The Piper by F. John Sharp
The Piper sits on a wooden chair in a dim corner of a church. He has always used wood, believing music flows from Earth itself, that a chair of metal or worse, plastic, is an unworthy conduit. And he always chooses a corner, where the sound can dance off the angles and fill the souls of mourners who know an ache that only music can feed. He aches too.
The Piper has been piping for what seems to him the whole of time, learning at the knee of his grandfather and then his father, playing every last day of his three-score and nineteen years, either for practice, pleasure, or money. He has played ‘Amazing Grace’ nearly five thousand times if he were to count, and today he tries to make it sound like he composed it himself for this very occasion.
He tries not to dwell on certain things: He has had to start earlier these days, to allow himself more time for traveling and warming up. And while his fingers still know where to find each note, they make more of a fuss about getting there. And when the drones and regulators are going full out, pulling air from the bag in hungry swallows, he works the bellows with long, steady pumps, and the effort makes him winded to the point of concern. He has thought once or twice that there could be worse ways to spend his last heartbeats.
He switches to ‘Dawning of the Day’ as the casket is carried in. There is a hitch in his playing; his whole body skips a pulse at the sight of Jimmy Kelly’s grandsons bearing pall. These are sturdy young men but their strength is wasted on Jimmy, a mere bones and skin in the end. The Piper closes his eyes and tries to see him as he was before, when they played together, sometimes at pubs, sometimes at funerals, usually at home, the last of their kind.
Though he’s not thinking of it now, the Piper doesn’t know who will play when he is carried in a box. He has taught no one; he has had no one to teach. His sons had no interest, his grandchildren fell into marching band and rock and roll, and his great grandchildren play only soccer and baseball in exurbs an hour away. He has assumed they’d have to bring in a stranger, from a place where the music isn’t dead. He knows there are such places. He has heard of a resurgence, though it hasn’t found his little world, where people have been leaving, via moving van or hearse, for years.
He sits quietly during the service, as always. Sometimes they want him to play a hymn but Jimmy didn’t like them. His only request, if he’d needed to make it, would have been ‘The Lonesome Reel,’ played slow in the Sligo tradition. But the Piper didn’t need Jimmy to tell him that. He and Jimmy could just go wordlessly from one tune to the next with playlists sprung organically from deepwells of habitude. The Piper would play the hell out of ‘The Lonesome Reel’ today.
The eulogy drones in the key of G, and the Piper lets it fill him. He adds chords in his mind, and his fingers work the chanter in silent melody. A Kilbane has always played the pipes, he says to himself not for the first time. He fingers simple beginner tunes first, slowly so they can be learned. Then he moves to intermediate, then to advanced. He plays sets of reels and jigs and then stops for a lament, before picking up the pace once more. In his mind the mourners are dancing and his great-grandsons gather round. One sits in. He slides next to the Piper, melding with him, sharing the instrument, then seizing it, playing it faster and faster, with a skill beyond any Kilbane, ever. And the Piper drifts backward, away from the pipes and the crowd and the casket and the church, and toward the millions of notes he has played in his lifetime, which dance immortal in the ether. He embraces them like a father who has loved them, and they lift him, riding the currents of the ages to Eire, which calls them home.