielding my new partner.
Sing like I know you can, I begged her. Don’t bring shame to your family.
Another book hit my back, corner leaving a sting beneath my shoulder blade, and this time my pull on the bow was more insistent, more forceful. Violin cried, giving voice to the color blossoming across my back.
As my fingers flitted over the strings, she responded with new pitches, tones higher the closer my hands came to one another. The less my hands shook, the harder I gripped, the stronger her voice became, shyness vanishing, and I dared turn back to the master.
I stood tall, not as tall as Master, but as tall as I would ever be. In the largest room I had ever been in, floor and columns of marble, I only saw the beats in every movement. Master’s collection surrounded me, a menagerie he trusted me to master. Each of them was a part of me; their voices were woven into my blood, and my songs flowed through them.
It was said I could upstage any pet musician, but I didn’t see it as a competition like that. The more voices there were, the louder and longer we all poured everything we had into the blank, bored air, the more music won.
Silence constantly fought to crush me, and the members of my menagerie were my comrades, my armor, giving me the power to fight back.
Here in this grand hall, onlookers clapped a beat, drawing a path for the sound to follow. My fingers ran along the piano, and it giggled, voice wavering, spiraling three notes at a time, striking the bottom as a flute met my lips. With its astronomical, clear chortles, the melody returned, describing the movements of the dancers’ feet, the swing of their hips and arms.
They stopped, but the path didn’t end there, growing wider, golden and brilliant. I soaked in its radiance and channeled it through me, fingers buzzing as the flute slid back to its stand and I caught up Violin.
She sang one deep note, and someone grabbed my arm. As I stared at him, brows furrowed, someone else took Violin.
“You cannot be a pet musician anymore,” her captor said. I wanted to reach for her, but the first man’s grip on my arm was as unyielding as a statue’s. “You are free.”
I shook my head. “I just want to play music.”
“No. You must be free.” His eyes were a glittering crystal glass filled with insistence tinted dark with concern. “The new law says so. You must be something else.”
But I didn’t know how to be anything else.
Shoes were this factory’s business. Music was forbidden to me, stuffed and sealed inside because it would draw the wrong kind of attention. I was to let no one believe I had ever been anything but a cobbler.
Pet musicians were useless, lazy, dirty.
Yet, as my new comrades and I worked side by side, affixing soles to footwear, the beat of our hammers called to the music I tried so very hard to keep within and hidden. When I willed my toes not to tap, my leg shook, and if I leaned an elbow on it to force it still, I felt an explosion might take me at any moment.
“Boss,” a new worker said behind me as our employer led him around on his initial tour, “at your brother’s factory, a musician plays fast ditties to keep our hands moving.”
“As if I’d ever hire one of them filthy creatures,” Boss sneered.
My shoulders hitched closer to my ears.
If he knew…
“Just a suggestion,” the newbie waived, voice reedy like an oboe’s. “Maybe try it and see how production goes? Your brother’s factory does often beat you in productivity.”
I chewed on my lower lip, hammer fallen still as I strove to wear silence’s uniform. It didn’t fit me. Sometimes it was ripped to shreds when the brilliance in my veins seeped through my skin.
“You make it sound like it’d be so easy to find one. Most musicians are scam artists, and they’re harder to get rid of than fleas.”
They were almost to Boss’ office. Chance flowed through my frozen fingers.
Tell him! Tell him! the hammers whispered, and before I knew it, I stood, workload clattering on the table.
“Boss!” A rough blast from a trombone. I flinched at my own voice, shoulders trying to cover my ears again.
The boss turned. “Yes?” His eyes flitted over my name badge. “Kocho?”
My hands became wooden boards at my sides, stiffness crawling into every part of me as the hammers slowed and stopped, all eyes watching.
“I know how to play a little music.” My timbre was as soft as a harp’s, but I forced my chin level and looked at the boss. He knew I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t filthy or a con artist, didn’t he? Would he throw me out because the blood that ran through me was tainted with sound? Because it burned within me? Because I was too weak to hold it in anymore?
It took over. I wasn’t aware of any response. Hammer back in hand, I pounded a beat as nails slid home and I sang. The inferno that had built, trapped for years with no outlet, poured into the factory. It massaged and scraped my throat, saturating the room and echoing back as ripples and waves, and I crashed through them, creating more, throwing everything I was and ever would be into the organized chaos.
Over and over the beat cycled, raging high and simmering low.
Blankness took three, my arm swinging too far and clunking late on the table.
I blinked. The workload was done. There was nothing left to be hammered.
The sun had moved from its mid-morning slant to its late-afternoon blaze, highlighting fountains of dust as it streamed in the windows near the ceiling. Everyone’s piles were neatly boxed and stacked, their attention fixed firmly on me.
I dropped my hammer, its clatter giving me the beat on which to turn, a slow, tentative rotation toward Boss, who stood halfway out his fancy rolling chair. His gaze was like the stranger’s who had taken music away, spindly brows low over clear blue eyes dripping in concern.
I couldn’t be a soldier for silence anymore. I didn’t believe in that fight, and it was killing me. My knees shook, and the scene blurred. Before I could fall, I ran.
All I could be was a musician. That was all the music would let me be, and if that was wrong, why was I in this world? What was my purpose?
A glint caught my eye through a shop window, and I barged in, wiping tears from my eyes. There in the corner of a dingy pawn shop, mostly covered in rags and knickknacks, Violin slept.
Scooping her up, I cradled her to my chest, back scraping against the papered wall as I sunk to the floor.
“Sir, you can’t sit there,” the counter man rebuked, glare both chiding and expectant.
Violin’s silent chimes jingled. They described the uncertain footsteps of a child drawing nearer to someone barely remembered. The closer they came, the louder the bells rang, their strength and confidence overwhelming me, towing me to my feet.
Holding Violin tighter against me, I scrambled to the counter, my last pennies dug from my pocket and pressed against the glass, their clinks reverberating through my fingertips and into my bones. Violin wanted to answer their call, to sing the song trapped within me.
“It’s worth much more than that,” the man scoffed, his spittle landing on my face. My gaze dropped to my shaking hands.
I knew it wasn’t enough. I alone knew how much Violin was worth. She was a piece of my soul, and souls were not to be bartered with. They didn’t belong alone in a pawn shop.
So I returned to the corner, leaning against the wall as I held the missing part of me.
As the sun burned red on the horizon, Boss stormed into the shop, a policeman at his heels. Their thick shoes spelled a heavy rhythm on the wooden floor, saying everything.
I’ll be taken away.
Panic pooled within me, igniting the fire again. I wanted to scream, anything to scare off silence’s approach. It would kill me this time. My own blood would incinerate me from the inside out.
Why can’t I release my music into the world without disturbing anyone? When did they start to hate clapping the rhythm for me? What happened? When did this blessing become a curse? When did music become a bad thing?
I hugged Violin harder, her strings protesting against my shirt, an awful, pitiable sound.
Boss knelt. “We’ve been looking for you.”
I stared, not daring to move. Could he see the fire burning in me? My eyes were dark; flames should have been easy to spot. Father used to say eyes were the window to the soul and mine only opened the door to a useless place.
Silence claimed Boss for several moments, posing him with pursed lips. I waited, cherishing what time I had left with Violin.
“Are you a real musician?”
“I’ve never heard anyone sing like that. You’re like a bird.” He chuckled. “And you kind of flew off like one, too. Can you play these instruments as well?”
“Yes.” I sounded like a frog, and I hated it.
I am Kocho, the nightingale. Why should I have to deny the music that weaves me?
I frowned, and Boss’ brows knit together. “Which one?”
“All of them.”
I am the master of the menagerie.
His eyes widened, then he pointed at Violin. “But that one’s your favorite?”
I let silence win one more time, but he saw the answer anyway.
Holding up a finger to tell me to wait, Boss approached the counter and spoke with the man there. Money notes were exchanged, and Boss returned to drag me out of the corner and usher me out the door.
I kept my head low, arms crossed over Violin as I concentrated on keeping beat with Boss’ footsteps. The policeman outpaced us, disappearing in the crowd on the sidewalk.
“Did you just…buy me from that shop?”
“I bought that instrument, and I’m giving it to you.” He smiled, and I didn’t have any idea what it meant.
“I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in things I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I saw more get done in a few hours today than in most weeks. I think I might finally be able to beat out my brother if you come back to the factory. I’ll pay you to work that musical magic again and again.”
A new song welled within me, taut and high with hope, rich and full with purpose, one thought darting through my mind: Is this finally where I belong?
I knew part of the answer. I belonged wherever music did.